Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Mary DeYoung, a faithful follower of this blog, sent us a Christmas letter and wrote on the bottom of it, “Hope you are having fun at home, if Michigan is still home!” Mary (and anyone else who might wonder), this is surely my home. I love and appreciate Europe, but this is home. It’s home because when we drove up last Wednesday night, there were Christmas lights framing the doorway, and other lights in the windows and a beautifully decorated tree in the front room. Way to go, Jesse and Nanea! It’s home because we went down to Kalamazoo on Christmas Day for a wonderful dinner and that evening I had the longest serious talk with my dad that I can remember. It’s home because we’re heading back there this weekend to be among the throng of 29 family members who will overeat and give too many gifts to each other and, if past years are a guarantee of this year, laugh and laugh together. It’s home because the food tastes “right” and Meijers stocks more eggs in the dairy case of one store than you can find in the whole Benelux region (don’t let the “ij” in the middle fool you, there is nothing Dutch about that store). It’s home because I can turn right on a red light and don’t have to look for bicyclists in traffic circles (there are no traffic circles or bicyclists) and because our house feels like a mansion and our refrigerator is cavernous and our appliances have instructions in English and tonight we are going to see a movie and we have a choice of six or seven different times that one movie starts at various theaters around Grand Rapids. It’s home because I bought a pair of Levis for $18 and Gretchen got some leather boots for $45 (Thanks JC Penney) and I got over a pound of flank steak for my famous Japanese stir fry tonight for under $10. (Teriyaki marinade, onion, mushrooms, leek, sugar peas, zucchini, carrots and of course pineapple on a bed of brown rice. Thanks Japan for teriyaki. Thanks Hawaii for pineapple.) And Amanda bought a new sweatshirt yesterday for $8 (Thanks Target). You see, it is home because as much as I lament consumerism, I enjoy buying “good goods” for ridiculous prices.

Having said all that…there aren’t places to walk here. Today I went for a walk outside and barely avoided horrific falls twice. The Dutch have many, many walking trails and bike paths, and they keep them clear during the winter - it is as important to have clear walking and bike paths as streets. I found myself walking today like a fox on ice. I’ve broken down and tried mall walking this week. Come on. What are you breathing in at the mall? Not only some sort of manufactured air, but the posters at Victoria’s Secret, telling you sex is the meaning of life, the excess of the food court, telling you eating is the meaning of life, and Sears, telling you blandness is the meaning of life. Sorry Sears, but it’s true. As for Victoria’s Secret, my mind keeps going to Allen Levi’s song about a mall in Alabama where they put Santa next to Victoria’s Secret – both dressed in red and white, making promises neither can deliver. Thanks Allen.

As for the dairy section of Meijers – the Dutch don’t refrigerate eggs, milk or cheese, and their citizens seem to live healthy lives. How much energy would be saved if we stopped doing that?

And finally, this tidbit for those of you with eyes to see – I was delighted yesterday that my son Jesse listed his Facebook status as “out of alignment.” Ik ook, mijn zon, ik ook.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baby It's Cold Outside

Holy cow, winter has come to the Netherlands. I am so happy it isn’t raining anymore! It snowed a couple of nights this week and there is a solid inch of snow on the ground, enough to bring every Dutch kid outside and into it. Some have made little snowmen, reminiscent of the snowmen Calvin used to make in Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t know why the snowmen are small, maybe because there isn’t much snow to work with, or maybe just because economies of scale are so important here.

It’s cold – eight below according to the television, but I have no idea what that means in terms I am used to without looking it up. I do okay in my head on the positive side of zero with the Celsius/Fahrenheit thing, but am thrown off when it goes below zero. Whatever it is, it’s cold, and the amount of moisture in the air makes it feel colder. One reason it’s cold is the sky’s been more or less clear. The sun is welcome! I prefer this to the endless gray gloom we had.

And the canals are frozen, but not solid enough to bring the public out en masse to skate on them. That is a rare event, although it happened last winter. I see kids playing on the canals, and some forlorn ducks trying to figure out what to do.

Numerous kids are out on wooden sleds – the sleds look like throwback models and are really cool. Yesterday I drove past a pre-school at noon and dozens of parents had come to pick their kids up with sleds. You may ask yourself what the point of a sled is in the world’s flattest country. The answer is that kids sled down the sides of the dikes. Below every dike is a canal, so you need to be careful, and today I saw some kids lined up on a dike sledding down and a dad was down below, standing guard in front of the canal. That was a beautiful picture of parenting to me. It also reminded me of the book “The Catcher in the Rye” and how Holden Caulfield misunderstands an old Robert Burns poem and want to be the catcher in the rye. I think I read that book in 1976, so I might be a little shaky on the details, but that’s what popped into my head.

Next week we leave the Dutch winter on Wednesday and head into Michigan winter for two weeks. Amanda will fly from Stuttgart and join us in Amsterdam for the flight across the ocean. I’m looking forward to great times with family and friends over the holidays. We celebrate decidedly fewer holidays in the US than will be celebrated in Europe – Americans skip right over Second Christmas (aka Boxing Day in the UK) and Epiphany (aka Three Kings Day in Spain - word is you really should see Three Kings Day in Spain). But we’ll do our best with what we have. Merry Christmas. Gelukkig Kerstfeest. Joyeux Noel. Feliz Navidad. God Jul.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December Dutch Day

I like to write. That’s a reason I keep a blog. As much as I like it, I am aware that I never had a lot of formal training how to write. I took some Journalism classes in college, but don’t really remember them focusing on the craft of writing much. And it’s been a long time since I took those classes.

I never studied poetry. I don’t know the first thing about it – what any of the rules are. Not being bound by the rules, I am free to do whatever I want, and about two and a half years ago I started writing poems. I had never written a poem except for a school project before that. The process is strange, because I never try to write them. They just pop into my head, almost always a result of either something I see or my mind tossing a distant memory around. I think if I sat down and said, “Now I am going to write a poem,” the page would either be blank an hour later or I would write something so repulsive I would discard it in the first 24 hours.

What I know about poetry is mostly experiential. I have discovered the challenge of poetry is to use an economy of words. A part of the challenge of economy is to quickly convey genuine emotions. A greater challenge is to hook the reader. I have to admit I find most poetry boring and not very easily accessible. But I have a short list of poets I love.

Having made those confessions, I thought I’d share a poem that popped into my head today. I don’t know if it is any good. A really good poem, in my humble estimation, should work on multiple levels. It should be about something on the surface, and it should be about something deeper, some sort of truth that it evokes images of. That’s what Gerard Manley Hopkins does in a poem like “The Windhover,” which is about a bird diving to earth, but at the same time is about the incarnation of Jesus. So, let me set this poem up by saying as an amateur I tried to make it about two things at once. It’s up to you to guess. What do you think I was trying to write about? Your responses will help me know to what degree I have succeeded. And, here’s another thing you could respond to – do you read poetry? Do you have any favorite poets? Why are they your favorites?

Here’s hoping I hear from you.

December Dutch Day

It is beautiful.
The sun
That most elusive of objects
Can actually be seen
And if you were feeling generous
The sky
Might even be called blue
The air
So thick and wet these past weeks
Is crisp and clean.

My dog and I stand on a dike
Above polders
That are filled with sheep
Who have blue spots spray-painted above their tails
I assume that is the farmer’s work.

There are canals on both sides of us
And I see
Three white swans
A heron
And some ducks
A solitary horse and rider that
Trots along the dike to our right.
Between us stands a Nazi bunker

Which I suppose is there to
Keep me from getting carried away
To say there is a yin for every yang
A down for every up
A night for every day.
And as if on cue
The wind gusts
The clouds roll
The sun disappears
And all is cold and gloom.

But my dog
On a mission from God
Lifts his leg in the direction of the bunker
Reminding me
That the bad guys lost
The Nazis didn’t keep their power.

A farmer comes out of the bunker
Having beaten that sword into a plowshare long ago
And puts out feed for the sheep.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Miracle Man

I spent the last couple of days walking around Paris with David Usrey. A few months ago I doubted I would ever do such a thing again.

David Usrey is a miracle man.

Last winter David, the area director of our ministry in Paris, began having a constant headache. His personality also began to change, he lost interest in many things and felt very tired much of the time. His nose ran constantly. His wife Kathy began to wonder if he was cracking under the stress of his international job. But then, in mid-February, he became incoherent and was taken to a hospital. A CAT scan and MRI showed a mass in his brain and the doctors said they suspected the worse, that it looked cancerous.

“We were told he had a tumor the size of an apricot pit and had to have surgery,” his wife Kathy said. “We felt much more comfortable having the surgery in the United States.”

Through an amazing sequence of events, David was hospitalized in Paris on a Monday, diagnosed on Tuesday, flown to the US with a doctor that Friday, and had brain surgery the following Monday in Atlanta. It is a miracle that he was cleared to fly. He could not talk, could not walk, and was more or less semi-conscious. Yet he was approved to fly overseas on a ten-hour flight.

In Atlanta, the surgeons discovered the tumor was not the size of an apricot pit, but more like the size of a peach, or of a grown man’s fist. They confirmed that it was indeed cancerous, GBM 4 – Glioblastoma Multiforme Stage 4 - the “pit bull” of brain cancers and a virtual death sentence. Kathy was told to prepare for the worse – that her husband would be dead within a few months and that until then, she should expect he would come out of extensive brain surgery changed. Chances were he would not be fully functional, he probably would lose the use of one of his legs and his cognitive processes would be severely limited.

But the surgeon who removed the tumor came out beaming. It is another miracle that the surgery itself didn’t kill David. His tumor was so big it had grown across both sides of his brain and if the vein that runs in the middle of the brain was nicked during the operation it would likely have been fatal. The actual surgery lasted four and a half hours and it went better than anyone had a right to expect. The surgeon was very pleased that as much of the tumor as possible had been safely removed.

Within a couple days of the surgery, David was walking and talking and his cognitive abilities were unchanged. He then needed follow-up treatment of radiation and chemotherapy. Perhaps the most prestigious brain cancer surgeon in the US operates an experimental treatment program at the Duke University Medical Center. Seventy-five patients had been allowed in the program, but – in an event of miraculous timing - last winter an additional fifty patients were admitted. David was number 123 of 125 allowed in.

He had several months of radiation. He knew, early on, that it was working. “I could hear it sizzling, burning the cancer out of my brain,” he said. “They say you can’t hear this, but I could.”

He also reached a point of spiritual peace, a point he describes as fully accepting either life or death. “I knew I was okay and felt God’s presence very closely. I felt I wasn’t alone. And even though I was okay with death or life, I felt pretty certain that I was going to live.”

In addition to radiation, David swallowed hundreds of chemotherapy pills and had multiple IV’s as well. These drugs cost thousands of dollars each, and David receives them all for free from the pharmaceutical companies because he is part of the experimental Duke program.

A few weeks ago a PET scan showed the unbelievable – that David is completely cancer free (something he was already intuitively sure of). His doctors are stunned – with GBM 4 you hope to slow down the inevitable. You don’t expect people to become cancer free. David and Kathy returned back to their ministry and home in Paris from Atlanta at the end of September. He goes back to the US every few weeks for chemotherapy treatments. His stamina is amazing – he is two years younger than me and I wilt under transatlantic travel. I can’t imagine adding chemotherapy into the mix.

He is cancer free – and he is also a new man. He is a better man. He says he has “fewer filters,” which causes him to be more direct and honest with people. I don’t think that is a bad thing. He speaks more slowly and carefully, and that also is not a bad thing. My observation is that he is gentler, more tender-hearted, more compassionate and warmer. And he already was gentle, tender-hearted, compassionate and warm. He’s grown spiritually – and the more I think about it, the more I think for any of us, but certainly for David, growing spiritually means we have less anxiety and are more at peace with the world and with God. It means we trust. It means we don’t worry. I felt that peace with David the last few days.

When someone is healed – when someone who was “supposed to die” doesn’t – it raises all sorts of theological questions. Why was he spared when others – especially innocent children – aren’t? Were the prayers of David’s family and friends somehow better, more acceptable, holier or more compelling than the prayers of someone else’s family and friends? My old professor James Cook wrote some wise words about this dilemma a few years ago while watching his son Paul wage a losing battle with cancer: “Jesus’ miracles had more to do with the kingdom than with healing. The health they brought to the sufferer and the joy they brought to the sufferer’s family were gracious, personal, but secondary, gifts. Their primary and universal import was as signs of the kingdom, pointers to the promised reign when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes…the root of the miracle lay not in the quality of our faith and life but in the mysterious reality of God’s grace.” In other words, someone like David is meant to remind us that in God’s kingdom, life is a stronger force than death. The reality of life is that all will die – even David, sometime, perhaps in a few years, perhaps in many years. But for now we are supposed to remember that even then death is not the final word. Because of that, we all should aspire to live with the peace and trust David lives with now. I know I aspire to that.

Monday we were at La Defense, the ultra-modern square arch on the west side of Paris. I touched his arm and said, “David, I am really glad to able to be here with you today.”

He smiled and said, “I am really glad to be here today, too.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sint and Piet

Okay, friends and faithful readers, here is my attempt to explain what is happening this time of year in the Netherlands, as it seems fairly different compared to the rest of the world. Tomorrow we are hosting a Sinterklaas party at our home. In French, my understanding is that Sinterklass is translated Saint Nicholas, and in France and Belgium and parts of Germany, he doesn’t come tomorrow but the next day, December 6. The rest of the world more or less knows this character as Santa Claus, and I think it is easy to see the linguistic relationship between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. But let me try to explain what happens in the Netherlands. It is a unique part of Dutch culture. I'm sure I will get a few details wrong, and all my Dutch readers can correct me.

The real St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, lived in Turkey. For some reason over the years, the Dutch Sinterklaas moved to Spain. For three weeks every year he comes to the Netherlands, for the rest of the year I imagine he enjoys sangria, tapas and Spanish beaches. He arrives in mid-November by steamship and is accompanied by his helper Zwarte Piet. Somehow, Piet has evolved into more than one person, so there are all sorts of Piets, and they are everywhere. You can see a band of Zwarte Piets in the picture above, taken three weeks ago on the day Sinterklaas’s ship came to Dordrecht. “Zwart” is the Dutch word for “black,” and Piet is black because he is a Moor and because he is a chimney sweep. A couple of days ago there was a Piet in the grocery store, wearing black face, dressed like a fop, making balloon animals for kids. It is not unusual to see children wearing Piet hats with their faces painted black. There is short TV show that Gretchen watches every day where various Piets are trying to stave off a villain who is trying to stop Sinterklaas from giving gifts to children. This year the bad guy is trying to deliver Brussel sprouts dipped in chocolate to all the kids and all the various Piets (like Music Piet who wears Elvis’s hair, Hocus Pocus Piet who does magic, Chef Piet, etc) are running around in with bright red lips and black faces trying to save the day.

As an American, I have to ask the simple question, “What the _____?” He looks like a cast-off from a minstrel show, like Al Jolsen with a funny hat. I simply cannot imagine the outrage and outcry in America if Santa didn’t have Buddy the Elf but instead had a little black helper that was portrayed by white people in black make up. The story is that a few years ago the Netherlands tried to create a rainbow coalition of Piets – purple Piet, red Piet, green Piet, etc, but it didn’t take. He’s back to being black. So, in the country known as perhaps the most liberal country in the world, a national symbol is a guy in black face. One reason, I suppose, that this is accepted is that there is no history of slavery here. (Although the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands was financed in large part by their involvement in the slave trade.)

Piet seems a bit on the mischievous side, but he’s evolved to become nicer over the years. He used to carry both a bag and a stick, and the word on the street was that if you had been “bad” the year before he’d club you with the stick and put you in the bag and take you to Spain. Why anyone would protest getting out of the endless cold drizzle here for sunny Spain is beyond me, but eventually a cadre of childrearing experts convinced the local population that it wasn’t healthy for children to have the threat of kidnapping hanging over their heads.

Piet does all the heavy lifting for Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas rides a white horse (but did I hear he rides a donkey in Belgium?) and I’m not 100% sure if both Sint and Piet hop up on the rooftops or just Piet, but it is Piet who goes down chimneys and puts presents in shoes. After Sint and Piet show up in mid-November, children put out their shoes every night or three times a week or weekly depending on the inclination of the parents, and Piet puts a present in the shoe overnight. Mandarin oranges, pepernotje cookies, and chocolate letters are all staple gifts in the days leading up to the big day, which is tomorrow. Most Dutch families do a gift exchange tomorrow night.

As a kid I was baffled by the logistics of Santa Claus – how he could get from the North Pole and around the world to all the places he needed to get to in one 24-hour period. It’s more manageable for Sinterklaas, he only needs to handle one relatively small country. In traditional Dutch families, gifts are given in the period leading up to and including tomorrow. Traditional Dutch families don’t exchange presents on Christmas Day. That is a holiday here, but the orgy of stockings and presents that are normal in America doesn’t happen here on that day. And the gift giving tomorrow pales in comparison to what happens on Christmas Day in the US. Dutch parents don’t feel the compulsion to give as much stuff as we do.

For a traditional adult Sinterklaas party, such as we are having tomorrow, it is customary to write a poem for the person you are giving a gift to. Usually, the poem makes fun of a bad habit of the gift’s recipient. The definition of poetry in this case is that it has to rhyme, which is something I have never been good at. But I have written a horrible poem, and have my gifts all set. And the menu is simple – hot chocolate with whipped cream and kruidnotje cookies. Wish you were here to see it all for yourself.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Being Cosmopolitan

Last time I wrote sort of a tongue-in-cheek account of frustration and woe about life here. But this time I am writing to make you envious. We traveled to Germany this weekend to visit our daughter Amanda and also spend some time with friends there. It was wonderful. For almost a decade I served on the Young Life – German Partnership committee. Sometime in the mid-1970’s Young Life established a partnership with the state church in Wurttemberg in and around Stuttgart in Southern Germany. The relationships formed from doing this work have enriched my life deeply.

So we stayed this weekend in Ludwigsburg, Germany, with Kerstin, who heads the partnership committee on the German side, and her husband Sven. They are really smart and really nice, and I like people like that. On Friday night we went to a restaurant that specializes in serving game and I had wild boar. It was spectacular – served with fresh cranberries in a special sauce with spetzel. Man, that was good. On the way to the restaurant they asked how Gretchen and I were adjusting to our new lives and I mentioned that I had been struggling between the two cultures and have been asking myself, “who or what am I when I know I am not Dutch but then have questions when I go back into American culture?” Sven said, “Then you are cosmopolitan, but more than that you are human, which is the best any of us can hope to be.” There is real wisdom in that statement.

Sven is a collector, and I appreciate that personality. I used to collect stamps as a boy and baseball cards as a boy and an adult, and now I guess I collect friends in different countries. Sven collects things related to fantasy literature, and Kerstin and Sven together collect Scotch whiskey. I asked them what turned out to be one of the smartest questions I’ve ever asked anyone on Friday night. I said, “I don’t really know anything about Scotch. Will you teach me?” And they did. We had a tasting, and also an education. They have traveled in Scotland many times and visited several distilleries and they brought out lots of different types and we learned about the taste differences from the types of barrels Scotch is aged in. I found out I was an oak man, although it seems like the most distinguished palates go for the “peaty” whiskeys. We learned about using your hand to warm the Scotch to bring out its full flavor, and although we sampled many different types it was just in small sips and we kept our wits about us. (If we had gotten hammered, I just wouldn’t write about it.) I will say, though, that I didn’t have any trouble falling asleep Friday night.

On Saturday they took us to the baroque Christmas market in Ludwigsburg. The market is baroque because Ludwigsburg is baroque – the castle in Ludwigsburg was inspired by Versailles and is a European treasure. The market was huge and featured a brass band, people dressed in period costumes, and most anything you could imagine a Christmas market might have for sale. We bought some vanilla honey, which must have been made by angelic bees because it is heavenly, and a cherry-balsam mustard that you simply would need to taste to understand how good it is. We were also introduced to the wonders of Gluhwein (I am missing an umlaut on the “u”), which is a warm, spiced fruity wine, and I learned the secret of being able to stay outside for hours on end in the cold. We brought some of that home to fortify me the next time I walk Maury in a cold Dutch drizzle. I posted a picture above of me with Sven and Kerstin having a cup of Gluhwein at the Barock Weihnnachtsmarkt in Ludwigsburg. Guten Tag! Amanda joined us Saturday afternoon and we had a very nice time together. One interesting thing was Sven noted how Amanda’s German got worse as she spent time speaking English with us. But Gretchen and I are amazed at our tri-lingual daughter and are very proud of her.

We said goodbye to Kerstin and Sven Sunday and headed over to Esslingen, where Amanda lives, on the other side of Stuttgart. We had dinner Sunday with Dieter, a pastor who is also on the partnership committee, and his American wife Nancy, who is also a pastor, and their two children Anna and Hannes. They are a great family. After dinner we went for a long walk and I asked Dieter about two dozen theological questions I have been thinking about. Dieter told me a great quote from Vaclav Havel, the playwright who was once president of the Czech Republic. He said that hope isn’t the belief that everything is going to work out okay someday, it is the belief that what you are doing now is making a difference. That is quite profound and worth thinking about. He also gave me an unexpected answer to one of my questions. I asked him what sin is and he said, “Sin is failing to trust in life.” I said I didn’t know what that meant and he went on to talk about how in his resurrection Jesus has shown that life is stronger than death. Sin is to live as if you don’t believe that, that you don’t believe life has meaning, to live in a way that doesn’t respect or value others, our planet, our lives, our world, to take this gift of life and not do with it what we could or can do with it. There is much to think about there, also.

German pastors are so much better educated than their American counterparts. I know there must be exceptions, but every German pastor I know has depths of knowledge, not just about theology and people, but also about things like literature, history, language, music, wine, Scotch, and art. I am always enriched after spending time with any of them.

Gretchen and I went home via Luxembourg, just because. Well, not exactly just because. It is almost a seven hour drive home from where we were, and I didn’t want to feel pressured to cut our time short on Sunday. So I looked for a place to stop and break up the drive, and I picked Luxembourg because Amanda and I are having a contest of who has been in the most countries and she was ahead by one…was ahead because I tied her on Sunday night. I was thinking of her when I registered at the hotel. The desk clerk was speaking German when I got there, then spoke French to the person in line in front of me, and then spoke English with me. It is funny because Gretchen and I consider Amanda’s speaking of French, German and English to be such an accomplishment for an American, but I realize this accomplishment qualifies her to work the desk of a hotel in Luxembourg.

All of which made me think of seeing Penelope Cruz on David Letterman on TV a little while ago and she told him she makes films in English, Spanish, Italian and French. And he just looked at her for a second and then said something like, “We are so stupid.” I don’t think we are stupid, but we sure don’t have to know the same things people in other parts of the world need to know.