Sunday, March 21, 2010


Spring has come to the Netherlands and yesterday was about as nice as it gets. It was warm and windy and there were moments when you could even feel the sun. As is our custom, Maury and I went out for a walk, and since it was so nice I decided to take the long way around our neighborhood by veering left instead of right and going up on top of the dike that circles our polder. Almost every dike has a road or trail on top of it, and this one is no exception. Occasionally cars come along, but most often it is bicycles or people walking like me, often with their dogs. Walking high up on a dike with a dog at your side is very nice and I will miss it.

We walked most of the way in solitude, with only an occasional biker going by. At one point a man came along riding quite fast, and his large dog was running just out ahead of him. The dog passed us on our right and the man approached on our left. The dog paid no mind to Maury as he ran by, but Maury lunged out towards him, and then must have become twisted around by his leash because the next thing I heard was a yelp. Maury had flipped himself about 270 degrees into the path of the bike, and was hit. The whole thing happened in an instant, and I only heard it because it was all behind me. Fortunately the bike rider didn’t fly over his handlebars. He had stopped and was very concerned about Maury, who had a visible tire track imprinted onto his side. Maury was bit gimpy on his back legs, but seemed all right. I told the man it was okay, and he said, “No, I do not think it is okay. I think he is hurt.” We looked at Maury for a while and he was a bit shaken by the whole thing, but still seemed okay to me. “It’s okay,” I said, and once again the man said, “I don’t think so. I think you should take him to see a vegetarian.”

I smiled inside at this wonderful moment of translation misfortune. Maury is okay, he’s sitting next to me in a room full of moving boxes as I write this, and we have to go see the veterinarian (who may or may not be a vegetarian) tomorrow anyway, to get a certificate that will allow Maury to fly. We went to the “dierenziekenhuis” (animal hospital – do you see the word is more or less dieren (animal) sick house?) a few days ago to get the certificate, since the instructions on the internet said you must have the certificate signed within ten days of travel. When we got there, they wouldn’t do it, they said it must be within three days of travel. Sort of like when we went to City Hall on Friday to “un-enroll” as residents of Dordrecht because their web site said you must un-enroll within five days of leaving and were told when we got there we must come the day before we leave. For one last time we have been getting slapped around by the world of bureaucracy, and I can assure you this is one thing we won’t miss about living here.

We’re pretty much packed and I only have to take apart our infamous box spring and move it downstairs and then reassemble it. The movers come on Tuesday and Tuesday evening we are heading to Amsterdam because we fly out fairly early Wednesday morning. I can hardly believe I am going to be able to watch March Madness next weekend! I’m excited about that, and excited to be with Amanda (who is in the US for a wedding) and Jesse again. It feels really good to be going home.

This has been a grand adventure with twists and turns I never could have imagined, and I cannot adequately express how much my life has been enriched by doing this. I am very grateful to have had this European experience. There is a famous quote by Thomas Wolfe that you can’t go home again, and we all know of course you can, that we go home every day. But what that quote means, I suppose, is you can’t go away and do something where you grow and change and expect to go back to where you came from and just fit in to your old life. I believe that is generally true, and expect it to be specifically true for me. So, G Rap, I am coming home, but I don’t think I am the same person, and, as Stanley Kunitz so eloquently said in The Layers, “I am not done with my changes.” Maybe that will be the fodder for another blog or something…I’m not going to post anymore on this one since this adventure is ending. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Here, There and Everywhere

Penny Lane isn’t even my favorite Beatles song, but I found myself having some hard to describe emotions as I traveled down Penny Lane in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Yes, there is a roundabout with a barber shop on one side and a bank on the other. (The barber shaves another customer, we see the banker sitting waiting for a trim….) The shelter at the roundabout (where a pretty nurse sells poppies from a tray) was the bus transfer center for that part of Liverpool, and John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney would have met there most every day traveling to school. George’s dad (with the wonderful name Harry Harrison) was a bus driver, and they probably rode downtown often on his bus. Paul and George’s houses were down one main street leading toward that place, while John lived down another. Around the corner from John’s house, almost in his backyard, were the grounds of a Salvation Army home called Strawberry Field.

Monday afternoon I was on a bus called “The Magical Mystery Tour” sitting next to my son Jesse with Amanda and Gretchen sitting behind us, seeing these places and lots of others – like the house Ringo was born in, the house George was born in, Paul’s house where John and Paul wrote over one hundred songs and practiced them in the bathroom because the acoustics were great in there, and even the church hall where on a summer day in 1957 Paul was introduced to John at a performance by John’s group “The Quarrymen.” (There is a cemetery behind the church and yes, there is a gravestone there for a woman named “Eleanor Rigby.”) You could throw a stone from the church to Strawberry Field and pick it up and throw it again and hit John’s house.

One of my earliest memories is watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in February, 1964. My parents were scandalized by their long hair and loud music, and my brothers and I loved them. I remember seeing the movie “Help” in its first run in our local theater in Sharonville, Ohio, and being in awe of my older brother who saw The Beatles live at Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1966. We bought every Beatles album when it came out, and I still have them all on CD. I saw Paul when I was a senior in high school on his Wings Over America tour and I remember learning of John’s murder while watching a Monday Night Football game in 1980. The Beatles and their music wove in and out of my childhood in powerful ways.

So let’s get back to my feelings as we were driving down Penny Lane. I felt a very strong emotional surge – maybe the best word for it is nostalgia, and I know I am not the first person to feel it or to be led to Liverpool because of it. The city has real problems keeping the street signs for Penny Lane in place, and this Monday, on a non-descript February afternoon, there was a bus load of pilgrims from all over the world on the tour. What is it we all were seeking? Some sort of understanding of our childhoods? Some sort of connection to our idols? I’m not sure. Maybe it is just the same feeling that caused Lennon and McCartney to write songs about Liverpool.

So, if Penny Lane isn’t my favorite Beatles song, what is? It all depends on what day it is and what sort of mood I’m in. There are way too many possibilities. Today, my favorite isn’t even technically a Beatles song, but a song by a Beatle, the song “Beautiful Boy” by John, written for his son Sean. Yesterday, sitting in the legendary “Cavern Club,” listening to a very talented John Lennon impersonator, we requested “Beautiful Boy” and enjoyed it very much. One line sticks with me: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Fatherly advice for all of us.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When a 90% Success Rate Means Total Failure

I drove my car over the Rhine (Rijn in Dutch) river at Arnhem today. No big deal, hundreds of cars go over the bridge daily, but I went over it with a sense of history. This bridge is the famous “Bridge Too Far.”

You probably know that name, but may be fuzzy on the details. Here’s a little history. The Allies invaded Europe at Normandy in June, 1944. They got bogged down in France and Belgium by the end of the summer. Anxious to end the war by Christmas, the British General Bernard Law Montgomery devised a plan to attack Germany from the North through Holland. This plan became known as “Operation Market Garden,” and became the biggest Allied disaster of the war. The plan called for the largest deployment of airborne troops in history. The paratroopers jumped more or less on a line from Eindhoven to Nijmegen to Arnhem. Because Holland is an endless series of rivers and canals, these forces were supposed to capture several bridges along the way and hold them while armored divisions raced northwards out of Belgium and then massed together to pour into Germany. But the intelligence was wrong – the Germans had much stronger forces than the Allies imagined, the fighting was intense, the armored divisions were supposed to travel north up one highway and some of the bridges they were supposed to hold had already been destroyed. The Allies never fully got control of that highway. The paratroopers had been sent with two-day supplies of food and ammunition, and their relief never reached them.

The fighting was especially intense around Arnhem. British and Polish forces landed there and took the northern end of the bridge I crossed today. It was the furthest bridge in the plan, and they held it for several days despite brutal opposition. They were surrounded, and about one week after they jumped in had to retreat out of Arnhem. A bit over 2000 troops were able to escape by cover of night. 17,000 others were killed in Arnhem.

Arnhem was more or less destroyed. Looking today, I noticed that, with the exception of a magnificent church, every building around the bridge was recent. The Dutch Resistance, thinking liberation was at hand, came out of hiding and were decimated. The winter of 1944-45 became the worst winter in Dutch history – it is called “The Hunger Winter” here, and huge numbers of people starved to death.

There is a museum outside of Arnhem where the British headquarters was, and one of the most moving things I saw today was a monument given jointly by the UK and Poland to the people of Arnhem in September, 1994, on the 50th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden. I’m paraphrasing, but it more or less said “You expected liberation when we came, but instead we brought destruction and devastation to you. You have never blamed us, and we will never forget that.” I contrasted that honest statement to a quote I saw from General Montgomery inside the museum. He said, “Operation Market Garden was 90% successful.”

What a perverse way of looking at one’s own colossal mistakes that cost tens of thousands of lives.

It left me thinking that there is a gap between making a true statement and telling the truth. Monty could probably defend that statement statistically, that 90% of what was supposed to happen did in fact happen. But it was a horrible failure. The death toll of Operation Market Garden is one thing, but you also have to add the death toll of the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-attack through Belgium that Christmas to the total cost of Market Garden. Monty was a small man with a huge ego, and unable to admit how wrong he was.

Why can’t some leaders admit mistakes?

Among the endless tragedies of Market Garden is that the Polish Commander objected to the plan from the start. He expressed his reservations that his men were supposed to be part of a surprise attack, but would be dropped some 10 miles from their target because the British felt the area around the bridge too marshy to jump into. The Polish Commander asked, “What could be surprising about landing ten miles away from where you want to go?” But in the military chain of command, after one expresses his reservations, he obeys orders. The soldiers under his command were decimated.

At what point is it okay to say, “I’m not going to follow. I am not going to lead others to their destruction”?

I have seen leadership bestowed on whoever has the biggest ego and is most aggressive, loudest, and most intimidating. But those sort of leaders never last, do they?

It was sobering to visit the area around Arnhem and think of all that happened there a generation ago. One wonders what we have learned from disasters like Operation Market Garden.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making a Day Among Masterpieces a Masterpiece

What if you lived in the Netherlands but knew you were only going to be there for another six weeks or so? What would you do?

Most of the people who read this blog have found out through other channels that we are returning to the US in March. But if you didn’t know that, now you do. I won’t explore why here, but if you read this blog carefully, it’s pretty much all there.

So, if you’re me, you say to yourself, “I’ve got to go visit The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” She lives on a wall about thirty-five minutes away in The Hague. Today, because the sun was shining, we went and saw her. (We had to walk a bit from the train station and I waited for a decent day to make that walk.) She lived up to expectations. The light in The Girl with the Pearl Earring alone is worth staring at for a long time. As is her blue turban. And her beautiful face. What a thrill to see the real thing! She is the “Mona Lisa” of Northern Europe, and she is stunning. And not only her, but lots of other incredible masterpieces, like Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” a bunch of paintings by Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, along with masterpieces by Jan Steen and Frans Hals and many others. We went to the Mauritshaus today and it was magnificent. I could feel my soul expanding as the day went on. I am so blessed to be able to see these incredible paintings in person.

What crossed my mind is, “Why don’t we live like this all the time? Why don’t we take advantage of our days and make them special instead of just plodding along?” I’ve heard this message a thousand times in a thousand ways. John Wooden likes to say, “Make each day a masterpiece.” Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were going to live forever.” (I’m sure John Wooden would enjoy being included with Jesus and Gandhi!)

This attitude of making where you are right now count is called mindfulness in Eastern thought. It is a very positive way to live. The secret of contentment and happiness, according to this idea, is to remain in the present moment. This idea –this discipline-has come to mean a lot to me over the past few months. Here’s a quick primer on the foundations of mindfulness:

Non-judging – Turn off the part of your brain that immediately sorts everything into “good” or “bad” and instead impartially accept your own experiences.

Patient – A form of wisdom, patience demonstrates that we understand things must unfold in their own time.

Innocent - To see the richness of the present moment, we need to see it as if we are seeing it for the first time.

Trusting – Trust your intuition, your feelings, yourself, your gut, your own wisdom.

Non-striving – Getting over “if/then” thinking is the key – “if this happens, then I will be content or happy or fulfilled.” We tend to live expecting some future thing to make us content – “if” I get this job or this house or this whatever, “then” life will really work. So we manipulate things so we get what we want …and it NEVER fulfills us.

Accepting – See things as they really are in the present. We spend way too much energy denying and resisting reality. Accept reality and start from there.

Letting Go – Detachment is the key to all of the behaviors described above. Let go of people, events, things, the past, the future…whatever it is we hold onto. Peace is found in letting go.

Cultivating mindfulness means to cultivate “being” instead of “doing.” It is a rich way to live. What’s stopping you from enjoying something beautiful close to you?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stanley Nailed It

I read this line from Stanley Kunitz last night:

All creativity is a process of giving meaning to what is on a universal scale meaningless.

If I had known that line a couple days ago, I could have saved all the words of my last blog entry. Stanley nailed it.

All of which reminds me of Ecclesiastes 6:11 - "The more the words, the less the meaning."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Don't Worry, Donny

Today seems as good a day as any to talk about meaninglessness. I love the line in the movie “The Big Lebowski” when some men with German accents attack the Dude and his friends and Donny asks, “Are these the Nazis, Walter?” and Walter answers, “No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There is nothing to be afraid of.” At another point Walter says, “Nihilists! I mean say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos.”

I love Walter, Donny and the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Take the advice of a friend and watch it. With them and the nihilists in mind, I read the book of Ecclesiastes today. Have you ever read it? It’s tucked away right between Proverbs and Song of Songs. The book begins, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Yes, that’s in the Bible. The old King James and other versions use the word “vanity” instead of "meaningless," but I think “meaningless” packs more of a punch. “Vanity” makes me think of personalized license plates and being conceited; “meaningless” makes me think of nihilists.

Ecclesiastes asks, “What makes life meaningful?” Is there are a more important question to ask?

A problem I have with Christian interpretations of Ecclesiastes is that we tend to lay some sort of Christian message on top of it that doesn’t recognize what the author was saying at the time the book was written. Ecclesiastes is the wisdom of the ancients, written hundreds and hundreds of years before the time of Christ. I pulled down a couple of fairly conservative reference books today and looked up what they had to say about Ecclesiastes and I was disappointed. One of them said:

Apart from the assurance of future judgment and life after death furnished by the historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the future after death is dark and obscure.

Of course you think that, but the point, to me, is that this book wasn’t written by someone familiar with Jesus. Plus this book is still scripture to Jewish people – people who don’t agree about the “historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.” The book meant something when it was written and still means something to Jews today. Take off your Christian glasses and try and figure out what that is. And while you are at it don’t make “assurance of future judgment” sound like something to look forward to. Judgment is scary! I mean what if there is a future judgment and it goes the way of the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 instead of being about having an orthodox belief system. That isn’t comforting.

Then I read this critique of Ecclesiastes from another source: The book contains the philosophical and theological reflections of an old man, most of whose life was meaningless because he had not himself relied on God as he should have. Ouch. I know from personal experience, and from hearing it from hundreds of people, that we get “should on” way too often. Getting “should on” is another way of talking about letting another person define reality for you, being manipulated or influenced not by your own sense of what is right but by trying to meet the expectations of someone else. “Should” is an indispensable part of creating guilt. Let’s leave “should” out of it for the moment. This book is not by someone who should have been different. (Talk about judgment!)

So what the heck is Ecclesiastes about? I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. Go ahead; it will only take 20 minutes or half an hour. I’ll be right here when you get back.

(Musical interlude – I’m humming the Jeopardy theme for reasons not clear to me)

What do you think? Can you believe that’s in the Bible? (As long as you’re reading different parts of the Bible, go ahead and read the Song of Songs, too. It’s a lot of fun.)

This morning I got a kick out of thinking about “there is nothing new under the sun” while I sat reading in an office chair by electric light, listening to the washing machine whir in the background, while Gretchen was in another room watching a flat screen TV and my computer and cell phone sat on the desk next to me. Obviously, there are some new things under the sun, not just since Ecclesiastes was written, but since I was in high school. Heck, we didn’t even VCRs then and our car had a big old 8-track player. So, technology has changed. But has the core of being human changed? Has the question “What gives meaning to life?” changed? I think not.

My interpretation of the book is that the answer is found in 3:12 – There is nothing better for people to do than to be happy and do good while they live. Life is fleeting, everything and every thing is temporal, the future is not only unknown but unknowable; so live well in the present moment. To be alive is to live with hope, and to be fully alive is to know God. I think that’s it.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I was in Spain from last Saturday until Thursday – in Catalunya, actually: Barcelona, Banyoles, and Platja d’Aro. We had an all-Europe Young Life conference, and I got to be the final speaker on Thursday morning. I talked about my struggle to hear the voice of God that says “I love you.” We were celebrating communion to end our time together, so I combined communion and hearing God’s voice by borrowing a bit from Henri Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved.” In that book Nouwen talks about the spiritual life as one where we gradually grow in our ability to hear the voice that tells us we are loved, and then says the life of the beloved is marked by the same movement as when Jesus takes bread at the Last Supper; that like the bread we also are taken (or chosen), blessed, broken, and given.

I want to tell you the story I used for “broken,” and some more thoughts I’ve been having about it.

A couple of weeks ago when we drove from Grand Rapids to Chicago O’Hare for our flight back here, I found a great radio station on the rental car’s XM radio. It was a station that played folk rock songs from the 1970s. I spent that decade going through junior high, high school and college, so the popular music of the 70s connects with some pretty deep places inside of me. I heard songs that I love that have more or less disappeared from other radio stations – songs by Harry Chapin, Elton John, James Taylor, Carole King, Jim Croce, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. I was having a great time listening to these songs until they played the single most heartbreaking song from the 1970s – Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” That song always gets to me – the story of 29 men dying in a Lake Superior shipwreck is sad enough, but Gordon Lightfoot’s voice and the haunting melody of the song do me in. He has a line where the cook comes in and says, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed you” and then the cook comes back and says, “Fellas, it’s been good to know you.” He sings about how the ship would have been safe if it had put only 15 more miles behind her, and that all that remains are the wives and the sons and the daughters. But the most devastating line to me is simply this, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes?”

I rode along I-94 in Indiana crying for about ten miles after that. My family has learned that’s just the way I am, and they gave me a Kleenex and time and space to be in my own little world of grief.

There is no satisfying answer to his question about God’s love in the midst of human suffering. If there were an answer, we’d all know it by now.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when something terrible happens? This makes me think of Haiti right now, and my reaction to the tragedy there. I don’t know if you are like me, but I find it terribly difficult to want to read or watch the coverage of the disaster in Haiti. I’ve been asking myself this question lately: “Why is it easier for me to feel the weight of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald than the disaster in Haiti?” It’s like I can get my mind around the loss of 29 men much easier than I can get my mind around devastation that affects millions. I’ve been thinking of a line I read in Amsterdam at the Anne Frank museum – that one Anne Frank is easier for people to understand than the totality of the Holocaust. It is easier for us to hear and understand the horror of Anne Frank’s story than to try to imagine the suffering of six million people.

I’ve also been thinking this – while millions suffer in Haiti the rest of us go on about our lives unchanged. I spent a few days last week in a hotel room with an incredible view through some palm trees of the Mediterranean. I ate paella and had good Spanish wine and tapas and life was good. It was very, very comfortable. The world has been incredible rearranged for one country while life goes on for the rest of us. Isn’t that also a reality that is undeniable but somehow patently unfair?

A quarter century ago, after the ceremony on the day that Gretchen and I got married we got into a car to ride to the reception. We pulled out away from the church and as we rode down the street I saw a guy I went to seminary with named Hank mowing his lawn. There was this surreal juxtaposition there – my life had just changed forever while life went on unchanged for Hank. He can’t tell you what he was doing in the late afternoon on August 23rd, 1985, but I can. Hank would have to take my word that he was mowing the lawn.

I’m just trying to put this together and don’t know if I need to any more than this. While one of us sits by the ocean under a palm tree, another’s life turns in a direction that they never imagined, and I wonder if there is any connection between the two. That’s what I’ve been musing about on this Saturday morning.