27 February 2007

seeing God's hand

almost two weeks ago, my mother asked me to call a Dutch number for her – it was the brother of my uncle Chris (who’s not my uncle but some cousin once removed or something else confusing). My uncle had gone into the hospital really sick. she had tried to call but couldn’t get through. i tried and had no more success. my uncle got a bit better in the next couple of days but i still wanted to be able to tell my mom that i had tried as much as i could to contact them. figuring that part of the problem with contacting them was my inability to use the multi-phone system of the house, last Tuesday i finally asked Zr Annemieke for some help.

and so i tried calling. it didn’t work. so i made sure i really knew what numbers i had to press to get out of the system and into a different province. and we discovered the phone number i had no longer worked. i knew the name of the village (and our office has relatively recent phone books from everywhere in Holland) so we looked up their name. but they’re not listed. however, Zr. Annemieke knew that all the phone numbers had changed about four years ago, so maybe we should just switch the first few numbers in the number i had with those of the numbers listed from the village – and call it and see what happens. (she was the one who called, though, as we had no idea if this would work and she would be able to explain – in Dutch – what in the world we were doing whoever it was that picked up the phone.)

but it was my relatives on the phone. i tried to explain a bit better why i was calling. i asked for their e-mail address so my mom could be in better contact with them – but as it did seem a bit strange to be asked by someone you’d never heard of for their email address, i volunteered just to give them my address. and then that night (before 5 for my mom), i emailed to her what i had done, mentioned that they seemed a bit puzzled by the phone call (not surprisingly), and i gave my mom their real phone number. she called them on Wednesday morning and explained things as much as possible. and on Thursday, they flew to Toronto to visit.

by the time they arrived my uncle was out of intensive care and doing much better. and my mom said they had a wonderful visit with him. then my uncle took a turn for the worse. on Sunday, my family was called from church – my Uncle Chris had passed away. he actually hadn’t been doing that well since Christmas so in many ways it’s a blessing. but it still brings sadness - i have lived out of Canada for so long that he wasn’t so much a part of my regular life – and so my sadness over his death is because i know that my parents and sister will miss him.

and i tell this story as a way of sharing my wonder in seeing God’s hand working through different things both the ordinary and the extraordinary: the guilt i knew i would have had if i hadn’t honestly done all i could to help my mom contact my dutch relatives so i knew i had to ask for help; my living in a community where giving help – and solving strange problems like mine – is so normal that i expect Zr. Annemieke doesn’t even see what she did as anything special; the wisdom and desire of my relatives to get a flight a day after they talked to my mom; and the good health of my Uncle Chris so they could visit together. and i know my part wasn’t that big (and after all, my motivation was guilt!) – but i am still deeply thankful that i could have been part of bringing my uncle and his brother and sister-in-law together again – and knowing my parents are very thankful to share with them the responsibilities and burdens that come when someone dies.

21 February 2007


today marks the beginning of lent (and it was begun with me bumping into Br Luc in the smoking area frantically trying to get a fire going so he could prepare some ashes - it's not quite what one expects right after breakfast).

living in a monastery and eating regularly with the community means that i participate in how the community follows lent. i am not planning on giving anything else up for lent and am glad not to feel pressured to do more (not having grown up in a tradition that made much of fasting and lent, it’s not something i feel i have to do – but try to use lent as an opportunity to fast from something that has become unhealthily overwhelming in my life – last year it was television). i’ve decided that i’ll be keeping lent the same way as the community – no more and no less (so i’ll still be eating hagel slag [chocolate hail/sprinkles] on my bread at breakfast - although this might be an opportunity to wean myself off the snooze button again). i hope and expect to learn and grow from the experience.

so how do we keep lent here?

well, first there is Shrove Tuesday - the day before Ash Wednesday. in the English speaking world the traditional meal is pancakes (once upon a time one would make pancakes to get rid of all the lard in the house). however, in the Netherlands, it’s spare ribs – and some kind of delightful dessert. so we had spare ribs (which normally we don’t have the budget for – and there was much more meat than normal). and some delightful chocolate chunked ice cream. and after chapel, we had cream-filled little cakes. definitely stuffed by the end of the evening. all of that to wallow in the things we will be missing for the next forty days.

lent brings in suppers that are vegetarian (only eggs, cheese, and fish are allowed). and there is no longer dessert – only a candy (since we don’t generally have snacks here (except for the odd donuts we get with the donated bread) that means we’re for the most part giving up sweets). the dessert i’ll miss somewhat but the vegetarian part i’m looking forward to – i really like vegetables and one tends to get more of them when there’s less meat. and the biggest change actually is how we eat. dinners will be held all in silence. with background music. dinners can be a bit of a noisy affair here (there’s usually about 30 of us). the silence will be quite a change - and should be interesting. i think i’m looking forward to it – but i’m not sure how others will react and adjust to the changes.

Sundays we take a break from fasting. (and we’d break the fast for any other celebrations, too). i expect none of us will be missing Sunday dinner too quickly :).

20 February 2007

the next steps

I never thought i was a big planner but i’m discovering either i thought wrong or i’m changing. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the next steps in my life. After I finish the rough draft of my theses, I fix up a few things, and sometime this summer I should become officially a.b.d. (all but dissertation.) That means that I have finished everything towards my Ph.D. except for the dissertation. Which means I can be hired as a professor.

But as the adventure of looking for a ‘real’ job looms upon me, the challenge of doing so presses upon me. Since it’s a rather specialized field with limited job openings, finding a university job can be a complicated (and a good fit might come up in the first year of writing my dissertation – or not until the last year – but no one knows). And as I’ve been studying and growing in faith and sensing what God wants from/ for me, these are the things that matter when i ask what a good fit is:
- I would like to teach more than just facts – I want to be able to ask ‘why does what we’re studying matter for you and the others to whom you reach out?’
- I would like to be an active participant in serving the Christian Reformed Church – both in a local church and on the denominational level
- I would like to continue to live in community somehow somewhere. I have been challenged so much about what it means practically to be a Christian here – and what it means to be the body of Christ.
- I would like whoever I work for to be at least as interested in my participation in ministry work as my participation in academic work.
- No matter where I live, I would like both the opportunity for significant exposure to other cultures (and languages) and the ability to spend time with my immediate family and friends (so if i live a plane ride away to have enough money and flexible time to visit awhile at least a couple of times a year).
As the community is here in Amsterdam (and I love the many cultures, many people, and haphazard adventure of life here) and the Christian Reformed Church is in North America (a significant portion of which is in United States of which i am not a citizen and don’t entirely feel like i belong there), i’m not sure how all of these things fit together.

And as i ask how things fit, i’ve been making plans for next year. The hope is that i might see more clearly what God might have for me – how i might spend my life serving Him, being challenged by Him, and using the gifts He has given me. and these are the next steps in my life:
- next year, I’m hoping to be a more active participant in the community here: i’d not only be given a responsibility in the community but to be able to participate in the discussions of what it means to dedicate one’s life to living in community and ministering in the Red Light District. As part of that, I’m spending half the summer in Amsterdam with my primary focus to improve my Dutch, participate in the community and better understand ministry in the neighbourhood.
- I’ve been accepted to teach two Old Testament classes at Calvin Seminary in Spring 2008 (Old Testament Narrative and Jeremiah & the Church). It’s for the sabbatical of one of my former professors. I’m pretty excited (but i’ve been dialoguing about this for half a year so the thrilling newness has kind of worn off :))
- I’m dialoguing with Calvin College about teaching a one-month class in January that gives an introduction to Christian Worldview and the topic of my choice. I taught the class in January 2006 on postmodernity and loved it. My proposed topic this time is Theology from the Red Light District. [update (14 march 2007): upon further reflection, i'm not so sure that i'm going to try to do this next year - as this is probably not the best avenue to bring forward this topic - and further update, in September 2007, i decided to teach that class although with a different topic]
- And the whole time, I’ll be working on my dissertation – and see how that fits in the midst of these other plans. And I want to begin to participate more in the grammatical work that my supervising professor is doing with computers and Hebrew grammar for prophecy and poetry.
We’ll see what i discover along the way – and i’m deeply thankful for the opportunity to get to do all the things i would like to do.

14 February 2007

returning to life in the house

the following are just some random glimpses into returning to life back in Amsterdam.

nationalities of the people that i currently live with:
- in the main house: Dutch, German, Hungarian, Canadian (that's me), Columbian, Bosnian, Israeli (originally Dutch, though), and Armenian.
- in the apartments: Dutch, Surinamese, Indonesian, Brazilian, and Ghanese.
it's no wonder when my friend from University said i should move into the student housing so that i could experience diversity, i looked at him funny. his understanding of diversity was meeting several different nationalities in the elevator. my understanding has become trying to communicate about cleaning the bathroom, switching languages at breakfast (when some people don't function that well), and regularly worshipping and coffee-drinking with different nationalities.

number of people who currently share my/the bathroom: 4 (which is down from the 5 before i left on vacation and up from the 3 that were there in the fall).

frequency with which i have problems taking a shower when i want to (i.e. before breakfast): almost never. i'm not sure what that means - i'm pretty sure everyone else showers, i just have no idea when.

number of times the game, Risk, was played this weekend: 3 or 4 (and it's not a short game). i only joined once and was horribly annihilated so that someone else could win.

number of people who told me that i was missed while i was on vacation: about 10, i think. it makes me feel loved.

main activity of my life: writing my theses!!!! My progress is now listed on my blog (on the right). it's progressing okay, even though writing is not really my favourite scholarly activity.

stupid question of the week: why do people make (and buy) garbage pails with ridges where who knows what garbage (dirt, food related stuff, leftovers) gets semi-permanently stuck in the ridges? (the question is a reoccurring one that i experience as i clean the garbage pail weekly.)

current state of feeling: contentment. things have settled/adjusted to being calmer in the house, and i, having missed my 'crazy family,' am once again glad to be part of the community. and i can't help but be amazed that i have been given the opportunity to learn how to love. in a lot of Christian circles, we talk about unconditional love, but it's mostly theory as we only spend time with people like us. here, however, i am placed in a position where i don't get to choose who i live with or who shares my space, and it is these people who i am asked and called to love. some days and with some people, this is easier. but that doesn't really matter - i am learning more and more that love isn't about easy or comfortable but about living out of the love and grace that God has given me.

attitude towards Valentine's Day: more positive than in a long while (i've been single way too long). it helps that the house is a celebrating a birthday today of someone well-liked and wonderfully tease-able. and it helps even more that this year, i'm not celebrating the consumer holiday - instead i'm remembering Saint Valentine and giving thanksgiving to God for how much He has taught me about love this year.

12 February 2007

"so how was church?"

last night i attended evening prayers at the Oude Kerk. when someone asked me how it was, i responded with "good". And he jokingly responded that my response clearly told him everything. and so i went on a bit more about how had known the passages that we read and sang (Psalms 133 & 134 and the Magnificat (Maria's song in Luke 1)) and that the choir was lovely. or something like that.

and sure, the questions and my response were in Dutch (as i do very much want and need to practice) and so one can argue that this limits my ability to respond with more depth, but i am disappointed that my response was so limited. it was as if i was giving the response that others wanted to hear - and wasn't willing to really say how thankful i was to have been able to go.

for when i said church was good, i meant Good in the sense of how God responded to his creation each day (i.e. God made the ...., it was morning and evening, the ..th day, and He called it good). my explanation of this Good barely touched the surface of the joy and peace that the service brought to me. for i had met God - and knew once again that he will provide grace enough for each day and each situation.

for church was more than just evening prayers, it was a mixture of many gifts. and one of the greatest was comprehension and being able to participate. for the evening prayer service has started to become a loved tradition for me - and between being familiar with many Bible passages and familiar with the services, i not only understand the words but delight in getting to say the familiar words again.

i sang in chant two psalms that i knew and loved. i heard one of my favourite things (a good choir singing a capella). i lit a candle for someone i love who i see God working in. i worshipped in an awe-inspiring 700 year old church. two of the people from the community came after me and sat beside me. i had a great view of one of the really gorgeous (single, i think) guys from the church. the curator of the church always greets me with a smile (he knows that i'm still learning dutch - and i think he appreciates my desire to participate in the world i'm now in). it was just cold enough in the church for us to see our breath (but our feet were on a heater and we all dressed against the lack of central heating so it wasn't too cold - and i like winter). we sang "Our Father" to the tune which i have grown to love - and as we began, someone once again rang the bells for all to hear - to ring out again that we are worshipping and praying for this world and city in which we live, in the midst of De Wallen. And our prayers ended with a prayer we often say in our own chapel (and which I have grown to love).
[An English variation of the prayer is: Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent; abide with us, and with thy whole Church. Abide with us in the evening of the day, in the evening of life, in the evening of the world. Abide with us and with all thy faithful ones, O Lord, in time and eternity. (Taken from beliefnet.com, which gives the source of the prayer as the Lutheran Manual of Prayer)]

and the combination of all the senses - and being delighted (and even surprised) by so much of God's creation - made it Good. and i had met God. and that is what i wish i had been more able and willing to share when i had been asked last night.

09 February 2007

so Ukrainian and Dutch passports are almost exactly the same colour

when i went to Ukraine on 27 january, i entered the country in a ukrainian car with with 4 Ukrainians (with whom i spoke limited hungarian and never even tried english). as we were waiting in line to cross and i was getting ready to fill out the paper i filled out last time (passport info and reason for visit), for whatever reason (i don't think money was involved although it's possible), we were bumped into a second shorter line. our driver showed our passports (all five looking the same when seen as a pile), and i never ever filled out that paper. i never asked the driver for a paper because his job is actually to take people across the border (so i assumed he knew what he was doing), and i never said, hey can we go back to the border guard because i think i need a little paper (because Ukraine is not really the kind of country where you politely ask somebody if they know what they're doing -even if competency is generally lower than other places, questioning competency is equivalent to suggesting that you'd like to give them a bribe).

so i hoped for the best...

as i was leaving the country on 7 february, the border guard asked for half of the paper i never filled out. (the border keeps one copy and the visitor keeps the other half in their visa). the borderguard said that losing that paper would cost me 500 grivnya (a 100 US dollars). i said that i'd never gotten a paper. he insisted that i'd lost it. and the penalty was 350 grivnya (not sure if the original border guard gave the new price or if someone else had gotten involved by then and had quoted that fee - but the suspiciously quick change of fines made it fairly obvious that it was less of a penalty and more of a bribe). i remained insistent that i'd never filled out a paper. (and i had a stamp in my passport from entering so they couldn't charge me with entering illegally.) so they went to look for the paper. and i and my friend and the driver taking us waited. and we developed the theory that when i went into the country they never really looked closely at the pile of same-coloured passports - and just let us all in.

and we waited. eventually my passport returned from the other office. and a bit later we were allowed to talk to them again. they never acknowledged that they hadn't found the other half of my paper (although by not insisting again on a fine indicates that they hadn't) but instead asked when i wanted to come back again. i said summer (through the driver). they said i should have known better about not filling in the paper (i had but thought that questioning a Ukrainian border guard who had let me in without the proper paperwork had more potential problems than trying to get out without that paperwork - not sure if i was right). and because i should have known, i was going to be banned from entering Ukraine for 6 months (if you do the math, i could return again on August 8). seeing as they had asked me when i wanted to return before telling me that i was banned for an amount of time that they now knew could be inconvenient me, this sounded suspiciously like bribe potential and less of a policy. i was somewhat indifferent to their threat - having my passport say that i was banned from Ukraine seemed a rather fascinating experience that actually had no consequences on my life as no country outside of Ukraine would find their 'ban' of my entering Ukraine that relevant - and Ukraine's system is not so advanced that this ban would register if i used my other passport - one of the joys of being a double citizen. however, the driver and my friend didn't quite recognize that Ukraine's border policy whims could really have no effect on my life - and also thought it ridiculous that the border guards could suggest that i should be punished for what was really their mistake - and thus told them that this was not acceptable. off went my passport again with someone else, we waited some more, and eventually with no explanation (but finally stamped) my passport was returned to me.

we had waited a bit over an hour in total. but we had paid no extra money. and somewhat to my disappointment (the thought of me being considered dangerous amuses me), i didn't get anything in my passport banning me from returning to Ukraine (at least not officially - although i might take my other passport next time - and i have an extra copy of the paper for next time :))

and well, that's Ukraine. it was the first time i really had problems crossing the border, though. well, except for a ten minute discussion another time about not having a different paper in my passport (i had crossed into Ukraine at a different place which hadn't given out those papers). oh, and i've been hit on by border guards - i think it had more to do with the fact that most people don't see a lot of Canadian passports :)

i always have loved the great adventures of 'regular' life in Ukraine, so it's no wonder that i appreciate the adventure of living with the community in Amsterdam - in the 'zoo' that i call my crazy family.

05 February 2007


although the school managed to stay open during English Week and fewer students are currently sick now than at the end of last week, the school is closing for the week. too many people are sick in too many schools in the area, and so all the schools are being closed. and so the students are being sent home (it's a boarding school, by the way :)) the hope is that by next week, we'll be influenza free.

and my friend, Csilla, gets an unexpected vacation for the week. and we have a bit more freedom for the rest of my vacation. i think we're going to Pest earlier...

grace from yesterday and for tomorrow, too

friendships, the really good kind, are sometimes the grace that God uses for today. But it’s also grace from yesterday and for tomorrow, too. The grace from yesterday is the history we have with friends – shared memories to laugh over and to help us through the awkward moments that might come in the todays. And the grace for tomorrow is the hopeful expectation that the friendship will continue to be a source of joy and hope and peace for many tomorrows.

i came to Ukraine a bit exhausted – and thus, anxious and irritable. My friend, Csilla, who i helped this week with teaching, has had a difficult year trying to help the school in the aftermath of the church splitting and staff leaving (she was one of the few teachers who stayed while everyone else left), has been overwhelmed with things to do, and has been asking some difficult questions about how to serve God faithfully lately. So, we spent a week kind of working together but mostly bumping against each other with a few moments of joy and more moments of non-connection. And both of us spent time praying and wondering what happened to the delight and joy we’d shared back in December when we’d last been together.

And then Friday after a lot of time together, some laughter, and much prayer, we had time to be honest with each other – and about how things really were going in our lives. and the joy and delight returned. and has stayed :)

and this week has reminded me again of the gift of friendships. and of how God uses them to show us his grace and to help us to laugh and remember the way life should be. for not only did God protect and help Csilla's and my friendship, i knew that i could reach out to other friends for help and advice (and did) and when a friend reached out to me, i tried to encourage as much as i could.

english week in stats

many years ago (from 1999-2001), i used to live in Nagybereg, Ukraine and teach umpteen english classes every week. (When I first started, it was about twenty 45-minute lessons per week (quite a few which were the same lesson taught to a different section) and when i left it was about 35 lessons.) these are some stats of what happened when i returned to help teach for a week.

number of english classes taught: 16 (although most of the classes were a repeated idea taught to a different section of a class or modified to teach at a different level)

number of teachers who are still teaching there 6 years later: 3 - biology, ukrainian, physics.

number of staff who are still the same: about 10.
The high turnover happened in the last year with the breaking away of a group from the Transcarpathian Reformed Church. Many of the staff and quite a number of teachers have become part of the new church and thus were asked to leave the Reformed Church’s school.

special foods for the week: Canadian pancakes with maple syrup (ironically the maple syrup was actually from Michigan!!) And English tea, which wasn’t quite English in that the cooks assumed that everyone drinks their tea with lots of sugar and the milk was creamer and not milk. The pancakes were quite delightful but I passed on the tea… (there must be some privileges to being the guest teacher – and I had chosen not to sit at a table with students so no one was watching me too closely).

Number of meals for the week: 14

Meals skipped: 0

Meals chosen not to be eaten: 3. Not sure if my prior knowledge of the food was a blessing or not!

Foods skipped were:
- pasta with cabbage,
- pasta with crushed walnuts (it’s like eating sand on greasy pasta – i used to add paprika on the pasta instead of walnuts when i lived there), and
- some kind of porridge that has a funky toasted taste to it.
(I’ll have to admit that the porridge day I went back to the kitchen later for bread with butter so i could put hagel slag on it later – I used to have a bucket of a peanut butter and chocolate spread in my room for meals like that).

Foods that were not as good as I remembered:
- the bread (as you can imagine from the food description above, the bread was a pretty staple part of life and since i remember it tasted amazing, i managed not to lose any weight while i was teaching for two years even though i used more energy than as a student and skipped some meals).
- The tea. It is much too sweet for me now – but 8 years ago, i learned how to like tea because of this place.
- Pasta with hungarian cottage cheese – it’s quite lovely with salt (really) – but the cottage cheese was too runny and the pasta too greasy so… my friend assures me it was just a bad day and it’s still as good as it used to be.

Foods that were better than I remembered:
- Grecska – which in english is bulgar wheat, i think. We added a meat sauce to it. I remember really disliking it, and it wasn’t that bad. A bit of a funky aftertaste, but overall quite edible.
- Cabbage soup –i first thought it was boiled squash (which is generally stringy and unliked by most people there) so when it turned out to be cabbage and had the right spices it was actually relatively enjoyable.
- Fruit soup – although a lot of people like it, it never really appealed to me. but apparently absence makes the heart grow fonder with some things – and i took seconds.

Foods that were as good as i remembered:
- Dutch soup mix soup: yep, still like it – even though most of the students don’t. probably because it’s not greasy enough and has too many different strong spices. But it reminds me vaguely of my mom’s soup and i love spices, so… i ate half our table’s bowl.
- Rice cooked in milk with cocoa and sugar on top. For breakfast. Still one of my favourites. Ask my mother – i’ve even tried it back home in Canada. I happily stuffed myself on it.

average amount of time sleeping: about 9 hours per day. The normal used to be 7. The number is ridiculously high as i was fighting some bug for half the week. Thankfully, the sleep helped and i was never really sick.

Number of students sick: 40 (out of 100 students)! The whole area is struggling with sickness because of the strange weather and influenza.

Movie watched: Take the Lead (2006)

Students reaction to the movie: very, very positive. (no surprise). What high school student doesn’t appreciate a movie about dancing, high school students, and unexpected dreams becoming true?

Activities not yet mentioned:
- English Competition (I remembered how much I like standing in front of a 100 people trying to organize relays and get everyone excited about participating!)
- Cultural Talk: I talked about Canadian culture and my life in Amsterdam.
- Folk Dancing: lots and lots and lots of fun…

01 February 2007

the unusual event of the day

i just got interviewed. by somebody connected to the Reformed Church (i think). in Hungarian - and as no one in the immediate vicinity spoke any english, it really was all in Hungarian. i didn´t always understand the questions. but i made up some answer most of the time. hopefully i was understood. and i prayed that i would say what i ought to say (although the conversation was pretty simple due to my language level).

so i´m assuming this will be the unexpected event of the day. but it´s Ukraine and not even noon yet - so maybe there´ll still be another one. i am remembering that life here is never, ever dull. (kind of like my crazy busy house in Amsterdam :) )

update: apparently it was a journalist for a real newspaper. The Karpathian News or something. I think i was interviewed because of English Week at the school - and they thought that was interesting. I also think it appeared on Saturday in the paper, but I haven't seen it, so....
the adventure continues.

update 2: nope, it hasn't appeared yet. but apparently it will be in three parts - and maybe i'll get a copy of it sometime...