31 December 2013

2013 in Pictures

I just spent half the afternoon trying to add pictures to an end-of-year letter from Matthijs and I. It finally worked, but half way through I wondered why I wasn't saving myself a lot of work by simply putting the pictures on my blog. So here are the highlights of 2013 from Matthijs and me:

Matthijs with Jens in Dresden (Christmas 2012)

Easter Labyrinth in the chapel (march)
On retreat in Brugge - april?

Queens Day - yes, this is normal attire (april)
Lourdes (Matthijs' trip in june)

Our bed and breakfast in St. Cloud, Paris (june)

With Cecile in Paris (june)



Walking in Norway at the retreat (july) [With thanks to Pieter for the photo!]
Norway - july
Durham cathedral (Matthijs' trip in the july heat wave)

Austria (Brenda - august)
with Willemijn in Austria (august)

Heyink family at (Canadian) Thanksgiving (october)

Chicago landscape from the Stained Glass museum (october)
The cat - always

Travelling - off to new adventures!


23 December 2013

2 years ago today

Two years ago today I had just returned from an overwhelming visit home to my family in Canada. The lingering diarrhea my mother had sent her to the hospital for much of our visit, and the doctors were just starting to talk about it being cancer. I had decided to come help her and my dad out at the beginning of January with sickness and chemo. I hadn't talked to my mom since saying good-bye to her less than a week before - she'd been in the hospital the whole time and didn't feel herself so she wasn't really interested in talking on the phone. Even my father was hard to get a hold of - I caught him just before he had an appointment with the doctor.

It was the beginning of Christmas weekend. Matthijs and I were in charge of organizing the Christmas dinner, and I'd just started making shopping lists and dinner menus with several others - the same thing that I just did tonight. And like then, I'm tired. But then I went to bed at 10, not realizing that I never turned my phone back on after leading chapel earlier in the evening.

And so I missed hearing the results of the appointment my father had with my mom's doctor: the appointment where he was given the tragic news that my mom had less than 24 hours to live. They called everyone to come. Numerous messages were left on my phone - they even called the community - but no one heard.

I woke up at 5 the next morning, and I looked at my phone. Perhaps my soul knew. Perhaps I was worried as, every day since we'd left, my mom seemed to get disturbingly worse. When I looked at my phone, there were voice messages from Canadian numbers - at least one every half hour, starting at 10:15. And then abruptly they stopped. I knew. My mother had passed away. I called my family - every number I knew until I got a hold of somebody. We talked. We cried. Matthijs woke up, and we mourned together.

It is strange to be doing the same thing today that I was doing then two years ago - once again planning Christmas with the community. It brings back the memories of that night. I miss her still: it's a strange absence as if I should talk to someone or share my news and can never quite figure out who I've missed telling. Yet, there is something good in once again planning the dinner: it was an interrupted commitment and unfulfilled joy that I am thankful finally to be able to do.

And, to be honest, my mom's death around this time has not made it harder for me to celebrate Christmas. Instead, her sudden death made me realize again how much we all needed Christmas. After all, in the midst of cancer, suffering, pain and loss, we desperately need the promise and hope found in Christ's coming.

21 December 2013

The house is empty without you

It is the darkest day of the year. It was made darker and drearier by the rain that fell most of the day. I understand that friends and family back in Ontario and Michigan are being subjected to ice-storms, so the dark weather is hardly limited to this side of the ocean.

Our advent star is hanging - Matthijs graciously hung it before he left. The star brings a cheerful light in the midst of the darkness, more so as the star is red, bringing a different kind of red light into this neighbourhood.

Yet, even the brightness of the star does not push away all the darkness. Matthijs left yesterday to go to a funeral of an old friend from university. I questioned if it was wise for him to go - life has been extra full for both of us these past few weeks and we are organizing Christmas within the community. Wouldn't it be too much to make an unexpected trip now to the other side of Germany? When I voiced my concerns to Matthijs, his answer was simple: if he could go, why wouldn't he? He was there for their wedding; it was good for hiim to return for the tragic death of a friend. We are both thankful that he went, but the house is empty without him.

The darkness of my empty house is only a shadow of the darkness felt by those suffering in this time, whatever the reason: mourning the loss of loved ones, struggling with debt, living homeless and/or countryless, experiencing loneliness. How then can it feel like Christmas? The time of Advent - a time of waiting and longing - gives at least a partial answer to that. Isaiah 9:2 says "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." In Advent, we remember that Christ has not yet come. And the darkness is darkest just before dawn.

15 December 2013

Waiting for Christmas and trusting in the midst of the unexpected

I came home after a lunch at church today to discover that Matthijs had found a place for our angel to hang while we wait for Christmas. I'm not sure if he'll make it onto a tree this year - we're either gone or celebrating the holidays within the community for most of the 12 days of Christmas - so we might just pass on the tree. But hopefully the lights and our (Advent) star will also be placed out today or tomorrow. The nativity scene will also be made ready, with the shepherds in a field somewhere and wise men under way to meet the soon-to-be-born Messiah. This all makes the waiting for Christmas a bit more real.

At the same time, the angel on an airplane feels extra special this year. When we found him three years ago, the angel made me think of hope and trust in the midst of the unexpected. As we approach Christmas this year, it feels like we need an extra reminder to trust in the midst of the unexpected. Not only as we spend extra time flying in the next months, but more so as we further prepare for the newest adventure in our lives: a move to America!

04 December 2013

Hot Chocolate: a strange blessing for my dissertation

Although it took some time, I received an official pass for the VU University Theology department early this past fall. The pass is my key to getting into the closed-off section where "my computer" is. At the same time, it is also my means for getting free drinks from the vending machine.

It took me one cup of tea from the machine to realize that it was much wiser to make one's own. My section has its electric kettle and tea pot.

It took me about a month of drinking coffee from the machine to realize that it was horrible. It's actually not bad with sugar, especially the espresso, latte and cappucino variations. As I don't like drinking coffee without sugar, but would prefer not to have regular white sugar, I tried drinking it when I added my own less processed sugar to it. I don't drink coffee from the machine anymore. My section also has its own private coffee maker, which I sometimes also participate in drinking from.

It took me about a month of drinking hot chocolate from the machine to become addicted to it. At first, it seemed inappropriate to be drinking hot chocolate at work. But since I didn't drink the coffee or tea, what was I supposed to do? I do try to keep it to 2 cups a day (drinking water and tea the rest of the time).

On the bright side, my love of hot chocolate is significant enough that it motivates me to bike to the university - almost daily and even through rain. The bike ride helps me stay a bit more in shape and compensates for the extra calories from the hot chocolate. Furthermore, I tend to get less distracted when I'm working on the computers there, which is good for writing.

Hot chocolate has thus become a strange blessing: it has started to play an active role in helping me work better and harder on my dissertation.

02 December 2013

Transitioning into Advent

Last Sunday, Advent began. It is a time of looking forward to Jesus' coming, both his first coming at Christmas and his second coming. It is a time of longing for the goodness and rightness that is part of God's kingdom on earth. It is a time to see the injustices and imperfections found in this sinful world and know that with Christ's second coming, everything will be different. There will be no more death and sorrow, and there will also be no more poor, hungry, or lonely. Mary's song - the Magnificat - illustrates well how Christ's coming - both his first and his final coming - turns the world upside down.

When I describe it like this, I cannot help but ask why I am currently not more enthusiastic about Advent. Advent encourages us to tune our hearts more fully to the pain and suffering of the world, believing that Christ's coming makes a difference. Is this not the gospel at its core? How can I not be more excited about Advent then?

But somehow, my heart is distracted. Advent is about waiting and longing, and it feels like I have been waiting and longing for months already. And now, finally some of the wait seems over. The job I had applied for - the one that threatens to turn Matthijs and my life upside down (in a good way!)- is nearly finalized. The pain of my mother's death - a pain that is reflected in Advent's awareness of suffering and evils, such as cancer - feels like it is being overshadowed by the joy of moving closer to my family, a result of this new job. 

Perhaps Advent for me looks a bit different right now. It is less about waiting and more about becoming aware. About trying to be less distracted. About looking at the world around me and recognizing how much sin and evil have shaped the world so that it is not how it should be.
 I do not yet know how that will happen, but oftentimes it is through the asking of the question that one starts to find an answer.

26 November 2013

Sometimes Matthijs makes me laugh so hard

I think one of the most wonderful gifts of being married is growing better to understand each other's humour. Sometimes Matthijs says some things that just make me laugh so hard (or for several days). Here are a few examples:

After a potluck this past summer, Matthijs said that he knew exactly what food I had brought. I took it as a compliment, a sign of our knowing each other well and his appreciation of the food I make him. Actually he'd recognized it primarily by the cat hair in it.

When looking into things that he'd need to get a visa, Matthijs saw that he needed to show his birth certificate. "Birth certificate?!? I don't have one of those. We Dutch don't do that - we have proper administration here. Don't worry, though, I was born." (I must have been looking at him odd or he'd been spending too much going through websites of regulations).  

Last Sunday morning, we celebrated the anniversary (12.5 years) of a couple in the community. We've been running out of the liturgies at church in the last few weeks, so I mentioned to Matthijs that we should probably head out a bit earlier. Yet, when Matthijs was getting ready to leave 20 minutes before church started, I told him there was no way I was going to sit so long in that cold church. If he wanted to leave before quarter to, he was welcome to go ahead and save me a spot. He responded that it was so much more gezellig (pleasant) if I went with him. I, in turn, just looked at him funny. After all, I wasn't feeling all that wonderful and had spent much of the morning being grouchy and whiney - the exact opposite of gezellig thus. He simply responded by telling me that he would enjoy my company simply because of all the good gezellig moments we´d shared in the past. A compliment like that, so gracious and undeserving of my then current state of being, does a girl good. We left shortly thereafter, and only partly because our exchange had taken almost five minutes and I was now okay with leaving :)

Perhaps this post says more about my sense of humour than Matthijs's :). Yet, it's also my attempt to express how much I really appreciate how much joy and laughter we can bring each other and how I continue to be surprised and delighted by the person I married.

23 November 2013

A place to stay for the night

Sometimes a place to sleep for the night is the most basic and obvious need that people come to the community with. Sometimes it's also the hardest one to meet. We, as a community, do not provide temporary or crisis housing. It is not that there isn't a need, it is more that filling this need would be too hard for all of us. The stress and all the change - the uncertainty and unsafe feelings brought on by it - is too much for our small group, with its desire to have more of a family atmosphere, to handle.

But saying no to someone needy is hard, especially when it's the last of a whole string of 'no's that they have been hearing. Christine Pohl's book Making Room records a statement from, I believe, a Catholic worker about the necessity and difficulty of saying no. 'How can one, after all, deny hospitality to a guest and not show hospitality thus to this incarnation of Christ (cf. Matt 25)? Yet, would our hospitality to this new person cause us to be inshospitable to all the other incarnations of Christ who are already among us?' 

It is strange to think of hospitality as sometimes closing doors instead of opening them. It feels like hospitality is about accepting everyone we can and doing all we can. Yet, sometimes hospitality is more complicated than that - it is also about giving space and safety to others and then guarding and protecting it (also for ourselves). I think the book When helping hurts, a book I hope to read some day soon, also talks about how hospitality and help is often quite complicated.

Even if I believe that it is best sometimes to say no, to deny one person hospitality in order to be hospitable to another, it is still hard to do. I still remember the woman I had on the phone last summer. It was Friday night, she had children, she'd been set out of the house she'd been temporarily (illegally) subleasing, and she had nowhere to go. "How could I be so unkind as to deny her hospitality? How could I simply let her and her children sleep on the street?" And the answer is that I couldn't justify it, really. If she'd had a plan for where she'd go and who she'd talk to after the weekend, I would gladly have said we could have made it work for the weekend. But on Monday we closed down, and we were all pretty exhausted. Over the phone she was doing her best to manipulate me to help her and becoming angrier as I refused to offer the hospitality she was looking for and thought she deserved. It felt that it could not be good to be so ungracious; after all, we had empty rooms and people available, at least in the weekend, to welcome and help her. How could I be so unreasonable? Yet, I believed that a different kind of hospitality was better, that of being hospitable to those in the community who did not have the energy to minister to her as they had said yes to so many others this past year and were now trying to rest and recuperate. But for this woman, it was still a no. Even if it was better, it was not good.

People will say that extending hospitality is hard, but I had not entirely expected this kind of hard: the hard of saying no, of choosing one kind of hospitality over another.

13 November 2013

Advice on talking to strange men in the Red Light District

Last night while I was walking home around dinner time, some man on a bike stopped and started talking to me. I was tired and hungry, and my first thought was 'Really? Do we really have to have this conversation now?' Because even if it's been awhile since I've been randomly stopped on the street by a strange man, the conversations tend to proceed in a similar way.

The following is a rough idea of yesterday's conversation.
him: Hi. How are you?
me: Fine.
Can I ask you a question?
Sure.
What's your name, by the way?
Brenda
oh, let me introduce myself: I'm David. What was your name again?
Brenda. 
I'm from Amsterdam. Where are you from?
Amsterdam.
I've been here for six years. How about you?
seven years.
I'm from Ghana, by the way.
I'm from Canada.
oh, but you speak very good Dutch.
Thanks. I live with Dutch people. And I married a Dutch man.
And you're still with him?
Yes.
Okay. bye.

I don't really understand these conversations. And yesterday's conversation even less. I was more unfriendly than usual (sometimes I do smile at others - simply because I like seeing people smile back), and my clothing (blue jeans, old coat, glasses, sport shoes) indicated fairly clearly that I was not interested in attracting any male attention.

What I do know about these conversations is that the sooner I can mention I am happily married, the sooner the conversation will be over. I guess I could also just say at the beginning that I'm not interested, which I did sometimes do, but that seems less gracious. Besides, I kind of like the challenge of showing that one can be friendly without wanting something out of it.

Before I was married, the conversations could get a bit long, probably because the men didn't know how to respond to my offer to come in and have coffee. They had obviously shown interest in me and seemed like they wanted to know me better. Yet, they weren't expecting that kind of hospitality, and surely not having to come have coffee with me in the common room (shared by the 50 or so people I live with). So, the conversation would drag on while the poor man tried to understand what kind of hospitality I was actually offering and then try to come up with a reason why he suddenly had to leave....

08 November 2013

Praying for cars

Although I have been known to pray for cats, the title here is not a typo. And the prayer was slightly more complicated than the "please help me find a parking spot" type for which Christians are sometimes made fun of.

During our trip to Canada, I borrowed my father's car. Although most of the time I was using it to visit friends and family, I also had a couple of appointments and some errands to run. While Matthijs had run into a bookstore to pick up some books, I stayed in the car to pull something off my computer to print off. I was a bit stressed and  not so organised, so my communication skills were not working at their best. While Matthijs was happily browsing the unexpected section of superdiscounted books, thinking he had lots of time while I actually ran my errand, I was sitting in the car wondering why he didn't return faster so I could get on with the errand. Knowing myself and Matthijs as I do, it seemed wise to go meet/find him instead of getting more impatient in the car. We sorted out the miscommunication and returned to the vehicle ready to head off to the next stop.

Except the car wouldn't start. I couldn't get the key to turn.

This isn't the first time I'd borrowed the car, so I did remember my father having once mentioned something about what to do if this ever happened. But I had no idea what it was. And so I sat there trying not to panic and trying to figure out how to start the car. I started praying pretty quick. We pulled out the car manual. We could find nothing. Calling my father was an option, but with international (dutch) cell phone rates at about 10 dollars a minute, and no idea where a payphone was, it was more of a last resort than the obvious thing to do.

Matthijs suggested I go into the bookstore to see if anyone could help me. I approached a gentleman my father's age and one of the cashiers. Neither was familiar with the problem. Nor did they have any idea how to help me. I returned to the car, still praying.

We'd now been trying to fix the problem for 15 minutes. The schedule for the day was a bit tight, and I was beginning to get a bit nervous about how it'd all work out. I was thus very much hoping that God would answer my "I'm beginning to get desperate" prayers sooner rather than later.

As I was sitting in the driver's seat feeling helpless, a young college student came up to the car. He had heard my question in the bookstore and thought perhaps he knew what to do. He had spent the summer working at a rental car place and was familiar with the situation where the key wouldn't turn. Some wiggling of the steering wheel and the key, and the car started. He explained that I'd probably jostled the steering wheel too often while it was off, and this had locked up the system. I, meanwhile, was doing my best not to burst out in hallelujahs and kiss the young man (Matthijs would have understood). Instead, I merely thanked him profusely. And I thanked God for answered prayer and the unexpected joy of once again getting to experience the kindness of strangers.

05 November 2013

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (2)

I was taught that parables often contain a surprise, which is often harder to recognize the more often that one hears something.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the meaning seems obvious: pray like the tax collector and not the Pharisee. But what if I neither the tax collector nor the Pharisee has it right? Or, even stranger, has it all wrong?

Last week, a preacher mentioned that both the Pharisee and tax collector had to learn from each other. I'm not sure exactly how the preacher continued that thought, but the idea of learning from each other set me to thinking. My thoughts turned quickly to wondering if there was something unexpected in the parable that I had been missing.

So I began with asking if the meaning wasn't quite so simple. Could perhaps the tax collector have it wrong?!? The humility and simplicity part seems obviously right. But what about his continuing to be a tax collector? What good does humility do if one continues to sin? Perhaps the Pharisee thus has something right: he recognizes sin and does not wish it for himself. Further, he does his best to practice a lifestyle that is designed to bring him closer to God. The judgement and pride are blatantly wrong, but the Pharisee should not be so easily written off. As many Christians (especially those without sensational conversion stories) can identify with the Pharisee, that is a hopeful thought.

03 November 2013

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The gospel reading last week was from Luke 18: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus tells of how a Pharisee is praying in the temple, thanking God for how he is not like the sinners and naming all that he has done well. The tax collector, on the other hand, merely asks for God's grace on him as a sinner.

The meaning seems obvious: pray like the tax collector and not the Pharisee.

But who actually prays like the Pharisee? I doubt any of us have ever heard anyone publicly praying like that, although perhaps churches who are convinced they are the only true church might do this. At the same time, I know that I have looked down on others, thinking I am better than them. And then I "christianize" my pride by adding thankfulness to it! Being able to recognize that side of the Pharisee in myself is startlingly, but, I pray, also healthy.

And it's not like I list all the good I do. But sometimes I do have the sense that I should earn certain things. Perhaps my strongest memory of that is after I returned from teaching in Ukraine. I had spent 2 years of my life in the middle of nowhere, living with language and cultural difficulties, working crazy long weeks, receiving and being able to attain very few material extra's. They were wonderful years, and I am deeply thankful for having been able to dedicate so much energy to living out my Christian life and being a witness to others. At the same time, they were hard years, and I felt that, since I had given so much to God, I deserved some good things back. And what did I believe I deserved most? A husband. I was conveniently at a place where there were significant single males (seminary), so God didn't even need to work that hard. It took me almost six months to recognize how I'd sub-consciously made this deal with God and how, because of that, I was rather angry at Him.

And the tax-collector? How many of us simply say we're sorry, whether it be to God or others? It feels so much better to give an excuse, blame someone or something else, or to justify ourselves.

It surprised me, after spending some time dwelling on this parable, how much I had to learn from it. The obvious meaning of praying with humility is a lot less easy to do in reality, especially when I stop trying to list all the good I do and start realizing how imperfect I actually am.

02 November 2013

If you could dress up like your favourite saint...

Matthijs and I sometimes have odd conversations. The most recent was a result of my asking about who he'd want to dress up as if he could dress up as his favourite saint. The following is what came up as a result of that question:
- George (the one who killed the dragon to rescue the virgins) would be a good fit for me. Jerry, my cat, could play the dragon. He qualifies as a (small) terror, and we could successfully cage him. The only challenge is how much noise he might make in his cage.
- I would be okay with the wife of Luther. She seems like she was independant and opinionated enough for me to like her.
- Being opinionated also characterizes Luther well. Did you know there's a Luther insult generator: http://ergofabulous.org/luther/
- I think I'd also like Clare, who I recently read started both a female and a male monastery. 
- Matthijs is not entirely convinced I'd make a good Mother Theresa - most likely related to my over-appreciation of stubborn-ness in saints (thus perhaps Dorothy Day is a better fit?)
- what about Bonatius (sorry, Bonifatius), the saint who got killed by the (pagan) Frisians, after cutting down their sacred tree? (Matthijs was all for that one, although only after he corrected me on his exact name)?
- what about Theresa of Avila? of Saint Catharine?
- saints are actually kind of boring to dress up like. After all, they all kind of look the same (because of the monastic habits).
- would cross-dressing be okay if one was dressing up like a saint? Some of the best ones seem to be from the other gender.
- maybe I should blog this conversation....

And that just gives you a glimpse of another evening conversation at the Kronemeijers.

25 October 2013

Prostitution and human trafficking (4)

An unexpected comment on my last post about prostitution and human trafficking helped me see that I hadn't expressed myself on this subject as clearly or as fully as I had wanted to. That is perhaps not so surprising. It is hard to communicate well the evil of human trafficking while also proclaiming the value of the women working in prostitution. Mixed in with that is my own sadness about the reality of prostitution - about the assumptions we as a society have made about sex and prostitution - and an even deeper sadness that people have been pushed into prostitution, some more forcefully than others.

Human (sex) trafficking is most simply defined as participating in exploiting another person through (threat of) force, fraud, deception, or abduction (see wikipedia). The trafficker usually makes a lot of money doing so, but can also participate in trafficking in order to receive special services or gain power.

There are those working in prostitution who have been trafficked, even in a place as highly regulated as the Red Light District in Amsterdam. No one knows the numbers: they range from a few women to 90 percent of them. People can't even agree on what it means to have been forced. Because of this, it often becomes an all or nothing conversation: prostitution is pretty much the same as human trafficking, or prostitution is only incidentally related to human trafficking. I reject both views because they do not take seriously either the evil of human trafficking or the messiness of prostitution.

If you equate prostitution with human trafficking, you run into problems whenever any prostitutes claim that they are doing this out of their own free will. Either you have to believe these prostitutes are all lying or you run the risk of thinking that human trafficking can't be really as bad as people make it out to be. Thinking that prostitution has nothing to do with human trafficking makes you ignore the reality that prostitution is one of the most ideal forms of trafficking: there's money to be made as a woman can be "sold" over and over again, those renting the windows can make a lot of money and thus can potentially be influenced (and a woman forced into prostitution is ideal in that she's not going to cause difficulties about whether she gets receipts for the rent or enough days off), people look down on prostitutes, and prostitution is private (so the clients can often get away with doing harm to the women). Add to this that it's very difficult to prove human trafficking, partly because of the risks and traumas involved in testifying. And the punishment in the Netherlands is still shockingly low.

In light of this, I pray and hope that (legalised) prostitution stops being such an ideal breeding ground for human trafficking. The best way I know how to help is to pray. I am also thankful for the work of the many organisations who do their best to encourage and support the women behind the windows here in Amsterdam (e.g., the vrouwenpastoraat of the Salvation Army). Alongside of this I want to raise questions about how prostitution, as it is now set up, makes the women more likely to be taken advantage of by others. I hope and pray that others will join me in asking about questions of justice and praying for the women involved in prostitution, especially those who feel helpless and/or have been trafficked.

24 October 2013

The future of the CRC

Not so long ago, I sat around the table with a bunch of people involved in a Christian Reformed Campus ministry. Much to my delight, we started talking about matters of faith. I discovered that one was searching for community back home, another met God in music, still another wasn't so sure what to say about his faith, another had a history of addiction, another was passionate about having others get to know the hope and strength he had found in God, still another mentioned how faith had changed from being a duty to something more vibrant and living.

Several of these group had not grown up connected to any kind of church. None of them had grown up in the CRC nor had they been looking for the Christian Reformed Church. Yet somehow (even through some of those funny God coincidences like mis-hearing the name of the church), they ended up as part of a Christian Reformed Campus ministry. Someone joked that this unexpected community was the future of the CRC. And that made me smile - because I believe the CRC would do well if these fascinating, intelligent and enthusiastic group are part of her future. It'd be good if some 'old', grown-up-in-the-church types also were part of it, too. I hope that the CRC is a place where these people - new folk and old - can feel at home and continue to flourish.

23 October 2013

Ode to my bike

Although I have had more than enough things to write about, I haven't had enough time to sort them all out and wite about them. Hopefully I'll be able to do that soon, including sharing a few thoughts about the last 2 weeks which I spent with Matthijs in North America.

Until then, however, I direct you to a recent (fun) article I wrote for catapult magazine.

Ode to my bike

Seven years ago I bought my first real bike. It’s not that I’d never had one before; it’s just that this one was different. It was an oma bike, the 100-euro, black, banged-up version that one should ride wearing a skirt and heels. It was love at first sight. Or almost. It was love after I managed to figure out how not to fall off when I braked (back-peddling!).

To read the rest (don't worry - it's short!), I encourage you to go to catapult's own website.

Special thanks to my friend Kristin who took the picture of me biking during a visit to a nature preserve.

14 October 2013

Neighbours keeping an eye on me

The other evening when I left the house rather late, one of the neighbours chided me that I shouldn't be gone long. Not so long before that, one of the neighbours saw me coming back early Sunday evening and wondered where I'd been. I hadn't been out with another man, had I? I laughed and said I was actually in church. And just the other day, there was a group of people forming in front of my house around a small child, concerned about where his mother was (his father came walking down the street as I arrived).

I'm not entirely sure if I like nosy neighbours, but at the same time, I've appreciated this social control from my neighbours. I like people who get involved when things seem to be wrong. I like having people who can tease me or make jokes about whether I'm behaving as we think I should. It shows an interest in me and an appreciation of our being neighbours. And I think this awareness of each other and friendly joking is part of what I'd ideally see neighbours as being.

The surprising part of the story is, of course, my neighbourhood. I have odd neighbours. The question about my being out late was from one of the homeless guys who hangs out beside my house. The question about being out with a guy was from the prostitute a few doors down. The group around the small child were young tourists. All of these are from groups that most of us expect to be very much not concerned about those who live here. Yet, somehow these groups of people - people who don't even live here and who frustrate or annoy many residents - have been the ones teaching me what it means to be a good neighbour.

12 October 2013

Human trafficking, prostitution, and me (3)

There are a number of reasons that I am uncomfortable with equating prostitution with human trafficking

It seems to play with the numbers and understanding of "unwilling" and "being forced" so that anyone doing sex work is seen as a victim. Any woman who might argue that she is okay with what she does, even might enjoy certain aspects of it, and/or is willing to do this out of love/care for another is thus considered to be lying or too traumatized/indoctrined. We, those striving against human trafficking, know better than she does. And her voice and self is irrelevant except in as far as she can receive (and accept) help. I personally find this view simplistic of all the complicated aspects of prostitution. More so, it does not seem to value those in prostitution as being fully persons: imago Dei. 
 
Linking human trafficking with prostitution also feels like an argument used by well meaning Christians to convince non-Christians, who won't necessarily see prostitution as being against God's good order, to see prostitution as an evil - and thus to join us in fighting against it. I very much believe prostitution is not part of God's ideal, but then shouldn't we be fighting to make things better for the women now here instead of women we imagine are suffering?

Those who have met and talked to the women and who have listened at least some of their stories know that things are not simple. Human trafficking certainly happens, but it is often a strange mixture of bad choices, lack of a future, concern/care/love for others, cohersion and violence, poor regulations, and (country/land) corruption. Sin and evil play a significant role.

I have spent two years meeting bi-weekly with various prostitutes. None has ever told me she was being trafficked or pimped out, although a few have mentioned that they experienced it in the past. At the same time, I have lost count of how many have told me that have been mistreated by clients or those whom they rent their windows from. They feel unsafe - the rent they pay and the alarm bell are no guarantee for help when needed. And so, they are open to alternative means of more effective protection: in other words, a pimp might not be worse that what they know experience.

It seems easy to talk about how we want to stop human trafficking - after all, who wouldn't support that? Yet, it is much more difficult to talk about how we, as Christians, love the women as they now are and as they now experience the world, amidst all the difficulties of now. Amidst the pain of not making ends meet. Amidst not understanding all of the strange regulations (that are only found in Dutch) - and the poor treatment they receive when they try to understand things better, whether it be on account of language, nationality or profession. Amidst not having anyone to tell their story to of how a client tried to force them to have sex without a condom. No one to reinterpret their story to say that that was rape, even if the police won't file a report since "it's your job." Amidst the pain of feeling like they have so little choice - where else can they find somewhere else to make enough money to pay the rent and still send some home? And then, on top of that, not being seen or heard by those who claim to come help?

Perhaps there is also the difficulty of a pimp or trafficking in the midst of all those other pains and difficulties. However, until many of those other pains and worries - from the necessity of making enough to make ends meet and stay safe in the midst of this crazy world to simply being seen and appreciated as a worthwhile person - until these things are addressed, human trafficking is just a strange political word that has little more effect on these women's day-to-day reality than a cup of coffee brought by some well-meaning worker.

10 October 2013

A death gone relatively unnoticed

If a woman working as a prostitute tragically dies, it is likely related to the work that she does for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is a question of money - prostitutites are expected to make a lot and have a lot of cash available. Perhaps it is a crazy who finds it easier to harm those who are looked down in society and/or whom he considers to be less human. Perhaps it is a problem of relationship, whether that be a difficulty with a partner (something that overcomes many women whatever their work or situation) or an unhealthy relationship related to the work (e.g., pimp or traffickers). Sometimes the tragedy is continued in the lack of acknowledgement of her death, as if the media has judged that people are not interested in hearing about her - unless it makes a sensational story (cf. the death from a number of years ago).

Through a number of informal sources, I have heard that a woman from Bulgaria working in prostitution, passed away in a fire about 2 weeks ago. I had heard about it first through a blog from Van der Beer, a boyfriend of a prostitute: Brand! This was then later confirmed by someone doing outreach/rescue work for prostituties: Frits Rouvoet. Others from the Salvation Army vrouwenpastoraat had also heard about her death, including that she had died from smoke inhalation.

The woman who passed away was relatively young and from Bulgaria. Statistically speaking, both her age and, more so, her nationality are stronger indicators that she may have been a victim of human trafficking. Her tragic death also raises questions about how freely she had been here working. Rouvoet has assumed the worst; whereas Van der Beer argues that his girlfriend knows that she was there freely. I don't know; I assume I didn't know her. And even if I met her via the Salvation Army vrouwenpastoraat, it is hard to learn all the factors that led her to working behind the window. I expect the only thing we can say with certainty is that she had come to the Netherlands in the hope of a better life, and that hope has died with her.

It makes me sad that her life has ended so soon, and that her death has generally been ignored. On the one hand, I am thankful that her work has not been used to make a sensation from her death. However, it also seems that she, through a lack of acknowledgement, has been treated as less worthy of the respect that I believe we ought to give all persons, irrelevant of nationality or work.

update: Shortly after publishing this, the police provided a report about her death on 25 September, indicating that she was the victim of a crime for whom they have arrested someone. The article (in Dutch): http://www.politie.nl/nieuws/2013/oktober/10/05-overleden-vrouw-bij-brand-door-misdrijf-om-het-leven-gebracht-verdachte-aangehouden.html 

07 October 2013

Can one create community?


As part of an intentional community, it feels that I should be more of an expert on what community is. Yet, when I came, the community had already existed for 50 years. Community was thus a reality when I arrived and not something that I helped create. At the same time, I am part of the community now, and my participation shapes the experience of community. A phrase I learned in my first month here describes this well: Community is different because you are here.

I don't know if one can actually create community, despite the best efforts of many church leaders, student organisations, and family members. One can certainly harm community: gossip, lying, negativity all damage the trust, safety, peace, and joy that are a part of being a community with each other. Yet, can one actually create community? Or is it rather that one can merely make room for community to happen? 

A shared space, a listening ear, laughter and fun, rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn, shared meals and worship - all of these are some of the ingredients for allowing community to happen. And there is hard work: fighting against the tendency to get caught up in our own worlds and with our own concerns. And it's hard to make space for people as they really are, especially those who are rather different. But at the same time, community doesn't need programs or an agenda. One of the greatest lessons I have learned about living in intentional community is how much sharing space and meals (and dishes) helps with growing to appreciate others and making room thus for a community to develop.

So one can make space for others, develop opportunities, and pray. By the grace of God, a sense of community will flourish. Chances are, however, that this community will not be exactly what we'd expected. How can it? Community is different with each person who is part of it. Shouldn't community be as full of surprises as the God who made all of these strange and unique people who are part of it?

30 September 2013

Human trafficking and prostitution (2)

A recent article in Trouw also raised questions about the unhealthy link between human trafficking and prostitution. It highlights that many countries have struggled with understanding best how to deal with these challenges. At the same time, it points out how the current situation in the Netherlands is problematic, partly because of the link made to human trafficking and moralizing how bad prostitution is. One of the difficulties is the lack of empowerment the women receive: a prostitute is often seen as a victim and has little ability to take control of her situation. On top of that, those owning the windows and brothels and so forth have too much power, making them more susceptible to exploitation and potentially taking advantage of or harming the women (as the recent situation in Utrecht illustrates).

26 September 2013

Human Trafficking, the Red Light District, Christians and me

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion in the Netherlands about human trafficking as being intimately connected with prostitution, including and especially in places like the Red Light District. For example, the political party I support, ChristenUnie, just participated in hosting a joint conference called, Een andere kijk op Prostitutie, (an other way of looking at prostitution).

I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure of what to make of the discussion, which even I find to be a strange reaction. I am, after all, against human trafficking. What Christian, or non-Christian for that matter, isn't against human trafficking?!? I have read numerous stories and news articles verifying both how real and how horrible trafficking is for those who are victims. I also believe that there are women in the Red Light District who have been pressured against their will to prostitute themselves, which I find deeply troubling, even more so as these are my physical neighbours. Furthermore, I'm against prostitution. As a Christian, I don't believe that prostitution is part of God's good intentions for sex, relationships, or how human beings ought to be treated.

So why is it that I feel so uncomfortable with the discussions about human trafficking and its link to prostitution?

Because it feels a bit like we're focusing on the wrong thing. It's not that human trafficking isn't horrible and evil, it's just there's so much more pain, evil, sadness, messiness and wrong involved in prostitution that has little to do with human trafficking. We have been, through talking about trafficking and not prostitution, avoiding asking difficult questions and having difficult conversations.

The best analogy I can think of is how Pope Francis has been in the news about how he isn't so hard-nosed about abortion or homosexuality. It's not that he isn't against abortion, it's just that in a world where there is so much messiness and sin, the message of abortion isn't what the world needs to hear. And when I think of those working in prostitution, I wonder if the focus on human trafficking hasn't been distracting us from the real message, that of proclaiming love and grace and human worth.

20 September 2013

Dissertation progress

I am deeply thankful that work on my dissertation has been progressing! My hope to hand some things in before the end of October seems to be attainable. I've completed several sections in chapter 3 that only need some revision before I can hand them in to my supervisor, and I've begun work on revisions in Chapter 1 so that I can hand that in to my second supervisor. That's not to say that Chapter 3 doesn't still have a lot of work that needs to be done on the other chapters in it. I'll be handing in something on Ezek 19, 23, 10, and 5, but I still need to do a lot of work on the section on chapters 3, 18 and 33, as well as chapters 36 and 1, of which I have no immediate "answers" for the problems and quite a bit of literature still to cover for ch.1.

There is thus much still left to be done, but as I have a much clearer idea of what that still is and how to go about doing it, this is a sign of (significant) progress. Focusing so much on it in August has helped give me momentum. It takes less effort to get into writing and revising every day, and it happens every day. Even though my primary task in life at the moment is writing this dissertation, it felt like there was often a lot of other things that would take over much of my time: from household things, to mails, to community things, to editing stuff, to who knows what. On top of that, there wasn't a sense of urgency and so I would also happily distract myself with numerous useless things throughout the day. Although the distracting myself part hasn't entirely gone away, it has been at least pushed back by my sense of duty and even joy in writing and working on the dissertation.

Sometimes it'd be nice to feel like I could just work on it ALL THE TIME until it gets done. Eat, drink and sleep questions of cohesion in the book of Ezekiel. It would then at least be done and sooner! Yet, trying to devote all my time to my dissertation isn't sustainable on a long term basis, at least not unless I choose actively to temporarily give up other important things in my life: community, volunteering with Salvation Army, supporting Matthijs more through running the household. And I'm not willing to do that. But choosing to devote so much time and energy to it for awhile has also been a blessing - the push I needed to move towards the finish. The hope is that at the end of December I'll have a good first draft by my supervisors....

I'll try to keep the update on the side of this blog regularly updated, so you can be updated (and pray along with me) about its progress. And since it feels like it's going well, you can now finally ask again how the dissertation is going without worrying about whether this is actually a painful question :) I am truly thankful for all the interest and the support I receive.

16 September 2013

Biblical characters as neither fully good or bad

One of the things that continutes to fascinate me about many of the Old Testament narratives is how often something unexpected happens (at least, as unexpected as things can be if you've read the Bible numerous times). 2 Chronicles 22-24, the story of king Joash, is one such example. 

The story begins with Ahaziah, son of Jehoram, becoming king of Judah. He was an evil king, listening to bad counselors, including his mother Athaliah. After only reigning a year, his downfall was ordained. He was killed by Jehu since he was of house of Ahaz. Ahaziah was buried on account of his being "the grandson of Jehoshaphat, who sought the Lord with all his heart.” (22:9) There was no obvious successor to the throne and so Athaliah, Ahaziah's mother, took over. She subsequently attempted to kill her son's entire family: she "set about to destroy all the royal family of the house of Judah." (22:10). However, Jehoshabeath, the king’s sister, managed to rescue her nephew Joash. She and her husband - priest Jehoiada - hid him while Athaliah reigned over the land. Seven years later, Jehoiada "took courage" (23:1) and helped organize a revolt of which the Levites played a significant role. Joash was crowned king and anointed. Athaliah was ruthlessly put to death. Jehoiada then "made a covenant between himself and all the people and the king that they should be the Lord’s people."(23:16). The house of Baal was desecrate, and its priests killed. Because of this, "all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been killed with the sword." (23:23). Furthermore, "Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of the priest Jehoiada." (24:2). 
  
Up to this point, the story seems like a classical variation on the themes of God punishing evil and bringing good to those whom he loves (i.e., his followers, including the house of David). Except for the excessive blood and guts part, it seems to be an ideal 'Sunday School' story. After all, it is full of morals - and both Joash and the priest Jehoiada - seem like ideal examples. Except that this is not the end of the story, and both the king and the priest hardly remain examples to follow. Jehoiada is the first to disappoint us. 

Joash decided early on his reign to restore the house of LORD, and commanded the priests and Levites to go "out to the cities of Judah and gather money from all Israel to repair the house of your God, year by year; and see that you act quickly.” (24:5). However, nothing quick happened (2 Kings 12 reports that nothing had happened by the 23rd year of Joash's reign). So Joash reprimanded Jehoiada for not getting the Levites to act quickly. Joash himself then gave the command that everyone should "bring in for the Lord the tax that Moses the servant of God laid on Israel in the wilderness." (24:9). 

The response to that command indicates the seriousness of what Jehoiada had allowed to happen. Money came in abundance. In fact, "All the leaders and all the people rejoiced and brought their tax and dropped it into the chest until it was full." (24:10). And so the temple was repaired. Yet, even as much as Jehoiada had been neglectful in following the LORD, his sins were nothing compared to those of Joash. 

"They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols." (24:19). The LORD sent prophets, but they would not listen - not even to Zechariah son of Jehoiada. In fact, "by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord." (24:21) Thus Joash killed his cousin, the son of those who had shown kindness to him by rescuing him from certain death and placing him on the throne. Joash eventually suffered defeat at the hands of a much smaller army because God acted on behalf or the Aramties. Having been left severely wounded by the battle, Joash's servants then killed him on his bed (because of the death of Jehoiada's son). They buried him in Jerusalem but not in the tombs of the kings.

It is a sad story, and one that I find a bit unnerving. It seems disconcerting that this child saved from certain death would turn against the LORD who had saved him and with whom he made a covenant - and then also against the family of his protectors and saviours. It is a story that seems unfit for Sunday School lessons. At the same time, it is the story of our ancestors in faith and rejecting God is hardly something that only Joash has chosen to do.

06 September 2013

Angels watching over us

Yesterday evening, fire trucks stood outside the main house of the community. Smoke and a stench was coming out of a crawlhole from the old chapel to the courtyard. The heat seemed to have melted something, but thankfully it was quickly noticed and the firemen came to check it out.

Such an annoucement seems almost too dull to make, let alone something for which we should be extra thankful. After all, is this not simply the fire brigade doing what they are good at? Something which the children of the community can be impressed by, but nothing that was really all that serious?

Except it was a hot summer. A hot summer in which many afternoons passed when very few people were in the house, and long evenings in which no one was really near the courtyard, let alone spending enough time there to recognize a smell as something other than the afterglow of someone's barbecue. So why and how is it that during all the crazy heat of this past summer that the melting only happened now when the house was full and able to notice that something was wrong? I don't know. Grace, I would answer most simply. God's angels continue to watch over us, for which we are all thankful.

31 August 2013

Vacation is sweeping away the clutter

It is my third full day now in the mountains of western Austria. And a feeling of rest is slowly seeping into my soul. How exactly I'm not sure. Even while climbing a mountain and enjoying the beautiful scenery, I was often restless and preoccupied, as if my soul was unable to let go of the busyness and pressures of normal life. But now more time has passed, I have gotten to do what I had hoped when coming here (climb a mountain or two :)), I have worked away some of the things on my to-do list, which had been pressuring and distracting me, I have finished a book and a half, and spent time talking with God.

In other words, the clutter that fills my life has been pushed away for awhile, for which I am thankful. All the ought-to-be-done things have been swept aside for a time, and I may simply be. Given space to listen to my heart and listen to God. And simply enjoy the blessings I have - a friend who allowed me to come here, and a husband who pushed me to go (to name only a few).   

The following pictures give a bit of an indication of the natural blessing around me (taken during my walk yesterday morning)




27 August 2013

And "normal" life goes on

Sometimes I wonder what happened to my normal life. Or better said, how did my "normal" get to be so strange? The obvious answer: well, I made a couple of choices. In so doing, I did my best to listen to God and listen to my heart. And that resulted in a life in a community in the Red Light District of Amsterdam married to a Catholic who's crazy about singing and ecumenicalism. Oh, and I'm also writing a dissertation (cause I love the Bible). I think that pretty much accounts for most of the odd-ness of my life.

But some days, mostly on the days when I'm writing too many emails or my to-do-list is too long, or I'm biking through the streets with too many bad drivers/bikers/pedestrians, I long for a different kind of normal. The boring kind of normal, I mean. The kind of life where I don't call up the number on the rental truck to complain about it being illegally parked in front of my neighbour's window and preventing her from doing her work as a prostitute.

And yet, that other normal is not my life. And I didn't actually have to call. But this woman is my neighbour, and i believe she ought to be treated with respect, and so I want to help her. And I was thankful to receive her gratitude and to see her smile as I joked about how much he should have been charged for those 20 minutes of parking...

My life is also the joy of having a friend of Matthijs visit from Germany and on Friday spend half the day biking north of Amsterdam and later that day attend an opera with my father-in-law and brother-in-law, to be followed by dinner in the community and their attending chapel with us. And then spend the rest of the weekend with people in the community, getting to share a little bit of their lives for at least awhile, encourage them and also be encouraged by all those who came and helped out.

And in two days, I'll be hanging out in mountains - just a friend and a (long) train ride away. Which is another way for me to say: I am truly thankful for this odd life of mine where normal sometimes asks more of me than I'd like but also gives me more than I could have ever dreamed of.

22 August 2013

What do true (Christian) conservatives/orthodox think?

I was reading through an article awhile ago about how (Dutch) Catholics have been responding to Pope Franciscus. For those not aware of the Dutch situation, many Dutch Catholics would be considered more liberal than the average Catholic in the rest of the world. This reflects the reality that the Dutch, in general, are more liberal than the rest of the world. The interview itself was with Frank G. Bosman and found on the nieuw wij (new we) website.

Skimming along, I bumped into the following statement (see below for the Dutch):
"Liberal and middle-of-the-road Catholics are very happy with the new pope, as he brings hope for a new future to Catholics who've been plagued by scandals and internal fights here in the Netherlands. However, the truly conservative Catholics in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) are less happy with him. He focuses less on liturgy, says nothing about abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality unless it's absolutely necessary (because he has more important things to deal with)... "

This last line stopped me immediately. Perhaps because I'm Protestant and spend a lot of time reading the Bible. And not saying a lot about abortion, euthanasia or homosexuality sounds a lot like Jesus - and the Bible in general. It's not that there's nothing to say, just proportionately so many other things in the Bible get a much higher priority, like loving God with all your heart, doing justice, not being greedy, pretentious or hard-hearted. Being seen as somebody who is more focused on the most important things of the Bible - and even more so, is so busy living those things out that talking about it does not always feel appropriate - is not only something that I am thankful to see in the new pope, it is also a compliment that I would be very honoured to receive.  


 
The Dutch translation of Frank Bosman's statement is as follows, as taken from the article, "Echt conservatieve katholieken zijn minder blij met de paus" 30 July 2013: "Van vrijzinnig tot gematigd conservatieve katholieken zijn bijzonder blij met deze nieuwe paus. Het nieuwe elan dat hij in woord en vooral ook in daad uitstraalt, geeft de door schandalen en interne ruzies geplaagde Nederlandse katholieken een nieuwe horizon en hoop op een nieuwe tijd. De echt conservatieve katholieken in Nederland (en daarbuiten trouwens) zijn minder blij met deze paus. Hij is wars van liturgische en ceremoniĆ«le tierlantijnen, spreekt met geen woord over abortus, euthanasie en homohuwelijk als dat niet strikt noodzakelijk is (want hij heeft belangrijkere zaken aan zijn hoofd) en is vrijwel zeker niet geĆÆnteresseerd in het herstellen van de oude, Tridentijnse liturgie en de bijbehorende achterhaalde triomfalistische theologie."

20 August 2013

Changing the colours in the chapel (part 2)

What began yesterday as a discussion about changing the colours in the chapel ended up in a rather lengthy diversion on the complications of finishing a PhD (and more so, being married to someone who is doing that). And so we return to the original topic - and Matthijs's thoughts about it:

"But of course that was not the topic of this blog. Changing the colours in the chapel, however, is. This is something Brenda used to do in the past and sometimes still does. Last Friday morning I (Matthijs) had a go at it (and Brenda really quite appropriately reminded me, since I had promised the person who now has this task that one of us would do it).  
note from Brenda: I was willing to do it, I just hadn't timed getting ready in the morning well, and so it was actually a bit uncertain if I'd be able to manage to have it done before chapel started - so I was glad Matthijs offered to do something that is technically still one of my tasks in the community!

Our community of Oudezijds 100 has the charming custom of honouring the holy days of the blessed virgin Mary by hanging up blue curtains instead of the green ones that are usual for this season. That was for last Thursday, the day of the Assumption (or Dormition for the Orthodox). And so on Friday morning I had to change them back to green. I found out that in typical Oudezijds100 fashion, the changing of the curtains is less easy than it looks, since the system is old and crappy, and the curtains very easily slide off their rails so you have to redo them. So it took a bit longer than expected. And then the person who was supposed to do chapel didn’t show up, so I ended up doing chapel too, with minimal time for reflection about prayer themes, and not even time to read the Bible reading beforehand. 
 
So, chapel was a bit improvised. The reading was a surprise to all of us, since it was from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom, and I do not think I or anyone else had ever read it before. But I was happy about doing chapel anyways. One of the good things of our chapel service is that you can bring out what you like to sing, according to your own tradition, and to pray for what preoccupies you most. The key to doing chapel is, for me, being prepared to offer some something of your own spiritual life and concerns in prayer, and for the rest to keep track of the time and the liturgical frame. It brings out something of the original calling we all have, as Christians. Every Christian is a born follower of Christ, but in the same sense also a born leader, as when leading a simple prayer service. Fulfilling this role brings me back to something I feel called to be. Which is something to be grateful for." 

19 August 2013

Changing the colours in the chapel (and learning to communicate)

"Hello, this is Matthijs writing a guest blog. Brenda has been working on her PhD thesis for the past few weeks, which is now in the critical phase, and that means lots of other things move down on the priority list. Including this blog. This is why news has been scanty for a while now. 
 
For those of you who have no experience with completing PhD theses or anything of the sort (or spouses trying to do so): this is not fun. Almost everyone gets thoroughly fed up with their topic, having already spent years working on it. Writing up a defensible academic line of argument proves harder than expected. Supervisors are not always available for guidance or are not even interested any more. And, now that the end product slowly comes into view, matters that seemed less important now become more urgent. How will people react to the finished thesis? Will it be academically acceptable? Will it make any difference at all, and what comes next? In sum: will it have been worth all this effort, when the sun is shining outside and the grass is green, or have I been mad to start it all?
 
For all these reasons, in such situations spouses AND friends and family should be ready to offer support when they can, or disappear from the scene when they are standing in the way. Just so you know. In my personal case, the attitude that is required involves, among other things, understanding that what appears to be Brenda’s personal to-do list lying on the table is not in effect Brenda’s personal to-do list but mine as well, without being told so; and graciously accepting a bout of undiluted grouchiness when I do not appear to fulfil the tasks mentioned on the list, even though there did not seem to be any particular urgency to them."

from Brenda: Blogging was on the do list - and I wasn't expecting Matthijs to do that! but I'm really glad he did. It's been good to get to see things from his perspective. I hadn't meant to make it a communal to-do list - well, sort of - but it was more to make clear in my head what I wanted to be done and not so much a "you, Matthijs, need to do this" list. But, as Matthijs clearly points out, I didn't exactly communicate what was perfectly clear in my head. And I think that this learning to communicate well - especially knowing what is perfectly clear in my head but would be very much not obvious to the other - has been one of the greatest challenges of being married. At the same time, it has probably been one of the most important things I've learned. 

And as for the PhD, well, the stress is mostly related to my wanting to get it done, and NOW! Perhaps another day I'll write about that but for now I'll go back to working on the dissertion. I have a week left of working hard! (And tomorrow more on changing the colours in the chapel.) 

11 August 2013

So where did you go on vacation?

The question of where one has gone on vacation is pretty standard here. Most people, after all, go away sometime in the summer during the school vacations. I, too, have been asked the question numerous times in the last while. The problem is that I have no idea how to answer.

It is not that we have not gone away this summer - we've been to Paris, Norway, east Germany, and, de Veluwen. Matthijs has also been to Lourdes (France), Hamburg, and Durham. Furthermore, I still have a trip to Austria planned at the end of this month (Matthijs is possibly in Berlin then). Each of these places has brought with it new impressions and positive experiences, which has been good. Yet, this travelling hasn't really felt like vacation.

Vacation for me is reading too many books, going for long walks or bike trips, finishing up old projects and  spending long evenings talking, drinking and eating. Travelling and new places, exciting as they might be, are thus not always conducive for my feeling like I've had vacation. At the same time, there's been a lot of moments this summer that have meant extra rest and extra fellowship. And slowly the feeling of vacation has begun to come over me. A few more bike rides, hiking in Austria, more hard work on the dissertation project of August, and a few more evenings on our roof terrace - and I think I will be ready for the new season (although perhaps not until 2 September). And I'm even beginning to look forward to it :)

The following are a few pictures to give an impression of our summer:
One of the places we visited in Norway.



Two of the beautiful windows found in Bremen, Germany.

On the bright side, at least my cat has been having a great vacation! He's had a friend in house for half the summer, and he's had lots of chance to do what I consider to be the best part of vacation - spending extra time resting and hanging out with friends.

21 July 2013

I was a stranger, and you did not let me in.

I sometimes help with welcoming/ushering in the Oudekerk. We usually do it in a team of two, where one person readies the books and liturgies (bulletins), while the other person stands at the door. The one at the door both welcomes those coming to church but also tries to keep the majority of the tourists out.

I haven't always liked standing at the door. Repeating the phrase "are you here for the church service?" fifty times before church isn't exactly conducive to getting ready to worship. Furthermore, preventing people from entering a church feels distinctly un-welcoming, more so considering that theologically and practically speaking the church is just the place where people ought to be the most welcome!

But slowly I have learned to see standing at the door as a place of welcome, especially to all those looking to meet God. To the members of the congregation, the welcome is a simple smile and/or a few words exchanged. For those visiting, it is a reassurance that yes, this is the right entrance, and they are very welcome. For those indicating that they simply want to admire good architecture, I let them know that they are welcome to return during visiting hours. Although it feels strange to tell someone that they are not now welcome in the church, I know that I am doing so in order to be more welcoming to those who have come to meet God. Many tourists before and during the service can be distracting and hindering for worship, especially if they seem to be unaware of churches as anything other than beautiful historical buildings. Many then turn aside and make new plans, yet others ask for just a few minutes or time to pray. Turning these people aside is something I find hard - and I am thankful that as a church we've felt more freedom in being able to welcome this group. Most of the time - assuming the group is not so big, the church service has not begun, and we seem to understand each other's expectations - I then welcome them for a short period into part of the church.

But then there are those coming who claim to want to attend the church service but about whom I have my doubts. Some I let in quite easily, while others I question and do not let them immediately pass - especially if they are almost late or with a large group. At the same time, I do not want keep those out who have truly come to worship. And my judgment of who actually has come for the service is not always accurate, as this morning's service reminded me. Of the 20 or so people I let in who did not appear dressed for church or likely to be there for worship, more than the half stayed for and participated in much of the service. For me, it is a gentle reminder to be more open and welcoming to the stranger, as God may be working in her/him in ways that I can not recognize or immediately expect.

18 July 2013

4 weeks, 4 churches, 4 languages

In the past four weeks, I have managed to go to four different churches in four different languages in four different countries.

- 23 June - the local french Catholic church in St. Cloud (Paris) with our Bed and Breakfast host,
- 30 June - the local Vrijgemaakt church (close to the Free Reformed or Canadian Reformed Churches in Canada) in Amsterdam,
- 7 July - the local Norwegian church near Gyerstad, Norway with the community while on retreat together,
- 14 July - a local german Evangelical Lutheran church in Flensborg, Germany with Matthijs on the way home from the retreat.

The only similarility between all these churches is that they were all the most local church in the areas we were on the Sundays in question. And they were all filled with ordinary people desiring to worship God, and with whom we were more than welcome to join in worshipping. I did so with thankfulness, albeit not always with a lot of awareness (Matthijs is much better with spoken languages than I am).

The irony, of course, is that even though I've managed to worship in four different languages these past four weeks, I somehow missed the most obvious language: English. But -  next Sunday (and the Sunday after that), Matthijs will cover that for me during his trip to England. Thus for Matthijs the score of churches at this moment is not simply 4-4-4 - but four going on five.... (and I get to go to my local home church - the Oudekerk :))

02 July 2013

Church shopping?!? Searching for what I've been missing

"Church shopping" has always bothered me. It seems to suggest that church is about meeting my needs, as it is often about finding a church that best fits what I want and has the programs and teaching I think I need. It also seems to go against the idea that it might be good to be part of a church that doesn't reflect only my own ideas about Christianity or my own experiences and life phase. Neither of those seem to be a healthy reflection of living faithfully as the body of Christ. My theory about finding a church is much simpler: figure out which denomination fits best with what you believe the Bible teaches and then attend the nearest church that is part of (or closest to) that denomination.

Except, as most people will tell you, it's not quite that simple. What if you and your children are not made to feel welcome? What if it's not really the local church (i.e., most come from far away to attend and/or are not interested in the neighbourhood)? What if the music or the preaching constantly makes you cringe? What if the theology taught/practiced in the church actually doesn't fit with the denomination and/or your understanding of what is biblical? Does it make a difference if you have problems with the language? When do you stay and try to work things out, and when do you start looking for a new church?

I now am part of the Oudekerk (PKN), which I've attended fairly faithfully these last 7 years. As much as I've appreciated this church, I also feel a strong desire to church shop, which is a desire I've never really had before. It's like there is something that is missing in my faith or church life - and I'm not even exactly sure what it is. It's not good music or liturgy that I'm missing or even a concern for social justice and each other, as I've found all of these things present in the Oudekerk. I have also felt very welcome - even after acknowledging that I don't always feel theologically at home there. Yet, I long for something more, and so I am searching. Whether it be an actual church, a social group, found online/written, talks with the pastor, a Bible Study, or something else I'm not sure.

In essence I am searching for ways in which I meet together with more spiritual and/or theological 'kindred spirits.' People who get upset about moral theology, like many of the CRC folk I know who read in the denominational magazine that someone wrote tht perhaps we Christians should tolerate recreational sex (the first article by Chelsea about intimacy is actually really good and worth reading, even if you're not interested in the controversy). Or people with whom I don't have to explain that going to church on Sunday is a non-negotiable for me - it's part of how I make myself more open to meeting God. Or maybe I simply long to be the liberal Christian instead of being so often the theologically conservative one. Or perhaps it is as simple as my looking for a group who talks more about how God is actively working in our lives now, something that came forward in a testimony last Sunday and which brought up a longing in my heart.

Part of me wishes I didn't have to go through this theological discomfort of having the sense that something is missing in my faith/spiritual life. I don't remember this discomfort so much when I only knew one denomination well. Yet, I am also thankful to recognize the disquiet I had - the sense that I was missing something - and am grateful that there are those wanting to help me in my search. I hope/believe that all of this will help me grow in faith.

30 June 2013

Weekendje Paris

Although Matthijs and I had both been to Paris before, we'd never been together. And even lthough it's supposed to be such a romantic city, I can't say that I felt a desperate need to go together. But a friend of Matthijs (from America) came through Paris last week, so we met her there. As she was staying in the suburbs in the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend, we decided to see if we could find something nearby. We found a bed and breakfast about 2,5 km away in Saint Cloud. What began as an inconvenience - staying in the suburbs - became one of the best parts of our trip, as the house we stayed in was a 19th century mansion with this beautiful stain-glass window you saw every time you walked into the building. The hosts were also charming - a bit awkward at times - but very friendly and helpful.

Our bed and breakfast


Stained-glass window in the main hall

As for the other best parts of the trip? Well, catching up with Matthijs's friend was really good. Walking around on the streets of Paris and entering churches is also always good (I especially appreciated being in Montmartre again - I had stayed there when I first visited Paris). The museums were also good (a lovely Monet museum on the west side and the Louvre, of course - although there the lighting had problems and the queues for the bathrooms were horrendous).

And the very best part? The food. We lingered over coffee, cake, lunch, and dinner. We ate lots of different things, including finding a Vietnamese place Matthijs had visited 15 years ago! On top of that, I got to share it all with Matthijs. Just thinking about it makes me wonder if I shouldn't be planning already now when we should go back! Who knows?
view of Paris from Saint Cloud

29 June 2013

Not my church

This past Wednesday, Matthijs was appointed as a lector (reader) as part of his training to be a (permanent) deacon in the Catholic Church. This is a fairly minor step in the process of becoming a deacon, and as there were only a few other men being appointed, we were with a small group in the chapel at the Seminary. Before the service started, the deacons-in-training were given instructions about what was expected of them, and the wives were also given the overview of the service (including the fine print of what they had to say and where they had to stand). Despite this hospitality and the warm welcome I received when I arrived, I felt disconcertingly uncomfortable in church. It wasn't my church, despite my being married to Matthijs and my presence there being desired.

During the service I pondered this strange feeling of being not at home there, wondering what it was that led to this feeling. It was not for a lack of welcome, nor is it a lack of familiarity with the Catholic Church as I have gone to various Catholic churches these past few years. I also am fairly familiar with the liturgy used for the Eucharist. And the liturgical smells and bells - like the bishop's hat-things on and off - were also familiar with me. So why the discomfort?

There was simply a strong sense that this was not my church. It was not the church I had grown up in, nor the one I had chosen. The liturgy used is not exactly the same as the one I know from the Nicolaas church or from Oudezijds100, and even though it corresponded closely I still like to have the words in front of me as I find it harder to memorize things in Dutch than English. There was no singing, which I only realized now as I am reflecting on the service, and singing for me is an important way of hearing God and responding to him. The smells and bells, despite my being familiar with them, seemed out-of-place in this small chapel with so few people. Even the ceremony itself - a step in a process but having little meaning of its own - feels a bit odd to me. It is thus not entirely surprising that I did not exactly feel at home in this place.

As I was pondering my disconcerting sense of feeling not at home in a church service, I also had a deep sense that this feeling was good. The Catholic Church, no matter how welcome I might be, is not my church. No matter how much I desire for all churches to be unified, we live in the reality that different church (denominations) express the Christian faith in very different ways. As I am part of an ecumenical community and am regularly exposed to different kinds of church services, it can be easy for me to forget this. Wednesday's deacon-in-training service was thus a good, albeit unepected, reminder of how we can be both welcome and yet uncomfortable amongst other Christians, and yet still all be a valuable and unique part of the body of Christ.