31 March 2013

Easter = tired

Easter has come. Instead of the hallelujahs echoing out of my mouth, there've been a lot of yawns. I'm a bit annoyed at my level of tiredness and grouchiness. After all, how can I help others celebrate Easter well when I'm not really in a mood to celebrate? (i.e., I'd rather be alone and/or lying in bed).

I'm tired mostly because I get to be in charge of the community this weekend. That in itself can be a challenge but it doesn't help that this weekend is twice as long as a normal one. Thankfully I wasn't in charge of the services, and I did get a lot of extra help. But it was still a lot, especially as no one else on the weekend team really cooks (that's then 3 dinners and 1 large Easter breakfast (for about 50 people :) to organize, including the craziness of painting Easter eggs with 15 children and making lambs from butter - both of which I had never done before.) On top of that, some personal situations and organizational things pushed extra things on to the weekendteam as it was hard to know who else was willing and able to take over what needed to be done.

But perhaps tired is not so strange a feeling for Easter, especially the first Easter. The disciples world was turned upside down. And not once, but twice. First their beloved king Jesus was killed and buried. And then he rose! So many emotions and questions and changes! And that's not even dwelling upon tomorrow and the next day. What happens now that everything is different? Jesus is risen - death has been conquered. And so we are being made new.

For those of us who've participated in Easter vigils or sunrise services and/or have been responsible for parts of the Easter services, tiredness is inevitable. But it is a tiredness mixed with a sense of completeness for we  have once again remembered and believed. And in believing, we are given strength for the tomorrows, whatever comes, whether that be simply cooking for 12 people, visiting the zoo, finishing a dissertation, sending cards to loved ones, and/or searching for how best to be faithful to the risen Lord.

24 March 2013

Today Hosanna, tomorrow crucify him

No matter how often we sing it, the words of hymn 173 in Liedboek voor de kerken remain always somewhat startling: "today 'Hosanna;' tomorrow 'crucify him.'" It has often puzzled me how people could switch so quickly from proclaiming Jesus as king to crucifying him as a rebel (or thief). Even the switch in the words of the song feels so startling: Hosanna and crucify in one breath. Abbot Andrew from Saint Gregory's Abbey explains in his blog about how people got swept up in the crowd, crying out what they thought was the most popular. It is worth looking at - a good resource for reflecting on Holy week.

He also talks about the traditional Palm Sunday service in Anglican (and Catholic) churches, which I have participated in several times. We begin by marching around the church waving Palm branches and singing Hosanna only to return to our places and hear the entire crucifixion story. It is traditionally chanted, and through the chanting one hears the story anew. We go from singing Hosanna to hearing of Jesus' crucifixion. The chanting ends with his being laid in the grave. It seems an appropriate way to start Holy week, stilling ourselves and remembering what it is that we long for.

As I prepare myself for this week of remembering, I am also confronted by the reality that during this week when one would ideally slow down so as to have time for more contemplation, I have extra tasks related to helping ensure that those in the community can remember and celebrate well. I share responsibility for the liturgical colours during the services and take care of the flowers, which takes some time but is not generally difficult. However, on Friday afternoon, I asked at least 15 different flower people if they sold buxus branches (what we use here for Palm branches) and got nowhere. So Saturday morning, I went out with my scissors, thanked God and my neighbour(s) for the buxus bushes growing semi-wild on my street and cut off some branches for our services. Odd behaviour for my neighbourhood, but no one seemed to notice. The whole experience forced me to prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy week, albeit in a way I was not expecting. Today we've been thinking about Easter songs and what we can eat at the Easter breakfast - Matthijs and I are in charge of the weekend team for Easter and one of our largest responsibilities is preparing an elaborate breakfast for about 50 people. It makes for a different sense of preparation, one I think many pastors and musicians recognize. We remember but also anticipate and prepare. Good Friday is planned ahead of time alongside of Easter Hosanna, crucify him, and hallelujah all mix together only to find their rightful place in this Holy Week: through remembering and worshipping.

19 March 2013

Prostitution in the News

In the last month or so, prostitution has been in the news a lot. Alongside of all this news that I have been trying to keep up with, I have attended the film Nefarious, as well as attending a day seminar on trafficking and spending an evening focusing on trafficking signals with other volunteers from the crisis center of the community. I feel like I ought thus to know more now about prostitution and/or trafficking and that I also ought to share what I know. But I don't really know what to say.

I'm not sure if the Swedish model of punishing those visiting prostitutes is good for the women working now in prostitution, irrelevent of the conclusions made during the recent trip of Hilkens and Segers to check things out. I wish there was a way to fight against the culturally accepted idea that "men need to have sex" and that having sex with those underage would be morally apprehensible to everyone, but I have no idea how to do that. Better policy is not always the answer. I would think that changing the age of prostitution from 18 to 21 (the current plan in Amsterdam) would make things better by decreasing the chance of those entering into prostitution under the influence of a pimp/loverboy, but others have questioned if this won't simply push more prostitution underground. More than enough questionable things happen by and to those claiming to work for escortsservices or from home. Ensuring that those working behind the windows speak English, Dutch, or Spanish (another plan here in Amsterdam) will also hopefully decrease the chances of women being trafficked here from places like Bulgaria or Hungary. At the same time, the circumstances in those countries haven't changed so women will continue to come and continue to use the services of those willing to bring them here illegally (i.e., human traffickers). More news has been that Patricia Perquin has lost her anonymity, which has immediately raised questions about the validity of her story. It is a pity, as her book had much good to say, irrelevant of whether it is all her own personal story. Furthermore, this past weekend two prostitutes were attacked (Amsterdam and Utrecht) and there was a huge questioning in Alkmaar that has led to arrests, but both events raise questions about how prostitutes are treated and seen by the wider society.

The buzz in the news feels more irritating than helpful - and I'm not sure how my voice will help. Furthermore, all those news items seem irrelevant in light of the real women with names and stories who I am allowed to visit every other week. Is it not more relevant news that one of the woman who I always visited disappeared without a trace or without saying good-bye? She lived in Alkmaar, a city known as an easy place for those who are illegal to begin. And she worked every night, a fact I found out only after she'd left. What mess was and is she involved in? How much do I worry and how do I pray for her?

And is it not even more relevant news that I got to share with some of the women that we worry about them sometimes? From the woman desperately searching for a new place to live (how does one find an affordable place to rent in Amsterdam outside of the social housing?!?), to the woman who had worked at least 50 of the last 60 hours, to the woman working on her Dutch, to the woman making plans and working hard to begin a life outside of prostitution.

12 March 2013

Saving women in prostitution: is conversion the only way?

Last week, I watched Nefarious, a film about human trafficking. As it is produced by American evangelicals, I was a bit nervous about how well prostitution and human trafficking would be presented in the film. Fortunately, the film did a very good job of nuancing various factors that lead to prostitution: force (more traditionally known as trafficking), poverty, illegality, lure of a better/easier life, cultural acceptance/pressure, and/or distorted notions of love (e.g., loverboys).

They also, in their interviews with former prostitutes in the Netherlands and America, showed some of the devestation that occurs on account of prostitution, even for those who have more freely chosen the work. Choosing to turn away from that way of life seems almost impossible. The film gave the statistic that 95 percent of those who leave (perhaps even rescued from?) prostitution return to it. The one watching the film was (implicitly) encouraged to pray that prostitution might be stopped and that prostitutes might come to know God. Although I do pray that, I also pray a lot of other things - as I think this prayer is too simple.

As much as I truly believe that Christ is the only one who can fully heal someone from the damaging effects related to prostitution, I was disappointed that Christ's role in the film was not larger. Shouldn't we also be praying for God to be involved in everything leading up to and surrounding prostitution? Like punishing traffickers and sex tourists, challenging ideas of self-worth and sex, and fighting against neglect and abuse.

I believe that God is not only interested in saving souls - he's interested in saving the world in its entirety. The film did injustice to God by not discussing his desire for justice and his being able to break the structures causing much of the brokenness related to prostitution and human trafficking. According to the makers of the film, trafficking occurs because too few people say and do nothing (and our task is then to spread the word). Yet, at the same time, the film made it obvious that there is much spiritual darkness involved in trafficking: how else can you explain a culture that understands loving one's daughter as choosing to prostitute her close to home instead of further away (cf. the section on Cambodia)? Poverty, the usual explanation for this behaviour, cannot adequately explain why most of those in the village accept selling one's daughter for sex as normal and desirable. Never discussed in the film is cause of so much demand: many foreigners coming to the villages to buy children. Yet, it is just here that God has also been working small miracles - it is becoming easier for foreigners who do this to be punished under the laws of their home country, which will hopefully change and even prevent "sex tourism" in these villages.

I believe that part of healing the hurt related to prostitution is God's justice being acted out through punishment of those who have participated in trafficking and having sex with a child "prostitute." Such punishment is also a strong encouragement for those committing these crimes to change their ways. Thus I cannot pray about trafficking and prostitution without praying both for the women to know God well, as well as changing and punishing those who have participated in her becoming a prostitute.

10 March 2013

Thoughts on community before I moved to Amsterdam

Looking for something else, I came across this old article I wrote for the student newspaper of Calvin Seminary. The first line immediately intrigued me, as I was curious about whether I would agree now with my previous thoughts on community. I do still agree with myself, although I do think I write better today: if I wrote this piece today, it would be shorter and more winsome and definitely less preachy :) 

But without further ado, here is what I wrote about 8-9 years ago about community:

"Much of what I’ve learned about community has come from being stuck living with too many people. Four years ago, it was living in a dorm that had fifty females and one communal bathroom: six showers, four toilets, and never enough hot water. Life was hard; school was hard. As a teacher, I could put up with working too much and too long because I knew that the students had no choice but to do the same if they ever hoped to follow their dreams of getting in to university when most others would be bribing their way in. We needed each other just to get through each day. Reaching out to help others and having others lift you up builds a strong community. 

About a year ago, I learned about community by spending much of my summer living in a room with eight other females. In the good weeks, we used the communal bathroom down the hall. On the bad weeks, we each had about one shower per week and the rest of the time we bathed in whatever body of water was available. Not exactly what we would call ideal conditions, but that was part of what brought us together - along with working hard, being challenged daily, and having more adventures and people around than most of us were comfortable with. We either were a community or we weren’t; there was no middle ground. We were together too much not to notice that we were different, and we had to either deal with that or learn to pretend that our differences did not matter.

[After all], Waking up in a new place (again), tired from being challenged too much, I wanted nothing that had anything to do with the difficulty of community. I didn’t like having to be involved in so many other people’s lives and having them push in on my life. I had gone to bed the night before knowing that I loved the people that I lived with, but I didn’t really like them. I was tired of living with them and of encouraging them, and I was tired of liking them. It was then, and several more times over the summer, when I had the choice of community. I could choose to pretend that everything was okay when it wasn’t really, and thus be pushed apart from the people I was with. Or I could spend some serious time in prayer, praying for these people I didn’t really like, knowing that God would change me (and maybe them) so that I would be able to remember daily that I loved them and was to be community with them. Prayer would also give courage to talk about the things that were bothering all of us, so that we could be honest and real with each other.

Community is a place where I get to be myself, and I have to be myself. I am given space to figure out who God intends me to be; yet I’m also being encouraged and refined by others so that I don’t become so absorbed in myself that I stop hearing God. I get to be honest, even while learning how both to be honest with myself and how to be honest with others without being hurtful. I also need honestly to hear others. It’s a lot about me, but it’s more about others, and learning how to make space (i.e. be hospitable) for others.

As much as we all think community is a great thing, it’s easier not to do community. It’s easier not to be honest about our brokenness. It’s easier to blind ourselves to how that brokenness affects others than to learn how to be hospitable, without losing ourselves. It’s easier to pretend that something does not matter than learn how to confront someone about differences while being willing to acknowledge that the fault might not belong all to somebody else. I can say I belong to a community and am participating in it, but when I have my own room, my own car, and my own schedule, it’s fairly easy to avoid community whenever it’s inconvenient. It’s community in name, but nothing more than a couple of people being in the same place at the same time.

Community is hard enough that one can’t have great community in the same way with everyone; even learning how much I can give of myself is part of the process of doing community well. It disappoints me that I can not know everyone’s stories, but I know that sometimes I need to hold back in order to be able to be part of the community where I am and to have the strength and courage to do the community I can do, well."

08 March 2013

Helpful thoughts on Facebook

If you're reading this post via Facebook, chances are high that you have some ideas about how to use Facebook (and other social media) well. At te same time, most of us could use some encouragement and good tips for using Facebook better. Who, after all, does not get annoyed at it once in awhile?!?

So I thought I'd pass along a couple of good blog entries with good tips. The first is the do's and don'ts of social media. Even if you feel like you know fairly well how to use Facebook, it doesn't hurt to be reminded what you can do to help make it so that your use of Facebook or twitter is not annoying others. Ancient advice, such as "if you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything", turns out to be highly applicable, whatever the media.

But even if everyone is only saying nice things, how does one deal with all the overly nice things people say, especially when it comes to achievements? This is something that sometimes bothers me about Facebook: the tendency to measure myself against other's accomplishments or witty sayings only to praise myself for how mature I am or realize how much I come up short. So if you've also struggled with the reactions you have to Facebook (whether they be jealousy, anger, annoyance, happiness, pride, or anything else), the perspective and positive encouragement in this article won't hurt.

06 March 2013

So you're moving in together....

I don't know how to respond when I hear that someone is moving in with their partner or boy/girlfriend. "oh" is what usually comes out of my mouth.

The problem is not that I don't have a response or an opinion about unmarried folk living together. The problem is that I have a rather strong opinion: don't. I believe Christians ought to get married before moving in together, and even non-Christians would do well to make the commitment before moving in together, especially if there's children involved (see Gruntled Center's blog to read more about that).

Because I don't believe living together outside of marriage is a good thing, I'm not willing to congratulate people when they tell me they're going to move together, although this is the correct social response. Moving in together is seen here, even in Christian circles, as an indication that the relationship is going well and developing.

At the same time, I don't find it particularly loving or helpful to respond to someone's excitement about moving in together by condemning them. How I'd like to respond, not just to the couple but society in general, is by asking whether moving in together without the commitment of marriage and the wedding is good.

The beginning phase of living together is delightful and exciting, but it is also hard. This is primarily because your schedule is now interrupted and determined by another (children only increase the demand on your time), and the other cleans, eats, and sleeps sometimes much differently than you. A wedding ceremony is a chance not only to celebrate the delight of being in love but also a reminder of the loving community around you (we had 80+ cards hanging up from our wedding day!) who are there to support you and pray for you as you experience the challenge of developing your relationship further and learn to live together well. Without the wedding ceremony, I worry that we lose out on supporting each other - and experiencing that support.

In writing this, I have discovered a fitting response for how to respond when I hear people are moving in together: I'll be praying for you and your relationship. Without the wedding ceremony, less attention is likely to be given to the prayers and outside support that help make a relationship thrive. And so extra prayers would definitely not hurt! I know that it can be hard, and I want the best for those around me and their relationships. Wanting the best is also why I (still) want them to choose marriage instead of just living together.

05 March 2013

Reading the Bible well: Sesame Street, boys, dolls, and bears

In certain areas of the blogosphere, there has been discussion about whether Sesame Street was undermining Christian values by encouraging a young boy bear to play with dolls. The blog of Rachel Held Evans does a good job in summarizing and participating in the discussion, so for those who are interested, please follow the link.

Irrelevant of my thoughts on the whole discussion and my lack of desire to participate in it, a blog by Matt Mikalatos on the topic is simply too funny not to share. He exegetes the Sesame Street incident by highlighting that it is a boy bear who is encouraged to play with dolls. This is highly unbiblical, as bears in the Bible are not encouraged to play with dolls. Instead, bears are commanded to ravish and destroy people. The conclusion that I thus make is that the only kind of play that a bear (male or female) might be engaging in with people is the same sort of "play" that a cat has with a mouse, and that usually does not end well for the mouse.

Mikalotos continues his close exegesis of mixing of humans and bears by pointing out the problem of humans playing with teddy bears. This involves pictures and satirical commentary, worth stopping by for a smile/laugh.

03 March 2013

Dagje Eindhoven

Matthijs and I went to Eindhoven yesterday - simply because we could. As often happens when we head out to explore a place, we found it delightful. After all, how could it not be? We left all the stresses and responsibilities at home, had looked into the area a bit (to make sure we had a couple of ideas of what we could do), and, most importantly, opened ourselves up for whatever we might bump into.

The following are a few of the highlights of the day - shared not because they were so special, but more so in the hope that others might be able to delight further in exploring the world around them (sharing that with a curious partner helps too!)

- an 'oh' moment to begin: on the way to the train station (at 9:30 in the morning), there came rollerskating along the bikepath a man with a naked bum. I did a doubletake, asked Matthijs if he'd also noticed, wondered a bit about how that could be comfortable or even do-able, and kept walking so we wouldn't miss our train.
- De Witte Dame - We started by the ANWB and purchased their Architecture walking guide (worth picking up or borrowing from us), which I'd wanted for awhile. The only problem was that the book (and lots of signs) kept mentioning the building the Witte Dame (white lady), and as I couldn't figure out what they were talking about, it remained the mystery of the day. A quick google search reveals a website for it -  turns out it's a rather boring building that we had actually seen.
- the Van Abbemuseum,
- a concert in the Catharina church (Boccherini). I found the first half wonderful, but the second half (more soloists) rather dull, although Matthijs assures me it was quite good. The stained-glass windows in the church had me (much to my delight) searching for all the biblical references in them.
- dinner at a Spanish restaurant. The food was very good, but better still was having time to talk to each other outside of the rush of the every day. Having already spent 8 hours continuously together, we'd managed by then to have brought up most of the more mundane and pressing things we'd been thinking about lately, which meant that we were both ready to spend time talking about big ideas and our hopes for the next while.

Add to that some walking, lots of buildings to look at, good food, and good conversation - and it was a recipe for a great mini-vacation without the hassle of packing :)