Learning Church Leadership

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Our H2O Production Team arrived at 7AM this morning to set up for today’s worship gathering in Bowman Hall. Shortly after starting, they encountered an elderly man in the lobby, just outside the room where we meet. He had long hair and a long beard. He wore shabby clothes. And he smelled as though he hadn’t bathed for quite some time. He couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us much of his backstory. But he appreciated a cup of coffee and friendly conversation. Eventually, he said that his name was Colbert, and that he was trying to get back to East Akron. And since I didn’t have any other, specific, roles in the worship gathering, my church leadership role for the day became driving Colbert to East Akron.

Colbert was confused. Still, I hoped that something might snap into place once we got to East Akron, as this sometimes works with my Dad’s dementia. I drove several miles on Canton Road and East Market Street, but nothing clicked for Colbert. So I sized up my options. I could drop him off at the public library or a different church… I could take him to a shelter or to the hospital… But none of these options seemed exactly right. Ultimately, I decided to take him to the Haven of Rest. When we walked into the front desk, however, Colbert couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them any of his most basic personal information. I told the desk worker that he seemed pretty confused, “like his brain is having a hard time coordinating with his mouth” (which was a phrase with which Colbert had seemed to resonate in the car).

As soon as these vaguely-medical words came out of my mouth, we were told that they wouldn’t be able to help Colbert at the Haven of Rest. I would need to take him to the hospital instead. So we went to the Emergency Department at Summa Health. The hospital staff were remarkably kind to Colbert. And they were quick to see us, too. After a few minutes, they took down my name and phone number and said they’d get back with me if they had any further questions. So, I said good-bye to Colbert and returned to the H2O worship gathering in Kent.

On my way back, I thought about the way that I learned a lot of my best church leadership lessons from similar circumstances back in Amsterdam. I got lots of experience with mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. I cleaned up baby diapers, vomit, and raw sewage at different times. Believe it or not, I even got a few death threats during our years in the Netherlands. It was intense on-the-job training! Still, it taught me a lot. And I’m the leader I am today because of all those experiences I had in Amsterdam. That’s why we moved there, twenty years ago this week. To be a church for young people in the city, through good times and bad times.

So, in keeping with the string of recent posts about this twenty-year anniversary, I’ve adapted the following story from a post I wrote in September of 2008. Unlike most of the other flashbacks I’ve posted this week, I’ve edited this one for concision and clarity. But feel free to read the full, original version, if you’d prefer. I hope it provides an entertaining glimpse into Amsterdam ministry life.

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Handcuffs in Church

I should have expected trouble was brewing when I shook hands with the scruffy foursome of Eastern Europeans. They were extra-enthusiastic, pumping my hands as I introduced myself. They told me spirited trivialities about their native Poland, Latvia, and Russia. But then again, we’re in Amsterdam. Our church has always been home to people from a wide variety of cultural, socio-economic, and spiritual backgrounds. So I really thought nothing of their antics…

Until they started dancing, as if in a street rave, during the opening set of worship music. 

Periodically, they would shout out something unintelligible (but distracting nonetheless). At one point, I made my way over to their section of the room. I addressed them by name, asking them politely to keep it a bit quieter. Unfortunately, they did not comply.

After the music ended and my co-pastor, Todd, started teaching, our guests’ raucous behavior became even more disruptive. Again I asked them to quiet down and listen respectfully. Again they ignored me. 

At one point, one of the men started hacking loudly and seemed to start weeping. Eventually, he vomited a bit of red pulp onto the floor. It looked like blood. One of the guys from our church helped him get up and exit the room. They went outside to get some fresh air. I helped to clean up the mess from the floor. And then I sat down at the table, available in case the situation escalated.

This whole time — though he had stopped briefly during the vomiting incident — Todd continued to press onward with his teaching.

A short time later, another guy from our church motioned for me to join him in the kitchen. He told me he had witnessed the loudest and most belligerent of our guests pouring generously from a concealed bottle into the coffee cups of his companions.

Duh… of course. 

They were drunk. The red substance was, in fact, not blood from an ulcerating stomach. It was bile tainted by a cheap bottle of port wine. At that point, our noisiest guest turned up the volume of his commentary yet again. So Marco and I decided together that we needed to go and ask the offending party to leave. Again, Todd paused the sermon while we discussed the situation in the middle of the room.

We told him that he’d had too much to drink and needed to leave.

He said he didn’t want to leave. He said he wanted to stay and listen to the fabulous things that Todd had to say.

I reinforced our request for him to leave immediately.

He said, “F*** you, I’m staying.”

I said that if he would not leave voluntarily, then I would have to call the police.

He said, “F*** you, I’m staying.”

I called the police.

I walked into the kitchen and pulled out my phone to dial the police. However, the adrenaline coursing through my veins confused me. I momentarily forgot the emergency number for the Netherlands. So I dialed 1-2-3-3, only to hear the greeting to my voicemail on the other end of the line! Then, after another flustered moment, I remembered and dialed 1-1-2.

The situation continued to escalate while I was waiting on the line for the police. My friend Marco came and told me that the belligerent man had said that he had a knife. He said that he was not going anywhere, and that anyone who thought otherwise could f*** off. So I told the police very simply that there was a man with a knife in the middle of our church service who was defiantly refusing our requests for him to leave the building. After giving my name, number, and address, the dispatcher said that someone would be along right away.

It felt like it took an eternity for the police to arrive (in reality, it was probably 10 or 15 minutes). I waited by the front door. I paced back to the main room. A couple of the more street-smart members of our church had stationed themselves in the immediate vicinity of the drunken knife-wielder, and he had quieted down a little bit. Still, I paced back to the street again and waited, my heart in my throat, for the police to arrive. 

Eventually, I heard the sirens. I saw the blue lights of a police cruiser speeding up the Herengracht. I flagged the police down, and quickly escorted them into the facilities. On our way in, I briefed them as best I could. The officers walked into the room, and I pointed out the problem guest. He was hunched over his bag (where, allegedly, his knife was hidden). His muscles were tensed for a fight. 

The worship gathering, as you might suspect, stopped completely.

One of the police officers addressed him, and asked him if he would come out with them.

He said he would not.

They asked if everyone else in the room would clear out to the sides of the room, giving them a wide berth to confront the man. And then, when the area cleared out, the police moved in and wrested an arm behind his back. The man resisted, and was then knocked to the floor. There was a brief scuffle, as the police officers forcefully hand-cuffed the man and subdued him.

The officer asked him to put his feet under him, as they were going to pick him up and escort him from the premises.

He said, “F*** you.”

The officer said, “F*** you, too,” and then they forcefully pulled him to his feet and out of the room.

In the hallway, one of the police officers held the angry drunken man against a wall. The other police officer asked the other disruptive guests to come out with him. The man in handcuffs vomited against the wall (another lovely red jobber) and continued to curse the police. At that point, an armored motorcycle cop showed up. And he helped to drag the man all the way out to the street, into the patrol vehicle. Eventually, the scene was cleared entirely. Todd finished his message while a few of us mopped up (both figuratively and literally!) outside with the police.

The whole experience was, of course, a little bit scary. But it was also neat to see the way that the church responded in such a situation. Fons and Alex played the role of security guards. Marco and Daniel helped to keep an overview of the situation. Todd stayed the course and kept the rest of the church from obsessing over the situation. And when I came back in from the initial conversation with the police out in the hallway, our whole church was praying for the guys who had been escorted from the room.

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All in all, we responded well. And in a city like Amsterdam, it’s good to know that we can respond well in such circumstances. It may not have been the most worshipful experience for everyone — but then again, maybe it was…

Sometimes, we have to teach each other. Sometimes, we have to counsel each other. And sometimes, we have to get each others’ backs when belligerent, drunken Eastern Europeans get rowdy on us.

Posted in Amsterdam, Amsterdam50, Church, Culture, Culture Shock, Europe, European Missions, God, Introspection, Leadership, Ministry, Nostalgia, Recommendations, Recommended Browsing, The Netherlands | Comments Off on Learning Church Leadership

Amsterdam Asps

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We were already a family when we moved to Amsterdam in the last week of January, 2003. Marci and I had been married for almost five years. Elliot was ten months old. Still, we really grew as a family during our Amsterdam years. To the point that I started referring to our household as the “Amsterdam Asps.” (In fact, some of my social media accounts still preserve this vestige from the past). It’s hard to understate how significant that move was, twenty years ago this week.

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We grew from a family of three to a family of four, within a year and a half of our move to Amsterdam.

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And then we grew from a family of four to a family of five three years later.

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Amsterdam was the place where all three of our children took their first steps. Where all three first started school. Where we truly learned to love each other and love God. We had lots of special experiences in Amsterdam, but also lots of very mundane experiences. Doctor appointments… and swim lessons… and trips to the grocery store… and play-dates with friends…

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There are hundreds, if not thousands of little glimpses into the family life of the Amsterdam Asps. All preserved in the archives of my website. I love the simple sketches of my eleven days alone with four-year-old Elliot and two-year-old Olivia, while Marci was out of town… Olivia inventing words… or visiting a weird private museum devoted exclusively to cats

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But the one I think I’ll re-post here, today, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of our family’s move to Amsterdam, is a post about our apartment in the Transvaalbuurt of Amsterdam Oost. I found myself telling this story to someone else recently. And it seemed as good a glimpse as any into the weird and wonderful elements of living as Amsterdam Asps. This version of the story has been edited slightly from its original version, which appeared in March of 2007,

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I finally met the girl upstairs… and her name is Mary Jane.

Footsteps above our apartment — for the first time in months, we hear human activity in the apartment above us… Yes, it’s definitely footsteps. Heavy work boots, by the sound of it. And sure enough, within an hour or so they’re tossing stuff out the window, onto the sidewalk below. Rotted pieces of drywall… some tangled old wires… potting soil.

Yes, you read that correctly:  potting soil.  And not just a little bit of it.  Bags and bags of rich, black earth.

It’s strange to have a mountain of potting soil in a second-story apartment in the middle of Amsterdam.  But it also fits some of the final puzzle pieces into place. It solves some of the mysteries about our upstairs neighbors. Because it turns out that they weren’t necessarily anti-social after all — they were just farmers. Agriculturalists. Growing one of Amsterdam’s premium cash crops.

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We should’ve suspected as much. A couple of Brazilian guys in their late 20s or early 30s — friendly enough, but with strange and furtive mannerisms at times. Their comings and goings were mostly limited to the night-time. And even at that, we didn’t see a whole lot of them. In a way, we actually enjoyed their lack of presence. We found it far preferable to the Latino Transgender family and their four scampering chihuahuas who had previously occupied the space with their salsa-dancing and fetch-playing footsteps at all hours of the day. We really had no problems with the nocturnal introverts who had unassumingly occupied the space for the last several months…

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But, well… I guess there was that one time when our ceiling started dripping with water last summer. We rang the doorbell. We yelled at the top of our lungs to get their attention. And we even pelted the windows of the apartment with handfuls of pebbles. We were desperate to get their attention. But they were strangely slow and nonchalant about our aquatic crisis. Until we threatened to call the police. When we suggested outside intervention, their response was remarkably prompt…

And well… Then again in December, there was that one experience when we had an incredibly difficult time keeping our home warm. Another neighbor, who had a better vantage-point that allowed her to see the upstairs-neighbors’ balcony, tipped us off that the door to the balcony was wide-open. It had apparently been open for days. Their cold apartment sapped whatever insulation we might have normally received from a heated apartment above. We thought this was weird and inconsiderate of them. But try as we might, we never could reach the tenants. So in the end, we called the manager of the building and solved things that way…

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And, come to think of it, may have been our neighbors’ downfall.

Still, these were isolated incidents. Otherwise, we never had any problems with our upstairs neighbors…

It just turns out that the primary residents of the apartment upstairs were not people — but plants.  Nice, quiet plants. I don’t want to assume too much — in spite of what the other neighbors might insinuate…Nor do I want to alarm the grandparents of my children — or anyone else who might be quick to pass judgment on “Big Bad Amsterdam…” I don’t want to add to the sometimes shady reputation of our neighborhood (because I really think it’s a great place to live, for the most part)… But I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if our apartment would’ve ever caught fire.

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Would the neighbors have called the fire department?  Would they have formed an old-fashioned “bucket brigade” if necessary — helping to carry in water to douse the flames and helping to carry out our children and our prized possessions? Or would they have simply kicked back, inhaled deeply — maybe grabbing some Doritos and listening to Bob Marley records — and just enjoyed the high times in the Transvaalbuurt.

Posted in Amsterdam, Children, Culture, Culture Shock, Elementary School Age, Europe, Family, Home, Introspection, Marriage, Nostalgia, Photography, Preschool Age, Recommendations, Recommended Browsing, The Netherlands, Young Adulthood | Comments Off on Amsterdam Asps

Dutch Winter

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Have you ever observed the Dutch obsession with speed skating? Most Americans would only encounter this during the Winter Olympics, if that. But it’s definitely a thing. I’ve heard at least one sports announcer suggest that the Dutch care so deeply about ice skating because that’s their primary mode of transportation in the winter. I’m here to tell you this is patently false. Still, there’s a very romantic notion of Dutch Winter. And when it does come around (perhaps ten percent of winters, if our experience is any guide), the people of the Netherlands passionately embrace it.

We got to experience one hard freeze, right at the end of our family’s decade in Amsterdam. And it really was spectacular. So while we’re in a nostalgic mood, looking back on the twentieth anniversary of our family’s move to the Netherlands, it seems appropriate to reflect on that experience of Dutch Winter. Today’s flashback points to a time when we happened to have guests and a hard freeze. Our Floridian friends made the most of a frozen week in Amsterdam. And I’ve adapted the story, slightly, to re-post here below:

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Legendary: the Keizersrace and the Poorman Powers of Persuasion

So we’re at the Keizersrace. We’re watching heat after heat of head-to-head speed-skating on natural ice in the heart of Old Amsterdam. The temperatures are well below freezing, but we’re in high spirits together with 10,000 other Amsterdammers. It’s a massive celebration of Amsterdam and the Classic Dutch Winter. People pack in along the sides of the canals, crowded up on raised stoops, and hanging out of windows overlooking the scene. A local celebrity serves as commentator for the races. In between heats, old-school music entertains the crowd. The sound of accordians, organs, and the deep-throated warblings of Johnny Jordaan and Tante Leen rings out from every side. The whole scene is lit up like a Christmas tree. A dozen television cameras cover the event. And the professionals are complemented by thousands of amateur documentarians holding up their iPhones and Androids to take in the action.

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The boys, the girls, and the women have all completed their races. The Keizer and Keizerin (Emperor and Empress) have been crowned for each class except the men. They are warming up with laps around the 160-meter race-track, situated between the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat and the Leidsestraat. I keep looking across the canal, off to the sides, and behind me. I’m trying to get a visual on my friend Jim. He left our party some fifteen or twenty minutes ago with ice-hockey skates slung over his shoulder. He was determined to see if he could somehow finagle a last-minute registration for the race.

I told him it would be impossible. After all, we had tried calling some 30 or 40 times during the open registration window on Thursday night. Even when we finally got through on Friday morning, the operators lectured us that there was no way for him to get into a race that was already overflowing with registrants. Everyone was eager for their chance at the crown that had not been up for grabs since 1997. Still Jim thought he had a chance to sweet-talk his way into the race. And as the time of his absence grew to half an hour, I was starting to wonder if he had managed to do just that.

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“The Poorman Powers of Persuasion” are truly a wonder to behold. I’ve known Jim for over fifteen years, and I’ve seen it in full effect on several different occasions. He figures out ways into jam-packed, sold-out concerts and sporting events. I’ve watched him work his magic to gain access to back-stage areas and personal encounters with numerous celebrities. He garners unprecedented favors from airline officials, waitresses, and hotel managers. And he buys items that were absolutely, positively not for sale; and sell items that were absolutely, positively not sell-able.

Marci and I started kidding Jim and Allison about “the Poorman Schmooze” several years ago (though we’ve more recently rebranded it as “the Poorman Powers of Persuasion” to eliminate the slightly-negative, scuzzy, manipulative suggestion from the terminology). But even though it started as a joke, it’s a well-documented — albeit somewhat inexplicable — phenomenon. They just ask the questions that no one else dares to ask, and they find themselves frequently rewarded for their friendly finagling and pleasant persistence. That being said: I still find it inconceivable that the Poorman Powers of Persuasion might actually go so far as to grant him last-minute admission into the prestigious Keizersrace.

And then I see Jim out on the ice, warming up for the race.

When he eventually digs in at the starting line, the announcer says (in Dutch that would be incomprehensible to Jim himself), “We actually have an international participant in Lane #1, wearing #51, which I didn’t realize at first. Yes, we have an American guy from Florida. So Amsterdam, let’s give an extra round of applause for Jim Poorman!”

The crowd roars its welcome, and the announcer continues. “He was here visiting friends in Amsterdam this week. He brought his skates along with him, and he asked if he could join the race, and we thought, ‘OK, why not?’ So we went ahead and let him join the race. So… gentlemen, to the line… Ready… Go!”

Half-way up the track, the announcer switches to English and calls out the rest of the play-by-play in Jim’s native language. We’re screaming our heads off the whole way. Other friends are watching the action on television and texting their astonishment. The whole crowd is cheering my friend in the Keizersrace. They’re cheering him onwards, onwards, onwards, clattering up the ice in his hockey skates against a competitor in full bodysuit and long-bladed speed skates.

He ends up losing his heat by ten or fifteen meters… But his showing is nevertheless legendary.

Posted in Amsterdam, Culture, Culture Shock, Europe, Family, Introspection, Nostalgia, Recommendations, Recommended Browsing, Recreation, Sports, The Netherlands, Traditions, Weather | Comments Off on Dutch Winter

Bijzondere Mensen

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I’m still reflecting on the fact that it’s been twenty years since our family moved to the Netherlands, in late-January 2003. Our Amsterdam years included so many formative experiences. But even more than formative experiences, I’d say we were shaped by formative friendships. Met bijzondere mensen (I could have said this just as easily in English: “with special people.” But I prefer the way that the phrase “bijzondere mensen” looks and sounds!). Zo veel bijzondere mensen…

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Too many special people and special relationships to count.

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Looking back over pictures this week, I’m struck by the consistency of friends and the variety of friends we had during our Amsterdam years. We served a transient population, for sure. But there were many people who remained a part of the photographic record for many years. And whether these bijzondere mensen were a part of our lives for a short time or a long time, they were truly what made our time in Amsterdam special.

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In May of 2005, I borrowed a title from a Larry Norman song and wrote my own “Song for a Small Circle of Friends.” And those snapshots still make me smile.

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Song for a Small Circle of Friends

My life is filled with songs, but I just could not get along without my friends. And I’m happy now, but when this good life ends I know a better one begins…

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My friendships are snapshots. Well, OK, maybe not snapshots — perhaps more like film clips. Two or three seconds of life, captured and burned into eternal consciousness, distilling the essence of true relationship. Icons of reminiscence, these fleeting images encapsulate and represent something much larger, a gateway to deeper meaning and truth. Such an archive of film clips is invaluable, a priceless treasure of my memory.

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You see, to me the word “friendship” is flat, bland, weak, meaningless — a parcel of my intellect, my brain… On the other hand, my film clips are deep, rich, layered, textured — a powerful anchor to my emotion, my heart. These icons convey color, focus, movement, melody, tone, pitch, scent, flavor, temperature, sensation… They orient me and comfort me. They inform my daily existence. And they define and explain such abstractions as beauty, love, life, and loyalty. Perhaps to another these isolated moments and experiences would seem trivial, even silly. But I love to sit back and watch these film clips, whenever I want…

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…Problem-solving with Jason, savoring the sweet stickiness of Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster — knowing that someone understands me. The conversation is all the more meaningful because it is informed by weekly interaction, planned but not lacking spontaneity or meaning…

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…Sitting, curled up on the brown chair in our Amsterdam dining room at 1:00 in the morning, talking on the telephone for €0.0225 per minute while Jay stands in his Texas driveway under the hot afternoon sun…

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…Marci’s warm back against mine, welcoming me back to bed…

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…Enjoying a warm spring day with Todd, the sun gleaming off our shoulders, our hair– the first sense of warmth this year. The sun slowly burning my pasty white forehead while causing his hair to glow like conductive wires of an incandescent bulb…

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…A nighttime walk with Guy, learning the words to describe a clear and cloudless night…

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…A daytime walk with Sander, putting words to our heavy burdens, realizing that we can do nothing but feel. Be. Empathize. Comiserate. And quietly know that there is a strange sense of satisfaction in this…

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The archive is nearly endless. Such memories are triggered by anything and everything. A certain restaurant, or a even a specific meal… A city or a neighborhood… A way that the sky looks under certain weather conditions… A tone of voice… Writing these words… It’s difficult for me to determine if such memories make me happy or sad. Sometimes both, I guess. But in the end, I know that my life is more meaningful for such film “snapshots.” So I treasure these albums, these archives. Even while I make sure to leave plenty of room for what is yet to come.

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And Jesus died for all you friends, but even better yet he lives again. And if this song does not make sense to you, I hope his spirit slips on through: He loves you.

Posted in Amsterdam, Amsterdam50, Culture, Culture Shock, Europe, European Missions, Family, Introspection, Nostalgia, Recommendations, Recommended Browsing, The Netherlands, Young Adulthood | Comments Off on Bijzondere Mensen

The Ideal versus the Actual

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It’s easy to idealize our Amsterdam years. Marci and I were so full of youth and ambition when we moved. We truly learned how to be a family, there in the Netherlands. And I suppose it often felt idyllic because it was a beautiful country. Amsterdam was — and undoubtedly still is — a beautiful city. The photo above is real: my Amsterdam-born daughter, toddling in a field of flowers on a bright spring day. Still, that’s the ideal, versus the actual.

Our Amsterdam years were also hard years. I’m tempted to say “soul-crushing.” But “soul-shaping” is probably more accurate. Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope. Our decade in the city, from early-2003 to mid-2012, produced a lot of tears… broken hearts… arguments… moments of terror… and counseling sessions.

The vast majority of our time in Amsterdam was somewhere in the middle. Not the highest highs or lowest lows. So, I think one of the best windows into this sort of murky middle comes from something I posted to my blog in March of 2005. I titled the post “Tram Lijn 7 – Richting Flevopark – 22:49,” which just means “Tram Line 7, in the Direction of Flevopark, 10:49 PM.” It’s a sketch of the actual, versus the ideal. What it felt like to live through that time period, now twenty years in the past. So, to keep my reminiscence honest, I’m going to repost the piece here:

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Tram Lijn 7 – Richting Flevopark – 22:49

The tram rumbles to a stop in front of me, offering an escape from the billowy sheets of soft spring rain. It’s on-time, and I’m pleased to be on my way home late this Wednesday evening, riding tram line 7 in the direction of Flevopark.

I’m surprised to find the tram so full, though I am still able to find a seat a bit toward the front. A glance throughout the tram reveals dozens of strangers facing each other with cold, casual stares… two teenage girls, speaking a valley girl dialect of Dutch… a middle-aged Lebanese man with a thick, black moustache… an old Chinese woman with a red “Dirk van den Broek” bag… a scruffy-faced man in a black leather biker’s jacket, gazing absently at the emergency exit signs while petting his small dog’s sleek white fur…

The interior of the tram is bathed in flourescent lights the color of skim milk, illuminating the human condition. It is a tram full of Elenor Rigbies. All the lonely people– where do they all come from? All the lonely people — where do they all belong?

As we approach the crossing over the Amstel River, the tram slows to a crawl. Nice and easy over the slightly jagged tracks where the drawbridge separates… The moment of pause comes at the middle of the bridge, offering an impressive vista of the rain-soaked city. The delicate ancient church towers of the Zuiderkerk and the Oude Kerk off to my left; the stout silver “skyscrapers” of the Amstel business district off to my right; and thousands upon thousands of golden windows, row upon row in the tightly packed houses spanning the space in between.

The soundtrack in my head switches to Ray Charles singing “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?,” a song from an old friend who never returns my messages anymore… And as I return the cold, casual stares of these familiar strangers in the tram, I am gripped with a sense of sadness. I realize that I am lonely, too. I understand that no one in this sea of humanity is capable of offering the companionship and completion for which I truly yearn. We’re all looking for something that cannot be found on this tram. A higher level of discourse is required, a transcendent comprehension of completion and companionship. Do they understand this, too? The man with the dog? The old Chinese lady? The tired Lebanese man? The chatty teenage girls? Or is this truth so inescapable that it’s incomprehensible?

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Twenty Years Since our Week of Destiny

Bicycling Down the Westerstraat

This week marks twenty years since the period in our family’s life which I sometimes call our “Week of Destiny.” That was the week in which we raised the last of our financial support. It was the week we closed on the sale of our Bowling Green house. It was the week we ordered our tickets for Amsterdam. And it was the week we flew across the Atlantic. To start a new life and a new church in old Amsterdam.

I kind of want to fact-check myself on the exact timelines. Because honestly, even to me, that sort of coincidence seems pretty incredible. At the same time, I don’t want to take the time to run down all the details. Nor do I want to potentially disturb the memory. Even if it was eight days, or eighteen days, it still felt supernatural. Like we were swept up in something way bigger than ourselves.

And regardless of the details, I want to reflect on that week. Because it’s been twenty years, almost half a lifetime ago. That last week of January in 2003 was the initiation of a life-shaping experience. And it still reverberates, all these years later.

So, I’ve started reading through some of my old journals and blog entries. There are a lot of gaps in the historical record, as well as my memories. But there are also fascinating, potentially-insightful relics that open a window into that phase in my life. Some are purely amusing, like the third blog post I ever created. Nothing more than a black-and-white self-portrait titled “Eric Asp in Amsterdam.” My hair was mussed with gel. The background included the merest suggestion of Amsterdam Oost architecture and street signage. The overall effect is that of an impossibly-youthful visage. Even so, some of these windows into the past feel profound. Important to remember (at least for me).

So I want to deliberately pause and reflect on what happened twenty years ago — and in the decade of life and ministry that followed, there in the Netherlands. I want to spend this last week of January referencing and reposting old blog content… sharing old pictures… and remembering all the things that happened during that incredibly meaningful and formative period in my life.

I’m going to start this week of retrospection by reposting the content of something I wrote in the Winter of 2005. It speaks to themes I also found in my journal entries from 2003, so it seemed like as good a place as any to start. I was rather loquacious and self-important to a degree that feels pretty cringe-inducing, looking back now. But it’s good to remember both the good and the bad. So, here’s a piece titled “Zolder Venster” (Attic Window), starting this look back to twenty years ago, this week:

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zolder venster

I remember the first time that I really gazed out the attic window to the view of the Bosboom Toussaintstraat. The night was black and starless, but the string of amber streetlights offered a gentle glow to this quiet urban canyon. The tall, gabled houses framed the narrow street with a sense of diminutive grandeur. A typical Amsterdam street, except for the absence of bends or crooks in the thoroughfare, allowing an unrestricted view of the entire Bosboom Toussaintstraat – straight as an arrow pointing to the monolithic urban developments built on the fringes of the city long after its illustrious golden age.

The view offered an epiphany. A moment of realization and understanding. A quiet knowing of the fact that this was Amsterdam. The strange amber light, the 17th Century architecture, the traffic flowing with hatchbacks, scooters, and bicycles, the measured two-pitched song of an ambulance racing through the night… That first deliberate view out of the attic window provided a sense of genesis – a threshhold to new beginnings in this city we chose for our own.

I’ve sat to gaze out of that attic window many times since my initial reflection upon the Bosboom Toussaintstraat. It seems to offer a timeless window on life in Amsterdam. Through all the people who have come and gone, through times of sorrow and joy, through sleet and sunshine, through silence or singing… the amber streetlights flicker to life every evening and illuminate the Bosboom Toussaintstraat, essentially unchanged from my first view of the Amsterdam nightscape. Every view is an opportunity to re-center, re-focus, and renew my perspective. I remember who God is. Who I am. How we came to find ourselves in Amsterdam in an attic space overlooking the canals and streets of the city centrum. Every gaze is a new beginning.

This evening, I look down upon the dancing waters of the Singelgracht beneath me. The amber reflections of the city streetlights are refracted and projected in a cycle of perpetual motion, as if I’m methodically running my fingers through piles of golden treasure. Above the canal, a woman on bicycle is silhouetted against the streetlights as she struggles to surmount the incline of the Koekjesbrug. And beyond the bridge, on the other side of the busy Nassaukade, the Bosboom Toussaintstraat stretches out like a long, straight finger, pointing the way to tomorrow.

Posted in Amsterdam, Amsterdam50, Culture, Culture Shock, Europe, European Missions, Family, God, Home, Introspection, Ministry, Nostalgia, Recommendations, Recommended Browsing, The Netherlands, Transition, Young Adulthood | Comments Off on Twenty Years Since our Week of Destiny

FOBO and Other Trends Spotted

Hitchcock Woods

I love trend-spotting. There’s something about a new year and a new semester at Kent State University that makes for ideal trend-spotting conditions. Maybe it’s the Winter Break, where we all had some extra time to rest and reflect. Maybe it’s the mental exercise of evaluating the past and projecting ourselves into the future. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. But I’ve recently had a number of conversations with others that have helped me to lock in on some new trends that seem to be emerging among today’s younger generations: including continued cultural ripples from the COVID-19 Pandemic and a new phobia gripping today’s youth, called FOBO.

Life in Kent is getting more and more normal, as we get further and further from the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Still, some of the early “Post-COVID” college life observations that I made back in October have started to calcify and clarify. They may come to define the generation that came (or is still coming) of age during the early-2020s. But they may also fade. We’ll just have to wait and see. For now, in any event, here are some of the things that I’m noticing.

“Monitor Yourself for Symptoms”

It’s becoming clear that today’s younger generations are more attuned to their bodies, their minds, and their souls than previous generations. We taught them to “monitor yourself for symptoms” throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic. This was primarily intended to be a look-out for physical symptoms, such as fever, congestion, loss of taste, etc. But it also happened to fall during a time period in which conversations about mental health had already been increasing. So, I’m seeing today’s college students continuing to evaluate their physical capability, their emotional bandwidth, and the state of their souls before they make any foray into the outside world. Their “Social Battery” still drains more quickly than it did pre-COVID. So they continue to monitor themselves for symptoms and take preventative action to limit any potential damage that might come from overriding those signals.

“Essential Only”

We also taught this generation to discern the difference between “Essential” and “Non-Essential” throughout the pandemic. Remember that phrase? It was especially prevalent in the Spring of 2020: “Essential Workers Only.” Essential Work Only. The concept seems to have evolved into a “first things first” approach to social life. Today’s young people do not generally show up to an event out of a sense of duty or concern for what others might think of them if they don’t show up. They follow the dictum to “Monitor Yourself for Symptoms” (as outlined above), and then they take what they deem to be appropriate action from there. The calculus is pretty different from the way I learned to think at their age. Or even what college students did five years ago. But it’s becoming hard to ignore.

I’m still learning how to deal with these dynamics, on both a personal level and on the ministry level. It can make me grumpy, accentuating the generational gap that defines my life. But it’s good to remind myself that always learning and reading and adjusting is part of what makes my job a fun challenge!

FOBO

FOBO is an acronym for “Fear of Better Options.” I don’t know how widespread the term might be, but I heard it from my friend Daniel, who heard it from another friend Brooke. It evokes the memory of FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out,” which had a moment in the cultural spotlight five to ten years ago, at the height of social network saturation. Back then, FOMO was a problem for college students because it led to insecurity and over-commitment. Now, FOBO is a problem for college students because it leads to insecurity and lack of commitment.

I noticed this most acutely over the Winter Break, when we were trying to plan for a family dinner. It was just an average weekday evening. We knew that our household’s adolescents and young adults were being pulled in several different directions. So, we just wanted to know how much food we should prepare. But our kids were painfully non-committal. And non-communicative. It took multiple messages and a phone call to get through to one person in our family. I finally got the chance to ask, over the phone, “Are you joining us for dinner?” And then this (intentionally-unidentified) individual responded by saying, “Yeah, I might pull up.”

What a perfect encapsulation of the FOBO generation: “Yeah, I might pull up.”

Except for the most important, most essential agenda items, plans are held loosely. It’s nothing personal. It’s not intended to come across as rude or disrespectful. There’s just a reluctance to commit to something that might end up being “secondary.” Somewhere, deep down inside, today’s young people may always wonder if something better might come up. I believe there are strengths to this approach, as well as weaknesses. But this Fear of Better Options could be worth continued conversation.

COVID Nostalgia

Ironically, even with all of the tragic and radical societal shifts that have come through COVID, I’ve started to hear some hints of COVID Nostalgia. At least some younger people are inclined to remember the “good old days” of the pandemic, even more than the devastation. “Life was simpler back then.” People had time for family and hobbies and long walks outdoors…

And honestly, I feel some of this myself! Our family has fond memories of take-out dates… and Easter greetings out on the street with our neighbors… and creative diversions (like the time that my boys invented “March Muffin Madness” in our driveway when the more traditional “March Madness” of the NCAA Basketball Tournament was cancelled). It wasn’t all bad.

My grandfather talked about Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl in similar ways. Even though our history books are inclined to write these things as unmitigated disasters, the lived experience is far more nuanced. We human beings are a resilient bunch. We figure out ways to survive, to adapt, to overcome. And I’m curious to keep an eye out for new and continued trends that show the way forward.

Posted in Adolescence, Church, COVID-19, Culture, H2O Kent, Introspection, Nostalgia, Social Issues, Transition, Trend-Spotting, Young Adulthood | Comments Off on FOBO and Other Trends Spotted

Rubber Bowl Ruins

Rubber Bowl Ruins

Athens has its Acropolis. Rome has its Coliseum. And Akron has its Rubber Bowl. Ancient (and not so ancient) ruins pointing to earlier civilizations: haunted, yet imbued with beauty and intrigue, as well. Cor and I finally got to visit the Rubber Bowl Ruins today. And I’m really glad we did.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

This site is only a twenty-minute drive from our house. And it was surprisingly recently in use as a venue for University of Akron (Division 1) sports: only decommissioned in 2008. But when you step into the Rubber Bowl, it feels like it’s been a hundred years since another human being set foot on that ground.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

Dirt and AstroTurf are piled up in weird formations. Shrubs and trees are growing up in unusual places. The whole place has a veneer of gravel and dust.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

I honestly expected that we would have to do a little bit of trespassing to access the site. But the place was not secured at all. There were no signs dissuading visitors. And, honestly, it seems like it wouldn’t be that big of a challenge to even drive one’s car right onto the surface of the old field.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

It’s definitely a cool place for taking pictures. But I actually think the experience was even better than the photographs — if you’re into dystopian, post-industrial landscapes (as I am).

Rubber Bowl Ruins

The place is probably worth a visit for the graffiti alone.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

The sheer volume , or quantity, of the graffiti is impressive. But I’d say that the quality of the graffiti is pretty impressive, too.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

Let me know if you’re ever interested in going to the Rubber Bowl ruins yourself, and maybe I’ll join you.

Rubber Bowl Ruins

It’s a pretty unique experience.

Rubber Bowl Ruins
Posted in Nostalgia, Ohio, Recreation | Comments Off on Rubber Bowl Ruins

Modernist Wooden Puzzle

Modernist Wooden Nativity Scene Puzzle

What do you see when you look at this? It’s a minimalist, modernist take on a famous scene. But can you guess which scene is represented in this modernist wooden puzzle?

If you guessed “Nativity Scene,” you are correct! I was recently reminded of this artifact from my childhood — and when I looked it up on the internet (using the search terms “Wooden Nativity Scene Puzzle”), I was surprised to find one that so closely mirrored the set from my memory. The pieces were painted in the one I remember from my childhood. But otherwise, the shapes are pretty similar. And the general concept — nesting everything together within a broader frame that represents the Bethlehem stable — is definitely spot on.

But let me ask you this: What do you think each of those shapes represent? Some might be more obvious than others. But I’m genuinely curious to know what others’ imagination might conjure up.

Here’s how I roughly interpreted the scene as a child:

Modernist Wooden Nativity Scene Puzzle

How does that jive with your imagination? What might you see differently? Are there any ways that such a puzzle could be adapted to clarify the iconography? It’s tempting to try and recreate a scene like this for the 21st Century… But there are more than eleven months before next Christmas. So we’ve got time to tinker and adjust!

Posted in Children, Nostalgia | Comments Off on Modernist Wooden Puzzle

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

I recently finished reading Jeff Chang’s book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. It was recommended to me by my friend Mark. Even though I’m a slow reader, I had some extra time off over Kent State University’s Winter Break. And that created the perfect opportunity to burrow into a big, complicated book with a big, complicated story. I consider myself a longtime admirer of Hip-Hop music and culture. Most of the events in this book played out over the course of my own lifetime. Still, I learned so much from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop!

Can't Stop Won't Stop, by Jeff Chang

One of my initial points of intrigue for this book was its coverage of the complicated relationship between the Black Community, the Jewish Community, and the Korean Community in the United States (and in New York City and Los Angeles, particularly). I believe this is what first prompted Mark to recommend the book to me. We were talking about recent anti-Semitic rhetoric from Kanye West and Kyrie Irving. And Mark told me that Can’t Stop Won’t Stop documented the way that these tensions were actually nothing new.

Jeff Chang notes that these dynamics go back to tensions over housing in the Bronx during the 1970s… the rise of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam… a public disagreement between the founding members of the ground-breaking Hip-Hop group, Public Enemy… a lack of supermarkets in South-Central Los Angeles… And even that summary of the dynamics might be too simplistic! Still, it gives a glimpse into the way that Chang approaches these historical trends and the rise of a “Hip-Hop Generation.” History is complicated, multi-faceted, nuanced. So, it makes a lot of sense for a history book to reflect this.

The book starts with Jackie Robinson and Reggie Jackson (baseball players in New York). It goes on to describe the confluence of jazz, reggae, and rock in Jamaica. There’s an explanation of the way that advances in sound system technology gave rise of the DJ. And then, from there, Chang goes on to describe the emergence of DJing (music), MCing (words), B-boying (dance), and Graffiti (visual art), which he describes as the four pillars of Hip-Hop Culture. The art is a huge part of the story, but I found it even more interesting to see how the art illuminates the history.

Hip-Hop provides a fascinating vantage case study for understanding the bridge from the 20th Century into the 21st Century. I had no idea, for instance, that America’s “War on Drugs” had a pretty direct correlation with the Cold War. The U.S. government was concerned about the proliferation of Communist regimes. So, it looked the other way regarding trade in cocaine and opiates, as a way for strategic rivals in Central America and Southeast Asia to fund themselves. Consequently, the poor neighborhoods of American cities sustained a sort of collateral damage from the Cold War. And to add insult to injury, they ended up being cast as antagonists in America’s “War of Drugs.” I never even considered these angles as a white kid learning to “Just Say No” to drugs in north-central Ohio.

I learned a lot of other stuff from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, too: the history of gangs… the origins of the Bloods and the Crips… the tension between East Coast rap and West Coast rap… the militarization of the police throughout the “War on Drugs.” There’s no way I could possibly summarize everything I learned from this book. Suffice to say: It’s a fascinating read. Kind of dense. Not exactly a gripping page-turner. But super-insightful and engaging.

Posted in American Politics, Culture, Music, Politics, Recommendations, Recommended Reading, Social Issues, The United States of America | Comments Off on Can’t Stop Won’t Stop