The Small Thing

“Excuse me!” cried a desperate voice from behind.

Paul, lead chaplain for Heathrow’s Terminal 2, and I both turned to see a family – mother, father, adolescent son – hurrying toward us across the concourse, dragging an assortment of hand luggage with them, the woman waving a piece of paper in the air.

“We checked the Flight Transfers screen,” she continued, breathing hard, “but we can’t find our flight.  Can you help us know where to go?”

Paul took the paper from her, a flight itinerary, and started to scan for the necessary details.  I on the other hand, my curiosity piqued by a familiar accent, started a different line of inquiry: “Where’s home?” I asked, already sure of the answer.

“De Nederlands,” said the father, characteristically avoiding the digraph that would have rendered English.

“Nederlanders!  Dacht ik al,” I said, much to their evident surprise and delight.  Continuing in Dutch we exchanged short, relevant histories: they, traveling back from holiday in British Columbia and transferring at Heathrow; me, former long-time resident of the Netherlands, chaplain at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, and now doing the same kind of work in London.

“Well,” said Paul, pausing for effect.  Paul used to work for American Express and has an endearingly direct way of dealing with people; no fluffing about, just the necessary facts.  He had ignored our conversation as he studied the document and was now ready to tell us what he knew.  “As I see it, the basic problem is this: you’re at the wrong airport.  Your onward flight is from Gatwick, in about three hours time.  You’re not likely to make it.”

The family were incredulous.  Wrong airport?  How could this possibly be?  How long did a normal transfer between London’s western and southern airports take?  Why would a ticketing website do such a thing?  How could they get to Gatwick?  Did they have to pick up their checked luggage first…?

“Never mind,” I said,  “all we can do is our best and hope it will work out.  Paul’s got a dodgy knee so we’ll leave him behind.  If you follow me, I’ll take you through immigration, baggage reclaim, customs and the trip to the bus station.  No guarantees that you’ll make it, but let’s go!”

And so began a hurried but calm guided tour through the intricacies of travel transfers, the most hated aspect of international journeys.  An hour later I waved the family off at the Central Bus Station, nurturing a small but reasonable hope they would make their flight, and sure that this would not have been the case if they had faced the task alone.  As I walked back to my office I realized we had never even exchanged names; there was no way for me – or them – to follow up on our joint endeavour.

I am so pleased that my day-to-day responsibilities afford me the opportunity to offer hands on help to those in need.  Yes, most of my time is taken up with duties involving paper and ideas and planning.  But if I keep my eyes open I can always find a way to be practically engaged with airport personnel or passengers.

Perhaps my experience reflects a wider felt need?  I notice from my forays into social media that we are all fairly accomplished at holding strong opinions on a wide variety of issues.  We passionately share our opinions, ideas, articles, and videos on every conceivable subject, not the least bit encumbered by the supposed taboos of religion and politics.

But isn’t there something in us that longs to be engaged in actual acts of compassion, that hungers to make a real difference in the lives of others?  Even just a small thing?  How often do we put down our laptops, i-pods and smartphones, leave our opinions behind and find someone we can serve, in whose life we can make a real, tangible difference?

It is so easy to complain about how the world should be a better place. And it should be.  So what are we doing to make it so?


Wearing a business suit and putting on a lanyard at the bottom of which dangles a security pass extending to me complete airport access gives me another privilege too, an odd and unexpected social permission: to look at people .  The assumption on the part of those who see me is that I must be a person of some authority, that I have the right, perhaps the duty, to let my gaze linger if I wish, to carefully consider what I see.

And I do.  I look at people.  Far more than I ever do when I am a traveler myself, I pay attention to those I see, I read their faces, see their emotions, sense their weariness and anxiety, their tears and confusion.

Today I saw a woman whose face was badly scarred and whose manner told me she had suffered much for it.  She seemed to make herself smaller, following an erratic path as she repeatedly shrank from oncoming passers by.

When she saw me looking at her, knew that I had seen her features yet did not shy away from holding her gaze, she was visibly strengthened by the encounter, pulling herself up to her true height.


In Peterhead we saw a house whose uneven roof tiles told a story.

During the war the airplanes came one evening to bomb the harbour.  They missed their target, the bombs falling several hundred metres up the hill in the centre of town.  At that moment a children’s piano recital was being held in one of the homes.  The house took a direct hit, the piano flying over the roofs of an adjoining row of houses.

All the children died, but one.  Moments before the bomb exploded the young lad was sent to another room for misbehaving.

We wondered at the untold story, of a life lived carrying the weight of such grace.


Coming home, boarding the train, I slowed to fall into step behind a blind woman with a guide dog leading the way. As we proceeded slowly down the aisle, low and behold, another blind woman was seated up ahead with an almost identical dog.

The dog still leading the way saw this too and, reaching the other dog, decided that his person had gone far enough, choosing for her an empty seat directly across the aisle. So now the dogs were nose to nose, greeting each other.

The woman who was seated first noticed her dog acting strangely and said something to him. The woman seated second recognized her voice and said, “Oh, is that you Jane?”. And then they had a good chuckle and started off on a conversation.

Obviously the dogs were friends too.


Relationships often go wrong because of our earnest and misguided efforts to manipulate others toward what is for us acceptable behaviour.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been given a book by someone who didn’t really like me, accompanied with this bit of encouragement: “I really think you need to hear this message…”.  And who hasn’t heard, at a church prayer meeting, something like this: “I think we should pray for all the people who have been waiting on a visit from the minister…”.

We have all experienced manipulation in one way or another, and I can safely say we have all dished it out too. Sooner or later, because none of us is perfect, our faults and shortcomings will emerge and become obvious to those around us, and sooner or later one of those people will find the situation unbearable and take some course of action – well intended, no doubt – to try and improve us….or remove us.

Manipulation occurs when we presume for ourselves a position of authority to judge the motivation and actions of another, and we try – indirectly –  to influence those actions to seek an outcome which gratifies us. It is not enough that the offender is at ease with him or herself, that they have a clear conscience; they have made us feel uncomfortable, and some method must be found to change their behaviour.

Manipulation is indirect, and so does not deal with real issues. What was it Jesus said?  “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one,”(Matt 5:37) and he adds, “Ask, and it will be given you.” The problem with manipulation is that it tries to maximise change while minimising genuine involvement in the life of another. Someone’s behaviour is questionable so we attempt to bring an atmospheric change around them, hoping the new conditions will spawn awareness or shame, and eventually the desired change. How much easier to hand over a book, withhold a benefit, or promise to “pray for them”, than to go to the individual directly and say: “It might just be me, but I’m having a hard time understanding where you’re coming from, and I wonder if you can help me understand…”

Dallas Willard shares some insight into manipulation in his book, The Divine Conspiracy.  He talks about the “dynamic of request”: “The most important element in the transformation is this: As long as I am condemning my friends and relatives, or pushing my “pearls” (of wisdom and knowledge) on them I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their “judging” me right back, or “biting” me, as Jesus said. But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and non-manipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. As I listen they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up…Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts, becomes an attractive possibility. The healing dynamic of the request comes naturally into play. When we stand thus in the kingdom, our approach to influencing others, for their good as well as ours, will be simply to ask: to ask them to change, and to help them in any way they ask us…Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in co-operation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual” (The Divine Conspiracy, pg. 231ff).

Willard adds, “Kingdom rightness respects the soul need of human beings to make their judgments and decisions solely from what they have concluded is best…We do not thrive, nor does our character develop well, when this need is not respected, and this thwarts the purpose of God in our creation.

Unfortunately, in many families (and in many church families), manipulation quickly becomes the entrenched mode by which we seek to influence the other and see their behaviour changed. Many parents do not know how to relate to their children except by manipulation. “C.S. Lewis notes that he has ‘been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parent.’ Parents are seen to treat their children with ‘an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.’ They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don’t, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the questions, ‘Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?’ ‘Who,’ Lewis inquires, ‘does not prefer civility to barbarism?’.” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 219)

If someone’s behaviour has offended you in some way, go to them directly, without prejudging them. Maybe they are completely unaware that they have upset you.  Ask.  Don’t simmer in your anger and hurt, trying to manipulate them into better behaviour. Do as the Gospels tell us over and over again: make use of the dynamic of the direct request. And if the answer is “no”, trust them and move on.

To Madrid, for a stamp.

“No sir, that won’t be a problem,” said the heavily accented Dutch voice on the other end of a dim, crackling telephone line.  In the 1980’s calling anywhere from Ceuta, one of the two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast, was always problematic, even if it was only to Madrid.

“With our centralized computer system you do not need to have the machtiging actually stamped in the passport; you can just take the reference number with you when you visit the vreemdelingendienst in Amsterdam.”  It was a visa officer at the Dutch embassy on the other end of the line, explaining to me that Renata’s provisional residence visa, with the impossible-sounding name of machtiging tot voorlopig verblijf, had been granted and we could now confidently book our airline tickets.

Our eighteen months of Moroccan Arabic language study had come to a close and, with our infant daughter – born at the Cruz Roja hospital on Monte Hacho, one of the ancient Pillars of Hercules – we were headed back to an exciting new project in Amsterdam.  Two weeks later, our few possessions crammed into a pair of old, red vinyl suitcases that seemed to miraculously expand no matter how much we fed them, we boarded the Iberia Airlines flight from Malaga.  We had purchased return tickets because they were cheaper than one-way; the second leg would go unused.

Or so we thought.

A few days after our arrival I caught a tram to Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, to the local headquarters of the Vreemdelingendienst, to comply with the within-8-days-after-entry registration requirement.  I pushed the three passports across the table to a disinterested middle-aged immigration officer:  USA, Canada, and another newly minted American one for our daughter, recently secured at the US Consulate in Fuengirola.

“Oh, and I have this too,” I said, sliding toward him a piece of paper bearing the number of Renata’s MVV.  Americans could get their residency papers after they arrived; Canadians needed the permission granted beforehand.

“Where’s the stamp?” queried the officer, ignoring my note and leafing expertly through Renata’s Canadian passport.

“The embassy in Madrid said we didn’t need it,” I replied confidently, “Said all you needed was the dossier number.  You can check on your computer that it has been granted.”  I was happy, proud even, to be the harbinger of the dawning age of computers.

“No stamp; no registration,” he said flatly, sliding the passports back toward me.  “You have five days to get the stamp.”

“You’re joking, right?  Are you telling me I have to go to Madrid just to have the embassy put a stamp in her passport?  Why can’t you check your computer?”

“No stamp; no registration,” he repeated.  And with that I was excused.

It must have been May 25th when I arrived back in Malaga because I remember watching the European Cup final on the tiny TV at a seedy Malaga hotel before turning in for a fitful night’s sleep in a hot and windowless room.  PSV Eindhoven beat Benfica on penalties; a month later the Dutch national side would win the European Championship with a magical performance by Marco van Basten; it was a good year to be a Dutch soccer fan.

The next morning I hopped an Iberia commuter flight from Malaga to Madrid.  It was a 727, probably the last time I ever flew on one, and it was full to capacity.  Nearly everyone was smoking.


At Madrid Barajas I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the address of the Embajada de los Países Bajos.  On arrival I took the elevator, found the office and was relieved that there was no one else waiting in line for services.  I explained the situation to the clerk behind the counter, gave her Renata’s registration number, watched her get out a large rubber stamp and whack it down on a page in the passport, and within ten minutes was downstairs again hailing a cab back to the airport.

The easiest way home now was a direct flight from Madrid to Amsterdam.  But because I had not been sure of how things would go at the embassy, I had not booked a ticket.  I ended up buying a business class ticket, on the spot, from the KLM desk.  It was exorbitantly expensive, downright abusive really, but I had grown weary of the whole project and just wanted to get home.

It was one of the most memorable flights I have ever had, worth every peseta.  A high pressure weather system had moved in across all of Western Europe and the sky was crystal clear during the entire flight.  With a map on my lap and a wonderful view I was able to plot our northeast-bound journey, watching the clearly visible landmarks and cities move by slowly below me.  It was enthralling.

Back in Amsterdam, ahead of my five day deadline, I slid the Canadian passport across the desk to the now slightly bemused immigration officer.

He duly completed the registration, stamping a page-filling visa on the page opposite of the stamp I received in Madrid, and then flipping the document back to me.

“Did you have a nice trip?”  he inquired wryly, with only the hint of a smile.

“Yes, I did,” I returned, equally dry, not wanting to give him an ounce of pleasure.  “I did indeed.”

Journal entry, 29 July 2016

For more than a few years I have kept a journal.  As I sat down to write this blog about my present visit to Amsterdam I realized I had no more to share than what I had already written in my journal this morning.  And so, gentle reader: for one time only, my journal.

Friday, 29 July 2016

So, here I am again.  Back in the HEMA café restaurant overlooking the Stadsplein of Amstelveen.  Back with my coffee and double chocolate muffin, my journal and my thoughts.

It has now been five-and-a-half years since we lived around the corner and this was a weekly ritual more important to my well-being than perhaps any other of that time.  I wonder how many journal pages I filled in this place.  Many.

The intervening years have been far too rich, stressful, complicated and beautiful to review now.  All I can say is I am glad for it all and am a better person for it.

Holland!  What a wonderful country and society.  Sure, it has its own challenges and weaknesses, but being here is like visiting a little bit of the Garden that Adam & Eve managed to preserve for themselves.  I love the orderliness, the purposeful city planning, the way people are so comfortable with their bodies (and others’ bodies), the physical exercise built into living, the way men and women relate as equals, the no-bullshit-straightforwardness.  God didn’t give the Dutch much, but they’ve taken their meagre inheritance and worked it wisely.

The reason for our being here at this time is the occasion of Sarah & Evan visiting Miriam & Thomas, so giving us the opportunity of seeing them all – and their adorable children! – all at the same time.  H & S have left us their home (they are away in the UK), so we have all the comforts we need – plus peace and quiet when the adorableness of all those kids wears thin.

This is my kind of holiday.  No crazy Costa, no uncomfortable endless camping trip, no expensive mega-city.  Just the refreshment of a new environment and a long string of small pleasures to enjoy at my leisure.

And the neatest thing is that in the few moments when I actually do think about work I don’t have that “Oh shit, I’ve got to get back soon” feeling, but rather an anticipation and happiness about all there is that awaits me.  I have become that rare person who loves their work, whose personal circumstances are overwhelmingly positive, whose health is good, and who wants more of the same.  (Sure we still carry some $ debt for all that went on in the past few years, but I feel we are the Real 1% – not wealthy in monetary terms, but rich beyond reason in the things that really matter.  We must not lose sight of using our position to bless others too.)

As fate would have it, the two weeks of my holiday have corresponded with the two weeks of Republican, then Democratic, conventions.  So, not having to wake up early for work, I’ve been watching my fair share of the proceedings in the (for us) late night.  At the end of the Republican convention the abiding sentiment was Fear.  Fear of each other, fear of politicians, fear of Forces Beyond Our Control.   And the solution?  Give power to a self-absorbed Reality TV star who has never given a day in his life to public service.  A week later, following the Democratic convention, the feeling is the reverse: fear is replaced by hope, pessimism by optimism, exclusion with inclusion, and individualism by the promise of a better society.  Two visions of America are on offer and I will most definitely go with the one based on Hope.

Well, the day beckons.  It’s market day in Amstelveen so I better get out, buy some cheese and a real loempia, and complete my fill of this tour of the Netherlands.

Drostan’s Tears

Some way past Ellon, following the now muddy path which the Formartine and Buchan Way had become after a night and a day of successive bands of thunder storms, I asked her:

“So, this walk of ours, from Aberdeen to Mill of Aden, if it’s something of a pilgrimage as you suggest, then why are we doing it? What’s its purpose?”

We left the hotel near Aberdeen train station – on foot and in high spirits – two days before.  The morning was glorious, the seagulls calling out above us in a bright blue sky as we made our way north through the granite-clad streets to Old Aberdeen, to St. Machars Cathedral where, to our surprise and delight, we found relatives, or at least surname-sharing Adans buried against the southern wall, just below the stain-glass window of the maidens Faith, Hope and Charity.  Just the day before we had raised a glass in the Market Arms in Hadden Street, an Ichabod of a pub if ever there was one, to my forefather Charles who lived in the street in 1853.  He married Jane, at house number 33, in November of that year. So yes, we knew there was Adan family history in Aberdeen; but these members we did not know.


We got carried away, lost track of time in St Machars, and when we emerged again the rain had started.  No worries; we had seen the weather report earlier that morning and knew it would not rain heavily or long.  We pressed on along the Great Northern Road toward the trailhead at Dyce rail station where our walk would officially begin, chuckling at the “No Golf Practice” sign planted on the wee bit of grass outside a council estate, and snapping a photo of the now pointless “EU Remain!” posters hanging in the windows. Yes, we’re definitely in Scotland.

The rain never did leave us completely and so, tired and soaked, and staring down an ever more dark and ominous sky as we passed along the hillside above the little village of Newmachar in the late afternoon, we relented and sought cover. The woman in the coffee shop at the activity centre helped us contact the local inn which, thankfully, had a room.

Next morning all the world was bright again. And I was sore. My right ankle and left hip complained mightily about the extended walk of the day before, and continued to complain as we passed through Udny and onward to Ellon. After a mere 8 miles I could go no farther.  We hobbled into Ellon, found our way to an inn and checked in early.  It was a fine summer day, the nicest we’ve had all year, so after a shower, a rest and two ibuprofen, we enjoyed a wander around town, sans rucksack, the discomfort of the morning melting away with the help of an iron brew flavoured ice cream cone.

The storms returned that night, or rather early the next day.  Renata loves lightening and thunder and so, after catching the forecast on the evening news, I left the curtains open in the window of our room so she could enjoy the spectacle when it arrived. Of such is love made after 33 years.

I awoke to a scene to which Cecil B. DeMille could only faintly aspire. Heavy clouds of no earthly colour were laced with terrifying stabs of lightning; ear-numbing cracks of thunder heralded the arrival of torrential rain. Renata was already sat straight up in bed, smiling from ear to ear.  I tucked my head under the duvet and eventually went back to sleep.

At breakfast – the full Scottish but we’ll pass on the black pudding, thank you – we faced a decision: hang out in Ellon for a day, reading and getting antsy, or carry on and brave the storms. I know my wife and I already knew what we would decide.


So there we were, north of Ellon, variously walking at a fierce pace or huddled under an overpass, or a tree, or the little tarp I had thought to bring along at the last minute, rain dripping down our legs and into our shoes, reading our Ordinance Survey for omens or signs of good fortune and talking about pilgrimage and our loved ones in heaven smiling down on us through the rain.

“We’re doing this to honour our ancestors,” she said without pause.

We ended the day, wet and weary, as guests at the first-rate B&B in Old Deer, just a mile short of the end of our pilgrimage.  We completed the journey this morning, calling in at the Mill of Aden, a still functioning woollen mill on the banks of the River Ugie.


In Old Deer, Mintlaw, and the surrounding villages people whose name I bear and whose genes I carry lived in centuries past.  Monks writing in the margins of the Book of Deer, a document of the 900’s, mention gifts to their abbey (“to Christ and to Drostan”) by Comgell, toisech of Clan Canan, of land as far as the Great Rock field nearest to Daldin or Old Aden.

Old Deer, New Deer, Book of Deer, the forested hills nearby – never farmed and inhabited by plenty of deer – all seem to point to the obvious. But before New Deer was founded Old Deer was merely Deer. And nothing is as it seems.

St Columba came here in 580, bringing his nephew Drostan, to found an abbey among the heathen Picts.  It is not unlikely that the abbey was located at the centre of what is now Old Deer, not 50 metres from our B&B.  Two churches stand there now, either side of the road. When the mission was sufficiently established Columba departed, leaving Drostan in charge. In later centuries Cistercian monks rebuilt the abbey a mile farther west.


Drostan cried when his uncle left him behind. Or rather he shed tears, “de’ara” in the tongue of the monks. Drostan’s tears gave their name to the abbey, then to the village of Deir, becoming Deer, now Old Deer.

This morning as we walked the final metres to the Mill of Aden Renata quoted a John Denver song to me: “coming home to a place he’s never been before…”. Aside from the manager and a young helper, Sam, the mill seemed to be run by a wide assortment of Eastern Europeans. How right, I thought.  My ancestors too were labourers, crofters and quarry workers, pushed to the margins by economic powers beyond their control – pushed onward by a desire for a better life, to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and then Chicago.


The thread of my family history is, it seems, knotted with tearful goodbyes. From one generation to the next we rarely settle. Amsterdam, Manaus, Chicago, Chicago again, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Lonmay, New Deer…these are the birthplaces of my children’s lineage going backward.

We share the inheritance of Drostan: the quiet beauty of the lands of Aden, and tears of sorrow, the sadness of farewell.