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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Journey from Eden

The other day, riding the bus to Heathrow, I came upon this happy thought: “Even if I were to win the lottery, I would still quite readily show up for work each day.”   I am remarkably content with my work at the moment, feeling as if my job description was written exactly to match my abilities and interests, giving me a great degree of creativity.

Things have not always been this way.  There have been long periods in life when I have answered the “lottery question” completely differently; had I won, I would have left my empty-handed employer muttering words not learned in Sunday School, no doubt.

Consider the lesson of poor Adam & Eve and their children:

Adam & Eve start out on a rather high plain of existence, made in the image of God, made to participate in the process of life going on all around them.  Like you and me, they live life to the fullest when they are able to use their unencumbered freedom to be creative.  Life to them is like a garden, as it were.

But then, by falling for a deception,  their life takes a real knock.  They make a major miscalculation and suddenly the garden existence they so enjoyed is gone.  The scriptures use a new word for where they live: a “field”.  And life in this field will be characterized by pain and toil.  They’ve moved down a rung from a full, creative life to one of managing the hard-scrabble of mere existence.

Sadly, the descent from grace has not yet reached its nadir.  Cain, the son, endures a further rejection, a further disgrace in his effort to live in the field; he suffers a new blow to his identity and lashes out with murderous anger.  For this he is removed even further from his creative potential, ending up as a marked man, a “restless wanderer on the earth.”

From the Garden, to the Field, to the Land of Nod (‘nod’ means ‘wandering’).

Isn’t this our story too?

We know we are at our best when life gives us the opportunity to live to our creative potential, using our unique talents and abilities to their full, fleshing out the image of our Creator.  But before we know it, we take a false step, we believe someone’s lie, and we end up in a new place, a hard place where, though we give it our best effort, it seems we are only just managing to survive.

And we can sink further still.  Many do.  Another hard knock comes, another dent in our psyche, another rejection of what we have to offer, and we find ourselves having moved the final step away from creativity, to destruction.  We abandon our intended destiny and begin to destroy lives, our own and others’.  This is the place of despair, of burn-out, of violence and abuse.  Our souls are restless and adrift.

If we are stuck living life in the Field or the Land of Nod, just managing life or downright destroying it, we need somehow to find a way to turn things around, to realize again the kind of life we were intended to live and which gives us the greatest satisfaction.

I remember the day when, deep into a long burn-out that saw me falling further into destructive behaviour, I realized I simply had to turn things around or I would destroy myself and my family.  I had to “repent”, to use a misunderstood religious word.  And that turnaround took a remarkably simple form to begin with: a long walk, every day.

My walks were a metaphor for an even longer journey, but I’m happy to be back.

 

Farewell to parish ministry. (For now?)

And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them.  – I Samuel 22, 2

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it, fellow clergy?  Memorize it; it’s your life verse.

Whether you knew it at the time or not, when your ecclesiastical superiors gathered round and laid their hands upon your bowed head you embraced a calling to live a life surrounded  by the distressed, the indebted and the discontented, their faces anxiously turned to you for hope and guidance.

Eugene Peterson said it best in The Contemplative Pastor:  One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know your emotions are as fickle as ours, and your mind is as tricky as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to extract a vow from you. We know there will be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it….With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.

Not long ago, during an interview for a new position, I was asked to describe my ministry experience in one word.  My interviewers seemed rather taken aback by the swiftness of my answer and the confidence in my voice when I replied: “burden”.  Yes, I admit, there are dozens of other words that would describe the joyful and privileged aspects of this, my life’s work, but when it comes right down to it, since my ordination I have felt that a weight has been strapped to my shoulders and an inner voice compels me to walk.

This past Sunday I said goodbye to parish ministry.  It was a happy occasion filled with a gush of kind words and gestures.  I leave in a good frame of mind, contented, yet ready for the next step.

A week from now Renata and I will be off to the UK where I will take up a chaplaincy role at London’s Heathrow airport.  I’m glad to leave parish ministry behind (for now?) and for the change of pace.  But as I do, I have only the deepest respect and gratitude for my colleagues who persevere, often in the same parish, decade after decade.

One thing I know I won’t leave behind: the distressed, the indebted and the discontented.  “The poor you will have with you always,” someone once famously said.  It’s kind of what our vocation is all about.  And that burden.  Thank God we don’t carry it alone.

Island Farewell 

I push hard against the door, fighting winter’s wind on the other side, stepping from the bright, cozy warmth of the passenger lounge into the dark night air.  Brrrr.  Baby it’s cold outside. Turning right toward the front of the Queen of New Westminster, my unzipped jacket flaps wildly.  I pause, turning my back to the wind and do it up, pulling both my hoodie top and jacket hood over my head.  Better; much better.

On the forward deck, directly under the bridge, I find the sweet spot, the quiet space created by the wind hitting the bow and being directed up and to either side over my head, the wind reduced to a moderate breeze.  I am alone.  I lean back against the cold steel of the vessel and take in the clear night sky above me.

In this moment I stand with Abraham, overcome by the brilliance of ten thousand points of light, my life – a single star in the brilliant hemisphere – seeming both small and significant at once. I remember a night in Fez three decades ago, the same canopy, the same wonder, the quiet assurance that, come what may, all will be well.

To my left on the distant horizon, the glow of Vancouver, adorned with a tiara of sparkling mountain ski slopes hanging as if in midair in the black void above her.  To my right the brooding dark hulk of Gabriola, ringed at the base by a warm cincture of home lights burning.  And dotted around in the vast, dark waters of the Strait of Georgia the lights of other vessels bear witness to Canada’s unending industry, fishers and loggers most prevalent here.

Vancouver Island, my first Canadian home, lies at the end of this ship’s wake, becoming a mere memory as we draw away. I’ve come to say goodbye.

Our four day journey saw us drive halfway up the eastern coast, taking the old Island Highway, enjoying the hospitality of friends and family, pausing in Black Creek to dust the snow off of the graves of our loved ones and sitting for a moment on the logs at Miracle Beach, like Adam and Eve, or whatever their names were in the aboriginal tongue and creation myth, when they emerged from these ocean waters ten thousand years ago.  In the hours between, the windshield wipers making music with the rain, me driving and Renata resting her feet up on the dash, we talked.  We talked as if talking would help us finally understand why we had come here in the first place, why we needed to leave, and what we left behind when we did.  This place changed us, but how?

Tears well up in my eyes now, turning the points of light into oversized Van Gogh-inspired creations.  How can a place that was never really home make me cry for it, long  for it again, miss it even before it is gone?  The words of Erasmus come to me:   “Ik ben een wereldburger, mijn vaderland is overal; of eigenlijk ben ik een vreemdeling voor iedereen.”   I am a citizen of the world, my homeland is everywhere; but really I am a stranger to everyone.

Farewell, Island.  I shall miss your misty forests, your mountains running down to the sea, your fine and friendly people, your deer, otter, eagle, and orca.  Hold our loved ones in your earth, hold them softly until we return, or their Saviour does.  You have blessed us, delighted and perplexed us; changed us and made us better than we were when we first arrived on your rocky shores.  For this we are grateful.  Farewell now; be well.

 

(Written aboard the Queen of New Westminster, 29 December 2015.)

Crossing the Lake

Do you fight power with power, or do you understand authority?   When chaos raises its ugly head in your private world do you match it strength for strength as you are able, or will you accept your interconnectedness with others and the divine?

Jesus is crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat with a group of his students.  This is familiar territory for these men; a number of them are fishermen by trade, at ease in these waters.  However, water has always been perilous for humankind and in biblical literature the sea often signifies chaos, the realm of turmoil outside the control of God.

This voyage is fraught for another reason: its destination.  The far shore is known to be inhabited by a wild man who runs naked among the graves and whose crazed cries the fishermen have sometimes heard skipping across the surface of the water as they hastily haul in their nets.  They have always avoided the far shore.

All of us have power encounters in our lives.  Knowingly or not we have submitted ourselves to masters who demand our allegiance, who rule our days, promising structure and order if only we will acquiesce to their governance.  For many the master with which we are most familiar is money; our societies are now structured so that having access to money means having access to education, healthcare, social standing, grooming, recreation and so much more.  But there are other masters too, some we publicly adore (the Church) and others we privately deny (alcohol).

And we discover an odd thing: if the winds of adversity blow from just the right corner, the power that provided order and stability, comfort and ease, suddenly becomes an untamed monster threatening to overturn our boat and drown us.  We can’t keep up with the demands.  The disciples, who built their lives on the power of the Sea of Galilee now find themselves in a struggle of life and death with that very same master.

Many of us, likewise, now experience as threatening the thing that once brought us life; our marriages, our careers, our finances, our health…

We strain at the oars, we trim the sails, we frantically begin to bail.  We shout at those near us in the boat, those who have not lifted a finger to help us: “Don’t you care that we are being destroyed?”  Desperate to keep our heads above water we fight power with power, mustering all our personal resources as so many tin sailors.

Our journey to become fully mature human beings is a journey which, among other discoveries, teaches us the difference between power and authority.  Power is the weapon of the here and now, of the individualist, the true believer in self-discipline and determination.  As important as these are for the routine maintenance of much of life, a trial will come – for some, if only at the last – where these are not enough to see us safely through.  An appeal must be made to something greater.

Jesus was a man who was keenly aware of what was beneath the surface; there was a coherence to his life which rested on the realization that the powers answer to a greater reality, one which is not only in the heavens but also lives within.  He knew his time had not come, the bond which had been given with the others in the boat could not yet be broken.  Why should he fear?  This threat which did not match what he knew to be the trajectory of his life could not possibly rob him of it.  “Silence!” he commanded the wind; “Be still!” he demanded of the waves.  And they obeyed him. The waves on the outside are a mere reflection of the condition within, the real threat.

And the disciples feared a great fear, we are told.  Language which scriptural tradition has reserved for the undeniable presence of God. Their eyes too are now open.

Later, a trial would come to Jesus that brought his death; his time did come.  And to that trial he willingly submitted himself, resting in the knowledge that his surrender was right, that it somehow, mysteriously, fit the way the universe is put together.  His death, at 33 years of age, was timely, and he knew it. When he emerged from that trial he was able to say the most astonishing thing ever spoken by a son of man, born of a woman: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…”.  By his authority he had conquered even the most feared power, the power of death; his journey was complete.

Our journeys continue.  Let us pray that we might learn to live in right relation with the powers that structure our lives.  We look to them for life, to sustain us, to give order to our days, to give us a horizon.  Yet we are not bound by them.  Should the winds of adversity blow, stirring them up, bringing chaos to our world, threatening our demise, we can move beyond our frantic scurrying to control the situation, our recriminations in each other’s direction, and into a knowledge of God’s presence with us.

And if it should be that these waves really are to be our end and we must go down, we discover this: when we drown, we drown in a sea of grace.

Cape Mudge

Today we put Mom’s ashes into the ground. She’s there now, resting near family members she variously loved or endured, mostly in-laws; Isaac, Jacob, two Maria’s, Uncle Harry and all those poor kids who died on a cold winter’s day early in 1970. Heidi died too that day but her marker, if that’s what it is, is just an empty space in the line of seven stones. Her body was never found. “Slipped out of her life jacket,” is the conventional wisdom, but of course no one really knows.

We chuckled as we realized that in death Mom would have the same next door neighbours as she had in life. “No, not planned,” said the cemetery attendant standing nearby. Then we got serious again, said a prayer, sang a hymn, stood around uncomfortably in the summer heat until we shuffled off in different directions to see who else we might know beneath the grass.

Later, the sun setting, we gathered at the beach around a fire, cooking wieners, making smores, throwing rocks at the dark water. The same water that took Uncle Harry and his boat and all those kids. Yes, right there – we point at the lighthouse on Cape Mudge across the water – there the one group of bodies was found; the others further down the island, over there.

Tonight I’m in the made up bed in the spare room. Out the window the moon is full and bright, pulling a long golden train across the water. And below, the lighthouse on Cape Mudge beams its single light, every five seconds, keeping a silent vigil over our passing lives.

 

(*This is one of a number of my Facebook Notes which I will be folding into this blog so my writing is in one place.  I wrote this in the summer of 2014.)