This post was coming sooner or later.
After serving as a pastor for 8 ¾ years – that’s leading a little over 400 worship services – I’m back in the pew. As one of those visitors. One of the folks who suddenly show up on a Sunday.
Having no responsibilities in the course of a worship service is bizarre. The sound system isn’t working? Not my problem. The person doing opening announcements goes on a bit too long? Oh well. I scan the bulletin knowing I hadn’t lifted a finger to craft it. That calendar of events on the back was built on numerous meetings that I didn’t attend. I look around at the others gathered in the worship space unaware of their joys and concerns, not knowing if they are firmly rooted in their faith or clinging to a hope. I sit in the pew (or chair) and glance around at the worship space — centuries old or more modern — and I can only imagine the triumphs, joys and controversies that the walls have witnessed. I can listen to a sermon that I didn’t research, pray over, sweat over, dream about, mull over and then lift up to the congregation with a blend of hope, faith, enthusiasm, and self-critique. I can sing hymns and at long last be the one to ask in his mind “Now why did they pick that one?!” As the offering plate or pouch is passed around, I pull out my wallet and consider whether my being a first-time visitor or 20-year member should change the amount I put in. As the time comes for passing the peace, I experience being on the receiving end of people welcoming me, asking my name, Are you just visiting the Netherlands? Oh, how long will you be here? A year? How marvelous! In each of the first three churches I visited, someone invited me to dinner. As the service comes to a close, I rise with the rest of those gathered as the worship leader offers a blessing, a good word, a benediction, to carry us out of that Sunday morning and into all that awaits us in the week to come. There’s that small talk as people drift toward the space for coffee. As I’ve invited countless people to ‘join us for the coffee fellowship,’ I now consider that invitation for myself. I may also have the chance to offer a word to the pastor as they stand by the door or mingle in the crowd. What would be the most meaningful thing to say? Does one need to offer a verdict of sorts on the service or sermon like some film critic? Or should I lift up a particular appreciation so as to affirm their faithful striving in the midst of the awesome responsibility which is ‘the call.’ I exit the church, but without the exhale that comes after greeting, coordinating, preaching, listening, encouraging, scheduling, laughing, problem-solving, consoling, planning — through that Sunday morning — and on top of the week that was, and before that week that awaits.
I just walk out.
These past three and a half months, since I left my beloved congregation of Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church in Raytown, Missouri, have been a time to catch my breath and unwind (which took a while). We are now fully settled in our new home in Groningen. Janet is busy teaching online for Washburn Law School and is getting involved with the University of Groningen in exciting ways. Our daughter Elyse is fully engaged at her international school where her friends hail from Finland, Germany, Spain, Turkey and beyond. She also is dancing with a local ballet company three days a week.
In the meantime, I continue to explore and search for places where I can connect and contribute. There are limited opportunities in ministry because, unlike the business community and upper academia which operate largely in English, the language of the church is primarily Dutch. There are four English-language congregations in Groningen, and I have attended each of them.
I have found a regular home at Grace Anglican Church. It is a warm, uplifting congregation that is a mix of people from the Netherlands and around the world. I appreciate their meaningful, moving worship that blends the dual imperatives of personal spiritual growth and then commitment to community — there in the congregation, and in their active concern for the world at large. I’ve joined a study group that is probing the 16th century Heidelberg Catechism and a contemporary companion text. It’s of special interest to me that the Heidelberg Catechism is THE confessional document that has been most embraced (I’m told) by Protestants in the Reformation-rich Netherlands. The congregation shares their space with a Catholic church and so meet every other week. That gives me the opportunity to experience other congregations on the ‘off’ Sundays.
One of those other worship places is the Christian Church of Groningen, which makes special efforts to accommodate both Dutch and English speakers. All of the hymns are projected on the wall in both languages. They usually sing the first couple
songs in Dutch, and then they shift to English. The remainder of the service is a bit of a U.N. experience as the pastor preaches in Dutch, but you can listen to a simultaneous English translation on headphones. They also have a person doing sign language. In a recent service, there was an open time for people to lift up prayers. I realized at one point that the person speaking a prayer was the person who does sign language during the service. She was speaking in Dutch the prayer that a non-speaking person was signing to her, which I in turn picked up in English through my headphones!
On another occasion, I attended a Dutch language service at the local Martini Ziekenhuis (hospital) at the kind invitation of one of their chaplains. The chaplain went to the extra effort of writing his sermon out in English and giving it to me at the start of the service so that I could follow along. After the service, he took me on a tour of a meditation and prayer space in the hospital which was beautifully laid out.
Attending these services has made me think about language. I use several different aids in my daily Dutch language study. Duolingo is a helpful resource which teaches me vocabulary like De twee olifanten drinken het sap niet (The two elephants do not drink juice). Dutch for Dummies is great for its grammar tips like summarizing all the irregular verbs like zijn (to be), hebben (to have), kunnen (to be able), doen (to do), and so on. And then there’s my Lonely Planet Dutch Phrasebook and Dictionary that teaches me how to say Ik wil graag brood en kaas kopen (I’d like to buy bread and cheese please.)
But it isn’t until I am in church, or visit the meditation and prayer space in the Martini Hospital, or open my Dutch bible that I encounter this other vocabulary:
geloof — faith
hoop — hope
liefde — life
angst — fear
vreudge — joy
afwachting — expectation
verlichting — illumination
wanhoop — despair
moed — courage
This, as it turns out, is the real vocabulary that I need.
This time for me in the Netherlands, as I’m quite aware, is a luxury. My dear wife is affording me this time to unpack, unwind, explore and just enjoy – and I am breathing that in with great gratitude. I’d be lying, however, if I didn’t admit to a touch of unease. I’m so used to being busy, plugged in, engaged and bringing home at least part of the bacon. So there is an unfamiliarity to this experience of a nearly open calendar with relatively few commitments and no institutional affiliation. Added to this is my continuing pending legal status that has been in the works for the past few months. I hope to at last get my official Dutch documentation in the coming month, but for now, my most identifying credential comes from IKEA!
This undefined status places me smack in the middle of the age old discussion about the need simply “to be” as opposed to defining ourselves by our job or what we do. Maybe this unease is just what I need to propel me to a deeper consideration of the meaning in my life. But it also is making me think more about purpose. In August I wrote a Facebook post about a book I read titled Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande. One of his intriguing observations (among many) from this book about how people live out the final chapters of their life is the importance of purpose and community. He found that people who experienced both elements were more fulfilled, happy and lived longer.
So while I savor this time in the Netherlands — biking about this beautiful city and countryside, enjoying my family and acquaintances — I am also exploring ways to connect and contribute to the world around me. That may involve volunteering in churches, working with the refugee community, and helping out in local schools. There are a few things in the works; I’ll keep you posted!
My closing observation, as a pastor, is that I find the church — and I expect this to be true of other faith traditions — to be a place that beautifully blends those two human needs of community and purpose. So as that visitor who has popped up, I have been welcomed and told that I belong. And in the midst of worship and fellowship, I am reminded of those twin purposes of loving God and loving my neighbor.
Before this post kicks into a full scale sermon, I want to conclude with a brief video clip from my pew from the September evensong service at the Nieuwe Kerk here in Groningen. (The church’s name, “new church,” may seem a misnomer for a house of worship built in 1660, but then you have to consider that the church on the central square in town first went up in the 1200s!) It does something to my soul to sit and absorb readings and song in a place that has been a place of worship for some 350 years. It’s a wonderful time for contemplation. Maybe you yourself can consider those two questions: where do you find the most meaningful community in your life? What do you feel is your purpose?