David’s got a new right hip. After only two nights in hospital, he came home a week ago and is making good progress. He has mastered the typically Dutch narrow, winding staircase in our house – always remembering the technique ‘Good leg up’; ‘Bad leg down’. For those who know about David’s passion for coffee, you can see in the photo that he has retaken control of the coffee machine – one hand is quite sufficient. In the past couple of days the rain has stopped and so David has started pounding the footpaths around us on his crutches, often receiving encouraging greetings and thumbs-up signals from our friendly neighbours as he passes. We have been overwhelmed by all the cards, emails, phone calls and text messages we have received, reminding us that so many of our family, work colleagues and friends are thinking of us and praying for David’s recovery. This weekend our daughter Cathy, along with her three-year-old daughter Isla, came to visit. Isla brought David a box of his favourite Tunnocks teacakes and announced, ‘These will make you all better’. We do hope so! Our sincere thanks to all of you who have sent good wishes.
Turns out everyone does. Especially in Spain. Even David. However, getting carried away with the whole EU borderless travel idea, he left his behind in Nieuw Vennep when we set off for this year’s Monti Autumn Adventures. This was fine in France, where campsites readily accepted our ACSI Camping Card as proof of ID. But then we drove into Spain and things changed. We needed to produce our passports before being admitted to any campsite. Tricky! So, like ET, we phoned home and our good friends Mike and Helen rescued us by posting David’s passport to our other good friends Andrew and Ruth in Barcelona for us to collect. Meanwhile, back in Monti, we headed off across the Pyrenees, enjoying the amazing scenery and staying each night in an Aire along the route (free, unstaffed parking areas for motorhomes and campervans, which have services for filling and discharging water tanks and emptying chemical toilets, but no showers or toilets). We then stayed two nights with Andrew and Ruth outside Barcelona, reminiscing about primary school days in Dundonald and church activities at Windsor in the 1990s, shared our family and work news and probably thoroughly bored their polite and very patient sons Matthew and Reuben! Then David’s passport arrived and we continued on our way through Andorra and back into France for a week of glorious sunshine before entering Belgium for a cold, rainy reintroduction to life back in northern Europe. Happy days! The Lesson for Life in all this? Always carry your passport – especially if you are touring Spain or going to live in post-Brexit Northern Ireland!
Two weeks ago, Aunt Bessie died. She was my (Dorothy’s) last remaining aunt and was in her 99th year, outdoing my Mum who died two years ago, just before her 98th birthday. Those two girls were definitely at the front of the queue when longevity genes were given out! Aunt Bessie is survived by Uncle Tommy who, at 98+, still lives at home, cooks for himself, does his own food and clothes shopping (he’s a natty dresser who likes a nice shirt) and enjoys reading and watching the football. When I told him a couple of years ago that we hoped to go to Slovenia on holiday, he described without hesitation the countries we would need to drive through in our campervan from Amsterdam to get there. He is a mine of information on all sorts of topics and never seems to have to pause to try to remember someone’s name – yet I need to do that all the time! At the funeral meal we met up with cousins, friends and neighbours we had not seen for years and there was lots of reminiscing about childhood school holidays spent at Bessie and Tommy’s farm. They had no children of their own but gave so much time, love and care to us as nephews and nieces. Since the funeral I have been thinking about their long lives and great ages – Bessie, Tommy, Mum – and how they managed to keep young within themselves for so long. Their secret? As with most mysteries, the answer lies in a combination of factors. First, they were always interested in other people – us as children; later, our children and later still, our grandchildren. Even in her last few years of some confusion, Aunt Bessie smiled to see her nephew’s grandchildren come to visit and she loved to nurse the baby on her knee. Uncle Tommy still remembers all our birthdays and the names of our children and grandchildren. The second part of the secret, I believe, was their sense of contentment in life. They were not greedy people; they shared their homes, their time and their resources and enjoyed simple pleasures without constantly looking for more. Mum was always glad to see visitors and never scolded anyone for not coming often enough! The third part of the secret was their very real sense of humility before a greater power – their God – who had made them and given them all they had. Now that Mum and all our aunts have gone, my sisters and I have become the older generation – strange thought – and it is our turn to find the secret of growing old while staying young! As the prophet Isaiah says in the Bible:
They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
It’s late July and school’s out. Here in the Netherlands, the school holidays are set by the Ministry of Culture, Education and Science. The three main holidays – Autumn (around Hallowe’en), Spring (around Easter) and Summer – are staggered in order to avoid excessively busy times on the roads, ports and airports. How do they manage this? Easy: the country is divided into three regions and each region has different (but overlapping) holiday dates. All the schools in each region have the same holidays. After two years, the schedule is swapped around, so you get a chance to have early, middle and late timings for your holidays. How sensible! This also means that the government does not allow parents to take their children out of school for holidays during term time, though exactly how that is policed I don’t know. At the Baptist House, where we work, most people are now on holiday. That’s turned out to be a good thing for them, as this week temperatures have been in the mid-30s and it is exceedingly hot in our flat-roofed offices. At home we manage to keep cool by closing all the windows, doors and curtains and by having a fan on at night. Our holiday times are generally off-season these days, so we are looking forward to September when it will be cooler and everyone else will be back at work! Meantime, Happy Heatwave!
Yesterday was a different kind of D-Day. David was defending his PhD thesis in the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. The European system is quite different from the UK one, where you sit in a small room with one or two examiners and discuss the finer points of your work before they say yes or no and usually advise changes to be made before you have passed. Some months later there follows a grand graduation ceremony with robes and processions and speeches… Here in the Netherlands you get it all over in one day – actually in about one and a half hours!
The procedure went something like this: at 9.45am precisely, David (wearing the regulation tuxedo) processed into the auditorium behind the beadle (a university official carrying a mace); the ‘rector magnificus’ (who chaired the ceremony); five ‘opponents’; his two ‘promoters’ (supervisors) and two ceremonial assistants (oddly referred to as ‘paranymphs’). In David’s case Sarah and Catherine acted as paranymphs: the theory is that if the candidate collapses or cannot for any reason complete the defence, the paranymphs will take over on his behalf! First off, David was invited to give a 10-minute introduction to his work and then each opponent had 10 minutes to question him on any aspect of the thesis. After exactly one hour, the beadle re-entered the hall and announced: ‘Hora Est’, whereupon the proceedings ended (this happens even if someone is speaking at the time). The platform party then trooped out to have a private consultation to decide if he should be awarded the PhD. Since the thesis has already been passed by a majority of five readers prior to D-Day, some say the Defence is really a piece of theatre. However, it’s not all over until the procession re-enters the hall and the official announcement has been made, the certificate handed over and the congratulatory ‘laudation’ delivered. David’s laudation was delivered by his supervisor and dear friend Parush Parushev.
Unknown to David, his thesis had been sent out to three extra readers who agreed with the other five that it was an exceptional piece of work and so he was awarded PhD cum Laude – a rare honour and the first for an IBTSC Amsterdam student.
After the ceremony we all went off to a nearby restaurant for lunch with family and friends and it was all over. No robes, no garden party, no Vice Chancellor’s speech… suits David’s taste down to the ground! There is the wonderful satisfaction of having finished the job and the icing on the cake was being awarded a cum Laude. We all had a wonderful day. Well done, Dr David!
Yes – we’ve been doing lots of travelling recently. No – we haven’t swapped Monti for a vintage Beetle!That’s a picture of us in a ‘flower power’ car at the world-famous Keukenhof tulip festival at Easter. Sarah, Simon, Joel and Luke came to stay over Easter weekend and we all drove an hour and a half to Zwolle to visit Dinoland. The seven million tulips at Keukenhof (all planted by hand each year for the six-week festival) were hugely impressive and very beautiful, but our grandsons definitely preferred the dinosaur centre activities (and actually the adults quite enjoyed them too!). A few days later we packed up Monti and headed for the Hoek van Holland to Harwich ferry. After one day in Bicester with Tom, Cathy, Isla and Eve, it was time to be off again – flying to Belfast to begin our four-week annual Home Assignment, when we visit friends, family and churches across the UK that support us in our work in Amsterdam. We’ve spent the first two weeks in Northern Ireland – visiting our home church, Windsor Baptist, and meeting lots of friends at an Open Day kindly hosted by Sarah and Simon and the boys at their house near Lisburn. We shared a service at Windsor Baptist with an energetic group of four young people (appropriately named an Action Team) who have just returned from six months working with BMS World Mission in Thailand. They were inspiring! We’ve also fitted in some house hunting to get an idea of possible places to settle when we finish our term with BMS next March. In a day or two we’re off back to England and Wales for more visits …
Spring is here at last. That sounds happy, doesn’t it? Little lambs are playing in the fields, tulips and daffodils are coming into bloom in our gardens, cherry blossom is blowing in the wind… you can almost smell Spring. Here in the Netherlands, Keukenhof has opened for its short annual season of amazing tulip displays and thousands of tourists are making their way there every day. What a lovely picture!
But then you listen to the news and it’s anything but lovely: fifty people murdered in New Zealand at their place of worship; three people shot dead on a tram in Utrecht in the Netherlands; three teenagers killed in the crush to get into a St Patrick’s night party in Northern Ireland… and just before that hundreds of people were killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia. All this in addition to the suffering of thousands made homeless in the floods in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Why does all this tragedy happen? Whose fault is it? Does the God we believe in care? What can we do about the suffering? How do we live with the contrast between the tulips and the tragedies? These are huge questions and – let’s be honest – as human beings we don’t really know the answers. Many philosophers and theologians have written about the problem of suffering; many sermons have been preached on the subject and yet no clear conclusions are reached. The famous writer CS Lewis described the problem of pain as ‘a fundamental theological dilemma, and perhaps the most serious objection to the Christian religion’. He admits that ‘suffering is not good in itself’ but goes on to say, ‘What is good in any painful experience is … the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.’ Maybe instead of trying to answer the unanswerable questions we need to weep with those who weep, work harder to prevent suffering caused by neglect or abuse and not forget to enjoy the tulips along the way.