What is your only comfort?

Urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Revisiting the Oude Kerk

1989 was quite a big year for me. At the age of 14, I moved (along with the rest of our family) to England for a year. At first, English living was definitely not my cup of tea. But, over the course of the year, I grew to love Oxford. An added benefit was the close proximity to the rest of Europe. We took good advantage of this, with several trips to the continent.

My father, though, insisted that we visit every church, chapel or cathedral along the way. John and I developed a keen ability to size up any church gift shop within two seconds of arrival. We also learned new ways to remain interested in what, even to the most church loving of kids, seemed an never ending array of stone buildings with steeples and dead men buried below.

With each visit, we increasingly learned that European cathedrals came primarily in two varieties: Catholic and Anglican. This seemed fair, we lived in another person's country, we visited other people's countries, why should we expect to experience Reformed churches? Honestly, we didn't give it much thought, being far more focused on the gift shops.

When it came to our visit to Amsterdam, though, things changed. Dad insisted that we visit the Oude Kerk emphasizing that this was "our church." He got out his maps, and made special arrangements so that we might even get to experience the Lord's Day service at "our church." We got up extra early, took several buses and perhaps even a subway. Even as a 14 year old, I couldn't help but notice that as we navigated closer to the church, the streets became increasingly narrow - and far more seedy that suburban Rochester, NY.

Truth be told, "our church" is at the center of the Red Light District. To add to poor Dad's injury, the church was closed. No Lord's Day service in sight. No gift shop, either, I might add.

Dad was dejected, but not deterred. He found us another church service to attend. This one, though, had the benefit of being in English. As I remember, it also had good cookies afterwards.

Earlier this summer, Jen and I had an opportunity to return to "our church" in Amsterdam. I wanted to experience it through adult eyes, trying to see what ministry might be like in such a place. I also wanted to see if it was the way I remembered it. I can report to you that, no I was not dreaming. The Oude Kerk is still in the Red Light District. But, it is now open and functioning again as a church. This made me endlessly happy.

What I realized this time around, is the importance of doing ministry within a church's context. When the citizens of Amsterdam built the Oude Kerk centuries ago, it served a radically different neighborhood than it does now. Things change. Neighborhoods change.

I am not keen on the activities that go on around the church. The women standing in windows eyed me suspiciously as I eagerly took photos of the church's exterior. They were far more used to people attempting to take pictures of them. But there is no way to deny that the church has an opportunity to interact with real life and engage real problems.

So often in church, we like to turn our back on real life. We like to think that we've got our lives together and that horrible, difficult, uncomfortable things just don't happen to good Christian people. But that's not the case. We're called to be the very light of Christ in the darkest corners of the world. It certainly isn't easy. I'd have rather moved on quickly from the Oude Kerk, without so much as a glance in any direction. But inside, the beauty of the church, the peace of the Spirit so obviously present, and the hope that is provided through God led me to stay and pray, and reflect on ministry.

One of my favorite photos from this trip is taken from inside the church. It's of a the beautiful stained glass window, through which you can see the gables of the houses which surround the church. To me, it's a reminder that we can never be totally focused about what goes on inside our churches, but we always have to remember those on the outside who are looking in at us. What do they see? And what do we show to them? How do we invite them inside? How do we venture outside?


At 7:23 PM, Blogger Julio said...

This brought tears to my eyes, quite literally--not only because I'm a consumate Hollandphile, but because of the beautiful picture of the Church's mission which you have shared. Thank you for that.


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