Our goal was simple when we rented a car in Amsterdam: to return it with no responsibility for bicyclist fatalities. Bikers clearly have priority in this Dutch city. Several locals joked with us that there are more bikes than people in Holland. One look at the multi-level bike parking ramp at the Amsterdam train station and it appears to be more than myth. Cyclists have their own lane right next to cars. They seem to have the premier right of way followed by taxi drivers, buses then pedestrians. Oh yeah. Mo-peds can zip along at some 30 miles an hour legally in the bike lane. So every turn with your car is fraught with mortal risk. Garrett opted to drive so Maria and I were charged with looking out for bikers and walkers at every juncture.
Amsterdam is an amazing city but we felt relieved to journey eastward, leaving urban for rural. The Dutch countryside is stunning in its tranquility. Fields stretch in every direction with grains in varied hues of green and gold. Colorful flowers are in the fields and flowerboxes. In this lowland, water shows up all the time, rippling with waves from contented duck couples swimming about or flat-bottom boats steered by unhurried drivers. Modern windmills dot the land, replacing the traditional ones featured in artwork. We settled into our hotel room in Kalenberg which is right on a canal. Sitting on the balcony with a fresh breeze and birds happily chirping around me, I breathed in deeply this still life.
We were in the Dutch countryside with the goal of visiting towns related to Garrett’s ancestors. After a remarkable worship experience in Nijeveen (which I reflected on in my last post), we headed toward the small town of Wirdum. We were armed with a print-out of directions by a cousin that told us where to go and why. Wirdum is the village where VanHalsemas hammered out a life as silversmiths in the 1700’s. These directions, like a treasure map, told us to retrieve the key to the local church from a particular house that is situated right across the street. That there is a keymaster (a la Ghostbusters, right?) seemed like a the classic attribute of a small European town. We mentioned our instructions to our waiter who served us a delicious lunch while we worked up the courage to steal a key. He was in on it! He gave us more precise directions: the key was found on the back side of the left-hand pillar in an enclosure on this family’s private property. Thus dispelling any images I had of spending time in a Dutch jail, we left the restaurant and headed to the Keymaster’s house.
He was sitting in his living room in full view as we took the key. If we doubted the old age of the church, the key confirmed that it pre-dated our 171 year old church (the oldest congregation in our little town of Rockford). The key itself was about four inches long and was attached by a heavy chain to a metal ball about the size of an orange.
The man waved at Maria through his living room window so we decided that the key was indeed there for the taking.
The 13th century church was right across the way with an old brick path leading up to the front door. Even though the key audibly turned something inside the old door, we couldn’t get it to open. We reluctantly gave up on our own skills and decided we would have to bother the Keymaster to be let in. How many times did this happen to him, we wondered? After two timid knocks at his door and, finally, a doorbell, he answered. Any anxiety we had about irritating him was quickly dispelled. When we confessed our ineptitude he responded in good English. His name was James. His mother was English and had married a Hollander. Hence his ease with our language. When we explained our genetic link to the place he was immediately interested. It turns out that our inability to unlock the door was our good fortune. James became our willing guide and told us more about the church than we ever would have known on our own. When we said that we were related to the VanHalsema who was buried in the church his jaw dropped. Just two hours earlier another contingent of visitors had come seeking out the key and they, too, were VanHalsemas. They were not American, he told us. They were Dutch. Like a family tree road rally, it seemed like Garrett’s distant family members were scampering over the countryside just ahead of us looking for ancestry landmarks. What are the odds?!
James confirmed some of the descriptions in the family email. DJF VanHalsema was buried under the stone floor in the chancel area of the sanctuary. His grave is marked with a black stone that has the family crest etched into it. We didn’t know there was such a thing! James told us that the practice of burying people in the floor of churches was replaced at some point with moving the burial ground to just outside the building. When a body was newly interred in an ancient church, they would leave the space open for several weeks before closing it in with a marker. Predictably this allowed for an odor to permeate the church as the body…cured. The only folks who earned the privilege of being buried in a church building were those of great financial means. From this outmoded practice comes the expression “stinking rich.”
DFJ VanHalsema was the first to add the “van” before the name. He worked with silver and one of his pieces is in a museum in Groningen. He lived in a lovely manor called Rust Hoven that is owned privately and has a sweeping, tree-lined driveway that leads up to it. We decided not to bother these country folk for a tour even though James urged us to do so. The other VanHalsemas had already been there that day and had been warmly welcomed. We didn’t want to push our hospitality luck so we drove up to ogle it from afar. Clearly this 18th century forefather had money that allowed him to claim a crest and an inside plot!
In the small but lovely building James showed us the family pew box that has the crest carved into the back of it. There were only two other pew boxes and they were not owned by private families. He had learned that I was a pastor so he invited me to climb up into the pulpit to give it a feel. It’s moving for me to think of who has faithfully served God in different places. How many preachers had poured themselves into a sermon that gave these villagers enough hope to get past a drought, a battle, an untimely death? He suggested we try out the pipe organ which dates back hundreds of years. On keys with tarnished ivory, I played the only song I know by memory: Your Song by Elton John. I doubt that Sir Elton has ever figured into the worship at the Kerk van Wirdum before! It was either the open door or the strange music that drew in a couple of the village children. They looked around the small sanctuary with wide eyes then ran out to play in the yard across from the church. James gave us an hour or so of his time on a Sunday afternoon and we parted as friends.
The Dutch countryside offers a still life that is nourishing. We`ve been in countless museums on this trip and many of our favorite painters are drawn to the countryside. They capture the beauty of nature in different seasons and times of day. They choose as their subjects lowly workers who represent the average villager, like The Milkmaid by Vermeer or the Postman by VanGogh. We spent an afternoon in Monet’s garden in Giverny where he created an Eden that moved his brushes for several decades. Cezanne positioned ordinary items like fruit, flowers and the occasional slain goose with its neck askew to portray the blessing of simple gifts. While I love the buzz of a large city and the cultural opportunities it affords, I think we were created for the more rural setting that connects us more readily to Creation. In village life we met folks who were willing to share their time and kindness with us even though they owed us nothing. The call to hospitality trumped whatever else they had planned.
As we drove back into the wonderful chaos of Amsterdam, leaving the still life behind, I wondered if I would be as available to unexpected guests as was James?