Posted by: John Adams | November 25, 2008

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, the first thing I did – much to my surprise – was attend a Bible study. A girl I met at L’Abri recommended I stay at a Christian hostel called The Shelter. You could either join the cleaning crew for a half-day each day and get free room and board, or sign up to be part of the ministry team which involves leading Bible studies and prayer sessions and requires a commitment of at least a month. I ended up doing neither, but the place was still dirt-cheap, and two of my friends from L’Abri were on their way there, so I ended up staying for a few days.

The Shelter is definitely a Jesus-people era hostel. One of the walls has “Jesus Is Lord” written in the same font they used on the cover of “The Way” edition of the Bible (and just about everything else in the early 70’s). Staff members are friendly and seem to care for your well-being in a way workers at other hostels don’t, although the evangelistic purpose of the hostel is obvious in the abundance of Christian literature available and the nightly invitations to Bible study. The dynamic between the staff – who are very earnest in their faith if somewhat embarrassed by their responsibilities of rounding up people for Bible studies – and the guests – who are mostly outspoken unbelievers intent on getting the most out of Amsterdam’s anything-goes culture – is needless to say very interesting.

I took them up on the Bible-study offer the first night I was there, and enjoyed it. There was a Czech girl there who believed that the whole purpose of life was to be happy. “Everyone seeks their own happiness,” she said. “Not everyone is made happy by the same things, so people seek different things, but everyone seeks to be happy. There’s not really much more than that.” 

In reply, I shared the story of how my parents were kidnapped a couple of years ago by armed men from their churchyard. One of the parts of their story that has always stuck out to me is that my parents were singing in the car. This absolutely baffled the kidnappers – how can people be happy in a situation where they could very well lose their lives? But one of the mysteries of faith is that it strips away the fear of death. If your God has conquered the grave, then the grave holds no terror for you. Your happiness rests on much firmer ground than the temporary delights of this world.

The following day, I took a train to visit Corrie Ten Boom’s house, about 20 minutes west of Amsterdam in Haarlem. Corrie Ten Boom was a member of the Dutch Resistance during the Second World War. She lived with her sister and her father, who was a watchmaker by trade, and together they smuggled about 800 Jewish people to safety when the Nazis were taking them to concentration camps. They found very creative ways to do this, including putting people inside grandfather clocks and carrying babies inside baskets on the front of bicycles. 

The thing that makes the house famous, however, is the “hiding place” they had installed in Corrie’s bedroom. A false wall had been installed in Corrie’s bedroom, creating a secret compartment with room enough for about 12 people could hide. A buzzer system was also installed in the house so that “guests” could be notified if they needed to flee upstairs at a moment’s notice. One day, the Nazis sent a secret informant posing as a Dutch man seeking help, and the Ten Booms were arrested, imprisoned, and eventually sent to the camps, where Corrie’s father and sister died. The Germans never found the secret room, however, and the people hiding there survived the war.

After the war, she had opened another “hiding place” of sorts – a retreat center where “all who had bitterness and hatred in their hearts” could come and be ministered to and restored. Many of the people who came had been Nazis during the war. Later, during the 1970’s, Corrie became something of a Christian celebrity when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association adapted her memoir into a feature-length film. As a result, she was able to travel the world, sharing her story and the truth that had changed her life – “No pit is so deep that His love is not deeper still.”

I must confess that I am never quite sure what to make of stories like Corrie’s. Why would God use her to save the 800 she saved and allow so many others to perish? Why, for that matter, allow the Germans to capture her and allow so many others that she might have saved to die? I don’t know if any good answers to that question exist. If there is goodness in the world, however, I am sure that it must be cherished and praised. And if God’s grace can be made sweeter through suffering, and His glory abound more through the way He allows circumstances to happen, then to those who treasure those things, perhaps the resolution to the story will be worth the tension.

After going to Haarlem, I went back to Amsterdam and met up with Tim and Eveline, two friends I met at L’Abri. When they got to the hostel, Tim had me paged over the intercom and I ran out and hugged both of them really hard, forgetting that Tim had a huge gash just under his left knee. Despite the pain I caused him, we had a great next few days touring the city on bikes, admiring the art at the Van Gogh Museum, and taking a picnic to the IJsselmeer (inland sea). We mailed a postcard to L’Abri, watched some soccer games at a pub, and generally had a great time.

I realize that I haven’t actually said much about Amsterdam yet. It’s a beautiful city, less crowded than London or Paris and less expensive than anywhere else I’ve been so far. It’s also quite unique. The canal rings and buildings here make for a city that looks like nowhere else. It is also a city on the edge of liberal social experimentation. Prostitution is legal, although confined to the Red Light District. (I accidentally went through the Red Light on the way back to the hostel, and had the strange experience of prostitutes tapping on their windows to try to entice me in.) Marijuana use is legal, though you’re only allowed to toke in “coffee shops.” Pornography is out in the open – that discreet black wrapper used on American magazine racks is nowhere to be found in Holland. 

Of course, all of this social libertinism has its silent price. One night, Eveline met a girl at the hostel who was shivering and said she was extremely cold. Eventually, she told Eveline she was pregnant and had been kicked out of her home by her parents. She said the government would subsidize her abortion if she chose to have one. Some of the staff were counseling her, and hopefully they convinced her not to abort the baby. I do not know how that story ended, but I did pray for her and for her baby’s well-being.

It makes me angry how blind people can be (including myself). You can see the insouciance in so many people’s eyes. The goal of life is to be happy, we believe, and so all of our time is consumed with sex, money, mind-altering substances, and whatever we believe will get us through the next day. As a result, we are oblivious to the hurting world around us, ignorant of the authentic joy of losing our lives so that we might find them. Satan convinces us to spend our lives drinking from filthy swamps when living water is on offer.

I left Amsterdam feeling burdened. I can diagnose the problem easily, but solutions are harder to find. I’m not sure why God allows the insanity of this world to go on like it does. I don’t know why He works in such strange and small ways – promising a son to an old man, entering the world as a baby boy born to a young virgin, inspiring “Hosannas” from the lips of children, or touching hearts through the story of an old spinster who did brave things in wartime.

I am never content with the ways God seems to work in the world. But it may be that God doesn’t use man’s great movements, grand solutions, or quick fixes because they simply don’t work. Perhaps they were never capable of working. It may be that the greatness of Heaven can only be channeled into the brokenness of the world through very strange, small vessels – the weakness of a baby, a song upon the lips of a child, the quietness and trust of an old woman’s faithful heart.

“For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength.'” (Isaiah 30:15)



  1. Very profound.

  2. thats cool, Craigerz…much luv bro 🙂

  3. You’ve nailed the capitalist (materialist) sin: Insouciance, or apathy towards others. I love the [social, economic, academic] freedom that a free enterprise society offers me, but I must remember that God permits us to have such things in order to serve the needs of others and ultimately help them to draw closer to him.

    Isaiah 31.1.

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