Aug 242009

On my way back to the apartment tonight I was thinking about the good and bad of Brussels. Nothing major, just some of the little things that have caught my attention. Anyway, the good in no particular order:

  • Classical music in the underground stations at night
  • Getting around easily
  • Lots of green space
  • No such thing as architecture ‘in keeping’ with its neighbours
  • Leffe Blond (that’s a beer, in case you’re wondering)

And the bad:

  • Graffitti
  • Dog fouling
  • City prices
Aug 132009

I was going through my diary for the next wee while and realised that many of the items appearing on the horizon are after my placement in Brussels. Twelve weeks, a time that seemed so long before the placement, has simply flown past. I also realised that I haven’t blogged for a while but that’s not an indication that I haven’t had much to do. But, in a sense, it’s been the ‘same routine’. Like doing laps, the routine can seem repetitive, but there’s always some little nugget tucked away that sticks with you and lifts any routine task out of the simply mundane. So, for the sake of future memory jogging, here are some ‘nuggets’. Continue reading »

Jul 302009

IMG_3188.JPGHaving got bored with Brussels (kidding!), we decided to take a daytrip  to Bruge (or Brugge, depending on your preferred language). Photo album here.

It’s a very busy touristy place but it is still a very beautiful old town. many of the buildings date back to the early 17th century. The photo on the left is the Belfort, the bell tower.

I’ve been to Bruges before. The company I used to work with were bidding for a contract with a company in Bruges. I spent some time in the town working on the bid and had a bit of a chance to see some of the sights. We didn’t get the contract, but it was nice to revisit the town.

To finish off the day, we had a very nice meal in La Taverne Brugeoise. The apple pie with flaming Calvados was most excellent.

IMG_3217.JPGHad a quieter day today with lust a little walk to a nearby park. Brussels has some very beautiful green spaces and some interesting architecture. I am no expert when it comes to architectural styles and it’s not something that really interests me, but I find the sheer diversity of buildings in Brussels quite fascinating. Anyway, some more pictures to view here.

Jun 272009

Apparently the Euro parishes were, not so long ago, accused of being ex-pat social clubs who spent their time sipping G&T in the afternoon. Without a doubt, hospitality is a big thing here and it is not uncommon to be invited to come for a meal when a visit is arranged. And, yes, it’s not unusual for wine to be part of that meal (I’ve yet to be offered a G&T). But to suggest that this is indicative of some sort of easy and relaxed life of Riley would be a very superficial understanding of both the culture and the reality. Continue reading »


Jun 212009

It’s been a fairly busy week: a bunch of visits, lots of noisy tractors in Brussels, lots of walking around sightseeing (pictures here), preaching this morning’s sermon. So what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon after all that than at a barbeque? The St. Andrew’s, Brussels annual congregational barbeque to be precise. Well, it’s meant to be for the entire congregation, but as it’s the Sunday School who largely organise it, it’s their outing and everyone who wants to come tags along.

It has to be said that when the service finished just after noon, the bbq looked like it was going to be a swimming gala instead. But, by the time we were at the venue, the rain had cleared, the sun had come out (it always shines on the righteous, apparently), the temperature was just fine and the bbq’s had been lit and were just waiting for all the scoff (and scoffers). And just to prove it was actually sunny, here’s the photographic evidence. Continue reading »

Jun 162009

Yesterday I moved from the apartment I was sharing in Zaventem to one in Brussels city centre. In this one, I have the place to myself so I’m not imposing on others (although I couldn’t have been made more welcome in my first digs) and it gives more space when the family come over on holiday. I should have been really pleased getting ‘my own place’ (and I am), but it was tinged with some sadness when I closed the door on the place as the person who had given me a lift left to head home. In fact, truth be told, I felt lonely. Yes, I’ve been keeping in touch by phone and skype and that helps, but it’s just not the same.

Just last week, Andrew (my supervisor) and I were reflecting on ministry being a ‘lonely’ job. We are entrusted with many life stories, cares and concerns, not all of which can be readily shared with a trusted friend. And the problem is, many of them are heavy burdens to bear. Many of them are personally challenging. And many of them strike to the root of our understanding of our faith. Having someone else to share our thoughts and concerns with, even if only at a relatively superficial level, is an enormous benefit. Now, it would be easy to say that God is there to share our burdens with, and I’d never deny that. But we’re made to share with one another as well. Our relationship with God is imperfect and never will be perfect this side of resurrection (word chosen carefully). But then, our relatinships with one another are far from perfect and face the same limitations. But they are what we have and when we don’t have them, we miss them and are so much the poorer for that.

I was able to sit in, recently, on a confirmants ‘class’. As it was the last one it was a summary of all that had been done previously and a reminder of the vows that were going to be taken. One of those vows is tha promise to join regularly in corporate worship and Christian fellowship. I was asked for a contribution at this point and spoke about our need for relationship with others. This, surely, is the root of our claim to be made in God’s image. We are made to be in relationship, with God and with each other. The Trinity is the very model of that. On a recent visit, I heard about past broken relationships and others that had had to be reconsidered. So much of how we relate to others affects so much of our life and the lives of others and we can never know the full consequences of what we do. Mind you, if we did, we’d probably want to live in isolation for fear of what might happen.

This all sounds a bit gloomy and ‘heavy’ but maybe that’s just the mood I’m in at the moment. But of course there is a positive. Perhaps the single most awesome consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection is that of restoration of relationships. Forget ‘going to heaven’, forget ‘sin being forgiven’. forget ‘the price being paid’ (well, don’t but you get the point). All of these are about removing the obstacles in our relationship with God. Not perfected yet, but certainly the signed, sealed and delivered guarantee for the future. But, even better (in a sense), is the beginning of restoration now – with God and with one another (let’s hear it for inaugurated eschatology). No ‘guilt-trips’ about doing our best for God – after all, look what He’s done for you. Just the ultimate example of love healing the most fractured of relationships and through that, a sense of worth and value and inclusion which can only (surely) result in a response of love, to God and to each and every part of God’s creation which He loves enough to save.

So, a glorious promise, intended for the now as much as anything, but, at the moment, highlighting that being alone is not a comfortable place.

Jun 122009

On Wednesday I had an (eventful) trip to Amsterdam to meet up with John Cowie, the minister in the Church of Scotland there. This was part of an opportunity to get to know some of the other churches in the Presbytery of Europe and to get to understand a little of their uniquenesses and similarities.

The first thing that you notice about the church in Amsterdam is that it is The English Reformed Church – English in the sense that it is is English-speaking. But, like Brussels, it is an international congregation, drawing from all corners of the world and spanning the social spectrum as well.

The second thing you’ll notice is that you’ll not notice the church. It’s tucked away in a courtyard, through a door from the street. The courtyard was, originally, a Beguine community and, even now, only women are allowed to live there. It’s a lovely, tranquil little spot and the church has an almost ‘Tardis-like’ feel to it as you step into a lovely, airy and bright sanctuary that seems far bigger than it ought to be. (Sorry,with the early start, I wasn’t awake enought to remmeber my camera.)

As well as John, the minister, I also met Julia, his assistant/auxiliary. Julia is from Poland, has recently finished a Masters at New College and is working hard at getting the CofS to think of a way to allow her to be ordained even though she doesn’t neatly fit any of the CofS categories for ministry trainees.

After lunch and a tour of the church we all headed back to John’s and then went on a whistle-stop tour of some of his ‘parish’. Many of his congregation travel in from the outer suburbs of Amsterdam where the housing is more affordable. The problem with many of these areas, especially the older ones, is that they are high-rise ghettos. It is changing as the older high-rise blocks are being demolished and giving way to more community-friendly housing. It did highlight though the commitment to coming to church that many of his congregation have. Some of these suburbs are an hour’s travel to the church.

John was also saying that, in many of these suburban areas, many small (and not so small) ethnic church communities spring up; and then disappear just as quickly, often relying on a very charismatic leader, but often splitting and failing when disagreements crop up.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Amsterdam and Brussels is not really an issue of geography or logistics, but of style of ministry. Andrew is about getting out and about to meet people. John operates an appointment system where people come to see him at the church or the manse. For John it’s as much about that working better given the larger travelling distances. But it’s also about business. John was explaining that he is often ‘consulted’ abot many things in his congregation’s lives – jobs decisions, family decisions, all sorts of stuff. The minister is very much the ‘sounding board’ and respected giver of advice. Maybe that’s a cultural thing or it might be as much about John himself. That’s not to say that Andrew is any less busy, but it feels like a different ‘type’ of ministry. But maybe that’s just down to limited contact with both.

Anyway, yet again, much to think about on the nature of ministry and how it is affected by cultural context. The day was rounded of with dinner and the ‘interesting’ journey back to Brussels.

Next visit is to Rotterdam. I’ll try and remember my camera for that one.

Jun 122009

Having had an easy introduction to Brussels, the last couple of days have ended the ‘honeymoon period’. When the Brussels transport system works, it’s very good. You can get round the city quickly, efficiently and at pretty low cost. But when it has a hiccup…

On Wednesday I was travelling to Amsterdam for a visit to the church there (more of that on another blog post) and things did not start well. On the previous evening there had been a cracking thunderstorm and torrential rain. I suspect that some of the transport system ended up a bit out of sync. So, on Wednesday morning my train from Zaventem was running a bit late, but that was ok, I had allowed plenty of time for the transfer. But of course with trains running abit late, there was a knock-on effect and the train to Amsterdam ended up leaving around 25 minutes late. not too bad, and on a long journey (just under 3 hours) I thought they’d be able to make up a bit of time. But no! The train arrived just over an hour late in Amsterdam.

So, I had my day in Amsterdam and headed back for the last Brussels train only to discover it had been cancelled! However, the very helpful platform staff let the (not small) crowd know that if we caught the train to Dordrecht, then transferred to Rosendaal, we would find the Brussels train waiting for us. And so it was! And, what’s more, it actually arrived back in Brussels pretty much on time and I even caught my last train out to Zaventem. But I find travelling by public transport quite stressful. I like to know where I’m going and I like to know how I’m progressing. Being at the mercy of a foreign transport system with no sense of where it’s headed, how long it’s going to take and if it will actually arrive is not my idea of fun.

And if it only ended with that trip!

Yesterday I had to meet my supervisor at 9am so we could head to a BESPA (part of the Belgian CHurches Together setup) meeting. I was up early (despite not getting home from Amsterdam until nearly midnight), caught the 8am train to Brussels and was standing at the requisite tram stop at around 8.20am – more than enough time to get to my supervisor. Alas! my travel woes were not yet over.

25 minutes later a tram arrived (packed to the gunnels) and I squeezed on and off we trundled. Only to terminate about a third of the way along the route. No problem. Just hop off and get the following tram which arrived in a few minutes. Only to discover it was terminating a few stops later. Waited again and another one finally arrived. When I got to the appropriate stop, Andrew was waiting and jumped on hte tram – it was going where we needed to go anyway. And, lo and behold, it came to a halt a few stops later because of some blockage up ahead (lots of police cars coming and going, so it was maybe serious).

Anyway, we gave up, headed for a coffee and rearranged the day.

Oh, and one other lesson worth remembering if you ever come to Brussels – always have an umbrella (or a full set of waterproofs or, even better, your own micro-climate). When it rains, it really rains. Nuff said.

Jun 072009

This morning was my first (proper) visit to St. Andrew’s, Brussels. I was made very welcome and was bombarded with names that I will probably forget or get mixed up, but it was nice that so many people introduced themselves to me.

The service itself was an interesting ‘mix’. I think that the most striking thing is the robed choir (who sound amazing and really help lead and enhance the singing) and even a robed junior choir (who sang an introit). Yet this, very visibly, ‘traditional’ element of the service belied the more relaxed, almost informal, atmosphere for the rest. There was no ‘stuffiness’ in any other parts of the service. It was friendly, open and inclusive. There were lots of noisy kids, but that was ok, because that’s what families are like (and something I was glad Camelon prepared me for).

Perhaps the other striking thing, certainly as you survey the congregation, is the very obvious multi-national representation. It is, literally, gathered from all parts of the world. The African groups in particular strike a very eye-catching note with beautiful and colourful ‘Sunday best’ clothes. In many ways, such a congregation becomes a picture of the world church, gathered under one roof, as one family, praising God. There’s something quite ‘exciting’ about such an environment and it definitely merits some reflection on what it means to be ‘church’ and especially how that translates back into a ‘typical’ Scottish parish setting.

So, first impressions were overwhelmingly positive and there’s a lot of scope for exploring ideas about worship, about church family and about ‘being church’. I think that this placment is shaping up to be exciting and challenging and will also have an impact on my future ministry. I can’t help but think about how blessed I’ve been so far. Every placement, including the pre-acceptance ones have allowed me to learn something, to grow in some way and to ‘think bigger’. I know that that’s the whole point, but I can’t help but feel that the impression some others give (or indeed some others have genuinely experienced) is that placements are something to just get through. But there’s such a rich seam of experience and knowledge to be mined in them. It doesn’t matter if you agree theologically or stylistically, there will always be something that you can learn.

So, here’s to another 11 weeks or so of learning and challenge.