Significance

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I’ve been away for a little while, travelling, writing, and thinking a lot about significance. I’d love to start a conversation with you about this word. How do you define significance? Who are the people who model significance to you, and how are you consciously (or unconsciously) pursuing significance in your own life? Is it through what you’ve achieved, your children and grandchildren, following your passion, using your gifts and talents to help others? Because we all long for significance in our lives, to know that we matter and what we do has purpose.

Here is how the Oxford Dictionary defines significance:

n.  1. importance; noteworthiness; having a meaning

And I love this:

In math, a significant figure is a digit conveying information…not a zero used to fill vacant space at the beginning or end.

Can you believe that’s in the dictionary? Yikes! I have to ask myself, am I a significant figure, or a zero simply filling vacant space? Boy, I sure feel like a zero sometimes. I guess we all have to ask what kind of “information” are we conveying about our lives?

I live in Cambridge, England, and there are a lot of people here, past and present, whose significance has changed the world. Names like Erasmus, Tyndale, Newton, Wilberforce, Darwin, and Hawking are just some of the greats associated with this place. Cambridge University has produced Nobel laureates in every category. Writers, musicians, and scientists who defined their century have wandered the same streets and meadows as I do. Kings built architectural wonders here, the most iconic and beautiful being King’s College Chapel overlooking the River Cam. The life changing but invisible structure of DNA was revealed over a lunch break in a favourite pub. You could easily say Cambridge is one of the most significant towns in the world. If you surround yourself with such significance, does it rub off? Meaning, does one’s halo shine a little brighter from standing next to the sun?

I guess it goes back to how you define significance. Genius and significance don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Thank goodness! I may live in this rarefied stratosphere of eight centuries of greatness, but very few of us on this earth are going to be Nobel Prize winners or make fabulous discoveries or create iconic works of art. Our significance exists on a much humbler level, and that is, in spite of the numbers, we are each called to live lives of significance in our own unique way. If you believe, as I do, that we are created in the image of God, then each one of us has value on a tremendous scale. We have not been born as zeros filling up a short bit of space!

So, what does plain, ordinary significance look like? I’ve put together a list of qualities that stand out to me:

Commitment–what or who are you committed to no matter what happens

Perseverance–what do you keep doing even when it’s difficult or seems hopeless

Thoughtfulness–how do you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes

Kindnessdo you extend yourself even when it’s not easy or convenient

Thankfulnesshow easy is it to complain or criticise instead of showing appreciation

Couragehow do you confront what you fear, not recklessly, but in order to be better

Humility –how do you handle pride and hurt feelings

Endurancewhat are you in for the long haul

What would you add to the list? It seems to me a lot of who you are being is just as important as what you are doing. Significance involves how you view yourself in relation to others as well as not giving up in difficult situations. Significance is not something that isolates, although great people have often suffered isolation, whether physically or mentally. Ultimately, significance brings people together in ways that make a difference. How is that happening in your life?

Thank you for reading; your comments are always a significant source of encouragement to me!

 

Perspective

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I went for a walk in the Oregon rain today and got refreshingly drenched.  I am not normally a rain walker; English rain just makes me shiver.  But there’s been a lot to process from the past few weeks and I can highly recommend a brisk walk in the rain for clearing one’s head.  It could be the mountain scenery also has a lot to do with the head clearing process.  Mountains have a lot to do with perspective.

So, I find myself in Oregon, seeking perspective on a week that began with the funeral of a close friend in England and ended with Earth Son’s graduation from college in Santa Barbara.  A lot got packed into that week.  Death and life played off each other in ways that, in retrospect, resonated in Earth Son’s grand college finale– his senior art exhibition.

Entitled simply “Triptych”, we watched him struggle with his ideas for his senior project for most of the year.  He knew he wanted to do a collection of portraits and that he would use his favourite medium, drawing.  But what would they be about?  What would be their significance?  I told him, just start drawing.  The significance will come.

I’m a writer, and I know how easy it is to get so bogged down with the idea of “significance” that you stop writing.  Why bother?  What difference does it make?  It’s all about perspective, how you look at things.  That’s when I need to go rain walking.  It’s lonely sitting there in front of an empty page wondering if it’s worth the effort.  I see it’s going to rain, but I go out anyways.  There are mountains beyond a lake surrounded by trees and my eyes are drawn upwards.  It starts to rain, one drop, then two, and before long, I am walking with wet skin and flattened hair.  But it feels good and words, then sentences start forming out of the jumble in my head.  When I get back and dry off, the words keep flowing, like the rain, onto my empty page.  Those words and sentences connect in other ways, like streams and rivers, with the struggle and meaning of the portraits that became Earth Son’s senior art project when he began “rain walking” through his experiences these past four years of college and finally started drawing.

He began with the Chumash Storyteller, a Native American whose tribal ties to the central Californian coast go back centuries before any European settler arrived on the scene.  When Earth Son first met him, he was drawn to his warmth and humour and invited him to come and tell his stories on the college campus, which he did.

I started calling this son of mine “Earth Son” after his sojourn in New Zealand where the indigenous people, the Maori, taught him to love God’s creation in a new way.  The stories of their own names are carved on their faces so that in time they appear as natural as any wrinkle.  The Maori Craftsman’s face literally tells you who he is.

Earth Son’s love of indigenous people and their connection to their environment and community extended to the marginalised people of Palestine whom he met on his visit to Israel last summer.  They made a deep and lasting impression on him.  His final and central portrait is the Palestinian Mother.  She is old and appears to be blind.  The harshness of her life and her people’s struggle are all too evident in the ancient lines of her face and careworn hand.

Once Earth Son finally began drawing, his love and passion for these people’s stories flowed through him and he rediscovered how powerful art can be.  The portraits reflect stories that are being headlined every day.  The Palestinian Mother remembers the home she had to flee as a girl while her sons and grandsons storm the fences of Gaza.  The Chumash Storyteller preserves the oral traditions of his culture while other Native Americans fight to preserve their water rights to land they can no longer control.  The Maori Craftsman sees his home shattered by earthquake and environmental disaster, and as his people have for generations, with dignity he begins to rebuild his community.

This is where significance lies.  It’s not something that can deliberately be created.  It comes from the doing itself and out of one’s own unique perspective, whether it’s drawing, writing, storytelling, building, raising a family, or just forging ahead with life in the midst of suffering.  Each portrait testifies to the loneliness of the human spirit, but also to the fact that in our differences, we are all made in the image of God.

So, to Earth Son, beloved hijo, I would say that in these portraits, I can see where you’ve been “rain walking” these four years, gaining new perspectives from all the mountains and hills you’ve climbed in different places, and the stories you’ve listened to from the people who live there.  They have entered your heart, and in revealing them to us, they touch our hearts too.

To anyone else, college graduate or otherwise, who may read this momma’s proud tribute, I say the world tells you to believe in yourself, but that’s not the answer to self doubt.  The self is a bottomless pit.  Rather, stay connected to the River of Life and believe that whatever talents you have been gifted with have merit.  In the doing of them, you will find significance, and ultimately the purpose for which God has given them to you.

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Three Billboards and a BAFTA

 

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Seen any good movies lately?  If you’re a cinephile like I am, there are a lot of reasons to love cinema now that it’s awards season and the English weather has been sensationally awful!  The red carpet rolls out for Oscar in Hollywood on Sunday, the 4th March.  But will he agree with his counterpart, the face of BAFTA?

The BAFTAS are the British Film Awards, usually held in London a few weeks prior to Hollywood’s Academy Awards night.  In recent years the BAFTAS have become increasingly more significant as pre-indicators of Oscar gold, probably because American and British film making are becoming more and more intertwined.  So, if BAFTA has anything to say about it, the leading contender for this year’s Big Win at the Oscars is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a thoroughly American film written and directed by Martin McDonagh who is Irish.  The film scooped all my favorites, including Best Picture,  Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor.

This year’s film nominations are very different to last year’s.  There are no dazzling blockbuster moneymakers in the 2018 line-up.  True, the romance between a mute and an amphibian sea creature in The Shape of Water  just doesn’t transport me to the stars like LaLaLand.  But there are still some very worthy films that while unfortunately aren’t making it big at the box office, definitely speak to current issues and none more so than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

When Frances McDormand came up to the London stage to receive her BAFTA for Best Actress in Three Billboards, she was wearing a rather strange dress with a red lips and lipstick print.  Everyone in the audience that night was wearing black as a symbol of solidarity with the “Me Too” movement against sexual harassment in Hollywood.   McDormand gestured towards her outfit and said, “I have trouble with compliance.”  Which is exactly the kind of person Mildred Hayes is, whom McDormand plays so brilliantly in the film.

You could say non-compliance is a strong theme that runs throughout all this year’s nominated performances, from Churchill’s refusal to do a deal with Hitler in Darkest Hour, to news publisher Katharine Graham refusing to comply with a president’s efforts to suppress the truth in The Post, to a problematic ice skating champion refusing to fit the mold in I, Tonya.  What could reflect the “Me Too” movement more than films about characters standing up to systems they feel have failed them.

There is nothing compliant about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  For one thing, it defies categorization so that one moment the audience is gasping with horror and disbelief and the next laughing out loud.  What is this film about?  On the surface, it appears to be a story about a woman who is determined to find out who raped and murdered her daughter.  Frustrated that the police have not brought in any suspects and have seemingly lost interest in the case, Mildred vents her anger by advertising their incompetence on three giant red billboards lined up on the road outside town.  In turn, they shout at all who pass by with the words:

RAPED WHILE DYING

NO ARRESTS MADE

HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

But the film is not a standard thriller in which a mother goes in search of her daughter’s killer.  It’s a film about what happens when a woman’s expectations of community support and compassion are seriously jeopardised by bigotry and hatred.  The results are both comic as well as tragic because human beings trying to make themselves understood in a dysfunctional society are as deeply ironic as they are pathetic.

There’s a lot of anger going on in the film industry at present.  Women are fed up with being forced into a Code of Silence in order to keep their careers on track.  The “Me Too” movement has become a way of billboarding their anger.  Three billboards outside Hollywood could read:

RAPED WHILE AUDITIONING

NO ARREST MADE

HOW COME, HARVEY WEINSTEIN?

As outrageous as Mildred Hayes’ actions are in Three Billboards, they are not hard to believe.  The violent American is nothing new but rather a well established stereotype.  Writer and director Martin McDonagh taps into the American writer Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic way of writing about a fallen world desperately in need of grace through characters whose disfigurements, both physical and spiritual, carry them towards shocking and often violent encounters.  McDonagh even introduces the billboard agent intently reading O’Connor’s classic  A Good Man is Hard to Find as a signal of what to expect from this particular story.   The three billboards that reflect Mildred Hayes’ rage take their cue from Flannery O’Connor’s own words, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”  

So, what does it take to catch a compliant, complacent world’s attention?  School shootings have become so commonplace now, it would seem the only solution is to arm the teachers??  What if the schoolteacher goes nuts?  Like Mildred Hayes when she starts firebombing the police station?  Thank goodness she doesn’t have a gun!

One of the best scenes in the film follows Mildred’s fiery meltdown outside the police station.  She thinks no one is in there, but while the flames gather momentum in the background,  sitting totally oblivious to the danger is Dixon, the disgraced deputy reading with great emotion his chief’s final letter to him telling him he can only become the good man he’s capable of being if he learns to replace his anger with love.  Of course, he’s not going to become anything at all if he doesn’t get out of the burning building.  Instinctively, we want to shout, “Get out, you idiot!  Are you deaf?  Are you blind?”

Yes, the hard of hearing do need to be shouted at.  Unless, of course, their hearing is gone altogether.  In which case, they need rescuing.  Dixon and Mildred both need rescuing from themselves.  We watch in horror as Dixon also goes berserk and throws the billboard agent out the window.  When Dixon survives the fire and ends up in the same hospital room as the traumatised agent, there is perhaps the most singular act of grace in the entire film when the billboard agent reaches out to his attacker to try to give him a drink.

It is such acts of grace that ultimately lead to redemption.  Whether Dixon and Mildred actually find redemption is unclear.  But there is a slight hint they may be on the right path when they begin to acknowledge their own complicit guilt instead of blaming everyone else.    I can’t help but wonder what Flannery O’Connor would have thought, for although Dixon and Mildred inhabit a similar world to the one she created in her fiction, the resolution of absolution and redemption is largely missing.   Mildred Hayes is a woman who longs to be free but doesn’t quite get there.   Perhaps that is as far as the writer of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was able to take her.  There are many, many people like her.  Redemption requires something greater than ourselves.  I wonder how many “Me Too” supporters will be able to take such a journey?  If more films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri lead to such questions, then awards from the Academies are well deserved indeed.

 

10 Ways to Beat the January Blues

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Thank goodness January is over!  However, judging by the sound of rain and wind outside, not much has changed!  I don’t know about you, but if you live in northern climes like I do, January is wipe-out month.  Those January Blues hit me every year.  In Narnia terms, “it’s always winter but never Christmas.”  The decorations and holiday cheer are long gone.  Instead of the heightened anticipation of family gatherings and gift-giving, the beauty of carols by candlelight, and the awe and wonder of shepherds keeping watch in an ancient field, we have gray, featureless days over here that chill you to the bone, aches and flu bugs, and the inability to do anything more than just slog through it all.

Mother Nature has been particularly cruel this January, and not just here in Great Britain.  Winter storms have wreaked havoc just about everywhere.  I watched with increasing anxiety attacks as mudslides destroyed hundreds of homes and took over twenty lives in Montecito, California, causing my children to evacuate their college campus a second time after evacuating from the Thomas fire four weeks previously in December.  I’m always affected anyway by their going back to the US after Christmas break.  But after getting them safely home from the fire, it was a shock to see them once more surrounded by danger so far away from home.

Chris and I decided to join a gym to boost our spirits and energy levels as well as do something positive together.  Now, we have sore throats and are sipping honeyed tea together, staring out at another cloudy, wet, miserable morning.  Is there no escape?

The British really do complain about the weather a lot, but then there’s a lot to complain about.  It rains…all year.  July can be just as wet and damp as January.  Wet and damp.  That’s the worst part.  You’re never dry and you’re never warm.  So, how do the British cope with such misery?  Well, first thing they do is get a dog.  Two are better than one, and the more energetic the better because in this country, they are taken for long walks every day.  In fact, usually twice a day, rain or sleet or mud.  MUD.  Don’t forget–rain and damp create mud.  It’s everywhere, and dogs love it.  In fact, the wetter and muddier they are, the happier they seem to see you, shaking and flinging showers of mud all over you.  I know dogs give a lot of people a great deal of comfort and companionship.  But no, we have just never been able to take the muddy plunge and get a dog.

What else do the British do to beat the weather blues?  A Camelot tune starts up in my head…“What do the simple folk do,”  sings Guinevere to Arthur,  “to help them escape when they’re blue?  When all the doldrums begin, What keeps each of them in his skin?  What ancient native custom provides the needed glow?  Oh, what do simple folk do?  Do you know?”

They whistle and sing and dance, but it doesn’t work for poor Arthur and Guinevere because their hearts aren’t in it.  Guinevere glumly asks, “What else do the simple folk do?”

And Arthur says, “They sit around and wonder what royal folk would do.”

I can tell you exactly what royal folk do.  They go for long walks with a pair, at least, of highly energetic, water-and-mud loving dogs, like all other British folk.

But, what else do the British folk do to help them escape when they’re blue?  Let’s see, I know they drink a lot.  But surely there’s more to beating the winter blues than hanging out at the local pub.  Or is there?

The British pub has been at the heart of every village community for centuries.  It’s a place to meet neighbours and friends, share a meal or a pint, and in winter, sit by a cozy fire and feel warmly content.   I have a tendency to hibernate come January, to withdraw from social gathering until the spring thaw.  But isolation only adds to one’s blueness.  I need social interaction, particularly in winter when it’s more of an effort to go out.  For me, this doesn’t mean a party, but rather time for one-on-one get togethers, meeting up with a few close friends, or re-connecting with someone I haven’t seen in a while.

It actually helps to make a list.  It may or may not be what the British folk do, but here’s how I got through the January blues.

1.  Meet an old friend at a new place–Cherish or renew a friendship by discovering somewhere you’ve never been together before.

2.  Do something new and fun with your spouse or a good friend–Join a gym and make some fitness goals you can work on together.  (Just don’t get sick!  If you do, brave it out — you’ll get better.)

3.  Go see all the Oscar-nominated films!–January/February is a great time to go to the movies in the run-up to the Oscars.  Here’s a Must-See list:  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri;  Darkest Hour;  The Post;  Hostiles;  All the Money in the World;  I, Tonya;    Lady Bird.

Go out for a meal or coffee afterwards and have a great conversation about the film.

4.  Read!–Nothing says “curl up with a good book” like a wet, rainy English day in January.  A good biography is always a heart warmer for me.  I’ve discovered Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Personal History on which The Post film is based.   A good chunky novel like Donna Tartt’s art thriller The Goldfinch is also a good winter read.

5.  Change one thing in your house–Once the Christmas tree is down, take advantage of the sales.  We recovered two armchairs, changed the cushions, and bought a new rug.  A simple redo transformed the look of our seating area off the kitchen.  A real mood lifter!

6.  Study a book of the Bible you’ve never read before–This is a real challenge and has probably anchored my January more than anything else.  My study group has taken on Job.  Quite possibly the most liberating book of the Bible I have ever read.  I thought I knew its story, but I never really understood it.  It’s about a wrestling match with God over suffering.  It doesn’t get more real than that.

7.  Forget the diet!  Eat cake and make soup!–It just doesn’t work to deny yourself food when you’re freezing cold!  A special treat goes a long way to warming the cockles of your heart!  Bake a cake and warm someone else’s heart by sharing it.  Make your own soup–there’s something incredibly comforting and therapeutic about homemade soup.  My favourites are lentil and vegetable.  They’re easy to make and nourish both soul and body.

8.  Pray regularly with and for someone–I have been praying with a small group of women for a year now.  We came together as a response to a friend who lost her son in a tragic accident.  Since then,  we have also been praying for two of the women who have been diagnosed with cancer.  Our prayer group has been especially strengthened this past month.  I think it’s because January has few distractions.  But also, friendships deepen from praying together.

9.  Write a letter–So, who writes letters anymore?  How will future generations know anything about us?  Take time to write a thank you card, a letter of encouragement, something funny to make someone laugh.  Making the effort to lift someone else’s mood will inevitably lift your own.

10. Be thankful for the present–I get a great deal of joy from planning for the future, especially if it involves being with my children.  But life doesn’t happen just in the future.  I need to also learn how to live better in the present, especially when it’s January and it’s cold and dark and my ears are hurting.  I can complain and believe the grass is greener–and the sun warmer–somewhere else (which it is).  Or I can make a list like this one and think, “I have been blue about a lot of things this past month.  I miss my kids and they have been through a rough time.  But there is a lot that has given me cause to be thankful as well.”

What about you?

 

Merry Christingle — It’s an Orange World

Does the word orange mean anything to you?  Does it alarm you, raise an eyebrow, make you smile?  Orange signifies all sorts of things, whether it’s the fruit, colour, or the name of a county south of L.A.  But there’s something about Orange that defies definition.  There’s something about it that says, “I dare you!”

I have a college friend who, as someone known for her daring deeds, recently challenged me to write about Orange (heh heh, D-LO).  She and I have a past history concerning orange jello.  I’m not even sure why.  After twenty-eight years without the All-American jello salad in my life, anything resembling brightly coloured gelatine with all manner of fruit, nuts, cream cheese, sherbet, pretzels and/or Cool Whip in it is a great wobbling relic from my former life as a jello-eater.  Here in the UK,  jelly as it is known, has never evolved beyond a children’s pudding served with custard.  So, I look back on my American jello-eating days with much affection and amusement.  Especially, it seems, orange jello.  Maybe it’s just that jelloorange are two of my favourite words.

Orange, then.  It really is a funny word, especially if you honk it, American style–“ORNJ”. It’s that ugly duckling of words that doesn’t rhyme with anything.  Orange, unlike its opposite, blue, does not conform.  It keeps its own company, quite happily, unless invited in as a third party to liven up some beige goings on.  A splash of it here and there really does lift the mood.  It goes well with zap! zest! and zing!  It wakes you up, grabs your attention, and says, in no uncertain terms, “I’m here!  I’m alive!”  It definitely stands out in a crowd.  You can’t ignore it.  You may love it or hate it, but you can never be neutral.

I grew up in The Land of Orange, Southern California, aka SoCal, which sounds like a diet orange drink.  I am a child of the sixties, which could be defined as the essence of orange. I grew up not caring what anybody thought of me.  I did not want to conform to anyone else’s dreams but my own.  Childhood was one long, orange-highlighted stage on which I danced and performed to my heart’s content.  The scent of orange still sharpens my memory of late spring afternoons sitting on freshly cut grass after play rehearsal, peeling oranges.  Orange is sweet and sticky, and you eat it one smile at a time.  Orange is meant to be shared.  Orange is friendship and youth.

My favourite Land of Orange story centres around my little brother when he was five years old.  In school, we were learning French.  For a SoCal elementary school in the 1960’s, this was an incredibly orange thing to do.  SoCal children learned Español.  Not us.  We were different.  We even had a teacher, Madame Quiette, who was actually French!  It was marvellous.  We felt special.  The entire school even put on a French recital in the big Baptist church so that all our parents could come and hear us speak French.  It began with the kindergartners marching proudly up on stage and giving little waves to their moms and dads as they gathered around a big basket of fruit.  One by one, they picked up a piece of fruit and announced in nervous, halting French what they were eating.  Then, it was little Jimmy Harmeling’s turn.  He chose the orange, swung it up over his head like a baseball, and shouted for all the world to hear,

“JE MANGE UN OH-RANGE!”

The explosion of laughter that followed the delivery of this particular phrase continues to slay our family fifty years later.  The absurdity of orange knows no bounds with us.  Orange cuts through all pretence, and like a five-year old, says it like it is.

You can’t peg orange.  It makes you go outside the box.  There is plenty of it around in the fall of the year.  Orange is pumpkin and spice and changing leaves.  It glows and crackles in a burning log and warms you against a dull, gray sky.   But why should orange be seasonal?

I began looking for it in the midst of all the green and red of Christmas, wondering where I would find orange.  Then, I remembered the Christingle.  As a child from The Land of Orange,  I grew up never having any knowledge of such a thing.  I was introduced to the Christingle only when my children started school here in Cambridge and I was invited to their Christingle service.  It’s a unique aspect of the church’s  Christmas tradition here in the UK, and a very beautiful one.  The tradition and name originated in Moravia, and means “Christ light.”  Each part of the Christingle is meant to tell the gospel story.  It begins with an orange and a candle.  The orange is the world, and the candle inserted into the orange, is Jesus, the light of the world.  A red ribbon is tied around the orange to signify the gift of Jesus’ blood shed for us.  Four toothpicks festooned with sweets are stuck into the “four corners of the world” as reminders of God’s goodness.  This simple, hand held object captures the whole meaning of Christmas in a way that even a small child can understand.

As the focus of this special Christmas service, each child or adult is given his or her own Christingle, because Christ died for each one of us.  As the candles are lit by each other, one at a time, the light of Christ spreads, illuminating the darkness as well as each individual face.  A carol, usually “Silent Night”, is sung into the hushed void as the candles are being lit.

The memories of this service stir my heart.  My children are now grown, and I no longer go to Christingle services.  But wait, there’s something hidden in that orange, something I never saw before.  The world is orange, not apple.  Each of us is unique, alive, created with boldness, flair, and outside the box.  We are as absurd as jello, and yet, gifted, inventive, and created to celebrate.  We do nothing in half measures.  We are brazen, loud, and triumphant.  But the crimson gash across our orangeness is the scar of our sinfulness, borne by Christ to cover us and given freely back to us as eternal life.  It reminds us that there is too much of us, and not enough of Him.  Red brings orange back down to earth.  Red is stronger, more passionate than orange.  Red is primary, pure; orange tells us that we are not.  There is no Orange without Red.

So, D-LO, I wrote about Orange.

May Christ’s light shine!  Merry Christingle!

Remember

Remembrance Day

Do you wonder why you think about what you think about?  It’s a good question.  Part of the answer could lie in another question–Why do you remember what you remember?

November is Remember Month here in the UK.  It’s an apt time of the year, remembering all that has now become part of a waning year.  It is summer’s true end, the closing down and sweeping up of memories like scattered leaves.   Daylight recedes along with the earth’s warmth and we are eager for the glow of a fire and the telling of a story.  Remembrance in a story is as old as time itself.

November Remembrance is usually associated with those who died in battle.  But this year’s November remembrances actually began on the 31st October, All Hallow’s Eve.  It was the 500th anniversary celebration of the official beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther boldly posted his 95 theses.  We remember all that followed, the Bible made available to the common man in his own language, the suffering of those who died for their faith in grace alone, and the price still paid in lives today where Christian faith is a dangerous thing.

The story of the Church in Europe is so bloody and so horrific it’s hard to fathom the celebratory nature of Bonfire Night.  Remember, remember the 5th of November, Gunpowder, treason, and plot…  On this day around 400 years ago, a guy named Guy and his Catholic co-conspirators attempted to blow up Parliament and kill the Protestant James I in the process.  Tables had been turned and it was now the Catholics who were being hunted down, tortured and murdered.  Depending on what side of the religious fence ruled the day, anyone on the opposite side was considered a traitor.  Guy was caught, of course, charged with treason, and subjected to disembowelling among other things.  Did he really think he was going to get away with it?  I am continually amazed at how many of these rebels risked–and got–this brutal form of execution.  On the 5th of November, we are reminded of it every year in the UK.  I was horrified to find out Ian’s classroom was given all the graphic gory details–when he was seven years old!  With delight then, effigies referred to as “guys” are burned in blazing bonfires while fireworks, representing those that never carried off the king and the House of Parliament, explode fabulously across the country.

Why do we remember a failed terrorist named Guy Fawkes among so many others?  Is it the spectacular audacity of his plan?  Or just an excuse for something to brighten up an otherwise cold, dark November night?  I rather suspect it is the latter.  But there is something of the anti-establishment celebration in it, knowing it’s all legal and nobody’s going to be hanged, drawn and quartered for it!

Remembering gives us parameters–supposedly.  If we remember the wrongs of the past, then hopefully we will prevent them from happening again.  That is the poignancy and heartbreak of Remembrance Day.  Today, the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour nearly a century ago, the Armistice was signed to end “the war to end all wars.”  The senseless loss of an entire generation of young men barely out of their teens to the chaos of the First World War was never to be repeated.  But a mere generation later, it was.  Dunkirk and D-Day replaced the Battle of the Somme and Paschendaele.  And a generation after that, Americans sent their young to die in the jungles of Viet Nam in a war as senseless as the trenches of WWI.

We remember, but we do not change.

Perhaps that is the point of remembering–lest we forget how fallen we are, how war and acts of violence will always be a part of us, and how badly we are in need of grace and redemption.  We remember sacrifice because there is no greater gift than the laying down of a life.  It humbles us and out of that humbling should come a sheer, colossal gratitude.  We live in an era of unparalleled freedom in the Western world.  We are free to worship on whatever side of the fence we choose.  Our sons are not being shipped off by the thousands to die in wars not of their choosing.  We can voice disapproval of our government without being thrown into prison for it.  After all, remember that childhood taunt, “It’s a free country!”

Grace and gratitude go hand in hand.  For Americans, November is also the month of Thanksgiving.  I love that it comes at the end of the month, just before the Advent of Christmas.  It’s a day meant for gathering together and remembering the cornucopia of blessings we live with throughout the year before asking for more blessings under the Christmas tree.  Now, Thanksgiving is almost a blip with stores competing for Christmas shoppers weeks ahead.  Do we even know why we are remembering to be thankful?

The gospel tells the story of ten lepers who came to Jesus for healing, but only one remembered to turn back and thank him.  Perhaps the others wanted to put as much distance between their clean selves and their broken selves as possible.  But if we mainly remember because of fear and suffering,  or even just obligation, we miss out on remembering in the spirit of gratitude.   Thankfulness is meant to be a source of healing and even joy.

Jesus said to the tenth leper, who was a despised Samaritan, ” ‘Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’  Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’ 

I love that I have so many special friends who have November birthdays.  In remembering them all,  I realise how each of them has had to face personal battles of various kinds.  So to all of you, Marie, Leslie, Ann, Janie, and Cathy, I would say, “Thank you for the light of your friendship, past and present.  Remember Jesus’ words, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’  When you remember to praise Him for His faithfulness, you are well indeed.

Finally, this November 19th, the baby boy I thought I would never have, turns 21.  My thanks for the gift of this beloved son knows no bounds.  “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Remembrance which is constant in praise overcomes all that is lost and painful and keeps us close to the heart of God.

It’s a Matter of Words

Winstonbb

Who said that Britain and America were “two countries separated by a common language”?   Was it a)Winston Churchill?  b)George Bernard Shaw?  c)Oscar Wilde?  d)Bill Bryson??  Whoever said it, it’s a great quote that highlights a great truth, as anybody who has ever had to learn more than one version of the English language will know.

My own adventures with my native tongue began in earnest with a simple request for a glass of “ice water” at a coffee shop in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

“What’s that?” asked the waitress.

” A glass of ice water,” I repeated, thinking she hadn’t heard me clearly.

Still puzzled, she said, “Is that on the menu?”

“No,” I laughed, “Water!  You know, it comes out of a faucet.”  Which only confused things further as faucets don’t exist outside of America, only taps.  I had never felt so helpless at explaining myself.

Eventually, I got my glass of “ice watter”, but only after spelling it and re-pronouncing it correctly, “wah-tuh.”  I might as well have been speaking an entirely different language.

Since then, my years in South Africa and England have taught me all kinds of new words and exotic ways of saying or spelling old words.  In South Africa, I stopped at “robots”, not traffic lights, and quickly found out that wearing a “costume” to the beach did not mean dressing up for Halloween, but putting on a bathing suit.  In England, car hoods and trunks became bonnets and boots (something to do with Queen Victoria?), cookies turned into biscuits, dessert was pudding, and some words were just irreplaceable, like cheeky, dodgy, roundabout, and lollipop ladies (the lemon-coated ladies who help schoolchildren cross the street by holding up a gigantic lollipop–by far, my favorite/or is it favourite).

I also learned there were words you do not say.  The first time Chris and I hosted his parents for dinner in our South African honeymoon cottage, I responded blithely to their kind offer to help wash up with, “Oh, don’t worry, the brownies will do it!”  I meant the fairies, but their raised eyebrows quickly taught me that old girl scout phrase just wouldn’t go down in post-apartheid South Africa!

Nowadays, language seems to get us in more trouble than expand our understanding of cultural differences.  We have to tiptoe around ethnic and gender name labels as if they were land mines.  It can get really complicated.  An Indian is from India and should not be confused with a Native American.  This came home to me in my own country in a surreal way almost thirty years ago.  I was asked to do some dramatic readings at a church women’s event.  Somewhere along the way, I understood the theme to be an Indian one.  So, I found some interesting tales of tigers and Indian princesses and showed up in the beautiful sari I had recently brought back from my first visit to Durban.  I was alarmed to find everyone else dressed up for a Western hoedown.

“Oh dear,” I apologised to the head gal in her cute cowgirl boots.  “I guess I’m your token Indian.”

Fortunately, she thought the whole misunderstanding was hilarious.  Looking back on it now, it seems even more appallingly funny to me in an era when it’s deemed offensive to wear someone else’s national dress.  I was neither Indian nor a “token” anything else.

Language connects as well as confuses.  I think I know what a glass of ice water should mean to someone who speaks English until I am met by a blank stare.  Suddenly, I am no longer in my own country, but lost in a sea of assumptions.  I assume communicating my desires will get me what I want.  If I joke about brownies cleaning up my kitchen, I assume my in-laws will envision fairy wings, not hard-working African maids.  Language is all about the assumption that if two people found themselves stranded on a desert island together, the most important discovery between them would be that they spoke the same language.

But language is a shifting kaleidoscope.  What I assume my words mean within my own context, are up for grabs in someone else’s.  When you make that shift, all different kinds of colours and shapes appear.  You begin to realise, for the first time maybe, that words have a far greater meaning and impact beyond your own version of them.  Words that are not taken for granted any longer expand your horizon when you learn to understand them from a different perspective.

I am a lover of words.  Without words, there are no stories.  All words have hidden meanings, and sometimes the stories are in what is hidden.  Listening becomes the key.  If I only listen to my own interpretation of what is being said, I can easily miss the fact that an entirely different meaning is being conveyed.

Children make a game out of this called “Telephone” in America and “Chinese Whispers” in England.  It involves a large group of people passing on a secret message by whispering it into the ear of the person next to them.  As the message gets passed on, the assumption is that mistakes will be made in the listening so that the last person to receive it will come out with an entirely different, and supposedly hilarious, version of the original.

Ian tried teaching English by using this game with a class of Japanese students in Tokyo.  They couldn’t understand that it was meant to be funny.  They took it as a serious listening challenge and kept passing the words back to make sure they were getting it right.  When the last person got it, they all cheered at their success.  Listening had become a team effort.

I have to ask myself, how often do I listen that way?  Words can be exchanged like small gifts in so many different ways.  “Is this what you meant?”  “Can you show me?”  “I don’t understand, but I really want to try.”  They show people they matter.

So, who said the English and the Americans were “two countries separated by a common language”?  The right answer is nobody actually knows for sure.  It’s not a documented fact.  The answer lies somewhere in the vast ocean of words between us.