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!

It’s a Matter of Words

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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.

 

 

 

On Pilgrimage

Are you a pilgrim or a tourist?  It’s not something I ever thought about until I went on pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month.  I went because I wanted to see the places where Jesus lived and walked,  to experience firsthand the physical nature of his life and environment.  It was a common desire expressed by many of the fifty-one of us travelling with the joint organisational team of Westmont College and Footstep Ministries.  Not one of us said anything about wanting to be a pilgrim.  Yet, the first thing our leader, David Sparks, said to us was “We are pilgrims, not tourists.”

So, what is a pilgrim?  My only encounter with pilgrims throughout my youth was a bunch of somberly clad people in tall, funny hats who showed up once a year with some Indians around the Thanksgiving table.  It wasn’t until I discovered John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that I began to have a different picture of the word.  The pilgrim is Everyman on the journey of life.  For the Christian, this is a journey of faith that begins at the Cross.  It’s not a word that appears in the Bible.  But when Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them to “take no bag for the journey.” (Matt. 10:10).  Tourists require baggage; pilgrims don’t.  To be a pilgrim is to be unencumbered.  The first thing that happens to Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress is the jettisoning of his baggage, his burden, when confronted by the Cross.   Still, I have never really thought of myself as being a pilgrim.  If the Christian life is a pilgrimage, then just about everyone in the Bible who followed God’s commands was a pilgrim.  Even Jesus.  The whole Bible is about pilgrimage, the long journey from the Garden of Eden to the Garden Tomb.  Life for the believer is all about that journey, joining the ongoing stream of committed travellers throughout the ages, and sticking with it no matter how dark and difficult the road becomes.  So, the first thing I do is look at my enormous suitcase and think, “I travel with far too much stuff.  Unburden me, Lord.”

We can be single tourists, but we are not meant to be solitary pilgrims.   Our group quickly became a community as we sang and prayed daily together.  We were a mix of all ages, families and singles, with international backgrounds that included Costa Rica, Egypt, Great Britain, Poland, and South Africa as well as the U.S.  “…all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord,” prophesied Jeremiah 3:16.  The real beginning of our “all nations” pilgrimage for me, however, happened in a boat as we crossed the Sea of Galilee.  It was our second day and the Fourth of July.   Without any announcement, the American flag was immediately hoisted as we set sail and the National Anthem had us springing to our feet with hands across our hearts.  So, there waved our star spangled banner next to the blue and white Star of David over the waters where Jesus walked.  What an incredible way to celebrate the birth of a nation!  But it was more than just a heartfelt patriotic moment.  It was about being a people, leaving one shore to reach another, the Children of Israel crossing through the Red Sea, the Mayflower Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic, the countless numbers who have and still are climbing into boats in search of new birth.  Jesus knows our crossings, our yearning for safe havens.  He knows the waters and He calms the storms.  This is where new birth begins, launching out upon the waters of pilgrimage and baptism.  Our Fourth of July began on the waters of Galilee, but ended up in the waters of the Jordan.  We were baptised at the end of our travels that day, one tribe among many nations, all making the journey to Jordan.  The heat was intense (in the 100’s!), so the water was cooling, refreshing, restorative.  Nobody got out.  One by one, we came up from the water in our dripping white robes and sat down together in the Jordan River until every pilgrim had been immersed.   It wasn’t planned.  When you’re in the spirit of pilgrimage, community happens.

God knew that when He called His people to Jerusalem.  They were to come on pilgrimage three times a year (Deut. 16:16) to worship in His Temple.   They still come, only the Temple is no longer there.  All that remains is a wall.  So, they come to the Wall to pray, not to the wall, but through it to where the Temple once stood.  I didn’t expect to be allowed access, but all are invited to come and leave their prayers wedged inside the cracks.  It is a symbolic act for the Christian because Christ, the Lamb of God, has replaced the Temple with his own body and blood.  There is no wall between us and the courts of heaven.   We are called to come daily into His presence whether in Jerusalem or the farthest depths of the earth.  Those who have rejected Christ weep at the Wall for what they have lost; as Christian pilgrims, we rejoice in the love of our Saviour.

I came unprepared for the beauty of Jerusalem.  It is a gleaming oasis surrounded by desert, a former kingdom whose elephant in the room is Palestine.  No wonder Jesus wept over this city.  He foresaw her destruction, the hatred of her people and the walls of division.   My pilgrim heart is saddened as much as it is opened to a profound love for this sacred land as I learn of the suffering that still goes on here in the midst of such beauty and abundance.  A tourist moves unaltered from place to place, but a pilgrim is changed.

What should my response be?  What kind of pilgrim am I?  God’s command to His people coming to Jerusalem was “No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed:  Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.”  (Deut. 16:16, 17)   My response then is this–May I continue to journey as a pilgrim in this life, not a mere tourist, that I may not come before the Lord God empty-handed.  Trim me of the burden of excess baggage and fill these hands instead with gifts worthy of Your blessing.

 

 

Florence–A Room with a View

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The English have had an undying love affair with Italy for centuries, and in particular, Florence.  They are drawn to its warmth, the golden hues of its palazzos and countryside, and the culture and easy charm of the people who know how to savour life like a fine wine.  But there’s also something transformative about Italy that changes one’s perspective.  One of my favourite authors, E.M. Forster, describes this transformation so deftly in A Room with a View when Lucy Honeychurch comes back from Florence and tells her emotionally repressed fiancee, Cecil Vyse (such perfect names!), that she thinks of him as always being in a room, but one with no view.  In Florence, she’s given a room with a view, literally as well as figuratively through her encounter with George Emerson, a man who is unafraid to love her.

I first went to Florence on a high school tour in the summer of 1973.  I was sixteen years old, experiencing Europe for the first time, and rather overwhelmed by it all.  How do you even begin to take it all in at that age when your world has been so small in comparison?  What I remember most vividly about our brief stop in Florence was this iconic view of the city and its magnificent domed cathedral while eating watermelon at the top of the Piazza Michelangelo.  Forty-four years later, I am seeing it for the second time, and proud to say I hiked up there!  I was disappointed that the watermelon stand was gone.  Now, there are hordes of tourists up there, hundreds with their selfie sticks, and kiosks selling souvenirs and lukewarm drinks at inflated prices.   We escaped the sunset crowd by climbing further up the hillside to San Miniato, a medieval church and monastery that sells its own honey and homemade peach preserves from a little shop tucked underneath a bower of jasmine.  The tourists may have taken over Florence, but the views are still astounding.  It is a view that follows the Arno down through the centuries and expands in so many ways.  This city, above all others, reminds me how much love opens the window of our souls.  Not in a romantic cliche kind of way, but love that is sacrificial, life-giving, extravagant beyond all reason.

At the heart of Florence, of course, is the Renaissance.  People come to see what lies at the centre of the view, when artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli strove to define both the human and the divine through sculpture and painting, and an architect named Brunelleschi designed the greatest of Europe’s cathedral domes, called simply The Duomo.  When Michelangelo sculpted the David,  he was only in his twenties.  He took an abandoned block of marble which had been partially carved then rejected as inferior, and he loved it.  He gave himself to it, chiselling such beauty and perfection into it that no one who sees it can doubt the mastery of its creator.  There are imitations of it everywhere in the world so that it has sadly lost its mystery.  Love has many counterfeits that obscure one’s view without knowing it.  Until you see the real thing and understand the difference.

For me, though, the view of the David was not complete without seeing Michelangelo’s unfinished Nicodemus Pieta displayed in its own room in the Opera Museo opposite the Duomo.  Now a museum, it was once Michelangelo’s workshop.  There are no great crowds there, and yet I found it the most moving of his works.  It was carved when he was old and nearing death and he meant for it to be placed on his own tomb.  The figure of Nicodemus bears Michelangelo’s own face looking down on the body of Christ being held in Mary’s arms.  It was meant to reflect his love for Christ which had come to mean everything to him at the end of his life.  In frustration, whether through diminished ability or his own spiritual conflict reconciling his love of art with love of his Saviour, he gave up on it and even tried to destroy it.  In one of his many sonnets, On the Brink of Death, which is written on a gold plate opposite the statue, he wrote these words:

“…finally I see how wrong the fond illusion was that made art my idol and my King,               Leading me to want what harmed me

“…Let neither painting nor carving any longer calm my soul turned to that divine Love         Who to embrace us opened His arms upon the cross.”

Love is a room with a view that allows us to see not only beyond ourselves, but the light that exists behind it all.  Love always opens us up to see beyond the counterfeit to what is real.  We are all that half-chiselled block of marble in need of a master who knows what we are capable of becoming.  The love of Christ is so profound in His understanding of us that in the end, not even Michelangelo could portray it.  He could only worship and love back.  It is an extravagant love, costly beyond all measure.  No one could make it up.  The greatest artists in history could only try to imitate it.   The view is meant to stretch to eternity.

I wonder what 21st century creations are being made to stretch that far?  How has so much passion and glory and awe been lost in what is created and built today to reflect that extravagance?  Perhaps, instead of asking for a room with a view, we settle for the gilt trappings instead.  On another hilltop outside Florence is the small town of Fiesole.  There is an old Franciscan monastery there founded after the Order of St. Francis of Assisi, a young nobleman who gave up his wealth to serve God.  You can see the tiny rooms where the monks used to sleep and the beautiful little church and garden where they still worship today.  There is a simple peace and quiet about the place.  But the view takes your breath away.  You can see all of Florence with its red-tiled roofs and the Duomo rising up towards heaven in the centre of this ethereal city.  Beyond the city are the Tuscan hills which embrace her, covered in a lush paradise of vineyards and olive groves.  It is an eternal view that begins with a garden and ends with a city, stretching through the extravagance of love.

Is it possible to both create and love the Creator?  Did Michelangelo feel he couldn’t do both, that the eternal view didn’t stretch that far?  I think St. Francis put it best,

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy; where there is darkness, light.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; not so much to be understood, as to understand; not so much to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.