Goodbye: Making a Hard Word Easier

July 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

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From my post this month at A Life Overseas –

goodbye /gə(d)-ˈbī/ excl. / salutation spoken at a departure, extremely unpopular for certain English-speaking tribes, such as cross-cultural workers, TCKs, their loved ones, and the like.

Many of us know from experience that saying goodbye can be hard, really hard. And practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, it often makes it worse.

But what makes goodbye so tough to voice? It’s not because it’s hard to pronounce. That’s simple enough. Rather, it’s the meaning behind the word that’s difficult. Is that because we don’t actually know the definition of goodbye? To quote that great linguist/philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Goodbye actually comes from God be with you, which, in it’s older form, was God be with ye. From there, it morphed into such shortened versions as God be wy youGod b’w’yGodbwyeGod buy’ ye, and good-b’wy. The replacement of God with good was influenced by the similar phrases good day and good night, which takes it even further from the original. Seen in this way, goodbye is related to the French adieu and the Spanish adios, which mean “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”

So what’s so hard about saying, “God be with you”? What’s so difficult about giving someone a blessing? Why do we so often hear, “I don’t want to say goodbye”?

Maybe it’s because we do actually know what it means—at least for those who move far away. . . .

Continue reading

[photo: “Goodbye Summer 2011,” by deargdoom57, used under a Creative Commons license]

China: Making Its Case with Pop-aganda

July 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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The verdict is in. Yesterday, an international tribunal in the Hague sided with the Philippines, ruling that China cannot lay claim to most of the South China Sea. As expected, Chinese President Xi Jinping is dismissing the decision out of hand, stating that China has no intentions of complying.

How can the most populous nation on earth ignore the Permanent Court of Arbitration? That’s easy. It’s because China is taking its case to another court . . . the court of public opinion. And what better way to sway the jury than through viral videos (or at least videos that they’d like to go viral)?

Exhibit A: In June, China released the video below to win hearts and minds around the globe. It’s title is the rhetorical question “Who Is Stirring Up Trouble in the South China Sea?” My favorite lines are

Do you want to buy the most fashionable clothes or electronic devices with the state-of-the-art technology? You’d better pray for the peace and safety of the ocean.

And then there are these words from the mouth of Uncle Sam:

@#¥······! @#%!

From the next two videos, we can see that the apparent target demographic is young, hip, cool, and English speaking . . . kind of like you and me. And the spokespeople are international students in Beijing and a cartoon band that looks like a modern version of the gang from Scooby Doo singing on top of the Mystery Machine.

I can laugh, but then again, they got me to watch a video about China’s five-year economic plan!

[photo: “Courtroom One Gavel,” by Joe Gratz, public domain]

Lilias Trotter: Extraordinary Artist, Devoted Missionary—Have You Not Heard of Her Either?

July 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

A few months ago, I came across the trailer for the documentary Many Beautiful Things and was introduced to the life of Lilias Trotter. My first thought was “What rock have I been living under to have never heard about her before?” I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad since I’m not the only one who’s been in the dark when it comes to Miss Trotter. Though she’s gained much admiration for her artistic ability and missionary endeavors, hers has certainly not become a household name in either field.

One person who is in the know concerning Trotter is Miriam Rockness, author of the biography A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter and A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter. But she says herself concerning Trotter’s artistry, “If she’s as good as I think she is, why has nobody else heard of her?”

What is there to hear about? Well, Trotter’s is quite a story. Born in London in 1853, she grew up simultaneously developing her devotion to God and practicing her skills in watercolor painting. When her mother sent some of her paintings to John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, he recognized her talent and took her under his wing. He was so impressed with her abilities, that he said that with his help (as Trotter wrote to a friend), “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal.”

But in order to reach this greatness, this immortality, said Ruskin, she would need to devote herself fully to her art, as he believed that her work at the YWCA was detracting from her devotion to painting. Unwilling to give up her ministry endeavors, Trotter made her choice—serving the downtrodden women in London.

At the age of 33, she was introduced to the idea of missions in North Africa and felt God’s call to go to Algeria. Then, after being turned down by the North African Mission, she, along with two other single women, traveled to Algeria on their own. In time, she founded and led the Algiers Mission Band. Trotter’s mission work ended a full 40 years later, with her death in Algiers.

It’s quite a story, but one that without the efforts of Rockness would rarely be told. (Most of the information above comes from Rockness’s blog, where she continues to write about Trotter.)

Rockness first heard about Trotter from “two elderly sisters” who were spending the winter in Lake Wales, Florida, where Rockness lived. The sisters told the story of Trotter’s life and shared that they had a collection of devotional books that she had written. Wanting to find a good home for the books, the two ladies sent their library to Rockness over the course of several years, one volume at a time. Much traveling and investigating later, Rockness had become a Trotter expert.

Now, the story is on video with the release of Many Beautiful Things late last year—available on DVD at the movie website. The film features the voice talents of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings) as Trotter and Ruskin, respectively.

In an interview with Christianity Today, the film’s director, Laura Waters Hinson, tells how she was also one of those who had never heard of Trotter . . . until she got an email from Rockness. After learning more about the artist/missionary for the project, Waters Hinson understands why she has stayed so obscure:

Partly because she lived in Algeria for 40 years, until she died. A lot of her work did get smuggled back bit by bit to England by missionaries, so some of it’s preserved. But some of it was lost. The Algiers Mission Band of hers disbanded when things got politically tense in Algeria, and they pushed all the missionaries out. Even though she was a contemporary or an influence like Elisabeth Elliot and Amy Carmichael, she just didn’t gain the prominence of these other famous female missionaries. She had written books, but they didn’t catch on; she also came earlier.

While many Christians don’t know her name, many know a hymn inspired by Trotter’s writings: “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” As referenced by Rockness, the prolific hymn writer Helen Howarth Lemmel—who was born in England but moved to the US at the age of 12—penned the song after reading the following passage from “Focussed,” a devotional pamphlet authored by Trotter:

Turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him, and the Divine “attract” by which God’s saints are made, even in this 20th century, will lay hold of you.  For “He is worthy” to have all there is to be had in the heart that He has died to win.

There are plenty of reasons for why Trotter should be famous, and there are reasons for why she has become relatively forgotten, as well. But Waters Hinson states what is probably most responsible for her lack of fame: It’s that “she was really content with full-blown obscurity.”

(The video below is of Pentatonic beatboxer, Kevin “K.O.” Olusola, playing “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” on the cello. Olusola was born in Kentucky to a father from Nigeria and  a mother from Grenada. He starts out on this hymn playing a fairly straightforward melody, which is impressive in its own right, but at the 1:40 mark, he really starts to get it going.)

(Miriam Rockness, “About Lilias,” and “About Miriam” Lilias Trotter; Katelyn Beaty, “When God Calls You to Leave the Art World,” Christianity Today, March 9, 2016; Miriam Rockness, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” Lilias Trotter, October 26, 2012)

 

Walter Mitty: Enough Just to Be an Everyman

June 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

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In my last post, I wrote about the missionary life from the perspective of Walter, a character fashioned after Walter Mitty. Created by Jame’s Thurber, Mitty is a daydreamer who imagines himself acting out heroic and larger-than-life scenarios while living out a much more mundane and seemingly smaller-than-life existence.

Mitty is likable because he’s an everyman. There’s a little Mitty in us all.

In 1947, Danny Kaye starred in a film based on Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In it, Mitty isn’t left just to dream about adventure, but he actually joins it in real life as he helps a mysterious woman with a little black book escape a sinister gang of jewel thieves.

The 2013 movie version, this time with Ben Stiller playing the lead, takes a similar approach to the story, with Mitty gathering the courage to travel the world in search of his hero, the globetrotting Sean O’Connell, a photographer for Life, who makes The Most Interesting Man in the World seem rather bland.

I do enjoy the beginning of the newer movie, where Mitty travels back and forth between his real life and his fantasy life—as it plays out the theme of Thurber’s short story. I’m not so fond of the later part, where the author’s work is left behind and Mitty trades in his dreams for more exotic travel—jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean, longboarding in Iceland, and playing soccer in the Himalayas, among other things. The film holds a 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which, as it sounds, is only so-so, so I’m not alone in my less-than-ecstatic view of the film.

It’s not that I’m not happy for Mitty. It’s just that for the true everyman, turning fantasy into reality isn’t so easily done. It seems as if he’s living out the much quoted words of author William Arthur Ward:

If you can imagine it, you can possess it.
If you can dream it, you can become it.
If you can envision it, you can attain it.
If you can picture it, you can achieve it.

. . . words that are more inspirational than they are true.

I agree with A. O. Scott in his review of the 2013 Secret Life of Walter Mitty for The New York Times:

There is a contradiction here: An ordinary fellow should not have to be quite so special to win our admiration. And this version of Walter Mitty undermines some of the democratic whimsy that has made his story such an appealing and durable modern myth. He used to be one of us: a self-deluded dreamer charmed by his unruly creative powers, a willing prisoner of his appetite for escapism. But now our identification gives way to envy, and he is another one of those enchanted people the rest of us can only dream of becoming.

In the six-minute trailer below, you can see the film’s story play out, beginning with a timid Mitty unable to send an eHarmony “wink” to his coworker. The help-desk rep on the phone says he needs to fill out his “Been There Done That” section and asks, “Have you done anything noteworthy . . . mentionable?” Walter, hearing a dog’s faint barking, responds by diving off an outdoor subway platform and  through the window of an adjacent building that promptly explodes—saving the dog.

Cue Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality

This second video is a remake of the modern trailer using clips from the 1947 film.

(Barry Popik, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it,” The Big Apple, Oct. 13, 2015; A. O. Scott,”  “He Can Balance His Checkbook, but Not His Imagination,” The New York Times, Dec. 24, 2013)

[photo: Untitled of Ben Stiller, by Steve Rhodes, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Secret Life of Walter, a Missionary

June 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

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[With apologies to James Thurber and Walter Mitty.]

“I’ll take the kids outside for a while so you can have some uninterrupted time,” says Walter’s wife as she softly closes the door to his office. It’s time to work on their monthly newsletter, and he turns to the keyboard.

Tap, tap, tap, ta-tap tap . . .

“Walter?” she yells back from the living room. “Don’t forget to update the email list before you send it out.”

Dear Friends:

As I start typing this newsletter, the words are already spilling out of my heart to let you know what’s gone on this month, but I’m going to change directions and do something a little different this time.

Because the number of our supporters has recently tripled, we realize that many of you don’t know us very well. Therefore we’d like to take this opportunity to summarize our ministry in this newsletter. (We’ll soon need to decide what to do with all the extra funds, but we’ll leave that topic for a later time.) For those of you who’ve been with us from the beginning, we hope you don’t mind. Here goes. . . .

We’re so glad to be able to serve God overseas. I can tell you that even when Hannah and I were co-CEOs of our own non-profit, recognized by Time magazine on it’s annual “100 to Watch” list, and leading worship at our church on the weekends, there was something missing in our lives. Little did we know at the time that it was mission work. But on that Easter morning, when Hannah and I woke up from the same dream—seeing Jesus beckoning us onto a 737—we both knew what we must do. God’s calling was confirmed when we announced our decision to our church later that day, and the entire congregation blessed us with a raucous standing ovation. Then, after the service, friends and people we’d never met before came up to us and put enough funds in our hands to cover our startup expenses twice over.

Still, we were concerned about sharing the news with our parents, as we knew they would miss being close by to us and their three grandchildren. But our fears were allayed when all four of them, through tears of joy, told us that they had been praying for this since we were in the womb. In fact, they wondered what had taken us so long.

That was four years ago, and we can report that we are absolutely flourishing in our new home. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas.

[photo: “Equipment Trial #3,“” by davidd, used under a Creative Commons license]

what3words: Now Everyone Can Say, “I.Am.Here”

June 15, 2016 § 3 Comments

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Growing up on a farm, I didn’t have an address, just rural-route and post-office-box numbers. Our gravel roads weren’t named either, so to tell someone how to find us, we’d have to talk about driving a certain number of miles north, south, east, or west, crossing a bridge, or turning at a red barn.

Oh, how things have changed. Not only do my family members who live in the country now have house numbers and road names, we’ve also got that GPS thing. But there are still plenty of places in the world like the wild, wild midwest of my youth—places without registered addresses.

Take, for instance, Mongolia, a country more than twice the size of Texas, where many of its 3 million people live as nomads. What’s a post office to do? Well Mongol Post, the country’s postal service, recently turned to what3words for help. The London-based what3words has divided the globe into a grid of 57 trillion 3-meter by 3-meter squares, each with a unique 3-word label. So instead of needing a street address or directions or an unwieldy and hard-to-remember set of latitude/longitude coordinates, Mongol Post deliveries can go to places such as “cabdriver.salesclerk.scruff” or “graces.bigwig.pictures.”

According to what3words’ About page, 75% of the world’s population—4 billion people in 135 countries—don’t have adequate addressing systems. This causes difficulties not only in delivering mail but also in such things as reporting crimes, advertising a business, and delivering humanitarian aid.

what3words also solves problems in travel and tourism, and that holds true in even the most-developed countries. That’s because while a particular location may have a usable address, finding a place within that location can be difficult. For instance, you could use it to meet friends at a specific entrance at the airport. Or you could let someone know your place on a hiking trail. Or you could use it in a parking lot to find your car.

The system they developed by what3words currently has versions in 9 languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Russian, German, Turkish, and Swedish), and the organization guarantees that the word combinations pinned to a particular location will never change.

Oh, and there’s another use for what3words that I haven’t heard anyone else mention: naming your garage band. Sure you can use the Band Name Maker, but how much cooler would it be to use three random words that correspond with the garage where your band was born?

(Giles, “Partner: Mongolian Post Adopts what3words as National Addressing System,” what3words, May 24, 2016)

[photo: “In the middle of nowhere,” by Ernesto Graf, used under a Creative Commons license]

Another Song, Another Memory: The Call

June 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Speaking of songs, here’s another one I like: “The Call,” by Regina Spektor. It shows up at the end of Prince Caspian, the second film in The Chronicles of Narnia series.

I watched the movie with my kids during one of our times on furlough/Stateside service. It’s easy to draw parallels between the Pevensies’ travels and cross-cultural service, and given the Christian underpinnings of C. S. Lewis’s writings, the missionary aspect isn’t too far away either.

The lyrics of “The Call” certainly are evocative for me. They begin

It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet word
And then that word grew louder and louder
‘Til it was a battle cry

I’ll come back
When you call me
No need to say goodbye

The song plays over the closing scene of the film, as Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmond return from Narnia to World-War-II London. If you’ve ever come back “home” after living abroad, you know the feeling. It’s as if nothing has changed, but everything has—in big and small ways. Susan is called by the wrong name and Edmund realizes he’s left his new flashlight behind.

Of course, the lyrics don’t fit the missionary “call” perfectly, and “The Call” isn’t a “missionary” or “Christian” song. That makes sense, as Regina Spektor isn’t a Christian songstress. Born into a Russian Jewish family in 1980, the Spectors moved to the Bronx when Regina was nine. She tells The Village Voice,

I don’t even know half the time what exactly I believe. I do know that in some moments, I’m sarcastic about religion, and sometimes, I’m in awe of it, and sometimes, I’m angry at it, and sometimes, I love it.

The Village Voice says Spektor “can’t explain the meaning behind any of her songs, because she doesn’t so much write them as much as let them happen” and then goes on to cite “The Call” as an example of that process. Spector referst to writing the song, which she did late at night after a private screening of Prince Caspian, as “one of the most pure things that ever happened to me.”

If even Spektor doesn’t claim to know what her songs mean, I figure that gives me liberty to work my own meanings into “The Call.”

It also lets me stop trying to understand “Samson.”

Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
He ate a slice of Wonder Bread and went right back to bed
And history books forgot about us and the Bible didn’t mention us
And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once

(Cristina Black, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Regina SpektorThe Village Voice, June 10, 2009)

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