February 3, 2017 § 2 Comments
In my last post, I talked about imagining God, the father, the king, singing to us.
This post is about someone singing to a king—not the heavenly king, mind you, but Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, and Queen Silvia and Crown Princess Victoria, as well. Turns out that’s not easy, even for a musical superstar.
As organizers planned last year’s Nobel Prize awards ceremony, they asked Patty Smith to perform at the event. Then, when it was announced that her friend Bob Dylan had been named the Nobel laureate in literature, she chose to sing his “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
You’ve probably heard how she faltered during her performance and had to stop singing. She writes in The New Yorker that she was struck with an “overwhelming case of nerves.” It wasn’t that she’d forgotten the words, she says (though who could blame her, there are so many words in that song), she just couldn’t “draw them out.”
“I’m sorry,” she said meekly to the crowd as the orchestra softly played behind her. “Sorry.” She looked at the conductor, standing close by. “I’m sorry. Could we start that section?” And then to the audience, “I apologize. I’m so nervous.” The people responded with applause.
On the video of her performance, you can hear the announcer narrating the restart sotto voce, sounding as if he were calling a golf tournament. Smith gathered herself and completed the song, overcoming another, smaller lapse on the way.
It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,” and ends with the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.
My guess is that Smith spent the night replaying her mistakes over and over in her mind. How could she fail on such a grand, international stage? But that wasn’t the end of it.
When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles.
There’s another phrase in the last stanza of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that grabs my attention. It’s “Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that Dylan, who is fond of biblical imagery, had the apostle Peter in mind when he wrote that. It was Peter who stepped out of the boat to meet Jesus, who was walking on the water. It was Peter who saw the waves and began to sink. It was Peter who then called out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And it was Jesus who reached out and caught him.
An artist lip syncing a song in a pre-packaged, flawless performance. How many times do we see that and move on, quickly letting it slide from our memory? Someone stepping out into the rain and waves, and struggling publicly, struggling beautifully, showing that struggles aren’t the same as failures. That I’ll remember for a long time.
(Patti Smith, “How Does It Feel,” The New Yorker, December 14, 2016)
January 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Imagine getting a handwritten invitation from God the Father requesting your presence for a meeting. You quickly get ready, and you’re on your way. When you arrive at his door, you knock twice and hear, “Come in.” You turn the knob, push the door open slowly . . . and there he is.
But before you enter, let’s back up a second. How’s your imagination? What kind of invitation did God send? What about his handwriting? What sort of clothes are you wearing to your meeting? Formal? Business casual? Shorts and flip flops? And his door, is it simple or ornate? What kind of voice does he have? And what does God look like?
For many years, I could most easily picture God sitting on a throne, an ancient sculpture come to life. He had long hair and a long beard, and he must have been at least 10-feet tall, as he was large enough for me—even as an adult—to crawl up onto his lap and burrow my face into the billowy robes that flowed down from his shoulders.
I like that image, and it still gives me comfort. But it’s not always the one that now first comes to my mind. Instead, I sometimes think of God standing before me with his arms crossed, a disappointed look on his face. On a particularly bad day, he uncrosses his arms to shake a finger at me. This change in how I view God seems to have come about sometime overseas, when I realized that my accomplishments and abilities weren’t matching my own expectations and what I thought were the expectations of others.
What does God look like to you? I’m not talking about God appearing in a bona fide vision. I’m thinking of how your imagination pictures him being present—right in front of you. It’s an interesting question for missionaries, relief workers, and the nationals next door. It’s an interesting question for all of us, because the answers we give tell a lot about who God is to us and about how we see our relationship with him—about how we see ourselves and think God sees us. Does he resemble your father, president, prime minister, or king? Does he look like a church leader or a boss you’ve known? Does he give you his full attention, or is he busy with the crowds around him? Does he have your features, or is he a foreigner?
Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
December 28, 2016 § 1 Comment
I recently wrote about Steve Saint’s travels with Mincaye, when Steve—the son of martyred missionary Nate Saint—was logging thousands of miles on his way to speak to thousands. But that was before an accident in 2012, while testing an experimental wing at I-TEC, that left him as an incomplete quadriplegic.
Since then, Steve has openly shared about his struggles and pain. In a post he wrote last month at the I-TEC blog, Steve talks about his feelings of insignificance. “It is hard to feel very important when Ginny has to help dress me and when I need a bib at dinner time,” he writes. “But then when I’m lamenting that I no longer count I’ll get a letters from someone thanking me now for trusting God in suffering. Go figure.”
I’d like to add my vote saying that Steve still counts. I am so grateful for his honesty, for his willingness to be vulnerable. He is truly serving through his scars.
Here is how he begins his post:
About half of the time I can only function at about 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. Then, with no warning I crash to about 1 or 2 in 10. I lose the tiny bit of feeling in my hands, the bands around my body begin to clamp down so tightly that I go into spasms just trying to stand up. But worse than the physical torment I struggle with, the increased pain is accompanied by an involuntary hardening in my “heart”. I sing along in church and hear preaching that used to move me, and I feel nothing.
But, the physical pain and spiritual feelings take second place to an almost constant sense that my life has no significance anymore. But I’m not the only one struggling to have my life count. . . .
I hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of “No Count People?”
And on the topic of letting others see us as we are—if you haven’t watched it yet (or if you’d like to watch it again), here’s Brené Brown’s TED Talk entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” in which she says,
I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.
(I’m sure this makes me a prude, but before you gather the kids around the computer to listen to a video that Uncle Craig recommended, please note that it has a touch of PG language.)
December 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
I have a soft spot in my heart for nativity sets. I think it’s because the cast is familiar and recognizable, so much so that it can be altered to fit any culture and we still know what it is. It’s kind of like hearing “Silent Night” sung in many languages. We may not understand it, but we understand it. Variations on a theme.
But, of course, not all cultures know the significance of the nativity figures. While we were living in Asia, a few blocks away from our house there was a knick-knack store that during Christmastime was filled with Western decorations. Here’s what I wrote about that in a newsletter, 13 years ago:
Amongst the jumble of holiday odds and ends are the scattered pieces of a few nativity sets. On one shelf is a shepherd standing next to a Christmas tree. On another is a stable with only a wise man and Joseph. Without the infant Jesus, there’s no nativity, and the figures become just people staring at the ground, elbowing for space in between the rows upon rows of Santa Clauses.
Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
November 1, 2016 § Leave a comment
I began my post “In the Light, in the Dark, Remember,” with a quote from Joseph Bayly (1920-1986):
Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light.
I trust Phillip Yancey, who writes that Bayly said it, but I couldn’t find a specific citation and I was curious if it was original to him. Then I got a copy of Miriam Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, a collection of the missionary artist’s thoughts, paired with her watercolor paintings. This is the same Lilias Trotter that I wrote about back in July. In the book, I found these words:
Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.
When I saw this, I contacted Rockness, through the blog she writes about Trotter. When I asked her about the source of the quotation, she replied,
This is one of my favorite Lilias quotes. It was taken from her diary, 10 August 1901. She was taking a “break” from the heavy load in N.A. and, after having a reunion with her brother in Zermott (Switzerland) she sought a place even higher in the mountains to “be alone with God.” And, here, as always seemed to be the case for Lilias, God “spoke to her” through His Handiwork. She writes, “‘Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light’ – That was this mornings ‘first lesson’ – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.”
Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing the “heavy load” that Trotter had experienced in North Africa:
It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion. Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.
(In this post, Rockness shows the date for Trotter’s journal entry containing the darkness/light phrase as August 16, 1901.)
In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.
Trotter writes in a journal entry from 1897,
One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.
For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.” It “all depended,” she writes, “on what one had seen first.”
John Ruskin, Trotter’s good friend, and artistic mentor earlier in her life, had had his own encounter with the Swiss town of Zermatt (Zermott) years before. As a young man in 1844, he captured the scene there in the watercolor below.
(Miriam Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in response section of “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)
[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license; John Ruskin, Zermatt, public domain, from artinthepicture.com]
October 1, 2016 § Leave a comment
Consider this your six-month reminder: March 20 is the International Day of Happiness, and author Randy Alcorn is already telling us we should all celebrate the event, even Christians who have been taught “that God is interested in our holiness, not our happiness; that joy is the opposite of happiness; that joy isn’t an emotion.”
In fact, Alcorn, who last year wrote a book titled Happiness, tells Christianity Today this week that the church shouldn’t just acknowledge Happiness Day, we should embrace it:
Wouldn’t it be great if Bible-believing evangelical Christians were the first to put that day on the calendar and declare a day of feasting? Great food, great drink, partying, games for the kids. We could invite the community, wave the flags of various nations, welcome people from all different ethnic and national backgrounds, and just invite everyone to come eat and drink and have fun.
We don’t have to give them all a tract—though of course we can explain the Bible’s good news of happiness, that God sent his Son Jesus into the world. But it isn’t just a means to that end. You could take most of the outreach plans and programs of many evangelical churches and reach more people and give more people a favorable view of the gospel by celebrating a day like this. And then, when our kids are in their college dorms and hearing about all the stuff that can supposedly make them happy (drugs, sex, changing their worldview because Christianity is so negative and intolerant), they might remember amazingly great times of celebration alongside people of every tribe, language, worldview, and faith. That would go a long way toward dissolving the unfortunate notion that church is an unhappy place.
So, what calendar should you mark the date? Well, how about the “Happiness Is . . . 2017 Daily Calendar“? By the way, I cheated and looked ahead. March 20 says,
Happiness is . . . talking music with someone who gets it.
Alcorn talks about using the International Day of Happiness for cross-cultural outreach, and here’s a video, created by This American Life, that bridges its own cultural divide. It’s about Maggie, who is afraid to tell her “conservative Christian” parents about her 17 tattoos. She has this memory from her childhood:
I remember saying, “God wants me to be happy,” and my parents said, “No, he wants you to obey him. He doesn’t care if you’re happy.” To me God is so much more than that. There’s also grace. I think that is something that gets forgotten a lot in my family.
Turns out, their cultures aren’t as far apart as Maggie thought, and the distance between was bridged with an unexpected “ton of grace.”
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
Ah, yes, grace . . . and happiness.
(Jen Pollock Michel, “Randy Alcorn: God Wants You to Find Your Happy Place,” Christianity Today, September 27, 2016)
[photo: “Smile,” by Sofia, used under a Creative Commons license]
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)