Hard Rain A-Fallin’: Singing, and Struggling, before the King

February 3, 2017 § 2 Comments

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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.

Smith writes:

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)

[photo: “Puddles & Flip Flops,” by Phil Roeder, used under a Creative Commons license]

So, What Does God Look Like to You? [at A Life Overseas]

January 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

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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. . . .

[photo: “Peek,” by Wesley de Ridder, used under a Creative Commons license]

Empathy at a Cultural Threshold

January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Empathy has taken somewhat of a beating lately, as Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has made the rounds. I’ve not read the book, so what I know of it comes from third-party reactions, not enough for me to make any intelligent critique or defense. After all is said and done, though, I would guess that most of us would champion empathy, even if we agree that it can have a negative impact when misguided.

Christopher O’Shaughnessy is author of the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between. He’s also, per his website, an “international speaker and globetrotting adventurer” and, per the video below—an excerpt from his keynote address at last year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference—an empathy advocate. In fact, the video begins with him saying,

I want to tell you a story that emphasizes for me when I first sort of imprinted how important empathy was.

His story takes place after he entered a new school as an eighth grader and met an Eastern European girl who had just made her first international move. O’Shaugnessy, who was born in England to US military parents and spent chunks of his growing-up years on alternating sides of “the pond,” understood what she was going through and befriended her while others made her the object of their bullying.

His first story ends with a second story that takes place years later, in a bank, with a suspicious character, a note passed to a teller, annoying hope, and leaping tears.

It’s worth a listen.

This video is posted at Youtube in the Culturs.guru channel, which says that “CULTURS is a global multicultural philanthropic brand that brings lifestyle content to liminal identities.” I wasn’t familiar with the word liminal, but quick Google search told me that it means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I like that. There’s plenty of room for empathy in that place.

[photo: “Empathy Picture,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

Vulnerability: Letting Others See What Is Hard to Look at Ourselves

December 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

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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.)

(Steve Saint, “No Count People?” I-TEC Blog, November 29, 2016)

[photo: “Let There Be Urbex,” by darkday, used under a Creative Commons license]

Are We Complaining Too Much? [posted at A Life Overseas]

November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Authenticity. It’s a big buzzword today, popular among millennials, pastors to millennials, mom bloggers, and . . . missionaries. Sharing shortcomings and struggles has many benefits, not the least of which is showing other imperfect people that they’re not alone.

But where that sharing grows and grows, there is bound to be pushback. One person’s honesty is another person’s whining. One person’s transparency is another’s self-centeredness. One person’s telling it like it is is another’s pity party. One person’s authenticity is another’s complaining.

So, are we complaining too much?

I think about that quite a bit. I believe it’s important to share our struggles, openly and honestly, but when I get ready to do just that, Philippians 2:14 often comes to mind. Actually, it’s not the verse itself but the children’s song based on it: “Do everything without complaining / Do everything without arguing / So that you may become blameless and pure children of God.”

Maybe it’s not enough to ask, Are we complaining too much? Can we, in fact, complain at all?

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . . 

[photo: “Frustration,” by Jason Bolonski, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Soldier’s Letter, Unopened and Unread

November 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

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To the men and women in the armed forces, thank you for serving our country. The sacrifices you make are more than I will ever truly know.

I just listened to a re-airing of a 2012 NPR interview with Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Castner served as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq. The entire conversation is well worth listening to, but one part that jumped out to me was when Terry Gross asked Castner about a letter he’d written.

When groups visited us on the mission field, we’d have them write letters to themselves before they left, and we’d mail them the letters several months later. The idea was that the notes would be a reminder of what they had felt and experienced—sort of an encouragement to their future selves. We also think this is a great thing to do with missionaries who come off the field as a way to help them process the changes that they are going through.

Castner’s letter is one he wrote to his sons before he went to Iraq, a letter that they were to read if he didn’t come back, a letter that still sits in a safe, a letter that now frightens him. It’s not always easy to get a message from the person you used to be.

“You haven’t read it since you’ve gotten back,” says Gross, “and you don’t even remember what you wrote. So I guess I’m wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven’t read it.”

Castner replies,

You know, as a bomb tech, you don’t spend a lot of your life being scared, but I’m scared to read that letter. I don’t want to read it, because I don’t know what I put in. And I’m afraid that it’s going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don’t make a lot of sense anymore.

I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I’m gone, it’ll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can’t throw it out unless I read it first. And since I’m too scared to read it, it’s still sitting there.

The host on NPR says that Castner recently came across the letter, and he reports that it remains unread.

(“‘The Life That Follows’ Disarming IEDs in Iraq,” “Fresh Air,” NPR, July 8, 2012)

[photo: “Envelope,” by skeptical view, used under a Creative Commons license]

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]

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