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]

Tyrus Wong, 1910-2016: From Inbetweener to Disney Legend

January 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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At the age of nine, in 1920, Tyrus Wong left Guangdong Province in China, boarding a ship bound for San Francisco with his father. To get around restrictive American immigration policies, the pair used fake identities to gain entrance to the US. Wong later attended art school and as an adult joined Disney as an inbetweener, drawing fill-in artwork between main animation frames. Then, when the studio was creating Bambi, Wong’s landscape paintings, influenced by the style of the Song Dynasty, became the driving force for the film’s breakthrough look. Though not given much credit at the time for his contributions, in 2001 he was officially named a Disney Legend. Wong died last Saturday, at the age of 106.

Below are four short videos, piecing together aspects of Wong’s life. The first is a trailer for the 2015 documentary Tyrus. The second tells about Wong’s ordeal at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. The third details his work on Bambi. And the last shares the story behind his art.

[photo: “Tyrus Wong,” by KCET Departures, 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]

Thank You, Dear Shepherds [at A Life Overseas]

December 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

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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.

[photo: “Nativity,” by thrufireandthruwater, used under a Creative Commons license]

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

Those Friendly, Friendly Drive Throughs and “Food Houses”

December 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

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It’s that holiday time of the year, which means lots of traveling and probably some quick meals along the way. If you’re wanting to up your grabbing-a-bite-to-eat game, take a look at Business Insider‘s list of the top 25 US limited-service restaurant chains, published earlier this year. Below are the ten restaurants with the highest customer-satisfaction scores. (By the way, if you’re wondering, “limited service” means pay before you eat and includes fast food and fast casual.)

  1. Firehouse Subs
  2. Chick-fil-A
  3. Papa Murphy’s Pizza
  4. Ben & Jerry’s
  5. In-N-Out Burger
  6. Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers
  7. Krespy Kreme
  8. Fuddruckers
  9. Jersey Mike’s Subs
  10. The Habit Burger Grill

I guess you could say this is a pretty congenial group of eateries—offering good food at a good price with good service—but if you want to know just how friendly the American food-distribution scene is, you need to look at it from an outsider’s point of view. In his book End of the Spear, Steve Saint tells about his friend Mincaye’s first trip to the States. Mincaye is from Ecuador, a member of the isolated Waodani (Waorani, Huaorani) tribe.

After he and Steve return to Ecuador, Mincaye describes grocery stores to members of his village. To him, “food houses” are wondrous places with endless amounts of food (people take it out but no one brings it in), and taking it out is oh so easy:

The only thing you have to do is when you are leaving, you have to go by the place where the young foreigner girls stand. They look at you very seriously. But if you just stand there and smile, when they smile back, you can take all your food and go eat it happily.

At this point, Steve corrects Mincaye’s story by explaining that the food needs to be paid for and shows the group a credit card.

“Don’t worry,” Mincaye explains. ” They just give that thing right back to you, and then you can go and eat all your food!”

But someone wants to know how food can be gotten when you’re out driving and not close to a food house. Mincaye knows the answer. That’s not a problem for Babae, as he calls Steve:

Babae has friends everywhere. Whenever we are away from the big, big food house and my stomach hurts, telling Babae, he just stops at one of his friend’s houses. They open the little windows in their walls and hand us food. Those people really like Babae, just like we do.

I really feel special now. I guess those people really like me, too!

(I’ve written about Steve and Mincaye before, but if you’d like to know their full stories, read Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor and Saint’s End of the Spear, or watch the movie of the same name.)

(Emmie Martin, Tanza Loudenback, and Alexa Pipia, “The 25 Best Fast-Food Chains in America,” Business Insider, May 9, 2016; Steve Saint, End of the Spear, Tyndale, 2005)

[photo: “Service with a Smile,” by Broken Piggy Bank, used under a Creative Commons license]

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