Sunday, February 26, 2012

The College of the Uncles

On our  first full day with the students, we visited the rustic Waldensian 'seminary'--the "College of the Uncles"--a short drive into Torre Pellice, followed by a breath-taking ascent up the mountains, followed by a short climb up a very slippery slope. 

For those who were experiencing snow for the first time, it was an experience of wonder; for those of us who know snow all to well, it was an experience of wonder.  The height, the crystal clear air, and the line of students climbing up, in foot gear ranging from sneakers to hard-core mountain boots, felt like pure privilege.  The uninitiated fell quickly on the ice and snow; cameras were clicking in all directions and the snowballs were flying.  And then we climbed into the cold stone room that was the seminary, and faces fell somber as we sat and listened to its history.

One of the OM Italy staff told the story, and one of our students suggested we pray.  A few minutes later, we were exploring the other rooms--a dormitory smaller than my room at Forterocca, what looked like a kitchen, and one other small, nondescript room a level higher.  A few wrote in the log book and then we began our descent, slip sliding all the way, laughing and rejoicing in the moment. 

We skidded down to the more recently built temple (Waldensians don't call buildings churches), hanging off the mountain and overlooking the Catholic church below (Waldensians were restricted to certain altitudes).  More history, more snowballs, more deep thoughts to ponder as we drove home, jet lag sabotaging some, high spirits infecting others, and coffee awaiting us in the lobby of Forterocca. 

Why were we here, at this moment in time, and what might God be up to in Val Pellice?  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bonfires and the Extraordinary

A crowd has gathered in Bobbio Pellice's square.  We hurry after dinner to join them, and begin a torch-lit procession up the mountain to the bonfire. 

After a walk of perhaps 20 minutes, I find myself alone in the crowd, unable to see any of my companions until the bonfire is completely ablaze, and I can find a familiar face.  Not that I need to.  I am lost in the wonder of a children's chorale beginning to sing ancient hymns in pristine voices, our feet all in the snow ruts a tractor has formed earlier in the day, after having pulled bales of hay, sticks and evergreen to build the bonfire.

Here we are under the sparks and weight of history, celebrating Religious Freedom Day.  In 1848, after many centuries of harsh persecution, the Waldensians acquired legal freedom, and the news quickly spread up the valley by bonfire. (You can read more here if you scroll down through the article.)  And so the tradition has continued since then. 

Just then part of the bonfire--which stands perhaps 20 feet high--collapses a bit, showering sparks and cinders at the feet of those closest to it, who jump back with squeals of fear and delight.  I move over to where Cheryl is standing, staring straight up to watch the sparks fly.   

Cameras are everywhere, some on tripods.  Another section of the pyre topples and the cameras click and flash all around it.  Children are climbing up and rolling down the mountain in complete glee, right into the kneecaps of the adults circling the bonfire. 

We join in the singing when we recognize a hymn, or talk to one another, or take pictures, or stand in mute reflection.  We catch sight of other bonfires below, above, alongside--and the wide, yawning miracle of history: how is it our students arrived in Italy on the day of Religious Freedom, as celebrations began up and down the valley, bonfires illuminating the night sky, commemorating the day freedom was proclaimed here?  How is it that in all our planning for the school to begin this February, we missed the fact that we would begin on this holiday? 

The pyre is fully ablaze now, the heat white-hot, driving us further back, into the children climbing and rolling, into the dogs barking.

Someone announces that there is a bucket of mulled wine under a tree and we make our way past the chorale, past the fire spitting sparks up into the dark to join their cousins, the stars, as we join our far brethren the Waldensians.  It was a night of wonder and delight, typically European.

We're all here--those of our students who arrived in time to join the procession, or at least the celebration--drinking our mulled wine, staring at the fire, right on time.  Right where we belong, I think, although I have no idea why any of us foreigners should be here in such personal, communal history as the Waldensians are sharing.  What right do I have?  I have no idea, except that I was invited by the One who has not forgotten one martyr's death, and who apparently has some plans for us to pick up the legacy where it was lost. 

We have come in time for history, but now the celebration is drawing to a close, and we make our way down the mountain in the pitch black (why did I forget my flashlight?!), through the piazza and into Forterocca, where we meet the last group of arriving students.  Tomorrow is the holiday, but not for us.  Tomorrow we pick up another torch: training the next wave of missionaries to bring the gospel into this part of Italy and beyond. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


It's a funny day, gradually coming to an end.  I'm waiting for the last person to enter the building, before I can lock up and go to bed.  An Alpine wind has been blowing all day, rattling the rooftop, clearing the air (of what? I wonder), and there is in it something of the sound of a new thing approaching. 

We've all been about our business, resting, driving, writing, preparing workshops...bumping into each other at meals, discussing some detail, or checking each other's spirits, energy levels, moods.  So much to do, so much to think about, yet disciplining ourselves to rest--as best we can--before our 10-week marathon begins. 

Tomorrow our students arrive. Or are they participants? Dissatisfied with both terms, we have opted to call them "heroes." Why? Because one portion of the school, spiritual formation, will describe them as heroes in their own story, within the metanarrative of God's Story.

(To understand this concept, you might want to go check out the Hero's Journey, a pattern described by Joseph Campbell and others. An apt metaphor for the spiritual journey of any Christ follower, the Hero's Journey is about to begin for each one of our heroes: the 10 week School of Mission for Artists.)

And an apt metaphor given the context in which we are training: The Valley of the Inconquerables, the Waldensians, heroes of the faith who died defending the faith.  Tomorrow evening also marks a commemoration of the Waldensians, with a torch-lit march up the mountain after dinner; all of us who can manage it will join them, jet lag and all. 

Already our heroes have overcome serious obstacles to get here; already we are loving them, and can't wait to meet them. Who will they become over the next 10 weeks? (Who will we become?!) Will they rise to the challenges we give them? How will they react to the Waldensian history in which we are setting this chapter of their stories? Will they emerge as heroes of this adventure, or beaten and daunted?

The welcome bags are prepared, the verses and blessings written, and roommates assigned. Jon has been our busy chauffeur, with three trips to the airport in Milan (three hours away) scheduled between today and tomorrow. Geinene, Cheryl and I will visit various venues for ministry in Torre Pellice, meeting people, checking rooms and brainstorming possibilities. We return at lunchtime to meet the first batch of arrivals, with the last ones arriving this evening. In the morning we will bring them through intros, icebreakers and overviews. A trip to some of the Waldensian sites in the afternoon will set context. Dinner will be a time to socialize and get to know one another more. Saturday we begin the first teaching.

It feels like Christmas Eve...or the launch of a moon shuttle!  One detail after another checked off.  A strong sense of anticipation.  Life is about to change again, in ways we cannot predict, and I wonder how we will all emerge in May, as the school ends.  Yes, our desire is to lead our heroes in personal transformation; how can we not be transformed ourselves in the process?  The task is daunting but exhilarating.  And pales in comparison to what the Waldensians endured.   

The Hero's Journey of the pilot OM Arts School of Mission is about to begin...

The Spaghetti Towers of Forterocca

No, this is not a food post. 

We have been totally immersed in our 7-day leadership intensive, "EquipT: Training the Trainers." 

If I could sum it up in two words: holy guacamole. 

It has been amazing to watch 3 talented trainers bounce us through a stunning array of creative learning techniques, for seven days straight.  Almost no didactic training.  The reflective mind, which I have, went numb about day 5, but even our activists, pragmatists and theorists (the other learning styles we learned about this week) were all dizzy, dazed and offline but day 7. 

A glimpse: 

We were each assigned to teach two presentations and one learning activity, in small groups of 4-6 people.  For each of these, we needed to prepare a module, integrate some of the learning activities we had been taught, gather materials, set up the room, check technology (and have a back up plan in case technology failed), and then self-evaluate/receive feedback after delivery. 

I selected my learning activity from the books available, and then went off to gather materials, stopping  first at the trainers' office to plunder their goods.  Next stop: the kitchen to beg raw spaghetti from a perplexed Marco the Cook.  Onto the training room to set up, and then welcome my class for the exercise: Tall Towers.

The task: to construct the tallest possible tower given the materials provided: straws, toothpicks, tape, paperclips, Blu-Tack, yarn, miniature clothespins and rubber bands.  Oh, and spaghetti.  We are in Italy after all.  In 10 min.  The goal: to demonstrate what happens on a team given a challenging task.

Ooops....forgot my cell phone to time them...but gave instructions anyway, divided the team into two groups and set them off to begin. 

Can I just say, the spaghetti was flying?!

Within seconds, one group was standing on chairs, taping a long stream of spaghetti from floor to ceiling!  Wow - creativity!  Um...hadn't thought of that....The other group was looking on in dismay, but were soon on chairs as well, following suit. 

Before I knew it, both groups had their 'towers' not only as tall as the ceiling, but even pushing through cracks to the first floor.  Would I need a surveyor to measure these postmodern constructions to see who had the tallest?!? 

In the first group, the women were happily decorating their tower with colorful pins and straws, in a distinct sailboat design, while Mat stood back proudly surveying his handiwork.

In the second group, which actually came up with the idea first but were slower in execution, were trying to elongate their tower in a curvilinear design that had to be abandoned as the time drew to a close.  As I called, "Time!" they quickly taped their, um, tower, to the floor. 

I'm not sure any life lessons were learned, but the Trump Tower has nothing on these amazing spaghetti towers.  We are still picking spaghetti up off the floor, and had a lot of laughs, and next time, I will add a ground rule: no suspension from ceilings!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Siberian Cold Front

I know I’m giving you all a good laugh at my wimpy-ness (only my sister truly understands my pain), but one more post about weather and I sincerely hope I will be through, as I think the cold snap ends tomorrow.

The Big Freeze continues, throwing the country and the team into a tizz, as Italy’s record-breaking snow and cold messed up the arrival of our core leadership team today. Cars wouldn’t start, or started but broke down. Rescue cars didn’t fare much better—but one vehicle managed to get there, collect some of the Carsons, and get them to Bobbio. Mat Carson and Cheryl from Australia had the challenge of navigating the public transportation system, hoping to get to Turin, where a car could pick them up…except that car broke down too!

Sheesh…everyone’s here now, but it took 10 hours.

There are power outages or restrictions all around, and I’m sweet-talking my radiator to keep on keeping on, and astonished I still have internet connections. The *warm* personal relationship developing with my radiator got even chummier as an airblock was fixed this morning, delivering a healthy dose of actual warmth to my chilly room, just in time for the roof to start leaking!

But, bucket in place, I’m in a regular tropical paradise now, and after yesterday, when we had 30+, and an evening in a warm apartment, I’m feeling positively acclimated.

More snow showers are predicted this week, nothing substantial, and temps are going back where they belong in the 40’s tomorrow, for which I am exceedingly grateful….

Never far from mind is the Waldensians, hunkered down on these mountain and in these winters so many years ago. They certainly didn’t have central heating, warm showers, and sweaters from L. L. Bean. I never would have made it as a Waldensian.

Hopefully it’s all behind us, and we can begin to thaw out, finish with jet lag and plunge into the 8-day intensive leadership training on Wednesday.

Did I mention Bosnia had 16 feet of snow!? Ok, I’ll stop talking about weather now….

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Herta's Flat

Meals are taken at Herta’s Flat, which is actually nobody’s flat at the moment, but which will become the Carsons’ flat when they arrive on Monday. It’s a short walk up a baby hill, into a courtyard where the dogs bark at you or sleep in the sun, and up a short flight of outdoor steps. Two gates and one sliding glass door later, you’re in. It’s a lot warmer in Herta’s kitchen (once we turn the heat up) than any room in Forterocca I’ve been in, so there is mercy and grace in the Siberian cold.

Why are we walking up to Herta's Flat, you ask? The kitchen at Forterocca is under repair to accommodate the students; because of the snow and cold, repairs are delayed and there is some hope all will be finished before the leadership team arrives and training begins next Wednesday, but it will certainly be done in time for the school.

To which I can only think, with just a slight touch of skepticism, “But this is Italy…” 

The muffling of the snow is punctuated by a jackhammer in the kitchen (which is in the basement of Forterocca by the way, until the real facility is renovated in no one knows what time frame), wielded by our new friend Benjamin until he accidentally drilled into a finger and had to go to the ER Thursday night. 

So in the meantime, we’re crunching up the snow-filled path (avoiding the icy middle) to get meals in Herta’s kitchen.  Pesto pasta, minestrone, pork chops and potatoes, kiwi.  Staring out at the winter wonderland.  More mercy and grace in the beauty.   

When they're not guarding the compound ferociously against us foreign interlopers, here’s how the dogs are handling the cold front, smooched up against a sun-blasted wall. This morning one wouldn't let me pass for a full 10 minutes. This afternoon, they didn’t even stir…

Friday, February 3, 2012

Buon giorno, Bobbio Pellice!

Armed with ear plugs, a wool sweater, and three blankets, I crashed at 8 last night, and, barking dogs and cold notwithstanding, slept reasonably well until 7.  I woke refreshed, and opened the curtains to bright sun and just a few residual falling flakes, which stopped entirely within the hour. 
I spent my day reacquainting myself with Italian stoves and kitchens, toilets and showers, and foods. Then took my bundled little self off to greet tiny Bobbio Pellice, the little town we’re snowed in with. Not many were out, but I practiced my best “Buon giorno!” with those who were.

With the blood thickened up, Forterocca felt positively toasty when I got back, and a lovely sun helped warm the room further. I set up a semblance of office in one corner, art desk in another. The art studio room is Dr. Zhivago cold, so I’ll keep to my room for the time being.  With internet in the room--a great plus--I managed one skype call, a bunch of emails, and some Facebooking before lunch.  After lunch, I plunged back into writing more curriculum, stopping to savor my first espresso later in the day.  I know, I held off a long time, eh?

I'm sharing first days with Marge and Lloyd, Canadians who've just arrived for two years, and Benjamin from Switzerland who came for a month to help in preps for the school. 

The day ends with a warm tea, a warmer room, and one of the easiest jet lag experiences I've had in a long time. 

But a cold front is moving in from Siberia…no time to dilly dally...better get under the covers soon!   

Here's a few shots of Bobbio...notice the park benches in the first one...ha!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Travel Ads:

"Eternity...What begins here never ends." 

How astute of Calvin Klein to prophesy over my life :)

I've arrived safe and sound in Bobbio Pellice, and what begins now will never end.  I don't know how, but the anticipation is as palpable as the snowflakes landing on my face.  What do you have in store for me, Lord?! 

I spent the late afternoon unpacking and starting to get squared away, meeting new people, slip sliding up the road a bit, and wishing I had packed more warm clothing--already!  Well, they did warn us...  I'm trying to screw up the courage for a shower, procrastinating with the perhaps delusional thought that maybe my room will get warmer in another couple of bells chime the hour outside my window, and there's always the barking dog...

But Winter Wonderland it is, and after my soon crash, I will be out and about tomorrow to take some snapshots.  This party is about to begin.