Friday, August 24, 2012

Off to the Boatyard...

Thanks for joining me but it's time to wrap up the Malta chronicles, and get back to the Boatyard.  I leave in 2 more weeks to unplug, defrag and ramp up for the next adventure...Good night, Malta!  Glad to have made your acquaintance!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Like A Nail in Water

Three years ago, an art therapist from an Eastern European country, who lives in Malta, contacted me and asked about opportunities.  I will call her Elena.

Although I could offer nothing at the time, we stayed in touch.  Somehow, although our communication was only through email, I liked her.  So it was a pleasure this year to say I was coming to Malta, and could finally meet her. 

When I did, spotting her first in the crowd, I smiled.  This was an artist and a fashionista!  (Indeed, Elena would also like to be in fashion design.)  We chatted briefly, I introduced her to the people I was with, and then we went to a nearby beach cafe to chat about art therapy.  It was the loveliest of nights, in which to hear another grueling story of survival.  

Ten years ago, Elena emigrated for a job opportunity in Malta.  The job was not so great, so she left it for another, which was also not so great.  That began a string of disappointments, and I wondered if I was reading too much into the story to wonder if this single woman from Eastern Europe was being baited into the sex trade. Elena is now about one notch above the refuges, broke and sinking under the weight of trying to be a professional artist as a single woman in a foreign country.

We weren't finished, but I had a bus to catch.  We agreed to meet the next day, and I would introduce her to our team; maybe one of the long term workers would have an idea for her.

Elena came with her portfolio, which was stellar--world class.  What was she still doing in Malta?!  In my two weeks in the capital city, I only saw one art gallery that did not cater to tourists, and visited the Fine Arts Museum, which underwhelmed me except for its architecture. 

I heard more of her journey, and now the internal one surfaced with the external one.  I sensed my role here in Malta was going to be more about getting this art therapist 'online' than getting art therapy in place.  This art therapist needed some therapy!  I revved up my pastoral care counseling skills when I heard this sentence:  
"I am a nail in the water.  How much longer can I float?"

Elena was in a pretty deep depression; was she suicidal?

"No," she said, "but if I wasn't a Christian, I would have committed suicide already."

"Don't think being a Christian will stop you," I cautioned.

We then spent many hours together in the park, sorting out the issues, and I was grateful to learn she had theological training, which helped her connect dots quickly as I basically brought her through a short version of Neil Anderson's Steps to Freedom in Christ.  I watched her relax as truth penetrated with its hope.  Her face began to light up as she rejected lies she had believed, confessed sin, broke inner vows, and forgave one person.  I thought to myself, "So this is why I'm in Malta."  With that, she said, "So...God sent you all the way to Malta to tell me these things?!" 

Sure seems like spite of the grueling story, there is something extremely satisfying about knowing you showed up at the right place in the right time. 

This is a woman who either needs to leave Malta, or is God's choice for Malta.  I was amazed by her courage, tenacity, ingenuity and integrity.  She also showed an entrepreneurial spirit, which will serve her well if she can make it through the depression and adverse circumstances.  Can she reset her spiritual life to draw on God's resources?  Time will tell.

Her heart's desire is to help the children in the family camps.     And as it turned out, she had worked in the men's camp where I had just worked; unfortunately, she could never obtain proper paperwork to work legally, and eventually had to leave. 

I've been in contact ever since, with encouragements and ideas, coaching her through tentative first steps to rebuilding a solid foundation out of the misery and into the realization of her call and vocation.  Her portfolio is stunning but her needs are staggering.

Skill and ability alone do not make the artist, but this is an artist with world class talent.   So if you are reading this, please consider yourself invited to be part of the solution.  And contact me for more info.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Tongue is a Fire

The things you learn in a foreign this throw-away comment on the bus ride to town that yielded incredible insight into the Maltese, on the way to the prayer house: 

"Paul dealt with a poisonous snake on the island after his shipwreck.  Since then,  no snakes on Malta are venomous."


"Yes.  But the venom of the snake went into the Maltese mouth."


Some laughed; some of us thought that was a pretty awful self-cursing sort of thing.  Taming the tongue is no small feat, and I'm sure not where I want to be with it, but I would hate to identify myself as someone with a venomous tongue.  But the Maltese carry a certain pride in their sharp tongues, directness, and ability to argue.   

Talking with an equally-shocked friend later, we decided we wanted to be people who do not speak the fire of hell but the fire of heaven: healing, purifying, refining words.  A visual immediately came to mind, refined during the bus ride, as I passed the many houses covered with the now-familiar grillwork of the Mediterranean windows--grillwork that now appeared to be snake-like, covering windows so no light of understanding could get in, just the lie of a debasing identity about themselves.  I wondered what it would take to dismantle the self-cursing proverb.  What would remove the venom from the Maltese mouth?     

A quick acrylic capture:

Ran out of time to finish - was trying to remove the 'snakes' from one side of the painting, to represent the heart choice of how one speaks.  (Heart also incomplete in the middle.)  But I hope you 'get the picture."  :)

(Text: "The tongue also is a fire."--James 3:6)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Eritreans & A Man Named Up

One morning I greeted a newcomer (the house of prayer is a veritable Grand Central Station of visitors) and asked if he was Maltese.  He laughed, and replied, "No, I'm Dutch!  My name is Up." 


“It’s spelled ‘Ab’ but if you pronounce it ‘Up’ it will be correct.”

Um, ok…Up...

For the past two weeks I have prayed with believers from all over Europe, the US, and the UK, and Australia, Brazil, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia!  What a delight to pray especially with a Saudi, and hear his insights on the spiritual landscape of a country we hear little about, other than the political messages. 

Flags from all the countries bordering the Mediterranean--the focus of the prayer house--line the walls, and a huge map covers the floor (and sometimes got danced on!).  A variety of musical instruments were strewn about, inviting anyone to find their inner musician as led; art supplies were brought in after a few days, when I asked for a canvas. 
Styles, temperaments and faith backgrounds varied, of course.  We went from silent, contemplative, soaking prayer, to the most rambunctious charismatic expressions.  And including prayer walks out into the city, especially at night, when it was cooler.  I mentioned the swing flags...but nothing prepared me for the Eritreans.  

A group of them at the Men's Camp invited us to stay for their prayer meeting one evening, and we received permission to stay late from the authorities.   That experience is the hands down most astonishing event I have ever been to, and I’ve been to some doozies.  

Up to that point my total knowledge of Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritrean Christians could have fit in a tweet.  And these were refugees, immigrants, or illegal aliens, depending on whatever status Malta gave them; how typical would their worship be?  Is there a typical Eritrean Christian?!  But several of them had attended a worship service with a number of our team, and recognized us in the camp.  We were delighted to be invited. 

The ‘church’—a rough, tin-roofed affair opposite the equally makeshift mosque—was no frills, and hot.   I hesitated at the door as the men greeted one another; were women allowed?  Oh yes, they assured me, very  welcoming.  Nevertheless, I was grateful to be with three of our guys, one of whom towered over most of the Eritreans.  Unfortunately, two of them left to try to engage some others in a soccer match; my one remaining 'bodyguard' sat on the other side of the room from me.  Oh well, I wasn’t far from the door if the going got rough… 

I had time to note the bare bulbs in very old chandeliers, and a broken-shuttered window letting some cracks of gold light into the gloom.  A few men sat quietly; a few others were chanting quietly to themselves, rocking back and forth.  No women. 

Then the doors closed and the gentle chanting and rocking ramped up a few notches.  I wondered if this was the prayer meeting, and if not, how long this would go on.  Just then, a man I presume was a pastor or leader began shouting out a message of some sort, pacing angrily back and forth across the front of the room.  But this was no sermon: he ended after a few minutes, and the men--or most of them--stood suddenly and began pacing in the rows, or wherever they could find room.  The noise level went up several more decibels.  I wondered what I should be doing.  I glanced over at my companion, but he had his head riveted into a Bible, and looked hunkered down for the duration.  I stayed seated, riveted.     

Another 10 minutes, and the shouting began.  A few more men came in, and now everyone was on their feet, shouting or chanting or pacing, singing or praying at the top of their lungs.  I felt like I was in a Brian Eno recording--“My Life in the Bush of Ghost” to be exact…   

Can you say out of your comfort zone?! 

I was sure the sound could be heard for miles.  The noise level rose steadily over the next hour until it was deafening.  Men were rocking, swaying, jumping, shouting, or kneeling.  I noticed a couple of furtive glances in my direction.  My companion still had his eyes riveted in his Bible, and I glanced at my watch.  We had to be out of the camp by 8 pm...15 more minutes... 

Finally, our two other companions returned from the soccer match to fetch us.  They sat behind me, eyes wide, deer caught in the auditory headlights of this prayer meeting.  It was time to go…we left in a din rivaling what might be heard at any large airport.   I listened to it as we exited, and walked across the bridge.  Would this sound be heard in heaven?  Was this a fervor born of exile?  Was it to compete with the Islamic community in the camp?  

Our bus ride back to the 'comfort zone' was silent, as we absorbed the experience.   

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Our closing celebration evening has arrived.  Several of us head for Mdina (pronounced M-deena), the oldest city on Malta, dating back to prehistoric times, one of the few fortified ancient walled cities left intact in Europe.  

Some of you might recognize the Arabic influence of the name; “medina” is Arabic for city.  Although the Arabs were expelled in 1250, when the islands were under Christian rule, their influence is everywhere in Malta.   

The apostle Paul’s influence is also felt again, as we pass the incredible edifice of The Cathedral of St. Paul—an impressive landmark from anywhere in central Malta, just begging to be explored.  But it’s night, and closed--our trade off for cool temps and beautiful amber lights (the best way to see Malta in my opinion!)  Note how tiny the people are in the foreground. 

The glass blower's shop is open...we go in to see what's on display, and I find something for my sister (your birthday is coming, darlin'!)  Not this chandelier, nor the clock...

After wandering through streets like a film set (several movies have been shot here), recalling Biblical times, or Disneyland, (only this is real!), we climb up on the city’s bastions, the stone walls fortifying the city. The view is a breathtaking panorama, and we "Oooo!" and "Aaaah!" while watching planes, cars, and fireworks over Valletta.   

A few obligatory photos later, we move on to the FontanellaTea Garden, where we navigate through a crowded multi-level cafe, filled with greenery and white lights.  Diners are tucked into nooks and crannies everywhere, and we find our niche on the rooftop, up against the stone walls, the perfect perch to feast and watch the fireworks (Malta is in festa season, celebrated with fireworks and food for weekends on end each summer.)

We are just here for dessert, and are soon ooo-ing and aaah-ing over mint chocolate cake, strawberry meringue, banofee, and baci cake.  We are taking iphone photos and slurping milkshakes or espresso.  Guys couldn’t do this, we decide.  (Well, I know a couple who could!)  

Now we are in sugar stupor, and have to leave: some of us have an airport run at 5:30 am tomorrow.  It's hard to leave the beauty, the softness of the air now, the end of discovering Malta and each other. 

We take our time, meandering back under the amber lights through medieval side streets, across Publius Square, and out the city gate, past a jazz band playing in the open air.  All is peaceful, patrician and perfect.   Mdina, I will be back, inshallah! 


Friday, August 3, 2012

Gozo & the Gozitans

Malta is an archipelago, consisting of 7 islands, of which only 3 are inhabited: Malta, Gozo, and Comino (with only two families, and one police officer, presumably to keep the two families in line!).  On Tuesday we took a very hot, very bouncy ride up to Gozo, via a short ferry ride.  On the way, I learned that one of our drivers was none other than the stepson of C.S. Lewis!  Who also happens to live on the island, and is best friends with our host.  Oh my…

The landscape grew progressively less urban, more green and floral, the dips and hills beginning to yield up stunning views of the Mediterranean.  Our cameras were soon clicking.    

According to tradition, Gozo is identified as “Calypso’s Island” (I presume that is more about tourism than anything else).  From the tour book:

“Above Ramla Bay on a rocky rise, there is a small grotto that is said to have been a love-nest for… Calypso and…Ulysses. 

Zeus intervened, and Ulysses escaped; I am not up on Greek mythology, so don’t know what happened next, but you can check Wikipedia for that story if you like!

“Although it is difficult to compare the current state of the grotto and its surrounding with Homer’s description of Calypso’s residence in the Odyssey, prehistoric terracotta remains dating from the Ggantija (The Giants) period (c. 3600 BC), have been found just a few metres from the cave entrance.”

Here is the world’s oldest archeological site, built by a culture of megalithic temple builders  presumed to be giants—the oldest existing, free-standing structures in the world.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see this, since it used to be free but now was carefully gated off and requiring an entry fee. 

Today’s Gozitans are certainly not giants (I’ve learned that Maltese come in all sizes, shapes and complexions), but they are a hardy breed: “These frugal people seem resistant to any adversity; their character is steel-like, tempered by privations and constant danger and, as a result of the frequent ordeals, they and their descendants have emerged strong and resilient.” 

By the afternoon we were feeling less than resilient; temps hit almost 100, and we were wilting with dehydration.  We quickly accepted the offer of Doug, Lewis’ stepson, to cool off in his pool, and ended our day tired, happy and stunned to be in such company.  To his car mates, he gave a signed copy of the Chronicles of Narnia, and waved us off to collapse in bed with happy memories.

Source: Malta and Its Islands: Gozo and Comino,

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Men's Camp--Part II

Y. comes from Sudan, via Libya.

“Two years I worked there—it was hell.”  On his way to Italy he was picked up, or shipwrecked--the stories blur in repetition--and found himself in Malta, in detention.

M. is the friendliest—from Eritrea, young, slight of build, with a shy but ready smile.  He invites us for a meal on the first day.

On the 3rd day, I meet a string of French speakers, from Burkino Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. 

Côte D’Ivoire man asks me for my hat.  I refuse.   

“But I want it.”

“Sorry, but I need it for this heat.”

He shrugs, goes off and returns with a peach iced tea for me.  I'm hesitant to drink it; it's Ramadan, and the majority are fasting.  In Islam, that means no liquids either during the day.  I put it in my backpack. 

M. comes by and asks me if I want to play pool.  I don’t; he insists.  I capitulate…and now give the men more than a few minutes diversion.  Laughter erupts as I miss shots, hit the wrong ball, and sink nothing.  I finally plead for mercy, relinquish my cue to M, who has been watching with great concern, asking at one point if we play pool in America.  He proceeds to sink all the balls in one rapid volley.

The call to prayer comes and Burkino Faso man grabs my hand.  He looks uncertain; it is his first day in the camp. 

“Come with me,” he pulls. 

“No, I need to stay with my group.”  He goes off resigned, looking for all the world like a five-year-old boy about to get on the school bus for the first time.

And then I am off on my own bus, back to the prayer house, thankful for the air conditioned bus, thankful for the peach iced tea, which I now pull out and guzzle--discretely, for some of the refugees are also on the bus, and Ramadan doesn't end for two more hours.