Sunday, March 25, 2012

Performance: A Conversation

When I walked in for breakfast this morning, two of my students came up to greet me and began complimenting me.  I responded with a polite "Thank you," then stood and listened as they continued to sing my praises, one of them affectionately stroking my arm.  I love these young ladies, and know their compliments were sincere, but I grew increasingly uncomfortable.  And I knew I had to stand there and "take it."

I had taught the students during the first week of school how to receive compliments, and not engage in a false humility that tries to deflect them.  Artists must withstand critique; missionaries must withstand close scrutiny not only of their ministry but of their spiritual life.  In the critique sessions, we are teaching students to both give and receive constructive criticism, without flinching.  I have taught them to reply with a simple and gracious "Thank you."  To not defend themselves, to not accept all criticism and think they have to act on it, and how to separate the helpful from the irrelevant.  (Of course, one must be careful what one teaches....they have caught me on a number of occasions deflecting their compliments to me.) 

And now, in a classic student/teacher moment, these two were testing me.  As they continued to compliment me, they noticed my discomfort, and smiled.  

"It's hard for you, isn't it?  But you have to say it!" 

They let me squirm a while, until I managed another, weaker, "Thank you!"--and then burst out laughing. 

"Gotcha!" they called over their shoulders (well, the Finnish version at least!) as they left the dining room.  I plopped into a chair, relieved my 'pop quiz' was over...only it wasn't.  The Lord popped a hard question:

"Why is it so hard for you to receive nice things being said about you?  What if I wanted to say something nice to you?" 

I was mulling that one over when another student sat down with me. 

"Why is it so hard for us to receive compliments?" I asked her.  We debated for a few minutes, and another student sat down with a cup of coffee.  And another...and soon four of us were discussing our performance-based cultures over coffee (the greatest form of discipleship!) and our difficulty receiving compliments.  One would think it would be as much a delight as our cappuccino!

We then went on to discuss what healthy performance would look like.  In our artwork, we know when we're pleased with a piece, and when we're not.  It's easier to talk about the former, and easier to sell the latter!  What is false pride and what is appropriate pride?  In the spiritual life as well as the creative life?  Can there be a proper and healthy performance in the spiritual life?  A way to perform in such a way that you are left with a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, which can linger into the next day? 

One woman mentioned she felt guilty for feeling such a sense of joy, a sense so deep that she has trouble sleeping at night.  I admitted the same thing happening to me, but I enjoyed the delight of reliving the moment, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the sense that the Lord had been with me in it, augmenting skill, creativity, patience--whatever--beyond what I was capable of myself.  Should these not be energizing times of sleepless delight?!  Should we not celebrate these moments?  When our true selves are at work, not our performance-driven ones, is not joy and thanksgiving our "reasonable acts of worship"?

Paul wrote, "We however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us--a sphere which especially includes you." (2 Cor. 10:13)

May I boast about my students? 

I've had more than a few nights where it has been tough to fall asleep.  The artwork and dance I'm seeing, the music I'm hearing, the testimonies and astonishing breakthroughs that are now happening almost daily--all keep me awake in the dark, worshiping God, for the privilege of being here, of experiencing what I'm experiencing.

These are in fact times of private worship, which sometimes erupt into spontaneous corporate times of celebration and praise.  And as artists--actually for any believer--I think we need more of this: the ability to stop, skip, dance, shout--whatever it takes to rejoice and thank God for the healthy, life-giving, joyful and energizing acts coming from our true selves.  This I will boast about, whether it happens in my own life, or in the lives of my students--just as Paul did. 

And this elicits far more than a tepid "Thank you" after a compliment, but I'm working on it!  And so are the students.  May we say "Thank you!" because we truly are, and are more focused on what God is doing in us and through us than on our appearance, or ability; may we recognize God has been at work among us.  May we all relish moving in our gifts, rather than minimizing or denying them, and may we execute something truly incarnational, in collaboration with God's Holy Spirit. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Birthday for Marco

This morning, on an alleged day off, I had the chance to have breakfast with some of the kitchen crew.  Benjamin, Elia, Marco, Cettina, Leila, Livie, Moira.  Names that will live long in our memory banks....

Marco showed up randomly one day, and asked if a cook was needed at Forterocca.  He is a new believer, in search of what God might have for him, and came in a few days before our students and guest lecturers arrived.  Just in time to set up, stock up, and take that new kitchen for a test drive...thank you Lord!

Elia arrived shortly after that, asking the same question.  An artist himself (a classical guitarist, composer and theater major), Elia speaks English, and we quickly adopted him, inviting him to share his portfolio with us.  That took the form of an evening listening to a few original compositions of his for classical guitar.  He is now inducted into our worship team, and sitting in on as many classes as he can.     

Then came Cettina, who spoke almost no English when she arrived but is putting us all to shame with how quickly she's learning our language.  My Italian remains dismal, but Cettina is helping me.  She is the cheerful little worker bee who always has a smile and a hug.  Her story of finding out about OM last fall, which birthed a desire to come and work here, then having someone sponsor her, and getting clearance from her church, is a wonder to OM Italy, her and me.  So encouraging to see Italian young people explore missions. 

Livie, the sister of someone here, is a photographer and arrived with the students to help cook. She also joins us for classes, and peeks in our studio whenever she can.  

Leila is from the Isle of Man, by way of Finland and other parts of the UK.  She and her husband have been supporting OM for years, and when she wanted to learn Italian, she checked with OM Italy for opportunities, only to discover Forterocca and the School of Mission.  Leila has been slaving away for us in the kitchen for 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, and has never lost her smile. 

Amanda is here prematurely - her support wasn't in, but the need was there and she came early.  She will be part of OM Italy.

Then Moira arrived, another artist, who found out about the school too late to apply but volunteered to come and help in whatever way she could, just to be here.  She comes to classes on her day off, and can be found lying on the floor in our art studio, painting and drawing when she can. 

Benjamin, from Switzerland, has left already, having spent our frozen February with us, doing whatever he could to be helpful (which mostly meant finishing a kitchen). Benjamin reminded me a lot of my nephew, good-hearted, good-spirited, and just generally fun dude.

Magdalena has just arrived from Switzerland, to replace Leila, who left Tuesday to return to the Isle of Man, and advocate for the arts in her church. 

These volunteers, who are all paying money to serve us, inspire us and humble us.  May God bless them for their selfless service to us. Without their help, we would probably be collapsed in a heap!  Just cleaning up after ourselves, recycling trash (which has been elevated to an art form here) and get through laundry (one small European machine, with a 2-hr cycle, for all of us, no dryer) is enough to keep us busy between classes. An amazing testimony to God's faithfulness in supplying a need before we knew we had one.

The OM Italy staff has no idea how most of them got here.  "They just keep coming!" says the field leader.  "It is a BIG DEAL that Italians are coming!

Tonight we celebrated Marco's birthday, with wonderful cakes by Livie, drinks, music, hugs and smiles.  Marco is struggling with his family's disapproval of his 'wasting his time' here, unemployed and seeking God's will.  Pray for Marco, and his desire to join OM Italy.  It will not be without great cost.

I think of how often I have no idea what God is doing on my behalf, and help shows up before I know I need it.  These wonderful servants are quite dear, not only for who they are, but for what they represent: another facet of our theme this week: our Father God, who cares so deeply for us, and provides for all our needs.  If you have a minute, would you thank God for these lovely people right now, and ask him to bless them beyond imagination?! 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lux Lucet en Tenebris & Chocolate

Morale was slumping under the weight of homework assignments, culture shock, and spiritual housecleaning.  This was the week we pushed our students into their hearts, and some were visibly shaken. 

"Our students need more serotonin!" declared our dance instructor, and that's all the encouragement some of us a week marked by such power, depth and soul-shaking truths, spiritual battles being fought and won, it was time for chocolate!

Four of us headed out.  We walked to the bus, changed in Luserna, met our guide, and continued on up the hill to the Caffarella Factory,  a local phenomenon curiously unknown to the rest of the world.  Receiving our pass from the guard at the gate, we entered a fragrance as as delicious as the free samples.  Dozens of euros later, we exited with sugar shock, gifts and personal stock in hand, and walked to the next town, where we awaited pick up. 

But first, a couple of stops: to the fabric store for more fabric scraps, in anticipation of making story ropes with women at the Salvation Army; then onto the coffee shop for more ultimate Italian coffee (obligatoire with the fine chocolates).  And finally, onto the Waldensian Museum and Cultural Center, to immerse ourselves more in the history of this valley.  An hour later we staggered out, and again I find myself asking the question, how did we end up here?! 

After poring over the dioramas, studying maps and charts, graphs and old photos, sitting in some of the old wooden pews and leaning on an old pulpit, we realized in a deeper way how much an epicenter of Christianity this area is, and why it is not better known.  Armchair theologians, seminary professors and church history buffs, you need to visit the Waldensian valleys!

The Waldensian motto is "Light Shines in the Darkness"--yet how far from glory it has fallen.  Truly a Haggai sort of history, and one wonders what happened.  The church is now liberal, nominal, and marginalized from Italian culture.   

Lux Lucet en Tenebris--"the light shines int he darkness"--the emblem of the Waldensians is everywhere.  What happened to reduce the light to a fragile flicker?  Since no one was there to answer our questions, we determined to return for a guided tour with our students.  One could spend months here, in the library and photo center.  We have 7 more weeks...we can still put a good dent in our ignorance! 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pedro, Venues & Heroes

We continue to learn more of the history and context of this unique corner of Italy.

During a tour of some potential venues for ministry, we met Pedro, a Portugese man who works with the Salvation Army in Torre Pellice, ministering to the marginalized immigrant populations.  While touring the complex where he hoped we could do some murals, including an outdoor garden and terrace where he envisioned performances and exhibits, Pedro regaled us with the history of the valley (in very good English).  We listened and learned about certain customs that endure to this day because of the Waldensian persecution.  For example: no child can leave a school with an adult other than a parent without a signed authorization, because hundreds of years ago, priests came from Torino and kidnapped Waldensian children to raise them as Catholics.

We learned that, because of the Waldensian presence, Italians in this corner of Italy are far less skeptical of non-Catholics than in other regions of Italy, where to not be Catholic means you belong to a sect.

Homes in the valley here are sacred, and one is not easily invited in, for once they were the clandestine houses of worship, and the Waldensians were always on guard against spies. 

How familiar is this scenario?!  On both sides of the religious fence, there is mistrust, and one wonders what it would take to tear the fence down.  Last Sunday, I took some of our heroes to the Waldensian Church in town here. It was a delight to discover we had come on their once-a-month French Service.  As I spoke with the pastor and his wife, the welcome was cordial but distant, and I read that mistrust in their eyes.  Will that change as the weeks go by?   

We have already begun to explore the themes of Artist as Reconciler (reconciling the artist with himself, with others, and in communities and cultures), and will plunge in more with the arrival of our next guest lecturer.  We want our students to be heroes in all aspects of reconciliation.  What will inspire them, and how can we become agents of reconciliation here?  Is it even our place?  These are the discussions going on, and we'll see how God leads, for.... 

"God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as through God were pleading through reconciled to God."--2 Cor. 5:18,20