Friday, April 20, 2012

Trattoria del Centro

The First Sunday I attended the Waldensian Church here in Bobbio, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a service in French—another evidence of the depth of the French roots in this community.  Not many were in attendance, and the heat from the little wood stove just about cooked us, but no complaints.  With our Siberian introduction to the village, a little toasty fellowship was more than welcome. 

In time, as we attended week after week, we tried to decode the Italian, saw the tiny congregation grow as folks returned from points south after the winter, and then the service moved over to the temple (the Waldensian word for the building, the 'church' being the people).  We spotted some familiar faces in the growing crowd: the woman from the café we frequent after the service.   A woman who met with one of our staff at the library reading club.  And then Jane, who I’ll tell you about in a minute.

To our astonishment, and rather early on, we were invited to conduct a service one Sunday.  Hard to believe that in Europe, and in a remote location, foreigners would be accepted so easily and given not only an invitation to contribute, but to actually facilitate the entire service.  Unprecedented in my 20 years in Europe (nor do I see this happen in the States)! 

Last Sunday was our Sunday.  We prepared with music, Scriptures, and a choreographed movement of the Our Father in French (my role).  A photography slide show played in the background, and a visual arts piece was created while our cook, Elia, gave a short sermon in Italian. 

We spotted Jane in the crowd.  We first met Jane on the evening we hosted local musicians—her husband was a member of the brass band.  They own and run the local trattoria, where you can eat gobs of food for dirt cheap.  Some of our students struck up a friendship with Jane, and most of us have begun going over for a meal now and then (when we need a break from the din of the dining room!).  

Jane has been deeply touched by both the students, their music and their art.  Our Asian/Asian descent students especially seem to have captured her heart.

Although she didn’t know we were to conduct the service last Sunday, and although Jane never attends church, last Sunday she felt an urge to go, and was surprised to find us!  When we sang "Amazing Grace," Jane was deeply moved—“My mother used to sing that to me…” she told us later at lunch. 

For that Sunday, after our morning cappuccino at Silvano’s,  we ALL showed up at Jane’s for lunch—or as many of us as could squeeze in.  After our usual pasta/bread carb overload, we gave Jane a standing ovation and hugs, bringing her to tears.  

I’m not sure what Jane is thinking, but I know she is being loved on and affirmed by many of our students, who are planning going-away gifts and now going almost daily to visit her.  She knows them by name, and the One who knows her by name is surely on the move…

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Last night I witnessed transformation.

Saturday evenings, our students present their creative response homework assignments. It’s a highlight for many of us to see what they’ve worked on all week (or longer).

Last night the dancers went first. We were all impressed at the marked improvement in them after only a few weeks—not only in technique, but in their ability to interpret a heart theme creatively. And then the last dancer got up, and brought the house down.

Holding back tears (unsuccessfully finally), she admitted that she had had to struggle with the assignment of the week—to describe "Personhood"—and she couldn’t understand what the block was. "I couldn't get the movements for the piece of music I wanted to use. Nothing was working, and I only had a short amount of time. I was so frustrated…”

In my experience, artistic blocks are significant precursors to breakthrough; I sat up a little straighter.

We had been teaching and discussing the issue of identity for weeks: identity in Christ, identity as artists, identity as true selves, the selves that pick up their cross, deny the false selves, rip off the masks, and follow Jesus. It has proven to be a major theme of the school, one that each one is grappling with in some way, no matter the life stage.

All that led up to a guest lecturer’s class and assignment: on personhood in Christ, simple being persons with Christ, not pastors, missionaries, evangelists, artists, daughters, sisters, mothers. Simply enjoying the gifts God has given, not trying to perform, do, or meet expectations, but resting, abiding, creating.

This dancer listed the number of statements that had been made to her in her young life, things like, "You can't do'll never amount to much as a dancer..." She described the conflict of only half believing them, and rebelling against them, and yet not fully embracing who she was and what she was made to do. And that's when the tears started flowing.

“…and then I realized what was happening."

Now she could hardly get the words out, but did: "'They' weren't the problem. I was my own worst enemy, telling myself I wasn't a dancer, only someone who liked dance, who used dance to work out for physical exercise. I had decided to just shift my focus to my skills as an administrator, and away from dance.

“Today as I worked in the studio, God helped me to see dance as a legitimate gift. He created me to dance, and I realized that I’m a dancer as well as an administrator. God is calling me to embrace both gifts.”

Big smiles erupted around the room. Anticipation was palpable.

“So I didn't finish the assignment, but I want to play this song for you and I'll just move around a bit."

With that, our beautiful dancer launched into what looked like a completely choreographed piece, with abandon and delight, her face now radiant with the most beautiful smile, free. The tears were now in our eyes—to see a person dancing with abandon before the Lord, as if none of us were in the room. It was a holy moment. I’ve seen it before—with non-artists as well as artists—when someone realizes who they are, who they were made to be, and the joy that that explodes in them as they spontaneously worship.

This was beyond dance. If we had had eyes to see, we would surely have seen the Lord dancing with her. This was worship, in spirit and in truth, and the glory of God was revealed in the glory of his dancer.

When she finished, there was a sacred silence, followed by a hushed: "We've never seen you dance like that before!..."That was truly YOU!"..."Your smile....did you all see her smile!?"

On and on it went, with God’s dancer alternately laughing and wiping tears, until finally she rushed off stage and into the arms of a fellow dancer, where she broke down in sobs. Those of us who knew something of her journey gathered around her—whether to hug, pray, cry, I don’t know. We were like athletes in a match rushing to a teammate who had just scored the winning goal. Our hero, who had broken free from the pack of lies holding her back from who she was and who God called her to be. And in the breaking free, God had tossed her both her call and a new identity.

We did hug, pray and cry. We blessed the work God had done in her to get her to this point. We prayed for her future, we prayed for the work yet to be done. But this pivotal dance would be a turning point for her, and a memory I will cherish as a highlight of the school. Turning artists into Christ-centered, spiritually mature artists is no small feat; we long for it, but can only set the stage for it to happen, and ask God to do the rest. That night, He seemed to roll up His sleeves and say, “Watch me work!”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter in Bobbio

Forterocca was quiet long past the normal hour.  Or maybe I was sleeping very soundly.  I missed the departure of approximately 100 guests from Hawaii (I think), and the little band of our group that rose to greet the sunrise from a nearby mountain monument.  I lay in bed long past my normal hour too, enjoying the rest, the peace, the quiet.  Soon the elevator would begin its groan up and down the shaft adjacent to my room, the showers would begin, and church bells would peel--Easter morning in Bobbio! 

I open my door to find a few chocolate eggs waiting for me.  Those dear little heroes...

A last-minute worship time organized this morning for the students somehow escaped my notice...I came down for breakfast as everyone headed into our meeting room.  All the better to walk alone to the Waldensian church, I thought, and take in the beauty in solitude--a rare commodity these days.   The lambs were out, the dogwood in bloom, a stiff wind blowing, and a strong sun beautifying the colors and land.  I didn't want to miss Easter with the Waldensians--the weather was now warm enough to use the temple (rather than the tiny, overheated annex we've been gathering in).  And the chorale, which practices all year for Christmas and Easter, was reported to be stellar.  

Because of Easter, and the same phenomenon we experience in the States (those who turn out for Easter and Christmas, and not much in between), I was soon in a semi-procession--with scores of Bobbio folks emerging from their homes to walk to the church.  Inside, the congregation had swelled from its usual handful to well over 100. 

Women arrived in traditional dress, and I can only guess at how traditional--200 years or 1000?!  White caps, white shawls, some elaborately embroidered and fastened with different colored ribbons, over a long black dress, with an apron in front for a splash of color. 

Over the threshold, "Worship God, and serve him only..." welcomed us.  Inside, over an imposing

pulpit suspended high up the cavernous mini-cathedral, "Dio E Amor" was written.  As the pastor climbed up into that pulpit, I truly had the sense of stepping back in time--the preacher high above the rest of us, intoning a lengthy sermon, with a chorale singing as only a European chorale can, acoustics to die for, voices the only instruments, in perfect pitch. 

Communion: one approached the altar in groups of 3-4, where 3 (including the pastor) served the elements.  As each group took communion, the pastor gave a personal blessing (wish I knew what he had said to me!). 

I was far too visually stimulated to concentrate on understanding the sermon, although my Italian is progressing enough to get the gist usually.  I did get the announcement, however, of our group animating the service next Sunday!  Friendly, smiling nods all will truly be an event for all of us!  I wonder who's translating...

A walk back to the village square always includes a cappuccino now at Silvano's, the friendly owner of La Fontano Cafe, whose wife also attends the church, and whose daughter is an artist.  I am to meet some of our tribe there, and discuss dreams and visions of the future! 

On the way back to Forterocca, we run into the cutest little lamb and baby goat, who immediately capture about another 45 min. of our time, which is good.  Lunch is not for another hour, and although cappuccino has filled us up, we are eager for our various mountain walks in this gorgeous day.  The lamb and goat follow us home, making adorable baby animal noises, to the delight of the students lounging on the front lawn or terrace.   

My after-lunch walk took me up the mountain to a Waldensian monument, with a stunning overlook of the valley, duly sketched into my sketchbook.  A flock of sheep graze with their shepherd, who greets us, and we flop on the grass to take in the view.  An elderly lady from the town passes me by on the pathway and comments on the beauty of the day, and compliments me on my drawing.  A few minutes later, her husband, the retired Waldensian pastor goes by, a cluster of wildflowers in his hands.   

The rain clouds are approaching, with a cold wind, so we head back in time for dinner.  It's asimple meal, and eyelids are all droopy after long hikes around the mountains.  Several are still missing... 

Games are organized--my cue to disappear for the evening--another rare commodity.  Another chance to reflect, contemplate, read and write.  The history of the Waldensians continues to compel and inspire, and wonder again what exactly God has in store for this valley, and what part we play.  In the meantime, it's one foot in front of the other, on into Week 8 of the School, and whatever history we are walking into.   

Monday, April 2, 2012

Pride & Performance

We have reached the halfway point in our school; this is the week I assess the students in our Spiritual Formation Course.  Are they growing in the Lord?  Are they pressing into the teachings and homework?  What are their epiphanies and breakthroughs?  How is their devotional life standing up under the pressures of performance, outreach, the school, homework from other classes (more tangible and concrete assignments)?   If I weren't teaching the module, and even though I am, I'd struggle with the right to ask. 

In a course designed to cultivate each one's ability to 'be' with the Lord, how do we assess without a checklist of things to see if they were 'done'?

If we are to take pride in our work, how do we then assess performance?

How do we assess without driving people into legalism, or a performance mentality, but in order to further evoke their true personhood--in Christ?  Without judging their spiritual life, but making some evaluation as to their growth in Christ, the better to cultivate further growth, intimacy and maturity with the Lord?

As a missionary, I'm used to constant assessment of my ministry; am I 'performing,' effective, spiritually sound, and walking with the Lord?  Accountability it's called, a word thrown around muchly, but blunted by taboo: are we not offending, exposing, judging?  Who is to judge whether one's spiritual life is up to snuff? 

In my early days walking with Jesus, it was fairly routine to discuss with my peers what the Lord was doing in our lives.  It's become trickier in these later stages of life.  When did that go from excitement to fear of exposure as an imposter?  A disturbing line of thought for me...and I am grateful for the ones with whom I can still discuss and sharpen my spiritual life. 

Tough questions.  Any thoughts?!