Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Curiosity & Key Chains


That morning as I drove into Valdese, I fully expected God to show up, to do something. I've lived with my curiosity and exploring nature long enough to practice it practically as a spiritual discipline, and God usually humors me and shows up through it. (I believe he's a bit of an adventurer himself!) 

But as I entered that sleepy little town, not knowing a soul, not much happening, and having difficulty with the accents, I was having second thoughts.  I munched a McDonald's salad in anticipation of the Trail museum opening at 2, pondering anew the proverb, "Curiosity killed the cat."  This won't be a fruitless visit, will it, Lord? 

Absolutely not, he seemed to respond.  With the arrival of Yvonne and Lisa, I knew the adventure was about to begin...


Sylvia cued up the video, and we watched the history roll on until she returned to shoo us out the door; the rains were coming, and if wanted to visit the re-created Waldensian village, we'd better hurry.  

Off we went.  While we explored the living museum, Yvonne and Lisa grilled me with questions, and I dredged up every shred of information and anecdote I could find in my memory banks, aided by the monuments and sites that had been re-created here.  

Surreal and touching to find reproductions of Il Colegio, the Church in the Cave, Waldensian artifacts, photos, memorabilia--even the haystacks assembled like the bonfires of Bobbio--all divorced from their context in the Alps.

Here is the seminary we visited high in the Angrogna Valley, where Waldensians studied for centuries, memorizing Scripture before descending the mountain to bring the Scriptures orally through Europe: 



And Valdese's version:





Pretty eerie to see such close reproductions in the relative flatness of Valdese, while remembering a steep drive and climb up on a snowy mountain in Italy.

How about this one: the Valdese reproduction of a cave church we visited, and one of our student's entering the real one in Italy:







We kept shaking their heads as we talked.  For every question, I had details; for every plan, suggestions.  Lodging?  Forterocca!  Eating options?  Jane's trattoria, and give her a hug for me.  And have her take you to Silvano's for a coffee.

They made mental notes of my download and I made my own: where would this trail lead?!  For now, the museum was closing, and we had one more stop.  We prevailed upon Sylvia for the bathrooms, prayed for one another in the cafeteria, and thanked God for connecting us.

In conclusion, Sylvia returned with key chains for us--no divine appointment complete without 'em! 

Next stop: The Waldensian winery! 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Driving South, Driving Slow: Valdese, NC

I'm transitioning back to the South now...slowly, because there is a lot to digest, and a long car ride through beautiful countryside is a great..ahem...
vehicle to do just that.

I pondered my way through Wall, NJ, Troutville, VA and into Valdese, NC, where I would stop for an overnight.   

Why Valdese, NC?  An obscure location, with a remarkable story, one I've been involved with for the past four years: that of the Waldensians.  

I'll pick up the thread in 1848, when the Waldensians received religious freedom after centuries of persecution and near annihilation.  Peace brought a new challenge: their numbers then grew rapidly, too much for their land in the Cottian Alps to support them.  

A number of families began emigrating--across Europe, to South America, and the US: New York, Texas, Utah, Missouri, and North Carolina.  We had learned about the Waldensian colony in NC in Torre Pellice in 2012; I'd wanted to visit ever since.

In May 1893, a colony of 29 Waldensian immigrants found there way here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as they run through western North Carolina, and prepared for winter.  

Preparing for winter...29 people...11 men, 5 pregnant women, with 13 children under the age of 16.  No money, no houses, no food, no English (except for one person).  Build houses, plant crops, survive, and get ready to receive 200 more immigrants in November--and the onslaught of winter.  How did they do it?  More ponderings...but back to August, 2014. 

I drove into town on a Sunday, shortly after noon, and noted the signs everywhere: Waldensian History Museum, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Waldensian Winery...even street names like "Italy St." and "Arnaud Ave."  You name it, there was a mural, statue, fountain or field identified with the Waldensian history.  



Only one of these venues would be open today; I waited patiently for The Trail of Faith Museum to open at 2 pm, picking through a McDonald's salad, one of the few culinary options in what is a fairly typical small Southern town.

More ponderings.  What were the North Carolinian Waldensians like today?  What were they doing?    Are they people of deep faith, or more secular, as many of their Italian counterparts have become?  Probably a mix, I decided, and hoped I could connect with some.  

I had all I could do to understand the accents in placing my McDonald's order.  But when the Trail of Faith museum village opened, Sylvia, the receptionist, welcomed me with a mild one, and understood my own NY-tinged mongrel accent.  I introduced myself and explained my interest in the Waldensians, and she promptly gave me a discount.  So the Waldensian generosity is alive and well in Valdese, I thought.   

We had hardly begun looking at the reproduction of the Angrogna Valley in Italy--where the Waldensians lived and where I had just lived for three months--with little lights indicating the locations of Bobbio, Villar and Torre Pellice, towns I've grown to love, when two ladies entered.   Sylvia excused herself to check them in, and encouraged me on into the video room.  

As I went, I couldn't help overhear their conversation: these two ladies had recently discovered the Waldensian history, and Valdese--so close to their homes in Charlotte, NC.  They wanted to learn everything they could in preparation for a trip to Torre Pellice planned for November. 

"Well, you might want to talk to that lady over there," Sylvia replied, pointing at me.  "She just got back from some time in the Waldensian valleys!" 

Eyes widened as they turned to look at me, a wonder of wonders, a live body who had touched the holy grail of Waldensian soil in the Motherland...we introduced ourselves as the video started.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Transition Trauma

I first heard the term used in a nursing home about two weeks ago; since then, in that quirky way a thing begins to ping as soon as you hear about it, it's been showing up everywhere: transition trauma.  

"Dubbed 'transitional trauma' or 'relocation stress syndrome (RSS),' it's characterized by symptoms such as anxiety, confusion and hopelessness. Furthermore, the emotions involved in moving can trigger a physical reaction, especially in aging adults. Combine the physical and emotional toll, and the effects can take months from which to recover." (Huffington Post)

We were transitioning my mother from hospital to rehab in a nursing home.  While we grappled with the nursing staff on whether or not she would ever leave, Mom sat in her wheelchair, a ball of confusion and looping conversations, mostly just wanting to go home.

Today we brought my nephew back to college for his final year.  Always a stellar nephew, he is transitioning into such a Fine Young Man that I want to hug him relentlessly, take more pictures, freeze the good moments, and tie him to the bedpost so he can't go off and do something crazy like become an adult or something.

His parents, my sister and her husband, are preparing to relocate to another state; should they wait for Matt to graduate next May, or move now, as the housing market begins to turn against them? 

Monday I leave the Northeast, where I have spent the better part of the past two months transitioning with my family, to return to my home of the past 8 years, in the South, only to begin another transition.  My lease expires in December.  Where to next?  

A layer of complexity increases my own anxiety: financial losses meet looming retirement.  Increasing my cash flow while contemplating my next housing option has be to played against that backdrop.  As finances collapse, do I retire early and take my losses, or slug it out four more years?  Slug on, the counselors, strangers, and my inner compass agree.  Relocate now to where I want to retire (those sames voices encourage), but where is that exactly?   Near my sister (yes, the voices nod)?   

O Transition, my constant companion....

"The realness of transitional trauma has led to the burgeoning of the cottage industry of move- management firms as 78 million baby boomers head into their retirement years,"  chirps the Huff.  I want to call one of those firms and ask them to solve my life for me, but I probably can't afford them.

The process of disorientation I quoted in my last post pales in comparison to what William Bridges calls the 'larger process of letting go of the person you used to be and then finding the new person you have become in the new situation." 

Letting go, and in search of that new person, I dedicate this post to my mother, nephew, sister and brother-in-law in transition, and to those of us in the family navigating with them.  

One day we'll all find ourselves on another shore, waving goodbye to the old selves, settling down in the skin of our new selves, perhaps with an adult beverage in hand, the kind with the little umbrellas.  May we do it well, with grace and style, and may we stay forever young.







Saturday, August 2, 2014

Transition: Connecting Dots

Transitions..." the natural process of disorientation and reorientation that marks the turning points of the path of growth.  Throughout nature, growth involves periodic accelerations and transformation: things go slowly for a time and nothings seems to change--until suddenly the eggshell cracks, the branch blossoms, the tadpole's tail shrinks away, the leaf falls, the bird molts, the hibernation begins." (Transitions, William Bridges)

I'm re-reading this classic book on transitions, a rare and unique work.  I highly recommend it, if you want to understand the internal dynamics of transition, not just the how-to of navigating externals.  I'll throw a few more of its nuggets in future posts on this thread, but first--back to the exercises!


Did you all do your homework?  If not, back up to the previous post and catch up!  If so, let's press on.  If you don't believe in the Triune God of orthodox Christianity, you may want to skip this post entirely, or adapt it somehow to your belief system.  If you do, let me know!  I'd be curious to see what you came up with.

For this next step, you will need to list names of God that you know.  If you don't know any names, look here for some ideas, and jot down your favorites.

Now connect the dots with your previous list: what names of God correspond to the emotions you are feeling, or the words you associate with transition?  What do you think God wants to reveal about himself to you in this transition?

For example, words in my first list were:

  •     bracing (for it)
  •     chaos
  •     complexity
  •     joy/excitement
  •     unknowns
  •     work
Names of God our group came up with included:

  •     Creator
  •     Father
  •     Initiator
  •     Provider
  •     Shepherd
  •     Faithful One
  •     Judge
  •     Way
  •     Truth
  •     Life
  •     Counselor
  •     Wisdom
  •     Shield
Connecting the Dots: as I connected my emotions/thoughts with these names, I came up with:

Bracing for it  = Initiator.  God initiated this transition, so he will bring it to completion.   I also got a sense of God's joy and excitement about what he's up to in initiating this transitional period.  I decided to focus on my own joy and excitement as a shared emotional state that I am enjoying with him in this transition, in spite of the chaos, confusion and unknowns.  He will fulfill his purposes in it, and I will receive gifts along the way, and at the end.  Not without pain, but no pain, no gain, right?!

Chaos = God brings order out of chaos.  He
is a God of order, not confusion.  
 
Complexity = Wisdom, Counselor,
who understands all the issues and is able to shepherd me through them.

Bottom line: I relaxed.  God let me know "I've got this!"

Coming into the debrief/retreat time in Colorado, I didn't know how I was going to sustain two years of transition on so many levels I barely knew where to begin.  Did I have it in me--emotionally, physically, spiritually, psychologically?

Leaving, I had two pillars of hope on which to continue the journey:

. focus on the end goal; and there will be gifts along the way, of all kinds;
. my primary goal of obedience as a disciple outweighs inconvenience, unknowing, doubts, financial tests, housing mysteries, geographical changes, family complexities, and vocational shifts.  I do like simplification! I will walk this road of transition, and not shrink back into my clamshell where it's safe and cozy. 


As the psalmist says, "Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord."

Simple.  Keeping on keeping on. 
One foot in front of the other.   
 
See you next time!  Let me know how you've connected some dots! 



 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

O, Transition, My Old Companion

Our sessions on transition were too good not to be shared with others.  For missionaries and military, and maybe for you, transition is a way of life.  But for most in our culture nowadays, transition is becoming a fact of life as well.  So this will be an interactive series of posts, and I hope they are helpful to you.  Prepare to spend a little extra time with them; I'll share some insights first, then some exercises next time, and then maybe we can compare notes :)

Transitions happen in family, health, work and ministry situations, age, geography--you name it.   There are transitions made in community: families, a task force, a church, a ministry team, college buddies, military units, band members.  For those communities formed for some goal, once the goal is reached, the community disbands.  In some, transition is not an occasional event, but a constant companion. 

There are external and internal dynamics to transition.  An external event might trigger transition, and an internal dynamic begins.  Or an internal stirring begins, leading to external changes.  

You may have time to prepare for a transition, such as for an upcoming move; you may not, as when you are laid off from a job.  

If you have time to prepare, you can perhaps process enough internally that the external changes are made relatively painlessly.  Or you may have to undergo the external transition first, and then begin the internal adjustments. 

Transition always involves grief.  In order to relinquish the past and embrace the new, I must grieve my losses.  Transition involves loss and letting go, an acceptance of the new, and an identity change.  If you are the one leaving, you may be distracted by the new and short-circuit the grieving process; if you are the one left behind, you are not distracted by any new adventure, and feel the grief more acutely immediately.  

Keys to Successful Transition: 
  • identify the loss(es)
  • sit with the feelings; don't deny them or repress them; let yourself feel the pain
  • express it/them: to others, in your journal, or to God in prayer.  Externalize your thoughts and feelings. 

Ok, now for some exercises...

For those in some phase of transition, what emotions are you experiencing?  Make a short list of words or short phrases that capture these. 

What type of internal processor are you?  Do you need a lot of time, or prefer to just jump in to transition?  Assuming you have the time to prepare, when are you most likely to internally process transition?  Months, weeks, or days before?  Prepare to do so.  If you prefer to delay until you're in the thick of things, make the internal commitment not to get overwhelmed later by your choice today! 

Now, between now and my next post, watch these clips, and jot down the various transitions you see.  Which character, or which transition, do you identify with the most?  The clips will take you about 20-25 minutes to watch.

The Fellowship Reunited
The Return of the King
Homeward Bound
The Threads of an Old Life
Journey to the Grey Havens

I'll give you some time, because tomorrow, I transition from this little retreat in Colorado to the New Jersey Shoreline!  Yes, a beach vacation is in my future, where I will reconnect with my inner beach bum, and contemplate my upcoming transitions as the sun sets, the gulls wheel overhead, and the toes curl up in the sand.  I need no time to process how I feel about that! 

But I do feel a pang of regret at the thought of leaving a place I've come to love, and a time that has been defining.  Feeling grateful, but sad to leave friends and colleagues I may not see again for years.  There, I've externalized it! 

O, Transition, you are a constant companion...





Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Colorado!

Regal thistles, often solitary, sometimes in small clusters, their purple heads so tall they are practically staring me in the face.   They compel me to stop to take in their beauty on a walk through rolling ridges and hills of this neighborhood surrounded by sea-glass green prairie grass--seas, seas, OCEANS of it, bordered by brooding pines (spruces?). 

Recalling Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Little House on the Prairie, and desires to have seen this state before all the development.   What must these seas have looked like?

A flash of blue--some bird flies by, drawing the eye to a horse galloping in the pastures of Snow Drift Ranch.  Two more follow his lead (his stance watching me at rest was clearly macho; their hesitant following more feminine, tentative--"Won't someone get hurt?!").

An architectural vernacular so different from New England that it makes that region seem like a little French village, with its narrow, twisting streets.  The mellow Georgia pines are distant cousins to the wild mustangs of pines in the grove outside my window.  I understand the need to paint them, and solidarity with all the artists who try to capture the Colorado aspens and pines.  

Rocks and butterflies and insects all different--I want names.  I haven't felt this since walks in Shenandoah National Park many moons ago.  I don't want my camera; I want my sketchpad and watercolors, and can't stop writing.  

I am here for a week debrief with my parent organization, Greater Europe Mission.  After five years of ministry, I am 'invited' to return, touch base with the home office, and debrief.  But more than a business-like series of back-to-back meetings, this has recently been re-titled Home Ministry Renewal and has been so much more than a debrief.  I suppose it is partially what you make of it, but for me, it is truly that, and is fast becoming a true retreat.  

Spoiled rotten by GEM's member care peeps, in a luxury B&B appropriately named The Hideaway, all expenses paid, one can do nothing but read, reflect, walk...and eat...

Meals are non-stop and custom designed not only to your diet of choice, but your snacks and beverages of choice.  So, Italian espresso is on tap, and the staff is searching for San Pellegrino water.  A bottle of hot sauce is quickly delivered upon request. One Gala apple is also ordered up, and delivered. 

Way too many M&M's have been consumed (I swear I didn't request them!), with as many blackberries, strawberries, cherries and grapes as my intestines can handle.  There was a wine-tasting opening reception.  Spa music plays in the background, and this morning's chill was quickly dispatched with a fire in the dining room.  Need an extra jacket?  "We'll get you one." 

Yes, just enough session and debrief time to uncork our hearts and heads, get in our face about what's really going on in our spiritual and emotional lives, as well as our ministries, and then it's back to walking it all out, or nap time, or the M&M's, or the deep conversation, or the hot tub.  Or all of the above.  Because we're an unusually small group, the sessions are ending earlier, giving us enough time to process, relax, and connect with colleagues we may not have seen in years.  Sharing the uniqueness-es of our very distinctive lives.

Or write a blog post :) 

Let me not fail to mention: meeting God.  Getting some re-direction, or confirmation, or validation.  Getting insight and wisdom, or at least a listening sympathetic ear.  Discerning next steps together, praying together, brainstorming together.  Passing the tissues.  Discovering sometimes that God just spoke through that offhand comment at dinner. 

May I say how delighted I was that today's session on Transitions included ample watching of Lord of the Rings videos?!

I am loving this week, and all that it is doing in my life.  Rarely does one get such treatment.  I'm grateful for our facilitators who are skilfully guiding us through living one of the most impossible, amazing lifestyles there is, and not giving up.  Hallowed be their names.  

 
  


Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Road Back

In Week 10 of  Incarnate, I teach on this stage of the Hero's Journey: The Road Back.  The dynamics of this stage are, in a nutshell: the Hero has had a significant, transforming experience in an adventure.  He or she is now on a road back home, with significant treasure: lessons learned, a pot of gold, the Arkenstone.  In the spiritual life, this might mean a new identity realized, a forgiveness issue resolved, healing, or a gift emerging.  

The Enemy is not happy.  In fact, he, she or they are in a rage that the treasure has been stolen back, and do everything in their power to stop the Hero.  Think Han Solo, rescuing Princess Leia, and the Empire striking back...

This is another life-and-death challenge as the Hero returns to the Ordinary World from which he/she came.  Can the Hero fend off the enemies again, and hold onto the treasure?   Can the lessons learned in the Special World be applied in the Ordinary World?  Has the Hero truly been transformed, or has he/she just had an incredible experience?

And so we teach our students these dynamics, and how to return home well.  Over several days of teaching and debriefing, we teach them how to tell the stories, how to move on, re-integrate, and hold on to breakthroughs gained in their time at Incarnate. 

Did they really change?  Time will tell.  Did we as staff?! 

For anyone who thinks this is easier with experience, let me share a few moments of re-entry shock with you.  I've learned all sorts of tricks over the years, and can usually navigate the disorientation of changing cultures.  Usually.  This was not one of those times...

Incident with the Soap Suds: using dish liquid instead of dishwashing detergent; coming home from a walk to a kitchen filled with soap suds. 

Epilogue: finding the dish liquid in the refrigerator.

Incident with the Checkbook: writing a check for someone at the office with just the month on the date line.  Correcting it--with the year "2015." 

Epilogue: leaving the checkbook in the office and not finding it for several days.  (Although I never missed it...)

Driving: forgetting that the red lights are overhead, not to your right.  Discovering all the little glitchy stuff that is wrong with your car now, and where you put the spare set of keys. 

Incident in the Produce Aisle: finding myself paralyzed in the produce department, trying to remember a routine that suddenly escaped me: put keys away, exchange sunglasses for reading glasses, pull up the iphone shopping list and navigate with the cart at the same time...nice young man staring at me with deep sympathy..."Can I help you, Ma'am?" 

I am, as a friend would say, flummoxed.



The Road Back for me personally has been a test to clear my mind of so much stimulation, relationship and creativity.  To clear my spirit and re-connect with God in a different routine.  To walk out the spiritual lessons I learned, without the community I adapted to holding me accountable.  

It's figuring out the new washing machines in the multiplex, the new gas pump, the new tax form, and and what the best ant-killer is.   

To work differently: at home, to keep stimulation to a minimum, and deciding what projects I need to focus on now that Incarnate is finished.  

To remember Guiseppi's not cooking anymore, and every meal time that comes around means I better figure out what I want to eat!  But I can return to a diet that doesn't sap my energy.  

To sort through the winter clothes for storage, the summer clothes I now need, and what to give away.  

It's learning to let go of new friendships that now must go virtual, and renew flesh-and-blood ones here.  But maybe those friends have moved on, or been relocated....

It's frustrating and feeling stupid a lot, and angry that you have to go through this; then laughing at soap suds, and smiling as you pore over photos, remembering, and loving being in your own bed again, with no springs poking you, and having a shower whose head doesn't detach from the wall to flail you and soak the bathroom.  

It's privacy and quiet and big, weak American coffee.  And in spite of all the inner chaos, it's a little too neat and tidy in America.  And too task-oriented.  

But I/We have two more stages to go: Resurrection and Return with the Elixir.


Friday, June 6, 2014

The Felt Factory

Well, just noticed this title has been up a week, so that must be what I'm supposed to write about!  Or it might mean I'm still not quite 'here' yet...more on re-entry next time, but for now...focus....the felt factory. 

One of our field artists has volunteered for almost two years at a local felt factory in Villar Pellice (scene of the famous birthday pizza), developing a relationship with the woman who runs it.  She arranged a visit for us, and was excited to report at almost the last minute, the week of the festival, that Barbara had agreed to give us a tour.  

Well, maybe not the best week for us to go...but the visual artists had time and we had guests, so early Monday morning, a bunch of us scrambled to get ready.  When I learned the tour would be free, I ran up to my room to grab a few gifts--some chocolate, soap and, random, a pair of peeper keepers I had made years ago.  A little embarrassing, but the best I could come up with to at least acknowledge our host's very generous offer.  I found a bit of ribbon and an old chocolate factory wrapping--fluffed up everything to look somewhat presentable (presentation is big in Italy), and sighed.  "Well, at least it's coming from a grateful heart," I thought, and hurried back downstairs.
    
Off we went--a half hour late, one of the very few times during the school that happened.    

Barbara was not amused by our charming, high-energy and fashionably late selves, which surprised me for someone living in Italy; but Barbara was British, a no-nonsense business woman, and clearly put out by our tardiness.  We dutifully apologized and agreed that the tour might have to be cut short for another appointment she had.  We gave her our utmost attention from then on. 

The tour quickly inflammed our imagination, which was probably the highest reward we could have given her.  Throw artists into a bunch of color, fibers, and cavernous architectural studio spaces, and they are soon salivating...and Barbara started to relax.  





  
We saw some of the most amazing equipment: one loom, one of only two in the world, filled a space larger than my whole apartment.  Skiens of wool hung from the ceiling, larger than most of us, and we compared the different types of wool and processes that Barbara led us through.  



At the end of the tour, Barbara ushered us into the cafe/gift shop, and served us tea, coffee and cake.  She told us her story, including how she had created the felt factory in such a way that the blind could come in and experience everything, and create.  She held classes for them regularly.  We commented on what a great space it would have made for us for an  exhibit, or classes in, and she immediately invited us to do so next time.  Whatever appointment she had had, it seemed to have been forgotten. 

When it came time to present her with my tiny little gifts, hastily thrown into a gently-used gift bag, she looked astonished.  She ripped into the bag with all the enthusiasm of a child at Christmas and received each one with delight.  She was especially charmed by the peeper keepers (to my astonishment), and promptly wrapped them around her wrist: "I could make a bracelet!"  

From then on, we were best buds, but now late for lunch at Forterocca. Barbara couldn't thank me enough for the peeper keeper, and I shook her hand, thanked her and expressed my delight at her delight. We wished her well and invited her to our exhibits and performances.  And that was that...or so I thought. 

After lunch, we came outside to find Barbara rushing in--someone had left their camera case behind.  

And she did indeed come to our exhibit--several times.  One of those times, I was back at the ranch, banging out some presentation on my computer, when a student came in to say, "Someone here to see you!"  Barbara, jangling her newly-created peeper keeper bracelet, smiling broadly.  She had made a special trip to again thank me profusely, and had brought a gift in return: a little felt slipper on a key chain.   

I began bumping into her in town, and always got a wave that included a pulled-up sleeve to show off the peeper keeper bracelet.  One rainy day, head down under my umbrella, a hand intruded.  My eyes focused and saw--yep, the peeper keeper bracelet.  Barbara was looking for me for a cup of coffee. 

Whatever this little tiny offering meant in the depths of Barbara's heart, I don't know.  I could only laugh at the sheer delight it obviously brought her, reminding me again of giving what I have, not what I don't.  A crusty exterior melted over the simplest of gifts, and I got to see it.  God can use anything, even peeper keepers. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Let There Be Light!

Meet the Liedtkes!  Our colleagues during Incarnate, they became new friends from Portland Oregon, and now, Bobbio Pellice!  And little LuLu has the worn-out knees in ALL her pants to prove it!   Despite Shannon's attempts to patch them...

I first met Fritz and Shannon during our Artslink outreach in Spain, in 2008.  They contacted us from England, where they were serving at Manna House, an OM-affiliated hospitality house.  Could they could "drop in" on their way home to the States, to see how we did things?  I was happy to agree to receive a professional photographer, and share the vision.

Fritz the photographer knew his call; Shannon was exploring the idea of getting a nursing degree and is now a registered nurse.  I was struck by the way they seamlessly integrated into the high speed train that was our Spain outreach, and felt like I had known them for a long time.  The kindred spirits thing. 

When the time came to discuss staffing for Incarnate, and it became clear the Carsons would not be able to join us, I recommended Fritz as the visual arts mentor, and explored with Shannon a role she might take.  I was happy to learn they accepted, with Shannon taking a role on the spiritual formation team.  Lulu decided to come along too, and keep us all humble and laughing.  

In those roles, they shined.  Frtiz did a masterful job of guiding the visual artists through final projects, mentoring them and coaching, with the regular disappearance into the wilds of Bobbio for some photography of his own.  He also juggled teaching, graphic design and curating our final art exhibit, and as far as I could see, wasn't even taking vitamin pills to do all this!  (It has since been confirmed that he was, until he ran out.)  

I was personally delighted that Fritz mentored me as well, as I fumbled with a new camera, and a few ideas...I am now almost as smart as my camera!  He expected me to participate in the final exhibit, which was the impetus I needed to wrangle a project out of our manic schedule.  As his website says, "...Fritz brings focus, energy and humor into the room."  I produced my five pieces, took my place among the other visual artists, and sold 3 of them (with a request for a reprint on one that had sold). 

If you go here, you can see Fritz's inventive work in and around Bobbio, and read more on the Waldensian Valley.    


Shannon was our little joy shot each day, with a smile you could see coming a mile away, a laugh that could be heard up and down the valley, and relentless good spirits, even with eyes glazed over.  Her nursing skills were invaluable, her gifts of listening, discerning and speaking encouragement life-giving.  Because of Shannon's mothering duties, which included daily walks into town with her little charmer Lulu, she had a unique opportunity to connect with so many locals. 

Shannon is also a textile artist, or fabric artist or...well, I'm not sure how to categorize Shannon, but let's just say amazing things were happening with knitting needles, sewing needles and clothes during our time.  Shannon also had an uncanny affinity and ability with plants; I was surprised how often she would bend and pluck something, sniff, rub or taste it, name it, and say what it was good for--either medicinally or in cooking. 

And Lulu...Lucia, whose name means "Light"--what a light she was!  We believe her first word was "Ciao!" which she used liberally to all, usually accompanied by a cock-eyed wave.  Lulu learned soccer skills too--with a mean right side kick as she crawled whenever the ball came near her.  Although we tried to get Lulu to walk while she was with us, she preferred to climb, crawl, eat rocks and speak in tongues.  



Can you tell I'm a fan? 

Do check Fritz's work out on these sites:
Personal Work: www.fritzliedtke.com
Professional Work: www.fritzphotographic.com

"Skeleton in the Closet" is a book Fritz compiled of compelling stories and photos on eating disorders.  Read the stories, and look into the eyes of these souls, and try to walk away untouched: http://www.skeletoninthecloset.net/.


You can order Skeleton in the Closet here

"Creating compelling images of people that are...a little bit different..."

Thanks to the Liedtkes for being who you all are, and for being that with us!

 




Monday, May 26, 2014

Dorena's Story

Perched on a typical Tuscan hillside not far from Florence, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, Poggia Ubertini is a villa donated many moons ago as a Christian retreat center.  On OM Italy's recommendation, we used their facilities for our Week 6 field trip to Florence.  On the program: a week of teaching, creative assignments, cultural exploration in the birthplace of the Renaissance (we were not far from Da Vinci's birthplace), and a little break from the confinement of Forterocca and Bobbio.  


Our week's theme was forgiveness; Bill Drake and I were tag-team-teaching, and would be sharing personal testimonies of forgiveness issues in our lives.  Making it real.  At some point, Dorena slipped in, and sat on the floor in the back. 

As Bill began, sharing his very powerful testimony of forgiving his stepfather for abuse, we noticed her in the large auditorium.  We were in a fairly remote location; people wouldn't just drop by.  Nor would they enter another group's event.  Who was she?  By the end of Bill's story, she was weeping, and slipped out at the break.    

When she returned, one of our staff approached her and discovered she was the wife of the caretaker (an American raised in Italy).  Dorena herself was Rumania-born, but American; she understood completely our presentations.  They let me know as I got up to speak.  Dorena returned and took her spot on the floor.    

I felt strongly that we needed to have some kind of response time--to give people a chance to deal with their own hearts.  Making it real.   I grabbed Bill's ear and he agreed.  We decided to do so at the end of my testimony, rather than sending the students on the prayer exercise we had planned. 

Break over.  Game on.  I began the power point to lay out a few principles of forgiveness, and then closed my laptop.  Time to share how God had led me through a forgiveness journey that began with a car accident and ended 12 years later with healing from 'permanent' injuries sustained.  The key was not meds, physical therapy, chiropractic, anointing with oil by church elders, or the many prayers for healing I received.  The key that unlocked my healing came as I recognized I had some forgiveness issues to work through.  

Tears were now flowing freely down Dorena's face.  I invited Bill and Shannon (on our spiritual formation team) up to join me, and we invited students and everyone else to come forward for prayer to work through any forgiveness issues they were grappling with, or at least commit to beginning the process. 

Awkward silence.  Clock ticking.  Crickets chirping...

One of our brave colleagues, a guest who had just arrived that week, rose and came forward.  And Dorena made a beeline for me. 

"I had a car accident too..." she began.   In her own words, "When I got home from the car crash, my mother was so angry with me for having wrecked the car.  My sister said to her, "How can you be mad?  You could be planning a funeral right now!”  And my mother blurted out, "Well it would have been better.'  Those words were so much more painful than the physical pain I was going through." 

Thankfully, Dorena was ready to forgive and prayed with us.  Her tormented face relaxed into joy, and the tears flowing became tears of laughter.  How simple to forgive, really, and yet...sometimes it takes a car accident to get it.

The rest of our time there, Dorena was a smiling, hospitable presence, who never failed to hug me when our paths crossed.  She remained in awe at the change in herself, and I remain in awe at the astonishment of forgiveness. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Approach to the Inmost Cave

Week 7 of the Your Story track (Spiritual Formation for Artists) unpacks the Approach to the Inmost Cave--in which the Hero prepares for a major challenge in the Special World: one that is life-threatening, defining, transforming; a stage in which a hero is either forged or fails.

We took the students up to a nearby cave, one of many where Waldensians met secretly to worship.  A sobering sensory experience to underline the dimensions of approaching the inmost cave of our hearts, where we do business with God--spiritual life or death moments.  

How does one prepare to enter the inmost cave of the heart?  Who or what are the threshold guardians?  What are the fears?  What if there is a betrayal?  We climbed with our tour guide, an OM Italy worker, who gave us historical context, while I connected some spiritual dots. 

We had 6 'stations' mapped out--natural landmarks where we could stop, catch our breath on the uphill climb, and share a principle embedded in the history.  The sun was shining and the birds were chirping--but we  were on a mission.  No cameras or chit-chat allowed on the way up.


We then entered the cave--"entered" a euphemism for the crouch-bend-crawl into the darkness of the cave, with Matt guarding each head from banging into the lowest boulder.  Once inside, we groped along a damp wall, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness.  Overhead a few cracks in the jumbled boulders let a shaft of light in. 

Matt shared the story of betrayal and massacre: the cave was so hidden, one of the Waldensians had to have betrayed the community in order to find the cave church.  Once found, the soldiers poured in oil and torches.  Those who managed to crawl out were immediately killed. 

We left the students with a few thought-provoking questions and a half hour to process, while we crawled back out into the sunshine and chirpy birdsong.  It wasn't long before we were all up and out, and forming into our small groups to process further.

As I sat with my group in a rock overhang, the conversation opened, and somehow meandered into one of life's fundamental questions: "How could God let that happen?  Why does evil endure?" 


One of our artists shared how she had come to realize how complex the heart is, where both good and evil can reside in the same heart.  None of us were immune.  I shared the story of Elie Wiesel and Adolf Eichmann--how Wiesel broke down when he saw Eichmann, presumably in nightmarish memories.  But no, Wiesel protested: "I remembered a monster.  But when I saw him enter the court, I saw a man, just like me, and realized I could have been him." 

We all sat chewing on that, until our artist friend took a stand. Throwing off a yoke of victimization with an old identity, recognizing how good and evil could reside in her heart as well as those who had wronged her in her life, she renounced some bitterness and unforgiveness she had held.  She forgave some and immediately turned and asked forgiveness of two others in the group for national sins of her country that had affected theirs.  Wow.  All in the sun and on a dirt path leading away from the cave, in the middle of a secluded, obscure wood.  

We stood as a group, renouncing the evil that ran in our own hearts, forgiving those through whom evil had come to us, praying for one another, and hugging, of course.   



Sunday, April 20, 2014

Forgiveness

Our session on forgiveness had just concluded, with several artists coming forward for prayer; they needed to forgive someone, and weren’t quite sure how to do it.  But one artist remained in her seat.  I didn’t think too much of it, but later she asked to speak to me. 

“I feel bad, but I don’t think I have anyone to forgive!” she confessed.  It seemed impossible to her that she could have no one to forgive; what was she missing? 

“Well, don’t make something up!” I admonished her.  She looked shocked. 

“Sometimes we did that as kids,” I continued, “made up sins because we had to go to confession.  I used the ‘I argued with my brothers’ sin because that happened everyday--I knew I was safe with that one!”

That’s as far as we got in the conversation before we both burst out laughing at the absurdity of feeling guilty because we might not have sinned.  It was a joy to see this particular artist laughing so hard—I was more used to seeing tears from her as she battled through some painful issues in her life. 

She laughed and laughed until she finally blurted out, “I’m not used to this joy thing yet!” 

Get used to it, my friend, get used to it.  “Weeping comes in the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Under the Tuscan Sun

For Easter Sunday, how about a few snapshots of our recent trip to Tuscany?! 

We brought our students there for a week of some cultural soaking in the birthplace of the Renaissance.   The BBC series on the Medici primed us for conversation in the van on the ride down, and filled in some history gaps in our memory banks. 

The movie setting we anticipated had to wait several days, while we dealt with rain, cold, and minimal plumbing.  Lumpy mattresses on squeaking bunk beds completed the inconveniences, and that's all I'm going to say about that, because an inconvenient day in Tuscany is better than a good day at a computer, right?! 

The sunshine finally did break out, and we got to explore and admire the surrounding villages and hills with their vineyards and olive groves.   Appropriately enough, our accommodations sat on a hilltop, adjacent to an olive grove, managed by caretaker Giovanni and his family.  On one of our sunny days, Giovanni gave us a tour of the olive grove, and a glimpse of his vineyard, complete with lessons learned under his little patch of the Tuscan sun--lessons in both viticulture and spiritual life; hands-on lessons as he taught us to graft vines.

 
It was a long, rather rigorous descent to the bottom of the olive grove, into the vineyard.  Although Giovanni is not a commercial wine producer, he does some production for his 'friends'--we requested to be numbered among them!  




Finally Giovanni stopped, knelt, and began cutting and teaching: 

"Keep the branches horizontal so all the branches get the same amount of fruit." 

"You have to get to the heart of the branch for a graft to take."

"A graft only works for like species.  And so God can 'graft us in' because we are of the same nature as God."

"In good weather, there are diseases.  In bad weather, there are diseases.  The vine grower must watch over the vines in all seasons."  Hmmm...like that one...




"Hebrew wisdom has three paths: don't tell your children fairy tales, but Bible stories; then they will never question if something is true or a fairy tale.  Ask God for wisdom.  Ask God to reveal the lessons that are everywhere around you."

Seems simple enough.  We ended our morning in Giovanni's wine cellar, sampling the goodness of his wines, then gathering around him to bless him, thank him, and pray for him.  Then it was up the hill again, pondering wisdom, just in time for lunch--which included a snappy little red...Grazie Giovanni! 



Sunday, April 6, 2014

A South African Sabbath

“Hey!  How about a South African Sabbath?” Lanette proposed. 

“Great idea!  What’s that?” I responded.

And thus began a small miracle…whose ripple effect increased through the coming weeks.

Part of our rhythm here at Incarnate is to hold a weekly Sabbath service, starting sundown Friday evenings, ending at sundown the following evening— following the Jewish tradition.  Our ‘liturgy’ is quite simple: asking ourselves a question: what do you need to cease from?  (“Sabbath” literally means ‘to cease from.’)—followed by a time of reflection and communion. 


Singing, sharing and praying for one another, we move pretty organically through our time.  And before taking communion together, we ask if any relational difficulties have cropped up during the week that we need to resolve.  After communion, we close our week with a celebration meal, and each one enters the  ancient-future practice of Sabbath.  It’s one of the highlights of the week for me. 

When Lanette, one of our former students, now on staff with us, proposed a South African Sabbath, I was thrilled.  For one thing, we could begin to give students more ownership of the service, and we would all get a broader view of Sabbath—a South African one.  I didn’t know exactly what all that meant, but had a vague idea there would be a change in musical style, perhaps some anecdotes born out of South African culture, with perhaps a meditation giving a unique slant on the Sabbath we may never have heard before. 

And so the following Friday arrived. May, part of our OM Arts team, a personal friend, and from South Africa, pulled me aside that morning and shared something: God was asking her to do something and she didn’t want to do it.  Oh…since we were about to launch our first session of the day, with no time to talk, I gave her a hug, and we were off.  The South African Sabbath flew far from my mind—safely being prepared in the hands of others. 

But again, during our small group time, May shared with the group that God had asked her to do something that she didn’t want to.  We prayed for her to find the courage to do whatever it was God was calling her to, and I felt confident she would do so, knowing May’s character.  And then it was time for Sabbath.

Sundown.  Hansie took the helm, introducing us to some of the South African history of apartheid.  Um….not what I had in mind, I thought, but let’s see where this goes.

Then he called May up; she took the mic and pulled a stool forward.  On her lap sat a sheave of notes, but I’m not sure she ever referred to them.  I wondered if she would ask ‘the question’—what do you need to cease from?—or share how she practiced Sabbath growing up in South Africa. 




Instead, May began recounting stories of growing up ‘colored’ in apartheid—under the control of the minority whites.  (As you may or may not know, there are three ‘races’ in South Africa: whites, blacks and coloreds.)  
The stories were hard to hear, hard to imagine—
hard to know my friend had to grow up in this injustice.  Her story, close to that of so many in our country who endure “discrimination” (to put a pretty word on it), made me want to weep.  I found myself begging God for forgiveness for the oppression of racism. 

May concluded with “I have one more thing to say,” then choked up.  The silence went from awkward to excruciating, until she got her voice back.  Looking straight at Hansie and Lanette, white South Africans, May asked their forgiveness for what blacks and coloreds have done to whites. 
Hansie and Lanette rushed forward to hug May.  The backstory: last November, Hansie and Lanette had been victims of armed robbery—by blacks—while on a visit home to South Africa.  They are still working through the trauma.   

Not a dry eye in the house was left, as these three hugged and cried together for long minutes.  I felt the very country of South Africa must be affected by this reconciliation.  I was never more proud of my friends.

Then it was time to take communion together, and Hansie called Elbie forward—the 4th member of our South African contingent—to serve us each communion.  I don’t remember when or if the tears stopped, as we participated in the meal representing the ultimate pathway to reconciliation, remembering the One who said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing." 





“Do this in remembrance of me.”--Jesus

Judika Day

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sleepless in Bobbio

While we were cheering Elbie on in her lovely story, one of the other artists in our small group was struggling: why should Elbie get an answer, so effortlessly it seemed, while she was grappling at the school with no breakthroughs?



As Elbie finished her story, this other artist confessed to feelings of jealousy.  When would it be ‘her turn?’   But as we nodded in sympathy, she went on to reassure us, “Don’t worry, I’ve worked through the feelings of jealousy, and God did give me an answer…”



This artist has battled with insomnia while at the school, to the point that we are working with her and our team nurse to schedule extra nap times, excuse her from some classes and activities, and find some natural sleep aids.  In the meantime, while we work to get a good sleep pattern established, we are working deeply on heart issues that might be behind the insomnia.  Because of the intensity of this deep inner work, and the sleeplessness, we counseled her to avoid heavy theological reading, or listening to sermons, when awake at night, but to listen to worship music instead.

  

The weeks rolled by, with seemingly no headway on either front, and we were all getting frustrated with the lack of breakthrough.



But this artist plugged along, and plugged in her earbuds one sleepless night to listen to some worship music.  Only the iPod stuck on a sermon.  No matter what she tried, she could not get the iPod to move off this particular sermon, which she had heard over and over before.  Finally she gave up, and just resigned herself to listening to the sermon, over and over again, sleepless on a couch in our chapel. 

Two sentences popped out: that depression can be caused by comparing oneself with others.  And that she could ‘talk to her soul’ and tell it things that would help her overcome.  For some reason, this night, this umpteenth time of listening, these sentences came alive for her, and she realized she could change the soundtrack in her mind, and break the cycle of depression, anxiety and insomnia it was leading her to.

  

She began talking to her soul, and arrived this morning to confess not only jealousy but joy.  The smile was real and deep, and though her battle with insomnia is not over yet, it is only a matter of time.  Months of lying awake are falling away into moments now of ‘waking up’—spiritually—and soon I expect this artist will be sleeping the sleep of infants.



But for now, we cheered again, gathered for hugs again, and then our time was up.  I left to put my materials in the office, then returned to our gathering place to collect my forgotten water bottle.  I walked into Elbie and this artist, locked in a tight bear hug, beaming.  I laughed and again wished I had my camera.   “We just realized we had the same Husband,” they responded, giggling, and we had a good laugh, followed by a good group hug.

 

I love these girls!  Pray for this one artist to win the battle against insomnia, by winning the inner battles first.  Each day is one step closer to victory.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A New Name

We've been working for weeks now on one of the core issues of Incarnate: identity.  Asking students such questions as "How do you identify yourself?  What do you believe about yourself?  How have others identified you?  How has God?" A big issue for artists, who are frequently told they can't be who God wired them to be: artists. 

Elbie came to Incarnate with a hurting heart, having broken off an engagement in September.  From Pretoria, South Africa (though a native of Namibia), Elbie came with the joy and enthusiasm of twenty-four years old--and internal wounds of fear, shame and despair.  Convinced that a good marriage was a hopeless dream, unconditional love impossible, and fear of ever opening her heart again.  

And then the impossible became possible. Unconditional love became something to receive, as well as to give.  Fear and shame were exposed, and renounced.  And Elbie received a new name.

I was teaching the fifth module of The Hero's Journey: Opponents, Villains & the Shadow.  Elbie recalled a dream--one that had come prior to her engagement, warning her to break it off, which she did.  And yet, she felt as though she had been robbed of a name--a husband's name--as well as the authority that comes from being married.  Her new identity was Forsaken Bride. 

Elbie's dream returned during the teaching.  The Shadow was still alive and well in her fragmented heart; fear, shame and despair had descended into the cellar of her soul, to poison not only her view of marriage, but her theology.  How could a Forsaken Bride respond to a God who identifies himself as Bridgegroom, and invites us to a wedding feast?  She spent the better part of two days crying, fasting, and calling out to God.  She was a bride without a name, and she wanted a new one.

In our small group time after the teaching, Elbie broke down as we talked about the Shadow.  We prayed for her, hugged her, passed the tissues.  Later that evening one student received a vision for her and shared it with Elbie.  We puzzled together over what its symbology, which included a wedding ring and a door to go through, but were encouraged by the timing of it.  We didn't have long to wait before the code was at least partially cracked.

The next day, under a tree on our side lawn, in the balmy sun of a premature Spring day, God showed up.  I happened to look out my window at almost the exact moment, although I had no idea the Eternal had just intercepted the temporal.  I only saw Elbie sprawled on the lawn, notebook open before her, pen dropped from a hand relaxed open....she had fallen asleep journaling.  I wished I had my camera handy and thought with a chuckle, "We're wearing our students out!"  

That may be true, but in this case, Elbie had just finished writing out some verses she had 'randomly' come across in Isaiah 62:1-5:

"You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.  You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord's hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  Not longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate.  But you will be called Hephzibah (My Delight is in Her), and your land Beulah (Married); for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married.  As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you."

As Elbie had journaled, the voice of the Bridegroom was whispering his pleasure in her, and that he did indeed want to walk her down an aisle.  Now she could rest--spiritually and physically.  She had wrestled with God and received her reward: a new name and all the authority that comes with being the Bride of Christ.  She slept among the spring flowers pushing up all around her, the spring birds chirping, in the warm sunshine--it was all positively bridal. 

And I got to witness it, and hear the full story later that evening.  But then there was another student...for whom Elbie's story had a particular impact...