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.