Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Spider and the Rosebush

I am sitting in the early morning haze of our garden in Gentilly. You can tell from the still, damp air that the heat will be stifling later, but my spot is still cool with shady blues. In this calm, my mind starts to flit over the past few years, and all that God has given us to serve our joy and His glory.

There is an exquisite spider web to my right, bravely slung across a vast opening between the stone wall and the hedge beneath. Every once in a while, half a head of fragrant white rose petals comes tumbling ripe from its perch in the bushes above. Every time, I wonder if the fine threads of the web will escape the incoming avalanche. So far, so good.

We came to this country nearly three years ago with all the determination of the spider that wove this little marvel. We, too, cast out threads and - perhaps somewhat to our surprise - found our haven anchored to firm foundations. Certainly, we had imagined it would be more ephemeral than this - a sort of net for catching a few delicious days as they flew by, temporary and lovely.* But then it lasted. And lasted.

Now it comes to an end, it seems. There are gigantic blossoms looming over our heads, threatening to topple and tear us away from a home we learned to weave. This is a bittersweet season, in which greater joys come to destroy our makeshift designs with their magnificence. But somehow, crushed by the beauty, I think we won't mind.

Onto the next adventure, where we will cast thin strands about in another spot in the garden. For now we rest thankful, buried in the weighty remembrance of heady roses that once floated past. This is the lifelong fling.


* "A a net for catching days."Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Thirty-Three Bridges

A week ago today, laced up my running shoes, dreaming of crossing all of Paris' 33 bridges in one outing. I'd been thinking about doing this for a while, but it suddenly took on more meaning about a month ago.

This year, a very good friend of ours was diagnosed with brain cancer. She has a loving husband, a good church, and a whole lot of courage. Yet I couldn't help shuddering when I thought about the costs involved for her treatment.

I honestly don't remember when my wacky thought about the bridges converged with our friend's health situation, but that's probably because the credit for the idea goes to God. One minute, I was thinking about performing this feat for fun, and the next minute, it had taken on an eternal quality. I think life is like this. God inspires us to do something, and then He creatively conjoins these desires to the real-life needs of people so we can serve them. In all of this, we make much of Him!

I watched open-mouthed as he moved the generosity of people in our church here in Paris (many of them know this friend), until I had over 1000 euros in pledged donations, should I successfully finish all 33 bridges. With the wind at my back (half the time anyway!), I charted a course that zigzagged through this beautiful city, from east to west. Rain was forecast, yet I enjoyed sunshine and a pretty haze that beautified the scenery even more.

The beginning of the course was in fact the most difficult, because it was downright ugly. Pont National runs through rusty industrial zones and train yards, and the first sign I saw was "Interdit aux Pietons" (Forbidden to Pedestrians). Not a very promising beginning. But everything just got better from there.

My 2 1/2 hour journey took me through the very heart of Paris - the city I love, the city that we've made ours. It was like running through a photo album of our last three years here. The towers at left are the library where I spent most of last year studying. The bridge at right leads directly to Bercy Stadium, one of Paris' main musical venues where Karl will play on the 31st of this month with a gospel choir. As I ran, I was simply saying: "thank you, thank you, thank you." Over and over again.

In the centre-ville, the bridges get quite short between the two islands, Ile-de-la-Cite and Ile-St.-Louis. When I ran past the Cathedrale Notre-Dame (about the halfway point in my calculations, I slowed my pace. Not because I was tired (really!) but I just wanted to savor each moment. It was happening too fast. So much like our stay here - gone so fast. (Oh Lord, teach me to be content with what I have!)

My original calculation for the whole run was 11 miles, but a few detours due to construction and industrial areas (dang train yards) brought the grand total to 15 miles. My legs were pretty wiped out by the end (my knees have gotten used to comfy dirt paths of my usual running trail south of Paris), but it was worth every step.

I found out later that day that I had inadvertently planned my course for May 10, which happened to be not only Mother's Day, but also the birthday of the friend for whom I was running, and the traditional day for Race for the Cure. These were details that I could not have planned. It is such a delight to be running on the path the Lord has laid out before us.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Bishops and Bubbly

I love visitors. They come with wide-open eyes and inspire us with fresh motivation to explore. When our buddy Mike F. showed up in his zippy rental car a few days ago, he asked if we had any side trips we'd like to do. You bet. So, after Karl taught Mike how to wear all black and tie a scarf like a proper Frenchman, we motored off to the fine city of Reims.

To say the name right, hold your nose and say "rans" as in "ransacked." Which apparently, it was - several times. Yet, thanks to the ongoing restorations, the town is a veritable timeline of European history. It is marked by Roman ruins (here you see me too deep in thought next to the walls from a former granary, and archways from a temple to Mars below), churches from the very beginning of Christianity in France such as a 12th century abbey built into a 9th century Romanesque church, the centerpiece of the town Notre-Dame de Reims from the 13-14th centuries, and modern architecture from the rebuilding after the World Wars.

The cathedral in and of itself is a microcosm of history, a spectacular mixture of styles and eras. For example, I was delighted to find the Christian imaginary of 20th century Jewish painter Marc Chagall, realized in luminous stained glass, and housed in this Gothic cathedral. This church and city also has the distinction of being the spot where French kings were crowned and anointed for centuries. (Mike and Karl re-anact Clovis' crowning as the first Christian king of France in the 5th century.) These were times when they believed that kings were given a divine right to rule, authority passed directly to them by God. A bit hard for our postmodern, democracy-centered minds to grasp. But that's how it was. Just like we say a pastor is "called" to the ministry, a king was "called" to rule, and that came with a certain number of rights and privileges.

Besides bishops, there's the bubbly. This is the Champagne region, and there's a vendor of that most revered sparkling wine on nearly every corner.As legend would have it, Dom Peringnon popped open a forgotten bottle of stored wine, took a swig, and proclaimed: "I'm drinking stars!" Up until a couple of days ago, I didn't really understand what the fuss was all about. What? That glorified selzer water that they serve at celebrations? Well, all I can say is that if you think you don't like champagne, wait until you go to the actual region in France, taste it, and then tell me how you feel.

I totally fell for it. We had been wandering around the city all afternoon, soaking in intermittent sun rays and all that ecclesiastical history, when we decided it was time for a snack. Ducking quickly into a fine-looking neighborhood butcher, we watched as a friendly woman lovingly arranged chiffonade-thin slices of cured ham from the region. A trip to the boulangerie for fresh baguette and the store for fresh fruit rounded out the picnic. Now, all we needed was the much-touted champagne. Apparently, there was a cellar just around the corner...

The small, family-run operation of Martel was done with tours for the day, but they were happy to suggest a bottle of Charles du Roy Premier Cru Brut to accompany our tasty victuals, and soon we were triumphantly heading back to the gardens around the Benedictine Abbey of St. Remi to indulge our appetites for late-afternoon golden sun and the products of the terroir.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

5 Wise Runners and 5 Foolish Runners

Then the kingdom of God should be compared to ten runners who strapped on their water bottles and went out to run a marathon. Five of them were foolish, five of them wise. For when the foolish took their water bottles, they just took a little water, and not really any type of sodium replacement. But the wise mixed up their Gatorade well in advance and remembered to bring it, along with some energy gel packs for good measure. As the race continued, and the shadows grew longer, they all plodded along at about the same pace. But mid-afternoon, there was a cry from the sidelines: "Go runners! There's only 6 miles to go!" At that point, all of those runners reached for refreshment, to get a boost of energy before the final stretch. However, the foolish, having no water left, panted to the wise: "Give us some of your energy pack - we're dyin' here!" But the wise replied: "Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; rather, run to the grocery store just off the course, and see if they'll sell you a juice or something." While they went to buy, the wise finished the race. By the time the foolish made it back, the sag wagons had already through, and the trash collectors were sweeping up the last of the paper cups. The foolish begged the officials to let them finish, showing them their race numbers, and assuring them that they were legitimate. But it was of no avail. The officials simply replied that they had been disqualified, as no runner is permitted off the race course during the event. Besides, the finish line was closed.


It has been my experience that not carrying enough fuel for a race or training run can have drastic consequences on the outcome. You can have a very high level of conditioning, but if you don't feed your body properly, all of that hard work building up your muscles and cardiovascular is not much help. In the one marathon that I have done so far - Paris 2007 - my body was finished at mile 20. No more oil in the lamp. I finished, but only under duress.

I have always been a minimalist when it comes to extra stuff for running. It is the simplicity of the sport that I appreciate - strap on your shoes and go. I also hate to be dependent on anything, so I've never trained on anything but water, and the occasional banana and dried fruit. But I thought I might try some of these new-fangled products they've got out there. So today, I threw a lemon-flavoured fizzy tablet in my water that would supposedly work wonders, and stuffed a mysterious silver pouch of "energy"labeled "Apple Flavour" in my sack. This would be interesting.


Two hours later, I whizzed into my finish spot, ready for more. Miles, that is. It was the fastest time I've ever recorded for that distance, and I still felt like a million bucks. It seems as if my conditioning had outpaced my fueling. Once I got that part in place, we were banging on all five cylinders. I felt so...energetic. (Duh.)

Okay, back to the kingdom of God; I find a similar dynamic in my spiritual walk with the Lord. It may be that I've got a certain level of conditioning - I've been taught how to pray, parts of the Bible are familiar, I surround myself with other people who encourage me. But I often forget that it is the fresh, regular intake of prayer and His Word that will carry me to the end. Maybe this is what the wise and foolish, I mean runner....was all about. We know that they all started well. But which ones finished well? Those who were prepared.

How to be prepared for the end of the race? Let's find our daily strength in the One who ran ahead and waits for us at the finish line.