Sunday, October 10, 2010

Glory Not Fading

There's been this long string of warm, dusty-yellow days in Minneapolis. The air is unmoving, almost as if it's afraid to slip and bring the inevitable cold too early. Stay. Hold that pose till I can snap a picture or two. Keep that musty perfume of tired leaves, everything cracking and dry and sweet.

I've caught myself sighing a good many times into this autumn air, but more satisfied than sad. A good sort of giving up. Most of life is busy, whirring, nonstop, till I run myself into the ground. So I pause in this autumnal stasis for some Sabbath. I bring a book of poems to the park, just so I can turn to T.S. Eliot's Burnt Norton and my eyes skip all over the page (a telling symptom of my cultural inability to concentrate) to my favorite parts.

"Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air..."

"The inner freedom from the practical desire..."

"Surrounded by a sense of grace, a white light still and moving Erhebung without motion."

Be quiet for a moment. Think. I am in sync with the poet's words, and step into his rhythm to find the pattern for my own life. Sigh and be satisfied when it fits so well. When I come home from this lovely Sunday walk, things still lie in piles on my desk. Tasks demanding their pound of flesh, tearing a part of this dear present away from me, jerking it into the irretrievable past. But then I start daydreaming again. How could chores be transformed into a fulfillment of now, rather than thieving it away in miserly bits and pieces? I imagine it takes a lifetime to gain that generous, Midas touch.

Speaking of treasure, there is a tree behind our apartment building that has been all lit up lately with leaves golden and luminous. It fills my brain when I tarry there, till little else fits. Even if I don't have time to sit and finish my coffee, I still snap open the lock and push outside for moment, just to imprint this tree on my mind, subtitled: Glory!

Everything cries 'Glory!' " That's the Psalmist singing in the background. Everything. He knew how to take that moment of joy, grace, revelation, the satisfied sigh - and pull it through the rest of his livelong hours of dutiful work and play. Baptizing each burden with a strong sense of 'yes' and 'amen.' So that someday, the reading of poems, and the scrubbing of floors, and the walk in the woods and the grading of papers will all resound in one big 'Glory!' to him. I want that.

"And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Monday, August 23, 2010


I love the Lord, for He heard my cry.

Not my silver tongue and wit, spinning precious threads to catch the Almighty in thrilling glimmer words.

He is not my prey, that I should fell his Spirit in this way.

Not my golden intentions of muscle-faith, wells dug in an august age and beams swung high to build my towering tomorrow.

Mine is the broken cistern, splintered lumber and sand after the storm.

I fainted in faithfulness. But He heard my cry.

My dust-mouth croaked, the strain on the worn cords barely passing the faded crowns of yesteryear trees, not quite power enough to reach the brassy sky.

But He hears the brittle grasshopper drag himself along the same weighted earth.

My squinting eyes glimpsed the faintest whisp of prayer cloud along the distant barren line, doubting the good for mirage.

But He sees and sends the rain into desert-dead unbelief.

I love the Lord, for He heard my cry.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fulness of Life

In an exhortation to the women in my church last April, the delightful Andrée Seu warned against what she calls "next Tuesday syndrome." As in, I'll be happy "next Tuesday", after that one meeting. Or, after I have that difficult conversation with so-and-so. But the innate problem with "next Tuesday" is that there's always another one ahead. This puts us in a holding pattern, holding our breath, holding out until then. Forgetting about now.

Her words went so deep into me that I forgot that they were there. But recently, it sprung up in the form of new resolve and purpose. Like a seed long forgotten in the deep, dark warm earth, it finally came up to breathe. Sometime in the midst of the tizzy of travels and trials this summer, God watered and gave the increase. I started to wonder.

Why do I delay things that will obviously bring relief and joy? How procrastination has stolen away moments, become hours, become years. I am not yet old enough for much bitter regret, but the gentle rebuke was enough to swing me into action. For instance, why live content with nameless Minnesota nice with my downstairs neighbor when I could offer my hand and friendship? Or, why continually skulk away guiltily from that neglected friend when I could write in an instant with email? Why spend even a moment of these broad, sunny summer days in dull self-absorption or -need I spell it out - spacebook - when I could be working, loving, eating, running, writing, reading, even napping to the glory of God?

This was all rather odd at first, since I've always fancied myself to be someone who enjoys life to the hilt. But oh, how we fancy ourselves. And how often we are wrong. As I thought about it more, a bevy of things from recent memory began piling up uncomfortably. Things that were meant to perch, and have since built nests in the crowded branches. Maybe it is time to shake the branches a bit. Time to walk in fulness of life. And since I myself don't know what I mean by that, I will have to keep you posted.

[The second photo is graffiti from Montreal that says "Down with everyday life."]

Friday, July 30, 2010

Get Thee Up Into A High Mountain

Early this morning, before the rain finally bore down, I ran - no, swam through the soupy, pre-storm haze. Gazing out over the flat, green patch of water that we call Lake of the Isles, I took in the hot breath of clover and the dream-like landscape, tired and yellowed, the heavens like brass. A Minnesota August, if there ever was one. My mind drifted through the blur to a higher, clearer, brighter place, and longed for those deep draughts of air from a couple of weeks ago.

Ever since my arrival in hilly Montreal, one particular promontory had been staring me down. Mont Royal. Maybe the name sounds familiar? Well somewhere along the line, after an intervocalic do-si-do, the name probably morphed into Montréal, though this is apparently a mere hypothesis according to some. Whatever the case may be, I was bent on conquering the summit in my running shoes. When we finally got an afternoon off at the conference, I made a bee-line for the hotel, suited up in my workout duds, and off I went for adventure.

When I began, the sky was covered and I even had to shake a few droplets of rain off of my glasses during the first stretch of my jaunt, but this only added to the refreshment. I felt as free as a kid running off to the park after school gets out. (Actually, this is more or less what was happening.) I skipped through funky neighborhoods I hadn't seen yet, past the imposing McGill University, and up, up, up!

The dirt trails in Parc Mont-Royal honeycomb the steep hillsides, with one wide, serpentine gravel paths heading up most of the way. The grade wasn't too steep...till I got to the stairs, that is. These continued for about 8-10 flights. Yeah baby. When I arrived on the plateau above, I was not disappointed, however. That's why I love to toil my way to get higher up - it's always harder and always worth it. Downtown Montreal popped up in the foreground, while the St. Lawrence stretched out lazily through the panorama, strung with suspension bridges along the way.

I also tooled around near the top for a while, which had a whole other set of trails to offer. Adorning one peak was a significant symbol of Montreal, the steel-beamed LED-illuminated Mount Royal cross, perched 764 feet above sea level. (Yes, I know it's not a REAL mountain, but I'm a Minnesota girl - any elevation is a thrill.) It's sort of like a hybrid of the Eiffel Tower and a church steeple. Strapped to the bars was a canvas sign with the motto: "La Croix sans clotûre" - "The Open Cross", which invites inquiry. What could that mean? Certainly, if you're going to build a monument to the Christan faith on a windy hilltop, it's intelligent to let the air through. But what about the cross we preach and live it just as breezy?

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I am in love.

Think of a place with the hills and downright cool of Seattle, but everyone speaks French. Even the Starbucks (see right) is obliged to make a sign that says "Café Starbucks Coffee." Sheesh, they aren't even that picky in France.

Yes, they are as crazy as I am about the French language. They speak it with - not with a twang exactly, more like a singsong....twing. I love it -when I can understand it, that is. There was that very eager gentleman with bead earrings and a walking staff was volunteering directions to the Vieux-Port, and I got about a third of what he said.

Think of a place that somehow thought it would be a good idea to make fresh french fries, add cheese curds and additional meats and toppings, all drenched in rich gravy. The infamous poutine. Imagine me thinking that was a good idea for an early supper after inadvertently skipping both breakfast and lunch. Yes, tummyache. But nothing a long walk and short nap in the park couldn't fix.

Think of a place where music and dance never stops. I stumbled upon Nuits d'Afrique /African Nights near the hotel where my conference had a wine reception for the participants. Sitting in the green grass and gazing in wonder at the lively spectacle onstage, I was promptly stung by a bee. When a woman sitting nearby noticed, she offered a compress and we started to chat. She was busy corralling her two darling children and cheering for her husband, the guitar player. This festival has been going on for ten days, all day long, she explains. Plus, this is one festival of many during the summer. People of all ages, shapes, and colors, moving to the beat in the late afternoon sun. By the end of our conversation, this woman was inviting me to her house for coffee later this week and offered me her card. So friendly.

Think of a place that keeps reminding you of Europe one minute and Brooklyn the next, winding cobblestone streets on one side of town and neat, orderly lines of well-kept rowhouses on the other. I am staying in an old, pleasantly grubby hostel in one of the rowhouses (with more very friendly people). Mont Royal looms behind my head and keeps enticing me to a trail run or two. I will have to fit that in, somewhere between all of the conference session...there's still so much to explore!

O, Canada.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The "Arrivée"

You may remember from my last post that we had bought rail passes for the immediate network of regional trains. The original motivation behind these was to roll out of town a ways and glimpse part of the Tour de France. It has been a longtime dream of Karl's to see this event in person, and somehow in past years we were always out of the country when it came time for the fierce and fearless road racers to make their way across the mountains, plains, and villages of la belle France. Here was our big chance!

Sandwiches and fruit nestled into our backpack for later, we boarded the train to Montargis, east of Paris. When we jumped down on the platform about an hour later from the air-conditioned train car, it was sweltering. The blinking green cross above the pharmacie registered 37.5 + C (99.5 F), reminding us to hydrate and stay out of the sun. We managed to down gallons of water but shade was harder to come by. What I wouldn't have given for a hat. Even at 3:30 in the afternoon, the merciless rays stood at high-noon attention. Undaunted, we kept pouring water down our throats (and backs and feet and heads) and secured a spot right along the barrier about 500 metres from the "arrivée". In French, they use the word "arrival", not "finish line". Remember that for later.

We expected some sort of excitement to be afoot. Karl had this idea that they throw cookies at the crowd, for example. O...K. But nothing could have prepared us for the chaos and merriment that ensued. Think hometown parade, but bumped up a few hundred thousand euros in budget. Haribo trucks full of smiling girls throwing bags of candy, a giant chicken car that wove and wobbled and threw out Mont-St.-Michel cookies (ah-HA!), and best of all, almost every sponsor had some kind of hat to throw to the crowd: gingham boat hats, fold-up safari hats, bike caps with the red-polka-dots (like the jersey), and umbrella hats. We scrambled after the showers of giveaways like little kids again, danced around to the booming music with umbrellas on our heads (yes, all we'd had to drink was water, honest!) Once the parade was over, we chatted with a nice French man who wanted to talk about New York, cyclotourism, grandkids, and bridge.

A lull. More swooning in the heat, this time with proper headgear. And then, it came. The pitch rose, hands beating on everything they could find as the peloton swarmed around the corner and into the straightaway to the end. One blur, one being. In advance, I had dutifully memorized the jersey numbers of the top three American riders, and Tyler and Lance were somewhere in the heart of that beast but there was no way I'd catch them solo. Just thirty seconds, a blast of wind and color. Karl's hat blew straight back off his head, it was so powerful. We caught a few snippets of riders on our camera phones, but mostly were stunned by the sheer velocity. Then it was done, and the crowd took over the barriers, tearing them down and we triumphantly walked the last 500 meters together, shoulder to shoulder with the Norwegians, French, Spanish, Dutch - you name it, they were all there. Someone had won the stage, but it didn't seem to matter much to anyone but the Norwegians. We elbowed our way through mass of bodies to try to see the awarding of the jerseys, but all we got were glimpses on huge screens and garbled messages from a loudspeaker. Fair enough, the real show was over.

We've continued to follow the race since, from a distance. I read an article today from the AP: "Shouldn't Lance Armstrong just quit?" The reporter expresses a little bit of admiration to the cycling veteran's commitment to finish a race he won't win, but I found the overall tone of the article to be bothersome. The general message was he should have quit while he was ahead...he is a has-been, 13 is one two many Tours. Now, there has been nothing exceptionally graceful about his fits and starts, bumps and bruises this time, but what about the sheer honor of arriving at each finish line, 12 of 20 crossed as of tonight? What about the love of the sport? Even if his strength is waning compared to his early years, what is shameful about facing the grueling mountain passes for one last time? Maybe this is the amateur in me talking, but isn't it incredible to finish this extraordinary race, period?

Inspired, the day after the Tour, we took bikes out to a town called Mantes-la-Jolie, hoping to ride all the way to Giverny. While it was a lovely trip, a couple hours of wrong turns and hot sun, punctuated by a nasty fall on my part left us much like Lance in stage 8, hands on hips and shaking our heads. No sag wagons for us, but we wouldn't make it to our destination in time and were woefully unprepared for the trip. After exploring Mantes-"the-Pretty" a bit, that day's "stage" was over. Man, I hate not finishing. But you couldn't beat the scenery.

In life we have seasons when we run glorious and strong and others that are sadder, strewn with hardship. In our human pride, we hope that the world's videocameras will turn away when we falter and trip and look stupid, but fortunately for me I have a God who doesn't look away embarrassed. More than that, He picks me up, dusts me off, and reminds me that it's the "arrivée" that counts. I just love the words of the Apostle Paul:

" I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12-14).

Monday, July 12, 2010

La Vie en Rose

"37 euros."


"37 euros a person, for a week."

"Really? That's so cheap. We could go...wait, where's the map?"

About a week ago, Karl made the discovery that a fairly modest amount could buy us an unlimited Zone 1-6 pass on our metro cards. A score of sleepy, charming countryside towns rest on the edges of the Paris suburbs just waiting to be explored, but usually cost a little over 20 euros round-trip, so we plan carefully. This way though, we could have free rein both in and outside of Paris for an entire week. Sweet.

When we hopped on the first sleek train headed east, a nervous feeling hit my stomach, like I was getting away with something that I shouldn't. You see, there are complex sets of rules that twist around all matters of French life, and this seems to have conditioned us over the years to believe that we're guilty until proven innocent. (A friend of mine studying law once explained to me that this is indeed the governing feeling in judicial matters here.) So, we waited for the next shoe to drop...but it never came! Now on to the enjoyment.

Provins. Rosy medieval city laid with gnarled cobblestones, flower petals strewn everywhere like confetti welcoming us through these ancient gates. We spent the sweltering early afternoon deep in the 10 kilometers of cool underground tunnels that honeycomb the upper town. No one really knows why they were originally built - there's a science fiction plot waiting to be written. Apparently, Umbero Eco features Provins in part of Foucault's Pendulum:

"Have you ever been to Provins? A magic place: you can feel it even today. Go there. A Magic place, still redolent of secrets. In the eleventh century it was the seat of the Compte de Champagne, a free zone, where the central government couldn’t come snooping. The Templars were at home there; even today a street is named after them. There were churches, palaces, a castle overlooking the whole plain. And a lot of money, merchants doing business, fairs, confusion, where it was easy to pass unnoticed. But most important, something that has been there since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels – real catacombs – extends beneath the hill." (Foucault’s Pendulum, p 125.)

Our trusty guide pointed out suggestive clues along the way. The passages are most certainly linked to the mercantile history of Provins, since it was one of four influential Champagne towns overrun by traders hawking their wares in the 13th and 14th centuries. All this hustle and bustle was under the strict control of the Counts of Champagne who kept order in the region until the King of France took over in the 14th. Those counts ran a pretty tight ship. The formidable dungeon at the top of the hill probably had something to do with it.

Two kilometers of strong ramparts remain on one side of the town, built eight hundred years ago to keep the Parisian riffraff out. Since we had come peaceably, they let us in and gave us a perch atop the city walls. We watched the sun go down over the nearby wheat fields and chewed on thick slices of country bread spread with paté, duck rillettes, Brie from nearby Meaux, all washed down with a local beer. Yes, la vie en rose. And speaking of roses, there's another story. Count Thibaut IV, both a poet and a warrior, supposedly brought back a rosebush from the Crusades and planted it in Provins, and they have since spread like wildfire over the area. Rose soaps, rose candy, even crystallized rose petals you can drop in your champagne.

As the sun waned, we ran for one of the last trains out of the city and plopped ourselves down in our seats with 30 seconds to spare. A teenager nearby remarked: "Vous avez bien de la chance." ("You guys sure are lucky.") It's true, we are so blessed. And so grateful.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Real Life is Meeting"

What are you guys doing here? Our eyes met with surprised grins as we bounced from one half-circle of friends to another after Sunday service a week ago. Somehow despite the efficacy of that postmodern telegraph facebook, news of our impromptu visit to this city had not trickled out to everyone. Tant mieux. It's so much more fun that way. If we could have sprung it on everyone, we would have, but alas for practicality.

What are we doing here? A question we began asking several years ago, and continue to justify in various ways. An existential question, if you let it keep asking itself. Mostly, we fend off the Big Why with smaller, lowercase whys. Oh, I have an academic conference to attend. Karl is re-establishing contact with his music people here. I have to go to the Paris libraries. Oh, and we wanted to see you guys.

Let's hang on to that last one a little longer...I have a funny feeling that it's probably closest to the Big Why. Shyly, we explain that we are here for them, our community in Paris from whom we couldn't bear to be apart for more than a year at a time. "Posting" on their "wall" is somehow just not the same. Online communities have their place (maybe), but the more I think about it, the less I want to lean on these fragile, digital frames. A high five to my brother who recently went off the grid and deleted his facebook account...I wish I were that brave.

Community is ineffable, hard to pin down. I guess I know it when I experience it. Other people have managed to be more articulate than me on the subject. Recently, I came across an epithet in a book: "All actual life is encounter." Somehow the phrase rang a bell, something from some time ago. I wracked my brains (C.S. Lewis? Yes.) finally figuring it was a phrase that contained "real", "life", and "meeting." Then to Google. "All Real Life is Meeting," J.H. Oldham. Bingo.

Apparently, both Buber and Oldham were post-war philosophers trying to help a disoriented Europe find meaning after the Impossible had happened. That is to say, a war after the "war to end all wars" and the Shoah. What do you say in the void hollowed out by all that suffering?

"When we distinguish the personal and the functional, we do not mean that one part of our time is given to personal relations and another part spent in performing functions...In all human life the personal and the functional are inseparably interwoven. Nowhere does the personal find more complete expression than in the love of a wife and mother, while the care and management of a home is at the same time the most necessary of social functions. The whole of life is functional; everything that the individual does contributes in some way to the life of society. But it is possible for this functional life to be transfigured by becoming the vehicle of intercourse between persons. The function of eating, for example, may be lifted to a high spiritual level in the intercourse of the common family meal. The doing of jobs may become a means to the mutual enrichment of human beings through intelligence and love." J.H. Oldham

This was surely meant as a strong antidote to the mechanical, faceless pragmatism of his times, but is also a needful reminder to our era, our hard hearts. What are our days about? Completing projects? Checking off the boxes on the to-do lists? (I love to-do lists, by the way.) Nor do we jump too far in the other direction, where the functional is tossed away, letting the relational just tumble out willy-nilly, formless and purposeless. Rather, "this functional life" is "transfigured", becoming the holy vessel for love between persons. "Real Life is Meeting." This is such a rich thought, we could take it in a thousand directions, both philosophical and personal. In the spirit of Oldham, I will take the personal route.

June 21 is, as you know, the longest day of the year. The French decide to play music all night, the decibels and the sweet summer air lingering together long after the last rays of sun slip away. The Fête de la musique calls out bands onto every street corner, playing every style. A Japanese band playing rock on traditional instruments. Argentine tango, people dance. Jazz in a back alley. A lone opera singer under the arcades. A little kids' flute choir piping away. In the heart of Paris, our church always manages to roll out a program of gospel and praise music from our little corner. This year, Karl and a new Singaporean friend shared keyboards...sometimes simultaneously! Our family in Paris, all smiles, nervous young girls quivering with their first solos, wincing guitarists asking for a minute to tune please, loud happy music. Oh Happy Day. People gathering in the streets to see what this hoopla was all about.

Under the guise of all of those brash major chords, God was weaving innumerable Real-Life Meetings. Ever so quietly, two Chinese brothers sidled up to one of our elders and asked about the joyful noise. It turns out that these guys were Christians too, but did not know that you could glorify the Lord with a downbeat. Once they found out our reason for singing, they were delighted at our common faith and offered us help with anything we needed, since they were just opening a restaurant down the street called "Nouilly Wok", which sounds like "New York" if you say it with a Mandarin accent. (Yes, they meant to do that.)

Several days later, we dug into piles of fresh egg rolls and heaps of noodles, the grateful recipients of a dinner to celebrate a successful Fête de la Musique 2010. But how to thank our new friends for such stunning generosity? We didn't have much but our voices, so we marched down to their establishment en masse, and sang Amazing Grace. They returned the volley, but in Chinese. Finally, our pastor prayed for their restaurant in French while our friend rendered the prayer into Chinese. We did not share much language between us except for music and these little footbridges of translation, but the relationship, the Meeting we shared was palpable and deep. No human had planned any of this. It grew out of spontaneous exchange and going out on a limb or two, following God. And meeting Him again, too.

"There is that in the universe which is waiting to meet us. Let us go forth to meet it. What will come from the meeting is not in our hands. If it were there would be no meeting; we should be still in the prison-house of our own self-chosen purposes in which we control and order things. What comes out of the meeting is God's affair. In every real encounter with life and with our fellow-men we meet the living Spirit, the Creator of life." -J.H. Oldham.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


First a plane, then another plane. Then a train. Then a bus. Then another train, and one more train. A little more than 24 hours after leaving Minneapolis, we finally found our way to the smiling faces of our dear friends who live in Bonn, Germany. Sausages from the Metzgerei (butcher) downstairs , German beer, and lots of hugs and conversation finished us off and we finally tumbled into bed.

The von Gohren European Tour 2010 is mainly about hanging out with people we love. Any charming places and incidental beauty we happen upon is icing on the cake. Of course, Bonn was no exception. Here is the perfect-sized city: you can walk pretty much everywhere (and pedestrians actually have the right of way there - no cars nearly plowing down 80-year-old grandmother types, like you sometimes see in Paris). It is the birthplace of Beethoven and Haribo candies, and sits right next to the romantic Rhein river. What more could you want? Meat, of course! Well, there's plenty of that. Beer? You got it. Fresh market? Right around the corner. We cooked and ate our hears out, which was a boon for our friends, who were navigating the last weeks of pregnancy before their second son arrived. (He came the day after we left!) Something about carrying a child full term while caring for a toddler somehow puts the damper on the creative juices for meal prep, so Karl and I were more than happy to jump in as surrogate chefs. Spargel (German white asparagus) and Strawberries were in all their glory when we wen to the market, and our funny half-German, half-English conversations with the merchants were a constant source of entertainment. (I'm sure they thought we were REALLY funny!)

Oh, how good and pleasant it is when brothers (and sisters) dwell together in unity. This couldn't have been more the case as we spent our days cooking, cleaning, eating, visiting the town, and just being together. What better reason to travel 4,000 miles? I can't think of one. The best was re-meeting our friend's nearly-two-year-old, who is a joyful and sharp little boy and took to us as Tante Abbey and Onkel Karl without the slightest hesitation.

In addition, we basically fell in love with everything German to the point that Karl said when we boarded the train six days later to return to Paris: I don't wanna leave! Frankly, I didn't either. France is near and dear to our hearts, but there's something about the way that EVERYTHING WORKS in Germany, from trains, to recycling, to the friendliness of people - that is SO wonderful.

Among our favorite experiences: running alongside the Rhein, hearing an organist practicing in the church where Beethoven played early mass at the age of ten, watching a castle in the nearby town of Bad Godesburg turn 800 years old, the Republic of Germany museum, Bier and Bretzel at the Biergarten alongside the river in the sun, watching Germany win their first World Cup match and joining the ensuing madness in the streets with a local Weisse in hand, and learning German words from a 23-month-old.

France, equally rich, will have to wait for the next installment!