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 FĂȘte 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 FĂȘte 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!