Thursday, October 30, 2014

Her Name is Char

The office building I work in is shaped like a slight altered “H” – two wings connected by a central corridor, three stories tall. It’s a campus-like setting, and three adjacent buildings are constructed exactly like it.

Every morning, a cleaning crew arrives at the buildings, a “crew” of one for each building. They work steadily throughout the day at three tasks.

They empty trash cans in every office and the common rooms, like small kitchens, copier areas and conference rooms.

They vacuum the floors.

And they clean the bathrooms – toilets, urinals, sinks, and floors. They empty the paper trash in the bathrooms, too.

The next day they return, and the cleaning starts over again. Every day is like every other day.

Turnover is high. Often the crews change weekly. It’s not a dangerous job, but it is repetitive, and boring, and it doesn’t exactly have the status of exalted work. The people are paid better than minimum wage, but not much better.

For about a year, we have had the same person cleaning our building. It’s highly unusual for a member of the cleaning crew to have that length of service.

Her name is Char.

She’s short and a little on the hefty side. She doesn’t so much walk as sway side-to-side going forward.

She has learned the name of every person in the building. That’s more than 300 people. In the same time period she’s been working our building, our department, which has previously occupied about 60 percent of one floor in one wing, grew dramatically. It pushed the other 40 percent into other buildings, moved one team to yet another building, and moved about 15 of us to an office suite area in the first floor of the building.

In numbers of people, the department grew from about 40 to 120.

Char learned the names of every new person who became part of the team. Every one. She knows every one of 120 people in our department by name. Not even the head of the department did that. And she knows the names of the other 180 people in the building, too.

And she talks.

She stops by my office for the trash, and always asks how I’m doing. (She calls me “Mr. Glynn.”) She’s asked about things on my desk (“Is that a chess piece, Mr. Glynn?” “Yes, it a replica of a Lewes chessman, found on a British island and made about 1200 A.D.” “I love to play chess.”) (“You’ve read all those books?” “Yes, I read a lot for the job.” “Oh, man, that’s a lot of books.”)

So one day curiosity gets the better of me, and I ask Char if she enjoys her job.

“Well,” she says, “I do most days. It’s not hard. There’s just a lot of it. But it’s like any job, I suppose, it has its highs and its lows. But I really like the people, I mean the people I work for. They treat us well. And I like the people here. Everyone is always nice.”

She pauses a moment, and then lowers her voice as she continues.

“My job is a gift, Mr. Glynn,” she says. “It is a gift from the Lord. It is a gift every day from the Lord.”

Her name is Char, and she just preached a sermon to me in 23 words.

I feel like I’ve been to church.

The High Calling has a community linkup this week, and the theme is “designed for work.” Take a look at the story there, and the links already added. If you have a story to share, please visit The High Calling and consider writing it, posting it, and adding your link. The linkup continues until Saturday night.

Photograph by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Repentance is Not Remorse

Last week, in our discussion about The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, by John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall, we considered the issue of what happens when Christians hurt each other (and why), and the experiences of too many people when the hurt comes not from an individual but from a church.

Aside from the hurt, the problem worsens when we become preoccupied with it, dwell on it, and work it over and over again in our minds. That’s when the sin done to us becomes our sin.

Every one of us has examples of being hurt. And while I can only speak for myself, I suspect every one of us has examples of turning the sin into our sin.

But we can choose a different path, say the authors of The Cure, and it starts with weariness, when we become so weary of dwelling on the hurt that we do the only thing we can do.

We turn to God.

We repent.

And perhaps for the first time ever, I understood what repentance actually is.

“Repentance isn’t doing something about my sin,” the authors write. “”It is admitting I can’t do anything about my sin. It is trusting only God can cleanse me, and only He can convince me that I’m truly cleansed.

“God never tells me to get over something and just get past it. Instead, He asks me to trust Him with every circumstance.”

Even the circumstances when we’re hurt.

Especially the circumstances when we’re hurt.

Repentance isn’t remorse or regret. It is an active word, a turning over all of the hurt, the sin, the problems, all of the baggage from our lives, including our recent lives, and admitting we can’t do anything about it.

So that hurt from the busybodies’ gossip at church?

That time when the church nearly wrecked itself trying to become the next Willowcreek?

When the choir was unceremoniously dismissed and replaced with a rock band?

That time when a pastor failed, or was failed by the church?

Or when the elders made a dumb decision and ran over anyone in their path who raised an objection?

Or when you found out you wouldn’t be seeing a live pastor during worship but only someone on a video screen?

Or when the hymnals disappeared from the church pews, replaced by repetitious choruses on a projector screen?

Or when the Sunday School classes were reorganized into demographic interest groups?

You can name more. I can, too.

I can name so many that I’ve come to the point of weariness.

The point of repentance.

It’s time to trust that God knows what He’s doing, and he doesn’t need my valuable input to do it.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing The Cure. Today concludes our thoughts on Chapter 5, Two Healings. To see more posts on this chapter, please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Poems the Soldiers Read in World War I

We know what the most famous poem to come out of World War I was, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. But what poems did the soldiers themselves read?

The answer is both surprising and not surprising. If you know British military history, the answer is not surprising. But the answer is surprising for the sheer volume of poetry that was created in and about the war. At one point, the Times of London was receiving 100 poems a day for possible publication. It seemed that everyone was writing poetry – officers and soldiers in the field, families back home, government officials, retired military people, doctors and nurses, and even well established authors like Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.

Today we associate the poetry of World War I with a relatively small number of poets, some 10 to 15, who fought and wrote poems. Many of them, like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, died in the conflict. Others, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, survived and eventually died of old age.

And while many of these poets were publishing while they were still alive, and being read in the trenches, there was one volume of poetry that was the most popular. It was A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph of View from the Shropshire Hills via Virtual Shropshire.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shall We Gather at the Table?

From the beginning, the tiny group of Christian believers in Jerusalem gathered together on a regular basis. Not long after the ascension of Christ, Acts 2:42 says that believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the “breaking of bread,” and to prayer. These are all communal activities, although prayer is also individual.

What this signifies, though, is that the original model of the church was people coming together and sharing among themselves. They might have shared teaching, meals, conversation prayer – but they shared it. Christianity was communal. Believers met in homes; they were not exactly welcome in synagogues or other places where Jews congregated in their religious life, although they did go to the temple for a time.

In Christian churches today, all of these activities are recognizable, including the “breaking of bread.” The food may be more plentiful and elaborate than what the early church experienced, but the idea is the same.

The difference is that we live in a (Western) culture today where food has become something of a social and political act, much like the environment was for an earlier generation (mine). There is a desire for simpler, more natural and slower (rather than fast) food. Processed and imported food is suspect; we want natural and local. Many of us also want people to know what we doing in our desire for simpler and more natural food, part of the conspicuous virtue that has replaced the conspicuous consumption of the 1950s and 1960s.

This wasn’t the point when the early church met and broke bread. Food was not an end in itself but a means to an end – the being together, even with your children running about. Christopher Smith, John Pattison and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, ask us to imagine a common life “centered around (a) eating together at the table and (b) the slow, Eucharistic conversation that convivial feasting encourages.”

My own experience with churches eating together is something different. They have more been times associated with an event or purpose – a missions meeting, a congregational meeting, a newcomers luncheon. There is food and conversation, to be sure, but it’s often hurried and surface so we can get to the point of the group meeting. Off-building meals with Sunday School classes has been different, approaching something like what the Slow Church authors suggest.

What if the being together – the sitting, the eating and the talking – was the point? What might happen as a result?

I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out.

For the past several Mondays, I’ve been discussing Slow Church. This chapter, “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church,” is the last chapter in the book. A short conclusion remains, and next Monday I’ll finish my own discussion with some overall thoughts about the book.

Illustration by Piotr Seidlecki via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Beneath my feet

I walk the aisles
of England’s cathedrals
and churches
the Abbey
St. Paul’s
St. Martin’s
to consider the people
lying under the stones
beneath my feet
treading carefully
from respect
knowing my own grave
will not be so noticed
or remarked upon
or trod upon
knowing the words
on my stone will erode
weather and fade
as much as those
beneath my feet.

Photograph: Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury England, October 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Remembering for Ruth: True Confessions

We’ve reached the conclusion in Sheila LaGrand’s Remembering for Ruth serial novel. And now it’s time for true confessions.

The story so far: Paul and Margot Goodharte live in Calfornia, and are caring for Paul's mother, who suffers from Alzherimer's disease. Paul is a pastor; his black sheep brother Matthew shows up and seems to have had something of a black-sheep shedding experience. He becomes interested in next-door neighbor Sue, and the family has a coincidental meeting with Matthew's estranged daughter Amelia. The dog of former neighbors of the Goodhartes is left to them to care for, and Ruth becomes attached to him, naming him Zorro. The dog turns out to be a specially trained schutzhund, and obeys numerous commands -- in German. Amelia is invited to spend some time with the family, and when she arrives, she runs into immediate conflict with Matthew.

Then the family discovers Ruth is missing. The police are called in; the news media arrive; and Mrs. Delsey, the church busybody, organizes young people at the church for to help in the search and provide refreshments (in case you ever wondered, churches can’t do anything with food). A reporter talks to Mrs. Delsey, who lets her disapproval of the pastor’s wife slip into something of an accusation as to why Ruth is missing.

In “True Confessions,” the final installment of the novel, the police arrive to question Margot. Zorro the dog, despite the best efforts of the humans in the story, seems to know where Ruth is. Without giving too much of the story away, let’s just say it ends well.

The serial novel originated in the 17th century, when books were expensive; publishing in installments could help create a wider audience by bringing the cost down. It reached its height of popularity in the 19th century; large novels were often written in installments (what Charles Dickens often referred to as “numbers”) and published monthly. The 19th century witnessed an explosion in literacy; Dickens (for one) rode that wave and became famous as a result.  So did Alexandre Dumas with The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. In the United States, the first novel to be serialized was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, serialized in an abolitionist publication. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  

The rise of broadcasting in the 20th century led to a decline in serialized fiction; stories were serialized on radio and later on television (ever wonder where the term “TV series” came from?). But radio largely abandoned serialized stories after the 1950s, leaving the concept to television. In 1984, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was serialized in Rolling Stone before being published in book-length form, but it was something of an outlier – until the internet. Web sites, online publications and eventually ebooks (of which Remembering for Ruth is one) have revived the serial form of published fiction.

So Sheila LaGrand’s Remembering for Ruth finds itself in good historical company. The print version of the entire book is scheduled to be published this fall.

Photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, October 24, 2014

James Wilson’s “The Dark Clue”

It is 1850s Victorian Britain. The great British painter J.M.W. Turner has been dead since 1851, and a rather unscrupulous writer is researching a biography of him. Turner’s friends and supporters are alarmed, so they commission a biography as well. Artist Walter Hartright is convinced by his sister Marian Halcombe to undertake the assignment, and she will assist him in his research.

As Walter and Marian undertake their project, they soon learn that nothing about Turner is what it seems. The artist appears to have been a bundle of contradictions. As the brother and sister are pulled deeper into the story of Turner’s life, they begin to sense dark forces at work. What starts out as a biographical project becomes a descent into darkness – and possible madness.

Published in 2002, The Dark Clue is author James Wilson’s recreation of the Victorian suspense novel. In fact, the characters of Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are borrowed directly from what may be the classic Victorian suspense novel – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Wilson goes beyond a simple recreation of the times of the Victorian 1850s, however. He transports the reader and almost seductively places you there, so that you experience, see, and even smell what is happening in the story, as it envelops and happens around you.

Turner (1775-1851) was an artist who transformed landscape painting. He made his name when he was quite young, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Art on a regular basis for the rest of his life. But he wasn’t without controversy – one can see the rather large collection of his paintings at the Tate Britain (he bequeathed them to the nation at his death) and see the forerunner of Impressionism and even abstract art. As he grew older, Turner became increasingly absorbed with painting light; while his paintings seem familiar to us in the 21st century, many of them seemed odd and puzzling to his own contemporaries.

He painted light – but his own life contained elements of darkness. And it those elements, along with the darkness of Victorian Britain, that Wilson mines in The Dark Clue. He structures the novel in three parts. The first is Walter’s perspective; the second is Marian’s; and the third is a combination of both. The Turner biography leads both characters, and especially Walter, to the brink of madness, as they journey deeper and deeper into his life – and art.

Turner as a young man, self-portrait (1799)
Wilson takes the story where a writer like Wilkie Collins might have wanted to take it but could not, given the sensibilities of the day. And it is at the point that the story becomes too dark, the main characters too personally entangled, for this to be only an impressive, perhaps even brilliant, recreation of the suspense novels of the period. It’s at that point the story becomes disappointing; it does not need the titillation that it includes. The author could have restrained himself, and his characters, but he does not. And at that point the story becomes something else, something less Victorian and more contemporary. To have remained true to Victorian sentiment he would have had to only suggest and perhaps hide.

That may have been the point; Wilson may have been attempting to do with The Dark Clue what Turner did with his paintings. Had he stopped short, he might have achieved it.

The Tate Britain currently has an exhibition of Turner paintings, Late Turner: Painting Set Free. The exhibition runs to Jan. 25, and we were fortunate enough to see it during a recent trip to London.

Painting: The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, watercolor by J.M.W.Turner, 1842, The Tate Britain.