Thursday, September 21, 2017

Great Conversation

“There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down.”  ― Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet 

I used to say that nothing makes me happier than a good, meaty conversation. 

As the years have gone by, though, I have felt less and less able to pull my own weight in conversation. 

I run out of things to say or ask the other person about. Maybe I'm just not interesting enough? Have I stopped reading, learning, and growing, so I have nothing to bring to the table?

Whatever it is, when I'm on the spot, I often can't think of a way to take the talk from "small talk" to at least "medium talk," if that's a thing.  

Part of the problem may be that the conversations that dash my hopes are often one on one. The ideal number of people for a discussion that is simultaneously relaxed and stimulating, I propose (or at least prefer), is four. In a group of three to five, no one need carry the conversational ball alone, yet there's space for everyone to have their say. My new team at work is a team of four, and that feels just right.

Do you have any strategies for stimulating great conversations? What works for you?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fandom Fancies

Yesterday was game day, a fact well-advertised (at their own expense) by a good many of the residents of Columbia, South Carolina. As we went about our Saturday errands I noticed how many sported crimson gear demonstrating their allegiance to the South Carolina Gamecocks, especially when it comes to football, the sport currently in season.

The Need to Know

We didn’t watch the game, but felt we had to be in the know. As the evening progressed Hubs inquired about the score each time he asked Siri how the University of Oregon football team was doing in a simultaneous match against Wyoming. Though Oregon won 49-13, a sell-out crowd here in Columbia watched the Gamecocks lose 23-13. Had they won, the crowing would have continued throughout the city for another day. Instead, I suspect a hush has fallen over the topic for most fans, for now. Still, as Hubs connects with local guys he works with over Facebook or around the proverbial water cooler on Monday, he wants to have a basic grasp of what happened.

What's the Appeal?

It still catches me by surprise that so many people find their identity in the sports teams they cheer for, yet I have to admit enough interest to give a fair amount of my time to following my favorite teams. I’m not a “true fan” of any sport, I suppose; I use it primarily to establish or maintain common-ground with others, such as friends and family members back in the West, and to some extent, to those who aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s it. Showing allegiance to teams from the hometown or alma mater makes a statement of place both to those who share it and those who don’t. It’s part of my “I am from…” statement. Not as much as Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, blackberries and bookshelves, but a part.

Appealing to Allegiances

On a recent trip to the Northwest I went to an arts festival which featured Northwest icons in a prominent way. Not the sports things: as a juried art show, it did not have Huskies, Seahawks, or Mariners gear, at least not that I noticed. But it did feature more natural Northwest icons. I brought home a piece that managed to include Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, a Washington State ferry, and someone riding a bike down a hill during a sunset, all together in the form of a paper-cutting by a Japanese artist. All those points of appeal to my allegiances in one piece were hard to resist, and this one seemed made to fit in my suitcase and my frugal price range, too. So now it’s on my wall.

I suppose that makes the same kind of statement as the football jersey or baseball cap.

Now Consider the Funatics...

Attending the art festival meant skipping another Everett, WA event, the opening of a new headquarters for Funko, a Northwest company that got its start making bobble-head dolls and grew into what may be the world’s largest manufacturers of licensed toys and pop-culture collectibles. Who knew? They’ve made their new HQ into quite the interactive consumer experience, like a seamless blend of Disneyland and the Disney store. It features sections catering to fans of Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more. They were expecting thousands of "Funatics" to attend the grand opening.

Sports and pop culture, all in one.

Taxonomy of Fandom: Justified or Unfair?

I find my own prejudices affect how I view the world of fandom. Picking up watercolors of Mt. Rainier and ferryboat knickknacks seems like healthy home-town-ism to me, while my-country-first rhetoric seems like dangerous patriotism. Why? What's the difference? Is it that Puget Sound is real and worth celebrating, not costing anyone else, whereas American Dream is a political philosophy or fiction with a high pricetag for other people and the planet?

Sports fans seem, to me, sometimes excessive, but ultimately more acceptable than pop-culture collectible collectors. Why? What’s the difference? In both cases we’re talking about commercializing on someone else’s achievement, licensing the work of a team of athletes or artists and selling overpriced “gear” so others can identify with it. Is it that a quarterback is a real person while a comic-book character is not?

In the end I think my taxonomy is little more than a ranking of prejudices... concluding that while I'm entitled to my opinions, so other people are entitled to theirs. Cheer for who you will and collect what you want; we all have our preferences and our own ideas about how far we'll go to proclaim or protect them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Considering Cohousing

Until a few years ago, many of the grad students at the Christian college campus where we live made their homes in a community called The Village. This cluster of mobile homes out in the woods had been there a few decades. Many of them were pretty run down and plagued by mold and dry rot, but the married students and families who lived there loved the sense of community they shared.

When a complex of new, modern apartments was complete, The Village was closed down and the rotted-out trailers sold, given or hauled away.

The apartments, no longer limited to the same population, include not only graduate and seminary student families, but also older single students, faculty and staff, and alumni like me. They are clean, well designed, and a big step up in luxury.

But no longer do all the residents know one another. Sometimes nearest neighbors still share meals and families with young kids still get their kids together to play, but it isn’t the kind of place you can easily meet people or shoo your little ones out the door and know they will be looked after. In fact, we have policies against that which help protect the children. I was glad those policies were in place when a young daredevil crashed a scooter and broke her arm coming down the hill outside our building not long ago. No, we don’t want the kids running wild. But in The Village, I think they pretty much could. It was a tight community.

What keeps the apartments from creating that same sense of community? In part it’s the architecture. American housing is set up to protect values like luxury, convenience, and privacy. It’s not like The Village, where everyone would see each other coming and going and know who lives where. I imagine some would put up a cute wooden sign with their name in front of their trailer. I suppose I could still put a sign on my door, but with few shared stairwells, who would see it? So, physically, we can't create that atmosphere. We don't have balconies or patios; most can't see each other come and go. While there is a good amount of shared space, many avoid it.

We do have a nice community center which hosts events, formally and informally. There's coffee, and a printer, and some places to study, play games, or hang out. Staff and residents do what they can to foster relationships. The laws and ethics placed on apartment managers require them to protect the safety and privacy of their residents, though. They feel that their hands are tied. No nametags at community events, for example, and they are rather cautious about introductions, though they love to see us meet one another. We also have a Facebook group now. That may help. Our shared faith and values certainly help.

But most who become friends know each other more from taking classes together or working together in a campus office, not from being neighbors. Counseling students, bonded by the forced intimacy of their small classes, stick together. MDiv students meet to study Greek. People form alliances according to their sense of direction or stage of life, along, of course, with their level of interest in forming connections with others.

There are people who never show up at events; they want to go their own way. So that points to another reason we don't have as much community as we might: a lot of people don't want it. That's not necessarily what they are looking for, here.

On the other hand, some of the moms and single students seem to have hoped for more community and find themselves lonely or isolated. We have a lot of international student families. I think it's pretty tough on them, maybe especially if they come from more communal settings. Last year I heard one of the Chinese students say his wife cried every day. She was at home with little children and didn't speak much English. Ouch. I need to try harder to connect with my other Chinese neighbors!

Then there's the size of the place. There are too many of us, too spread out. I'm glad they stretch the net wide enough to include people like me. But the size of the group? You can't be friends with that many people. It’s a lot to overcome.

No, I don't want to move into a trailer park. "The Village" is gone and even if it weren't, I'd find my clean, new apartment a better choice. Yet I wish we could have the sense of community that from all accounts they seem to have enjoyed.

Meanwhile, my dad and stepmom, as they get older they are looking at joining or starting a co-housing community. It’s a trend that has spread to the US from Denmark, in part, where a large percentage of people live in some kind of intentional community. Some buy up houses, tear down the fences, and put up shared kitchens, dining halls, laundry facilities, and gathering spaces. Others take over small apartment buildings and remodel them to overcome that American push for privacy. They plan social events and work parties, plant gardens and hold community meetings. Apparently, in the US, it’s illegal to require residents to commit to volunteer a certain number of hours in serving others, but that kind of thing is encouraged or understood.

A key distinctive of co-housing, it seems, is intentionality. It's there in the architecture, in the number of units, in the way the place is managed, and in the expectations people have in choosing to live there. These things don't tend to come together accidentally through a few people trying to create them, not when others are pushing for privacy. It works best if everyone knows this is what they are opting into from the beginning.

On the other side of my family tree, my mom and stepdad have moved into a retirement community that offers many of the same benefits as co-housing, plus services needed more by the elderly, including multiple levels of nursing care and help with transportation and shopping. On visiting, I thought the amount of interaction one could have was great. Everybody has dinner together every night. You don't have to come every night, but you're paying a lot of money for them to make you dinner every night, so most people are there most of the time. Other services and activities are purely optional, but diverse and appealing enough that people can easily form friendships through them.

Every person or couple has their name on their door, and there are shared hallways. It's easy to run into someone in the elevator or on the way to the dining room, bistro, meeting room, or post office. It's easy to make friends. A newsletter uses people's names and apartment numbers freely, and many wear their name tags to dinner and activities. I like that.

I also saw how it could feel a little pushy. It's not as counter-cultural as full-on co-housing, but it's still a little weird. Mom and I went to visit a nearby church and I wondered if she would want to go back given how many of her neighbors noticed us there and remarked on it when we ran into them later. It's one thing to have dinner with the same people every night (as Mom has begun to do) and be missed if you aren't there or if you eat at a different time; no big deal. It might be annoying, though, if you just wanted to sleep in and people bugged you about missing church or a fitness class, as if you need to do this because it's good for you and why weren't you there?

What's accountability and inclusion, and what's just annoying? Intrusive neighbors could really restrict one's sense of independence. When it comes down to it, being independent is a much stronger value in America than being interconnected.

Would you want to live in co-housing? How far would you be willing to go to share life with others to whom you weren’t related? What things do you think you'd enjoy most about it, and what things would be hard for you? Intergenerational families living together assure me that each woman needs her own kitchen! What else?

To learn more, see The Cohousing Association of the United States.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Advertisers as Guides

“The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides,” says Eugene Peterson.

I recently felt the pressure myself as we were driving the ad-saturated route to the tourist town of Myrtle Beach. We decided to count the billboards advertising a single “attraction,” a dinner-and-show experience called Pirates Voyage (“The Most Fun Place to Eat! TM).”

We counted 57 billboards. Our hotel lobby also had brochures, and “Pirates” had provided the little sleeves for the hotel key cards.

Is it any wonder I picked up the message, “a trip to Myrtle Beach would not be complete without going to ‘Pirates’!”?

Nevertheless, we did not go there.

We also failed to visit almost all of the hundreds of beach supply stores, despite their loud fluorescent signage, as well as the many all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and pancake houses. We did not play a single round of miniature golf. We never made it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (Believe it or not.)

I don’t say this with an air of superiority, as if I am above such things, but one of acknowledgement. Though I am not a person interested in fun (per se) I still felt the strong tug to check them out.

Advertising. It's powerful stuff.

Image source

Monday, April 24, 2017

Songs, stories and poems

I once heard writer, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson point out that in our baby babbling, we sing before we talk and before we walk. Our parents sing to us, sometimes wordless hums like the way an animal will croon to its young. Soon moms and dads are reading or telling us stories, often sing-songy ones that give way to verse and full-fledged poems. I remember a lot of Dr. Seuss to start with, soon Shel Silverstein and A Child’s Garden of Verses and a much-thumbed volume we had called The Family Book of Best Loved Poems.

Maybe some outgrow all this at a fairly young age, but the bookworm I was, I gobbled up stories of young heroines like Anne of Green Gables who always seemed to be quoting poetry (when they weren't writing it) and performing recitations. I guess this must have been part of our culture back in the day their authors grew up or set their tales (and characters who love to read and write seem over-represented in fiction, for reasons that may be obvious).

Elementary school and later language arts teachers encouraged any bent I had in that direction. A sixth-grade math teacher would give us a break from equations by reading from his favorite poet, Robert W. Service; though this was usually the sort of behavior more expected from English teachers. Me, I learned Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Madeleine L’Engle poems by heart, memorized Shakespeare speeches, and even composed a few poems and stories of my own (though I am afraid they were pretty awful).

After a seventh grade assignment to choose a favorite topic and put together our own book of collected poems, I was hooked on curating. I started assembling scrapbooks of poems, songs, and quotations, starting with those I already loved and poems about the sea (my chosen topic for that seventh-grade project).

The older I've become, the sillier and more babyish this all looked. I tucked my scrapbooks away and added to them less and less often. I still copy scriptures and moving passages from books into my journals at times. Now and again I'll share something around the campfire, in the letter, or in an impromptu talent show. And on a long drive, I’ll sing songs and recite poetry from the treasure trove I’ve committed to memory over the years.

These days it’s very rare and only with trusted friends whom I hope understand and accept my quirks that I will share a short poem or part of a poem I know by heart... maybe Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, or Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, and hope people don't look at me weird.

I seldom go for long drives now, at least not alone. My husband would probably not appreciate me practicing poetry in the car for no particular reason. But now that I’m older I am more likely to wake in the night. Lying awake in the wee hours, well, it seems the perfect time to tell myself a Best Loved Poem.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Recently Written

Here's some of what I've been doing this week.

Pioneering Prayer - Trolling missionary newsletters to create an issue or two of this weekly email publication from Pioneers. (Scheming ways to tell longer versions of some of these stories)

Missions Catalyst News Briefs - Working with Pat, our news sleuth, to serve up stories from across the globe - including a report that Christianity is exploding in Bangladesh and how a prison guard in the Middle East had visions of Christ and was discipled by imprisoned pastors.

ShortTermMissions.com Newsletter - Struggled to find something fresh to say about preparing for a mission trip, until I realized I could tap into a childhood experience for a useful metaphor.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Based on a True Story: Memoir, Truth, and Ethics

A beloved third-grade teacher introduced me to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, with her outrageous cures for children’s bad habits, and Nancy and Plum, orphaned sisters who fight to survive under the cruel Mrs. Monday. These stories (and others) nurtured a love of fiction for me and many other students in Mrs. E’s classes over the years. They helped make me the reader and writer I am today.

Part of the appeal of was that the author, Betty MacDonald, had written these stories from our very own Vashon Island. Later I’d learn that she had also produced four adult memoirs. The Egg and I, the first and most famous of them, recounts her experiences on a chicken farm across the water on the Olympic Peninsula. In Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty writes about her family, particularly her sister Mary (who also authored both children’s books and memoirs); it focuses on the lengths to which they went to get and keep work during the Great Depression. I  read and enjoyed Onions in the Stew, which was about life on our island. My favorite Betty MacDonald memoir may be The Plague and I. This humorous look at a grim topic describes Betty’s year in a sanatorium near Seattle after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

The books vary somewhat in tone and characterization. I didn’t realize how much until reading Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I, by Paula Becker and published last year by the University of Washington Press. Becker is not only a fan but also a careful researcher. In this book she explores the differences between the real Betty MacDonald and the fictionalized version of herself put forth in her books.

The Egg and I sold more than a million copies in its first year. It was made into a film starring some of Hollywood’s most popular stars and made Betty into a Hollywood celebrity herself. It’s based on Betty’s actual experiences, but they were originally reframed to entertain her friends and salvage her sense of self-worth as she recovered from the very painful period, then further adapted to attract and please a literary agent, publishers, and the public. If nothing else, Betty knew how to tell a story.
The Egg and I revealed Betty’s fundamental irreverence, a Bard family quality. Exaggeration was encouraged and expected. Telling a good story outranked following the Golden Rule” (Becker, p. 74).
In “Egg,” Betty glossed over the fact that her husband Bob was viciously abusive and that their life on the farm ended when she left him. She presents a version of herself that is more self-assured and less of a victim. And, although she changed names and identifying details of her location and other characters, when both the book and movie became hits, residents of the community where Betty had lived (decades before, at this point) were happy to direct people to the farm and other sites mentioned in the book, sometimes profiting from the connection. One neighbor family who recognized themselves in outrageous characters Betty hoped would be considered composites eventually took her to court for libel, and although the case was settled in her favor, it seems clear that their clan and the family ridiculed in Egg were one and the same.
“Caught in the truth in court, Betty had lied. More than one relative of Betty’s laughed at questions that tried to parse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. ‘Nobody in this family ever let the truth get in the way of a good story!’ they explained” (Becker, p. 125).
Readers loved the book anyway. The timing of the 1945 publication had been perfect.
The Egg and I hit the war-numbed public as a comforting tale of survival: one woman’s successful effort to just keep getting up each morning in spite of challenges and discomfort.” (Becker, p. 73). 
Later cultural shifts also played a part in how Betty’s books presented their content and how they were received. Though Onions in the Stew describes events that took place between 1942 and 1945, it’s published in the conservative 1950s. As one of Betty’s editors wrote to her agent,
“Public taste has changed pretty radically in the nine years since The Egg and I was published. A sort of Puritanism has made great progress, and some things that would go without question in the late 1940s will now tend to alienate a large segment of the reading public” (quoted in Becker, p. 146).
Betty responded by toning down the language, cleaning the manuscript of bitterness and snarkiness, and presenting a more traditional patriarchal household than she actually had (and rather different from what we saw in the other books). Some modern readers consider this book the “bland” one.

The editor responsible for Onions also wanted to avoid more libel suits. He made a list of every character in the book who was not a member of Betty’s family and asked for assurance that their names and identities had been changed. Betty responded that many of the characters were entirely made up and most of the others were composites. “How true to life Betty’s nonfiction book really was seems to have mattered little,” remarks Becker (p. 146).

All this raises some questions about the whole genre of memoir, then and now. What does it mean to write one’s story in an ethical manner?

1. Is it more ethical to change your story than to tell it in such a way that others might be hurt? Readers may love tell-all stories, but publishers and their lawyers don't. At what point do stories about events involving other people become libel?

2. In fiction, if you use material from real life, you have to change it. But when you’re writing non-fiction, is there some kind of responsibility to your reader to uphold certain standards of accuracy? Is there a difference between what we can expect in a biography (like Becker's) and a memoir (like Betty's)?

Occasionally, these days, there is a big scandal about a blockbuster autobiography that succeeds on the basis of claims that turn out to be untrue. To what extent is fictionalizing one's life a normal and expected part of this genre? Or does an author defraud the public by making things up and calling it a memoir?

Image: Dust jacket from 1946 edition
 

Sunday, February 05, 2017

More about Lilias Trotter: newsletters, show and tell, and single women on short-term teams

As I mentioned briefly in The Legacy of Lilias Trotter, Lilias served in and around Algiers, on the coast of North Africa, with easy access to Europe. In contrast with some other pioneering missionaries (say, David Livingstone, who famously dropped off the radar and refused to go back to England when he was finally found) Lilias made time for public speaking tours, refreshing vacations in the Alps, mission conferences, and Keswick conventions. Keeping up with her contacts in Europe does not seem to have dampened her commitment to Africa or her appreciation of Arab ways and mindsets. And the ministry seems to have benefited a great deal through her connections.

The growth and support of the ministry may have owed something to her faithfulness in sending what we now call prayer letters:
“At the beginning of 1907 Lilias started the habit of sending out a bi-monthly prayer circular to a large group of friends in England and France. They were beautifully written and illustrated and, no doubt, greatly increased the volume of believing prayer that ascended to God at that time; and all this tied in with what she had been learning the past few months, for God was about to send new workers and open new doors of opportunity in a remarkable way” (Patricia St. John, Until the Day Breaks, p. 118).
Around that time, Lily got a letter from a friend letting her know that a two ships carrying some 600 American delegates to Rome for an international Sunday School convention would be stopping in Algiers for a few hours. The leader was hoping they could stop in and meet with missionaries in Algiers and learn about the work. Sounds like Lilias was felt pressured to sum up her work in such a short visit, and embarrassed that they didn’t have schools, hospitals, and what she calls "the ordinary outworks of a Mission Station to show,” but she told them they could have the chance to see a work just at its beginnings and carefully prepared an engaging, hands-on exhibition that introduced the visitors to some of those they were serving among and showed their work at its best advantage.

When an offering was later taken, that short shore excursion would bring in full funding for five women who arrived to begin work in that year (Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible, p. 199; St. John, p. 119).

A few years later, in 1911, Lily used a summer visit to England to recruit short-term missionaries, “educated girls who could ‘come on a self-supporting basis for a time of service in all the countless ways in which such can be rendered with a small knowledge of the language, if hands and hearts are ready.’”

The short-term mission movement would not take off for another 50 years or more and I’m not sure what other early models may have existed. But a steady stream of young ladies-of-leisure came to Algiers for periods of different lengths until World War I interfered. Lilias, who would have been in her late fifties at this point, seems to have enjoyed having the young people around (Rockness, p. 200).

The tributes that came in after Lily’s 1928 death claim “she never lost her enthusiasm or her capacity for wonder,” that she was “always interested in new points of view, or new methods, even though she might not agree with them,” and never failed to offer mercy and encouragement to her younger coworkers (Rockness, p. 274-5).

Sending out engaging reports, inviting fans and supporters to see the ministry up close, hosting short-term teams, and committing oneself to benefiting from the fresh wind of new people and ideas also characterize many of the healthier ministries I know today... just as they did in Lily’s day.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Legacy of Lilias Trotter (1853-1928)

Isabelle Lilias Trotter:
Missionary, artist, writer,
and mission leader
Life in England

Lilias Trotter grew up in the golden age of Victorian England, educated at home by governesses but encouraged to develop her potential and use her gifts. These included an unusual appreciation of beauty and facility for drawing and painting. Her early life was punctuated by family trips to Europe where she reveled in the natural beauty she found at every turn and was seldom without a sketchbook. Lily kept illustrated journals through every phase of her life and left behind a wealth of published materials as well as letters and diaries capturing her thoughts and experiences.

But the real focus of her life wasn't art, it was God. Her faith was kindled through the Holiness movement which swept through England in the 1870's, led in part by Quaker and Methodist revivalists from America, including the popular Dwight L. Moody. Throughout her life Lilias would attend "Keswick Convention" events which grew out of their revival meetings whenever she could. And through these meetings, Lilias and her friends surrendered their lives to Christ and his service. Her writings make clear that relationship with God was of primary importance.

Lilias gave more and more of her time to serving the needy in the slums of London through the YWCA, then in its infancy. When she was 35, she felt a call to ministry in North Africa.

Life in Algeria

Lilias and two friends, all well-educated single women, traveled to Algeria to make a home for themselves there. They moved into the Arab section of the casbah, amid narrow winding streets, hoping to be used by God. Rejected by mission agencies, they were not discouraged, apparently, from going out on their own. As Lilias later wrote:
"None of us would have been passed by a doctor for any missionary society. We did not know a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, nor had we a clue as to how to begin work on such untouched ground. We only knew we had to come. If God needed weakness, he had it! We were on a fool’s errand, so it seemed, and we are on it still, and glory in it.”
Algiers may seem far away and exotic to us, but for Lilias, it was not really that far from home; Britons who wished to visit North Africa need only take a train across France and board a ship for a relatively short journey from Marseilles to Algiers. She seems to have initially expected to live there six months of the year, keeping a commitment to come home and nurse an invalid sister the other six. The sister died unexpectedly. In the years to come, though, Lilias (whose own health was shaky) took frequent and sometimes extended breaks to rest in England, Switzerland, or other parts of Europe.

For 40 years Lilias lived and served in North Africa, sacrificing the comfortable life and promising art career she might have had in England with what she called “the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep.” She and her coworkers learned Arabic, taught the Bible, set up classes of all kinds of men, women, and children, traveled extensively, and pioneered all kinds of strategies for connecting with the lives and hearts of their Arab friends in culturally appropriate ways.

No mention is made, in anything I've read, about giving up marriage and family; perhaps she had no desire to pursue that path. I'm not sure. Maybe nobody thought that was a sacrifice. At her death she left behind only relationships, a wealth of devotional material that spoke to the hearts of the people, and a band of 30 missionaries, mostly women, who looked to her as their leader and continued reaching out to the people of North Africa years before breakthrough came to the region.

Learning about Lilias: Three Books

The "Algiers Mission Band" eventually became part of the North Africa Mission (renamed Arab World Ministries) which merged with Pioneers in 2010... not long after I came into Pioneers, also through a merger, so I guess that gives me a tie to Lilias Trotter.

I wonder what she would think if she peered into the new Pioneers building in Orlando and saw signs directing visitors to the Trotter Conference Center, named in her honor? It was in writing some material to describe her legacy (and perhaps explain why we were using her name) that I decided I needed to learn more about her.

Decided to start at the school library. CIU was founded by Robertson McQuilkin, a holiness movement leader in America and an avid supporter of world missions. Both streams are still a strong part of the CIU culture. Some students major in "Muslim Studies" and take classes from the "Zwemer Center," named after another pioneering missionary who was a friend and colleague of our friend Lilias. With that many connections, I should not have been surprised to find a collection of Lilias Trotter biographies in the school library. I checked out three and read them through, one after the other.

I started with Patricia St. John's 1990 biography. It follows the conventions of missionary biography, providing an easy to read, inspirational narrative strong on devotion but sometimes weak on details, explanation, or analysis. I was surprised to realize it was a 1990 book, as it felt as if it were written for an earlier time.

I then picked up a more modern work by Miriam Rockness (2003) which has some of the same flavor as St. John's book but is written for a contemporary audience. It is stronger academically. Rockness cites her sources more carefully and fills in some of the gaps with background or analysis. It's harder to read, though; I can see where someone who wasn't determined to finish it might not make it through. Long, unedited quotes are formatted somewhat awkwardly (double-spaced italics with original spelling and punctuation). In reviews, some readers were quite critical of Rockness, calling her a poor writer compared to Trotter. I don't think I'd agree. But the tone slips back and forth between devotional and scholarly, and one looking for one or the other might struggle with that.

Finally, I skimmed a 1929 book primarily made up of Trotter's letters and journal entries, edited and published shortly after her death by her friend and coworker Blanche Pigott. I suspect Lilias, who often reworked her journal entries for publication, would appreciate Blanche's efforts to clean up her work. But it does mean we're not getting quite the real deal; I can see why Rockness went back to the archives. This one reads as more a collection of pieces than a narrative. If you didn't know who Lilias Trotter was or why she's considered significant, you'd be at a disadvantage in navigating this book and might be turned off by the language and some of the emphases.

Looking for Legacy

All three works covered many different stages and aspects of Trotter's life. I was most interested in her ministry strategy and experience in North Africa, her leadership of the Algiers Mission Band, her connections with other mission leaders of the time like Samuel Zwemer and Amy Carmichael, and her legacy as a missiologist focused on reaching Arabs. She was an accomplished leader of people, both a visionary and a detail-oriented administrator. Missiologist Christy Wilson said Lily's evangelism approaches were "one hundred years ahead of her time." The book she wrote for Sufi mystics introducing them to Christ through the "I Am" statements in the Gospel of John sounds like a masterpiece, one rooted in a great deal of study and sympathy for the Sufi "talebs" she met during her travels in the south of the country.

Judging from the biographical sketches I've found, however, what most people know and emphasize about Lilias Trotter (if they know anything) is that she was an artist who put aside a potentially great career in the arts, for ministry, but who left behind a number of devotional booklets illustrated by her own drawing and paintings.

I don't think art is her real legacy.

Rockness explains that her interest in Lilias came through friends who gave her their collection of those booklets, one by one, and enlisted her in their quest to save them from disappearing. That may be why she puts the "artist" narrative front and center, though her chapter on legacy is much more balanced.

The documentary Many Beautiful Things focuses in on the art v. God narrative, though. I haven't seen it, but here's the IMDB description:
From Executive Producer Hisao Kurosawa, (Dreams, Ran), comes the untold story of one of the world's greatest women artists and why her name was nearly lost to history. Many Beautiful Things plunges viewers into the complex age of Victorian England to meet Lilias Trotter, a daring young woman who defied all norms by winning the favor of England's top art critic, John Ruskin. In an era when women were thought incapable of producing high art, Ruskin promised that her work could be "immortal." But with her legacy on the line, Lilias made a stunning decision that bids us to question the limits of sacrifice. As Lilias journeys to French Algeria in the late 1800's to pioneer work with women and children, viewers are left to wonder, "Could you abandon a dream to pursue your true calling?" Featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones).
So, like Chariots of Fire, it seems to paints a picture of a Christian "sacrificing" remarkable skills by putting their faith first (appealing to evangelicals, though perhaps bewildering to others).

After soaking up enough Lilias Trotter, I'm having a hard time seeing where someone would question whether she "wasted" her gifts as an artist by becoming a missionary. Likely Ruskin was right that if she wanted to be a great artist, she would have to put art first. She turned away from that, saying she didn't think she could devote herself to art and still "seek first Christ and his kingdom." Some Christians find ways to pursue both simultaneously. They serve God through their gifts as artists, athletes, musicians, writers, or whatever. But to live a life surrendered to God, even if that means not following gifts that might demand more of you than you can give... well, that is better, isn't it?

Lilias would say her duty is not to her gifts, but to her God. Lilias Trotter had a wonderful life, and if she wasn't one of the world's greatest artists because she thought seeking to save souls was more important, it didn't stop her from seeing the world's beauty and from the joy of painting and drawing most every day, alongside writing, teaching, and investing in her coworkers and the Arab communities in which they served.

(Continued in More About Lilias Trotter.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Taxonomy of Clutter

The article, found on Facebook, was titled 11 Things in Your Home That Are Making You Unhappy, and I couldn't resist clicking through. Though flawed (inevitably) by the "how to be more like me" bias, I thought the conclusions seemed pretty helpful.

(Remember, "All models are wrong, but some of them are useful.")

It also introduced me to several kinds of clutter. Do you, or people you love, pile up stuff for these reasons?
  1. Sentimental clutter: Do you have furniture, knickknacks, or other "treasures" that were once important to you, received as a gift, or passed down through your family? And do you feel bad whenever you see them because they no longer have the magic and you feel guilty getting rid of them or giving them away? Your heirlooms may have become sentimental clutter.
  2. Bargain clutter: Who can resist when stuff is free or on sale? Swag from conferences, great deals, and things that seem to good to pass up but don't look so good as time goes by may have morphed into bargain clutter.
  3. Abundance clutter: And what about those extra items that you might need someday? If you are so fully stocked, with backups for your backups, that you can't find things or forget what you already have, you might be amassing abundance clutter.
  4. Aspirational clutter: A stash of books or magazines you mean to read or an excess of tools or hobby supplies that triggers guilty feelings may be reminding you of the time you thought you'd have (but don't) or the person you thought you'd become (but haven't). It could be aspirational clutter.
What do you think of this taxonomy? "When we understand why we are holding onto clutter, it makes it easier to get rid of it," says one author.

Image found at https://futuristicallyyours.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/clutter.jpg 

Friday, January 06, 2017

George Hunter: Apostle of Turkestan

Half a dozen years ago, when I was reading my way through a selection of  biographies in the library of OMF International's US office, I wrote about Percy Mather, pioneering missionary to the Mongolians. One of the things that impressed me about Mather was his ability to work gracefully and contentedly not only in harsh conditions but also with harsh people... specifically the man he invariably referred to as "Mr Hunter" and with whom he had a ministry partnership for almost twenty years.

OMF recently published an article about the dour George Hunter (1861-1946). His "independent, single-minded spirit quickly distinguished him as a loner, unable to work with others, and frequently causing friction due to his firm principled stand on many issues of doctrine and churchmanship." 

Hunter, who had no interest in diversions, holidays, or vacations, is described as as one who "had single-mindedly set his hand to the plough, and he would not look back."

Mather did not keep all of Hunter's practices nor hold all of his views, but enough that they could be partners. The two men lived simply, preferring to spend what money they had on paper (which was expensive) and "on which they spent the winter months reproducing gospel portions in various Mongol dialects – Tibetan, Kazakh, Chinese, Manchu, Russian and Arabic." They traveled widely and distributed scripture portions in local languages to all who showed interest. Hunter and Mather "cover[ed] many thousands of miles by mule, often away for several months at a time, pioneering in unmapped areas, facing hardships, dangers and toil" as they trekked to the furthest reaches of their remote province.

Later in his life, and likely due at least in part by the "untoward" behavior of some younger missionaries sent to work alongside Hunter and Mather (but unable to survive there), Hunter was imprisoned and tortured by the Soviets for more than a year under accusation of espionage. When released, he was escorted from the city, never able to return. He died in Gansu hoping for a chance to return to Xinjiang.

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My final year of college my roommate and I were both in the process of applying for full-time ministry positions. When we compared notes, I was amused that her application and reference forms emphasized an ability to work independently and in rugged or solitary situations, whereas mine seemed designed to discover if I was winsome and popular with others. Neither of us was accepted  (though she later ended up serving with the ministry to which I had applied). I was encouraged to find a ministry "where I wouldn't be working with people." Maybe I just have more "Hunter" than "Mather" in me. Though I would probably go mad with the kind of isolation they both faced. Takes all kinds, doesn't it?

Most ministry positions require both independence and amiability. Most of us seem to be stronger in one or the other, I guess. At any rate, reading about Hunter made me grateful that Mather had both the charm to work well with such a partner, and the fortitude, himself, to share the otherwise harsh and solitary life Hunter had chosen It seemed necessary, at that time, for the sake of those they hoped to reach. Neither ever married because they believed this was no life for a woman. We know their stories, though, because of because of intrepid missionary-writer Mildred Cable, member of a trio of single women who trekked through this region and wrote about them.