Sunday, October 26, 2008

God is still on the Throne

The reason we were in UK in September was Steve’s meetings with Langham Partnership, the trust that uses the income from John R. W. Stott’s books and other donations to provide books for majority-world pastors and seminary students, hold preaching workshops and scholarship future church leaders from around the world. The meetings were held at Farnham Castle, the seat of the bishops of Winchester from the 12th century to 1962.

The earliest buildings at Farnham were begun in 1138 by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror and abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, the setting of my novel Glastonbury Tor. Henry helped to put his brother Stephen on the throne in the time of Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael stories, then briefly switched sides to support their cousin, Matilda, in the civil war that followed. Ultimately he negotiated the treaty that ended the conflict.
Henry of Blois wasn’t the last powerful bishop of Winchester. Nine were Lord Chancellors. According to the castle website, “Most of the monarchs of England from King John to Queen Victoria visited or stayed at the castle.”

Bishop William of Wykeham (1366-1404) would no doubt have approved of the educational endeavors of Langham Partnerships. He founded New College at Oxford and a college at Winchester for “poor” middle class scholars. Both schools had a revolutionary impact on the education of the time. Later Bishop William Waynflete (1447-1486) continued that interest in education. He founded Magdalene College, Oxford, that later gave us C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame.

Since 1962 the castle keep has been open to the public and the bishop’s palace run by the Church of England as a training and conference center. We stayed in the “new,” half-timbered part of the palace built for the courtiers of Tudor Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century when she fled London because of a plot against her life. They have been remodeled with en suite bathrooms that the prior of Llantony and Henry of Blois would have envied.

One evening a string quartet played in the large hall. It was a private event, but when the Langham group went out for dinner, I decided I had eaten quite enough for one day and drank my cup of soup sitting on the floor of the gallery out of sight, but where I could enjoy the music.

The stock market began its plunge as we arrived in Farnham, making us all wonder what the impact would be on charitable giving and with it scholarships for majority-world doctoral candidates. The colleges founded by the bishops of Winchester have endured nearly six hundred years, impacting each new generation. Despite world financial markets, God will continue to work out his plans for the leadership of his church around the world. His character has not changed, nor has his plan to reconcile the world to himself. May Langham Partnership continue to play a significant role in that plan.

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(I can’t resist sharing pictures. See my Picassa album.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Return to Wales

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According to the date my digital camera attaches to my photos, it was the tenth of November, 2007 when I drove my rental car down the one-lane road between the hedges into the Llantony Valley in southeast Wales. That day I said to myself, “This is it. This is where Colin Hay is from.”

I was spending three weeks in Wales researching a sequel to my novel Glastonbury Tor. At the end of that book Colin goes home to Wales to reconcile with his drunken and abusive father. If I was going to write about what happened when he got there, I needed to know more about Wales. (See my blog entries for November 4, 9, and 18, 2007 for more about those weeks in Wales.)

A few weeks ago in September 2008 my husband, Steve, had meetings in England in the middle of a long trip to various places on that side of the Atlantic. To break up his trip, he suggested that I fly over and join him for a few days. “You can show me some of the things you researched last year.” How could I refuse?

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There aren’t a lot of choices for accommodation in the Llantony Valley (or the Vale of Ewyas, as it is called on some maps). It was either the Abbey Hotel or the pub down the road. We chose the Abbey Hotel in the ruined 12th century priory. The prior’s quarters are still standing although roof lines indicate that they are partially rebuilt. The hotel has four rooms, one on top of another in the tower. We stayed in the bottom room, up a steep winding stair from the prior’s small, vaulted hall. Residents of the other rooms had to come down a similar stair to use the only bathroom—located on our floor. Dinner was traditional recipes served in front of the fire in the hall. (Sorry, no swan’s tongues.)
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During the day we hiked the hills around Offa’s Dyke, explored tiny, ancient churches and drove up over the bluff to Hay, the town of books, with its streets lined with used book shops and other goodies—and an internet connection in the public library.

With a geological survey map and the guidance of locals, we found an ancient Celtic hill fort near the entrance to the valley and a mystical circle of stone slabs in a field below it. In the center of the hill fort were two raised places looking remarkably like burial mounds. I had an idea for something similar in the story, but dismissed it because forts were civic centers, not burial places, to the ancient Celts. Seeing these, it occurred to me that although the original residents would not have buried there, later inhabitants of the valley might have seen the ring of earth as a sacred place suitable for burying chieftains. So it may work in the story after all.

I have a wonderful husband, who traipsed through spring-soggy fields with me, sheep dung and all. He drove the car home from the next valley, freeing me to climb through the heather and gorse over the top, imagining what Colin would see, hear, feel and smell as he approached his home after a year away. I didn’t get much time to write on this trip, but I certainly enjoyed the ambiance.
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(The priory was very photogenic. You can see more photos in my Picassa album.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Proud moments

This blog entry has nothing to do with Africa. Neither does it have anything to do with children except those who grow up and make you proud. My daughter Erika ran her first marathon in Baltimore on Saturday. I say her first because despite the pain, she is determined to run another—just not next week.

My little sister Jill ran with her. I emphasize that she is my ‘little’ sister. She is much younger than I am—almost two years—that’s why she is able to run marathons and I am not. This was her second. She has been a major encourager of Erika in running as well as in many other aspects of life. Jill had a cold and could hardly talk. “There’s nothing like a good run to make me feel better,” she assured us the night before.

Erika shaved her legs. “Just in case I pass out, and they take me to the hospital,” she explained.

Erika’s husband, Dan, also ran. He is army-buff, and after graciously waiting at the start with Erika and Jill among the eleven-minute milers, they never saw him again until the end of the race.

Jill’s husband Kent, my husband Steve, daughter Katie and her almost-two Bella, and I came to cheer. Katie made a poster. I bought balloons so our runners could find us in the crowd. (I considered the balloon that said “Hope you’re feeling better” but wondered if the humor might be missed by some.) Bella waved pom-poms. Kent threatened to stand on the other side of the street and pretend he didn’t know us.

We saw our runners in the long line for the porta-potties, but we lost them in the crowd at the start. By the time we had walked the three blocks to the point where they would pass at the seven-mile mark, the front-running Kenyans and Ethiopians were already running by.

We cheered and waved to all. There was the large red-headed man in a kilt and the elderly man running in a cream tuxedo. (Okay, maybe he wasn’t exactly elderly, but he was definitely older than I am and by the end of twenty-six point two miles, he seemed to be feeling his age.) There were the “Marathon Sisters” in green T-shirts and the Baltimore crabs complete with feelers on their heads and red claws on their hands (at least at the beginning.) Everyone cheered the man pushing a three-wheeled chair with a disabled child in it. Somewhere in there Dan passed us, slapping the palms of excited little boys. Then Erika and Jill came by, bouncing with enthusiasm and waving their arms to be sure we saw them.

We grabbed a Starbucks and headed for the thirteen mile point. We thought we would be clever and stand on a bridge over the road, but that put us with our backs to the sun, and Dan never looked up while we screamed his name. So we moved down onto the roadside, and Erika and Jill came by, still bouncing, if not quite so much.

It was a two-mile hike to mile eighteen, and Kent and I took off complete with balloons, sign, pom-poms, and it turned out, the diaper bag. I was wearing loafers. (Hint: When you go to a marathon, wear sneakers even if you aren’t planning to run.) Dan had already passed by the time we got there. Erika was having trouble keeping up with Jill’s pace. Her legs were cramping despite the sports jelly beans and a salt pill. They decided to separate.

Jill ran on. Erika stopped to talk to us, stretching her legs and trying to work out the cramps. She was determined to go on. I gave her a kiss good-bye. When I licked my lips, I tasted the salt from her cheek. Then Kent did a very special thing. He took off to run with Erika “for a while.” He was wearing long pants and a sport shirt. His computer was in a backpack on his back. (The system where we were supposed to be able to track our runners electronically didn’t seem to be working properly.) He also had the bag with the change of shoes and socks Jill had thought she might want and whatever else. At least he had the right shoes.

That left me with the sign, the balloons, the camera, my purse and the pom-poms stuffed in the diaper bag to traipse back across Baltimore. It wasn’t the most up-scale neighborhood which I was more aware of without Kent. I only started to get really nervous when I saw the building ahead ringed with razor-wire on every floor. It turned out to be the ‘Correctional Adjustment Center’ which I suspect is a euphemism for ‘county jail’. I said a quick prayer and didn’t stop to rest until I reached a green park in the historical (i.e. restored) section near downtown.

Thanks to cell phones, I found the others at about mile 25.5. By this time the runners were on their last legs with the exception of a few relay-racers who passed at a sprint from time to time. The guy in the tux was still jogging along although the tux looked somewhat the worse for wear. Dan passed on a pace to make his four-hour goal. (He did. He clocked in at 3:59:20.) Jill passed a long time later, not quite so bouncy as when she started.

Dan finished his race, got something to eat, skipped the line for free massage that was clogged with 5k runners, and headed back up the hill to find us.

When Erika came, Kent was still running with her. He had skipped the loop around a lake that they did at the top and picked her up on the way back, secretly relieved when she decided she needed to walk for a bit from time to time. He gratefully dropped out when he saw us.

Then came the second very special part of the race for Erika. After running his own twenty-six point two miles, Dan took Erika’s hand and ran the last mile with her. We weren’t there to see them cross the finish. We were still traipsing down the hill carrying a sleeping Bella.

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What is it about a marathon? There is pushing your body to the limits of its endurance. There is meeting a goal that a hundred pounds ago you never thought you could. For us on the side, it is proudly cheering people we love and being there for them when they hurt.

And then there is the party afterward. That’s the part Bella liked best. She’s always a good one for a party.

Maybe it’s a lesson on life. A friend died recently of cancer. At the funeral they handed out forks. You know after dinner when they collect the plates and tell you to keep your fork? It means dessert is coming. “The best part is still ahead,” Joanne’s family said at the funeral, “when we get to heaven.”

I’m with Bella. I’m looking forward to the party. But first I have to run the race.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Saying Thank You

“Our mum was Gran’s little girl,” I read to the five- to seven-year-olds in Sunday school at Solid Word Bible Church (Indianapolis, Indiana). “She was very sick, and one day she died.”

“She died?” asked one little boy incredulously.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why the children live with their gran.” I was reading Susan Binion and Kathy Haasdyk’s lovely book, Our Gran . “Many of the mommies and daddies in Africa have died,” I said. “Some children live with their grandparents like the ones in the story. Some live with aunties and uncles. And some live alone with their big brothers or sisters and no grown ups at all.”

“I have a big sister,” the little girl at my side said. “She’s fifteen.”

“How do you think it would be if your big sister were the one who had to find food and clothes for you?”

She looked at me with large brown eyes.

“He’s mean,” said a girl with fluffy pigtails, pointing to a picture in Bully, part of the Key Reader series from Shuter and Shooter Publishers. “Read this one.” So we read about Bennie who pushed Lulu because he was scared he might catch AIDS from her. But all the other children were Lulu’s friends, and it was Bennie who was all alone on the playground until he said sorry to Lulu.

The African-American children at Solid Word don’t understand the causes of AIDS or the devastation it has brought to so many African families. They don’t know anything about the economics of programs for orphans and vulnerable children or arguments about condoms. They brought their nickels and quarters (and their parents wrote checks) to provide the books that I left in Tembisa. They raised over $600 in Vacation Bible School and were rewarded for reaching their goal by getting to slime the pastor with apple sauce dyed green.

After I had thanked the little children I went to the third, fourth and fifth grade class. I passed out the thank-you notes some of the children in Tembisa had written.

“Teke for the books. We salud you. God wit yoy,” one child had written.

An older boy wrote, “I would like to say thank you for everything you have brought to us even the books so that we can read and gain something from that books… I wanna say thank you very much, if we have a word in a dictionary I would thank you with it.”

English reading practice is important if these children are going to succeed at school and later in jobs in their economically challenged community. Some put addresses on their thank you notes. The American students were eager to send post cards. Who knows? Those postcards may be a little more motivation to read English for African children orphaned by AIDS. And writing them may make American children a little more aware of a world in need of God's love.