Tomorrow is National Coffee Day, and to celebrate my husband, Dan, is offering free downloads of his first novel, Playa Perdida. What's the connection, you wonder? Well, the novel is loosely based on our experiences of starting a church in a beach community in Costa Rica, and Costa Rica is well known for its amazing coffee.

Anyway, to give you a taste of the book - you'll have to grab your own coffee - I'm posting one of my favorite sections in which coffee takes the main stage.  And to get the free download, you can head to Dan's website at toucanic.net.

from Playa Perdida by Dan Schmidt

Playa Perdida’s marina lay a kilometer south of the Arawak, on an estuary where the coast turned in sharply. On a local map, I’d seen that further inland, the sea met a river running down from the mountains and spread in the flats to create a marsh—part salt, part fresh. 

The sky was bright as I walked along a road more dust than dirt. I’d heard that this was its standard condition; the only changes were after a rain that turned it to mud, or when the municipality had extra cash and sprayed it with molasses. That was a quick fix which both cleared and sweetened the air, but inevitably the molasses melted, making a sticky goo that found its way into the undercarriage of vehicles. The road would devolve to its prior state; cars developed problems of their own.

It was a gorgeous day for a stroll, despite the odor of marine creatures stranded by tides and cooked by an unrelenting sun. My sandals stirred up little puffs as I made my way south. Shabby stores hawked their wares with misspelled signs. I saw few tourists.  A motel on the water’s side tilted precipitously beneath ancient
coconut palms—the Dorado, according to a plaque hung from a porch column. A smaller sign promised 'cleen' rooms at low rates, but someone had scratched out most of ‘cleen’. Stretched between two palms in front of the motel, a hammock bowed under a sleeping kid whose shortboard leaned against one of the trees. 
 
Next to the Dorado, listing slightly, sat a dilapidated mansion. Its fence of rotten boards failed to hide a profusion of tall grasses and weeds. A rusty shopping cart lay overturned near the front door which, like the adjacent windows, was partly covered with chipped plywood. Second floor windows had been pummeled by rocks; jagged remnants of glass hung in rotting frames. 
 
Another hundred yards past the once stately house, the Marina View Apartments sat perpendicular to the street. More weeds than gravel filled the parking area separating the apartments from a second structure of roughly the same dimensions, split into two large storefronts on the lower level. One bore the sign Marina Office. The other blared messages painted on plate glass with heavy orange strokes: Learn Spanish! Speak Like A Native! Includes Surfing! A hand-lettered sign hanging in the door read, At The Beach. 

Snowy’s Bar occupied the second story of this building. I took the broken concrete walk toward the Marina Office and branched off for the stairs. At the top landing, a massive chunk of driftwood propped open the outside door.

“Watch out for the—” I heard someone yell, too late. A metal pipe hanging just inside the door connected with my forehead.

“Man walks into a bar,” came a chorus from weathered men on stools. 

Once my eyes had adjusted to the dim interior, I saw a length of galvanized pipe that had been threaded with nylon rope and suspended from the ceiling. It seemed to have just one purpose.  

“All this for a joke?” I asked the man standing behind the counter. What I could see of his face bore no expression

“Priceless every time. What’ll you have?”


 
Channel surfing this morning I caught a clip of Steven Johnson, talking about his new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress is a Networked Age. One of Johnson's comments was on the value of reviewing past ideas. So it seemed appropriate to go back to a TED talk that I watched of Johnson's several months ago and listen to it again. Here 'tis...

 
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Syrian refugee children signal to onlooking media, from a camp set up by by Turkish Red Crescent in the town of Yayladagi in Hatay province.

Today I'm posting two songs that flow from my last few blogs on Steven Galloway's novel The Cellist of Sarajevo (here and here). The first is a piece for cello which was composed by David Wilde in honor of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who performed during the Siege of Sarajevo, his instrument offering up a persistent prayer for peace. The work is entitled The Cellist of Sarajevo, a Lament in Rondo Form for Cello, and is performed here by Yo-Yo Ma. The second youtube clip is of the Albinoni Adagio, the composition that the fictional cellist draws strength and solace from playing. 

One of the powers of good literature, and of good music, is the ability it has to transport you from the place you find yourself to a different world. Although I was sitting comfortably in an upstairs study enjoying a beautifully calm September morning, as I listened to the notes of the cellist, connecting back through scenes in Galloway's novel, I found myself praying for those who are still caught up in the horror of war.

A Prayer for Peace by Maya Angelou, can guide you if you want to offer up a prayer yourself while listening to this music. Like the earth needs the rain, so the human heart constantly thirsts for peace. And so we pray for peace - for peace in nations, peace in communities, peace in our families, peace in our own hearts. We come with open hands and hearts to the borderless sea of substance and ask for what we need most - the gift of peace.

A Prayer for Peace
Maya Angelou

Father, Mother, God,

Thank you for your presence
during the hard and mean days.
For then we
have you to lean upon.

Thank you for your presence
during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.

And thank you for your presence
during the Holy Days, for then we are
able to celebrate you and our families
and our friends.

For those who have no voice,
we ask you to speak.
For those who feel unworthy,
we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.
For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them
in the river of your healing.
For those who are lonely, we ask
you to keep them company.
For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon
them the light of hope.

Dear Creator, You, the borderless
sea of substance, we ask you to give to
all the world that which we need most—Peace.

 
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Vedran Smailovic, the real cellist of Sarajevo
I mentioned in last Wednesday's post that I attended a high school reunion over the weekend. Early in the evening, a former classmate came up to me and reminded me of how, years ago, in the back of a math class, I had befriended him. Probably talking when we should have been working on assigned problems, our conversations helped him see himself as someone with a good mind, intelligent, with something to offer. That insight had made a difference as he went on from high school and into college.

Over dinner, another friend of mine told me of a similar encounter she'd had that evening. A few years after high school, she and her roommate had opened their couch to a friend who was trying to get a handle on what to do next. He was there at the reunion as well, and not long after she had walked through the door, had come over to talk, wanting her to know how significant a safe haven had been to him at that point in his life, offering time and space to sort things out.

What's interesting about both of our stories is that at the time, it didn't seem like a very big deal to either of us. But that didn't matter. It turned out that in each case, our actions had ramifications greater than what we were aware of.

Like last week's post, these thoughts brought me back to The Cellist of Sarajevo, the novel by Steven Galloway, based loosely on true events during the Siege of Sarajevo. The main character, whose name we never learn, is the principal cellist for the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. Or at least, he was - before the mortar destroyed the Sarajevo Opera Hall, demolishing a part of who he had been. He sits now in his apartment, overlooking the battered streets and plays for himself, music that tries to reach beneath the daily realities and waken a soul that is shell-shocked by the loss of livelihood and purpose. On a bad day, he reaches into his repertoire for an Adagio, whose balm has always worked its restorative magic. Still he knows the music's power is not infinite, and so, like a man on a life raft with a limited supply of water, he rations the times he allows himself to play this piece.

One day, another bomb falls, this one outside his window, shrieking devilishly downward and leaving in its aftermath 22 of his friends and neighbors, moments before innocently standing in a bread line, now among the many casualties of this war. And for the next 22 days, the cellist takes his instrument out to the small crater on the empty street and plays the Adagio. At the begining, he doesn't know if he will make it, but he knows he will try. In his former life, walking out onto a stage transformed him into an "instrument of deliverance." He gave what he loved most to the people who would come and listen. And so, perhaps without even knowing it, he does so again.

Playing a cello once a day may seem like a small decision, and a foolhardy one at that, given that explosives are no respecter of persons. And, as it turns out, it isn't long before a sniper is sent to silence the notes that daily draw a crowd. But the cellist is unaware of what is happening around him. He does what he knows how to do - offer music - and so affects the other characters in the story. The liquid sound of the Adagio flows like an intravenous drip deep down to their souls, reviving war weary spirits. It encourages those who listen to take their own small steps, made heroic by the backdrop of the snipers on the hillside, and their own internal struggles to do what is right.

In our daily lives, we can feel paralyzed by the immensity of certain situations. Perhaps it feels hopeless to remain uncynical in the face of an election year. Maybe we can't imagine how a marriage can make it through the hurricane winds that threaten to send the roof flying. The problems that we see require resources that we don't possess, and are complicated beyond our ability to sort them out. But we can take small steps. We can do what we know how to do. We don't know the effect it will have on those around us, and how that influence will spread. In fact, we may never find out. 

At least until the final reunion, when all that we've done will be brought out for us to see. And we'll be able to see that they have made a difference, much to our surprise, and to our delight.

Note: I found this photo of Vedran Smailovich on a blog post you can see here, which tells a little more of the story of the real man whose story inspired the novel.








 
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Protests in Cairo. AP Photo credit
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check...

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.   James 3:1,2,5,6


That the tongue can be a spark that sets a fire burning out of control, is evident by the pictures that have been on our news feed over the past weekend. A disrespectful piece of film erupted into violence that took the lives of four embassy workers in Libya. Speech demanding a response for the offense, given from the pulpits of some clerics over the weekend, has resulted in more violence, claiming more lives.

A blog I noticed last week talked about the importance of free speech, the author defending anyone's right to say anything - even if it is hateful - as part of our basic human rights. I couldn't disagree more. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth on their newfound freedoms as followers of Christ, has this to say:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (I Corinthians 10:13)

Because our freedoms come with responsibility, everything we do is meant to contribute to the human good. That is why James starts his chapter on the tongue in the above scripture (part of yesterday's lectionary readings) by saying that not many of us should presume to be teachers. There is power behind our words, and they can have unintended consequences, which we will be held accountable for. They may not start riots in the Middle East, but they can "burn" a friend's soul, divide families, or ostracize members of our community.

Isaiah chimes in with a comment on teachers and tongues in the Old Testament reading, when he describes what it is like to be a prophet.

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how
to sustain the weary with a word.

(Isaiah 50:4)

Speaking these words, he goes on to say, often requires a forehead of flint. Even words meant to sustain the weary may be taken the wrong way. Speaking on behalf of those who feel maligned, ignored, or dominated shakes those who participate in systems of violence.

Sometimes speaking for the good of humanity includes a strong rebuke. The Gospel reading shows that Jesus is perfectly content to use words this way, even when (especially when?) talking with one of his own followers. Peter, fresh from his brilliantly inspired statement that Jesus is the Christ, takes Jesus to task. When learning that the Messiah to walk into downtown Jerusalem and get himself killed, Peter does what any good friend would do, he confronts Jesus with a strong rebuke. Bad idea! he reprimands. No way, don't do it.

But Jesus doesn't roll over. He answers Peter's rebuke with one of his own: 

"Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  (Mark 8:33)

Peter, probably unknown to him, is voicing the very same temptation that Satan offered in the desert. No doubt it has plagued Jesus throughout his ministry. Can He accomplish His vocation without it actually costing his life? Being "sustained" by these words will actually steer him away from His Father's plan. So Jesus must explain to all the disciplines that following God's call on one's life requires obedience up to and including the point of physical death. "Whoever wants to save his life must lose it...so take up your cross and follow me."

Our words are important. And the words that we use to respond to words are important. As I see scenes of the protests - blazing fires and angry faces - I wonder what would happen if more of us took these scriptures to heart. What if we limited our "American" rights to free speech to what is beneficial to the common good - our Christianity curtailing what the government allows (and would find impossible to impose). What if we spoke more words that sustain the weary, even if the cost of doing so requires us to stand up against the status quo? And finally, what if we were not afraid to use words to rebuke those whose ways are not in line with those of a loving God? We don't need to stand by while others demean, gossip or incite. We can pour water on those flames, not gasoline.

Our tongues are gifts, from which can flow blessing or cursing. May they be powerful tools for the good.
 
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Sunflowers, Mums and Heather in Blue Mosaic Vase by Kris Carlson
I like this breezey poem by Updike, capturing many things I love about this month, although we haven't seen much morning haze. The last few days have been perfectly clear, so sparkling that it's been almost impossible to repress a smile out of doors. Pick-your-own apples are starting at the nearby orchard, so applesauce-making won't be long in coming, and the library is hosting a Bee Festival over the weekend. There's still zinnias to pick, and late beans to harvest. What's not to love about September?

September
John Updike (from a Child's Calendar)

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-

Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers, 
Chalk, and such.

The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hums,
And Mother cuts
Chrysanthemums.

Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.
 
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Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by George Seurat
This past weekend I headed to the Pocono Mountains for my high school reunion. It gave me an opportunity to spend some time at the camp that my dad directed for many years, a place that formed many of my happiest childhood memories. When my dad passed away, we buried his ashes there, and I spent part of Saturday morning weeding his memorial site, before sitting down and imagining him by my side, looking out over the camp which he helped to create.

Tears come easily to me (something my siblings and later on, my children have all commented on) and as I walked up familiar trails, through the woods and around campfire sites, I couldn't help but be touched. In many ways I had a charmed childhood. Every summer my sisters and I entered into another world staffed with energetic, caring counselors who headed up activities at the pool, craft barn, and archery range, to name just a few.  It was a whirlwind of fun, grounded in meaningful connections, all set in the beautiful Pennsylvania woods. Whether or not I recognized it at the time, in retrospect I look back and realize what an amazing life it was.

It reminded me of a passage from The Cellist of Sarajevo, a novel by Steven Galloway I've recently finished reading. This story is set during the horrific siege of Sarajevo, when for four years the city was shelled daily, and life became a living hell. Arrow, one of the four characters the book follows, is recruited to become an army sniper. She tries desperately to hold on to her humanity, forced to become a person she never wanted to be. One afternoon, while lying prone in a burned out building, waiting for her next target to come into view, she recalls this scene from her childhood.

Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father's car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to be. As she rounded a corner one of her favorite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that someday it would all come to an end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterward she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.

Now, however, she knows she wasn't being foolish. She realizes that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It's a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won't last forever.

Life doesn't last forever, at least this life on this earth won't. Childhood moves on to adulthood; people leave us and we experience loss. But those moments of pure happiness feed our souls. No matter when we encounter them, they are gifts to remind us of how wonderful life can be.
 
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Christ and the Woman of Canaan by Jacopo Negretti
[A] woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about [Jesus], and came and fell down at his feet. The woman was a Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria. And she started asking him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He responded  to her like this: "Let the children first be fed, since it isn't good to take bread out of children's mouths and throw it to the dogs!" But as a rejoinder she says to him: "Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children!" Then he said to her: "For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter." She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone (Mk. 7:25-30).

Yesterday's Gospel reading can be disturbing. Several blogs I read last week went so far as to question whether Jesus was a racist. Was He so entrenched in his human situatedness that he unthinkingly called this woman a "dog?" Or in the words of another blogger - was Jesus caught with His pants down? Was He being "just human."

There is a theological problem in these approaches to this text, and in any approach to  Jesus' humanity that connects Him to us in ways that excuse behavior that is  less than loving as being "just human." The reality is that Jesus came to show  us how to be divinely human, to show that a human being is meant to be filled  with God's love in a way that is truly glorious. Anything less than this is sub-human.

I am glad for those who are disturbed by this text, however, because Christianity's record on racism is far from unblemished.  We don't have to go far back in history to come across Hitler and the Ku Klux  Klan, who linked ethnic cleansing and Christianity in a  horrific way. And even  more recently we've seen massacres both abroad and in the States by those who  would invoke the name of Christ.

But those of us who read the Gospels carefully see that Jesus is no distinguisher of persons. He takes a Samaritan woman seriously, engaging her in a theological discussion at the well. He heals the servant of a Roman centurion while praising the soldier's faith as greater than any He has seen in Israel. He describes His ministry as breaking the chains of captives, and blesses those who are marginalized. Isaiah says that he will not snuff out a flickering candle or break a bruised reed. So whatever Jesus is doing in this passage, it cannot be saying something demeaning, crushing the spirit of this woman who is desperate to see her daughter cleansed of an evil spirit.

What then to do with this story? First, it is good to remember that the words of Jesus, written down in black and white, have lost their intonation. Much like an email which can be misinterpreted absent inflection, or facial expression, we don't know how Jesus responded to this woman. One wonders if Jesus isn't voicing aloud the unspoken thoughts of His disciples. (Check out Matthew's version of the story in 15:21-28). They have a habit, after all, of wanting to dismiss all sorts of people - remember the mothers who brought their children to be blessed? - and have no qualms about obliterating a Samaritan village with fire from heaven when the residents insult the Messiah. 

We do know that Jesus doesn't send this woman away; instead, He engages her in a conversation. Furthermore, He allows her to state her case, setting up a repartee that not only shows her intelligence and grit, but also reveals her faith, which is grounded in a sense of God's plenitude. She assumes that there is more than enough grace for her. Grace for an outsider in need. She's been willing to break barriers for the love of her daughter, and there is a justice and hopefulness in her cause which won't be silenced.

I wonder what the conversation with the disciples might have looked like after this woman headed home to her healed  daughter. Did Jesus once again say, "Here is an example of true faith?" Did He inform His disciples, as John's Gospel shows Him saying at one point, "I have many  sheep who are not of this sheep pen and I must find (or be found by) them as well?"

We don't know. What we do know is this woman's story can stand as a beacon for all those who want grace, who would settle just for a crumb, who feel outside the system, neglected by those who speak for God. Others may stand in their way, but that doesn't deter them. They will not be turned away, and God will listen.
 
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Horizons by Neil Dawson
Ever since I was introduced to the movie version of the Lord of the Rings,  directed by Peter Jackson, I've had a longing to head to New Zealand and soak myself in the amazing landscapes which formed the backdrop of Middle Earth. Now, thanks to a picture in the Culture section of a recent Time magazine, I have another huge reason to think seriously about visiting this lovely country. Turns out there's some amazing sculpture to be had as well.

The photo above shows just one of the many pieces of art to be found on Gibbs Farm, whose 1,000 acres hosts myriads of sculptures, fashioned by more than 20 artists. Each piece was commissioned by Alan Gibbs, who worked with the artists to conceive something which would flow with the land, on a scale often beyond their previous work. Te Turihangi Contour, by Richard Serra, was several years in the making, and required not only finding an iron manufacturer who could create 20 feet tall pieces of steel, but innovative engineering to place the pieces in the contours of the hill it rests upon.

Arches, by Andy Goldsworthy, also caught my eye. I love how the arches move from the tidal flats into the sea; pictures show the movement of water against the stone, and then the starkness as it rises from the sand. According to the artist, this work "looks back along lines of geneaology, migration and architectural traditions." But the "gradual weathering of stone by water, wind and fetch...brings the viewer face-to-face with the ever-changing character and power of its surroundings" which gives an immediacy to the work as well.

There are videos as well as a brief history of the Gibb's farm project at their website here. Links are also made to the artists whose work graces this impressive and innovative sculpture park. I hope you enjoy browsing as much as I did.

 
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Te Tuhirangi Contour by Richard Serra
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Arches by Andy Goldsworthy
 
Summer's officially over, but the produce is pouring in. Perhaps the watermelon, peaches and grapes are making you forget to eat those bananas you bought last week. Here's a great way to use them up. 

Despite the fact that slightly spotted bananas are supposed to taste better - more sugar and all that - no one in my house likes bananas that are soft. So I usually throw mine in the freezer and then pull them out in pairs to make this family recipe. When my eldest daughter went gluten-free, I modified it as follows, and it's just as good - maybe even better!

Gluten Free Banana Muffins

1/3 c oil
1 egg
2 bananas (mashed)
1/3 c brown sugar
1/4 c rice flour
1 c oats
1 c oat flour
1/4 c oat bran
1/4 c potato starch
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
3/4 c milk

Beat together the oil, egg, mashed bananas and sugar. In separate bowl mix the dry ingredients. Add to the wet and mix briefly. Add the 3/4 c milk last. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes.