April 27, 2009

Encounters #5: "Breaking Point"

Breaking Point

I stood outside the back of the manor near the old school house, my boots slowly sinking into the soggy ground.  Kari, Sue, and Jana stood next to me as we listened to Jim Paul, one of the workers, explain our job for the day.
“The vegetable garden needs a bit of restructuring,” he told us.  “Um, I need you girls to move these plots of grass inside this square into the row of dirt over there.”  We turned our heads to look at the long rectangle made of the present dirt, noting the four stakes and string that ran parallel to the ground marking the new, condensed shape of a slight square.  I tilted my head; my eyes squinted and lips pursed as a look of perplexion altered my face.  I saw this same look reflected in the faces of the other girls.

“So you’re telling us that you want us to move that grass to that dirt?” Jana asked, pointing from one to the other.  “The grass that we just moved a week ago you want us to move back?”  She asked variations of the same question several times as the rest of us stood there, unwilling to move until we realized that Jim wasn’t joking.  We shook our heads and set to work.  I finished a few other tasks Jim had asked me to do before joining the rest of the girls in a series of grunts and sighs as we cut into the earth with shovels.  Looking back, I probably should have paid more attention during Jim’s lecture, the one he gave a few weeks before about all things being spiritual—even jobs like moving grass.  But all I could think of was the utter pointlessness of having made a vegetable garden one week only to have to spend another week redoing all that hard work.

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December 04, 2008

Encounters #4: "Three of us have decided to journey away from the Manor."

Three of us have decided to journey away from the Manor.  

Two months in community is wearying and our mouths are clammy from conversation.  It is time for a holiday.

With spire-aimed eyes and thisty anticipatory gasps, Michelle, John, and I board a train together with packs clinging to our shoulders.

We follow the tracks into Oxford, a place-name that connotes ancient academia, writers that we dream of so earnestly, our ball-point Bics click and snap at their heels.

Within a two-hour period, we will have two different examples of the glory of God, one built of stone and stained glass, another composed of paper and dust.

We attend Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral.  In the manner of millions, we kneel on cushions well-worn from previous pious knees.  The choir’s voices fill the lofty arches and call Sunday to a close.  It is grand and beautiful.

After the Evensong service, we head off in search of groceries.  Passing a church called St. Ebbs, John pauses to glance into the Anglican service in session.  Had I been alone, I would have kept walking; praise God for peers who sway decisions.  We slip in the back and listen to a sermon that is already half-over.  The post-service mingling just may be the most awkward half-hour in the world to The Visitor, but free coffee and refreshments draws us in in the end.

We start chatting with an older man.  He has clear blue eyes behind rimless spectacles and a moustache-less white beard.  In most conversation, our descriptions of L’Abri are often complicated as we try desperately not to come across as members of some sort of cult (especially when we are carefully navigating our way through British Immigration) and rarely are we answered with:

“Oh, you’re from L’Abri?  Yes, I have heard of it.  I was a worker there in Switzerland with Francis Schaeffer from 1961-1965.”

which, tonight, we are.

It is such a pleasant surprise to come across a person who is initially a stranger but, after a single sentence, is now related to the particular world in which you live.  Put in a context, they are not strange or foreign anymore.

Joe invites us back to his little flat and around his kitchen table, we present our contribution for the meal: a 35p bag of rolls that had been happily nestled in a backpack all day.  Combined with Joe’s excellent selection of instant soups, we have a feast that Christ would have gladly offered to 4,996 more followers.  He tells wonderful stories about the early days of L’Abri and living with the Schaeffers, his studies at Harvard and Princeton and his current work with students at Oxford, and most vividly, his stories of his wife, Linette.  He reads out loud from some of her books (she was a journalist and author).  Joe has one of those magical reading voices that bring any story to life, full of tangible textures, heady scents, and bright images.

He tells us that he’s going to show us his library and leads us to the back of the flat. He opens a door into a scene that made us gasp.  There aren’t just bookshelves, there are cases and bays and aisles and tower-turrets and arches and garrets and domes, books piled on every chair and spare spot of floor, shelves crisscrossing out of reach at the ceiling.  

Five hours pass, he drops us off at our hostel and we sit quietly together, separately in awe of all the lovely stories we had been privileged to hear.

And at the end of three days we have returned home together to the Manor House.

And at the end of three months we will return home, separately together, back to the far off places we came from, until we are gathered up again.

Anna Shogren

April 06, 2008

Encounters #3: “I’m visiting a community”

At English L’Abri I contribute three hours a day to working around the property.  I take another three in which to look for answers to my questions.  I pay for a bed, three meals a day, and two tea breaks.  Nearly all of my time revolves around community.  
Therefore the correct response remained, “I’m visiting a community.”  Still, no stamp appeared.  My passport lay open, the customs agent’s eyes remained glazed, and the question was repeated, “What is the purpose of your visit?”
    I decided to ramp it up a notch since the word community continued to baffle him.  
    “I’m visiting a religious community.  I’m very religious.  It’s like a monastery.  I’ll probably pray a lot.”
    His eyes focused immediately into a baffled but humorous stare.  
    “So, you’re going to a monastery… to pray… to Jesus… for three months.”
    After a minor Machiavellian struggle inside my conscience, but without breaking eye contact I smiled and said, “Yep, that’s pretty much it.”  He laughed, shook his head, stamped my passport, and replied, “Well, say a prayer for me then.”  To date, God has received three on his behalf.  But in actual fact, I pray far more here than I thought I would.  Community can do that to a person, generally because they rarely see it coming.
    In some circles, L’Abri conjures great visions of the ideal, and mistakenly requires little explanation.  Mostly, I don’t run in those circles, and nearly all my verbal fumbling for description has been met with supportive but confused well-wishing for my visit to England.  I’m not visiting England, I’m visiting a community.  Even knowing this, I still find myself asking “What is community?” and, “Did I really ask for this?”
    Community is subtle.  It can be found with a garden fork, a wheel-barrow, or a dust-mop and rags.  But somehow gathering around ideas, or a cup of tea in the morning, or even a film discussion seems more obvious.  But the question remains, is that community?
    Community is exchange.  It seems very clear after a great lecture, a game of volleyball, or a particularly good meal and conversation.  But what is community?  It seems less clear with despair, brokenness, or criticism.  Yet they must be faced, and they are very punctual guests here.  They arrive smiling or crying, quietly or grumbling, in subtle shades or broad brush strokes.  But they are often given back with slow slender hints of hope, grace, and longing.
    Community is participation.  This stands out as people share their talents at High Tea, pray together on a Monday morning, or take trips with each other on a day off.  But is this community?  More often community walks alongside of someone in their questions and personal darkness, it argues against itself in order to learn boundaries, and refuses to draw back from the radical other who thinks, talks, and acts so differently.
    Community is no easy thing.  For at its heart, it implies something gathered around, not merely what is done.  And so we gather here in this place, whether we see it coming or not, asking for the extension of hospitality even before we are able to articulate it, participating as much or as little as we are able and asking with stuttering, frustrated or broken speech for this subtle exchange.   
By Jeff Adam’s (Student at L’Abri, spring term, 2008)

March 14, 2008

Encounters #2

"The Shelter"

It is these things I have to believe: The fire in front of me fake though it was, burned dark and crisp, that kind of ridiculous heat that comes from a fire source that isn't quite believable. The old man shifted in his chair, stretched out the arms of his sweater and crossed his legs in front of him. Leaning back in his seat, his eyes lifted to the ceiling and he muttered, "mmm...yes, I remember now, that was a time when I felt as though I had nothing left to stand on. I sold everything I had except what could fit inside my car and set out across the channel on a ferry for Switzerland. There I was, pacing up and down the edge of the ferry in a state, tears streaming down my face and in total confusion. Glancing at the sky only long enough to say 'God, what the hell is going on?!' There was nothing that I could be totally certain about, I knew only to trust that the choices I was making were kept safe inside of the hand of God." All of this he said as though it meant much more than I could know. And it seemed that his experience of it gave it depth. For at that moment he existed on the side of the ship, leaving familiar shores for unknown ends.

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March 09, 2008

Encounters #1

Maggie Curry, a worker at English L’Abri, writes the following.   She grew up as child at the Manor.  After a number of years in Nepal she returned with her family to be a worker. What you will read her is a narrative drawn from interviews with former students.

We stood at the front door of solid oak.  It looked to my eight year old eyes like a church door weighted with all kinds of mystery.  This was to be our new home.  This towering English Manor House with its dark, echoing rooms and empty stairs.  We felt small and inadequate, huddled there on a cold January afternoon; a mum, a dad and three children, waiting for our future to start.  It would be a future that would bring warmth and welcome to hundreds, who like us, turned the heavy handle and went in.

Thirty-four years later, Sarah would be one to turn that heavy handle.  She had arrived at L’Abri carrying that same little bag she had toted around France for the last few months.  The same bag she had packed to leave home right after her eighteenth birthday.  “France was everything I thought I wanted” Sarah told me, “beautiful, no responsibilities.  I could do whatever I wanted.”  However, Sarah’s sister who had always maintained a strong faith and was concerned for her wandering sibling, mentioned L’Abri as a place she could go.  “I was always jealous of my sister”, Sarah says, “I always thought I was not the kind of person who could ever have her kind of faith.  When I showed up in France, I didn’t know whether I was a Christian or not, but I had sort of given up trying to practice my faith.” 

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