Mosaics of Rome

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“Oh crap!” I held in further obscenities as I realized where the door at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica had led us. The laughter was stolen from my mouth when I stepped through it onto the narrow ledge that circled the inner-dome of the tallest Christian church in the world. One hundred meters below us people moved about like a small ant colony on vacation. Perhaps it was the slight dehydration the beautiful Italian weather induced in my sun-deprived, Irish-acclimatized body that made me somehow forget, again, that what goes up must look down … 

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I plastered myself to the mosaic wall and took a few steading breaths, reasoning through my fear. The ledge was not likely to crumble anytime soon because of the care that they give the building. The tall wall of heavy metal mesh was sturdy as it separated us from sudden death 1.5 meters away from the solid form I tried to insert myself into. Avoiding looking down, I began to inspect the small fragments of stone my hands were stuck to. Centimetre by centimetre they filled the entire wall. Looking up I realized they filled the entire dome creating stunning pictures that, from below, passed for detailed paintings. On its own, each piece wouldn’t have caught anyone’s attention on the street but together they told a story. I was finally able to go to the edge and take a look before walking as far as I could around the circumference of the dome. A quarter of the way around was another door leading us to the exterior platform with a sweeping view of St. Peter’s Square and all of Rome.

Rome. There it was, spread out in front of us, steeped in history and social change. A city representing a nation built for glory that fell to a level of very ordinary existence. Lines of greenery wove between the varying shades of beige buildings forming a very different sort of mosaic from that which we saw inside. Although beautiful, this view from a distance couldn’t compare to the vibrancy of detail that mortared its shape into place – the vibrancy of the people who fill the streets and buildings.

We descended from our birds eye view to spend the following day and half exploring the extraordinary view from below. Old streets and even older buildings filled our cameras while living works of art moved through traffic, walked in and out of shops, stood in small elevators and greeted us over the counter. Tucked behind eyes peering out into the world, just like mine, were dreams and hopes for the future mingled with histories of both joy and heartache. In that close up moment of eye-to-eye, strangers softened into momentary friends with pockets full of kindness without having to say a single word. We are not so different. We are made of the same things. Unlike the mosaic at the top of the Basilica, we were made to be seen and appreciated up close, instead of from a distance. If you find this terrifying, take a few steadying breaths and reason through the fear. The experience is worth it.

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It doesn’t take much to create a huge distance between people

2015-08-30 13.55.34-2This past week I was in Berlin for a work conference aimed at equipping young(er) leaders across Europe to pursue healthy Christian leadership. For some reason, Berlin has never really been on my list of “places to visit.” With so much going on leading up to this trip, I hardly even had time to brush up on its history and figure out what I might want to see during down time. Well actually, in my ignorance, I didn’t think there would be all that much to see … and I wasn’t really counting on any down time. When Sunday rolled around I was ready to hit the ground running for five hours of exploring before heading back to the airport.

01d59673cea20fedef28aee44749bb62bdadd4e913Climbing the steps out of the belly of the city into the heat of summer, I was surprised to see so few people near the Brandenburg Gate. It was large and impressive but not more spectacular than structures I’ve seen in Paris and Rome. As we passed through to the other side, my co-explorer for the day explained some of the significance of it during WWII. The significance of it isn’t tied to what it looks like but how it was used and what it meant to the people who lived on either side of it. As we walked further through the waves and blocks in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I looked up to see the colour and the shapes in modern buildings surrounding the square. There was a story in each of these – in the hands of the people who designed them. You could nearly feel the heartbeat of the architects as they tried to convey a message to everyone who can see the sky above and feel the earth below. Words were only introduced when we entered the Topography of Terror, explaining how the city under our feet took shape in the last 100 years. Exposed and free of charge, it felt like a public announcement of repentance for past sin and a warning to never return.

2015-08-30 11.51.28-1A good few tram stops north of there, we joined the bohemian crowds filtering into Mauerpark for Sunday afternoon festivities. Passing by musicians and artists we made our way into the large flea market where we jostled our way in search of lunch. Currywurst in hand, we sat listening to a couple of different bands performing under the shade of the trees. A hill ascended in front of us and at the top stood a piece of “the wall” – a colourful backdrop for the lighthearted summer Sunday celebrations of the city. In front of it swings lifted people up and down from sturdy, tall wooden frames. Swings: flying, freedom, play, peace. Families gathered to release a hiss of colour onto the wall, creating something beautiful.

2015-08-30 13.44.15-112 feet high – the wall was part of a death strip from 1961-1989, an area designated to make sure no one crossed from East to West alive. If I had been born near there, I would have grown up with death in my backyard until I was seven, not swings. At the end of that portion of wall, I stopped where a fence replaced the concrete. A security guard in a high viz vest on the football stadium side looked at me strangely through the fence as I just stared at the abrupt end. It was less than a foot thick. I was struck in that moment by how little it takes to create such a huge divide between people. The obstacles themselves are easy to overcome but it is our militant effort to ensure that no one overcomes them without our permission that makes them dangerous.

Leading people towards hope is deconstructing obstacles and helping people move from oppression to freedom, regardless of if they are one of us or not. It is public repentance of how much harm has been done under the false illusion of good. It is recreating something beautiful and useful in the place of damage. It is rebellion against symbols of death by setting up swings in front of them. Can you hear the carefree laughter? That is hope.

Thank you, Berlin, for what you have taught me.

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thanks canada

2014-06-05 12.24.18In grade 11 I went on a drama trip with my school to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare festival. On our first evening south of the Canadian border we stopped in Washington for dinner at Denny’s. Across from our quirky group of misfits was something we had never seen before – teen guys all kitted out in football (the American kind) jackets and girls in cheerleader outfits complete with ribbons around their ponytails. You would think that we had just stepped into a teen angst film! For a long time Canadian culture was identified as what was not American. Canadian culture was not made up of cool football teams and cheerleaders. In the 90s Molson Canadian finally gave voice to what it meant to be Canadian, other than “not American.” In Bowling for Columbine we saw Michael Moore contrast the two cultures by walking into a Canadian home without knocking. Most of us laughed because none of us locked our doors then. Of course, we have had This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer to keep us laughing at our own private jokes. More globally and recently, people like Chris Hadfield have coloured in the shapes of what being Canadian means.

Since my teen years my Canadianness has been diluted a lot and yet I find myself regularly slipping on cultural values that I forgot I had. For Canada Day this year, I want to recognise some of the positive values that became a part of me just from growing up in Canada. I wouldn’t want to change these for the world:

Optimism and Positivity: Things can be different. This is not the end. Let’s go for it. Why not? You are great at that. There is always a way. I like falling into this train of thought. Not only does it feel good but it also opens up possibilities when there seems to be only problems. I can’t exactly tell you how we learn this or why but I realise that it isn’t normal all over the world. I think you are more likely to find a group of annoyingly happy people in Canada than in most places I have ever visited. Where should you go to experience it? Any shop or restaurant. Everyone is genuinely happy to serve with a smile! Even if everything is falling down around them and they aren’t satisfied in their job.

Critical Thinking: A month ago I was doing an online financial webinar through Canada. This is not a strength of mine so felt like pretty much everything was going over my head. Then they mentioned that there is an online game you can participate in that helps you learn how to understand your finances better. I sat in my apartment laughing out loud! Of course Canadians would come up with a game to teach people how to think through their finances and explore ways to manage them better. I don’t know if children’s programmes in Canada would be allowed to air without educational content in them. Learning is fun. Thinking is fun. Let’s be logical about it all and enjoy it. My memories of growing up are of people challenging us to think instead of memorize, discover instead of regurgitate, break the rules if logical to do so (and only if logical to do so, otherwise keep them).

Peacekeeping: “How did Canada get its independence?” When I mention Canada Day, I have often been asked this question. I have realised how rare it is to tell people that we talked our way into it, resulting in a signed piece of paper that gave us independence. There wasn’t a war (for that purpose). From the very start, people from around the world who were looking for religious or political freedom were invited to become a part of Canada. They came for a dream of peace and a safe place to build new futures without fear. When the potential for war comes up and Canada is invited to join I love that there always seems to be a moments pause to ask the question, “why?” Why should we go to war? What good will it do? It doesn’t just affect international relations either. We had a peer counselling system in my secondary school where peer counsellors were trained in mediation to help students in conflict come to peaceful resolutions instead of using a punitive system. We weren’t the only ones working towards restoration in the justice system.

Human Dignity: A few weeks ago someone in Dublin asked me if I thought that Ireland was really left-wing. I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about politics but I do know that Ireland hardly knows the meaning of left wing. From health care to education, equal access to opportunities to succeed is incredibly high in Canada. If there is one thing that sits on a pedestal and is the taboo to say anything against, it is human dignity. If there is one thing that Canadians will be blinded by emotion about and forget logic, it is human dignity. I was never really taught that I was less important or valued because of my age, gender, religion or lifestyle. Our volleyball team always felt terrible going to tournaments because we didn’t have very many people in our school who weren’t from European descent – we were afraid to be thought of as racist. Opportunities were open to most of us so long as we offered others the same level of dignity to others. In Canada everyone needs to be allowed to co-exist in their uniqueness and not just get what we think they deserve from our limited points of view.

Cultural Criticism: Canada has so many flaws, so many imperfections. It doesn’t live up to the cultural values that make it uniquely Canadian. People get blinded by emotion and group-think and forget to really grapple with issues. The history of abuse of people deemed “less human” is not pretty. There are social injustices everywhere you look and opportunities are not equal. No one is more critical of Canada than Canadians. I value this cultural criticism because it means I have learned that I can look at my own life and not get trapped in seeing myself as perfect while also not getting trapped in how I have screwed things up. We can become a more loving and kind people.

So thanks, Canada, for the values you have given me! Keep up the good work … and please work on your issues.

Happy Canada Day!

would you like to avoid the toll roads?

IMG_2997I slid into my car, turned it on, rolled the window down in preparation for a warm day, plugged my phone in and opened up reliable TomTom. My brother wasn’t far behind across from me. When the app loaded I was asked where I wanted to navigate to. I typed in “Zurich” and was promptly asked if I wanted to avoid the toll roads. At this stage we only had two options: Avoid the tolls through France. Pay the tolls through France. We knew we weren’t staying so we had to choose one.

Reasons to avoid the tolls: Avoiding the toll roads often means a more scenic route through countryside. It usually means a bit of a longer journey as well. Tolls cost money.

Reasons to pay the tolls: For a long day of driving it means that we get to our destination in a shorter amount of time and can enjoy exploring a little longer. When it cuts driving time considerably it might save money on petrol.

So far, we had mostly avoided the tolls on our road trip from Dublin to Beaune because we wanted to experience the small villages and get a more personal look at the fields and forests spread across rolling hills. Going from Mont Saint Michel to Versailles wasn’t a difficult decision because the route wasn’t that much further and we were just beginning to enjoy the pastoral area. From Versailles to Beaune we decided to take the shorter journey and go for the tolls after skirting Paris. Apart from travelling faster, the journey was a little dull. Once we exited the motorway my brother thought I’d been caught for speeding because of the price we paid! … We had been charged for every kilometre we’d travelled on the motorway. Sitting in Beaune we knew that going toll free to Zurich would take us a couple more hours than taking the tolled route. Knowing we’d be heading for some extremely beautiful mountainous areas and unsure what the tolls would look like, we opted for toll free without regrets. We also knew we would be spending a few nights in Zurich.

What I learnt was that we always have those options. When we consider the people we want to become or the things we want to do we have to choose whether we want to get their quickly and pay the toll so as to enjoy more of the destination or take a longer route to enjoy the journey. Either way, we sacrifice something and it is our choice as to what. This morning I wondered … if I were to open TomTom, how would I respond to its first question: Where would you like to navigate to? And then the second: Do you want to avoid the tolls?

The morning we left Zurich we had a better idea how the Swiss roads worked and decided to take the shorter route to Basel under the hills and mountains through some pretty cool tunnels. During the whole trip we clocked up 3333km while driving and a total distance, including ferries and tunnels, of around 4610km.

Want to read the stories from road trip as it happened? Check out our family travel blog: Road Antics

you think your pastor is bad, you should see mine

Someone would have to be slightly out of their mind to ever want to lead a church. Within a few years of living in Ireland I began to see how people changed in their attitude and behaviour towards a friend as soon as they took on a role that might have leadership connotations. Suddenly that person became suspicious. How would they have ever made it into that role or accepted it unless they were hungry for power? They must think themselves better than they actually are. Then there is the whole issue with authority in general. Who actually has the right to tell me what to do? There is an assumption that they are in leadership to control and abuse for their own selfish purposes. In reality, what is actually going on in us is more likely to be jealousy, insecurity or pride. We might just be projecting our own weaknesses onto them.

I want control of this situation. I would have made a much better leader. If people would just listen to me and do things the way I think they should we wouldn’t have any of the issues these leaders are causing.

And yet, if offered leadership most of us would turn it down because we really don’t want to be the person that so many people throw rotten eggs at. We should know, we’ve thrown them ourselves for years.

As people who put our faith in Jesus (a.k.a. Christians) we are called to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. In other words – we have a lot of thoughts that are just untrue and unhelpful about God, ourselves and others. Paul tells us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) What does this mean when thinking about leadership?

Sometimes our original assumptions are true about leaders. They might be power hungry. It is quite possible that they are just wanting control. When we assume a leader wants these things without any proof, then we are in the wrong. I have found that most church leaders start with the best of intentions. They have a clear nudge from God and enough conviction that makes them risk the gauntlet and train for a position that will get them nowhere if they quit that “profession”. My brother recently told me that he doesn’t think that pastor’s kids will ever be able to have a pastor. I think he is right. We know that they are human and we often see more of the inner struggles and challenges than others might have a chance to see. By the way, I was a strong-willed child so didn’t make life easy either! So, with the personal insight of living in a pastor’s home and participating in churches for most of my life, let me present a few things that can often distract and play on the weaknesses of church leadership.

Over spiritualising differences of opinion – I don’t agree with you so one of us must not be walking close enough with God or really get his truth. Since I know I am on track, it must be you. Therefore, God is unhappy with you … and your leadership … and your family … and everything you touch. Actually, who do you think you are that you are leading God’s people? Continue reading

pin-life: a true story of pinterest dreams coming true

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No more pining away pinning on Pinterest recipe boards wishing that those glorious recipes will just magically whip up in your kitchen! It is time to take action against those oh-too-gorgeous instructions for taste palate satisfaction. In normal person language – time to bake the recipes you have been drooling over for months now. Here is how:

Buy the baking gear. Do you have the right pan to bake it in? “Yes” – what are you waiting for? “No” – go buy it.

Join a group of human beings. Generally, people like food. People like other people making food for them. If you join a club with other people, choose a recipe that you can’t stop thinking about and make it for them. My downhill spiral into a new world of baking happened when I joined a group of 12 people that meet every couple of months. I had been drooling over this Toffee Vanilla Bean Bundt Cake with Caramel Glaze and Sea Salt for about a year. One of my first pins. As we sliced into it, I only hoped it had turned out out! I was also very thankful for the generous friend who bought me a bundt tin when I was in Canada – they were a little difficult to find in Dublin. I took requests for the next time we got together. Chocolate and cheesecake both came up. After a bit of Pinterest research I really jumped out of the box and went for this flour-less Chocolate Mousse Cake.

Celebrate with your work colleagues. Someone has a birthday in your office? Offer to bake their birthday cake. That’s what I did in December and ended up making this Raspberry Limoncello Bundt Cake with Mascarpone (the four of us finished off the entire cake by the end of the day …).

Pay attention to your audience and keep baking. There is no way that I could ever eat everything that I want to make! I find the challenge of making things I have never tried before very exhilarating. On occasion, it is time to pull out a few recipes and put a new twist on them. This was one of those weeks. Along with J.’s Tangy Lemon Petit Fours (sorry, no recipe), J. and I made Hot Chocolate Cake (adapted from this Chocolate Sour Cream Bundt Cake), a layered version of the Raspbery Limoncello Cake, a two layer of the Chocolate Mousse Cake and got ideas for a gluten free savoury item. To top it off, we added a few of these strawberry roses just because it is close to Valentine’s Day.

Suddenly you will find yourself making all sorts of wonderful things that you never thought you would have time for – and it won’t all go straight to your hips! Others will share the load.

mammy mary

“Now don’t you be minding him! You just do whatever he tells you to do,” Mary says to the catering staff while giving Jesus a pointed stare. He hears the silent message in her eyes, “Stop messin’ and just help. I don’t care right now if you don’t think it’s ‘your time.’ It’s not like we don’t know you can.” She gives one last sweet smile and heads into the party leaving Jesus alone with a very confused staff who are, by now, a little embarrassed.

The grade 12 literature class I took was one of the most unusual learning experiences of my life. As we studied Shakespeare we also had classes that involved clearing the desks and chairs away so we could learn a  medieval dance while our teacher strummed his lyre. We learnt about the Wheel of Fortune and illnesses in the 16th century so that the humour and solemnity in Shakespeare’s dialogue would flow through the words into our imagination with a clearer understanding. When it came time to involve an audience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream we were able to succeed. Shakespeare became accessible and relevant, even in a school that was nicknamed ‘skid row’.

It was our understanding that led to a living interpretation that an audience could understand.

This past week I laughed out loud as I was read through the book of John for the umpteenth time. My attention snagged on this story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana, where he turns the water into wine. Out of nowhere, Mary suddenly materialised into this Irish mammy taking control of the situation and telling everyone what to do. I had never seen her in this story as anything but an underdeveloped character in Jesus’ shadow. Two worlds collided as my knowledge of Jesus’ story and my experience of Dublin’s story entered from opposite directions.

One of my professors in college would read to us at the start of the class. The words he read were the original Greek of New Testament texts. The words that came out of his mouth made his knowledge of the Greek meanings relevant to us in that moment. The words of that book are life to me. I want others to discover what I have so I pursue understanding and allow the two cultures to collide in the middle.

It is amazing what we can discover when the bridge of interpretation is crossed.

So what can we learn now from Mammy Mary? Mothers – you can cut yourself a bit of slack. Even the mother of God interfered when she might not have supposed to (and he was 30!). Adult children – cut your mothers a bit of slack. Even the mother of God told him what to do when they were out in public. All of us – although Jesus’ first public miracle was turning water into wine it probably wasn’t his first miracle. Who knows, maybe everyone in town loved going to dinner at Mary and Joseph’s whenever Jesus was there because they always had the best wine around. Mary obviously knew that Jesus could do this.