Tuesday, February 27, 2007

iPod Nation

The near-universal use of iPods in London is one of the things you notice immediately upon arrival here. Now that may sound strange in a place with Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye, but there it is. A large proportion of people in the street, on buses, and especially on the Tube are listening to something or other as they travel. If you were to look at just people in their 20s and 30s, the proportion would grow substantially—almost all young people have those tell-tale white buds in their ears.

I catch myself wondering sometimes what people are listening to. Some folks make it easy: the guy I saw last week with the Metallica t-shirt and the angry looking tattoos on his arms was easy to spot, others have the music on so loud that you can actually tell what their listening to from across the train. It’s a curious thing, and probably nosy in a way, but I do wonder what’s happening on these personal playlists all over town.

I’ve enjoyed watching how people ‘wire up’. Women especially find creative ways to incorporate the iPod wires into their scarves, so that you can hardly tell they’re listening to anything until you see the white dots in the ears. Some people wrap the lines from behind their heads, which looks a lot tidier, while more often than not folks will let the wires dangle in front, swaying as they walk down the street.

It was easy at first to be put off by iPod culture. I mean, really, in a city where so few people talk to each other at all it seems a bit excessive to add earphones to the mix. And there are also those times when you need to get past someone to exit a bus or train and they can’t hear you. At that point you’re really forced to push your way by, adding to the bumping and nudging that is so much a part of getting around in London. It was easy—probably far too easy—to judge these folks for tuning out of the world around them, for finding yet another way to avoid contact with other people, and for missing out on the odd life-changing conversation they might have with a fellow traveler. It was too easy to feel superior.

Then I remembered that I had an iPod myself.

I hadn’t actually forgotten—it was my Christmas present from Julie this past year. I have a hundred or so CDs loaded and ready to go, and also the pictures I’ve taken in the past 6 months or so—all of it is on that little unit, and it’s amazing. I try to limit myself to two iPod days per week. Of course I never listen to it in the morning, because that’s my commute time with Ian. But after I leave him at school on those designated days, I plug in and tune out and immerse myself in some songs that I love. I’ve been listening to the Killers’ second CD, and also the latest from the Raconteurs. There are other days when I miss the worship music from my last church and listen to some of that as I travel.

I wonder at times if people know what I’m listening to. I wonder what they would say if they knew I was tapping my foot to ‘Come, Now is the Time to Worship’, or ‘Grace Like Rain’, or ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’. Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m keeping this great music to myself (that’s the extrovert talking, always believing that other people want to hear what I’m thinking). But last week I was remembering an old song by Bob Bennett called ‘Madness Dancing’. The song was really about the few minutes he tried to set apart for God in the course of each day—how he was able to cut himself off from other cares, even for a short while. Here’s part of it, as near as I can remember:

In the middle of this madness I am dancing
Though I’m not sure why just now.
I tried to be sober, I tried to be logical
But could not stop my feet.
And no I haven’t turned off my mind
I know there’s evil all around.
But for now it's outside, and I am in my room
And joy is like a crashing tide...
Let the madness roll on like a hungry beast
No one will miss me for a half an hour at least.

That image of dancing in the presence of God, focusing on worship and separated from the worlds cares, has been a powerful one for me in the 20 years since I first heard this song. ‘Let the madness roll on like a hungry beast... No one will miss me for a half an hour at least.’ That impulse to retreat for a while is, well, wired into us. And while we all do something different in response to that prompt, I’m starting to see iPod culture in a new light. London is busy and noisy and fast and threatening all at once, and the people who leave their homes in the morning or their offices at night are just looking for a little retreat space. That they’ve found it in a little handheld device that drowns out the sounds of the city with music is probably a minor (secular) miracle.

Bob Bennett's song ends with this expression of pure joy:

A song came this morning and woke me
And as I listened, then I found
That I was not alone
I was standing, moving, dancing
Dancing on holy ground

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Welcome to Lent

This is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins.

There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’

The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours...and yours...and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all. Welcome to Lent.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Where we live

(There are several new postings below.)

I've been asked by some of you for pictures of where we live, so here you are. We're in the Belsize Park area of North London, just about a mile south of Hampstead, and a bit to the east of Primrose Hill.

This is our front door. We live in the bottom two floors of this 4-story house.
This is looking west from our front gate, toward Haverstock Hill which is the main artery going north and south in the neighborhood. This is looking east down our street. The construction barriers you see are for the installation of new water pipes, a project that involves most of Greater London. The existing pipes date from the reign of Queen Victoria.

This is the backyard, from the landing outside the kitchen door. Some of you have seen this in an earlier picture, covered with snow.

Looking east from the same landing.
Looking west...that table and chairs are from our balcony outside the guest room.
This past week we emptied the final box, crumpled up the final packing paper, put together the last of the chairs, and moved all the waste into the driveway. On Wednesday morning the Camden Council (our local municipal authority) will come and haul it all away for £40 (a bargain).
We've been here 53 days now.

American Pie

This has always been one of my favorite songs. I have this childhood memory of riding in my dad's car with both of us singing along with it. I also remember learning the chords when I hadn't been playing guitar all that long (a nice way of saying that I never played it very well).

Anyway, American Pie is one of those songs that made references to things going on in the culture, and it was fun to try and guess what each allusion meant. Someone has tried to do it in detail, and created a video for the song that explains some of the symbols. Here's the link:


At the very least you'll get to hear the song one more time. Enjoy.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Catching up

I can’t believe it’s been 10 days since I last posted. For those of you who are checking regularly, sorry about that. We’re in the last stages of settling into the house, and the early stages of branching out and making this our home.

This past week was Ian’s first half-term break. Over here this is serious business—each of the three school terms is halted by a week or so of vacation time right in the middle. I guess they’re preparing them for their six weeks of annual vacation (to start!) when they grow up and get jobs. Anyway, some of the folks we know take pretty exotic trips during half-terms, although most people ski at this break. In California when you go on a ski trip you might go local if you’re on a budget, or maybe to Mammoth on a longer trip, or you might even splurge and go to Tahoe once in a while. OK, some posh skiers among you might go to Utah or Colorado, but work with me here. The thing is, all of those places are basically in California (stop raising your hand about Tahoe and Nevada—I get it). Here when people go to ski they go to France, or Switzerland, or maybe even Austria. Yep, this isn’t piling the kids in the car and driving up to Big Bear. It’s getting passports and plane tickets and going to another country for a few days of world-class powder.

We haven’t really been here long enough to save much holiday money, so we opted to stay in London and see some things around here. Julie and Ian went to Greenwich, and Ian stood on the Prime Meridian. We all went to the Aquarium, which to be honest was a little underwhelming. After you’ve been to the Aquariums in LA and Monterey it’s hard to get excited about one in a place where the real discussion of aquatic life is about which species is best for fish and chips. We dropped in at the Natural History Museum to say hello to the dinosaurs, and the next day went to the British Library to see an exhibition of London maps. We stopped at the room where they have the Magna Carta, some Beatles songs handwritten on napkins, and the oldest complete copy of the New Testament (Sinaiticus, if you’re interested).

On Friday night we had a family over for dinner. They’re from the US, and have been in Europe as missionaries for the last 10 years or more. Their work involves providing Christian community for people who are, as they say, ‘allergic to church’. We enjoyed our time with them, and I hope to see how ACL can partner with them in a more effective way. On Saturday we had a lovely dinner with a couple from the church. She’s Thai and he’s from Germany, but they live and work in London and attend the American Church. It was some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had—green curry chicken and shrimp with asparagus. Today after church we went to another family’s house for a big Sunday meal. Ian played with their kids (15 and 17), who were great sports with our guy. After the meal we walked to, yep, the Natural History Museum again for an exhibition of wildlife photography—the finalists from a worldwide contest. It was amazing. If you can find it on the Museum’s website, it’s more than worth a look.

Tomorrow we get back into our school week rhythm. Getting up at 6am or so, going on the bus with Ian to catch our train, then walking him to his school. I’ve missed it, though I enjoyed sleeping until 7 most days this week. In ten days we get our first long-term visitors—Roger and Carol are coming to stay for a while, and we’re pretty excited about having them here. Next Sunday is the first week of Lent, so I’ll be working this week to prep a series for the weeks leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter.

More news later.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Chilly London

This has been an eventful week. Things at ACL are going well—part of the adventure here is helping the church move from an interim mindset to what we might call (in church-ese) ordinary time. In an interim time there are all sorts of vacuums that need to be filled, and there are some amazing people here who have stepped in and worked hard to keep this ministry floating. So much here is working well, and that is in large part due to the committed work of the folks who love this place. The task now is to move away from that stopgap, temporary kind of thinking to a more visionary, long-term frame of mind. That’s my job, in partnership with the people of the church, and I love it.

Our house is looking so much better—Julie has made it our home, and we’re getting more comfortable there by the day. Almost all the boxes are out of the house, and we’re settling into a life here that is recognizable, even if dramatically different from life in Burbank. We’re starting to think about having company—tonight the young adult group from the church is coming over for dinner and conversation. The associate pastor is gone for the week, so we’re taking over. There are about a dozen or so college and grad school people in the group.

Today has been quite an adventure. We were warned on the news over the past few days that a winter storm was headed our way, and when we woke up there was about 4 inches of snow and still falling. Ian and I made our usual walk to the bus stop—he was so excited to be out in the snow, kicking it, throwing it and letting flakes fall on his tongue as we walked. Our neighborhood looked so beautiful with snow.

This is a little street called Primrose Gardens, which ends right where we meet our bus in the morning.

This is England's Lane, a great street with some nice houses on the right, and a market, some hair salons, a butcher and a post office on the left. Behind me (about 75 yards) as I take this picture is a Starbucks--I can smell it from here.

Commuting in London is an adventure on the best days. In the morning I usually have to throw a few hip checks and the occasional elbow to keep people from running Ian over. Today when our Tube train arrived, you could see through the glass that it was packed. I asked Ian if he wanted to brave it, and of course he said yes. The door slid open and I said ‘we’re coming on.’ We squeezed in, surrounded by people reading papers, listening to iPods and generally doing their own thing. I was worried that Ian was getting crowded by people, so I kept some pressure on the back of the guy next to him so he wouldn’t get any closer. Ian still had his hood on so I couldn’t see his face, but when I tapped him on the shoulder he looked up at me with a huge smile. He has definitely ‘arrived’ as a Londoner—nothing seems to faze him over here anymore. I’ve told Ian this over and over again, so I’ll say it here, too. Our commute is my favorite part of the day. Here he is at our bus stop this morning in England's Lane.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A small story from over here...

We have mice in our house. That’s the long and the short of it. About every third night I can hear one scurrying across the hardwood floor of the living room above where we sleep. Now we haven’t had any damage to anything or found any, er, souvenirs from the little critter. But it’s there, and so I’ve set some traps in the house to try and catch it (them?). I put cheese on one trap, because I’m a traditional kind of guy in most ways, and peanut butter in the other, because they have a broad range of tastes over here.

On Saturday we woke up to a gloriously beautiful day in London. It was clear and bright, cool but not cold, and just gorgeous outside. We had breakfast together and watched some cats play in the garden, and basically sat around enjoying the morning. I checked the traps, but they were empty and I left them set.

We had plans to visit the home of a boy in Ian’s class. We were going to have lunch together and give the boys time to play. When we opened the door to the outer hall, there was a dead mouse on the floor. Now clearly we’ve all seen too much CSI, because we got a bit too interested in determining the cause of death, er, I mean, finding out how the little guy ended up in his present condition. Anyway, there were no visible entry wounds (there I go again), and so I scooped it up in an egg carton and put it in the trash.

The three of us got our coats and left the house, but when we got to the sidewalk Julie and I noticed that Ian hadn’t come out of the gate. When we looked back we found him standing by the trash can. Julie asked him what he was doing and he said that the mouse shouldn’t be left alone in the garbage can, and that he wanted to stand there a while. It was very sweet, but after a minute we told him that it was OK to leave, and also that it was very kind of him to want to stay.

Seeing your six-year-old son standing next to a trash can because he doesn’t want a dead mouse to be alone can make you think. We spend so much time as adults trying to re-learn our sense of wonder, our sense of the value of things and the needs of others. Ian still has it—he knew instinctively that even though we needed the mouse out of our place, that it’s sad when an animal dies, and that life matters. Ian hasn’t yet lost his sense of the preciousness of living things, and I admire him for that.

It didn’t come up again that day, but I continue to be amazed at how much there is to learn from the people in my life, no matter how old they are.