Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Visit with the Queen

A month or so ago I received an invitation which read:

'The Master of the Household has received Her Majesty's command to invite Reverend Dr. John D'Elia to a Reception to be given at Buckingham Palace by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for Americans working in the United Kingdom.'


As with many of the amazing things that have happened since we moved here, I thought this was someone playing a joke on me. I mean c'mon, I'm just a guy from Burbank who has a very cool job in a great city. Anything more than that is a bonus, an extra, some serious icing on the cake. It turned out to be anything but a joke. This was a real event, attended by a cross section of Americans in the UK, including some very interesting people.

The event was yesterday, an absolutely stunning day in London. It was about 68 degrees outside with clear skies and a nice breeze. I arrived at the palace (OK, that's the first time I've ever typed that sentence), and showed my invitation and passport to the guard. He welcomed me through the gate and told me to follow the path to the main part of the residence. As I walked onto the grounds I looked back toward the gate I saw tourists about three deep, squinting in the sunlight and trying to figure out who I was. That moment made me laugh out loud.

I walked into the palace and was directed up one of these movie-set staircases. There were huge portraits covering every wall--the royal version of family vacation photos--and various sculptures and other artifacts by the dozens. I entered a large hall where I received a nametag with everything spelled perfectly (you have to know the D'Elia clan to understand how wonderful it is NOT to have to take a pen out and correct the spelling of your name). A waiter brought me a glass of wine, which was very good, and then there were a series of servers bringing hors d’oeuvres, which were also very tasty. I noticed from the nametags that there were a lot of bankers and financial types, as well as a large group of defense contractors in attendance. I chatted with a prominent chef, a retired USAF colonel, and a woman who runs the Walt Disney Company operations in Europe. (I told her I was from Burbank, a medium-sized walk from her HQ. She wasn’t as impressed as I thought she should be, so I moved on.)

At one point people started getting into a line, and so I joined them. I’d assumed that the Queen would briefly enter the room to greet us, and that we would then resume our wine and nibble consumption, but that’s not what happened. As the line moved toward a doorway I was asked for my entry card and then found myself face to face with the Queen, whose hand was held out for me to shake it, which I did. The next hand held out to me was that of Philip the Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen’s husband for you anarchists out there).

When I moved through into the next room, I saw Don Johnson (he’s in a play over here), the photographer Annie Leibowitz, and Jerry Hall (alas, she was Mick-less). After some chatting and meeting some other folks, one of the royal household staff came up to the people I was with and asked us to stay together and continue our conversation (I was with the head of Sony Pictures in the UK, talking about where to find good Mexican food in London). Next thing I knew, the Duke of Gloucester joined us and we chatted with him for a while.

Logan Dunn (our associate pastor) and I moved into the next room, and after a while another of the handlers asked us to stay put again. A minute later we were face-to-face with the Queen, who asked us all some questions and politely pretended to be interested in the answers. When I said that I was the new minister at the American Church, she said she remembered one of our former ministers being on the radio occasionally, and told me that I should do the same. It was a direct order from the Queen, so I’ll be looking into that immediately.

No need to burden this report with a lot of comment about celebrity or how we’re all the same under the skin.

Meeting the Queen was amazing.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Health, Safety and the Gospel

I’m fed up with rules.

Not entirely, I suppose, I’m not joining the Anarchist Party or even those wacky Libertarians. Rules provide limits and boundaries that help us live together in cities and villages and groups—even churches. Living without rules leads to chaos. But still, sometimes the rules makers get a little out of hand, and when that happens the restrictions keep us from being fully human.

I’ll cite two recent examples from over here. First, over the weekend in the Times of London there was a front page article about Health and Safety regulations in the workplace. The H&S (think OSHA if you’re reading this in the US) is an important organization that, at times, is a little taken with its own importance. The story in the paper was about office workers at the BBC who are no longer allowed to change light bulbs on their own. Seriously. When a bulb goes out at this internationally-acclaimed newsgathering and broadcasting giant, they have to call a special crew to come in and bring light where there once was darkness (OK, that was a little on the purple side). The BBC regularly has men and women dodging mortar shells in some of the most troubled regions in the world, but they can’t get up on a chair and fix their own lights. Fittingly, the department who calls for this assistance is billed £10 for each bulb replaced (about 20 bucks). At the local market you can get two bulbs for £1.

Worse, in Scotland this week a firefighter is facing disciplinary action for—get this—jumping into the river and saving the life of a 20-year-old woman who was trying to commit suicide. Apparently he was supposed to put on some special trousers and harness himself to something firm before jumping in the water. What he was not supposed to do (apparently) was save this young woman’s life. ‘I was supposed to watch that young girl die in front of me’, he said, ‘I couldn’t live with myself if I’d had to do that.’

Thank God.

The firefighter in question is my age, a dad like me, and he responded as all of us hope we would—and as rescue workers are expected to—when faced with an opportunity to help. Firefighters sign on for the work they do with full awareness of the risks, but sometimes the rules get in the way of them doing their jobs. This guy is in danger of being fired—ironically—because he actually did the job he was hired to do.

In these cases the rules, instead of protecting human life, prevented people from being fully human. Office workers are fully capable of changing light bulbs, and certainly a firefighter is trained and willing to save someone’s life. When safety rules prevent us from living as we were made, they stop functioning as safety regulations and become prisons where we stare out through the bars and long for the freedom to act.

How we live is often more important than how we die. The firefighter said that he couldn’t live with himself if he hadn’t tried to save a drowning woman. Think about that. He knew he could be killed in the attempt to save her, but that was preferable to living with the knowledge that he’d done nothing. The lives we lead can never be risk-free, but they can be meaningful and courageous and helpful.

Christians are about to celebrate Holy Week. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a Health and Safety inspector telling Jesus what he could and couldn’t do. The point of his life was to risk it—and give it—on our behalf and for our benefit. If he had lived to be 80 years old and had avoided the sacrifice he was sent to make, just imagine how different the world would be. But we know that that’s not what happened. Jesus acted--he died to cover our own separation from God and rose to demonstrate that he had power over death. He didn’t sit in his house and worry that it might be too risky. He acted decisively, even though it caused him pain and cost him his life. ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ That’s the Gospel for us in this season and throughout the year. The Messiah came and jumped into the river when we were doing our best to throw away our lives.

Thank God.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Running on (Almost) Empty

I’m starting to run out of things.

Shampoo, Q-Tips, my favorite soap. The last charge on my beard clippers is finally gone. Last week I wore the last of my shirts that were laundered in Burbank. I found a coupon for a few dollars off of our next bill, and threw it away. In marketing terms, I demonstrate a high degree of product loyalty, something that is being tested as we get settled in this new city. I’ll confess to a little bit of low-grade anxiety as I use up the last of the items that I really like.

It’s such an odd thing to notice, I know, and I don’t want it to be melodramatic at all. But I will say, truthfully, that I got a little sad as my trimmer died in my hand. I remember charging it up for the move. We were at my Mom’s house, which was such a relaxing and nourishing time for us just before we left. We allowed ourselves to be drenched there in good food, happy conversation, visits from friends and family, and a very special Christmas. In the days just before we left I remember trying to make sure that everything got done, and I specifically remember plugging the beard trimmer in so that it would have a full charge when we got to London. Now that last bit of Burbank electricity is gone, and I have to figure out how to charge it here.

That’s not entirely a bad thing.

Part of the transition to living here is learning to sustain our lives here. Some of that came quickly: There are food stores that we found right away where we know we can find what we need. We learned the public transport system almost immediately, because we had to, and now it seems like second nature to us. Some other things took longer, like banking, or having repairs done on the house, or even finding a new place to get my shirts and suits cleaned. The services that we have come to rely on in our daily lives are a big part of anywhere feeling like home. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer all the time. And running out of things is helping to move the process along.

In John 6 Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never go hungry, and anyone who believes in me will never be thirsty.’

That’s pretty clear, but it isn’t easy. I’d love to say that relying on Jesus has made our lives sunny and pleasant, but that’s just not true. It’s not just our stuff that is depleted, it’s also our energy and, at times, our sense of our mission here. The three of us have been huddling in bed every morning for the last week, starting the day with some prayer time together—just for the day, for a sense of purpose, and for a little comfort. What we’re tying to do now, as we run out of the things—and feelings—we brought with us, is to rely on Christ for what we need to truly make a home here. Jesus may promise that we’ll never be truly hungry, but I’ll confess right here that I feel a little peckish.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Race Day

So Ian ran in his first cross country race yesterday. It wasn't as much a race as a chance for the kids to get out of the classroom and into a park for an hour or so. Three Year 2 (1st Grade) classes participated, and they ran two enormous laps around the park at the Paddington Recreation Centre. After the race there were cookies and hot chocolate for the kids.

Here are some snaps from the day.

Ian getting his race face on.

Loosening up before the race.

Coming around the home stretch.

Ian displaying his medal.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

News Flash

Jesus is in the news again.

Film director James Cameron and others have been working to identify some remains found that hint at being Jesus and his family. Of course, all of this will be explained in an upcoming movie... Now, setting aside the truth or provability of that claim, it’s curious to me that this would be interesting to a largely secular audience. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than six months, and there is a general sense among many that the Christian church has run its course—or at least lost its way, depending on who is doing the talking. Mark Steel, writing in The Independent, pokes fun at Christians for seeing signs and wonders in all manner of things (‘...they get so excited about an aubergine that’s cut in half revealing a pattern that sort of nearly says GOD’). But he also notices the brazen ignorance in Cameron’s belief that Christians would be happy to know that Jesus’ bones could be found. What would that say about the Resurrection? Good theology spoils the fun again.

Not that such gaffes are going unchecked anymore. Peter Steinfels in the New York Times has noticed that some scientists and atheists are coming out with strong critiques of Dawkins and others for their lack of knowledge of the theological concepts they seek to debunk. Terry Eagleton, a Marxist literary scholar, is quoted by Steinfels as saying: ‘Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.’ Rough indeed. Cameron, Dawkins and others would do well to understand the development and impact of the Christian faith before they make their contributions to the discussion. Similarly I would expect a Christian commentator to be well prepared before entering into any debate.

Still, I come from a town that is at the center of the entertainment industry, and one thing you learn there is that almost any publicity is good publicity. I don’t want to treat the threat to the foundations of our faith in this new film too flippantly, but I’m happy nonetheless to have another opportunity to tell a different side of Jesus’ story.

The Scriptures teach that God in his love and generosity sought to make himself known to his people. He revealed himself through creation, the prophets, and the writings of the Bible. When humankind continued to ignore the message, God himself came in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached and healed, and was killed for his trouble. On the third day he rose again and showed himself to hundreds of people. This Easter Sunday we’ll celebrate once again the mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ—proof once and for all that God had power even over death, and that he offers that hope to all who believe.

Simple, right?

Well, not really. I understand that this is not just difficult, but also impossible for us to know in the way that we know other things. And yet, in each of our lives, as Christ moves in and transforms us into the people he has called us to be, the truth of the gospel is confirmed in ways that are as unique as each individual person. The church strays when it pretends that it has all the answers, and that its doctrines are airtight artifacts of closed discussions. The ongoing discovery of God in each of our lives is a fluid process, within the boundaries of what has been revealed to us in Scripture. That’s why I welcome any intelligent or authentic challenge to the doctrines of Christianity. Each time we are forced to engage these ideas and learn again how to explain them in our own words, we grow in our faith and maturity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Cameron’s film and the attending media attention are timed to coincide with our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. As we move into that time of joy and remembrance, we should renew our understanding of that miracle in our own lives, and be prepared to share that Good News with anyone who wants to hear it. Even the odd film director.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A sign of aging

I suppose there are all sorts of things that make us feel our age. Aches and pains are the most obvious. Having a kid call you 'sir' or ma'am' is a sure winner. The first time you tell someone to turn that $£% music down! I almost cried the first time I said that.

It also comes up in the 'where were you then?' conversations. Our parents all remember where they were when JFK was shot (I was exactly six months old on that day). My generation talks about the Challenger disaster. I suppose younger folks will have Monica Lewinsky, 9/11 and other terror events to think back on.

Television programming can put distance between the generations as quickly as anything. From Sid Caesar to Ernie Kovacs in the 50s, to Hogan’s Heroes and Batman in the 60s, to Welcome Back Kotter and That’s Incredible in the 70s, to Dallas and Hill Street Blues in the 80s, to Seinfeld and Friends in the 90s, and so on (can’t believe I didn’t squeeze NYPD Blue and the Sopranos in there somewhere...).

So I say all this because when we walked into Ian’s classroom back before his first day, here’s what we saw.

Now of course there's nothing at all funny about the names themselves (they're lovely kids), but Julie and I both laughed out loud at seeing them together. We waited for Ian's teacher to get the reference, but instead she looked at us as though we were, well, just another pair of crazy Americans. Of course, she's in her mid-20s, and had never seen Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

When we were done laughing, we realized just how old we'd become.