Welcome to a special Epiphany series of guest posts. I've asked a few friends who live (literally) around the world to take a walk through their neighborhoods and share some of what they see through photos, videos and words. Each one has selected from a variety of thoughtful prompts to consider the ways the Light has moved into their neighborhoods. Will you join us?
The Shields Family
France (a little bit of the Paris region,
and a little bit of Albertville)
Prompt: Local ground
The likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place.
Scott Russell Sanders
In the Paris area, there are parks and benches everywhere. Each little neighborhood or apartment complex has it's own little playground, or in our town, there was a grand park complete with a pond, walking and bike trails, open fields, pavilions and playgrounds. We were lucky enough to have a view of it from our 12th story apartment. In towns old enough to have a castle, even if it was just a small one, parks and paths were built and have remained. Culturally, on Sundays after a big meal, the family goes for a leisurely walk in the park talking and playing with the children.
Prompt : God's household
Life, breath, food, companionship -- every good thing is a gift from the abundant providence of God. The kingdom of God, this great economy, is embodied in the world when God's people respond to God's provision with gratitude, sharing God's gifts generously with others. The word economy reminds us again that creation is God's household; we are tasked with sustaining it and keeping it in the order God intended. It should be a place where all humans and all creatures are loved and honored and where generosity is commonplace.
C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison
When we exited the baggage claim at Paris-Orly airport, we were five exhausted, overwhelmed greenhorns fumbling with our lives packed in eleven suitcases, completely dependent on the help of others. And in that helplessness, we discovered Light. Through the small glass window at the airport, shone the faces of Pierre-Yves, his son, Mathieu, and friend, David, welcoming us to our new home. With three cars, some snacks for us all, and just a little bit of English, they drove us to our unseen apartment, brought our bags in (fortunately the elevator was working), and then, since our refrigerator was bare, took us to the grocery store to buy the very basics: milk, bread, eggs, and toilet paper. There at the store, Pierre-Yves gave me a little token for the shopping cart to use in place of a coin (like the Aldi system) that I still keep in my wallet which will forever remind me of this grace gift. After returning from our shopping trip, we were presented with a bag filled with treats, homemade jam, a bottle of wine and a potted plant. Little did we know then that this would only be a taste of what was to come from the people of this church.
Not having a way to get to church, they sent two cars for us every Sunday to pick us up and take us home, usually with a full-fledged French meal sandwiched in between the coming and the going. This small Brethren Church lavished the love and generosity of Christ on us. If I were to list all of the gifts, it would be too much to tell. They shared their homes (even when we were between apartments over Christmas), their families, culture, connections, time, energy and the like with us - and we are humbled and changed forever. Instead of being the ones who shone the Light, we were blessed to receive it, too.
Prompt: Homegrown economy
Losing local businesses to national chains stores is by no means inevitable. Indeed, the growth of chain stores has been aided in no small part by public policy. Land use rules have all too often ignored the needs of communities and undermined the stability of existing business districts. Development incentives frequently favor national corporations over locally owned businesses. Increasing numbers of communities are rewriting the rules around a different set of priorities that encourage a homegrown economy of humanly scaled, diverse, neighborhood-serving businesses.... Active decision making at the local level and a creative approach to zoning can provide a powerful arsenal for defending community.
One piece of French culture that we love is that each region boasts of its own pride and joy. That could be a wine, a variety of cheese, a specially prepared dish, a medieval city or a castle. Before each meal that we've had in a French home, both the wine selection and the cheese plate are presented with a bit of a geography lesson and a description of the anticipated palatable sensation. I could purchase these delights in any grocery chain, but I would never enjoy it nearly as much unless accompanied by the story of region and origin from someone who really knows what they're talking about.
These local pleasures of the culinary type are often purchased in small specialty shops that line the typical narrow streets: boulangeries (bakeries), charcuteries (meat shops), fromageries (cheese shops), and patisseries (pastry shops). While certain mega-businesses have made their way into France (IKEA, McDonald's, Pizza Hut) and super-markets are drawing the younger crowd, an enormous amount of value is placed on the local specialty shop. Even though France is only 1% Christian, most stores and businesses are closed by law on Sundays. Bakeries and a few grocery chains are permitted to be open in the mornings (bread is present at every meal), but otherwise, the day is considered sacred - not set aside for worship, but reserved for time with family and friends. In fact, I love seeing the elderly carrying their baskets over one arm filled with fresh market fruits and veggies and the day's baguette tucked neatly under the other.
Prompt: Salt and light
The way of being salt and light is a role (a part and position) that Christians are called to in the world. It is a role that requires us to take up a place in our world, at work, at school, and in the neighborhood. Christians are called to imagine another world, and to do so by living amid the divisiveness, alienation, suffering, and violence, as well as the good things, the loves and hopes of where we live now.... However, we are called to make a home that is not established on our own authority and perfection, but instead is set on the foundation of repentance, forgiveness, mutual care and correction, and reconciliation.
David Matzko McCarthy
Being a foreigner opens up all kinds of doors to be salt and light. If our clothes don't give us away, we are outed the minute we open our mouths - but unlike between themselves, there seems to be a liberty or maybe just an overwhelming curiosity taken to question the foreigner about their origin, plans, and purpose. Sometimes, people think we're crazy for leaving "all of that" but in some cases, it's clear that our journey has caused some to consider who God is or what life is really about. And as much as we can, we pray for wisdom and enough vocabulary and good pronunciation to tell about the Light that we've discovered and have been sent to share.
Prompt: Practice resurrection
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
One of the first pieces of advice we were given when we started studying French was to get out there and get talking! The best way to do this, we were told, was to join an "association" of which there are literally hundreds, even in small towns. You name it: an association exists for it (in fact, even churches are legally registered as associations!). Board game societies, sports clubs, humanitarian efforts, and the arts all show off at an annual festival in early September where everyone comes to the park to sign up. This is where we made our first connections outside the church.
On the other hand, though, we found that it is otherwise difficult to get to know a French person. It isn't cultural to say "hello" to a stranger on the street, smile, or ask a name when talking with people by the gate of the elementary school or on the sidelines at soccer practice. You could give your name, but you're likely not to get theirs in return. This may seem a bit odd, but one thing we learned about French culture is that when a person does accept you into their circle (they even have a verb for it) you will be gifted with loyalty. We feel privileged to have spent hours around the tables of friends in this way, and pray that they, too, will be satisfied by the Bread of Life.
Prompt: We need art
We need art, in the arrangements of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity.
What a gift it was to live just thirty minutes away from Paris for 16 months. Just a few euros and a train ride to the "City of Light". How I loved seeing centuries of history unfold in ancient and more modern ways - cathedrals, architecture, paintings, sculptures, monuments, gardens, music - all of it, too much to take in even having lived there. Here are a few of my favorite places:
In our second city of residence in France, the town Albertville boasts the 1992 Winter Olympics. I see the Olympic Stadium, torch, and Ice Rink everyday when I take my daughter to school. Having spoken with the woman at the desk at the small Olympic Museum downtown here, she credits the international event with putting the town on the map, boasting growth and increased prosperity ever since. When watching or speaking of the Games' opening ceremony, my pastor-husband always speaks of this mere foreshadow of the parade of nations that will take place in the end: the "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb." (Rev. 7:9) The coming and seeing and going and telling will at last be fulfilled, and Light will reign forever.
Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.
France is full of historical landmarks, but one of my favorite places is of a more quiet type. It's in Giverny, where Impressionistic painter Claude Monet made his home and found his inspiration. I don't claim to know much about painting but having spent a few hours walking along the water lilies I understand why he felt drawn to pick up a paintbrush. This beauty begs to be displayed and magnified - some of God's finest work, in my opinion.
Prompt: Dim light and shadow
How much more mysterious and inviting is the street of an old town with its alternating realms of darkness and light than are the brightly and evenly lit streets of today! The imagination and daydreaming are stimulated by dim light and shadow. In order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze. Homogenous bright light paralyses the imagination in the same way that homogenisation of space weakens the experience of being, and wipes away the sense of place. The human eye is most perfectly tuned for twilight rather than bright daylight. Mist and twilight awaken the imagination by making visual images unclear and ambiguous.
Prompt: Imaginative act
What I see behind my eyes changes what I see in front of them; my imagination shapes my perception so that I must look not once but twice at the world to see it whole. Walking down the street, I see a wild-looking character sitting on the steps of the library. His gray hair is matted. His dense beard covers the slogan on his grimy T-shirt. His small darting eyes are as volatile as a hawk's. I look once and think "drifter." I look twice and think "John the Baptist," and in that imaginative act my relationship to the man is changed.
Barbara Brown Taylor
I pray into this next generation, that they will see and embrace passionately the Light of God, and even in the driest and darkest of circumstances, have the courage to carry that Light further and in more creative ways than we ever dreamed.
Andrea Shields is a small-town girl who dreamed of the house with a white-picket fence in her upstate New York home. After fifteen years of supporting her husband in local church ministry God rocked her world and called her family to cross-cultural ministry in West Africa. Their first stop was in France for full-time language study where they fell in love with the people and culture. After a quick trip to the States this summer, they'll put down roots again on the edge of the Sahara. She and her husband Craig (to whom goes most of the photo credit) will celebrate 20 years of marriage this Spring and are embracing the joys and challenges of raising three remarkable Third Culture Kids.
What about your neighborhood?
- If you were asked to coordinate a walking or biking tour of your neighborhood, what would you include in the tour? Also, how would the season of the year affect your itinerary?
- What are some ways your neighborhood is generous to each other? Put another way, what are some of ways your neighborhood naturally loves and honors others?
- Are there are any signs of a "homegrown economy of humanly scaled, diverse, neighborhood-serving businesses" in your neighborhood?
- In what ways have you been or do you hope to be salt and light in your neighborhood?
- Are there any cultural practices in place so that your neighbors are able to get to know each other?(associations, community centers, annual block parties,newsletters)
- Does your neighborhood boast any community artwork (maybe even monuments or historical markers)? What's the story it tells?
- What historical meanings -- stories that have "established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny" -- are told about the place where live?
- How has your place shaped your imagination about what's possible for your life? What possibilities has it opened up? What limitations has it created?