February 4, 2010

Well, here we are again, imploring the flames to banish the cold that threatens to settle into our bones. Ah, but we have the exceptional and rare Johnny Walker Blue scotch to help warm us. And so it does. Along with a bottle of 12 year-old Dalmore. We make merry over the whisky and settle in to hear what is to be heard.

In a talk about family histories, where Jerry mentioned that his mother’s (who is still alive) father was born in 1864 and was nine when Lincoln was assassinated, we somehow (?) got on the topic of submarines and talked about an early model used in the civil war. This was the hand propelled confederate submarine H.L. Hunley which attacked the Union warship U.S.S. Housatonic, attaching a torpedo to the ship’s hull, then backing away while the ship blew up. This submarine, for reasons yet unknown, sank to the bottom soon after, entombing its crew of eight men. It was discovered in 1995 and raised in 2000.

Still on the topic of relatives, Jerry mentioned that his progenitors were the Grants of Scotland. Now it so happened that the dastardly tribe of  Comyns stole one of the Grant women, so the Grants declared war on the Comyns, driving them from their castle in the Spey Valley (where all the Scotch comes from), and chasing them until they took refuge in a kirk (church). The Comyns congratulated themselves, thinking that the Grants would not commit the sacrilege of killing them inside the church.  The Grants apparently felt the same, so instead of going in to kill them, they burned the church down, took over the castle, and kept the skull of the Comyns chieftain in the castle until 1968, when it was removed to a museum. Says Jerry, “We’re direct descendants of that group. Greg’s middle name is Grant. They were really gracious and kind men. Tender guys.”

Ben broke out his Calabash pipe, which is basically a meerschaum-lined gourd. It was universally admired. We held our pipes up and quoted our mantra from Robert Service’s poem. I then read Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Calabash pipe

Tonight Nigel Goodwin joined us around the fire. Nigel is in town from England to speak at the Wheaton College undergrad chapel next week.  He has been involved in the theater world and is  founder of the London Arts Centre Group and founder and Executive Director of Genesis Arts Trust which promotes the Christian faith in the arts and media.

Because of his involvement with and love of theater, Jerry asked Nigel a few questions along this line. Thus, we discovered that his favorite movie is Babette’s Feast, his favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams, his favorite actor is Richard Burton. Because we were on the subject of actors and playwrights, Jerry pulled another story from the seemingly endless repository stored in his mind. The English playwright George Bernard Shaw would debate G.K. Chesterton in different places around England. In Chesterton’s book on George Bernard Shaw he stated in the introduction: “Most people say they agree with George Bernard Shaw, but they don’t understand him. I’m the only one who understands him and I don’t agree with him.” While they didn’t agree, Shaw liked Chesterton. However, he did not like Winston Churchill. He sent tickets to Churchill for the opening night of one of his plays with the message: “Sir Winston, enclosed are two tickets for my play. I sent you two so that you could bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill replied:  “Sir Bernard, I’m sorry I can’t make the opening night of your play, would you please send me tickets for a second night, if you have one.”

Nigel described how he began his work in the arts. “As an actor, I always felt that when the curtain came down, you didn’t want to go to bed, you wanted to go out and eat, have a good drink and talk and think through and unwind.  But the restaurants and pubs were closed. I came to faith at the age of 25 from a Marxist/ humanist background, and I was studying in seminary and thought I was going to be involved with the Auca Indians in Ecuador. One night I had a dream about a house in the city full of actors and singers and dancers, writers and poets. I woke up and thought ‘God, what’s all that about?’ And I knew I had to find some people. So I found the British rock and roll singer Cliff Richard who’d become a Christian. He’s not big in America, but he sold more records than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”

We expressed disbelief at this statement, and Nigel good humoredly chastised us. “With respect to you all, if people are not known in America, they’re not known, you know?” he laughed. “There is another world, out there beyond the shores.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing, except that I thought it would be great to have a space where people can talk late into the night if they wanted to over a bowl of soup, or an egg on toast or some beans or something to eat or drink. And very quickly 400 people were trying to get into our house. And they were coming from the rock world, the folk world, the ballet, opera, all the arts. And they were coming by word of mouth. People like Pat Boone or Cliff Richard would sit up all night and chat talking about faith and music and arts. The whole cast of Les Miserables came once. I thought we could have late night supper parties, so that when people leave the theater, they can come and we’ll have a really nice meal, good wine, some low lighting. And about 1:00 in the morning, I’ll bang my hands together and say ‘I’m now going to spoil all your wonderful conversations and tell you who we are here.’ And I always prayed a prayer, and I still do, ‘Lord how do you want to walk in the room tonight?’ And nearly always, God walked into the room through a non-Christian who would say, after several glasses of good wine, ‘How can there be a God of love when people are killing each other up in northern Ireland?’ That’s how God walked into the room. And I would say, ‘well tell me about your definition of a God of love. Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ And if you’ve listened to someone telling you about the God they don’t believe in, they’re much more ready to listen to you tell them about the God you do believe in. And they would stay up all night, talking into the morning. So I didn’t get much sleep. I still don’t get a lot. Look at me now. I’m jet-lagged and it’s one a.m. But I’m awake!”

A soft-spoken man with an impeccable British accent, he talked poetically in a quiet voice that had a rhythmic, lulling quality.  The coals dropped quietly into the fire pit, and his hushed voice exerted both a soporific and commanding aura that was mesmerizing. He spoke words of encouragement.

“God’s into multiplication, not division. It’s all about fruitfulness. It’s another brush stroke on the canvas. It’s another sunset. Not one is the same as the other. We take photographs , but it’s not the same as seeing the sun rising and setting. An artist is like God, but small. We all have something to bring to the table. Don’t let anyone ever take or steal away your worth and value. If anyone tries to rob you of who you are, it’s their problem, not yours. It’s their poverty. Unless you own it and make it your poverty. And that’s the work of the enemy, Mr. Nasty.”

“We are all dysfunctional, all imperfect, but being made perfect. So we are becoming. Every day God asks us do we know who we are today? And today, we are not who we were yesterday. We’re not chameleons, we’re catalysts. By being together, we’re touching each other and God in each other. He’s making the stage, making the canvas, making the difference. Not one of us is the same, and if we’re not present, the glory and beauty of the difference of each one of us, the richness of the colors in each one of us, is absent.”

“We should savor this moment together around this fire,” he said quietly. “There will never be another campfire, just like this. There will never be a pipe just like this smoking moment.”

He gave us all  hugs before we left, a man whom we had never met, but had somehow welcomed us into his world for a few moments. I feel lucky to have met him. We may never see him again, but for a brief space we shared talk, we caught some of his vision, we were silent around the fire. He said a brief prayer before we all left, and I could hear the owls calling in the trees and the dim fall of the coals and the rhythm of speech all weaving a pattern. It seemed to me that he had a love of people and cared that they understood how to come alive and grow and become free.

By all means, feel free to leave a comment if I have neglected to tell something important, have stated something in error or you simply want to add to the conversation.

Until next time, peace like a river.


~ by Mark Neal on February 7, 2010.

One Response to “February 4, 2010”

  1. Mark,

    You are the Garrison Kiellor of the Blog world!


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