Monthly Archives: October 2015

Today would be a good day to visit the White House

I haven’t done a Monday morning travel post  for a while, when I take some time to reflect on a place I have visited and what I loved about and learned from it. It’s been a little while since I have travelled and there has been a lot else going on. But as I’m starting to prepare for a trip to the US, including Washington DC, in just over three weeks time, I’m thinking it would be great to pop in today to one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and be reminded again about the responsibilities and opportunities of influence and power, as well as its limitations.

View of the White House from the Washington Monument
View of the White House from atop the Washington Monument

As a foreigner, it’s not easy to organise a visit to the White House. Apparently it is possible to book months in advance through the Australian embassy, but I have not yet come across anyone visiting as a tourist who has actually made that work. For me, it was arranged through a friend of a family member who was working at the White House and got me onto the public tour – as well as taking me to a couple of places “behind the scenes” (no photos from there – and only mobile phone photos from the tour so apologies for the lack of quality!)

WElcome

What did I love about visiting the White House?

First of all, I’m a huge fan of the TV series The West Wing, so it actually felt like I was already very familiar with the place 🙂

Front view

A number of scenes in various episodes were shot outside these gates …

Gate

… I’m pretty sure this entrance hall looked familiar …

Entrance Hall

… I remember that the OEOB building next door is where the VP and other “less important” staffers work …

OEOB

… and for bonus points there was even an episode with protestors about what is in this room!

Vermeil

It was December when I visited, so there were all kinds of beautifully decorated Christmas trees everywhere.

Tree 2

Some had ornaments belonging to various dignitaries,

Tree

while others stood in places normally occupied by a podium from which the “leader of the free world” speaks.

Tree and Seal

And the gingerbread version of the White House certainly puts my annual attempts  to shame.

Gingerbread

Like most people who visit, I think there is an excitement in getting to see just a small glimpse of the corridors of power and places where so many significant decisions have been made and worked out.

LIbrary

As a lover of history of all kinds, the portraits of previous Presidents remind me of the stories of the different times and situations through which they led,

Washington portrait

JFK

… and the various ways in which the world has been shaped by those who have passed through this place.

Exit
What did I learn from visiting the White House?

As well as touring the White House, I managed to secure tickets in the annual lottery to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting at which the President speaks and numerous entertainers perform.

The Obama family with Jane Lynch
The Obama family with Jane Lynch

(This did involve about five hours of sitting in the pouring rain on a cold, December, Washington night, which wasn’t the most fun I (or my Dad!) have ever had).

Event

But it was really interesting to see the patriotism on display, a challenge perhaps to someone like me who comes from a country where we do not always show our political leaders respect or even courtesy.

At night

It was also fascinating to compare and contrast this event with our Aussie traditions of Carols by Candlelight.

Outside tree

My main reason for wanting to go, however, was to hear the President in person. As a lifelong student of politics and history, for me it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear anyone who occupies such an office and try to get a sense of them for yourselves. And I thought Obama lived up to his reputation as an inspirational and persuasive orator.

The President speaking
The President speaking

But something else that sticks with me from that night is the contrast between the trappings of power and wealth and influence seen in this place, and the message that we were there to celebrate. The story of the most powerful king of all, who chose humility, service and sacrifice as the way He showed His glory.

Front view 2

The White House represents power and status in this world, and I will always be keen to understand what takes place there, to recognise its influence in the world and to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the decisions made there. But in the end, I follow an even greater leader, a leader who speaks a message that seems upside-down to everything I see here and throughout this world: that the way to true greatness is found in service, and that the way to exaltation is found in humbly giving yourself up for others.

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A lament from behind the scenes

When I started this blog nearly two years ago, my goal was to write a post every week. It quickly became apparent that aiming for at least once a fortnight was a more realistic goal. But this is my first post in almost two months – the longest break I have had.

There are a few reasons. I have been really busy and so finding time to write is a challenge. But if I’m honest with myself (and now you) there’s probably been some other reasons as well. I haven’t been sure if I have anything to say. Or maybe even more, I haven’t been sure if what I have to say is worth hearing. As someone who is often the teacher or the pastor or the leader or even somehow the “expert” … what I feel like I have most at the moment is lots of questions, irritations, hurts and fears. In a number of areas I feel like I haven’t been seeing much in black and white, but am almost overwhelmed by how much grey there is. And I’m never sure how much to let the rest of the world see my tears.

I think one of the dangers ­– or at least temptations ­– with blogging is something we all can experience on social media: feeling like we need to present our “best selves” for others to see. That we need to be “up” or “on”, that we need to look good and sound good and contribute something good for others. And so then we fall into the trap of comparing what we see from others with what is really going on for us and we always fall short.

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So here’s the truth for me. The last six weeks or so have been really tough and not much fun. There’s been the usual busyness, coupled with things like the day to day frustrations of tasks that should be simple but end up taking way more time and energy that you anticipated, or people who say things that you hope they don’t really mean but you still feel really hurt by. I’ve had a number of performance and presentation events for my PhD, which have taken a fair chunk of my intellectual and emotional energy. I’ve also been struggling with really enjoying the new church family I am a part of while also realising that I still feel new and dis-connected and that it is really hard and takes time to make good friends and to feel part of a new community. Most significantly, I have had both a family member and a close friend pass away, and while there have been moments of grace within each of those situations, overall it has felt incredibly sad, massively unfair, emotionally exhausting, and just downright awful.

Yet I can say with confidence that I have a faith that is strong despite how I am feeling. I totally trust that God is good, even though it doesn’t feel like it every day in every situation. For me, part of my faith is being honest enough to say that I don’t have all the answers, I don’t understand, sometimes I question God and am angry with Him, and yet I continue to follow Jesus and look to Him to lead me through because I believe He is my hope and my salvation.

How can this all be true at the same time? Hope in the midst of darkness, joy through despair? For me, that’s what lament is all about.

In the middle of the last few weeks, I gave a presentation to a group of hospital chaplains on lament. I felt completely inadequate speaking to them – I might have lots of study and head knowledge to bring, but these are people who are sitting in the trenches, walking alongside death and despair, and I know that I couldn’t do what they do every day. Our time together ended up being an amazing day where I learned from them even as they learned from me. And together we looked at the psalmists and the prophets of the Old Testament and how they teach us to lament. To be honest about our questions and doubts and hurts and fears. To speak them aloud to God and to one another and to wait upon Him. (I’m really glad the authors of the Bible didn’t feel the only thing they could share with the world was their “highlight reels”!!)

The book of Lamentations (literally the “lament of laments”) recounts the darkest chapter in Israel’s history. It is not a book for the fainthearted. There are horrific stories and desperate cries and unanswerable questions. And if you read it from beginning to end looking for a conclusion that ties it all up with a neat bow, you will be sorely disappointed. But what amazes me is that at the very centre of this book of pain and despair, lie some of the most profound words of hope and faith that you will ever find. Words that have been spoken and sung by generations of people of faith all across the world, and words that I am continuing to sing today:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,

the bitterness and the gall.

I well remember them,

and my soul is downcast within me.

Yet this I call to mind

and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;

therefore I will wait for him.”

(Lamentations 3: 19-24)