Last week as part of the Culture Challenge, Rachel Pieh Jones and I discussed Annalena Tonelli and the work in the Horn of Africa. Using Rachel’s book about Annalena as the springboard for our discussion, we explored how Annalena approached culture and her faith. You can listen to the conversation as part of the challenge if you missed it.
As I read Stronger than Death, it reminded me of another book I had read several years ago: A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter by Miriam Huffman Rockness. Like Annalena, Lilias worked in North Africa, but unlike Annalena, she could have been a world renowned painter.
The description on Amazon says:
“Art critic John Ruskin enthusiastically proclaimed her potential as one of the best artists of the nineteenth century, but Lilias Trotter’s devotion to Christ compelled her to surrender her life of art, privilege, and leisure. Leaving the home of her wealthy parents for a humble dwelling in Algeria, Lilias defied stereotypes and taboos that should have deterred any European woman from ministering in a Muslim country. Yet she stayed for nearly forty years, befriending Algerian Muslims with her appreciation for literature and art and winning them to Christ through her life of love.”
I loved the book even before I finished the two forwards because of thought provoking sections like these:
The first written by Lyle Dorsett where he said, “Reading biographies and autobiographies of nineteenth-and twentieth-century saints has shaped my spirituality, encouraged me in my walk with God, and caused me to ponder anew the role of books in the process of spiritual formation.” He goes on to talk about the “profound impact of books” on spiritual development.
Yes! We are not the first to walk these cultural paths and we have much we can learn. If only we will take the time to read and reflect.
My book then had a second foreword that contained this jewel from Lilias’s diary: “One learns as one goes, not to fear the detours by which God leads.” The author fleshed out some of what Lilias went on to face over the course of her life. If we could internalize the truth of what Lilias said, what a difference it would make, eh?! I’m thinking of the Covid-19 pandemic. God is still sovereign and this detour is not outside of His control. How to be a person that is impacted by the detours—so the bumps and bruises do impact and hurt—but not afraid of the detours? I’m still pondering this.
Moving on to the preface, Lilias asks another question that we could camp on: “How does one measure the sacrifice against the yield?”
When I read that I pictured us around a large wooden table in dimly lit tavern. (Why? I don’t know, that’s just where my mind went.) Had one of us read that out loud, I can hear the roar of “Here, here!” and the banging on the table.
The book was turned into a movie. If you don’t see the trailer below, you can watch it here. The movie is available on Amazon Prime and would be good to watch and discuss with friends, family, or team. It does focus more on her art than her cross-cultural work; but knowing that, I’d use the word “lovely” to describe it.
I’m wondering if our next challenge (in July or August) should be a movie challenge and for four weeks we each watch a movie and then gather to discuss it. What do you think of that idea?
Until then, read the book because Lilias was a real person who, like us, had to consider:
Her gifting and where to live her life.
She was able to incorporate her art in both worlds (England and Algeria).
Her family, especially her sister Jacqueline.
It touched me that yearly Lilias considered spending six months in England helping care for her sister and six months in Algeria.
Her physical health and here I want to separate out her “weak” health (out of her control) and the unhealthy pattern of pushing to the point of collapsing.
We talk about the pedestal too often we are put on as cross-cultural workers and it is stories like this, where Lilias pushed, and pushed, and pushed that perpetuation the myth of “giving your all.” I don’t think any of us are opposed to hoeing our row, the problem is when we compare “our row” to others and feel we come up short.
Her willingness to put in her time when it came to housing.
Lilias and her teammates were willing to spend years showing up so that when a chance came for them to move into the Muslim area, they were able to walk through the open door. I read in a few pages what was slowly (at times boringly) lived out day after day, week after week, year after year.
Her spiritual priorities of disciplined prayer and spending consistent time in the word.
I loved that she wandered out of town to spend time with Jesus.
A few ways she wasn’t like me (us?).
I laughed at what a novelty it was to have to dress herself and not be served tea in bed. And then I remember how unbelievably proud I was to learn you could . . . wait for it . . . make tortillas!! Who knew. Apparently millions of people don’t buy them at the grocery store. Not that impressive really. Lilias and her friends were also able to go without an organization or more structured support system because they were “supported though independent means.” In other words, they were rich and could live off of the money they had.
If you missed the conversation between Rachel and me, you’ll have access to it when you join the challenge. This is a conversation all cross-cultural workers should listen to and then discuss. Rachel Pieh Jones offered us a gift of her timely wisdom for COVID-19 and cross-cultural work.
You can continue the conversation by reading A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. It’s not too late to join the challenge! Join now.