A wide spot in my imagination.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blogging Toward Bethlehem

I am not a terribly orthodox Christian. I sometimes wonder if -- and why -- I am a Christian.

Nor I am a very orthodox secularist.

So, Christmas is hard for me. I can't buy into a literal virgin birth or actual winged hosts singing in the inky sky, all turned into blow-up dolls tethered to suburban rooftops. And I can't buy into the commercialism of ho-ho-ho-ing and credits cards a-going, all shockingly untethered from the manger around which it supposedly centers.

Yet a week from tonight, one-third of the world will, in some way, turn their eyes toward Bethlehem.

Which is why I am a Christian. Bethlehem.

In the summer I had the chance to go there. To cross behind the harsh and heavy concrete wall that barricades modern Bethlehem. To bend and enter the tiny door of the Church of the Nativity, a door made tiny to keep marauding soldiers out. To pass by the star-ringed hole in the ground that allows a glimpse down onto the stone where the young mother supposedly lay her baby. To see the soldiers in the streets, their guns different weapons than those of 2000 years ago, but their presence probably much the same: a reminder of turmoil and tumult. To shop in the stores with row upon row of carved olive wood, mangers and stars and stuff upon stuff.

After all of this, after all of this religious tourism/pilgrimage/sightseeing/wondering, our group stopped at the International Center of Bethlehem, a ministry outgrowth of the Christmas Lutheran Church.

We heard stories. Especially stories of people who feel trapped. ("We feel like animals in a zoo," one man said.) People who tell of the wall they were hired to build to hem themselves in, as others cried. The tension was touchable.

This is not to point fingers or to blame one side or the other, but to pass along the stories they told.

One of the stories was of the Second Intifada, an uprising and revolt of painfully human proportions, when guns and death found a home in the church built over the place of Jesus' birth, when our "little town of Bethlehem" was bombed for forty days, when and hurled rocks and snipers' bullets filled the air where once the angels sang.

We heard the stories. And we heard this:

After the bombing, after the people hid in their homes, after the tanks rolled away, after the children of the town learned to name the weapons by sight and learned to name the missiles by sound, after all of the this, a preacher stood up. Without a plan, but with a possibility, he sent the children of his school out into the streets with buckets.

"Pick up the broken glass," he told. "The shards and scraps of windows."

"Why," the people asked. "What will we do with buckets full of broken glass?"

He didn't know at first, I remember our storyteller telling us. Then an idea came: "We will make stained glass angels."

And from the broken glass, from the wounds of war, the children, the artists, the church- and mosque-people together made angels. Stained glass angels to hang on Christmas trees, of course, and in windows.

Then the storyteller finished her tale: "From shattered glass and shattered dreams, we created hope."

That is the story I heard. And this:

A nine-year old boy, captured in the streets by a camera, hurling a rock, his tiny face twisted in hate. His photo fronted the newspapers of both sides of the Intifada. He was a symbol of all that was wrong. But someone saw something else. Someone saw in the grace of the way his arm threw the rock the ability to do something else, be something more. And that seer said, "That boy can play the violin."

So, with some doing, it was said, a music teacher convinced the rock-throwing boy to put down his stones and pick up a violin. He entered the church-birthed school, and he played, he learned, he changed. That little boy is now a classical musician who travels the world speaking of unlearning war by learning music.

And that is why I am a Christian: justice, reconciliation, and love.

Moses and the Exodus, the people finding a new way out. Isaiah and the peaceable kingdom, lamb lying down with the lion. Jesus, and love your neighbor.

And this is what a Christian does: Plays the violin, makes music, crafts art, creates beauty while others throw rocks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Leaving Church

Leaving church.

It's Monday.

Most ministers I know consider leaving church. Especially on Mondays. Sundays are hard work. Weird hard work. Not like digging ditches or hauling hay or shoveling manure. I've done those things. Preaching is more like standing naked in front of a crowd, wearing a blindfold so you can't see how folks are responding to your nakedness.

So, you put in your hard work, then someone calls you on Monday to complain that their committee's meeting time was incorrect in the bulletin. Regardless of the facts that: a) You don't type the bulletin; and b) the incorrect information the bulletin-typer used was passed along (incorrectly!) from the self-same complaining caller.

A pastor-friend of mine says he is a full-fledged Christian on Sunday mornings, an atheist on Mondays, an agnostic on Tuesdays, a critic on Wednesdays, but by Saturdays, he's talked himself into believing again.

Back to leaving church.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote an autobiographical little book by that title last year or the year before or so. It describes her move from pastor to professor. Despite the title, Rev. Preacher Ms. Taylor didn't really leave church. She just got a new gig down the road, teaching at a seminary. She moved from one church job to another kind of church job.

A friend of mine, though, really did leave church. After 25 years as a pastor -- the thing he felt called to do in high school and set out to do ever since then -- he just quit. He served in little-bitty, clapboard churches in the country. He worked at a lovely, old rock-building, pointy-steeple church in the big city. He settled into a very fine, intriguing, interesting congregation that fit him like a glove. He loved to preach. He enjoyed the counseling sessions. The pay was good. His co-workers were engaging. His spouse and family supported their husband-daddy-minister. The church grew. His denomination applauded him. People cared for him, made thoughtful replies to his sermons, encouraged him to take sabbaticals.

Then, he quit. Considered his life and his life's work, his vocation and his avocation, his calling and his career. And he quit. Cold turkey. No new job, no gig down the street, no skeletons chasing him from the closet, no book contract. No crisis of faith. No nothing. Just a mortgage to pay, kids to send to college, and a sense it was the right thing to do.

He left.

He told me it was because his soul ached. So he left church.

Wow. Made we wonder. Would I be brave enough to do that? Would you?

Not just leave church necessarily. But leave anything that seems to fit? Would we leave the certain for the uncertain? Would we?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friendship, aged almost-eight.

Two little girls in the backseat of a car, balloons tied around their almost eight year-old wrists, one pink, one yellow. Giggles and whispers and jokes that only their certain subset of the species understands.

Pop! The pink balloon shoots shreds of itself around the car.

Tears follow. Big, big drops.

"Here, you can have my balloon," the yellow-tied girl offers. "Or..." Her eyes are questioning. Or what? Or what? Or what?

"Or...I'll pop mine, too."

"You would," the other asks, not wanting that to happen but amazed that it would.

Pop! The yellow balloon goes to meet the pink one in balloon heaven or wherever balloons go when they die.

Tears end. Laughter, much laughter, follows.

Friendship, aged almost-eight.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Managing People's Disappointments

The voice rounds the corner several steps ahead of its person. Both are big and jovial, the voice and its carrier.

"So, sorry to disappoint you all, Miz Laura. You ladies are doin' such a fine job, there's jes no money in our little ole city's budget. Ask ole Matt there's he's been after us to fund his project for three, four years now. Matt, you know how it is, how disappointing it is. Talk with Miz Laura here and these fine ladies."

Before they know it, Matt and Miz Laura have been pulled together as a team, each consoling the other with words of disappointment about their failed requests for funding. Each nodding in agreement with the mayor who left them in the hallway as he sproinged down the steps of the Zen Town Hall.

About three steps down he slaps me on the shoulder, pulling me in to the conversation he's just had. "And you, good people, you know I'd be at your church's anniversary if I could, Preacher. Hate to disappoint you, but you know the promise I made when I married Hattie..."

Everybody knows the promise he made Hattie. There's no convert like a new convert. And the mayor reminds everybody in Zen of his conversion as often as he can.

Vincent Octavius Xavier di Popolo is his name. He's our mayor. And has been as long as anybody can remember. Vox, as everybody calls him, was born into the town's only Catholic Italian family. His parents emigrated to Zen at the turn of a certain century. They owned a feed and seed store. After Vox was born one Thursday, his father stood on the counter of the store on Saturday morning and help the baby up -- already big -- and introduced to every seed-buying farmer in the county as a future president of these united states. Papa di Popolo's accent was so thick that almost nobody could understand, but the farmers all laughed when the baby yelled a roaring, rollicking cry. "See, they already hear him in Washington," the shopkeeper said.

But it seems that almost from that presentation in the temple of Zen commerce, the little baby knew his father was wrong. The di Popolos were good Catholics. At least as good as they could be in Zen, as the only Catholics in Zen. About once every six weeks, they drove the ninety miles to the nearest Catholic church to not understand the priest whose Latin wasn't very good anyway. But Vox did understand one thing. This would not make him president. Sure Catholics had run for President and one day one would win. But this was Texas. And Vox knew he could never work his way up the ladder -- no stair-stepping to the county courthouse, then to Austin, then to Washington as a Catholic from the Lone Star State.

So, in the seventh grade, Vox set his sights on Hattie Broaddus, daughter of the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Zen. He carried her books. He pushed away other boys to sit by her. He took the taunting of his classmates when he skipped out on recess games of baseball to sit by her in the shade on the playground. He went to Sunday night church just to see her sing in the junior choir.

Pastor Broaddus hated Vox's courtship of his daughter. No offspring of his would marry the son of a feedstore-owning, accented immigrant. Vox's own parents hated his courtship of Hattie, as well. They had secretly arranged for the daughter of a friend back in Italy to come to Zen to marry Vox, in due time of course. Disappointment filled the air in Zen like the clouds of mosquitoes that circled in the humid springtime air.

Then, one Sunday evening, it happened. Pastor Broaddus introduced the closing hymn. The hymn was so stereotypical that you wouldn't believe me if I told you it was, "Just as I Am." But it was. Everybody sang the first four stanzas, the Pastor Broadduss stopped the organist to pray. He prayed and he prayed, then he asked the junior choir to sing another stanza, which they did. Then, Brother Broaddus, asked everybody to keep their heads bowed and their eyes closed and just hum another verse or two. They did.

And as all the Baptists in Zen hummed, Vox di Popolo walked steadily up the center aisle and told his future father-in-law that wanted to be baptized. Brother Broaddus wept. The good people in church thought it was because the preacher had saved the soul of the lost sheep who would father his grandchildren. But it wasn't. Pastor Broaddus wept for disappointment. Disappointment that Vox di Popolo had outsmarted him into the waters of baptism.

Vox was immersed, head to toe -- and held under a remarkably long time, some commented -- the following Sunday morning. His parents stayed home and wept. They wept tears of disappointment, knowing that Vox had washed away the faith of their homeland in a new-fangled indoor bathtub, recently installed by the Baptists.

On the way home from church that day, Vox asked Hattie to marry him. He promised her if she did, he would never miss a single Sunday of church with her. She said yes. They kept their engagement a secret until the day after high school. Then they were married that summer, surrounded by smiling, crying. disappointed parents.

"...the promise I made when I married Hattie," the mayor was saying. "I promised her I would never miss church with her. So I sure do appreciate the invite to celebrate ya'll's big day, but I sure would hate to disappoint Hattie."

"Yes, sir," I said. "I understand, Mr. Mayor."

He stopped at the bottom step, which was a rare occurrence. I don't know that I had ever seen Vox di Popolo stand still. He looked up into the big sky over Zen, then he looked back at me.

"Preacher," he said. "That's it. That's what leadership is: managing people's disappointments."
Thanks to my friend and former teacher Bill
for passing along the kernel of this story,
the line about managing people's disappointments.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Good Film

Take eight bucks out of your pocket and go spend it on a movie.

Not just any movie, but "One Peace at a Time," Turk Pipkin's follow-up to, "Nobelity."

The ever-cool, very-Texan, everywhere-at-home Turk took his camera and some good questions on a trip around the world for about a year. He visited twenty countries on five continents. The outline for this film is the idea that every child has basic rights to food, water, shelter, education, nurture, and peace. Turk looked at places in the world where that was not happening, and he looked at groups who are making that happen.

The movie is tough. Children drinking water with maggots in it. Girls with arms blown off by U.S.-dropped cluster bombs. Dead dogs in streets with flies on them. You may want your eight bucks back.

But then, you'll meet people who are working to make the world a better place. Nobel Laureates who are helping women start home-based small business, foundations drilling water wells in Africa, a Marine mom trying to ban cluster bombs. People who are good news in a great and terrible world. You'll be glad you spent the eight bucks.

The repeated refrain in the movie is, "Do something." Pick a cause, pick a challenge, pick an issue, pick an organization. Pick a problem and fix it. Help Glimmer of Hope drill a well. Help The Miracle Foundation care for orphans in India. Lend money though Kiva.org.

Here's a warning. The eight dollars you spend on this movie may end up costing you much more. It should. It's worth it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ernst Schreibenfesten on "Words"

Ernst Z. Schreibenfesten was in line in front of me at SueSue's Diner and Rifle Range here in Zen yesterday.

Ernst is the editor and owner of the "Zen Zephyr," our semi-weekly newspaper. Ernst is three Williams (Shakespeare, Faulkner and Loyd Garrison) in one. He's a poet, storyteller and crusader. Many people in Zen hate him. Others fear him. Most just avoid him. Ernst hardly speaks, mumbles when he does, asks questions with very sharp edges, then turns the whole thing into a front-page work of art.

He eats lunch at SueSue's every day, at a table near the window, by himself.

I like Ernst, though in the years I've known him, he's never said four words to me. Still, glibly, I began to blather to him in the line at SueSue's.

"Howdy, Ernst."

"Drmlgr," he replied.

"I've started a blog, Ernst. As a writer, thought you might like to know. It's just a way to write down some thi..." I stopped. His dark eyes focused in on me as I assumed the shooters did on their targets in the rifle range part of SueSue's little eatery.

"Words," Ernst said. "Do you think the world needs more words?"

He wasn't really asking, I knew, but I plunged in. "Well, it's just a way for me t..."

"Words. Let me tell you about words."

"Words make you lonely. You write them or speak them and people attack you, laugh at you, criticize you, argue with you, respond flippantly to you. They take the words you craft, your gift to them, and they twist them and question them. Or ignore them. And they do it with misplaced modifiers and plural pronouns linked with singular verbs and sentences that end in prepositions and by using 'There's' as plural."

"People don't like words. Once when I first took over at the 'Zephyr,' we delivered copies to every home in Zen. And people called the office to ask why I was 'polluting' their driveways with my 'Communistic ideas.'

"And printed words may be the worst. Sarcasm. Irony. Those things don't translate. About the time Watergate was coming to a head, one of our esteemed local 'bidnessmen' here in Zen gave a gazillion dollars to Zen Collegiate University and Beauty School. Dam bidnessman who had been a slum lord here for twenty years or more. Cheats poor people out of their rent and gives the money to establish an ethics chair. An ethics chair? So I wrote an editorial suggesting Nixon be appointed to the professorship since he was soon to be out of a job. And fools stopped me one the street. Half of 'em to tell me it was a fine idea, and half of 'em to ask me had I lost my mind. Words don't have emotions. People do. And they get 'em all mixed up."

Ernst stopped and looked at me for a long time. Then he looked down at the chopped steak on his plastic plate.

"Words. Hfngrh. Schmrn."

He paid for his lunch and walked to his table by the window.

He didn't even ask me for the address or name of my blog.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

30,000 sadnesses

The president's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan saddens me.

I worry that he chose "political necessity" over hope for a new way of living in the world.

I worry about the long term stability of the Middle East and Central Asia.

I worry about the 30,000 soldiers and their families, their fears, the mental health, their lives.

I worry about strained Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations.

I worry about my children (9 and 7) who have never known their country of origin not to be at war.

I worry that many Americans care more about Tiger Woods possible extra-marital dalliances than they do the cause of peace.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The "Blesseds Are" words

It's cold here in Zen, Texas, windy and wet, biting. As I drove to work, I saw a man standing on the corner begging for food or money.
  • Blessed are the poor...

Last night, the president of these United States stood in front of the cadets at one of our nation's military academies and promised to send 30,000 more soldiers to the war in Afghanistan.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers...

Last night on hulu, I watched a clip of John Stewart interviewing Maziar Bahari. Bahari was in prison for four months in Iran, in part for a fake interview he did with "The Daily Show."
  • Blessed are the persecuted...

I just read some posts on the blog of a friend of mine, an ftm transman, whose father and others toss out (maybe hurl is a better term) the Bible as wedge and bat and battering ram of condemnation.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...

In Mary Gordon's new book, "A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels," she reflects on the Beatitudes (these "blesseds are..." words from Jesus):

  • "To say yes: for this I will try to change my life. And more: without this I would not know who I am." (as quoted in the NYT Book Review, November 22, 2009)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Why blog?

Why blog?

For years now I've read others' blogs, some religiously, some not so. And I've thought, varyingly, I should or I could do that. But I didn't. Till now.

Why now? Why blog?

First, it's not about self-promotion. (Or at least I say it's not.) On one hand, I don't care if you (or anybody else) reads this. On the other hand, I do care, I really do.

Not long ago I met a new group of friends and in the process discovered some old ideas...the ideas of fun, laughter, telling stories, thinking deeply, and being creative. Among other things, we went to an art gallery/studio and visited with the artist. I rediscovered creativity.

This group of new friends is preacher-heavy (all of us, in fact), and we began to talk about the sermon as art. (My aren't high art, by the way.) All of this made me think.

And so, this blog was born/is being born.

For me, it's a discipline. The discipline of taking the ten-jillion random thoughts that run through my simple little mind and making them coherent, a piece.

My major (increasingly major) form of writing these days is the sermon. And, with three services where I'm trying often to preach three different sermons (in order not to kill myself with boredom), I find my sermons are becoming schlockier and schlockier, too didactic, too-much dependant on others' thinking.

So, while this blog is a discipline, it's also a place to be creative, to think and express in different ways.

I'm hoping to find the narrative of life beyond the facts, the song beyond the sermon.

Otherizing Richmond

Dropped the kids off at school this morning and turned on the radio midway into an NPR story. The reporter was talking about his hometown of Richmond. "Hey, I went to school in Richmond," I thought, paying closer attention.

The reporter spoke of typical innercity troubles, drugs, crime, and the like. Then, the story got a bit more hopeful, a glimmer of optimism wandered out of my speakers. With the upturn I thought, "I'll email this story to some of my old Richmond friends. Make sure they hear about their old stompin' grounds."

But then the story took a nose dive. The reporter started talking about a high school gang rape that went unreported, abject poverty that goes unnoticed. He interviewed a rape crisis center director who used a word in a new way: "Otherize." Horribly poor, hopeless people "otherize" those around them, she said. They are so poor they don't think of others as being like them, so victims may become "otherized."

I paid closer attention, and more critical. "This can't be the Richmond, I knew," I thought. "This reporter doesn't have a Tidewater lilt. And the people he's talking to don't sounds like they're from the South. Surely he's not talking about my Richmond."

I began to run through a geographical rolodex: "There's a Richmond, Texas, I know. But that's a little town near Houston. That's not it. There's a Richmond, Indiana, right? Near Gary, maybe? Things are tough there. Maybe there's a Richmond in Jersey or California. Richmond, Washington? No that's Redmond, but maybe it's in Oregon. But he's not talking about Richmond, Virginia. Not my Richmond."

Releived I heard the reporter sign off, saying he was in Richmond, California.

Whew, I thought. Not my Richmond.

And I realized, I had successfully "otherized" those people. I had "otherized" their problems, their poverty, their "othering." I had pushed them out of any place I knew, so I would not have to be bothered by them. They are "other."