A wide spot in my imagination.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Let there be peace on earth...and in the Senate

So, the Senate majority leader says the U.S. Senate may stay in session all the way up until Christmas Eve. And one member of that august body responds by calling the work schedule sacrilegious. Another senator says that the Senate's possible work load is disrespectful to birth of Jesus.

Sure, having to work on Christmas Eve is not so fun. Everybody from the Virgin Mary might have something to say about that.

But consider the work the Senate has before it -- A treaty to limit nuclear weapons and a bill that funds the federal government. Spending the week before the birth of the Prince of Peace thinking about a peace treaty seems okay to me. And the other bill (with the terrible name of omnibus spending bill) contains some pretty needed stuff, too. Sure it's got some "pork" and sure it needs a full discussion, but that bill includes things such as health care for poor people, projects to prevent the flooding of towns and money for a hospital emergency room. The Jesus whose birthday is coming up, said he came to "bring good news to the poor." Again, spending some time before Christmas talking about how we help poor people seems like an okay use of anyone's time, even United States senators.

The two senators who criticized the Senate schedule have backed off their comments a little bit. And they're certainly welcome to vote against these bills if they choose. But hiding their opposition behind inflammatory religious language seems to miss the point of the holiday they say they're defending.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Skipping Church

As I type this, the people of the church I serve are singing and praying and listening to the scripture and celebrating communion...and I am not there. I am skipping church. For most people, that's no big deal. Judging from attendance patterns, many people skip church. It's a little different for me: I'm the pastor of a church, so it's my usual role to be the for the singing, praying, listening, celebrating. So, I don't skip church too often.
And to be truthful I didn't take the day off, and I'm not playing hooky. Here's the deal: We have three worship services at our congregation. Most Sundays, I lead or take some active role in each of those three services. But this morning, for the 9:30 service my colleague here at UCC is preaching and leading worship. So, I find myself with an hour of nothing to do.
I thought about going to one of the adult groups. I thought about being in worship as a congregant. I thought about working on my sermon for next week. I thought about checking email.
But instead, I'm taking about eight minutes to type this, and I'm drinking a cup of coffee.
It's good to skip church. Let me explain that. For me it is good to skip church because church is what I do, it's my job. For most people it's good to actively engage in church because because it is not what they do all week. For most people, gathering at a church or temple or mosque or synagogue provides a refreshing break from the rest of life. And that is what is really good.
It's not about "skipping church." It's about taking a break, changing our patterns, rethinking our habits. Sometimes that is formalized as a sabbatical. Other times it's a nap on the couch with football on TV. The way the Book of Genesis tells it, even God took a break.
The Advent season is sort of like skipping church for me. That is, it's about change. It's about seeing the world in new ways and experiencing our faith in new ways.
Back to skipping church... Lest anyone think I'm a real slacker, I probably should say I've already preached and led worship at one service this morning, and I've got one more to go. At those services, the scripture reading includes an interesting little blurb. In Matthew 11: 18 and 19, Jesus says that people called him a drunkard and a glutton because he hung out and ate with sinners and tax collectors. Now, there's a slacker for you. That's "skipping church," or at least changing our expectations, seeing things differently, having new insight.
At Christmas-time we sing about "sweet little Jesus boy," not "sweet old drunkard guy." Maybe we need to take a break from some our of holiday traditions to re-think them. Maybe we need to do things differently so we see things differently.
Maybe I should write some new carols about Jesus as glutton and drunkard, party-guy and friend to ne'er-do-wells.
Or, maybe I'll just go back to drinking coffee and skipping church for a few more minutes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Blessing: May You Be Tossed from the Palace

Yesterday, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince William is engaged. All soon-to-be-weds, young and old, need a word of blessing. So here's one for young Will and Kate:
Yesterday, they announced their engagement. And today, on the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, is the day to honor another princess, St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
The daughter of the king of Hungary, Elizabeth married a German prince. The stories say she loved him. She bore three children. Under the spiritual direction of a Franciscan friar, Elizabeth led a life of prayer, sacrifice and service to the poor and sick. To show solidarity with the poor, she wore simple clothing. Every day, she would take bread to hundreds of poor people.
After six years of marriage, her husband died in the Crusades. Her in-laws looked upon her generosity as squandering the royal purse. They mistreated her and eventually chunked her out of the palace. Elizabeth joined the Secular Franciscan Order and spent her time caring for the poor in a hospital which she founded. She died in 1231, at the ripe old age of 23.
So, for Kate and Prince William: May you (and all of us) be blessed enough to live a life like Elizabeth of Hungary.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sam Rayburn, Where Are You?

The past often seems prettier than the present or the future. The sharp edges of history are often blurred by the rose-colored glasses through which we look backward.

No, I don't want to go back to the days of coal oil lamps or picking my own cotton or driving wagons. But allow me one misty-eyed plea to the past: Sam Rayburn where are you?

Sam Rayburn was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1940 to 1961. His term was interrupted twice when his party lost control of the House from 1947-1948 and 1953-1954.

Sam Rayburn is from my neck of the woods (Northeast Texas), and I worked for five years for the congressman who later represented Rayburn's District. In fact, when I worked in the House from 1991-1996, I think some of our constituents thought "Mr. Sam" was still their representative, even though he had been dead for 30 years. So, I'm not unbiased here. I have an attachment to the old, dead Speaker.

Biased or not, I think our country could use him and his type.

Rayburn was not perfect. He was a son of the South and a man of his times, and no doubt those labels showed forth from time to time.

But Rayburn had some traits the country needs.

First, he was by all accounts a fairly shy man. Outside of work, Rayburn didn't have much to say. In contrast, this morning, before the dust even settled on yesterday's election results, the incoming Speaker of the House was bragging and braying on TV, challenging the president and claiming to be the voice of America. Then, this evening, the outgoing Speaker of the House was trumpeting her own successes and staking her claim as martyr for a cause.

In addition to being shy, Rayburn was private. Not only did he keep quiet about most things, he really kept quiet about himself. An example: Rayburn's brief marriage failed. And he said absolutely nothing about it. Compare that to Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, John Ensign and their woefully public tawdriness.

Rayburn paid his own way. He never accepted gifts from political favor-seekers. Once he even paid his own way on a Congressional fact-finding trip to the Panama Canal. Reading about Tom Delay's trial about money-laundering and what-not makes me ask even louder: Sam Rayburn, where are you?

Twice Rayburn lost the Speakership, turning over the gavel to his good friend, Massachusetts Republican Joseph Martin. What's notable in the sentence is "good friend." Imagine Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner sitting down for burgers and beer. Maybe they do. I hope they do. But Rayburn and Martin developed a friendship that transcended partisan differences.

The story is told that, after one change in power in the House, Rayburn and Martin agreed not to swap offices. In the Capitol, where "importance" is often defined by real estate, that non-move was an act of humility.

Many lines of political wit are attributed to the dry and reserved Rayburn. My favorite is: "Any jackass can kick a barn down. It takes a carpenter to build one." Sam Rayburn, carpenter, where are you?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Some Disco for Election Night

It's Election Night 2010, and I'm watching old episodes of "30 Rock" on Hulu. Which is kind of odd for a political junkie who once made his living in the halls of Congress.

No, I haven't become one of those cynics who doesn't care; I care deeply about politics and policies. And I don't think I'm sticking my head in the sand; though Tracy Morgan is a funny diversion.

Instead I'm thinking that Gloria Gaynor's disco tune could be a sound track for history.

You remember Gloria Gaynor, of course. Her hit, "I will Survive," topped the charts in 1979. Hum that song to yourself while we take a quick ride through American history:

Benjamin Tillman loudly and ignorantly criticized Theodore Roosevelt for inviting esteemed African-American educator, Booker T. Washington to the White House. Tillman was a blustery, despicable racist. He was also a duly elected member of the United States Senate...and yet, the republic survived.

Joseph McCarthy lied and blubbered about Communists hiding all across the country. His nasty antics inflamed nationalistic fires and turned neighbors into spies. McCarthy, too, was a democratically elected United States Senator...and yet, the nation survived.

Keep Gloria Gaynor singing in your head. Here's a tale from about the time her hit was on the radio:

My hometown once elected a yahoo to the State House of Representatives. He showed up at the State House, turned his chair around backward to denounce his colleagues, then paid one of cousins to shoot him in the arm, and blamed the shooting on Satan worshipers. He was a full-fledged wacko, elected by the good voters of East Texas...and yet, the nation survived.

Richard Nixon. Warren Harding. David Duke. Belligerent little George Wallace preening in a schoolhouse door. The list could go on. All elected by voters who should have known better, done better, been better...and yet, the republic has survived.

This Election Night is far from over. So far, one senator-to-be rejects the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s, and another one is a virulent homophobe. One Senate candidate who denied the separation of church and state has lost an election bid; another who denies it as well is still to be determined. Will these names join history's too-long list of never-should-have-beens?

My best guess is that, in the short-term, the President and other Democrats will have to develop better agendas and tactics. My other hunch is that in 2012, "Throw the bums out," may be the cry against some of those elected in 2010. We seem to be a fickle electorate.

The ship of state will, I pray, list along, edging onward, but rocking and rollicking as she goes. Which brings us back to Gaynor's tune: We will survive. I believe that. I hope that.

Though survival is not always the highest goal. Thriving would be better. And indeed, some sad souls have not survived the perilous history of benightedly elected politicians: Racism, ignorance, lack of concern for social service programs have harmed and killed too many people. We can, we should, we must do better.

Maybe I'm naive, but I lean heavily on the patient and wise words often preached by the good Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

So as it bends this evening, rather than get all a-twitter at the play-by-play results bellowed by braying heads on television, I'll just hum a 1979 disco hit, go back to some distracting chuckles prompted by re-runs, and do what I do at funerals: Commend this election's soul to God.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

At the Intersection of Death and Debt

Sometimes the ironies of life are almost too much. Read on...

There is a growing coalition of people in Texas saying that the "payday lending" industry is out of control.

You may have seen payday lenders opening up shops in strip malls near you. In Texas, those lenders are charging low interest rates and huge fees. The result is that the borrowers may end up paying back $600, $700 or $800 on $300 loans. The practice is hugely unjust and unethical and is trapping many people in cycle of debt.

So, a couple of groups in our church have studied this issue, looking at what our scriptures say about lending and borrowing, looking at current payday practices, and thinking about alternative lending practices. Some members of our church are actively involved in the coalition to change state laws.

Then, last week, our church was asked by a local hospice chaplain to host a memorial service for families whose recently deceased loved ones were cared for by a hospice group -- we'll call it "Statewide Care Services" (not it's real name). That sounds simple enough, right?

Well, it turns out that "Statewide Care Services" is owned by "Nationwide Care Company." Nationwide Care Company, in turn, is by "XYZ Multinational." And XYZ Multinational also owns "Zippy Cash," a payday lending company that operates in 19 states. One source says "Zippy Cash" is charging 456% on payday loans in Oklahoma.

So, last night, I tossed this out to our a Discussion Group that has been studying payday lending. What do we do, I asked? Do we host this memorial service? Do we refuse on principle? The discussion were very thoughtful. Suggestions ranged from charging them our church rental normal fee plus 456% to putting a line in the bulletin at the service telling them we’re concerned with their business practices to not hosting the service at all. The conversation was good, and there were more suggestions.

The end result is that our congregation is going to send a letter to "XYZ Multinational" telling them that (as a matter of compassion) we will host the memorial service and (as a matter of justice) we would like for their payday lender subsidiary to lower fees and interest on payday loans to 25% or less.

The intersection of theory (opposing payday lending) and practice (hosting a hospice memorial service)... the problem of knowledge (if only we hadn't known so much)... questions about investments (is my retirement fund invested in a payday lender?)... and much, much more...

So, what do you think? Please post your comments, ideas, suggestions, questions...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dr. Laura and the F-Bomb

Dr. Laura dropped the F-Bomb on her radio show today. A few days ago, she repetitively used the N-word, so maybe you saw the F-word coming. I didn't. Read on.

My third place title for this blog post is, “Forgiveness 101.” But I decided on, “ Dr. Laura and the F-Bomb,” because that’s the most provocative. The runner-up title is, “Christianity Isn’t for Wimps.”

But, since I want to talk about forgiveness, let me back up to a confession. (Confession and forgiveness go together.)

My confession: When I’m out running errands or visiting people during the day, I sometimes listen to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s call-in radio show. I know, I know, she’s a pariah among liberals. (I said this is confession which means I’m admitting my sins.) Dr. Laura has made some egregious homophobic remarks. And her latest babble using racially charged words was unconscionable. Moreover, from time to time she offers her callers advice that I think is socially and emotionally harmful.

But she is also entertaining, provocative, shocking. (That’s her business by the way, to attract listeners so they hear ads and buy stuff.) She also has a knack for cutting through callers’ BS that makes me chuckle. As a pastor I spend a lot of time using active listening, “what-I-hear-you-saying-is” responses. Dr. Laura gets to say, “Shut up.” So, I may listen because I’m a little jealous.

Anyway, I’m not supposed to like her. She’s ending her show, so she’s on the way out. And her history of wacko comments justifies reasons why I should change the station and certainly should not expect anything good from her.

So, there I was today, indulging in my secret, drive-time Dr. Laura fix. A caller phones in to her show to describe a personal life that is shaped by Catholic guilt. Dr. Laura listens, cajoles, and badgers for a while. Then she says that she herself was baptized Catholic but has never practiced the faith. (I think she’s Jewish.) She further clarifies that she is not clergy. Then she drops the F-Bomb.

She says, “Your God is a very forgiving God.” (pause) “So, why aren’t you?”

Wow! The F-Bomb from Dr. Laura. Not what I was expecting. Forgiveness.

I don’t know that she herself is able to practice that fully. She seems pretty ticked about the sponsors who’ve dropped her show and the kerfuffle she’s found herself in. There are probably a lot of people out there in radio land who need to forgive Dr. Laura.

But forgiveness is at the core of Christian living. The blustery radio doctor was right. And that’s where the “Christianity is not for wimps” idea comes in. Forgiveness is not all kissy-kissy, huggy-huggy, everybody-hold-hands-and-sing. Forgiveness is hard work. When someone has used racially derogatory terms to refer to you or your family, it’s hard to forgive them. When someone has called your version of the species “sick,” forgiveness is hard to come by.

I had a friend and church member who was prisoner of war during World War II. His living conditions and lack of food were appalling. His ordeal was torment. For the rest of his life, he wrestled with forgiveness.

I struggle with forgiving the people who viciously attacked and robbed my grandfather, an old man who walked with a cane.

No, Christianity isn’t for wimps. Forgiveness is hard work.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hic sunt dracones

Turns out, the old mapmaker was right. In the early 1500s, a mapmaker got to the edges of his (or her) known world. Uncertain as to what lay beyond, the mapmaker wrote, "Hic sunt dracones." ("Here be dragons").

Evidently, those dragons are real. And they're in the subway tunnels of Washington, DC.

You see, a Maine Tea Party blogger recently passed on some directions to his compatriots headed to DC for an upcoming rally. The writer suggested some eateries to enjoy, some sights to see, and some places to avoid. Specifically, the blogger recommended that Tea Partiers avoid certain lines on the DC Metro (the subway system, which, during my ten years of living in DC, I found safe, clean, and reliable).

Parts of the Metro should be avoided, the blogger says. As rationale he provides this gem: "You don't know where you are, so you should not explore." (Translation: "Hic sunt dracones.")

What great advice. (Sarcasm intended.)

Imagine how different the world would be if only that wisdom had been shared earlier.

Instead of sending his disciples into all the world, Jesus would have instructed them to go only to their old haunts where safety was assured. Silly Jesus, encouraging exploration.

Imagine Isabella and Ferdinand counseling Columbus: "Yes, we'll finance your sailing trip, only stay where you can see the shoreline of Europe."

Or what about Horace Greely's advice, "Go west, young man, go west. Only don't go any further than the end of the street where you your momma and daddy can still see you."

Mother Teresa would never have venture to India. Having never been there before, she should never have gone to explore the needs of Calcutta.

John Kennedy's rhetoric would have been far more reasonable if he declared to the nation, "The Russians can have outer space. Americans don't know what's out there, so we'll just stay home and gaze at our collective bellybuttons."

Any parent, I'm sure, would be wise to follow this advice and pass it on: "No, you can't think about going to college there. That campus is over seven miles away from home. We don't know what's there. Don't explore."

History offers more examples, I'm sure. But if you'll pardon me, I need to go outside and put up a "Hic Sunt Dracones" sign at the end of my driveway.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Report Cards

A brown manila envelope arrived in the mail three days ago. The slightly lumpy package contained my report cards from the 1st grade through college. My mother found them somewhere in my parent's house, decided that she and my dad no longer needed them, and mailed them to me.

Opening that package, and unexpectedly seeing every grade I was ever given, was a strange experience.

I noticed a trend: Math is not now, has not ever, probably shall never be my "thing." For the past couple of weeks, I've spent more hours than usual poring over finances at church. Summer is a traditionally "low income time" in congregations, and the Finance Committee has begun planning for next year, both of which require numerical attention from me. So, I've focused more time than normal on accrual statements and on profit and loss statements and on liabilities deducted from balance sheets rather than on expense sheets and on reconciliation reports and on actual-versus-budgeted figures. It makes my head hurt.

On my second grade report, my teacher made notes three out of six grading periods about my "regrouping" work in math. My head hurt then, too.

My seventh grade report cards are first where I wrote my own name in cursive. My handwriting is messier today, and the letters are "loopier," but basically the writing looks much the same. At what age are our traits -- handwriting or character -- set?

My 10th grade report showed a class I don't even remember taking. The teacher's name jarred only the slightest of memories.

My elementary and middle school reports cards were all hand-written. My high school and college report cards were computer-printed.

The elementary school I attended no longer exists as of this very week. Students started attending there in 1959. This week, when school begins, those students will begin their school year in a new building at a new location with a new name. I wish them well.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Seven Humans

The ongoing chitter-chatter over the proposed mosque near the site of the World Trade Center towers was met today with another bit of religion-related news. A poll found that an increasing number of Americans (something like 18%) think that President Obama is Muslim.

Both of these news stories have some valid questions to consider: Do we really believe in religious liberty in this country? Are city zoning regulations appropriate for houses of worship? Does the president's religion (any president's religion) matter? Should we pay attention to polls?

Others have addressed these stories with interesting facts (there's a strip joint right by Ground Zero, too; is that hallowed?), good humor (Colbert and Stewart for example), and historical analysis (see Mayor Bloomberg's speech).

Tucked away in all of this, though is a troubling idea: the idea that Muslims are "wrong," "evil" or "unAmerican."

Each Sunday in worship at the church I serve as pastor, we begin our services by quoting some lines from a story about Jesus. We talk about God as Spirit and Truth. These lines come a conversation that Jesus (a Jew) had with a (Samaritan) woman. Among the remarkable aspects of that story is the fact that Jesus treated this unnamed foreign woman like a person. And she treated him the same way. They worshiped differently, they followed different customs, they spoke different dialects. History taught them they were enemies. But, as the Gospel of John tells the story, they defied the traditions and biases of their day to have a civil conversation, person to person.

That seems to be missing in much of our public conversation today over mosques and presidential religious preferences.

Words like "terrorist," "infidel," and "mastermind" (with its comic book sinister feel) are tossed around. A billion or more people are compared by Newt Gingrich to Nazis. The Internet is too full of harmful people calling others "dogs," "satan followers" and worse.

I can't change all that. I don't have a national news show as a platform.

However, I can do this: I can offer seven quick stories of seven humans whom I know and appreciate who are Muslim. (Why seven? It's a holy number for Jews and Muslims. It's as good a number as any.)

First, there is woman who is my Facebook friend. She likes Darth Vader, Star Trek, U2, and Johnny Cash. She is a Muslim.

Second, one of the kids with whom my son built robots at school last year has an outlandishly loud laugh. He hugs his mom and walks to school with his dad. He's a Muslim.

The guy who bought books at our church's book fair and brought back the $60 he found tucked inside one of the books is Number Three. He's a Muslim.

My friend the imam who's kids were hanging on him while he was trying to lead a service at their mosque. He's a Muslim. My kids hand on me at our church sometime. Drives me bonkers. The imam is Number 4.

The couple who hosted (on their own dime) a breakfast for clergy of different faiths to come together just to to visit. They're Muslim. They're Numbers 5 and 6.

Number 7. The little boy who sat next to my kid all year last year during lunch who didn't eat all of the food his parents packed for him (just like my kid didn't), who whispered and giggled at the table, who talked about video games and Pokemon cards, and who couldn't wait to rush outside for recess. He's Muslim.

These are people whom I know. They are Muslim. And human.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

America's Got...Kids Growing Up Too Fast?

Reality TV shows are good summer entertainment, but they're not designed to be places of deep thought. And the "judges" on this summer's "America's Got Talent" don't pretend to be Plato, Aristotle and the like. But last night, the reality show's three judges -- Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne, and Howie Mandel engaged in a little philosophical back and forth that's worth thinking about.

In case you've never seen the show, it features acts of all sorts (jugglers, singers, harmonica payers and the like) doing their thing in 90 seconds, all with the hopes of winning a big cash prize. Last night, twelve acts pranced onto the small screens of America's living room.

One of those acts featured two twelve year-old ballroom dancers. They were fast, sparkling, smiley and exceedingly talented. My year of Middle School cotillion lessons does not qualify me as a ballroom dance expert, but what the kids did was impressive and old-looking.

It's the old-looking that caught the judges' attention. One of the judges (Piers, I think) said the kids looked 25. Another of the judges (Howie, I think) picked up on that and said that 12 year- olds dancing like adults looked "creepy." And for a brief moment, the judges had a sort of philosophical discussion about age-appropriateness. Then -- poof! -- it was time for an advertisement break, and we Americans shifted out attention to what we do best: consumerism.

Their conversation was nothing new, but it's worth thinking about. Are kids growing up too fast? Do you they act older than their years? I think their the answer to both questions is often, Yes, and I don't think the consequences will be good.

Also on the show last night was a ten or eleven-year old rapper singing a love song. Does a child that age even understand love? Are audiences doing him any favor by applauding his imitation of adulthood? Another act (a troop of pre-teen or tween girls) did a hip-hop dance routine. Again, good dancing. It was their attitude that worried me: they were huffy, sultry, mean-looking. Is that what we expect/want/need from youngsters?

I know that styles change. And "style" can mean attitude, language, facial expressions, mannerisms and the like. And I recognize that as an over forty year old, I'm now firmly in the group that can't be trusted, headed toward stodgy-ism.

I don't think I'm trying to squelch talent, individualism or generational differences. But when hormones in milk are advancing the starting age for little girls' periods and even reality TV show judges are wondering about children posing as adults, maybe this is something we should consider.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The American Way?

Yesterday, the newspaper here in River City published a Letter to the Editor that was written in response to an earlier letter. I missed the first letter, but yesterday’s follow-up was a doozy. Almost every sentence is wrong, simplistic, or wildly biased. The letter writer was a fellow from a town north of here a few miles. The paper captioned his letter, “Gay is not the American way.”

Let me offer some feedback to that letter.

First, the letter writer says, “Our forefathers did come to America to avoid religious persecution, but not to avoid religion.” True, some came to avoid persecution. Others, it seems, may have come just to avoid religion. In a 2006 “Wall Street Journal” article entitled, “Sunday,” Craig Harline says that “at the founding of the Republic, not even two in ten American belonged to churches.”

The letter writer next wrote, “Look closely and you will find God mentioned in every document this country was founded on.” Not exactly true. The United States Constitution does not mention God. (However, the Liberian Constitution of 1984 mentioned God in the very first sentence. That was written right before they began to hack each other to bits in a brutal civil war.)

The letter writer went on to say, “The basic premise that marriage is a union between a man and woman was first given to us in God’s word." God’s word is heard in many ways: in Quaker silence, in hymns and songs, in religious traditions. I’m guessing the letter writer meant the scriptures Bible of the Jewish and Christian traditions. And true, marriage is mentioned in the Bible. But marriage seems to pre-date the written scriptures. The Code of Hammurabi mentioned marriage when it was written about 1790 BCE. Even the most conservative Bible scholars would say the first Jewish scriptures weren’t written until 300 years after that. Many biblical historians date the Bible as much younger. So, marriage was around before the Bible.

And, even if we assume the letter writer’s argument that “straight” marriage is the only way to go because it’s in the Bible, we have to be honest: Polygamy and concubinage are in the Bible as well, along with orders to stone children, not eat shrimp, and give all your money away. The Bible is a complicated, remarkable book. Doing something because “it’s in the Bible” can create a big mess.

Then, the letter writer leaves the Bible and goes back to our national documents. He says, “All of our founding documents were written with God and his moral teachings in mind.” This sentence makes me wonder: How, exactly, does this fellow in Texas in 2010 know what the writers had in mind as they wrote in the 1770s? Again, the Constitution does not mention God. Sure, the writers could have had God in mind, or they could have been thinking about English common, the Code of Hammurabi or pumpkin pie for all I know.

Then, referring either to the Bible or to our national documents (his antecedent is somewhat unclear) Mr. Lambert wrote, “These teachings held no place for same-sex marriage.” He’s probably right. Same-sex marriage seems not to have been on the radar of the psalmists, the Apostle Paul or James Madison. But they “held no place” for football, air conditioning, or televisions either.

The writer then says we should toss gay marriage: “It is the American way.” Again, his unclear antecedent makes you think he might be saying gay marriage is “the American way.” But I think he actually means tossing it is “the American way.” He’s entitled to his opinion, and he’s entitled to speak it and to write it to the newspaper. But claiming something is “the American way” is tricky. Slavery was once “the American way.” Not letting women vote was once “the American way.” Locking up citizens with Japanese and German ancestry was once “the American way.” Not having child labor laws was once “the American way.” “The American way” seems to be ever-changing.

Seems to me that respect is a more needed American way. Respect for the facts, respect for changing customs, respect for all God’s children. And more than “the American way,” that should be “the human way.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

An Open Invitation to Anne Rice

Dear Anne Rice:

An honest appraisal: Your books are creepy. And a confession: I haven't read them all. But the ones I have read seem to reflect the opinion I have of your personality: quirky, mysterious, melodious, religious.

So, I was disappointed today to read that you've dropped out of Christianity.

Here's how you phrased it on your Facebook page:

"For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

I think your particular brand of Christianity is the moss-strewn style of your home city, New Orleans. That is, I think you are a Roman Catholic. I admire much about the traditions of Catholicism, but your final sentence there echoes the line attributed to the Protestant Luther: "Here I stand I can do no other."

So, I say, Ms Rice: Don't leave the church. The church needs Reformers like you and old Luther.

I understand your frustration, Ms Rice. I'm the pastor of a church, but I often question my own belonging as well. Regularly I'm shocked by the words and actions of those who claim to speak for the church or for Jesus. They seem so loud. I wonder how I fit in.

You went on to say:

"As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

Let me add my own "Amen" to yours. I think the Jesus (whom you so honestly wrote about in your "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" book) was not any of the "anti's" you list. He welcomed outsiders (lepers and prostitutes in his day, GLBT persons in ours). He included women (who appeared to be the benefactors who kept him and the boys in bread). He loved people and supported policies (both religious and political) that put people above politics, above rules, above tradition.

I think the Jesus to whom you remain committed understands your frustration, your refusal, your quitting. I think he liked people like you (and, I pray, like me). My hunch is that Zacheaus, the woman at the well, the man at the pool of Bethsaida, and others had probably given up on religion too. They probably saw enough quarrelsome, hostile disputatious folks on the inside that they moved to the outside, too. I bet they were quitters. Simon Peter was a big quitter, Thomas was doubter. The rich young ruler bowed out.

And that's exactly the point: Jesus loved the quitters, the failures, the outcasts, the doubters, the people in the edges. Quite honestly, Jesus was the ultimate failure, quitter, outsider.

He failed at convincing the people around him to love one another. They killed him for living out a love that welcomed all to the table. He quit trying to play the power games, the who's-at-the- right-hand-of-God games. Those games of power lead the list of "anti's" you mentioned. Jesus quit (maybe never started) the power games and instead preached a peaceable kingdom. He was the outsider, choosing to be last instead of first, choosing to give rather than to buy, choosing to die rather than to live.

So, interestingly, your leaving Christianity makes some sense. That may be one of the best ways to be a Christian, by bidding the institution adieu, by opting out.

Or, there may be another way... Maybe you find a group of other quitters, other losers, other seekers, other failures. Maybe that's where Christ is found.

Another Catholic writer, another Southern woman like you, Flannery O'Connor, wrote about troubled folks. She described the club-footed, the wooden-legged, the hearing-impaired, the mentally-challenged, even the nymphomaniacal. Often as not, those "grotesques" were Christ figures.

I'm the pastor of a church, and my blog is public, so I hesitate to say this, but it's true -- our congregation is full of losers, maybe not as outlandish as Miss O'Connor's characters, but full of people with questions about their faith, full of people who maybe didn't fit in other places, full of folks with troubles, pains and problems.

On the outside, we may look fairly well put together. But on the inside, I get the sense that some of our souls are as mysterious and shadowy as the characters in your books.

A lot of people in the church I serve would understand your leaving Christianity. What's so impressive about them is that they're always inviting others back in. Not so we can fill up the place (church growth is not always our best thing) and not so we can prove by numbers that we're right (we're no mega-church, and our doctrines may be a little squishy). No, I think the reason is that the best losers, the best quitters, the best failures care about other people in their losing, quitting and failing. Seems to me that's what Jesus was about.

So, Ms Rice, if you ever want to wander back into Christianity -- or at least into some little corner of it, try this congregation here at the corner of Parmer and MoPac in Austin, Texas. It's a long way to make it every Sunday from your home in New Orleans, but we'd be glad to have a quitter like you. Amen?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Justice for Women

Last week I served on a jury (disproving the unscientific idea that "ministers never get picked for juries").

The case was about a DWI and much of the lawyer-talk centered around the accused woman's ability to walk the line in five inch heels.

So, at one point in the midst of the somewhat tedious legalize, I did an unscientific poll. I examined the footwear of all of the women in the courtroom.

That's when it occurred to me -- all of the "players" in this case were women. The defendant was a woman. The defense attorneys were both women. The prosecuting attorneys were both women. The bailiff was a woman, the court reporter was a woman, and Her Honor the judge was a woman. Our six person jury was evenly split, three men and three women. We elected a woman to be our foreperson.

We eventually found the defendant not guilty.

As I sat there examining shoes, I wondered about some famous female defendants of the past.

Joan of Arc was tried with a male bishop as a judge and all male lawyers. They sentenced her to death and she may have been raped in prison before she was burned to death.

Anne Hutchison was tried for "traducing" the clergy. She was in her forties and pregnant for the fifteenth time. Her male inquisitors forced her to stand for several days of questioning.

In 1873, a jury of twelve men indicted Susan B. Anthony for the crime of voting. The male judge evidently wrote a statement of guilt before the trial began.

Karla Faye Tucker brutally killed a man. She later converted to Christianity and asked for an appeal. The (male) Governor of Texas is said to have made fun of her request.

Does footwear make difference in the justice system?

Friday, July 9, 2010

"Like the Water" by Wendell Berry

It is raining very hard at the moment, and I'm sitting at the dining table watching out the window as the rain splashes off the second story onto the kitchen roof. And so, a poem...

"Like the Water" by Wendell Berry

Like the water
of a deep stream,
love is always too much.
We did not make it.
Though we drink till we burst,
we cannot have it all,
or want it all.
In its abundance
it survives our thirst.

In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill,
and sleep,
while it flows
through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us,
except we keep returning to its rich waters

We enter,
willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July 8: Blogging through Ecuador - Afterword


After nine days of seeing, learning, working.

So I sit down to check my email.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but 223 unread emails in my Inbox.

Life goes on...

July 7: Blogging through Ecuador - Flying Solo

Okay, I'm weird. And this may even sound rude. But I don't like talking to people on airplanes.

I once had a fascinating conversation on a plane with a woman who had been a delegate to the Louisiana State Constitutional Convention in 1974. That conversation must have been about 1983. I was about 15, and she was about 75. We were on a plane from Heathrow to Houston. She was kind, smart, and interested in me as a teenager. So I know that seat mates are people too.

But there's also the possibility you'll get stuck next to some goofball who wants to argue politics, convert you to her brand of the true faith, or have you invest in their new cellulite cream manufacturing plant.

So, I made a bet with myself. I bet that, on this trip to Ecuador and back, I could go the entire time and not speak to a single soul. Six flights, 18 hours, no chit-chat.

I am proud (embarrassed?) to say that I made it. Not a single word to anybody except the flight attendants.

Quite frankly, it was like a mobile Ignatian retreat. To be almost completely silent for 18 hours was gift. Our world is loud, for sure: cell phones, TV, radio, computers.

And I live and move and have my being in the business of spoken words: preaching, public praying, committee meetings, counseling. All talking.

So, this time of silence was well-placed for me. The Gospels say that from time to time, Jesus would head off from the crowds, either out into a boat or up a mountain. Certainly not to compare myself to Jesus, but he no doubt would have liked the lyrics to Chicago's ballad: "Everybody needs a little time away...."

Rest. Retreat. Contemplation. Quiet.

My silent trip was a good transition, too: from work to mission, from mission to home.

I remember reading somewhere the ideas of Ignatius of Loyola: The word of Jesus is sometimes silent, and silence is the space into which it is spoken. Without the space of silence, the truth of the word will not and cannot be heard.

July 7: Blogging through Ecuador - More Superheroes

More superheroes. In Monday's blog, I said that Victor Vaca is a superhero.

Let me introduce you to two more: Glenn Hebert and Marilyn Cooper.

Glenn and Marilyn, married for 25 years or so, retired to Austin and joined our church.

After a couple of trips to Ecuador, they decided to move their temporarily as long-term volunteers with FEDICE, working in cooperation with the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Marilyn's main work is teaching English in the indigenous villages of the Imbabura province. Glenn, with a healthy sense of humour, terms himself a "missionary assistant."

What's remarkable about Glenn and Marilyn is that Glenn is confined to a wheelchair. He has severe mobility issues and needs help moving, eating, almost everything. Marilyn lifts, totes and loves.

Ecuador is not a handicap-accessible place. Living there must take tremendous effort. And they are doing remarkable work. Glenn, with his keen mind and wit, is their Spanish-English dictionary. Marilyn, with animation and smiles, is teaching and making friends.

Global Ministries' written mission statement is "to a shared life in Christ and to an ecumenical sharing of resources." That's what Glenn and Marilyn are doing: sharing life with others and sharing resources -- money, for sure, but also the resources of time and laughter and love.

That's what superheroes do: share love.

July 6: Blogging through Ecuador - Patience

Today, we waited a lot, and probably miscommunicated a lot as well.

This morning, we finished our work project and sat around waiting for lunch. For some in our group, the anxiety of having nothing to do seemed a bit nerve-wracking.

Then, this afternoon we missed our cues on where to stop at the equator. That meant stopping beside the road for some long phone calls about who was where and where we were going. The result was that we missed the traditional tourist stops at the equator altogether. No doubt, some in our group were disappointed.

Patience was the needed word for this day.

The late TV personality, Clifton Fadiman said, "When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable."

An article on PhysOrg.com says that some South American traditional cultures have a concept of time that is opposite to the North American/European concept. This study said that hand motions and idioms put the future behind these people, and the past in front of them.

Patience. The word for the day.

July 6: Blogging through Ecuador - Generosity

By our American standards, the people here in Cachimuel are fairly poor. Their homes are small, simple and often unfinished. They have outhouses but no cars. Their clothes are dirty, then washed in a tub and hung on a line to dry.

But they are exceedingly, exceedingly generous.

We've been invited twice to people's homes for coffee, tea and snacks. The pastor of the village invited us to his home, where his daughters gave each of us jewelry. They've made remarkable traditional outfits for three of us. The parents of the girl we dedicated gave us scarves. They presented hats and shawls to each of us.

Balzac's quote come to mind: "As a rule, only the poor are generous. Rich people can always find excellent reasons for not giving money to a relative."

July 5: Blogging through Ecuador - Dancing


I've always been a self-conscious dancer. Maybe I absorbed those old Baptist prohibitions against it. Somehow, I smiled and faked my way through high school and college (dance-dependent years) and even managed to marry a good dancer.

But this has been a week of dancing...

Thursday Night: Dancing to a flute and guitar band in the hotel in Otavalo. (Wine helps one dance, by the way).

Sunday Morning: Six girls dancing in church, skirts flowing, faces filled with dignity and grace.

Today (Monday): Children at the daycare center in Caluqui, dancing for us a welcome, their traditional folks music playing, weaving in and out of scarves. How old were they, these little dancers -- three, maybe four or five? And how gentle and rhythmic, how enticing.

July 5: Blogging through Ecuador - Superheroes

Super heroes wear capes and fly, right? They're tall and muscular and chiseled, right?

Expect this one. That's not his picture. His name is Victor Vaca. He's short, dark-skinned and weathered. Soft-spoken, but passionate. Funny and single-minded. His purpose in life is to help the indigenous people of Ecuador help themselves to better lives.

Victor and his first wife (the late Violet) founded FEDICE to work for human rights, community development, and religious education among the Kichwa Indians of Ecuador.

Victor has a new wife (Marlene) and a thousand stories to tell. Stories of defying racism, of a prison term with a quick-car getaway, of work in Switzerland and Paraguay and more.

One story...

In 1996, an outbreak of cholera swept through the Imbabura Province of Ecuador (including the community of Cachimuel) where we are working. Health officials were loathe to deal with this surprise epidemic since cholera had been almost unknown in Ecuador for a hundred years.

Those who were sick were not welcomed in hospitals. When a man died in Cachimuel, no one would come pick up his body because they were afraid of contracting the disease.

Enter our superhero. Victor drove to the village, put the dead man's body in his truck, and took the body to the cemetery.

Once the outbreak slowed, Victor and his organization, FEDICE, went to work, first building latrines in the village for better hygiene, then helping the community develop a water system.

That's what superheroes do. They touch the untouchables, and they dig ditches for water pipes.

July 4: Blogging through Ecuador - Preaching

The blue sky of Otavalo.

Today was the hardest day of our trip for me, which is strange because today was Sunday; we went to church, and I was scheduled to preach. Should have been easy, right? After all, I'm a preacher; that's what I do. Not that I'm especially good at it, or better than anybody else. But that's what I do. Most Sundays (at home), preaching and leading worship is no big deal. Sure, lots of preparation and worries over the details, but I do it. Three times, most Sundays.

But for some reason today, I was very nervous. (I was probably a jerk to everyone in our group as a result). I'm not sure why I was so nervous.

Two years ago when we were in Ecuador, I preached at a church service and all was well. Interestingly, two years ago, I came expecting our church to be a poor, indigenous community; and the church we attended was urban and yuppie-like, with a praise-band and words projected onto wall screens.

So, this time we specifically asked to attend worship at an indigenous church. I knew what to expect. Except I couldn't get it fixed in my mind.

Before we left I wrote a perfectly fine sermon -- using the story of Naaman and the servant girl, exploring the ideas that the powerful need humility and the "unimportant" are often God's preferred. Nice ideas. Good edge of liberation theology, the importance of women, etc. But, the sermon just seemed "canned."

So, Friday night I borrowed a computer and tapped out a new sermon, really just a reflection on some of things we've seen here -- happy children, the woman washing our hands, another woman inviting us to her home, the hard work of our group, and the heavenly blue color of the church we were painting. I tied those living sermons that I had seen to biblical texts of the same ideas.

Then, this morning rolled around. We got to the church. Welcome, music, dancing (that was lovely), prayers (with ululation), scripture-reading. Then time for me to preach.

I couldn't feel it, couldn't get in the groove. I was nervous. The rhythm of translation was off (too choppy, I felt). My sermon was too long, so I weaved and dodged my way along, leaving my poor translator adrift on his own wits. (He did fine.)

Basically, I hit on three points: 1) They don't need me (a North American) to come tell them about Jesus; their Christianity (while different than mine) is vibrant and active. 2) They are blessing their children as Jesus did; don't let them fall prey to poverty or materialism. 3) The new sky-blue paint in their church is a reminder to live out the vision of heaven that Isaiah has -- a vision of peace, equality, and plenty.

Mercifully, I was brief, and the sermon was over.

I hope the point of them not needing me to preach to them was received. Maybe my poor attempt at preaching proved my own point.

July 3: Blogging through Ecuador - Prison and Preschool

At the entrance to Peguche Falls there is a village (not sure of the name).

A rock wall crosses the road with an archway over the path that leads to the falls. The rock wall (which maybe six or eight feet thick) is the remains of a prison.

The prison was built in 1613 at the direction of Spanish troops. The sign near the wall says that Spanish forced the indigenous people to build the prison. Then men, women and children were captured inside and forced to work.

This wall is one of the scars of colonialism, racism and xenophobia.

On the backside of the wall, shockingly, is a preschool. A bright and beautiful school of yellow and blue. Ironically, the new school shares a common wall with the old prison. The same wall once used to enslave children now supports a place where they are nurtured.

Martin Luther King once said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. The backside of this rock wall is one place where the curve of time is visible.

July 3: Blogging through Ecuador - Thin Places

Saturday, July 3. Peguche Falls (pictured at right).

Today we went to see the marvelous cascade of water at Peguche Falls. The Lonely Planet travel guide describes these falls as sacred to the Otavalan Indians, and I would agree. The clarity of the water, the tumbling roar, the crispness, and the soaring hills make this one of those "thin places" of which the Celts speak -- a place where the line between secular and sacred is blurred.

The same travel guide said that for the Festival of San Juan, local men take ritual baths in the springs. The last time I was here (2008), I saw a newly-wedded couple plunging 'neath the water. A local had told them the waters were auspicious for new beginnings.

Several of our group climbed the steep path above the falls, only to find their another set of falls -- this one tumbling down through what appeared to be a hole in the earth. (Words don't do it justice.)

So, above the lower falls and beneath the upper falls, there is a tunnel in the rocky earth that leads to a wading pool. (It would be out of sight, above the water in this picture.) With a couple of my traveling companions, I crawled through the tunnel, took off my shoes, rolled my pants above my knees, and splashed into the water.

The smooth rocks, the cool water, the wash of the current. Holy, all, in the grandest sense.

I had a similar feeling last year, wading in the headwaters of the Jordan River at Banias. And a similar feeling years ago when -- contemplating my faith, my calling, and my baptism -- I waded into the simple stream of Little Falls Creek in Bethesda.

I can't say that I felt wholly transformed or profoundly changed while wading in the water at Peguche Falls. But I felt younger, lighter, giddier, more innocent and happy. Maybe that's what thin places do. Maybe that's what sacred is.

July 2: Blogging through Ecuador - Running Water

Photo: This picture is a 1951 photo of Otavalan women bathing and washing clothes in San Pablo Lake. The photo is from Archivo Blomberg.

"Running Water"

The village of Cachimuel, where we are working, is perched on a mountainside overlooking San Pablo Lake. The village (or "community") stretches maybe two miles or more up the steep hillside. The road is cobblestone, turning to dirt. I've seen one tractor in the community and maybe two cars. The vast majority of the people here (indigenous Otavalan Indians) have no cars. They walk.

Until 12 years ago, the people of Cachimuel had no running water. Instead, every day, people from the community walked the two miles or so to the lake. They filled barrels and jars of water and carried them on their backs up the mountain to their homes. Sometimes twice a day or more.

No toilets. No sinks. No running water. Until 1998.

FEDICE (the NGO we're working with) helped organize the community to create a water system. Now, fresh water is piped from springs in the mountains above down into the village.

At some of the houses, the trenches for the water pipes are freshly dug. At some houses, the water valves outside are still sparkling new.

July 1: Blogging through Ecuador - Handwashing

Photo: A Quechua (or Kichua) Indian woman at the market
in Otavalo, Ecuador.

Today, we began our work in the village of Cachimuel.

The community there has rebuilt the roof of their church and added a new room for children above their "foyer." Our job, over the next few days, will be to sand the walls, paint, scrape and clean the windows, and do a few other odds and ends.

So, for a couple of hours today, we scraped and sanded. Nothing too hard, but dusty, dirty, thirsty kind of work for our merry, weary band of travelers.

As we left for the day, a Quechua woman from the community was squatted outside the doors of the church. She had a big, banged-up aluminum pot of warm water.

As each of us walked out of the church, she motioned for us to bend down beside her. And -- gently, kindly, smilingly, graciously -- she dipped warm water out and poured it over our hands.

"...Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet..."
- The Gospel of John, Chapter 13, Verses 4 & 5 -

June 30: Blogging through Ecuador - The Modern Latin Mass

Colonel Sanders as God? (Great parody from the blog, Plunderbund.)

From maybe as early as the 4th century until the 17th century, a traveler in Europe could go almost anywhere and wander into a church on Sunday or a holy day and hear a priest reciting the Mass in Latin. It was the "universal" language of the "church" -- "universal" being at least in Europe, and "church" being at least the Roman Catholic version.)

A traveler from, say, modern Belgium, in 1347, who spoke Flemish at home, could go to England, France, Poland, Spain, or Italy and hear the creeds and hymns of the faith in the familiar language. Now, chances are good the traveler might not have understood much of what was said, and the presiding priest may not have even understood the words. But the recited rhythms gave comfort, no doubt. The traveler would have felt at home.

The Protestant Reformation of the 1600s and Vatican II of the 1960s changed that. Christian worship now takes a variety of forms and tongues.

However, there is a new "Latin Mass" in the world -- materialism, with its temples to the dollar, its communion of consumerism, and it incense of trans fat.

When Amy and I moved to Austin almost ten years ago, I had a hard time feeling at home at first. I missed Washington, DC for a while. Then, one day, we were wandering around The Arboretum (a shopping mall), and I looked around and saw all the same stores that we had known at Mazza Gallerie (a mall in northwest DC). It dawned on me: those stores are the new Latin Mass. They are the same in DC and Austin and Seattle and Chicago. Most anywhere I wander, I will see them.

I had the feeling again in Quito today. As I wandered around, I saw a Hilton hotel and a Kentucky Fried Chicken, of all things -- with a drive-through. And -- oddly, painfully, guiltily -- I felt at home.

Does our globalized, consumer-oriented new Latin Mass need a Reformation?

...et ne nos inducas in tentationem
Sed libera nos a molo. Amen.

July 30: Blogging through Ecuador: Quito

Quito (pronounced Kee-To) is the capital of Ecuador. The Quitu and Caras Indians lived here for at least four centuries before the Spanish "founded" the current city in 1541.

Quito is 25 miles long and three miles wide.

I wandered around before breakfast, then ate a bite with two of my fellow travelers. (The bulk of our group was supposed to arrive after me last night, but their plane was delayed. So, the three of us already here spent the morning waiting and walking.)

After breakfast, we walked through the Parque el Ejido, then wandered in the market at La Mariscal.

Then, a quick nap. (My 3:30 AM bed time was catching up with me.)

Lunch, and more of our group arrived. Their delayed flight from Austin to Houston got a half-dozen of our group bumped to a flight through Venezuela and Colombia.

In the afternoon, visits to El Panicillo (the giant angel statue, overlooking the city), to the Cathedral, to Plaza de la Independencia (pictured here), and to Plaza de San Francisco.

Then, bed. Buenas noches, Quito y mundo, y hasta manana.

June 29: Blogging through Ecuador - Prayer for a Child in Flight

He doesn't make a sound, this little one:
an occasional gurgle or grunt --
quiet hints of pain and confusion, perhaps.

He is five. Looks like two, maybe three.
His mother and nurse are patient and present caregivers,
swapping seats, giving medicine, taking turns.

He sits in a car seat, his head leaning and lolling,
a tracheotomy and a catheter hint at the needs of his life,
his body far smaller than five, turned and ungrown.

About every five minutes, his mother or the nurse
must suction the mucous from his throat,
then rest and begin again.

He can't speak, his eyes are cloudy. What does his brain perceive?
He needs constant care.
This will be his life, and theirs, forever, I suppose.

For his life, I pray,
and for his mother and his nurse,
and, selfishly, for me.

God, give me patience and gratitude.
For my children, and for their health, I pray:
Thank you.

For this child: peace.
For my fellow travelers: contentment.
For this nurse and this mother: admiration.


June 28: Blogging Through Ecuador - Intro

Tomorrow, June 29, through July 7, I will be in Ecuador, with fifteen other people from Austin, Texas.

We will be working with an indigenous (Native American/Kichwa Indian) church in the village of Cachimuel, near Otavalo, which is north of Quito. (The picture here is Quito at night.)

Our main project will be helping to repair the church building.

The church in this village is an independent Protestant congregation (in Spanish, they refer to it as "evangelical"). This church has a relationship with FEDICE, which is an Ecuadorian, faith-based non-profit that works with indigenous communities in areas of agricultural development, human rights, women's rights, healthcare, education, and religious education.

The members of our mission team are from three churches in Austin: United Christian Church , Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

The following few blogs are my thoughts on our time in Ecuador. Read on, and travel with me...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How to Spend a Fortune

Today's newspaper says the United States has spent over $500 Million to renovate the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay. $500 Million! Five hundred million dollars! $500,000,000.00!

Here at our church, folks in need often knock on the door asking for food or gas or help with their rent or medicine. If we have it, we give them a $20 gift card to a local grocery store. Often we don't even have $20 to give. With $500 Million, we could give $20 gift cards to 25 Million people.

I got an email from a church member yesterday about some friends of hers. The father in this family of friends has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. A week before he was diagnosed, this man was fired from his job for poor work performance. Turns out his (then-unknown) brain tumor was causing him not to do his job so well. Now he's fired, sick, and dealing with insurance woes. I have no idea what this illness will cost this family or how they will pay for it. But the average hospital stay in the country costs $17,734.making his work. With $500 Million we could pay the hospital stays of 28,194 people.

The average tuition cost at a state university is $7020 per year. With $500 Million, we could send 71,225 students to college for free.

I understand the costs of renovating Guantanamo. Since that base occupies a tiny little sliver of a county that hates us and doesn't want us there, everything we use for renovations has to be shipped in. That's costly.

And, I understand that Guantanamo is a beautiful place, but it must be tough for our military personnel to be stationed in a place that has a reputation for for torture. If we the people are going to send our women and men to places like that, then we have an obligation to keep the place up for them.

But $500 Million? Five hundred million dollars? $500,000,000.00?

The 28,000 people who might need a little help with rent or food or medicine might like maybe just half of that. The man with the brain tumor? I bet he would be thrilled with just a tenth of that? And those 71,225 college students? f we're not going to pay their tuition for a year, maybe we could at least buy their books.

Monday, May 31, 2010

What has been will be again...

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again." ~ Quoheleth, Ecclesiastes 1:9.

* * * * *

"I think we certainly should be very sensitive to the fact that the purpose of the military is not to see if we can create social experiments." ~ Mike Huckabee, former preacher, former governor, would-be president, April 9, 2010, expressing his opposition to repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell.

"If envious enemies insist on using us as a guinea pig for alien psychological and sociological experimentation, let's not be too impatient though we know beforehand the experiment will be a dismal failure." ~ Alabama Journal, December 18, 1955, expressing opposition to integrated buses.

* * * * *

The bold italics are mine. But the sentiments are theirs, and sadly they are strikingly similar.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Important Work of Walking in Circles

Earlier today I walked the labyrinth that folks in our congregation are building down in the woods east of our church house.

The labyrinth is a work in progress. So am I.

The labyrinth is a rough walk these days. So is life, sometimes.

My labyrinth-walking companions were a cardinal watching from a nearby tree and a whippety little garden snake who zithered off under a rock. Good companions are had to come by and worth keeping.

About halfway-through the labyrinth, both going in and coming out, I got bored. That happens every time I walk a labyrinth. I have the urge to rush on out or cross the boundaries and get back to work. I did good, though. When the hurry-up vibes tickled my soul, I slowed down, plodded on, kept on labyrinthing. That's what a labyrinth is for: the countercultural, subversive act of slowing one down.

As I walked, I hummed a song: "I may not pass this way again..." Last night my wife was remembering singing that song at her elementary school graduation. The image of a group of kiddos waxing eloquent at the top of their lungs about the passing of time made me chuckle. Laughing is good. Singing is good.

Walking the labyrinth is good.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Taxes and Questions and Prayer


I'm weird, I guess, because I think they make sense. I wouldn't say I like paying taxes. In fact, I'm horrible at the actual acts of filling out the forms, doing the math. My lovely spouse does all that.

But I appreciate the things our taxes pay for: roads, health insurance for poor kids, breakfast for hungry people, mental hospitals for terribly bothered people, schools, teachers' salaries, research that tries to end horrible diseases, firefighters and other public safety workers. Those are good things. I'm glad to do my part to pay for them.

There are things I'm sad my taxes pay for. I do not like that my money buys weapons to kill other people. I don't like it that some of my tax money is frittered away and used sloppily at times.

Having had my own salary paid by tax dollars for a while in a previous job, I know that there are good, diligent, hard-working folks toiling away in our bureaucracies; and I know there are some lousy, lazy people earning tax dollars as well -- about like any workplace, I suppose.

Lately, I've been thinking about Jesus and taxes. He befriended Zaccaeus, a corrupt tax collector (which says to me we don't hurl bombs and names at people we don't like). And Jesus was accused of subverting the tax system (Luke 23:2).

Governments shouldn't abuse, exploit and over-burden everyday people, just trying to get by. And it's much easier to point that out when "Caesar" is on the throne. It's harder when "we the people" all sit together on the throne.

Governments (again, functioning as "we the people") have a covenant (by virtue of our basic humanness) to take care of each other.

So, taxes. How much is too much? How do we make sure it's spent in the right ways? What would Jesus do? I don't know, to all of the above. So, I'll sign my name to form, and pray -- pray that it's filled out correctly, and pray that the money's going to the right places.

Bread for the World offered this prayer for taxpayers to consider as we work our way through our tax forms:

Gracious God, all that we have is a gift from you, including this country in which we live. As April 15 approaches, help us see our reporting to the Internal Revenue Service as a reminder of our interdependence.

Jesus taught us to love one another as he loves us, and scripture reminds us that each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7).

We remember all employers, all who are self-employed, all who labor to feed themselves and their households, and all who are unemployed and seeking work.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

We remember all who have had capital gains or losses and all who manage money, especially those who are entrusted with the savings and financial well-being of others.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

We remember all landlords, all tenants, and all who own their own homes, while we especially recall those who have no place to call home.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

We remember all who farm, all who produce food for others to eat and all who depend upon the land for their survival.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

We remember all who receive social security and other government benefits.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

We remember all students and teachers, all who pay tuition, all who have student loans, and all who devote their lives to education.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

We remember all whom our nation’s tax policy deems worthy of special credits: employers creating jobs, parents adopting children with special needs, people buying their first homes, and those raising children on low incomes.

Loving God, Bless the people whose lives are linked with ours

Bless those individuals whose lives have touched ours in ways that are now reflected on a tax return, through a filing status, deductions, credits, or alimony payments. And Lord, bless also all those who make decisions for our common good.

All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

From the webpage www.bread.org/April15.