A wide spot in my imagination.

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...