Race and such

Lebron James came from what by any measure would be considered a disadvantaged past. Born to a teenage single mother in the seedier parts of Akron, OH, it was basketball and his bicycle that kept him on the straight and narrow. Now some consider him to be the best basketball player ever. Consequently, he makes a lot of money. He has recently opened the “I Promise” school in Akron. School hours are 8-5 (working hours for many parents.) Students who live within 2 miles of the school attend tuition-free. Every child receives a bicycle. Eventually it will have grades 1-8. The first year’s class reflects the demographics of the area, African-American, Hispanic, White, you name it. He is trying to work at the formative level of kids’ lives to effect a change in the structure of society. I am profoundly moved.

He is an exception, to be sure. He is hugely talented, and “the system” rewarded the talent. He is an exception in another way. A greater percentage of underprivileged white kids make good than do kids of color. In response to graffiti that appeared on his house featuring the N word, he said, “they will always make sure you know you’re the n-word.”

Ouch! –No, “ouch” is too soft a word. I’m outraged.

His interviewer asked how he overcame the obstacles. In reply he said that challenges can either get you down or make you stronger. That’s almost trite until you look at it from the other side. Those who would remind him that he is always the n-word unwittingly serve him. White supremacy’s oppression merely strengthens the perceived enemy. Any scapegoating that denies the essential humanity of all is a form of hate, and hate will always be its own undoing.

Love, on the other hand, is stronger. As our African-American Presiding Bishop frequently notes, “if it’s not about love it’s not about God.” He preaches that the Jesus movement is about being loving, life-giving and liberating. Love embraces the essential humanity of all and appreciates the diversity of each. These two great African-Americans are preaching the same message.

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Absence and Presence

Karisse and I got home from almost a month away. We strung together a bunch of trips and go them all over with at once, then fell exhausted and delighted into our own water-bed on Saturday night. On Sunday it was the expected, “Welcome back!” “We missed you!” I’m happy for the sentiment, though things seemed to have sailed along on an even keel in our absence. Maybe they don’t really need me…

What is absence and what is presence? During the trip we spent three days in Weslaco, TX, where I served the local Episcopal Church for most of the 90’s. In the absence of the Rector I was asked to fill in. My presence there was poignant precisely because it was I was officially “absent”. If I had never served there my “absence” would not be felt, and my “presence” would not have been what it was. Absence seems to be what we feel when we experience the lack of some aspect of a relationship we have known. The presence of the one, be it memory, communication, or even a deceased loved one’s body, all serve to remind us of all the ways one is not present.

People tell me that sometimes God seems absent. Our theology says that it is impossible for God to be completely absent, our then there would be no one to miss the Presence. Is not what we call the absence of God a sense of the lack of what one had at once time, or a wish for something one has witnessed in another? It can even take the form of a deadening meaninglessness, for in that meaninglessness is so deadening we know that meaning is vital to our being, and we find it absent. Is not the wound of love precisely felt in the absence, when the totality of the presence of the other is somehow incomplete? St. John of the Cross explores this eloquently in The Dark Night of the Soul, Teresa of Avila in The Interior Castle, and Teresa of Calcutta in her letters to her confessor. With the God who is omnipresent the sense of absence we feel is invariably due to the limitations of our incompleteness. It inspires a holy discontent that fuels the spiritual journey.

No wonder mindfulness (or contemplation—choose your word) is such a powerful thing, when somehow we approach full presence to the eternal Presence, when we become present to the Present! Of course, to do that we must somehow become absent to all the things that are, in reality, absent.

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General Convention

Delegates, alternates and bishops from across the Episcopal Church are here in Austin in General Convention.  It happens every three years, and this is my first time here.  It’s “the house gathered,” with politics, caucuses and all the trappings of the political tradition of the United States, but there’s more.  There’s a sense that this is not just legislation being negotiated.  Our Presiding Bishop challenged us yesterday in the opening worship to be about God’s work, which is walking in the way of sacrificial love.

I was in a hearing yesterday about racial reconciliation and the need for anti-racism training in our church.  My take on this issue is that it runs inextricably into the issue of multicultural ministry:  how to be the Church with folks who think and talk and pray differently than myself.  There were the “bombshells,” to be sure, private agendas foisted over as public debate, but there was also carefully considered, well formulated and often highly educated arguments made.  It was a way for a committee to try to “hear the heart of the church,” so to speak, before deliberating on the legislative floor and taking a vote.  It is heartening to me to see that reactivity is being restrained, and we are trying to hear one another.

I spend most of my time in the exhibition hall with our booth for Borderland Ministries.  The Border Ministry Summit we are hosting in November is giving me reason to walk around and visit with folks.  I’ve made some new friends, renewed old friendships and discovered some new possibilities for partnerships in ministry.  I almost feel that this is where the real “work” of organizing for ministry happens.  They can vote on what they vote on—and it will be binding legislation for the Church, but we are putting organic feet on ways to do ministry, and that is exciting.

The energy in the air is pretty much always at an exhausting pitch.  I almost feel like “I’ve been here, done this, time to go home already,” but there are five more days of this for me, with some exciting moments yet to come.  I haven’t spoken with a lot of people yet, and I still hope to tag up with the delegation from my home diocese, Central Ecuador.  I’m sure that next Wednesday when I head off to Honduras I’m going to be really ready of a break.  The day of travel will provide that for me.

So, yes, it’s tiring, but getting together always makes us stronger.  In the end it’s worth it, and that’s why we keep doing it.  It’s energizing to see my church so hard at work doing important things.

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Hope

Saturday I was in Palomas, Mexico, with a bunch of Pentecostal pastors. After a rousing (very un-Episcopalian) worship service they served us something to eat, but the flies were everywhere. I found myself covering my melon juice with my napkin to keep from sharing! The local people commented, “Ai, estas moscas, es porque nos va caer un aguacero y matarlos.” (Oh, these flies! But it’s because it’s going to rain hard and kill them all.) Then it was, “Que sea un buen verano.” (Hope it’s a good summer.)

Rain is indeed in the forecast for later this week. Monsoon season will start, not right on the 4th of July, but shortly afterwards. The flatline of blue-sky day after blue-sky day is suddenly interrupted. Spring, in the Chihuahuan desert, is dry and hot. Summer is monsoons, and flies are the annoying harbinger of the welcome change. We have flies where I live, too, but they have more to do with the horses our neighbor behind us keeps. We have not yet learned to see them in another light. Sometimes we need to stand in another place, on another mountain or by a different arroyo to get perspective on where we normally stand. Yes, some things are annoying, but perhaps they bring a hidden message of hope. Hope inspires action we might not otherwise have taken.

I planted cactus in my yard yesterday. The flies told me to.

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One and All

The music doesn’t do the lyrics justice:

Amazon, by John Denver1

There is a river that runs from the mountains

That one river is all rivers

All rivers are that one

 

There is a tree that stands in the forest

That one tree is all forests

All trees are that one

 

There is a flower that blooms in the desert

That one blossom is all flowers

All flowers are that one

 

There is a bird that sings in the jungle

That one song is all music

All songs are that one

 

It is the song of life

It is the flower of faith

It is the tree of temptation

It is the river of no regret

 

There is a child that cries in the ghetto

That one child is all children

All children are that one

 

There is a vision that shines in the darkness

That one vision is all of our dreams

It is a vision of heaven

It is a child of promise

It is the song of life

It is the river of no regret

 

Let this be a voice for the mountains

Let this be a voice for the river

Let this be a voice for the forest

Let this be a voice for the flowers

Let this be a voice for the ocean

Let this be a voice for the desert

Let this be a voice for the children

Let this be a voice for the dreamers

Let this be a voice of no regret

 

He was crazy, and he made some stupid mistakes, but at his best, he was a mystic. Too bad the world doesn’t often listen to the mystics, we’d live in a vastly different and better world if we did.

1 John Denver, Amazon lyrics © Reservoir One Music, Reservoir Media Management Inc

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Cause and Effect

The other evening my wife and I were finishing a walk around the community when we stopped to visit with our neighbor. It was a blistery day, and it’s been that way for a week or more. Monsoons should start next week, but they seemed far away in the making. Our neighbors are elderly, of Hispanic descent, and have lived here most of their lives. His comment: It has to get hot so it can rain. It reminded me of a comment I got from one of my Hispanic parishioners in deep south Texas on a sweltering August day: Esto es calor de lluvia. (This is a heat for rain.)

The weather man at 9:15 that night had another explanation, much more complicated, involving maps and swirling winds and big “H”‘s and “L”‘s, giving percentages and other rather precise guesses. Our neighbor’s explanation is simple, straight-forward and, though probably not very scientific, is based on the collection of experience over many generations of his people living here.

Here are two systems, serving similar ends, each accurate enough to work for its ends, living side-by-side, and intersecting in one point: the coming rain. Each is built on its own set of assumptions about the way the weather works. Each has its justification and its own internal consistency.

It reminds me of the best of inter-religious dialog. Each system explains ultimate reality according to its own models, and in terms of its own ends, standing side-by-side with others, intersecting in the human spiritual experience. It is not sufficient to say that each system is incomplete, that the true mystery of life is something beyond both, for each is a complete system. It is valid to say, however, that noting and appreciating similar ends, values, and resonances, especially the mystical paths that seek to look beyond oneself into the Unknowable Mystery, can serve to enhance one’s own experience of divine mystery. (This sounds like a contradiction—or a koan.)

It makes of religious systems a community rather than competing teams at a game.

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The Face of Evil

O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth!

Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve!

O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?

They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.

They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.

They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,

and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”

 

This morning I read Psalm 94 from the Bible. I thought that maybe the author’s opinion of what is going on in places of power in his day was very much like mine. The impudence, the arrogance, the deceit, the mind-bending games and the crazy-making in high places lands squarely in my theological category of “sinful,” and I can defend my conclusion solidly and I have lots of friends who are trained in theology who agree with me. I truly believe it is sinful, and as such, in accordance with the vow of my baptism to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being,” I believe I am called to act. I find that I have to watch how much time I spend thinking about it because it quickly ties me in knots.

Knots in the soul are indications of something wrong. It can’t be surprising, then, when I was caught up short yesterday by someone who shared that they were struggling to forgive these same people. I confess, I struggle with the same thing. Part of me doesn’t WANT to forgive!

I also confess that the evil of unforgiveness is the same willfulness that I so quickly condemn in people in power who are doing what I believe is sinful. The face of evil may very well be seen first in the other, but it must be fought first within. When we are looking with compassion on the face of evil within we will know how to face the evil without.

(Lord, help my unbelief!)

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