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LADY GAGA, GEORGE H.W. BUSH, AND 1,000 DRONES OF LIGHT (NOT COUNTING SEQUINS)

LADY GAGA, GEORGE H.W. BUSH, AND 1,000 DRONES OF LIGHT (NOT COUNTING SEQUINS)

“We can find meaning and renewal by serving some higher purpose than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a thousand points of light….We all have something to give.”   George H.W. Bush

“Do not allow people to dim your shine because they are blinded. Tell them to put on some sunglasses, cuz we were born that way.”   Lady Gaga

“You are the light of the world.”     Jesus Christ

 

On Super Bowl Sunday, at the staid and spoken (not sung) 8:00 a.m. service at the more-conservative-than-thou St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, a singer slipped in to the back pew. I doubt she signed the guest book either as Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta, or as Lady Gaga. But I am certain that early in the morning on the day of one of the most important performances of her life, when 160 million would be watching worldwide, she made a point of getting grounded in God—the same empowering God she would sing about later that afternoon, the One who made her “beautiful in her way, cuz God makes no mistakes!”

On Super Bowl Sunday, when millions of Americans could not quite muster the motivation to worship lest they expend precious energy that could be directed toward making crab dip, Lady Gaga started her day by going to church, getting plugged in to the Source of Light and Life. She was fed by the holy sacraments. She was sustained by a word of encouragement from a female priest. She was inspired by the day’s gospel reading that proclaimed, in the words of Jesus, “You are the Light of the World!”

Hours later, the world would behold a radiant Lady Gaga—who once said, “I’m just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time”—silhouetted on the roof of NRG Stadium against the glimmering lights of the skyline of my hometown of Houston. She began her performance with the holy anthems of “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land” and spoke with a depth of conviction that we are “One Nation. Under God. Indivisible. With Liberty and Justice for All.” As a thousand drones of light (ok 300) transformed above her from independent shining stars to a brilliant and billowing star-spangled banner, Lady Gaga swooped down from above on a contraption that looked more Jacob’s ladder than Cirque du Soleil.

Combine her comprehensive, celebratory, inclusive, and prayerful performance with her shout-out to her parents, and a concert-ending catch that rivaled that of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, and the world got to witness one of the greatest Super Bowl performances of all time. The Patriots weren’t so bad either. The Falcons, well, perhaps they had not begun their day in prayer.

Just before the start of Super Bowl 51, two parishioners from St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, not players or performers, made their way onto the field to the roar of fans of all stripes and political persuasions. I do not know which service they attended that Sunday at St. Martin’s, if they made it to church at all, or whether they had any idea that the half-time star had sat near their pew at 8:00 a.m. They did not move quickly, hindered by age and illness. President George H. W. Bush had only recently been released from the hospital and was confined to a wheelchair. Lady Barbara Bush—and what a lady she is, in every sense of the word—put her hands on his shoulders, standing directly behind him, a powerful image of a faithful partner who really does “have your back.” As I watched them move slowly, gracefully, and graciously toward the team captains for the coin toss, this more-liberal-than-thou Episcopal priest got a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. The tenderness, respect, and kindness that they exuded for each other, and for all, was palpable. George’s spirit was indomitable, and his smile as radiant as all the sequins in the world. Just before he tossed the coin, doing his best to give the Falcons a chance (they won the toss), I remembered a “kinder, gentler” political climate years ago. I remembered what he called “compassionate conservatism” and his inspiring call for all Americans to engage in public and community service—a centerpiece of his presidency. I also remember his hope for 1,000 points of light, that as each one was willing to let his or her light shine in service to others, the world would be changed, illuminated, and transformed.

For a brief moment on Sunday, through the smile of George H.W. Bush, the steadfastness of Barbara, the light of Lady Gaga, and the miraculous comeback of a team called, appropriately, the Patriots, it seemed as if there was hope for America. That we might be able to put our mean-spirited pettiness and partisanship aside and work together for one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It was as if the stars were aligning to tell us that Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, the largest volunteer organization in the world, had its place in our collective life. And Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, promoting equality and empowerment, speaking out on behalf of our fellow citizens who might be bullied or denied their rights, also and equally deserved our support. Giving of ourselves, respecting the dignity of every human being, working for justice and peace—in other words, letting our lights shine—for these truths we exist as a nation. Through our commitment to these principles, to each other, and to all God’s children throughout the world, we just might come back and win this thing after all. And the light will continue to shine.

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YAK YAK YAK and OTHER IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS

YAK YAK YAK and OTHER IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS

 

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”                                                                                 James 1:19

“She had lost the art of conversation but not unfortunately, the power of speech.”

George Bernard Shaw

 

I traveled to Dharamsala in India, hoping to arrange a private audience with the Dalai Lama, or at least meet his pets, the Doggy Lama and the Lama Dolly. When he heard I was coming, he immediately arranged to be out of town!

Fortunately for me, some people are kind enough to talk to anyone, including me, so I was invited to have tea with Tashi Phuntsock, the Secretary of State for the Tibetan government in exile, and his charming 16-year-old daughter Yigha.  Yigha told me that she attends a Presbyterian boarding school in India, whose strength is the diversity of its students and faculty, representing over forty countries. Both of them are fluent in at least five languages and have lived all over the world. I, on the other hand, can understand English as long as no big words are involved and one speaks very slowly. Despite my linguistic limitations, we had the most delightful conversation, one that opened not only my eyes but other key parts of my sensory and spiritual perceptions, such as the mind, heart, and soul. Such is the difference dialogue makes–it opens us up to new ways of seeing and being in God’s most interesting and varied world.

I had missed my friends’ sobering visit that Sunday morning to the Tibet Museum, a celebration of culture as well as a stark reminder of the brutal Chinese occupation in 1959. But I had traveled to Tibet on a personal pilgrimage years prior, where I had witnessed first-hand the continual suffering that the people endure. In Tibet, I had made friends with a number of Tibetans, not to mention yaks, the best-named beast that side of Mount Everest. As it turned out, I had entered Tibet from Nepal through Nyalam, the town where Tashi had been born, a detail that connected us immediately, as places and people are prone to do. I think I caught a glimmer of fond remembrance in his eyes, although he had left Tibet as a child.

I asked them some questions, but mostly I listened and learned. His sadness was still evident as he recounted how important it was to “inform the world about Tibet and its struggle,” to acknowledge the force that is “the mighty Chinese,” and to continue to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” He said, with some pride, that the mere fact that Tibetans have been able to survive in exile and are known throughout the world is a major accomplishment in itself. He also pointed out that those Tibetans who have it the worst are those in the “Autonomous Region of Tibet,” a reminder that we sometimes have to go deeper than words or labels (especially those that originate with the oppressor) to understand the reality.

Our dialogue turned to interfaith dialogue as Tashi and Yigha shared with me how “Interdependence is the essence of Buddhism,” and how the ultimate meaning of Karma is that “kindness begets kindness.”  Each of them described how their religious practice is more of a habit and way of life than a doctrinal system, and its core is defined by goodness, consideration, compassion, and love. Sounded like authentic religion to me.

Finally, they articulated their love for India which, despite its poverty, pollution, and “chock-o-block” traffic, still offers the seeker a sense of peace and attraction. Tashi says about India and its diversity what could be said about the world: “All this simmering tension is part and parcel of harmonious living.” Even now, he says, right now, blessings abound in India. One of them, I realize, is my time with the two of them, an opportunity for spiritually-stimulating conversation and personal enlightenment.

We live in a world that grows smaller each day, connected by communication opportunities never imagined by previous generations, yet we still stake out our turf, protect our boundaries, defend our prejudices, and proclaim our superiority, spiritual and otherwise, over those who differ from us. They may differ in language, culture, religion, or nationality. Whatever the distinction may be, we often find ways to separate ourselves and divide our world by differences. Such self-limiting attitudes create much of the world’s problems, and our loss of the art of conversation and the appreciation of differences, while retaining the power of speech, promote a world of instability and unharmonious—if not threatening—conditions.

When I returned from India, someone asked me immediately if I had been criticized for trying to learn about “other religions” rather than solely studying “your own.”  For a moment I was incredulous that such thinking could possibly exist. Of course, it not only exists, it may be the prevalent perspective. And it is likely the root of many of our problems. Our inability to listen and learn from those who share our common humanity, as well as a Common Creator, creates much of the distrust and misunderstanding on our planet. We are far better, individually and collectively, when we engage in conversation with each other, when we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower still to get angry and defensive.

I wonder what the world would be like if those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement would sit down and have conversations with African-Americans who are subjected to prejudice, projection, suspicion, and violence.  I wonder what the world would be like if those who have nothing good to say about police officers would ride with them in a patrol car for an entire shift and hear from them about the challenges they face and the fears of their families who wait for them at home. I wonder what the world would be like if those who misunderstand Muslims sat down to dinner with a devout Muslim family and freely exchanged ideas about the life of faith. I wonder what the world would be like if those who think religious people are responsible for all the problems in this world would wander through a hospital, orphanage, school, or soup kitchen that came about because religious people were motivated to do good, and talk to them about such good things. I wonder what the world would be like if extremists and fundamentalists, of every stripe, would open their minds and hearts to the possibility that others may possess some form of truth that is quite different from their own perspective.  I wonder what the world would be like if we had more conversations over tea with those who are different from us. It would certainly not be a perfect world, but I’ll bet it would be a much better world.

At the end of our tea time, Tashi insisted on picking up the tab. I knew I should have ordered cake, like Yigha did! Still, I feel so satisfied–filled with appreciation and awareness. Dialogue about differences can make a real difference.  So stop yaking about what you think you know—and listen.

 

“Let the one who has ears to hear, listen and understand!”    Jesus

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THE BLESSING OF PLAN B

THE BLESSING OF PLAN B

 

“You do not even know what tomorrow will bring.”   James 4:14a

“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayer.”   Garth Brooks

 

The email came unexpectedly, but the timing was right. A two-year relationship I assumed would last a lifetime had just ended, and I felt like I needed a new challenge. My friend Vince, a former Canadian Olympic athlete, was putting together a twelve-day trek to climb—and name—a previously un-scaled peak in India’s Great Himalaya Park. He had handpicked a select group of twelve he thought could collaborate effectively as a team. The only requirement was that I commit to getting into “peak physical condition.” Admitting that a former Olympian’s admonition to work toward “peak physical condition” and my previously challenging work-out routine of twelve-ounce curls utilizing a bottle of beer might be at odds, I paid my hefty deposit, headed to the gym, and tried to find the Hindi words for “altitude sickness.” Truthfully, it was about two months out that I finally left the beer bottles behind and started simulating climbing conditions with a treadmill set on the steepest incline and a backpack filled with weights. There was only one problem when I shifted into higher gear—I could not breathe!

I am quite fond of breathing. I find it helpful for daily living. I had a feeling it would really come in handy when climbing mountains in the Himalaya. Thanks to a doctor friend’s connections, I was able to get an appointment with a pulmonologist within a few days. The pulmonologist, who turned out to be from India, told me in no uncertain terms—and in English: “You have asthma. You will not be climbing any mountains in India. Drink two beers and see me in a month.”

Thanks to a new friend in India, Ankit Sood, I was quickly able to put together an alternative adventure while my friends hiked in the Himalaya. While I know that Plan A would have been extraordinarily meaningful, and I was initially very disappointed to miss out on that rare opportunity, I am so grateful for the blessing of Plan B.

If not for Plan B, I would not have beheld the beauty of the Tirthan River Valley, the only river in the region unspoiled by hydro-electric development. If not for Plan B, I would never have shared a bottle of sharab (200 proof!) with the mayor of Gaidhu, who showed me such hospitality (as he was tending his goats) while I was on my way to the Secret Waterfall. If not for Plan B, I would not have had the privilege of visiting with eighty-year-old “grandmother,” who is the only person still residing inside the Great Himalaya Park and who offered me apricots from her tree and told me that the most important things in life are to love the ones you’re with, love the place you live, and leave it better than you found it. If not for Plan B, I would not have had a stimulating conversation over tea with Tashi Phuntsok, the Secretary of State for the Tibetan government in exile. If not for Plan B, I would not have hummed along in Hindi at the Sunday morning service at St. John’s in the Wilderness Anglican Church in Dharamsala; been inspired at Sikhism’s most sacred site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where up to 200,000 pilgrims are fed each day; and would never have toured the first brewery in Asia (not open for tours!), Mohan Meakin, with brewmaster Gurchan Singh Bharma. If not for Plan B, I would not have been available with an alternative itinerary for my friends Herb and Everett after they had to hike back—two days into the Himalayan trek—after Herb severely injured his hand. They met up with me in Kullu, and that meant that three musketeers (or was that “stooges”?!) could join together for mountain climbing of a spiritual sort.

I thank God for the blessings of Plan B. My alternative adventure in India reminds me of the wisdom of Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way. But the Lord establishes his steps.”  For such an unexpected trek I am eternally grateful.

 

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Aloha Kakou! (Aloha to all) Aloha Ke Akua! (God is love)

 

 

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”     E. M. Forster

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”   Colossians 3:23

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love.”   Colossians 3:14

 

I am so grateful for the past nine years, living in a beautiful place, ministering collaboratively with beautiful people. By the grace of God, together we’ve built something special here at St. Michael’s Kauai. This community has become a beacon of light and love that has attracted pilgrims from around the world. Our small church in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has become known and beloved from Nova Scotia to Japan. How did that happen? Other than by the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit, I suggest three guiding principles and core values that can continue to lead us, and all faith communities, toward a bright future.

  1. Build bridges. Establish relationships with those who are seeking. Collaborate together. “Only Connect” as E. M. Forster put it in Howard’s End.  Whether it was an animal blessing, a jazz festival, a collaboration with Kauai Voices, or hosting a YWCA or PFLAG event, we’ve become a spiritual home for many who never thought they’d have one. We count as “extended ohana” (family) those who would claim nothing to do with institutional religion. Continue to “bring people together and bring people to God,” which is the true mission of the church. Always include.
  2. Whatever we do, offer our very best. Strive for excellence in all we do.  As George Herbert wrote in that beautiful poem which is now a hymn, offer “the cream of all my heart.”  That is, when we do something in the name of God, it should be apparent that we went to a lot of trouble, that we took time and care to create an event, a moment, a worship service, a ministry in which people could quite easily fall in love with God. Continue to do things well, and offer our very best to God.
  3. Love one another unconditionally. There is nothing as powerful as a community of human beings who begin to love as God has loved us. As the writer of Colossians frames it to the community there, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another, and forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.” There is no substitute for love.  You can have the finest programming in the world, but if the community is not loving, forgiving, and kind, your witness is powerless. Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things. The greatest is love.

I did not master the Hawaiian language while I was here, although I can now strum a few chords on the ukulele, and my mai tai recipe is unparalleled! But these truths I understand and cherish:  Aloha Kakou!  Aloha Ke Akua!

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YOU ARE A CELEBRITY TO ME!

YOU ARE A CELEBRITY TO ME!

“Oh, we have to see the Headmaster.”  Rob Radtke, Episcopal Relief and Development president

 

We were running late that afternoon. There were just too many excellent program partners for Episcopal Relief and Development in Ghana, an abundance of sustainable initiatives led by committed locals. Our planned itinerary had been overly optimistic. ERD president Rob Radtke assessed the remaining site visits we had scheduled. He said to our group of 18 enthusiastic pilgrims accompanying him, “Oh, we have to see the Headmaster.”

I’ve been an Episcopalian long enough to know all about Headmasters: distinguished, scholarly, old-school wise guys, surrounded by wood paneling, leather-bound classics, pipe tobacco, and a discreet bottle of sherry. I looked forward to this visit, almost as much as our visit to the crocodile farm, an encounter that somehow called to mind my last vestry meeting.

So off we went, bounding down the bumpy dirt road, past the Soulmate Culinary Institute, the Thank You Father Natural Unisex Boutique, the Seek Jesus Key Cutting Service, and even beyond the God’s Grace Lingerie Shop (Ghana wins the best signage award!).  I even had time to debate the Bishop of Tamale over whether Star or Club Beer was the best in Ghana.

As we drove into the small town, I noticed an overly enthusiastic character wearing what looked like a purple leotard.  He reminded me of the beggar with disabilities we read about in the Book of Acts, the one healed by Peter at the temple gate, who went “running and leaping and praising God.” This dude was out of control, and I just hoped the Headmaster had the good sense to summon school security before things got out of hand.  As we disembarked our bus, Mr. Way-Too-Effusive embraced each of us as someone would greet the most important people on earth.  We had met the Headmaster.  And I began to understand why it was imperative that we see him.

We entered the Anglican Wood Works Training Center for Persons with Disabilities.  The Headmaster, who has a hearing disability, told us his inspiring story. He had learned carpentry skills and had become one of the finest wood workers in Ghana. He then went door-to-door to the homes of the disabled whose families had hidden them, ashamed of their condition. The Headmaster told us that “Some Ghanaians do not see persons with disabilities as human beings.”  But John Awozo, the Headmaster, knows that God sees us all with different, appreciative eyes.  And John felt called to recruit these men and teach them carpentry skills. He’s become one of the country’s leading advocates for persons with disabilities. And he is now teaching (and housing) 31 students who might still be hidden in their homes if not for John.  After they graduate, John will assist them in purchasing tools and setting up their own carpentry shops.

As he shared with us the good work of his school, the students stood proudly around him and beamed with a sense of self-worth. They took our photos. They smiled.  They shared their deep appreciation for our participation in this life-changing opportunity that is funded through Episcopal Relief and Development and our partners in Ghana. And I recognized I had met a man as wise as any on earth, a teacher whose knowledge surpassed that of the most hallowed halls of academia.

Before we left, he took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “You are a celebrity to me.”  I will never forget that moment and the Headmaster’s statement. I still have so much to learn about giving, making a difference, and serving God. But his words motivate me and remind me: when we give to Episcopal Relief and Development to partner with local populations, we mean more to them than we could ever imagine.  In fact, whenever you give to ERD or any organization making a positive difference in the world, you are a celebrity to me.

 

You can join me by participating in the ERD 75th Anniversary Campaign: www.episcopalrelief.org/HOD

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WE GOT THE BLUES. (And That Ain’t Bad)

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”   Duke Ellington

 

“Is it too much to ask that we be more honest about the pain, disappointment, doubt and abandonment that are part of our lives?”   Brian D. McLaren

 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?”  Psalm 22 (Sung by Jesus on the cross)

 

I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a bishop. He was a bit frustrated because one of his churches had tried to re-write their baptismal liturgy to remove all references to evil–you know, trying to “keep it positive.”  God knows we’re done with evil in the world, and God forbid we should acknowledge it, oppose it, renounce it, and try to kick its ass! I suppose this congregation should also substitute the outward symbol of water with a wool blanket pulled over the candidate’s eyes, lest he or she get all washed up or wet during the service. And don’t get me started on the whole “re-birth” metaphor, as if we need to talk about death and resurrection anymore!

Which brings me to the blues, and its importance for our spiritual journeys.

It is good for the soul to tell the truth and acknowledge that we got problems, issues, challenges, pain, and disappointments. Yes, even in church, or perhaps especially in church, it is important to sing the blues. God gets the blues (especially when God observes my behavior). Virtually all the Biblical writers had the blues. My momma had the blues. My girlfriend gets the blues (especially when she observes my behavior). My bishop gets the blues (especially when, oh, never mind). I got the blues. We all got the blues. And that ain’t bad. In fact, it’s good!

Bono, the singer for U2, once wrote in an Introduction to The Book of Psalms (Canongate), that King David was able to write such moving poetry (laments are really blues lyrics) because he had “taken a beating.” Bono says this about the best blues lyricist in the Bible (other than Jesus): “David was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. And this is where it got interesting. He composed his first psalm, a blues by a man shouting, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’”

Jazz pianist David Arivett poignantly places the blues in the context of worship: “When we try to contain, control, or limit the lyrical content in songs to only express the positive experiences of humanity, we only end up denying a large part of reality. But whenever we articulate and express our pain, our longings, or our frustrations as finite human beings, we find healing.”

But leave it to one of my favorite blues musicians (other than “Howlin’ Airedale, Muddy Paws, Damn Right I’ve Got a Tail” Sam) to find just the right way to phrase it.  Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown got his name from a high school teacher who said he had a “voice like a gate” (as in open the floodgates of tears, emotion, sorrows and pain – letting it all out!). Brown was born in Vinton, Louisiana, but grew up in Orange, Texas. He was good friends with Roy Clark, and the two of them used to jam on “Hee Haw” (the thought of which gives me anything but the blues!)  He lived the blues, dying of lung cancer and having his home in Slidell, Louisiana, washed away in Hurricane Katrina. Although he could have sung it, Brown said: “For me, the blues is a positive thing and not a negative thing, which it is for a lot of people. They callin’ for help and tryin’ to tell people how much problems they’ve had in life… When I write the blues, I try to help everybody, from little children up to grandpa and grandma. It should be positive. It don’t have to be sad.”

In other words, we got the blues. And that ain’t bad.

 

 

 

Join us at St. Michael’s on Sunday, February 8th at 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. for “The Spirit of the Blues” Mass!

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NEW YEAR’S RESTITUTIONS, ABSOLUTIONS, AND EVOLUTIONS or CAN’T WE JUST START OVER?

“The New Year means a fresh start, a second wind, another chance, a kind of reprieve, a divine act of grace bestowed. It is important to remember that; whatever the fact may have been, it cannot be undone. It is a fact. If we have made serious blunders, they are made. All our tears cannot unmake them. We may learn from them and carry our hard-won lessons into the New Year. We can remember them, not with pain, but with gratitude that in our new wisdom we can live into the present year with deeper understanding and greater humanity. May whatever suffering we brought on ourselves or others teach us to understand life more completely and, in our understanding, love it more wisely, thus fulfilling God’s faith in us by permitting us to begin this New Year.”           Howard Thurman

 

New Year’s resolutions are fine and helpful. But perhaps more transformative in the coming year would be restitutions, absolutions, and evolutions.

RESTITUTIONS: It is important to acknowledge the ways we have fallen short—the mistakes, poor choices, and apathetic indifference—the “things done and left undone.”  Admitting our wrongdoings and reaching out to restore right relationship can accomplish so much more than standing our ground and digging in our hearts and heels.  Open and forthright communication, literal confessions of the ways we have injured one another, and honest attempts to come together to be reconciled—these saving graces can help heal the wounds we inflict on others and on ourselves. Denial of or turning a blind eye to obvious errors in judgment only deepens the chasm of complicity in the spiraling out of control scheme.  Tell the truth so that the truth can set you on the path toward true freedom.

ABSOLUTIONS: There is a powerful part of the Holy Communion service that we typically call the absolution. It arrives just in the nick of time—right after the confession! The priest is privileged to pronounce that God’s grace provides all that we need for a real release from guilt, anxiety, and punishment. It is a declaration of forgiveness, no strings attached. The New Zealand Prayer Book expresses this spiritual reality powerfully and succinctly, summarily launching us toward a fresh start: “God forgives you. Forgive others. Forgive yourself.” We can begin to move forward from previous false starts and past failures of nerve by simply accepting this extraordinary gift—and offering it to others and to ourselves. Believe it—God has enough faith in us to allow us another year.

EVOLUTIONS: Growth can be painful. But the previous year’s experiences (the highs and the lows) can deepen our faith and expand our capacity to learn. The process of spiritual evolution takes time and happens over many years, countless new beginnings, and a multitude of fresh starts.  Awareness and intention lead us forward. If we dedicate ourselves to developing and diversifying, to becoming more complete and whole, to take the hard-won lessons of life to heart, mind, and soul, we will find ourselves in a far different and better place from where we began again. The layers of life experience cover us with wisdom, perspective, and patience. Like a well-aged wine, over time we begin to reflect our roots, relationships, and reach, the rocky soil, varied contexts, and unpredictable weather in which we grew, even the ancient container of faith in which we were formed.  We become different.  And that is not a bad thing.

May the New Year take us beyond the mere recitation of resolutions, toward restitutions, absolutions, and evolutions.  It is always a gift to start over.

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JOHN THE BAPTIST, STEVE JOBS, AND THE CREATIVE, COLLABORATIVE ADVANTAGE OF ADVENT

 
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down.”  John the Baptist

 
“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.”  Steve Jobs

 

Walter Isaacson, the author of The Innovators, once asked Steve Jobs, the Apple visionary, which product he was most proud of, assuming Jobs would name the iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Surprisingly (or not), Steve Jobs said that making an exceptional product is hard, but making a collaborative team that can continually make innovative products is even harder (and more important). So the product, Jobs said, that he was most proud of was Apple itself—and the collaborative, creative team they built together at Apple.

 
The “A” team strategy of Apple reminds us of the “A” team possibilities of Advent. Advent rolls around each year to offer us an opportunity to go back to the drawing board, to start over, to reimagine new possibilities that God calls us to collaboratively create. Like Apple, the best ideas and practices emerge when we function as a team, when we come together in community and offer our respective gifts, infusing and improving one another’s ideas by our mutual mission-making.

 
In some ways, John the Baptist, the face of Advent, is to the religious tradition what Steve Jobs, the face of Apple, is to technological innovation. They both offer good ideas to set us off toward the creative, collaborative advantage of Advent. John the Baptist was a singular voice—one who wore camel hair and ate locusts—crying in the wilderness, telling anyone who would listen: “Repent, for there’s a big change ahead!” Steve Jobs admonished the sometimes skeptical: “Stay hungry, and stay foolish!” John the Baptist reminded people that the accumulated obstacles and debris of failed efforts had to be leveled from time to time, and the deep ruts of monotonous routine should be filled in, in order to propel us forward. Jobs put it succinctly: “I want to put a ding in the universe!” John the Baptist had no problem telling people what he thought they needed to hear and how he thought they needed to change, calling them a brood of protective vipers. Steve Jobs often stood outside the box and threw rocks at pre-conceived reality, asking “Why join the Navy if you can be a pirate?”

 
In Advent, we have the opportunity to join an “A” team, to link up with a community of continual creativity, ongoing collaboration, limitless imagination, and recurring innovation. Advent comes again to remind us that things can change, we can change, and together, we can change things. Advent is always to our advantage.

 

 

“I baptize you with water. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”   John the Baptist.

 
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently – they’re not fond of rules…You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things…they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”   Steve Jobs

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SADDLE UP, PILGRIM!

Saddle Up, Pilgrim   

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”     Saint Augustine of Hippo

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of people and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”    Mark Twain

There are many reasons that I travel.  Sometimes I am sharing my faith with folks on the Mainland who are hungry for good news. Sometimes I need to retreat in solitude to be renewed.  Sometimes I am ready to party like a rock star in Las Vegas with a good friend. Sometimes I want to learn from a new culture and take a course to enrich my understanding of the world.  Sometimes I travel solely to serve with an organization that is making a real difference.  Sometimes I crave adventure and set off toward a distant land with absolutely no previously planned itinerary.  But there is another kind of travel that is equal parts intention and openness, planned with a purpose in mind, but accepting of spiritual surprises along the way.

In the Christian tradition, we call this pilgrimage. It’s been an important part of my spiritual growth and awareness for many years. My first real pilgrimage was to the Holy Land in my 20’s, just after seminary. It changed my life in ways that I am still realizing today. Since that time, I have been blessed to experience all kinds of pilgrimages that have fed my soul and enhanced my relationship with God – everything from Celtic journeys to Iona in Scotland and hikes up Patrick’s Mountain in Ireland, to a Blues, Brews, and Pews trek through the Mississippi Delta. Lately, I sense that I am being called to lead a pilgrimage or two myself, to share what I’ve learned along the way with others who might seek to walk their prayers and experience for themselves the power of sacred sites and holy people in God’s world.

 

The idea of pilgrimage is rooted in the biblical narrative, from Abraham’s call to go to an unknown land so he could both be blessed and be a blessing to the world, to the children of Israel’s wandering in the Wilderness on their way from captivity in Egypt to a Promised Land, from Jesus’ 40 day hike in the desert as part of his own discernment process, to Paul’s missionary journeys in the Mediterranean and beyond.  It has long been a part of the religious tradition as pilgrims have visited Mecca, the Holy Land, Lourdes, the Santiago de Compostela, and many other places in search of a deeper faith. Pilgrimage is part wanderlust, part intention, part openness, part prayer, part reading and reflection, part unexpected encounter, and part sharing with companions along the way. It is a journey taken slowly and deliberately for those seeking inspiration, insight, renewal, and healing. And, if undertaken with the right spirit and the right people, it can also be fun!

 

In future years, I hope to lead groups to the Celtic lands of Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland. I’d also love to share the Memphis-to-Mississippi-to-New Orleans Blues and Jazz Journey.  Perhaps even a trek along the Santiago de Compostela in Spain will come to pass. But the first pilgrimage that I will lead will be to the beautiful island of Molokai, right here in Hawaii, in the steps of Father Damien and Sister Marianne.   Both of these saints have been sources of extraordinary encouragement to me. We will hike down (or saddle up and take the mule!) to Kalaupapa and spend the day in the place where Damien and Marianne ministered to those with Hanson’s disease. We’ll pray in several churches that Damien built. I’ll be presenting some meditations on the lives of these extraordinary saints of God.  And we’ll have some time for recreation and renewal on Molokai’s quiet and secluded beaches. I will also arrange a visit to one of my favorite bookstores in Hawaii and perhaps a discussion with one of the world’s greatest photographers. We are tentatively looking at a 3-4 day pilgrimage in either March or April of 2015 for this Pilgrimage to Molokai.  More information will be forthcoming.  In the meantime, keep moving…

 

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”   T. S. Eliot

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ON ORANGE TICKETS, UMBRELLAS, AND OBSTRUCTED VIEWS or IS THE POPE CATHOLIC?

ON ORANGE TICKETS, UMBRELLAS, AND OBSTRUCTED VIEWS

or

IS THE POPE CATHOLIC?

 

“Our relationship with Christ is personal but not private. We are not isolated and we are not Christians on an individual basis. Our Christian identity is to belong.”     Pope Francis

 

On my bright orange ticket for the Audience With the Pope on June 25th, the bold print revealed just who he thought I was: REPARTO SPECIALE.  That’s right, O Ye of Bleacher-Seats Status. I was a SPECIAL GUEST. At the Vatican. With the Pope.  Obviously, I am a Very Important Priest.

The poparazzi’s cameras were ashutter as we strutted through St. Peter’s Square, all 12 of us in clerical collars, some in full black or purple cassocks, sporting the coolest of Italian accessories such as shades and hats. The Vatican Security detail, upon realizing the caliber character dictated by our ticket color, parted the rope turn after turn.

Once we got to our clerical club-level seating, we realized that only one small section separated us from His Holiness, the section reserved for the UN Peacekeeping Force from Argentina and more cardinals than you’d find at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. A dapper man in a fully-tailed tuxedo showed us to our section. I chose a row with a clear sight line of the pontiff’s pulpit, congratulating myself further when the entire next row over got bumped for a bunch of Colombian nuns.

Out in the square, the Pope in his Popemobile greeted all his fans as the Swiss Guard Band played a set list much more festive than pompous. Finally, to the cheers of the faithful, he ascended the steps and sat in his chair.

Or, at least I assume he sat in his chair. While I had a clear view of the pulpit, I had forgotten that the pope doesn’t speak from a pulpit.  He speaks from a chair, a chair which was entirely obstructed from my view. Hey Father Genius, ever heard of the term Ex Cathedra which literally means “from the chair?”  What is the Italian word for dumbass?

So, during the entirety of the Pope’s inspiring message to the world, sitting within fifty feet, I managed to steal one glimpse of his notes and caught two hand waves as he emphasized a pastoral point.  My chair wasn’t nearly as prestigiously positioned as I had thought. And as it turned out, I was exactly where I needed to be.

It started raining. There were very few umbrellas in sight. But the Italian lady sitting next to me happened to have one. She spoke no English but grabbed me by my clerical collar and pulled me close. I leaned in to her and smiled, protected from the downpour.

Ultimately, that’s exactly what the Pope had to say that day.  His sermon was about how we are all in this together, from the back row to the corporate suite, from the VIP up front to the vendor at the very back who sold me a Pope Bobblehead. The Pope said that there is a distinct catholicity, a broad and inclusive universality to our faith that connects us and brings us closer, regardless of who we are, where we come from, what color our ticket is, and what language we speak. The church is one big umbrella that reaches out and gives us all a respite from the storm.

So, in fact, as a Christian, I am special indeed. My orange ticket did not reveal that truth. The obstructed view and the umbrella did.

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