“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams
Last night I was inducted into a local organization here in my Louisiana parish called Leadership St. Tammany. If you had told me three years ago when I was living on the island of Kauai—wearing flip flops and shorts every day (shirt optional), hiking mountains, perfecting my mai tai recipe and paddle-boarding pristine rivers fed by waterfalls tucked into lush green mountains—that I would soon be signing up for such duty, I would have asked you to get your mental health checked. Even after moving to this quaint but lively southern town of Covington, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans (a.k.a. Mecca for a music lover like me, and don’t get me started on the food, lest I drool on my blog), I was highly resistant. My dogs, writing, passion for the New Orleans Saints and Houston Astros, beer-tasting adventures, travel, musical collaborations, speaking engagements, and my church/school/retirement center all keep me very busy. My first thought when someone approached me about participating in this organization was: “No can do, I’m too busy.” But then God spoke to me and said, “Have you asked out that Brazilian girl yet?” Wait—perhaps that was not God speaking. On second thought, God said, “What if everyone is too busy to make a positive difference in their local communities and beyond? Then where would we be as a community, nation, and world?” God always has the best questions. “We’d be in big trouble,” I answered, mostly to myself. This response brings me to the present state of affairs in my beloved country, the United States of America, and why I said “Yes.”
My fellow citizens, we can do better than what we’re doing now. We need leaders who can and will lead. We need people, as John Quincy Adams noted in the quote I found on my program last night, whose actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more. What we do not need are those whose actions cut people off from their potential or seek to exclude them from full participation in society. We do not need those who engage in hateful rhetoric, polemical diatribes, and partisan put-downs. We do not need those who think that opposition to a particular policy is in itself a particular policy. We do not need those who stand on the sidelines and condemn those who are actually in the arena trying to make a difference, as imperfect as their efforts might be. And we definitely do not need immature bullies, whose denigrating assaults on decency and our fellow Americans are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
We need Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We need evangelical Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and Humanists. We need conservatives, moderates, and liberals. We need everybody, coming together in constructive collaboration, finding common ground and ways through, toward solutions that are grounded in the core values that have always made our nation great—justice, inclusion, empowerment, respect, compassion, and tolerance. We need people willing to build up rather than tear down, to say “Yes” much more often than they say “No.”
All citizens share the responsibility for creating such a country. We are called to listen with respect to those with whom we disagree. We are called to speak up when we see any group disrespected, or any policy advocated which seeks to deny basic rights to our fellow citizens. We are called to recommit to getting involved, to connect with those who seek to find non-partisan agendas that seek the betterment of our nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As I looked around the room last night, I saw lots of folks who are quite different from me, and from each other. My roommate for our upcoming retreat is a conservative Republican who is running for state representative. I’m actually a political moderate, despite a few of my friends telling me I’m to the left of Karl Marx; I like to remind them that I’m still not to the left of Jesus! I am certain that I will learn a lot from my roommate and from all my new friends. My prayer is that we can find common ground and real solutions that will improve the lives of all our citizens. It won’t be easy. Many of the issues we face are challenging and complex, but I’m willing to learn more, dream more, become more, and do more. Are you?More
“Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.” Chris Rose
“For everything there is a season.” The Book of Ecclesiastes
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
I was not born in New Orleans. But I believe I was born to live in New Orleans. I just completed my second Mardi Gras marathon, a Carnival season that makes most places’ ultimate parties look like a fundamentalist parish potluck for the clinically depressed. It cannot really be described for the uninitiated, and typical television coverage focuses on how tourists behave in a place where go-cups are the law and what happens here somehow stays in Las Vegas, which isn’t even close to reality (although its reality is not even close to reality either!). It is all sensory overload, unbridled creativity, unseemly exuberance, canonized weirdness, the passionate pursuit to catch anything thrown anywhere near you, political satire far sharper than your dullest politician (redundant, I know), and all while somehow remaining 90% family-friendly. It has to be seen to be believed, and in some ways it has to be believed before it can be seen.
I’ve paced myself over the last two seasons. Year one, I hit the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning and caught two coconuts, an unheard-of feat that my Louisiana neighbors alternatively blamed on beginners luck and then credited to God’s providence and prayer. I wore my full priestly attire last Mardi Gras day, all-black with a clerical collar, and added a coconut bra and grass skirt just to let people know that I really was a priest and really had come here from Hawaii. I know they were all convinced—or at least that’s what I told myself—when members of the Krewe of Rex, the granddaddy parade, pointed me out and repeatedly tossed high-class throws in my direction. This year was no different, even though I wore civilian garb. I caught a glittering high-heel shoe at the all-female Krewe of Muses parade on Thursday evening, blue beads that were licked and tossed by Gene Simmons of Kiss at the Saturday night Endymion parade (a spectacle that can only be described as Mardi Gras on steroids), and since New Orleans even has a beer-and-toilet-themed parade during the day on Saturday (Tucks, as in the Friar, among other things), I came home with purple toilet paper and a plush poop emoji that reads “Tucks Happens.”
This year, I somehow scheduled myself to preach on Ash Wednesday, at three services, starting at 7:30 a.m. It’s ok. Here in Louisiana the Carnival Season ends promptly at 12:00 midnight, and police officers on horseback sweep through the French Quarter, shutting it down with unquestionable authority. At the stroke of Wednesday morning, the celebration ends and Lent begins. Believe it or not, attendance at Ash Wednesday services is consistently strong. Carnival veterans end their days early on Fat Tuesday. For me, Fat Tuesday this year was actually “the day before Ash Wednesday.” Since I had to be coherent and well-prepared to preach and place ashes on foreheads with the accuracy of an archer, I decided to stay home in my small town of Covington and not venture into the big city.
That decision turned out to be a tremendous blessing. I live right on the parade route in Covington, right on the corner where it turns. The Lions Club Covington parade is way more low-key than the spectacles in the city, but I was able to sit on my front porch with my dogs Nawiliwili Nelson and Sinbad and watch as the local parade passed by. Small town parades, especially in Louisiana, are the best! Wili decided that his four favorite floats at the parade were the Pontchartrain Waste Services Truck (he thought it smelled delicious), the Glory Bail Bonds Van (because let’s face it—it isn’t really Mardi Gras in Louisiana until someone calls the Bail Bondsman!), the Hillbilly Outhouse float (don’t ask, but dogs know what they like), and, Number One for the entire family, the Luau by the Sea Float (because he’s from Hawaii and he never met a luau, regardless of location, that he did not eat). Neither of us is giving up Kalua pig for Lent!
Being relatively new here, I’m still amazed by Carnival season, Mardi Gras parades, and all the energy, creativity, commitment, and hard work that goes into Krewes and costumes and all the revelry that surrounds and sweeps us up into some exhilarating, celebratory moments. But what may be even more amazing on Mardi Gras Day was the extraordinary clean-up crew that followed the parade. Perhaps even more entertaining—and certainly more life-impacting—than the bead-throwers may be the bead-gatherers. There was a giant Street Sweeper that rivaled any float at Endymion. There were John Deere carts with strategically placed blowers that were more powerful than the pull-no-punches political statements that rolled down St. Charles Avenue in the city. And then there was a literal army of orange-vested workers, looking not unlike Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club, who scoured the entire landscape, including my front yard, to remove every piece of garbage that was left behind. Some of them, I noticed, even got down on their hands and knees to make sure they hadn’t missed anything, removing all that was worthless, getting rid of everything that was a blight on the landscape of our lives on West 23rd Street. This crew, with a C rather than a K, was consumed with the important task of putting the world back in place, getting things back to their rightful state, making things whole, beautiful, and habitable again. And it wasn’t just a one-time shot. They made several passes, numerous attempts to get it right, to make sure they hadn’t overlooked anything that needed to be eliminated, cleared out, cleaned up, or washed away. Which brings us to the Day after Mardi Gras, a day known as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
It is a rare gift, an entire season, an invitation to belong to a Crew that does the hard work of cleaning up any mess we may have made along the way of our lives and in this world that God created and loves. It is 40 whole days to be made whole, to restore order, to find those things that sully not just our lawns but our lives, and get rid of them. Lent is the good news that, in God’s Kingdom, we can be clean, we can be restored, and we can be made right, recreated in God’s original image of light, life, and love. Lent does not come along as a season to rain on any of our parades, but as a season to power wash the mistakes, the poor choices, the bad habits, the wrong ordering of priorities, of all those things that just don’t belong in a place where you’d like to live, a street on which you choose to make a real and lasting home. It may mean for you that this season means less about “cleaning up” at the parade, as in accumulating things that, in the end, are really pretty worthless, and more about “cleaning up” after the parade, taking an honest, hard, deep, truthful look at ourselves and our choices. In Lent we “clean up” by giving away, being generous, going deeper, and spending time in prayer, priorities, and a pilgrimage toward the city of eternal celebration and true joy—not New Orleans in this case but Jerusalem. This is the season in which we are called to put on our bright orange vests and our walking shoes and tell everyone we’ve got work to do, starting with ourselves, and we’ve got places to be, and people to see, walking toward God’s ultimate desire for our lives and our world. Some of us may find ourselves on our hands and knees this season, taking a closer look at what needs to go, taking a closer look at the needs of world, and carefully considering what “throws” God calls us to share with the world—reaching out with kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. The good news is that we have a powerful Crew (with a C), a Community of unconditional love, eternal understanding, and faithful accountability, soul friends who will walk with us every step of the way.
Parades are fun. They make my heart beat. But pilgrimages are transformative. They make our souls sing. Create in us this Lent, O God, clean hearts. Renew a right spirit within each of us.More
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.More
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!” JesusMore
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.
“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.
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!More
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/HODMore
“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!More
“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.More
“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