“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” -Benjamin Franklin
“Taxation is the price which civilized communities pay for the opportunity of remaining civilized.” -Albert Bushnell Hart
“When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust man less on the same amount of income.” -Plato
It happened one beautiful summer afternoon in one of those really nice Chicago suburban cities, so far north of Wrigley Field that you suspect the locals of cheering for the Brewers more than the Cubs. I was still in college, quite curious about the world, open to new ideas, eager to learn, much more likely to change my mind than, unfortunately, I am now. I was with 30 choir members from my small Christian college in Abilene, Texas, on a tour of the Midwest. The choir’s bass section, of which I was a member, was particularly strong, as I recall. Our lodging was limited to whichever families in hosting churches wanted to keep a couple of college kids overnight. If you were lucky, the families had pool tables in their basements, and looked the other way when you violated college prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and sneaking in your favorite soprano after hours (who happened to be your girlfriend).
One afternoon, I remember driving through that particularly lovely northern Illinois town on our way to meet our hosts. It was one of those towns that seemed like most anyone would want to call it home. It had that look about it—like the citizens really cared about their town and went to great lengths to make it livable. I was still emerging from a rather parochial perspective, a “smaller-than-life” Texas mentality that anything beyond the Sabine, Red, or Rio Grande Rivers must be geographically challenged, if not vastly inferior to more familiar places I had known. The hosts and I sat in their living room, gazing out upon a beautiful, but not particularly affluent neighborhood. We talked about music, movies, literature, sports, education, religion, and politics. I admitted to the lady of the house that I was impressed with her town. “It’s the best,” she told me. “It’s safe, clean, maintained, well-run, and the schools are excellent. We pay our teachers well and my children received an extraordinary public education that prepared them not just for college, but for life.” But then came an addition to the equation I am not sure I had ever heard. “Of course, our taxes are very high,” she shared, “and I gladly pay them. I want the very best for my children, my family, and my neighbors. It’s worth every penny.”
That lesson that some might frame as “getting what you’re willing to pay for” is one I would come to understand much more deeply over decades as a minister. I might put it this way: The generous life IS the abundant life. That, if you are willing to invest, to go all in—whether it’s with a faith community, a school district, a family, a social cause, a charitable organization, a local government or a small town—you, and those you love, will reap the benefits. Resources make a difference. I once heard a minister put it this way: “Our church has all the money it needs to do ministry well and make a profound difference in this world—unfortunately, it’s still in your pockets!” Even if such giving is required, as in a tax bill, such gifts do have their own rewards. Paying a “fair share” is perhaps the least we can do.
While I realize that some have already stopped reading and will dismiss me as a “pro-tax liberal,” they’d be wrong to label me as such. I’m politically moderate and economically prudent. Fiscally, I’m mostly conservative. I believe in hard work, personal responsibility, wise spending that does not exceed one’s means, and budgeting for the future. I’ve had a savings account since I was 3 years old. I started mowing lawns at age 12, worked in a hardware store every afternoon during high school, worked several jobs during college and graduate school, and paid my own cash for my first car when I was a senior in high school. I’ve contributed to my retirement every month and contributed at least ten percent of my income to charity since reaching adulthood. But, in addition to those values, I value my community. I value my country. I value the world. I want to be a good citizen, to do the right thing, and help contribute to the needs of all people. I don’t view paying taxes to create important programs that benefit others in any less positive light as I view my monthly tithe to my church.
In Plato’s Republic, there is a character by the name of Thrasymachus. I’m sure he has some good qualities and is not all bad. And I’ll bet you know people just like him. In fact, you may be a lot like him. He is basically on a mission to look out for number one. He argues that self-serving interests are not so immoral, after all. He even suggests that justice (that weighty word used often in the scriptures of my religious tradition) is really a philosophy that benefits the one in power, and that such a view is not a bad thing. Thrasymachus is one of those people who would always vote “NO” on any tax increase or renewal, even if it benefits the good of the whole. His whole good is himself. End of story. The character of Socrates, who would have been a Chicago Cubs fan had he lived in our time, makes a strong case that Thrasymachus’ attitude is one the world does not need. In fact, Socrates argues effectively that working for the common good is ultimately working in our own interest. Doing the right thing is its own reward. And it makes life better for everyone.
Considering the common good, rather than simply what impacts me and my personal finances, is not a particularly popular position these days. But popularity is often inversely proportional to morality. Here in my home parish in Louisiana, where using the word “tax” is considered probable cause for arrest, or at least expulsion from the state, you might be surprised who is looking out for the common good. Here locally, the Republican Party has endorsed a tax renewal that, any way you slice it, is going to benefit our community as a whole. It will help fund all sorts of public safety, social justice and social service initiatives. The local Democratic Party, which often gets my vote, has opposed it. This interesting development just goes to show that no one party has a corner on obstructionism or on the powerful and mostly unhelpful word “NO.” The truth is that sometimes Republicans do the right thing. Sometimes Democrats do the right thing. And Americans? Well, it is my prayer that we will always strive to do the right thing, regardless of party affiliation, or personal cost. My vote is not given just to the candidate or issue that might be most beneficial to me personally. My vote is given in the name of the whole. I don’t always succeed, but I always try to see the common good.
So, in the end, I am not afraid of paying taxes. It’s a privilege. I know that I am blessed to live in such a wonderful country and awesome community. I want my country, my state, my parish, and my town to get even better. And I’m willing to pay for it. And by the way, Benjamin Franklin, I’m not afraid of death either! Obviously, I wrote this article. –Fr. William MillerMore
“But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord!” -Joshua 24:15
I know something about loyalty. I understand the concept of unwavering support through thick and thin. I know what commitment means over the long term and how costly it can be when we really mean it. You see, I’m a Houston Astros fan. We go way back, perhaps even back to 1888 when the Houston Buffaloes minor league team was formed. The most visionary early Rector of Trinity Church, the congregation I served in Houston from 1999-2006, was the Revered Robert E. Lee Craig, from Jackson Mississippi. Craig insisted the church literally move from a hidden dead-in street back in the early 1900s to “face the world more prominently.” He believed the church should be the most important thing, the most important community and cause in a city; therefore, it should be located somewhere folks would notice it, so that the faith community members would be reminded of its significance every time they worshiped. He knew it was a costly proposition, but it would be worth it. The congregation believed in his vision, and the church building was literally loaded onto a wagon and pulled by a team of mules to its present-day location, right on Main Street in the heart of the city of Houston. The Reverend Craig was a staunch Houston Buffaloes fan. He attended the games as often as he could, and I’ll bet the Buffaloes even made it into his sermons! I don’t know if he lived long enough to see the legendary Dizzy Dean pitch the Buffs all the way to a Texas League pennant in 1931, but if he did, I know he was cheering loudly!
My older brother still owns, and proudly displays, the only Houston Buffs pennant I have ever seen. As a young boy, he would take the bus to Buffs Stadium, and later take a different bus to Colt Stadium to watch the Colt 45s play. Colt Stadium was a temporary home until the Astrodome opened in 1965; it was then that the team was renamed the Astros, paying homage to the NASA space center in Houston. I remember my first visit to the dome when I was five years old: I was in awe at the “8th Wonder of the World.” And I cheered for the Astros from my very first game! There were more losing seasons and “down years” than I can even remember, but I never wavered in my loyalty and in my support. I was at Turner Field in Atlanta, driving all night from Houston, on October 11th, 2004, when the Astros finally won a playoff series, beating the Braves 12-3 after Roy Oswalt pitched a gem. I was in St. Louis the next year when the Astros finally beat the Cardinals and went to the World Series. I was at the longest World Series game ever played on October 23rd, 2005, when the Chicago White Sox beat the Astros in the 14th inning on a home run by former Astro Geoff Blum. The game lasted 5 hours and 41 minutes. Not once did I consider leaving early. This year, I plan to be at games 6 and 7 in Los Angeles. It will cost me a fortune, but not as much as what I’ve spent to keep my dog, Wili, alive. When you love someone or something, and are committed to it, loyal forever, it really doesn’t matter what it costs.
The same is true of faith. Faith that really matters means loyalty and commitment, though thick and thin. There will be losing seasons and down times. There will be years when the stadium seems empty, and people change their allegiances. Even in faith communities you will sometimes be frustrated by management decisions and tempted to quit supporting your team. But in the end, being a true fan, as being a true person of faith, makes all the difference. Just ask a Cubs fan and all those who hung in there for a century! Last year, I celebrated as the Cubs won the World Series. I hope to celebrate this World Series as well, but this time with an Astros victory. But what happens if they lose? In the words of the old spiritual, “Done Made My Vow!” I’m a Houston Astros fan to the very end.More
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Give and it will be given to you.” Jesus Christ
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Mr. Rogers
“I had to tell 300 people that we were out of blankets. If you could have seen the look in their eyes…” My friend, Paige Pecore, texted me these sobering words as those displaced by the Hurricane Harvey floods in Houston began streaming into an overflowing makeshift shelter at the Convention Center. She and her husband, Doug, like so many Houstonians, were volunteering. Many of the folks showing up had nothing but the wet clothes on their backs. Although I had already donated to Episcopal Relief and Development and to the Red Cross, knowing that these organizations do good work, I found myself asking, “What can I do?” If you find yourself asking that question in a crisis, know that you are likely not far from the heart of God.
Those desperately-needed blankets immediately became a powerful symbol guiding my own response to the devastation. A blanket is a tangible expression of concern; something that can provide warmth, protection, and even a small sense of security for folks who have lost everything. Even though my church and a local construction company were already meeting behind-the-scenes to begin to coordinate a more massive and sustained relief effort, the blankets became my focus. My initial plan was to raid the local stores, rent a truck, and meet my friend, Doug, halfway. The roads were closed. Then I contacted a friend who has a plane. The airports were closed. Then I went online to see if the god of commerce, amazon.com, could help. Only a moron would even begin to imagine that if I ordered blankets on Amazon, they’d deliver them the next day to the Convention Center. Apparently, fools like me are born more often than you think! I even contacted the Cajun Navy, with visions of sailing down the I-10, stirring a pot of gumbo while sipping an Abita Amber, entering downtown Houston through Buffalo Bayou, then hoisting the blankets overboard and into the shelter. The Cajun Navy guy wished me well, and told me to contact the Cajun Submarine fleet, headed by Commander Al E. Gator. I’m still searching the swamp! Undeterred, I pressed on.
Then, a miracle happened. My friend and fellow priest, Scott Painter, who lives in the heart of Houston, happened to maneuver flooded streets and arrive at Costco just as it miraculously reopened. He texted photos of my blanket options and asked “How many do you want?” I ordered 100, sent him a check for $2,000, and bright and early the next morning, he delivered them to the new shelter opening at NRG Stadium, where 10,000 people were expected by the end of the day! Take that, Admiral Gator!
In the grand scheme of relief efforts, in a swampy region spread out over a vast territory with 6 million inhabitants, 100 blankets delivered to one shelter probably won’t make much of a difference. But for the 100 people at the shelter who end up with one, it might make some difference. And you and I can each make some difference. Together, we can make a big difference.
In every crisis, you will discover that there will be folks who will sit back and do nothing, thinking their efforts won’t make much difference. Worse, there will be others who will expend precious energy criticizing others. Dear humans: NEWSFLASH! In a crisis–criticism and condemnation, second-guessing and judging–not helpful in the least. In fact, they can discourage those who are actually doing good to keep doing good. If you have enough time and energy to second-guess elected officials because of their decisions, criticize public figures because you are not satisfied with their efforts, or castigate the work of relief organizations because of their imperfections, you are part of the problem and not part of the solution. Piling on wet blankets of negativity will not help one single person whose life has been disrupted by a flood.
I have a good friend who is a single mom with two kids. They live simply in an apartment. She works for the Red Cross and she is passionately committed to her work and to improving every day. She works overtime every week, with pay that is not competitive. During many crises she is away from her own children late into the night as she provides comfort and support for others. I watched in disbelief as she posted ways to help during Hurricane Harvey on social media, only to be barraged by insults and complaints. One man, who looks like he hasn’t missed too many meals, posted photos of chicken nuggets that he claimed were Red Cross meals during a recent flood. Turned out, snacks are provided as soon as possible, even before the Red Cross caterers arrive. I watched my friend expend her valuable and positive energy addressing very patiently and thoughtfully Mr. Nugget’s criticisms. How much more helpful it would have been had my friend been able to focus on what really matters – helping people. And just think if Mr. Nugget had used his energy to get trained as a volunteer, or to purchase food or blankets. Or if he’d just shut up. The world would be a much better place.
Jesus said it best: Do not judge or condemn. Do not criticize or second-guess. Now is definitely not the time. Give and it will always be given back to you. Look for the helpers. Be one, too. It’s our only hope.More
“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