Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Friday, March 30, 2012

Remembrance and Forgiveness

Yom HaShoah Remembrance
It has been my great privilege and honor and delight to work with an interfaith group here in the Rehoboth Beach - Lewes area on the development of a service of Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It's been an especially powerful exercise as I prepare for Holy Week.

Yom HaShoah is Israel's day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories, and for the Jewish resistance in that period.

In Israel, it is always celebrated on the 27th Day of Nisan, which, this year, would be April 24th. The interfaith community here is gathering to observe it on Sunday afternoon, April 22nd.

It is, for Christians, the Third Sunday of Easter, the season which commemorates our liberation in Christ through his Resurrection.

For our Jewish friends, it is Pesach (Passover) VIII, which commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

I am struck, as I always am, by the wonderful juxtaposition of the Christian and Jewish calendar and what that tension has to teach us about God.

Each time I am privileged to be part of planning a Yom HaShoah Service, I find that I have to work past the knot in the pit of my stomach when I think about eleven million people - six million of them Jews - who were killed in the Holocaust.

The others were Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses ("Bible Researchers"), Homosexual Men, Habitual Criminals, Political Prisoners, Asocial (including prostitutes, vagrants, murderers, thieves, lesbians, and those who violated laws prohibiting sexual intercourse between Aryans and Jews), Emigrant, and Mentally Handicapped - each with their own particular colored badge of identification.

Some patches included letters on the triangles to further distinguish among the various groups in the camps. Most commonly, the letter indicated nationality, e.g., "F" for franzosisch (French), "P" for polnisch (Polish), "T" for tschechisch (Czech), etc., but it could also denote special sub-categories of prisoners.

For example, the word Blod on a black triangle (Asocial) marked mentally retarded inmates, and a red and white target symbol set apart those who had tried to escape.

It's hard enough to think about the Holocaust in Germany without considering the genocide of the Armenians, the Bosnians, the Rwandans and those in Darfur.  Each of those events also include the senseless, stupid torture and murder of innocent men, women and children because they didn't fit into someone's idea of what it means to "belong" or be "right" because they were deemed politically, racially or socially "unfit".

To be perfectly honest, it's what scares the beejesus out of me when I hear the rhetoric of Tea Baggers and White Supremacy groups. It's just a few steps behind the rhetoric of Germany, circa 1930. If they ever got into power...well...I think you know exactly where I'm going with this thought. It's part of what inspires me to be part of the Interfaith Yom HaShoah observance.

Rather than try to explain it all or try to understand genocide and Holocaust, our interfaith service will begin with a time of silence in the presence of thirteen candles. Twelve will be lit while the names of twelve of the concentration camps and twelve categories of prisoners will be read. The 'Theme from Schindler's List' will be playing softly in the background.

Eleven candles will be lit in remembrance of the eleven million people who were killed during the Holocaust.  A twelfth candle will be lit to remember the millions of people who were killed in other genocides. A final candle will remain unlit in the hope that never again will there be another genocide.

As important as it is to remember the daunting capacity of human beings to do evil, it is even more important to remember our unlimited capacity to do good.  Somewhere, in the balance of the two, lies the hope for the future of the human race.

Which is, in fact, my perennial dilemma during Holy Week: caught between my despair over "the evil men do" and trying to remember the words of Anne Frank that, "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart".

I am acutely aware of what stands in my way of finding balance - of what it is, exactly, that causes my stomach to tie itself up in a knot. Here it is, in a word: Forgiveness.

I can forgive - it's a spiritual discipline which strengthens my soul. It's not easy, but I've learned that I don't do it out of some sense of benevolence for others. I do it because I need to forgive. As the folks in the 12 Step Programs say, holding onto resentment and anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

That's not what I'm talking about. I don't know how to forgive what happened in the Holocaust. I don't know how to forgive that kind of evil.

I notice that, in all the literature I have read from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the word forgiveness is not used. I see these words: Remembrance. Commemorate. Genocide. Victims. Survivors. Rescuers. Hope.

I don't know if, after genocide, forgiveness is really possible. Remembrance is important. We must never forget. Hope is essential. It is what shapes the future. But, forgiveness? After genocide, starvation and unspeakable torture in the name of "medical science"? How do you find it? Where do you find it?

One of the Holocaust survivors, a woman named Estelle Laughlin, is quoted as saying, "Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is".

Certainly, that is the core of Holy Week, but I don't think that Holocaust survivor was referring to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Still, placing our feet on the path Jesus walked and remembering His journey shapes and teaches us and helps us understand what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The most difficult path for me to walk in Holy Week is the path of forgiveness. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," is the prayer from the lips of Jesus as he hung from the cross. At least, that's how his followers remembered it.

That prayer trips me up every time. Asking God's forgiveness on behalf of those who have betrayed, humiliated, tortured and mean to kill you is a thing so divine as to seem beyond the reach of my mere human frailty.

And yet, I know it's the heart of Christ's message and the central work of the ministry of everyone who is baptized in His name.

Of all the information and prayers I've read in preparation for this interfaith Yom HaShoah event, the following touched me deeply.

It is a prayer that was prayed on the behalf of others — not fellow sufferers, bunk mates sharing not only a wood-slat bed but co-habiting in heartless conditions. It wasn’t prayed for them. The petition was offered on behalf of the oppressors, the monsters who tortured and killed innocent men, women, and children, the sick and elderly, the vibrant and young. The prayer was a prayer for forgiveness for unforgivable treatment.

I’ve read that it was discovered hand-written and posted in a barrack, scribbled on a torn scrap of wrapping paper. I’ve also read that it was found shoved into the coat pocket of a dead girl discovered in Ravensbruck. I’ve read that it was stumbled on and published immediately after the war in a German newspaper.

Obviously, it is difficult to trace the source of the prayer, or to even assure its veracity. But because the Holocaust revealed to us the inconceivable cruelty of mankind, I also want to believe that it could reveal — as a counter weight, an opposite — equally inconceivable human grace, possible only in communion with God.

Here is a version of the possibly fabled but masterful prayer:
“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But, do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us; instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering — our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”
I am left speechless in the presence of this prayer. The dignity of it. The profound wisdom of it. The divinity of it. The humanity of it. All of that speaks to me as clearly as the words of forgiveness which Jesus spoke from the cross.  If it could be spoken by one human being in the aftermath of the Holocaust, perhaps I may one day be able to speak it from a place of truth in myself.

It is the prayer I will take with me this year into Holy Week. I don't want to so much to understand it as to live it.  It helps me to make sense of the teaching of Jesus that we must forgive "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22).

We have decided to end our Interfaith Observance of Yom HaShoah with the Rabbi saying Kaddish, that remarkable prayer for the dead which never mentions death or grief. Rather, the focus of the prayer is on the glory of God, who calls us into life and then calls us home again. The Rabbi reminded us that, in this prayer, we also pray for peace - from apparently the only One Who can guarantee it - peace between nations, peace between individuals, and peace of mind.

She also said that, although Jewish Law requires that the Kaddish be recited during the first eleven months following the death of a loved one by prescribed mourners, and on each anniversary of the death (the "Yahrtzeit"), and by custom in the State of Israel by all Jews on the Tenth of Tevet ("Yom HaKaddish HaKlali'), it is also most appropriate to recite it on this occasion.
Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for usand for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen
The congregation will be responding with the poem by Judy Chicago. It will be the other prayer I take with me into Holy Week.

It was written about the time she created “The Dinner Party,” her massive, and often maligned, installation, completed in 1979, of a triangle of tables with elaborate, personalized place settings for thirty-nine historical female figures, from Ishtar to Virginia Woolf.

The poem is called "Merger" and it represents, for me, what is possible when one finds forgiveness.
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with one another and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
I suspect there are a few sentinels that sit before the gates of Heaven. One is named "Remembrance" and the other is "Forgiveness".

Which is why this will be the focus of my work during Holy Week.

I can already feel the knot in my stomach beginning to take shape.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Accused

On March 6, 1983, Cheryl Arujo, age 21, put her two daughters to sleep in her New Bedford, Massachusetts apartment following the older daughter's third birthday party. Araujo then left her children with her boyfriend and father of her children to buy cigarettes at a nearby store. It was 9 PM.

Two local stores were closed, so she walked a block to Big Dan's Tavern on Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford’s North End. She bought the cigarettes, then had a '7 & 7' with a woman at a table and chatted with two men shooting pool. The other woman left. After she put her glass on the bar, she walked toward the door to leave.

Suddenly, she testified, a man in back of her grabbed the collar of her jacket while another tripped her and held her feet. They dragged her across the floor to the pool table, banging her head and hip against its side, and stripped off her jeans.

"I could hear people laughing, cheering and yelling from near the bar," the woman recalled in court. "My head was hanging off the edge of the pool table.... I was begging for help. I was pleading. I was screaming.... The man that was holding me down had grabbed me by the hair. The more I screamed, the tighter he pulled."

Then, reportedly, began a terrifying, 90-minute gang rape attack by six men. The woman could hear men laughing and shouting, "Do it! Do it!" Prosecutors later said they "cheered like it was a baseball game," and a detective described the accused rapists as acting "like a pack of sharks on a feeding frenzy." A bartender and three other men witnessed the rape, but two maintain they were threatened and afraid to call police.

After one alleged rapist stepped away to talk with his pals, Arujo bolted over the other side of the pool table, fleeing into the street at about 12:30 a.m. wearing only an unzipped jacket and a sock. She flagged down three men in a passing pickup truck, who heard her screaming that she had been raped. Cut and bruised, the woman was so traumatized she threw her arms around the neck of passenger Daniel O'Neil and wouldn't let go for at least five minutes.

After the incident, local residents were outraged both by the reported gang rape and by the release on only $1,000 bail of the four original defendants — two others were later indicted as accessories for pinning the alleged victim down on the pool table.

During the prosecution, the defendants' attorneys cross-examined Araujo to such an extent that the case - widely known as "Big Dan's rape" - became widely seen as a template for "blaming the victim" in rape cases.

Arujo was painted as an "unwed mother" (a scandal in those days) who left her children at home with her boyfriend to buy - of all things - cigarettes. Not milk or bread for her children. Cigarettes. I remember my mother and aunts and uncles shaking their heads and asking what kind of mother leaves her children to buy "Cancer Sticks" for herself?

Furthermore, she was dressed in tight jeans and a jacket and went into a bar. Alone. And had a drink with another woman. Many of the locals assumed she was getting cigarettes on her way to get a trick. She was a prostitute. Had to be. What kind of woman goes out of her house alone at 9 PM?

She was asking for it, see?

One of the many destructive fallouts from the "Big Dan's rape" case was the public airing of bigotry against the town's hardworking and family-oriented Portuguese immigrants. There were literally thousands of calls to radio station WBSM blaming the Portuguese and saying things like 'They should all be put on a boat and shipped the hell out of here'.
It should be noted that all six defendants were not U.S. citizens at the time of the arrest or trial.  They were, to a person, immigrants from the Azores , which has a history of being one of the stops in the Middle Passage of the Slave Trade, in which Portugal played a major role. It is no coincidence that Azoreans tend to be very dark skinned and many, like myself, have very tick, coarse, wavy hair.

Indeed, my grandmother, who was from Lisbon, considered that she had "married down" when she wed my Azorean grandfather, and scrupulously checked the skin color against a brown paper bag and the texture of the hair of her grandchildren to see if it was "kinky".

I had no idea what that meant until I was in nursing school with African American women who used the word. "My grandmother says my hair is 'kinky' too," I said, commiserating with their laments. I honestly didn't understand their laughter until later. Much, much later.

Many Portuguese immigrants like my relatives, who complained bitterly about the ethnic slurs, also besmirched the reputation of the alleged victim, herself of Portuguese descent. One vicious misconception was that she was a prostitute. Some local men condemned her for entering what one fisherman termed "that whorehouse," even though it was for the first time. "I don't think a clean woman would go into a place like that bar," said a soccer coach at a social club. When questioned, however, other neighborhood women say they also were unaware of the tavern's bad reputation.

The case was tried in a Victorian-styled courthouse in neighboring Fall River, Massachusetts. Six men were originally charged with the rape, though only four, Victor Raposo, John Cordeiro, Joseph Vieira and Daniel Silva, were eventually tried in two separate trials because some of them implicated each other.  The four defendants were convicted of aggravated rape, two men were acquitted of the charges. The trials attracted international attention. 

Indeed, the case became the basis of a Jodie Foster movie called, "The Accused".

I was born in Fall River and grew up in the Fall River-New Bedford area. I am of Portuguese-Azorean descent. I vividly remember the "Big Dan's rape" case and the trial that ensued.

I have tried to retell the events of that case because there are, in my mind, so many striking similarities between what happened to Cheryl Arujo and the recent killing in Sanford, Florida of 17 year old Trayvon Martin by volunteer Neighborhood watchman and mortgage risk analysis George Zimmerman.

Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman claims he shot the teenager in self-defense and is standing behind the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law. Under this legal concept, a person is justified in using deadly force in certain situations and the "stand your ground" law is a defense or immunity to criminal charges and civil suit.

Zimmerman was neither arrested nor charged with Martin's death. The Sanford Police Department's lead investigator initially pursued manslaughter charges against Zimmerman, but was told by the state attorney that there wasn't enough evidence.

The investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin is essentially starting from scratch, with the new special prosecutor and a team of investigators quietly re-interviewing witnesses and examining evidence related to the unarmed teen's shooting death.

The 17-year-old Martin has been dead for a month, and George Zimmerman, his admitted killer, remains free after telling authorities he was forced to shoot Martin in self-defense.

I won't go into the confusing and conflicting reports of this event. I've learned that, at this point in this tragedy, the 'trial-by-media' that happens before the actual trial is all part of the prosecution and defense lawyer's strategy. I remember all too well how Cheryl Arujo was painted a prostitute and how the Portuguese community became both accuser and victim in the case.

Just as what Arujo was wearing the night she was gang-raped became important in the trial and a symbol of the sexism that tainted the legal proceedings, so has the "hoodie" that Trayvon Martin wore the night he was murdered become a symbol of the racism that still infests the psyche of this nation.

Geraldo Rivera took measure of the Martin case and determined that the moral of the tragedy was: young men, throw out your hoodies.  See also: "Asking for it".

Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, however, had another take on the matter. Rush was escorted off of the House floor on Wednesday after donning a hoodie and sunglasses in honor of slain teenager Trayvon Martin.

He is reported as having said,
"I applaud the young people all across the land who are making a statement about hoodies, about the hoodlums in this nation, particularly those who tread on our laws wearing official or quasi-official clothes."

At this point in his remarks, Rush took off his jacket to reveal that he was wearing a hoodie underneath it. He covered his head with the hood, violating a rule in Congress that prohibits wearing hats on the House floor.

"Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum," Rush added, swapping his spectacles for a pair of sunglasses.
Just as in the "Big Dan rape" case, the victim has become the accused.

It was ever thus when prejudice is really what's on trial.

It's not the hoodie. It's who's under the hoodie.

And, who was under the hoodie and behind those Foster Grants was a young black man - a threat to the dominant white male paradigm with a package of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in his backpack - right next to the empty plastic baggie that contained, we are told, "trace amounts of pot".

It was President Obama who put his finger right into the gaping, festering wound of racism, when he said, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."
Obama said it was "absolutely imperative" that all aspects of the incident be fully vetted at every level of government. The civil rights arm of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are reviewing the case, and a Seminole County grand jury is scheduled to convene April 10 to hear evidence.

"I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident," he said.
"Soul-searching". It's what I remember happened to the communities of Fall River and New Bedford after the "Big Dan rape" case.

I remember the protest marches and the rallies which not only resulted in the establishment of the first Rape-Crisis Center in the area, but also prompted laws which made the failure of a witness to report a sexual assault a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine. Neighboring Rhode Island reacted even more strongly. Failure on the part of witnesses to report a sexual assault or an attempted attack became a misdemeanor punishable by one year's imprisonment or a fine of not more than $500, or both.

Changing laws is easier than changing hearts and minds. That requires that "soul-searching" that the President spoke about, so that the accused remains the person who committed the crime and not the victim.

Perhaps we could begin by considering one of the passages Rep. Bobby Rush was reading as he was escorted off the floor of the house, wearing his hoodie and dark sunglasses.

It was Micah 6:8:
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does God require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Perhaps, if more of us walked more humbly, more of young men of color and women from all walks of life would be able to walk freely, without fear of sexual assault or murder.

And, more of God's justice and mercy would be done.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring breeze

I have every window in the house open this afternoon.

It's 72 degrees at the moment and there's a lovely breeze coming off Rehoboth Bay which doesn't lose an ounce of strength once it reaches the marshes of Long Neck.

It's March, after all.

I've also opened the sliding glass door - the new sliding glass door - the one that was installed when the new windows were put in - and the cross-breeze is wonderful.

The old windows were Very Old and so difficult to open I rarely did. The new windows glide open so easily it's a real joy to my heart. I think I spent the first five minutes after they were installed just opening and closing them, and then opening and closing them again.

The pups LOVE the new deck. We tore down the sun room and discovered that it was built on what must have been the original deck, so now we have a deck that runs almost the whole length of the back end of the house.

Mr. Theo is the undeniable "harbor master" here. He checks out all the boats as they go by - and there are quite a few in the water already. One of our neighbors already has his boat back in the water. I'm thinking his family will be here for Easter Day and won't it be lovely to take everyone for a ride on the Bay? I'm just a tad green with envy.

Ms. CoCo checks out all the water fowl in the marshes. There are a pair of Canada Geese who have taken up residence nearby and swim past the house several times a day. I was just out on the deck with the pups when the geese came by. Ms. CoCo started barking at them. The male picked up his head, looked her square in the eye, and HONKED! Poor Ms. CoCo jumped back, startled by the sound. No one talks back to Ms. CoCo. Not nobody, not nohow. She was properly flummoxed. Made me giggle.

And, sweet, dear Mr. Lenny - who takes "the short bus to school" - just finds a sunny place on the deck, stretches himself out as long as he can, and then wonders why his sister and brother waste so much energy doing "border patrol" along the deck.

When they all settle down, I can see each one of them loving the warmth of the sun and relishing the breeze as it blows the fur on their little faces.

It's such a simple thing, really, but I so enjoy the fresh breezes of the first few days of Spring. I love everything about it. The smell of it. The feel of it. The way it caresses my face and pulls at my clothing.

Spring Breeze - KL Bailey
It's like a wee "wake up call" from Mother Nature who gently blows away the old and breathes the seeds of resurrection and new life across the land.

This afternoon, as I took the pups for a walk up the top of the street to get the mail, I happened to notice a small cluster of old, dry leaves that had been caught under a downspout on the housing that covers the mailboxes.

The wind had been playing with it, gently loosening the grip of the winter's snow which had pushed it there. The sound of crackling dry leaves brought it to my attention.

I watched for a few minutes as the wind shook the downspout, causing a few of the dead leaves on the outside of the cluster to loosen and break away. Then, suddenly, the whole clump broke free and scattered and skipped here and there, some down and others across the street. A small group of dry leaves clung together, forming a little 'eddy' in the street - a rip tide current of old, dead things being thrown out into new life.

They are needed elsewhere, to provide fertilizer to the new seedlings that are pushing their bruised heads up through the softening, moist ground. There are jonquils and daffodils in full bloom everywhere while the tulips are working hard to catch up. The forsythia are in yellow riot gear all around the edges of the road. The cherry trees are struggling to open their buds and blossom, only to be blown away in the breeze.

It is absolutely glorious!

I think our lives are like that. We have a tenacious hold on things we no longer need - things which are dry and dead and rotting but which have been pushed and tucked by the discontents of our winter into safe corners in the downspouts of our lives.

Sometimes, we simply need to let the winds blow them away so we can make room for new life. New colors. New sounds. New smells. New ideas. New life.

It's March, after all.

Time to let the March winds and Spring breezes do their work.

Time to get ready for the dry, dead leaves of Holy Week to be set free that we might be blown, heart-first, into the swirling eddy of new life that is the resurrection of Easter.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The middle of the middle

Even after doing the 'penance' of jet lag, I am so not ready for Holy Week.

First of all, it's a little late in coming this year.  I'm used to Easter being in mid March, not early April. The weather has been weird, this year, for winter and early Spring.

But, that's no excuse, really.

Maybe it's all the excitement over the unexpected defeat of the Anglican Covenant in the Church of England. It feels like the Anglican Communion has been given the gift of the resurrection.

Nah. As happy as I am, that's overstating the case just a tad.

Perhaps it was those three weeks in with the monks at the Wat in Thailand. Maybe I've already had my deep encounter with Jesus.

It could be that, having traveled across the International Date Line and back again, my sense of time is all upside down and out of whack. I still can't get my head wrapped around the fact that it's already tomorrow where some of my friends live. And that, for them, I'm actually living yesterday.

How weird is that? And yet, it's true.

During Holy Week, we are asked to walk back in time and relive an ancient story with Jesus. It's a very powerful experience, if one allows oneself to enter into the story and, simultaneously, allow the story to enter one's present reality. We do this to live better lives today - and into the future.

Having had my sense of time properly warped, I guess I have a deeper appreciation and respect for that dynamic of stepping into an ancient story and allowing it to become part of your own story. That appreciation and respect, interestingly enough, makes it harder to do.

As I consider preparing myself for Holy Week, I'm remembering a wonderful man - a story teller in Boston and Cambridge, MA - named "Brother Blue".

Well, his real name was Hugh Morgan Hill but he was called that because he always dressed in blue - from his socks to his beret to the butterflies painted on his palms. Brother Blue spent a lot of his time in prisons and on street corners, but he also spent a great deal of time in Harvard Square, which is where I first met him.

Brother Blue transformed the classics into a modern setting. He placed his version of Romeo and Juliet in the inner city. He updated the plight of King Lear-Shakespeare's aged, battered royal hero, to talk about the homeless people of today.

He would tell us, “We ain’t nothin’ but music wrapped in a body made of snow.”

When we were at seminary in Cambridge, MA, we would see Brother Blue on the street and, no matter if he had just begun or was just ending or was right in the middle of telling one of his stories, we would always stop and listen.

He always began his stories in the same way: "From the middle of the middle of me," Brother Blue would say, swirling his finger in magical airs in the space between you then gently tapping it toward your heart, "to the middle of the middle of you..."

Blue's storytelling career began with the tales he told his beloved handicapped younger brother Thomas who was unable to read and write. Unable to say "Hugh" clearly, Thomas spoke his elder brother's name with a sound close to the word "Blue," a nickname which became a sobriquet which came to reflect Brother Blue's personal journey.

History records that Thomas died young in an institution. Brother Blue's versions tell of how Thomas was "special" and mostly wanted to fly, so he climbed on the roof of the house and fell to his death.

Blue mused, "Thomas...he thought he could fly, he thought could fly, so he tried." Brother Blue would often explain that, ever grieving, he was still looking for his brother, and "he might be you."

I've decided that I need to heed Brother Blue's words this week in order to get ready for Holy Week. I need to get myself ready to go down - deep down - to the middle of the middle of me to find the middle of the middle of the transforming story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

I need to plow through this time-bound, snow-wrapped body and move down to the middle of the middle of me to get to the eternal music of the resurrection. 

It's going to be another long journey, across international and ancient time lines to get to the middle of the middle of the truth of who Jesus is for me, and rediscover him in the ancient story once again, for the first time.

I think this is where some of the chants I learned from the monks will help me to let go of this moment and step into a non-moment in order to be more fully present.

It sounds nonsensical, I know. Then again, Holy Week doesn't make much sense, does it? Most of our liturgical year and all of our observances seem like an exercise in futility.

I'm learning that sometimes, following what seems like a futile path can lead to a place of Great Importance.

Walking into the ancient story of Holy Week and following Jesus to Calvary can lead one through the middle of the middle of one's own life where one might be able to confront at least a modicum of Truth about oneself.

I make that journey every year. I'm not ready to do that. Not yet. But, I'm getting ready.

I've got the memory of voices of the monks to follow and the muse of Brother Blue to guide me.

As Brother Blue would say, "We want a story from your heart. If it's not from your heart, don't tell it."

You know, Jesus, like Blue's brother Thomas, was special. He thought he could fly so he tried but he fell and died. And then, he rose up again and like the butterfly, began to fly.

And, who knows, that butterfly might be you.

You'll only know if you let the middle of the middle of the story find the middle of the middle of you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Long live the Anglican Communion!

Preludium Prognostication: 4/16/11
Just about a year ago, Mark Harris, assisting priest at St. Peter's, Lewes in the Diocese of Delaware, deputy to General Convention, member of Executive Council, Canon of the The Episcopal Church in the Philippines, prestigious blogger at Preludium, bon vivant, delightful raconteur and dear friend predicted, by way of what he called an "Anglican Covenant Crapshoot" that 60% of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion would vote not to sign onto the Anglican Covenant.

The reasons for voting for or against the Covenant are many and varied and sometimes contradictory, as the Preludium Pie Chart above explains.  However, the assumption a year ago was that the "Mother Church" - The Church of England" - would, of course, ratify it.

It was unthinkable, then, that anything else was possible. 

That changed dramatically this week end when "Mother Church" soundly voted it down. As I understand the workings of the CofE, the Covenant can not return to General Synod for discussion for another three years.

This presents an interesting dilemma for the future of The Covenant and The Communion - not to mention the Church of England itself.

As I understand it, The Covenant becomes effective whenever a church or province signs onto it.  Thus far, seven provinces (of forty-four member provinces representing 80 million Anglicans) have said yes - well, sorta-kinda-maybe.

Provinces in some sort of favor of The Covenant thus far include Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, West Indies, Southern Cone, South East Asia and Southern Africa, pending ratification at the next synod, or governing body.

There is momentum against The Covenant internationally. The Episcopal Churches in The United States and Canada - both of which committed the heinous crime of thinking for themselves and, treating LGBT people as fully baptized members of the church with access to all the sacraments, and gave rise to The Covenant in the first place - will surely but politely decline.

The Episcopal Church of the Philippines has officially rejected the Covenant, the opposition of the Tikanga Maori virtually assures that the Covenant will be rejected in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, and we are seeing increasing opposition in other Provinces of the Communion.

If one doesn't sign on, then that church or province becomes part of a "second tier" membership - sort of a classic British "upstairs/downstairs maid" scheme where we're all still members of The Anglican Communion but unable to have voice or vote on the central committees and councils which have authority in The Communion.

You see the problem, then. The Church of England, the "Mother Church," is now - and, at least for the next three years until it can come before Synod again for discussion - relegated to a "second-tier" status. The problem, of course, was that part of the point of the Anglican Covenant was to centralize power and authority with the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is fascinating to me that the two protagonists of this "Anglican Drama" - Gene Robinson, the honestly gay man who was duly elected bishop of  New Hampshire and Rowan Williams, the honestly monastic scholar who is the Archbishop of Canterbury - have both announced their retirements at the end of this year. Bishop Robinson will no doubt go on to lecture and write as will Archbishop Williams, who will return to academia.

Meanwhile, the Anglican Communion will go on.

Further, the so-called "orthodox" members of The Communion who pushed for The Covenant and for whom The Covenant was designed to placate have left the building. They have formed what they call GAFCON and have written their own "Jerusalem Declaration" which, they claim, is more Anglican - and CHRISTIAN - than the Anglican Covenant. Indeed, they have declared that they have no need of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Meanwhile, the Anglican Communion will go on.

Cartoon by MadPriest
So, the Anglican Covenant is dead, right?

It will surely not make it through the rest of the Communion with a significant majority, right?

Hold your (dead) horses!

As I read The Covenant - and, I confess to my embarrassment that I've probably read it more times this past year than I have read Holy Scripture - no majority, simple or otherwise, is required for the "activation" of The Covenant.

It becomes "activated" when a Province signs onto it.

So, technically, it is 'alive' - well, sorta, kinda, maybe - in seven Provinces. More may well be added as it makes its way through The Communion, which holds the unseemly potential for all sort and manner of mischief.

Much will also depend on the next Archbishop of Canterbury and his - and, rest assured, the next ABC will be male but after that, the gloves are off and chances increase for the mitre to be on a female head - stance on The Covenant.

My biggest concern - and, I confess, I don't lose sleep over it so that may be a bit of an overstatement - is that the folks at GAFCON will convince the seven Provinces who have signed onto The Covenant that, since it is dead in the baptismal water, to sign with them to their Jerusalem Declaration and there will be a bone fide schism in The Anglican Communion.

Fare-thee-well, I say. Emotional blackmail and oppressive legalism are not part of classic Anglicanism. Indeed, there is no place for it, even in the Big Tent of Anglicanism.  Schism is not inherently a bad thing. Indeed, the Anglican Communion itself is the fruit of schism.  The tree sometimes needs a bit of pruning in order to rid itself of the dead wood that is not bearing the fruits of the Spirit.

Meanwhile, The Anglican Communion will go on.

At the end of the day - or, whenever this sad saga comes to an end (please God, that it may be sooner rather than later) - there may well be significantly less than the 40% in favor of The Covenant predicted by Mark Harris a year ago.

Even so, what will happen to the Anglican Covenant?

My own prognostication is that the Anglican Covenant will be relegated to a place in history just behind the 39 Articles of Faith - except, it will never find its way into the newest edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

Instead, it will be a rolled up and stored in an ornate box, high up on a shelf in a dusty library at Lambeth Palace. It will only be taken out, unfurled and waved around menacingly whenever anyone wants to object to the next thing that provides "offense" to someone's understanding of what it means to be a "true" Anglican.

In another 30 years, we'll all look back on this time, scratch our heads in dismay and say to each other, "WHAT the WHAT was THAT all about?"

And, we'll all have a good laugh. Even Jesus.

Of course, like Mark and MadPriest, I could be wrong.

Well, maybe the part about the good laugh.

The Anglican Covenant is (almost) dead! Long live the Anglican Communion!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Guilt and Shame and Jet lag

Well, it's like the prostitute once said: It's not the work. It's the stairs.

It's not the travel. It's the jet lag.

I'm pretty much on the other side of it this morning. I think. That is, I think I'm over the worst of it and I think it's this morning.

I got home on Thursday afternoon and felt pretty good, actually. I had planned to spend another night in DC, if necessary, rather than get off the plane and hop in the car and drive three hours home. I whizzed through immigration and customs, waited about 15 minutes for my luggage, and was feeling just fine. So, I got in my car and headed for home.

Ms. Conroy had told me that the renovation on the house had begun which made me even more excited to get home. I can tell you, now, that it looks great, but the banging and clanging Thursday through Friday, while clearly necessary, were not exactly conducive to recovery from jet lag.

The Rev'd Dr. Patrick Cheng
Still, I pressed on. Got up at my usual 6:30 AM on Friday and plunged right back into the day.

I took a wee bit of a lie down in the afternoon - amidst the banging and hammering and drilling - then headed over to All Saints, Rehoboth Beach for the weekend retreat sponsored by IntegrityDE.

It was led by the most amazing Rev'd Dr. Patrick Cheng using his wonderful new book, "From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ".

If you've not read the book - or, Patrick's first one: "Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology" - do yourself a favor, click on either of the links and order a copy for yourself.

The progressive Christian community, in it's reaction to the "hellfire and brimstone" of those Christians who consider themselves conservative/orthodox, have remained pretty much silent about the issues of sin and grace.

Patrick gives us a new way of thinking about this ancient subject.  I found especially helpful his distinction between guilt (what you feel when you've done something bad) and shame (what you feel when you've been told you are bad).

Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an important internal marker and spiritual guidepost of morality. Shame is never helpful, especially as a vehicle of transformation.

I also found Patrick's chart of Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Amazing Graces, which compel with Seven Images of Christ especially helpful.

The language may trip you up, but I think we progressives are, in a way, just learning to rethink and talk about sin and grace in non-traditional ways, so of course our language is going to be non-traditional.

There were twenty-six people who registered for and attended the retreat. The DE chapter of Integrity is only three years old and this was their very first event like this. We had hoped for thirty people, thinking we'd start small and grow. What we learned is that 25-30 is just about right. Next year, we'll limit it to no more than thirty participants.

We also learned - I think it was right after lunch - that the Anglican Covenant had been soundly defeated in the Church of England. It felt a bit disjointed and yet, at the same time, perfectly normal, to hear someone read from his Blackberry Smart Phone the Reuter's news flash about the defeat of the Anglican Covenant in the midst of a retreat on Sin and Grace.

The Anglican Covenant was, from its inception, a pernicious scheme to bring shame upon the American and Canadian branches of the Anglican Communion, for the heinous crime of thinking for ourselves and treating Queer people as fully baptized members of the Body of Christ. 

Oh, it was also a desperate attempt to centralize the governing structures of the Anglican Communion, using various forms of emotional manipulation and legal mumbo-jumbo to convince the masses to vote for the thing, but, thankfully, it failed.

One of the unintended consequences of this loss is that it held up for all the world to see just how out of touch most bishops are with the folks in the pew as well as their own clergy. About 80% of the bishops were in favor of the Covenant. The clergy and laity were about 50-50 opposed, but it was a combination of clergy and laity who defeated it..

Yes, we are seeing this phenomenon of centralization of power in the episcopacy most clearly in the Church of England right now but this is true pretty much across all denominational lines. Not every bishop in every diocese, of course, but, well....if the reports about conversations concerning restructuring the church from the recent meeting of the House of Bishops are correct and any indication.....well, as the prostitute's not the work, it's the stairs. And, we've got a lot to climb in order to save the church from herself.

I think, in the end, shame-based attempts at controlling or changing human behavior will always fail. Shame does not allow any room, much less possibility, for God's grace. 

I think 'twas grace most amazing that led me through Friday and Saturday but this Sunday morning, I've crashed. I went to bed at 9 PM last night and didn't awaken until 9 AM this morning.

Yup, I've missed church.  Well, I said me prayers whilst I attended "St. Llangollen Between-the-Sheets".  I feel neither guilt nor shame.

Jet lag, I'm discovering, is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Even so, I would have done the whole thing over again. Well, not tomorrow, exactly, but soon.

Indeed, I intend to, one day in the not so distant future. Perhaps, in two years. I'll go back to Thailand on my way to Nepal and Katmandu and Machu picchu.  I'm already planning the trip in my head. It's one way to cut through the fog and disorientation that are the remains of the jet lag.

Of course, the rain and fog that have Rehoboth Bay socked in are not helping dispel the fog that's in my head. I think I'm just going to stay in my jammies today, sip lots of hot tea and eat several small meals and be easy on my tummy.

I think the only thing more powerful than guilt and shame is jet lag.

The major difference is that time will cure jet lag.  It takes a lot more than that to deal with the aftereffects of guilt and shame.

That requires amazing grace - which has more to do with the work and less to do with the stairs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

All good things come to an end

Today is my last day in Thailand.

I don't think three weeks could have gone so quickly and been more fun.

The car arrives to take me to Bangkok at 6:30 PM tonight. My flight leaves at 11:55 PM. I am assured of better Wifi connection at the airport than I've had at my condo, which has been iffy at best. The only place I can really blog without total frustration is at the pool but there's lots of activity and even more distractions when the Internet doesn't have moments when it simply drops for no obvious reason.

I won't be missing the WiFi here.

I'm going to miss "The Boyz of Suni Plaza, Soi VC 7". They have been very dear and gracious and generous to me. Treated me like a proper lady, they did. Well, except for the language, which, from time to time, turned the air blue. No matter where you are in the world, boyz will be boyz - especially when they get together and forget there's a proper lady present.

I will also miss my brothers, the monks at the Wat, who have been my prayer companions on this journey. You may not have known it, but while you were praying for me, we were praying for all of you. I've learned some wonderful chants which I'll be taking with me and incorporated into my daily meditation and prayer life.

It's a bit different from saying the rosary, but not by much, really. Except, it's all chanted. Not anything like Anglican chant, but more like Taize chant, which I've always loved.

I went to morning prayer for the last time this morning. As I bid them all farewell, one of the monks said, "Ah, now craving you, sister Elizabeth. You crave me, too?"

Oh, yes, dear brothers. I craving you already. It's not something I intend to work to rid myself of, either. Buddha will forgive me. So will Jesus, I'm sure.

I'm missing Rob already, who is the reason I came here in the first place. As my Portuguese grandmother would say, I already have 'suadade'. He's been most generous and uncommonly gracious. He's my brother, sure and true.

We're talking about his coming to the States this July / August. Next year, I hope to return to Thailand, stay a few days, and then Rob and I will hop a plane to Nepal and visit Katmandu for five or seven days. I'll return to Thailand with him, stay another five to seven days and then head home.

I'm already excited.

I will tell you about my experience last night.

Rob was out at rehearsals, so I walked to my favorite little 'hole in the wall' place - The Or-Ah-Harn Thai Restaurant - which just got a new sign out front.

Oh, there was much rejoicing and celebrating over that. The cook had promised me my last wonderful dinner of Mussaman Chicken which was absolutely superb.

After dinner, as I was taking a leisurely stroll home, just as I got near the Wat, I was greeted by a most pleasant Thai man, standing up near the wall.

"Sawadee, Madam" he said, smiling broadly. (Sawadee means 'Good day' or 'Good evening'.)

"Sawadee," I said.

"Ah, farang lady want manshaft? 300 bahat. We go to your place? Manshaft and massage? 500 baht."

It took me a few moments to register what he was saying.  I thought, 'Manshaft'? What is he saying? And then, I 'heard' it and what he was "offering" me.

It took me a few more moments to try and figure out an appropriate response, which I thought was fairly measured, given my sense of outrage.

I told him what he could do with his "manshaft". Well, that's essentially what I said, expletives deleted. Manshaft? Are you kidding me? Where did he ever learn that? Rob says he's been reading straight porn. Or, some other European farang taught it to him.

He also told me I was offered a really good price for Pattaya. A massage alone would cost 300 baht. I guess something got lost in the cultural translation.

I did have a few moments as I was walking back to my room, when I thought, perhaps, I should have made a different response - like, maybe, not using the expletives, but Rob also said that my response was exactly right.  Had I been "nice," he would have taken it as an invitation to press on.

Well, I guess I'll have that story to tell my grandchildren in my dotage. Or, maybe not.

Of course, I will be happy to be home - after 23 hours in the air and after I recover from the jet lag (which I'm seriously dreading) - but I shall miss everyone I've come to know and become so fond of here in Thailand.

I won't be missing the heat and humidity, though. Gawd, its beastly. No joke. I won't be complaining about the summer heat and humidity in Delaware, that's for sure. Well, not this summer, anyway. I'm sure by the time next summer rolls around, my memory will have faded just a tad.

I might have a reflection or two about my experience in Thailand left in me, which will pop out after I get home, but I think you may have had enough of this.

Thank you for all your kind comments - especially those of you who left them here and suffered through the word verification process in order to do it.

All too soon, it will be "wheels up" and I'll be flying back home to see my loved ones. So, you'll excuse me while I savor these last few moments in The Land of Smiles.

I'm so blessed to have had this experience. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


There is something positively civilized about having a neighborhood cafe.

If there's a cafe that serves decent coffee or tea, perhaps some lovely rolls, maybe some fresh fruit, and might even play delightful music softly in the background.... well, no matter where in the world I am, I'm right at home.

If there are books and newspapers about that one can read, well, I'm in heaven.

To find such locations in a so-called "Third World Country / Developing Nation" and I find that I am positively over the moon!

Remarkably, there are several cafes in this neighborhood. All over Pattaya, really. I think one of my favorites is a little place called The Canterbury Tales Cafe. The "Cafe Yen" (Iced Coffee) is pretty good, but not half as good as say, the Cucumber Inn just across the street from my condo apartment. And,  there's something extra delicious about the Cafe Yen at the Bondi in Jomtein (I think it's the ocean just 40 meters from your table).....

BUT... Canterbury Tales Cafe has books. And, magazines. And, newspapers.

Oh, my! Be still my heart.

Mind you, I don't really read them. It's not that I can't read them. Because this is "Canterbury Tales Cafe", most of the books, as you would expect, are in English. Oh, I browse and poke around the shelves, but mostly, I read the stuff on my Kindle Fire. Which, I must say, thoroughly delights the wait staff there. They shake their heads and giggle and point at me from behind the bar (Yes, they serve alcohol there. Everybody does. Everywhere in Pattaya.)

Karen (Hill) Tribe Girls
And, because it's off the beaten path and in a slightly different neighborhood, the folks who frequent there provide a fascinating diversion from the occasional breaks I need to take from reading.

So, I get myself all set up at one of the tables in the corner, order a Cafe Yen, please, with an extra glass of nam kang (ice), check out the books on the shelves while it's being made and then scan the Thai newspapers while I take my first sips.

Most of the Thai newspapers, I'm told, are written at about a 5th or 6th grade level. I try to figure out from the pictures what the story might be and then I compare it with the version in English that appears in the Bangkok Post.

One of the waiters saw me reading the Thai paper and finally came over with a big grin on his face. "You read?" he asked.

"No, no," I said, slightly embarrassed. "I try. No understand. Look very pretty, very beautiful," I said, pointing to the letters, "but no understand."

He giggled.

"I read here," I explained, pointing to the Thai paper, and then, pointing to the Bangkok Post, "Then, I read here."

"Ah," he said, "So. Very good. Smart farang lady. You learn read this way. You keep working. Work hard. Some day, you learn. Some day," he said, very encouragingly.

I shook my head in sorrowful disagreement. I've only been here three weeks, but if I stayed here thirty years, I fear I'd never master this complex language and complicated alphabet.

"No, no," he said, "You do. You try. You work very hard. You do. Some day."

I loved that he cared enough about me to cheer me on.  Intuitively, I knew that there was something more to this conversation, however.

"You read English?" I asked.

"Some day," he said. "I try hard. Is very hard. Letters very pretty. No understand. So."

"I can help," I said. "You have word you want me help with?"

The book shelves at Canterbury Tales Cafe
He shifted his weight a bit and considered how he might answer. "Moment. Moment," he said and then whisked away for a few minutes and then returned with a pen and some paper.

"Name is Pan," he said, putting the paper and pen in front of me.

I looked at him and immediately knew what he wanted of me. I took pen and paper in hand and, at the top of the paper I carefully wrote out in large block letters: P. A. N.

Then, I handed the paper and pen back to him and said, "You try."

He sat down and looked at the paper as I imagine I would look at the same letters in Thai. Then, he took his finger and carefully traced each letter with is finger. When he finished, he looked up and me, smiled shyly and said, "Pan try now."

Very slowly, with great focus and intention and effort, he copied each letter. When he finished, he showed me the paper and said, "P.A.N. Spell 'Pan'. In English.

I smiled and said, "You did it! Good job! Well done!"

He smiled from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet. "Pan write 'Pan' in English, yes?"

"Yes you did, Pan!" I exclaimed. "You did it!"

His friends heard the noise we were making and came over to the table. He showed his handiwork to his friends and co-workers and they were effusive with praise for him.  Even the dishwasher came out of the kitchen and was very excited and happy for Pan.

The other (male) farang customers looked at us, half quizzically, half comically. I'm sure they thought I was quite mad.

When the excitement had subsided Pan turned to me and said, "Now, Pan teach farang lady to write Pan in Thai. Okay?"

"Oh, yes, please," I said as he took out another piece of paper and wrote down his name in Thai.  I studied his lettering for a minute and then, just as he had done, traced each letter with my finger before attempting the marvelous swirls and curls and heart-shaped thingys that make up the Thai alphabet.

When I finished, I presented him with my work. "Ah," he said, "So. Farang lady smart lady. Very smart. Try very much. Do good work. Yes, much good work. So." And then, he called his friends again to come and see what I had done. Again, they were effusive with their praise and excitement.

Now the farang men at the next table began to snicker to each other, but neither of us cared.

Pan lowered his voice and said, "Many farang no do. Many farang not do. No read Thai paper. No try Thai write. You good farang lady."

It's such a simple thing, you know. To meet people where they are. In their own country. Where you spend in one day what many will not earn that month. To at the very least have a modicum of curiosity about the country you're visiting. To try and learn more about what they know instead of insisting that they become more like you.  To try and learn more about what it means to be them in the hopes that you might become a better you. Not to become them but to learn to live with them. In their own country. In their own home. Where you are a guest.

Pan had to take his leave to run some errands. ""Korb-koon, Pan," I said.

"No, no. English, please," he asked.

"Thank you," I said, as he repeated it. "Thank you, Lady Elizabeth."

"You're welcome," I said, but I could see I confused him. Obviously, no farang had ever said, "You're welcome" to him. I did my best to help him understand the exchange of polite pleasantries we call "manners" in English, which, unfortunately, we don't practice much anymore in this country.

After he left, one of the young girls on staff came to me and said that Pan only had four years of schooling in the north before he came to work in Pattaya. His mastery of the written Thai language is very basic and his reading skills pretty raw, but he has been going to school at night to learn how to read and write and, she said, he has made remarkable progress.

"He read everything. Everything," she said, as she motioned her arms around the bookshelves. "He going write someday. You see. Everybody see. Pan write. Books. Many books. And, songs. Everybody read Pan books and sing Pan songs."

I'll just bet he will. And I, for one, will look for his books. And, music.

I love reading because, no matter where I am, I can travel the world while sitting in my chair.  I can enter into people's homes and lives and imaginations and listen to the stories they tell. Oh, it' s much better to be there, but if you can't travel in your body you can travel in your mind and in your heart and in your soul.

I think Pan has figured that out.  He may never have money or material possessions and he may never travel out of Thailand, but as long as he knows how to read and can unlock the magic of the letters and words written on the pages of books, he will be a wealthy man with untold riches who can travel to foreign places and learn all sorts of things about being a citizen of the world.

Later that day, I saw Pan on his bicycle. He spotted me across the street and waved furiously with one hand while the other hand was on the handle which also had several bags of groceries draped over it.

"You're welcome!" he called.

"Thank you!" I called back.

Okay, so he had the order wrong. I wasn't going to tell him that. We can work on that tomorrow.

Today, Pan write 'Pan' in English.

And, Elizabeth write 'Pan' in Thai. 

Who knows what might happen after that?

See why I love bookstores? 

Add some Cafe Yen and, well, you just might be able to change the world.

Or, at least, make it a bit more civilized.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Look Ma, No Covenant!

Here's a news flash for Lambeth Palace from Thailand: Anglicans can find each other and get on quite well despite our differences - all without a Covenant.

It seems many of us know this already, and maybe - just maybe - Lambeth is learning this important lesson.

The news about Rowan's early retirement and move back into Academia has reached the status of a huge yawn here in the Land of Smiles. The news of the death of the Coptic Pope has at least made the local papers. No one here really know - or much cares - about the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There's no Anglican (much less Episcopal) Church in Pattaya and the one in Bangkok - Christ Church - doesn't recognize (or pray for, either) The Episcopal Church or Canterbury as having anything to do with them.

Thailand is part of the Diocese of Singapore and the Province of South East Asia. I'm told that, after the tsunami hit Phuket in 2004, representatives of The Episcopal Church came to Bangkok with a really large (in the neighborhood of $500,000 US) donation to help the recovery efforts. The good Christians at Christ Church sent them back after a few day - along with their money - saying that they didn't want to take anything that had been "tainted by homosexuality".

So, there it is, then.

From what I understand from the very few Anglicans I've met here, the rector at Christ Church is a bit....well...."odd" would be the kind thing to say I suppose.

For example, he determined this year that there would not be any distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday. "Too Romish," he declared. And that, as they say, was that. No "Ashes to Go" - or stay - in Bangkok.

However, there will be palms on Palm Sunday and the Church Ladies will be helping the children make palm crosses again this year on Good Friday. Or, so it has been decreed by Himself+.

Rob absolutely refused to take me there the first Sunday I was here. A few years back, he went to Christ Church with one of his dear friends, also an Anglican. He was so excited by the possibility of being part of a Christian community again, he began thinking he might even make a twice a month commitment to attend and was already figuring out the pledge in his monthly budget.

He was a bit surprised that the priest did not wear vestments - not even a stole - when he presided at Eucharist and mentioned it to him at the pleasantries on the way out the door.

"No vestments, eh?" asked Rob.

The good rector pulled himself up and said, "No, and if you're expecting them, don't come back."

Rob said he got into his friend's car and cried the whole way home.

And this from a place that fancies itself "an oasis of diversity".

Ah, the love of Jesus incarnate in His priests!

Despite all that, we did meet up with an American journalist - an Episcopalian, mind you - who is living and working in Bangkok. That's a picture of us at the beginning of this post. He and his wife and daughter came down from Bangkok to visit with us. We had dinner together last night and then met up on the beach at Jomtein this morning for a bit of a late breakfast and coffee and conversation.

Actually, his wife is from Burma and is Baptist. Their daughter attends Baptist church and is very, very bright. Her English was absolutely flawless and she hopes to attend private school in USA this coming September, where she and her mother will live with relatives.

We share much in common in theological perspectives but, being Anglicans, we have our differences as well. It didn't matter. We all share the love of God as we know it incarnate in Christ Jesus. We have a common religious language to share and created our own "oasis" in the midst of The Land of Smiles.

We don't need an Anglican Covenant to help us understand what it means to be Anglican. Neither do we need a piece of paper to define the "relational consequences" of any action that gives "offense".

Indeed, we don't even need the institutional church or one of her buildings to have us a little "church" in the midst of all the Wats and Spirit Houses and statues of the Buddha.

Perhaps Rowan, in his "retirement" and return to academia can continue to think Very Big Thoughts about the nature of Anglicanism and the role of the church and the need for community. I'm sure his thinking will have greater clarity when he doesn't have the Nasty Evangelical Boyz nipping at his heels and buzzing hateful things in his ear.

Once he's out of the inner workings of the institutional church, my hope is that Rowan will discover what some of us already know: 

Being an Anglican - like being a Christian - is more a matter of the heart and soul than it is of the mind.

Then again, ensconced as he will be in academia, he might miss that opportunity as well.

Perhaps the next Archbishop of Canterbury might take a page from this statement from the Bishop of Liverpool. He said:

"When we are in Christ we are in Christ with everybody else who is in Christ, whether we like it or not - or like them or not."

Now, that's my kind of Christian.

And, the best kind of Anglican.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Oh, what a night!

Sometimes, the best parts of one’s experience are the most unexpected.

We went to a club in Jomtein last night for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration that was advertized as a fundraiser for the Baan Jing Jai Orphanage.

I thought the waiters would be wearin’ the green, and that we were going to hear lots of Irish music, maybe some bad Irish jokes and, since this is Pattaya, someone was going to perform in drag.

Well, I got the part about the drag performer right. All the rest. . . . well. . . .it was more than I could - but, never would - have asked for or imagined.

Oh, it's not what you're thinking. It's not about debauchery or licentiousness. It was all "family" entertainment. Well, if you're from a dysfunctional family and, who isn't, really?

I don't even know how to describe what I experienced last night. I suppose it's what one might expect from a little community's attempt at "raising money for the orphans in honor of St. Patrick. Certainly not choral evensong with a Boy's Choir.

It was one part cabaret, one part drag show, and one part Really Bad Talent Show -  sans the "talent" part - but "all for the children", which somehow served as penance for the really bad parts. That having been said, there were some good bits.

"Willy" was a Thai version of Hawai'i's "Don Ho". He sat at the key board and sang - crooned, actually - things like Willy Nelson's, "For all the girls I've loved before" and "Moon River". His English pronunciation and diction were near perfect and his playing was more than adequate.

Then, there was "Mandy" who was actually very good. She did a great job with Julie Andrew's "Jazz Hot" from Victor/Victoria, and a great rendition of Liza Minnelli's "Cabaret" - complete with fairly good choreography on a teeny-tiny stage. Again, her pronunciation and diction were near-perfect and she had a good voice.

And then, there was "Miss JJ".

Well, words fail.

As long as I live, I will never forget her (very badly) lip-synced version in Thai and English of "I Will Survive."

I'm not even sure where to begin, so perhaps I won't even start.

Except, I want you to know that she was 75 if she was a day. I would also like to say that she obviously has a following among the locals who clapped and cheered and she seemed to know just whom to jiggle her obvious falsies and which patron liked the deep shoulder action.

Oh, and those legs! The only thing to distract you from them were the many and varied tattoos (notice, please, the one just above her red 3/4 length glove) - and, the little red matching purse slung over her shoulder where she, no doubt, keeps her lipstick because, when you wear THAT much lipstick, you're bound to need a touch up every, oh, I don't know, three and a half seconds.

She was, as we say, a 'red hot mess'.

Oh, but the worst was yet to come.

"Phil" was his name.  From the States. Upstate NY, as a matter of fact.

He was the MC of the show and the "inspiration" for this fundraiser. He's clearly devoted to the cause of the orphanage and raising money to tend to the children.

He told jokes.... very bad jokes .... which could have been humorous if the delivery had been better, and, after long, sometimes disjointed-when-not-almost incoherent ramblings, he would sing. Badly. Very, very badly.

I don't mean to be disrespectful or even unintentionally cruel because, clearly, this was a good man with a big heart who was trying to raise money for the orphanage, BUT, the experience was like a Bill Murray SNL skit of an over-the-hill wannabe cocktail lounge performer.

What was supposed to be funny wasn't and what wasn't supposed to be funny was hilarious.

About midway through the first set, he launched into one of what was intended to be memorable but better forgotten "monologues" before one of his "songs".

"As I was trying to put together the program for tonight," he said, sounding so serious and looking so somber you just knew we were going to get a "homilette",  "I remembered the time, in 1991, when I was traveling home after my mother died."

At this point, I leaned over to my friend, Richard, and whispered, ", no, no...he didn't just start to talk about his dead mother, did he?"

Richard drew in a breath, raised his eyebrows and shifted his weight. "In 1991," he pointed out.

Rob motioned that we take our leave. NOW. I shook my head, partly because I didn't want our leave-taking to be obvious but partly because I was morbidly curious to see where he was going with this line and to which song it would lead. You know, the way one can't really look away when one sees an accident happening

"There I was," the man continued, "at 40,000 feet in the air, and I was inconsolable with grief. It was then that my mother's voice came to me, singing the words of a song that have, ever since, been a comfort to me."

"I know there are those of you out there who have lost your mother. . . ." he intoned (as I thought 'Oh, Good Lord, he really IS going to do this. On St. Patrick's Day! Ah, the Irish sense of the morose!') ".....or, a loved one...and we all need comfort, so I hope this song brings some comfort to you."

Remember: this was a St. Paddy's Day celebration. I thought...what is he going to sing? "O, Danny Boy"? "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"? What?

At which point, he began to warble, "When you're weary / Feeling small / When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all...."

Suddenly, I found myself in one of those moments when you feel six years old and you know you're not supposed to laugh, but you can't help yourself. Rob says my eyes got big, my lips were decidedly pursed, and my knuckles got white because I was gripping the arms of my chair.

"Phil" was not to be deterred. "Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down.....". I was amazed at the way his voice could be both sharp and flat at the same time.

I thought my sides were going to explode from holding in the laughter, but I was mercifully distracted because I was also working hard on keeping my facial muscles and my mouth still so no one would see the expression of horror on it. 

The song ended, mercifully, and we quickly distributed the raffle tickets we had purchased to some of the wait staff, paid our "check bin" and got the hell out of there as quickly as we could. Slipped out the back door, we did, getting on the street and bursting with laughter which completely incapacitated us for at least ten minutes.

We laughed all the way home on the songtheaw ("baht bus"), to the utter bewilderment of the other passengers who must have thought us drunk. Or stupid. Or, both. Well, we were stupid with laughter.

It was one of those time when you really had to be there to understand just how hilarious this was.

Actually, we had a grand time.  It was so bad it couldn't have been better.

I've seen lots of things in my almost three weeks in Thailand. There are lots of things I still don't understand and probably never will.  It's just as well. This is their home. I'm a guest here.

I keep hearing one of my mentors, Father Koumarianian in Lowell, MA, saying, "God is God and people is people."

It doesn't matter, really, where you are. People are people. And, God is God. Some people will do some real good while singing and performing badly. And, no matter where you are, good, sincere attempts at bad humor will always be hilarious.

Given what I know about Irish humor, I think St. Patrick would have been well pleased.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick and The Naga and the Problem of Evil

Naga at the steps of a building in the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok
St. Patrick Day festivities are in full swing here.

There's a Very Big parade on Beach Road and lots of restaurants and bars are offering green beer and there's "Irish Stew" on lots of menus. 

Beach Road was MOBBED with people! I couldn't get close enough to take very good pictures, but I'll salvage what I can and take some more later on tonight at the Irish Show at the Bondi Pub at Jomtein Beach. It should be memorable.

At first, I found the merging of the two cultures a bit jarring. I simply couldn't get my head wrapped around how the Thai culture could accommodate St. Patrick, so I spoke with my doorman earlier this morning when I went out to do me laundry.

I have found, no matter the culture or country, if you want to know something about any topic, look for a man in a uniform who is wearing a big wad of keys on his belt. I don't know what it is, but be it a security guard, a postman, an electrician or a plumber, the uniform coupled with a big wad of keys will almost promise a veritable font of seemingly unimportant trivia which can sometimes proves very helpful. It's no different in Thailand.

I wanted to know what the Thai people think about snakes in general and the story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland in particular.

Cam - my security guard, the one with a HUGE wad of keys on his belt - told me that snakes in Thailand are called "naga" - or, the feminine "nagini".

In Buddhist tradition, the nagas are the servants of one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guards the western direction. Buddha had his own naga to protect him. They have the ability to take on human form because they are rumored to have both snake and human qualities and characteristics.

Reminds me of Slytherins in the Harry Potter series.  They were the most cunning and ambitious of the four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Sorting Hat almost sent him there, but he ended up at Gryffindor, with the "brave of heart".

Cam told me the story of the Naga prince "Sesha" and how he came to hold the world on his head. It begins when Sesha appeared before Brahma as a dedicated human ascetic who was apparently practicing a hard penance as atonement for sins. Cam didn't know what sin, exactly, but he thought it was "Very Big".

Sesha's hair is knotted and he is dressed in rags. His flesh, skin, and sinews are dried up from fasting and praying in the hot sun "many, many long year".

Brahma is pleased with Shesha, and entrusts him with the duty of carrying the world. At that point in the story, Shesha begins to exhibit the attributes of a serpent. He enters into a hole in the Earth and slithers all the way to bottom, where he then loads the Earth onto his head.

"Be very careful snake," says Cam. "No trust. Delicious in curry, but can bite. Dead."

Garuda, the eagle King, is the natural nemesis of naga. They were, I think cousins but something happened and the Naga enslaved the Garuda and would only free him if he stole a magic potion that would make them immortal. Garuda apparently accomplished the task but something else happened - I had trouble following the story because Cam became very animated and spoke more rapidly so it was hard to follow - so Garuda tricked the snake and didn't give the Naga the potion. From that point on, Garuda no longer thought of them friends but as food.

I asked Cam what he thought about St. Patrick and why he thought St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.

"No trust snake," he said again. "Sometime very bad. Sometime good, but can be very bad. Snake for farang (I'm assuming he meant St. Patrick and/or the Irish people) be very bad. Send out-out. Good for him. Good for country."

So, it would appear that the myth and legend of St. Patrick does make the cultural translation quite well. I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised.

As I listened to Cam, I thought that Jung's idea of the "collective unconscious" makes more and more sense to me.

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of Moses encounter with snakes, alluding to the serpent in the Garden.
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-21)
Just in case you missed the point, Jesus adds what Martin Luther called "the gospel in miniature, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

As famous as John 3:16 is, I wish we would not forget v 17: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Not to condemn the world but to save it. The same way Garuda did not give the naga the magic potion for eternal life but dedicated his life to removing the naga from the world. The same way St. Patrick rid Ireland of the snakes by driving them out.

Interesting that scripture tells us that "Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (Numbers 21:4-9) Interesting as well that The Buddha got the Naga to guard the palace as the Four Heavenly Kings got them to guard the western direction.

I suppose those are two ways to deal with the idea of evil in the world: Run it out or make it work for you.

No matter your country or culture, your creed or religious practices, the Problem of Evil exists. How you deal with it - and not succumb or be overpowered by it - is the question that cuts across all of our cultural and religious differences.

I don't think I'm ever going to be able to celebrate St. Patrick's Day again without thinking of Garunda and the Naga and The Problem of Evil. Or, the image of smiling Thai people wearin' the green.