Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve


We were too late to get a tree. Br. Max and I stood outside the chain link fence looking at a heap of greens in the far back of the lot. It was not clear if they were whole trees or just the bottoms of trees. Trees purchased by people who plan ahead and don’t have any hang ups about decorating for Christmas before Christmas Eve. We asked some homeless guys if they knew of any other places to get trees. “Nope,” they said, looking at us with puzzled faces. We stuck our noses into some thrift shops and other cheapo places to see if we could maybe get a fake tree. My heart wasn’t really into that idea, but I thought we should look just to say we had. “This is getting to be kinda like a children’s story I remember about some woodland creatures looking for a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve,” I told Max. He remembered some thing about a story like that too; he is also an educated man. But neither of us could think of the name of it. “Barrington Bunny?” I suggested. He didn’t think it was that. By this time we were very wet and bedraggled and looking more like woodland creatures than I like to, so I suggested we forget the tree idea. “How about we go get some boughs and poinsettias and call it Christmas?” He agreed, so we went and got $28.28 worth of fir, holly pine and dogwood branches (they are red—I never heard of decorating for Christmas with dogwood branches—this is California after all.) It is a small bunch, maybe we got ripped off; but we are in North Berkeley, and the woman selling them was very pleasant.

Walking along and thinking of Christmas Bunnies (hey, I know for a fact there is a Christmas story about a bunny), homeless people, being too late, yet reveling in the Christmas atmosphere, watching people come and go from the chic coffee bars (in red and white outfits, going to perfectly decorated homes, I’m sure), I suddenly thought: “Well, Christmas is going to happen ready or not.” And the only thing keeping me from being ready is a story I keep telling myself about how it should be. At the heart of all the stories that are worth it at Christmas is the simple affirmation of love. It is what God was sharing with the world, it is the only thing of value we have to give and get. If the world took the message of Christmas love more to heart there would be an increase of peace, a bounty of cheer and enough to eat the world over.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Last Sunday of Advent

Today is the last Sunday of Advent, and I have been evaluating my Christmas preparations.

Hallmark and Macy’s might say I squandered 4 good weeks: I bought nearly nothing, sent out 3 cards to my siblings.

But the Advent call for preparation is not meant solely—if at all—in such materialistic terms. Once I put aside the niggling feelings of guilt when I look at my address book and sort through the stack of pretty cards I’ve received, I find myself thinking of my preparations for the celebration of Christmas, and in a larger sense the return of Jesus at the Second Coming.

There are four classic themes for Advent, clustering around the word/concepts of heaven, hell, death and judgment: not on balance greeting card sentiments. I generally just take a vaguer notion of “preparation” when thinking of Advent. But this year the older ideas give me a framework for a variety of experiences that seem important to my spiritual preparation for Christmas.

I spent the first two Sundays of Advent in Iran. In Shi’ite Islam they expect the imminent return of the 12th Imam, and even have organizations to welcome him, the Bright Future Association. His arrival is about social justice, fulfillment, and peace. It all sounds pretty familiar. I suppose my own eschatology partly inspired my trip, laboring in the proleptic kingdom. I was working for justice and peace, exploring what it means to be a human being on this earth at the start of the 21st Century.

About the classic theme of Advent judgment: what have I done for the least among us? What have I contributed to the betterment of humanity? How have I shared the good news of God’s reign with my fellow humans? My trip to Iran was the first time I’ve ever been able to participate in such a trip. It really was a pilgrimage of peace and trust, seeking out the signs of hope and beauty in Iran—among a people the USA fears. Yesterday I was able to join a colleague from the trip in giving a “report-back” to people from Code Pink and some of my Franciscan brothers and sisters.

Bringing the work for justice closer to home, on the third Sunday of Advent I was at Little Portion Friary. I cooked for the Advent retreat for persons living with HIV and AIDS. One of our Franciscan contributions to fighting the pandemic is to offer a place of quiet healing, friendship (and good food!) to help renew and strengthen people living with the virus. Many of our guests have come for this retreat for many years and they anticipate it, sending in reservations in September and October.

Another one of the themes of Advent is death. This week one of the novices of Society of St. Francis, Br. Daniel Komota, died. He died from an asthma attack. He was at one of our formation houses in Oro Province in Papua New Guinea. He was a young man in his twenties. I only met him once, yet his passing fills me with sadness. Life is so fragile.

Yet when I consider his death in the context of Heaven, I have to fumble toward gratitude. I am grateful he was able to live out his calling, to be a brother. I am grateful for his witness to the Gospel, dedicating his life to it. None of us know how long we have. Somehow heaven is the place where all life’s perplexities are held in love. I wonder, do they get fully explained? Heaven is the place where our puny human lives are accounted as more precious than gold; am I able to account for this in my earthly interactions? Do I think of all the people I meet as of great value? Surely the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable points to the value and worth of everyone in the heavenly perspective. Daniel’s brief time as a friar makes me think of one of the Kingdom parables Jesus told when he talked about the hired hands getting their wages at the end of the day. The steward is instructed to give the workers who were hired at the end of the day the same as those who were hired in the morning. That is how it is with heaven: we are never too late, too young, the wrong sex or sexual orientation, the wrong race, just a novice, or way past our prime. All are welcome.

I didn’t think I’d have much to say about Hell. But we live in an age of war. I think war is hell, and what is going on in Zimbabwe comes very close to it (I’ve attached a letter from Zimbabwe below. Also sometimes the space between my ears can be really miserable, and I have to reach out to others: calling Papua New Guinea, go shopping for tiny gifts for my parents, volunteering to cook food. The sense of isolation or inadequacy or futility can undermine my confidence and erode my joy. Hell, indeed; and I need Jesus’ Gospel to keep me firmly grounded in hope and gratitude.

Which brings me back to the theme of preparation.

I have begun preparations for my next trip, something I really enjoy doing. This time I’ll be going to Africa in March and April. The requirements for the travel include yellow fever shots, more anti-malarial medications. Tomorrow I take my yellow fever shot. I’ve been making phone calls to my contacts in Cameroon, South Africa and Zimbabwe. I have no idea what I’ll find or what I’ll be able to do. I hope I will be able to share life with the brothers, eat their food, tell stories, knit together a sense of fraternity and friendship, mobilize awareness about the conditions especially in Zimbabwe, to do my part. Part of Advent then is doing what I can do today in preparation for the future. But I have no control over that. It will happen on its own terms, there are so many things I cannot know. Life is so fragile; which makes it ravishingly beautiful, and fills me with wonder and joy and determined to do all in my power to preserve, protect and enhance it. Prepare to do more peace work, prepare for the Prince of Peace.

Here is a recent letter from Zimbabwe. Please pray for them and my visit.

Letter from Zimbabwe sent in by John Winter

I reckon that these are the last days of TKM and ZPF. The darkest hour is always before dawn.

We are all terrified at what they are going to destroy next........I mean they are actually ploughing down brick and mortar houses and one family with twin boys of 10 had no chance of salvaging anything when 100 riot police came in with AK47's and bulldozers and demolished their beautiful house - 5 bedrooms and pine ceilings - because it was 'too close to the airport', so we are feeling extremely insecure right now.

You know - I am aware that this does not help you sleep at night, but if you do not know - how can you help? Even if you put us in your own mental ring of light and send your guardian angels to be with us - that is a help -but I feel so cut off from you all knowing I cannot tell you what's going on here simply because you will feel uncomfortable. There is no ways we can leave here so that is not an option.

I ask that you all pray for us in the way that you know how, and let me know that you are thinking of us and sending out positive vibes... that's all. You can't just be in denial and pretend/believe it's not going on.

To be frank with you, it's genocide in the making and if you do not believe me, read the Genocide Report by Amnesty International which says we are - IN level 7 - (level 8 is after it's happened and everyone is in denial).

If you don't want me to tell you these things-how bad it is-then it means you have not dealt with your own fear, but it does not help me to think you are turning your back on our situation. We need you, please, to get the news OUT that we are all in a fearfully dangerous situation here. Too many people turn their backs and say - oh well, that's what happens in Africa

This Government has GONE MAD and you need to help us publicize our plight---or how can we be rescued? It's a reality! The petrol queues are a reality, the pall of smoke all around our city is a reality, the thousands of homeless people sleeping outside in 0 Celsius with no food, water, shelter and bedding are a reality. Today a family approached me, brother of the gardener's wife with two small children. Their home was trashed and they will have to sleep outside. We already support 8 adult people and a child on this property, and electricity is going up next month by 250% as is water.

How can I take on another family of 4 -----and yet how can I turn them away to sleep out in the open?

I am not asking you for money or a ticket out of here - I am asking you to FACE the fact that we are in deep and terrible danger and want you please to pass on our news and pictures. So PLEASE don't just press the delete button! Help best in the way that you know how.

Do face the reality of what is going on here and help us SEND OUT THE WORD.. The more people who know about it, the more chance we have of the United Nations coming to our aid. Please don't ignore or deny what's happening.
Some would like to be protected from the truth BUT then, if we are eliminated, how would you feel? 'If only we knew how bad it really was we could have helped in some way'.

[I know we chose to stay here and that some feel we deserve what's coming to us]

For now,--- we ourselves have food, shelter, a little fuel and a bit of money for the next meal - but what is going to happen next? Will they start on our houses? All property is going to belong to the State now. I want to send out my Title Deeds to one of you because if they get a hold of those, I can't fight for my rights.

Censorship!----We no longer have SW radio [which told us everything that was happening] because the Government jammed it out of existence - we don't have any reporters, and no one is allowed to photograph. If we had reporters here, they would have an absolute field day. Even the pro-Government Herald has written that people are shocked, stunned, bewildered and blown mindless by the wanton destruction of many folks homes, which are supposed to be 'illegal' but for which a huge percentage actually do have licenses.

Please! - do have some compassion and HELP by sending out the articles and personal reports so that something can/may be done.

'I am one. I cannot do everything, ---but I can do something.. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. What I can do, I should do. And what I should do, by the grace of God,
I will do.'
Edward Everett Hale

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Building Dialogue Among Civilizations

Creating Global Commitment to the Earth

One of the critical issues facing persons engaged in dialogue with other civilizations is creating awareness that no matter how different we might be we all inhabit the same globe. For instance, there is no such thing as a limited nuclear war. What we are talking about vis-à-vis nuclear arms is assured mutual destruction. Also, what one nation does to harm the environment has global ramifications: poisoning rivers and oceans, destroying coral reefs, polluting the atmosphere; all these things contribute to global warming and denigrate our common human habitat. If we disagree on religious beliefs, political systems, even cultural attitudes towards women, homosexuals, and other minorities, a compelling case for dialogue can be made for the preservation of this fragile earth, our island home in the universe.

Building on shared self-interest in survival, my next thought would be to frame discussions about the environment as peace-keeping accords; commitment to peace and commitment to the environment being two sides of the same survival coin. Respect for the environment breeds reverence for life in all its forms, which is necessary if we are create a new global consciousness through dialogue. Respect and reverence preclude violence.

Developing a Personal Practice for Peace

The hasty thought or bitter retort conceived in anger can do incalculable damage to relationships. They are a form of violence. Words have the power to unleash bullets and poisons on the earth. Thus it is important that every person look at those places in him or herself where anger lurks. Most of us are fairly scrupulous about dealing with anger in our most intimate relationships, though we could most of us still do better. Many enlightened people however allow prejudice to flourish when thinking about people who are different from us, or from whom we have received a national insult or injury. One of the best ways to transform personal anger and prejudice against other peoples and cultures is to visit them: meet the people, eat their food, admire their cultural monuments, read their literature. Words also have the power to heal, unleash creativity, and bring strangers together. Admiration for beauty must give way to respect for the creators of it. I would strongly recommend an in-depth, appreciative (non-competitive) education about the different cultures of the world as a basis for permanent peace, and a basis for civilian diplomacy and dialogue. The great peacemakers of the world have all been great lovers of culture.

Creating an historical perspective

Without a deeper understanding of history, we can only engage in shallow conversation, not truly transformative dialogue.

We need to create broader understandings and an historical perspective when dealing with the peoples most different from us. In preparation for my trip to Iran I read Steven Kinzer’s book about the U.S. engineered coup toppling Mossadeq’s regime and replacing him with the Shah. No wonder many Iranians don’t trust the US! But I never knew of these events before. Another historical grievance I never considered was the downing of the airbus by the US Navy in which nearly 300 civilians were killed; and the US only regretted it, while decorating the Navy commander as a hero. Not knowing these key events in the Twentieth Century, who wouldn’t be mystified by the Iranians’ distrust of the US?

We must push for greater honesty and a diversity of voices when we teach about foreign affairs and our relations with other cultures. Too often the assumptions underlying the work of authors of text books go unexamined. Lack of knowledge breeds false insights and fosters violence.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

“Pithy Aphorisms”


At right is a picture of Ayatollah Bojnourdi giving us the benefit of his insights. He is one of the most liberal Ayatollahs in Iran. His black turban indicates he is a direct descendant of Mohammed. It was interesting to hear from somebody who disagrees with the current Supreme leader.

One Sunday when I was in Iran we went to Jamaran (Iman Khomeini’s house--the first Supreme Leader of the Revolution) It was a very humble place: it was two rooms, with a few thread bare carpets, some low furniture and nothing much else. Here the ayatollah received visitors, and did his studying. Along a covered walk we entered the side door of the small auditorium where he would give his talks and receive larger groups of people. Our guide was very emotional about him, the founder of the country. She spoke movingly of his care for the poor and his basic sense of fairness vis-à-vis the right to food, housing, health care. This image of a loving paterfamilias jarred with my prejudiced conception of him as some kind of scary maniac.

After our tour we were taken to a basement museum where there were many photos chronicling in his career. We were also given several books and DVD’s. One of the books was called “Pithy Aphorisms: Wise sayings and counsels.” By Imam Khomeini. For some reason this tickled my funny bone; it is not a title I would choose. Thumbing through the book, I read some encouraging words:

“The prophets came to call people out of darkness into light.”

“Islam is for the welfare of the society.”

“All corruption of the world is due to self-conceit.”

Pithy aphorisms indeed.

But he reserved some of his pithiest comments for America:

“We believe that the Muslims should unite and together slap America, and know that they can do it!”

“America cannot act as a swaggerer before the Muslims.”

“America cannot do a damn thing!”

Reflecting on these different sayings I wonder if it is possible to put them into context, especially the anti-American ones. He was engaged in a polemic with our President; America had engineered the over throw of Iran’s first democratically elected government of Mossadeq in the 1950’s. There were very hurt feelings on both sides of the argument. We noticed one of these aphorisms painted on a wall, but it was faint. Our guide pointed out it had not been re-painted, an indication that the fervor was draining from the rhetoric. Certainly the people expressed tremendous friendliness and interest in us as Americans.

Another guide during our trip had a few pithy aphorisms of his own; actually he posed some pithy questions:

“If nuclear power is a good thing, why can’t we have it? And if it is a bad thing why do you have it?”

“One million Iraqis have been killed by the Americans in the invasion of Iraq. Four million have been wounded. That makes five million Iraqi families who hate America: we really need peace delegations like yours.”

Listening to our guide I was reminded me of the Eldridge Cleaver’s aphorism: “You are part of the solution or you are part of the problem.”

Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”

And Bill Wilson: “Live and let live.”

Civilian diplomacy is necessary to changing the hearts and consciousness of people everywhere; we are a divided world, but we don’t need to be. Wisdom resides in the hearts of all: Muslim Ayatollahs, American Blank Panthers, Jesus Christ, alcoholics. (That is my pithy aphorism for today.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

We’re Not In Kansas (or California) Anymore



When we arrived in Tehran all the women pulled scarves from their luggage and covered their heads as the doors were opened. I’d expected all heavy, dark scarves, but many were very sheer and it looked like many women preserved a “puff” (as our group came to call it) in front. The woman next to me on the plane also pulled on a pair of gloves to cover her fingernail polish. One young woman kept her scarf on her shoulders until she reached the door of the plane.

There seemed to b a huge variety of approaches to the hijab, or headscarf. The official reason for the head covering is to protect feminine modesty, and prevent arousing men to sexual temptation. I wonder, are our western sensibilities are too dulled to find hair all that titillating? Head covering is serious business in Iran. There is a squad of morals police who go around from time to time “cracking down” on carelessly worn hijabs (especially I understand in springtime). There were published reports of women being warned or fined. I must say, however, my survey of Iranian women reveals many women wearing their hijab way back on their head. They seem to wear it with all the skill of Catherine Deneuve. I was reminded how some of the girls at the all girl high school where I was once chaplain managed to make Campbell dress plaid uniforms look sexy. Compliance is compliance, and enforcement may be powered by other considerations behind the political scenes.

The women in our group were fairly scrupulous about keeping their heads fully covered. They reported it was hot, itchy and annoying—yet some managed to see it as a way to share in the culture. I heard some comments that they really enjoyed not being stared at or whistled at or otherwise harassed as they walked down the streets.

The men in the group had no analogous experiences. I felt completely free to dress and act as I normally would except for an absolute taboo against touching women—no handshaking, shoulder patting or affectionate hugs!

One evening in Isafan we visited some lovely bridges. I noticed two men on the steps overlooking the water. One man was sitting and his friend was standing in front of him, gently running his hands up and down his friend’s inner thighs. Maybe that is normal macho behavior in Iran, but I read it as gay and beautiful: and more than a little daring.

Homosexuality is a capital crime. The Ayatollah Bojnourdi casually mentioned it as proof of the infrequency of capital punishment: “only murderers and homosexuals” are put to death. Iran has one of the highest rates of sex change operations in the world. I thought it was sickening. If you have homosexual feelings a quick cut and stitch will sew your closet shut for life.

But then they can wear the hijab and claim the freedom of their sisters.

Peace, Love and Architecture




Our desire to meet people notwithstanding, a large part of our itinerary involved looking at buildings: palaces, mosques, bridges, avenues. As much as I like these things I wondered: is this what we’re here for? To admire buildings while on a peace mission seemed a diversion.

But I soon was converted. The buildings were all about an ancient Persian/Islamic culture that is alive and well. I was reminded of John Keats: '"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' Islam has flowered in the most exquisite and delicate art; a people who could produce these things command respect.

I was intrigued to learn how they used the buildings, especially the mosques. Our guide obliged me and showed us the niche where the prayer leader stands, demonstrated the amazing acoustics which enabled people to hear without microphones (six hundred years ago). We marveled at the intricate designs of scriptural texts and the built-in time-keeping device that insured they always prayed at noon.

The buildings showed a longing for God, for transcendence. They are an outward sign of a powerful spirituality that emphasized (over and over): peace, hospitality, compassion, gratitude. The buildings, especially the mosques, reminded me of the Christian Churches I visited in Europe, which emphasized the same things.

Experiencing the people and the culture of Iran actually spoke louder to me than the fulminations of President Bush or President Ahmadinejad: the presidents say many things appealing to specific constituencies in their countries. It is a game! And we heard from people critical of the Iranian President, and we were free in our critique of ours. Yet polemics don’t heal. They are not creative vehicles for understanding. Moving us beyond polemics and political frustration, the beautiful buildings dedicated to God inspired poetic thoughts and nurtured audacious hopes for a new way of being human in our world.

The last night we were in Iran we were in Shiraz and we visited the tomb of the poet Hafez. He lived in the 13th Century (I think) and wrote deeply moving poetry. His tomb is an exquisite piece of architecture, yet the place is deeply holy because it is where young people come in the evenings to read poetry—to themselves and to each other. Couples meet and walk in the gardens. Some look flustered and walk silently; others were exhilarated by the chance to be with girls or boys, chattering with animation. Most people we met of every age could cite a favorite passage of poetry. Here was the real soul of Iran: the buildings hint at it, but in the voices of the young adults, I felt I heard it.

In the words of Hafez:

“When fair ones talk in Persian, the streams of life outwell:
this news to pious Pirs, my Saki, haste to tell”

Civilian Diplomacy



We were encouraged to go out and meet Iranians “on the street.” I’ve never been easy accosting people even to ask directions, let alone have a conversation about politics, religion or anything else. I was feeling a bit intimidated by the expectation that I’d have meaningful contacts on the street.

Yet I needn’t have worried. Everywhere we went people reached out to us and in my case, carried the conversational burden (in English!). A young army officer, a shop keeper, a student: they all began asking me where I was from. “America!?” they would respond in astonishment. One man observed: “After 30 years finally you have come.” Each was very anxious that I like their country. I could honestly say I liked it. It is beautiful. And the people are very friendly. Whatever I sad, it seemed to reassure them. Then they would peer up at me: “Please don’t bomb us!”

Invariably this comment left me feeling ashamed and angry. Would our US government betray our goodwill mission and attack Iran? Are my efforts simply naïve altruism?

Some might say so.

Yet except by meeting people, eating their food, walking their streets, how else are we to break down the dividing wall of suspicion that divides us? These people-to-people contacts are the only way to get behind the rhetoric we hear in America and they hear in Iran. Neither population is well served by the “party lines” we hear. Giving and receiving hospitality is at the core of our Abrahamic faiths. It creates a sense of bond and obligation which Christians, Jews and Muslims have scripturally understood to be sacred.

Another dynamic operating in these encounters is a cultural quality called ta’arouf. Hooman Majd in his book “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” gives some very helpful insights. It means, in part, that nothing is too good for guests; effusive claims of love and friendship and exaggerated statements of humility are common (“I am your humble servant” might be answered with: “I am your devoted slave”). This Persian propensity for politeness and hospitality is given extra clout by the Koranic teachings of universal brotherhood and respect. It is very sincere, yet must be understood in context, which created some interesting learning moments for our delegation. If one has no idea about ta’arouf I expect there could be some baffling encounters. We were forewarned. But the first invitation to dinner by the proprietor of the corner newsstand as one buys a paper is astonishing. However, I found the few interactions I had, wary as I was, gave me a sense of a different culture, different manners, somehow highly evolved and beautiful. That appreciation didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that I knew what I was doing, but I could relax, clasp hands with the men and offer extravagant compliments in return: a tiny cultural bridge.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Overview of my trip to Iran

I returned on Sunday from an incredible trip to Iran. I went with The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a 95 year old organization committed to social justice through pacifism and interfaith dialogue. One of their principle tools has been the use of civilian diplomats, people like myself, who go and visit the country and then return to tell about their experiences. They have led delegations to many of the troubled places of the world. Local chapters are active in promoting peace in many countries.

Our delegation was the eighth to go to Iran with FOR. Our hosts were the Center for Inter-religious Dialogue within the Department of Education and Research. Only 300—500 Americans are permitted visas each year. We ended up being a delegation of 14 men and women, 10 Jewish and 4 Christian, ranging in age from roughly 25 to 80 years of age. It was the largest group of Jews to visit the country from America. This created an interesting and rich context for my own reflections on the group: rarely am I a religious minority!

We were definitely the guests of the government: I think enormous efforts were spent to be sure not only were we comfortable and well taken care of, but that we got a good grounding in Iranian/Persian culture, visiting Tehran, Qom, Isfahan, Persepolis and Shiraz. We met Ayatollah Bojnoordi, and visited the Jewish synagogues in Tehran and Shiraz (Iran is home to the world’s oldest Jewish communities, established over 2500 years ago); we met the Armenian Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, visited a Zoroastrian temple and spent most of a day with students and teachers at Mofid University discussing our different religious traditions.

Most of our discussions were fairly formal. There would be a round of welcoming statements and then each of us would introduce ourselves: name, institutional affiliation, home city and state. These were invariably followed by a presentation from the person we were visiting with an opportunity to ask questions. I had the awkward responsibility of representing Christianity: I kept emphasizing I only represent a small piece of it all, and that many disagree with me strongly. A great joy was meeting somebody in the hallway, or over lunch or perhaps in the street or park as we walked about. When they learned we were Americans, their astonishment soon gave way to one impassioned plea: “Don’t bomb us!” One contact that developed into an amazing encounter off the official itinerary was meeting Habib Ahmadzadeh, an independent film maker and to view his anti war film “Night Bus.”

In addition to meeting people and building relationships of trust and enhanced understanding, we were shown some of the most beautiful, extraordinary buildings: mosques, bridges, palaces, gardens, bazaars, the tombs of Xerxes, Cyrus the Great, and the astonishing ruins of Persepolis.

What did I learn? Nothing very abstract: it is a beautiful country; the people are very hospitable; they are great lovers of poetry. The food is delicious. Reflecting on our experience as “civilian diplomats” I think we were able to represent a slice of American society well: open, affectionate, and eager to make friends and communicate our message: No War With Iran.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Getting Ready to Go: Reality Check

Today I leave for Nyack, NY, to the headquarters of The Fellowship of Reconciliation for a short orientation before we leave for Iran Wednesday night. The past few days since my return from London Saturday have been busy; but the frosting on the cake was learning that UPS had not picked up my passport from the store I’d mailed from with overnight postage to get the visa. Learning this Monday, about 11:00 a.m., I rushed to the store and picked up the passport (forfeiting the $25.00 postage!). The challenge then was to find a way of getting the passport to the courier who would take it to Washington D.C. The man lives in Albany, I was in Port Jefferson, about 7 hours away. After several phone calls we decided I’d meet him in Nyack at 2:00. So I drove the 2+ hours to Nyack, getting there a quarter of an hour before the courier arrived!

Slouched in a chair in Nyack, resting, I learned that not every member of the delegation had received visas. The Iranians delayed until yesterday morning to issue visa numbers from Tehran, and they denied 4 members of our delegation; two others have not yet received numbers but indications are that they will in due course. What a shock! There is no apparent reason or pattern to the decision as the four include Jews and Muslims, male and female, experienced travelers to Iran, and first-timers. We may never learn; this is the way it is traveling to Iran.

This reality check will be the background to the work we do. I believe it will be important to let go of the anger and disappointment, and try to meet the people with open hearts and minds. Yet our governments are not in synch. They are suspicious of Americans and America is suspicious of Iran. The only way to dissolve the suspicion and the jostling for power is to talk, to reach across the divide and make relationships. Other delegations have made tremendous contacts, and the reports we read are that “ordinary” Iranians are enthusiastic about meeting Americans, dismayed by the nuclear competition.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Preparing for Peace

I've been in London this week working on a proposal for a formation program which is intended for the brothers and sisters who will be working with our novices. It has been a great experience to work on this proposal: engaging in conversation with my colleague Sister Joyce, the Minister General of the Sisters of the Community of St. Francis, thinking, praying, and dreaming about the best way to empower our communities. I spent a happy day trolling the internet reading websites and seeing how what we hope to do might interface with what people are doing in the New York area. I came across a website with a program title: "Formators as transformative agents" by Don Bisson: this is exactly what we hope to be about! Not only do I hope the formators--the people who teach the novices--should be transformative agents, but all of us.

The other thing going on this week has been the increasingly intense preparations for my trip to Iran next Wednesday. I go as an agent of transformation, working for peace. In a way it is a chance to do the kind of thing Joyce and I have been talking about in terms of preparing the novices to do.

Sturggling to get over my jet lag I have had several weird hours of wakefulness, which I have used to read about Iran. My current late night primer is about the President of Iran: "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader" by Kasra Naji. If ever there was a need to hear two sides of a story and to create bridges of friendship and understanding between two peoples, i think Iran is the perfect place to go. The language is so hyperbolic. So I have had to do some preparatory work thinking and praying about the best way to meet and relate with people in a culture and context very different from mine.

I am reminded of St. Francis and how he went among the Muslims. He went, refusing to preach much with words, but to live in such a way as to invite people to approach him with questions. I like this model of approachability, and hope I can present myself in that way.

I am in a hurry to get to Heathrow to catch a flight to New York. But as i go, i feel that it is all about peace, all about friendship, all about deeper understanding.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Trust

Yesterday I heard a great sermon by Phil Brochard, rector of All Souls Episcopal Church in Berkeley about trust. You can get a copy of it by e-mailing allsouls@allsoulsparish.org or maybe check their website: www.allsoulsparish.org I won’t re-hash it here, but it got me to thinking about whether or not I live trustfully. Do I trust myself? Do I trust the people I am traveling to Iran with? Do I trust my brothers?

Most of the time.

Another way of thinking about trust, for me, is to think about letting go. I have to let go of my fears, let go of my desire to control the outcomes of my interactions, and life transactions. I need to do my best and leave the rest up to God: trust God.

Sometimes trust gets a body blow: I got two of these last week.

The first challenge to trust was the destruction of the Order of Holy Cross Monastery in Santa Barbara. You never know when natural disaster will strike. My mind immediately starts to calculate risks. One can never be too safe; it is a thin line to cross over to “trust nobody” you are never totally safe. Of course I know life is a series of calculated risks, most of which we hardly acknowledge: crossing the road, driving on a free way, taking an airplane ride, which I do continuously without a second thought. Well, I have been having a lot of second thoughts since the fires in Santa Barbara.

The second blow was the report of the racist attack on a migrant worker on Long Island by a self-styled KKK group. They killed him, and left handbills threatening other “non-whites.” A friend attributes it to a backlash against Barack Obama’s election. To live trustfully in a democracy one must believe that people will obey laws and respect each other. Many of the migrant workers on Long Island are men and women I know. They catered the meal after my installation as Minister General last November. Racist attacks spoil the atmosphere of trust and harmony and weaken our society.

So I have taken these incidents as the starting place for my prayers each morning: affirming my trust in God, seeking to open my eyes to perceive the hand of God at work in the world around me. I try to notice the beauty of nature even as I recognize the fires are tragedies for my friends. I marvel at the many friends I have of every race and creed. Crucial for me is not to lapse into all-or-nothing thinking, taking a tragedy and replicating it everywhere in my imagination: “catastrophizing” as one friend calls it. Remembering these things clears my mind; I can sign a petition against racism, I can make calls and try to organize help for Santa Barbara. We are in solidarity with each other in good times and bad.

In God we trust.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two New Provinces




I have been beyond the reach of electricity for much of the last six weeks: thanks for the concern some of you have expressed!

But it has been a really great time. I had to go to the Solomon Islands in September to preside at a special chapter for the drafting of Provincial Statutes and the election of a new Minister Provincial (see brothers celebrating at Hautambu at right); then I did the same in Papua New Guinea in October.

Frankly I was dreading the drafting of statutes. Whenever reference was made to statutes in the past I felt a sense of frustration, as if looking at statutes was the court of last appeal, a sign of imaginative failure. Here I was to be the prime mover in a writing exercise with a large group of men who rely more on an oral tradition, and by their own admission never felt the lack of a statute to be of any importance! What goes around comes around as they say… At left the PNG brothers prepare to write statutes!
But we plunged in nevertheless, willing to be obedient to the SSF Constitution. I quickly discovered that what we were doing was writing a story about their life in the province. Every rule rests on the collected memories of the brothers about things that have worked in the past, and of course the things that didn’t work. The areas of confusion and frustration in their common life got aired and we made a stab at giving direction to ourselves in areas like when there is a breakdown in relationships in the community.

Interestingly enough, the two hottest topics in both chapters were the age of admission and issues surrounding the uniform. Most of the life professed brothers in both provinces joined when they were teenagers, and are now in their thirties or older. But they had painful stories of other men who joined with them and then left. So we thought about making the earliest age quite old: thirty was the first age suggested by both groups! But then as we talked about it the age came down, to 22 (Solomon Islands) and 20 (Papua New Guinea). Determining an age is a bit of a shot in the dark anyhow: without birth certificates most brothers choose October 4 (St. Francis’ Day) as their birthdays when they get their passports, and memories are hazy as to the year, and usually tied to a significant event: a storm or death in the family. But all they need is a letter signed by two village members agreeing how old they are. Age we realized wasn’t the central issue, but rather readiness to test a vocation. They will never preempt the pain of beloved friends leaving community to get married or do other things.

Uniforms are worn in both provinces because it is too hot to wear the habit all of the time and there is a big need, culturally, for the members of the religious orders to be easily identifiable. Some wanted to do away with the uniform idea altogether, others wanted brothers to wear it all of the time. Again more stories, careful listening, choosing a way forward. Halfway through my first chapter, in the Solomon Islands, I was fascinated by the discussions. In neither case did the brothers speak eagerly. It seemed as if they were reluctant to speak or had no opinion. But I soon discovered that idea was only my own impatience. As facilitator I soon realized my job was to keep the discussion “open” until everybody had a chance to speak or indicated he didn’t want to speak. They spoke obliquely, not confronting each other. Yet they had quickly realized that much of the frustration they’d encountered in past years was because they had not had the opportunity to fully discuss these questions, and they had relied on a cultural model of the leader deciding all instead of the Franciscan model of the Chapter making the decisions.

These Chapters were an awakening for all of us. There was palpable relief as issues were brought up and discussed. Frequently brothers would say “I wish we’d known this when…” There grew a sense of power as chapter members, perhaps empowerment is a better word. All of us found ourselves talking about statutes during the coffee breaks with more energy than ever before in our lives. These brothers, the survivor Life Professed and leaders of the two new provinces, were able to tell of their love for each other and their way of life as friars.

It was an honor to talk about statutes with them.

The election of the ministers provincial had a certain amount of drama: singing the Veni creator spiritus in a woolen habit, kneeling on a graveled chapel floor during a tropical rainstorm made me think of certain scenes in the film The Mission. It took several ballots in both cases, and in neither case did the brother elected really expect it. George looked as if he’d been bitten by a snake, and I had had to convince Laurence (the outgoing Regional Minister) to change his travel plans because he’d wanted to go home quickly, thinking his time as leader was over. George recovered his usual poise quickly, and Laurence seemed more relaxed, perhaps deeply affirmed.

Anglican Melanesian Franciscanism: it’s a mouthful, it is a reality, and now it is written down.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Traveling Trials

Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance: these are the three most important words when traveling in the Solomon Islands. Otherwise I become frustrated, enraged and demoralized. Every leg of my journey on domestic flights has been delayed sometimes by a few hours, but twice now by days at a time.

We arrive at the airport, check-in, and wait. Sometimes the plane comes, sometimes it doesn’t. If it comes, it may re-fuel and take passengers, or the crew may decide to shut down and the flight is cancelled.

Until when? This is the information most of us want.

“Mi no save,” is the airline attendant’s response (“I don’t know”). Call tomorrow. Sometimes the airlines personnel is too shy to come tell the passengers the bad news, so it is only after hours of waiting that a passenger sidles into the restricted area and learns the truth. Phone calls and personal visits to the airlines produce varying results. The airlines will often put out a time for the new departure, then immediately amend it. Sometimes the new time is earlier, other times it is later. What is often not explained is that they occasionally take passengers in order of precedence. If your flight was cancelled Saturday you get to fly on Monday. The Monday people must wait until Tuesday, or maybe Saturday because Tuesday they might not have a flight. But it also may be that they decide to honor today’s reservations and squeeze in the frustrated passengers from the earlier cancelled flights. Returning from Temotu, so many people were demanding to be allowed to fly the airlines decided yes, they could go, but none of their luggage. That would come another day. Maybe this week, maybe next week, depending on how much luggage the people on the next flight carried.

So it always pays to have plan B. Carry a book to read, something to eat. Leave on good terms because you might be returning home with your hosts again. Pack the bare minimum, preferably only take a small back pack or pouch so you can keep your stuff with you. Above all, don’t schedule things too tightly. Everybody needs a week or so of latitude. If you are making an international connection, start trying to get to Honiara a week early. Make open-ended room reservations.

Travel by ship is even more fraught. I’ve waited three days for a ship which was to return “tomorrow.” Brothers have waited two or three months in Honiara for ships going to the provinces. And if you are hoping to board a ship to town from a province, it may come or it may not come.

I have become a believer in competition. If there were another airline serving the same routes, I bet the service would be better. But one government airline, one government phone company leads to a Graham Greene kind of tropical bureaucratic tangle. I used to think his novels were so romantic. They still are, but it is different being the character in one versus reading about the poor hapless people caught in these situations.

I’ve complained. I’ve gotten angry. Nothing works: there are some things in life one has no control over. And every delay has held its own reward: conversations with fellow passengers, especially children. Maybe it is a chance to go for one more swim in the lagoon. Or I am rewarded with a heart-to-heart chat with a brother when every sort of conventional conversation has run dry, and we know everything there is too know about family, schooling, jobs, etc. We can finally talk about our hopes and fears. Sometimes I just “go native” and sit, watching all that is going on around. I think “wait” is an active verb for the Solomon Islanders. Much of life is spent waiting, and how you wait is very important. One doesn’t want to be so frenzied that the day is spoiled, or you hurt the people near you. Nobody in the waiting area has any more control over the situation.

And eventually you will get there. “Every some-ting come up for good” as they say here.

Visit to Santa Cruz Island

I arrived in the Solomon Islands a week ago, September 16. Wednesday the 17th I flew to Lata, the provincial capitol of Temotu province. Holy Martyr’s Friary has been perched on a cliff overlooking an amazing lagoon with an active volcano in the background for about 10 years. Initially it was a house made of local materials: palm and bamboo with a few home-milled planks (made with a chainsaw). Gradually over the years the brothers and their friends have hauled concrete, lumber, masonite, corrugated iron roofing up the face of a slippery coral cliff and built a permanent building. As yet there is no electricity or running water, so life goes by different rhythms: sleep when its dark, then awake and working in daylight.

In the brothers’ prayers they always give thanks for the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food that God provides. I was struck by the appropriateness of these prayers: water comes straight from heaven and all they need to do is catch it in barrels. Food is available to anybody who can handle a hoe or spear, firewood is abundant in the forests. Abundance, yes, but at the cost of some hard work!

There is a large group of both men and women students at a nearby training school who have become Companions of SSF. In honor of my visit they decided to prepare a meal: sit down dinner for 50. So my first day we all armed ourselves with axes and attacked a dead tree like an army of ants, everybody chipping away and passing the chunks of wood down the line of workers to the friary. The next day Br. Ini went diving with a young man who aspires to be a friar, Morris. While they were away, Br. Martin and I split some firewood, swept the house and chapel. When the brothers returned with about 24 fish the Companions also showed up with bags of stones to use to build “ovens”—a layer of stones, then fire, with more stones on top (oven is ready to use when all the stones are hot). Leaving the stones, they headed out swinging their machetes, to collect banana and bread fruit leaves to cook with. Another crew headed to the Brothers’ gardens to dig potatoes: kumara and cassava. After re-grouping, they all went in search of coconuts up in the bush. On the third day—early in the morning (yes it does have paschal overtones) they returned [about one a.m.] to kill the pig, peel the roots and grate the coconut meat and build fires in the outbuildings to begin heating stones for cooking. In spite of heavy
rain and weak flickering light from kerosene lamps they were happy, going about their tasks singing and flirting with each other. By six a.m. the ovens were all sealed, with pig, fish, pudding and potatoes baking. We spent the day in near catatonia, until about 4:00 p.m. when they companions returned to put the finishing touches on the meal. At 5:00 everybody departed to get cleaned up, and they returned at 6:30 for an evening Eucharist lit by two flickering candles and a smoky oil lamp.

At Eucharist I preached homily about generosity. In the Epistle Paul wrote the Romans not to conform themselves to the way of the world, but to live differently, and that everybody has their role to play in the work of the Gospel; he exhorts people whose gift is to be a giver—to give generously. In the Gospel of John we heard about the generosity of God, who loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to live as one of us…living in the world as generous people we stand over against the way of the world which often promotes competition, winners and losers, people whose main concern is to protect themselves. I feel that the way of life these friars and students share is one which the world needs to emulate. Not the sweat and trouble of primitive living in a tropical jungle (though if you try it you might like it as much as I do), but of living in conscious reliance on the grace of God and interdependently with each other, seizing the opportunities to celebrate life. This is the Franciscan way.

After the Eucharist there was a lull while the team of servers put the food out on banana leaves on the floor of the dining room. Finally it was ready and we all pushed into the small dining hall and crouched on the floor over our pile of food. Food has rarely tasted so good! There were speeches, songs, prayers. Above us the stars shone intensely and a breeze tossed the tree tops.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Anti-malarials




Today I started my anti-malarial medication in anticipation of my trip to The Solomon Islands on Tuesday. I feel a bit queasy, but I know from experience this will pass. There are three recommended medications one can take which are supposed to inhibit malaria (none of them can actually guarantee you won’t get it, but they decrease the likelihood, so I take them). One of the recommended medications is called Larium; this is what the US military uses with the troops in Iraq. One of the side effects cautioned about on the package is mental illness (!) or possible death in rare cases (!!) Another option is Malarone. This medication can cause drowsiness, nausea, and sickness too. Both of these are incredibly expensive, the Blue Cross-Blue Shield co-pay is $50.00, heaven knows what the medications would cost without insurance. The third option is doxycycline. It is by far the cheapest, and its greatest side effect is extra sensitivity to the sun (which can be problematic when traveling to the tropics). Some people have raised concern about the effect of taking it for two months. I’ve tried the first two on previous trips (and survived); and contracted malaria while taking Larium. It all seems a bit of a crap-shoot, so for variety’s sake and to save money I am trying the doxycyline this time. I’ve got 80 tablets, lots of sun block and a new hat.

But these are all the exigencies that go with the job and my ministry among and with my brothers from The Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. They don’t take any anti-malarial medication, only using chloroquine when they get malaria. Sadly malaria is a fact of life. First you get very, very cold, and start to shiver and shake. I got into bed under many quilts and blankets. Then you get a very high fever and think you will combust spontaneously. Then the fever breaks, sweat drenches your bedding, and the shivering starts over. Double doses of primaquine and doxycyclene took care of it for me.

The most widespread (and effective) precaution is the use of sleeping nets. They are very cheap by Western standards, yet a serious expense for the Islanders. I am grateful for my net when I lie in bed listening to the mosquitoes in a holding pattern around me. There are organizations which distribute nets to people in the Pacific, South America, Africa, India and Asia: send money! Malaria is awful and a death sentence for babies.

But otherwise, everything is fine…

I have had a terrific time in Australia. The First Order Chapter in Stroud went well. Here we all are in our different shades of brown: the cheapest cloth available, in each case! An extra blessing was being in the historic monastery. It was built in 1980 and the Poor Clares lived there until 1998. We were fortunate to have Sister Alison Francis representing the Second Order to our Chapter. She was one of the pioneer sisters, and had many stories to tell about making mud bricks, battling snakes under the refrigerator and all kinds of Down Under tales. The buildings are extraordinary: all curvey and spontaneous-looking: they are a real work of art. The roof leaks everywhere—not normally a problem in drought ridden Australia, but we were blessed with two weeks of constant down pours…

It is spring down here, and the wisteria came into full bloom outside my bedroom window.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Report Given at Chapter

Report of the Minister General SSF

First Order Chapter August/September 2008

Stroud, NSW, Australia

Going around the world, staying with the brothers, I have been privileged to hear many stories. I have found that a large part of my job is to listen to brothers. Sometimes I may have to pursue them and get them to talk. Nevertheless storytelling is not just about information sharing. It is about creating relationships. We sit, we talk, and I take their photograph. These budding relationships are the necessary conditions for the conversion of my life and (I pray) for lasting Gospel work. Was it Simon of Stylites who said the ear is the organ of conception? Something has been touched in me; it’s growing! And I want to share with you some of my reflections on all this listening I have been doing.

First, the mise en scene: good stories need to be connected to time and place. I have heard incredible stories told on verandahs chewing betel nut, standing in the courtyard of Hilfield drinking tea, sitting around the fire at Alnmouth, in the dining room of Haruro where I heard about how a pig was killed in a night-time hunt for our dinner, over meals in restaurants. Brothers told stories on the San Francisco MUNI, ferries on the Solomon sea, automobile drives across the moors of southern England, bathing in a warm tropical river: stories about the early days in SSF, the stories of the first SSF brothers in PNG, the brothers response to the disaster in Papua New Guinea, the building of Stroud brick by brick on land slated for a garbage dump, the moving of the friary building in Auckland; stories of how brothers died, stories about the SSF participation in the Solomon Islands peace making efforts, testimonials about praying for peace in Northern Ireland; reminiscences of Algy bringing the early communities together, of Bill Lash and his driving (and his equally remarkable leadership in India), of brothers working on the docks in the East End of London; these were added to stories I already knew about Fr. Joseph, the early days of San Damiano, the Orange City friary, the Minneapolis friary, the Navajoland mission, Dunstan’s VW bug, the early days of Little Portion. I heard stories again about the 1982 chapter and the re-founding of the American Province. I have heard literally hundreds of stories about brothers’ school days, their decision to become brothers, their family’s reactions, their own experience of community life and what keeps them in community. Francis reached beyond the grave, and I have been reading his stories on-line. Some talk of the community with gratitude, some have an attitude. My brothers and their stories are an enormous gift and joy to me. They have been a kind of SSF Fioretti. Our Franciscan stories are exotic: just thinking of all the places we are, and have been, makes me a bit giddy. These Franciscan tales are deeply grounded in the peripheries of the world power structures, and they are about non-famous people (I almost said “ordinary” but that would be disingenuous). Many of these stories are about moments when the storyteller felt particularly alive or connected to the Franciscan story, or sometimes moments of terrible doubt or sadness that took him to places inside himself that became in retrospect places of great blessing through the alchemy of God’s grace.

The stories we tell are not only the treasures that we offer each other in love and trust and intimacy, but they are the charter for our future. They are the living link between bad times and good, the testimonial of God’s blessing in our life as a community so that we will have the confidence to face the difficult days as they dawn on us knowing we are in a great company. There never was a day in SSF when everything was perfect; we’ve always been responding to God’s grace-in-the-moment.

We all have different stories and yet we have a common hope. This is the thing that is growing in me: hope for us and for our mission to live and share the Gospel. There is living in each of us the hope of our calling, to live a life of love and joy, serving people in the name of Jesus Christ. Our hope is rooted in St. Francis. The Franciscan stories have inspired, agitated and troubled us in many different ways. We go back to these stories as we tell our stories, finding ways to frame our experience. A brother once told a story about overcoming his fear of meeting lepers by remembering how Francis embraced the leper and encountered Christ. So the story from the Franciscan tradition helped re-frame a story of fear into a story of joy and liberation. As storytellers we can unleash the power others feel as they struggle to find ways to honor that strange feeling they have to make a difference, serve God, doing something beautiful, share their healing with fellow sufferers: whatever, it is different for each of us. Stories in which we share a bit of our own foolishness or failure often connect more deeply with people than when we brag about our accomplishments. At least it is true for me because other people’s accomplishments often leave me feeling a bit flattened, wondering what I’ve been doing with my life while they have written 10 books, taught important classes, fought huge battles. Because of the intimacy created when we sit down to tell our stories, we are in a privileged relationship with each other. The stories we tell frame our memories and foster the future.

As Anglicans most of us are still sifting through the story of the Lambeth Conference. What emerged for me from the conference was the importance of reaching out and engaging other people, especially the ones we feel most threatened by; again Franciscan stories come to mind: Francis and the Sultan, Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. Relationships are converting. Let me tell you a story: remember how the Sudanese bishops issued a statement and gave a press conference calling for Bishop Gene Robinson’s dismissal and/or breaking communion with the Episcopal Church. I kept thinking about this, and it really bothered me. I’d find myself gritting my teeth as I walked along, imagining all the things I’d do or say to one of those Sudanese bishops. One day I remembered Francis with the Sultan, and decided I too should meet my so-called enemy. Maybe he’d welcome gay people after he met me. So we met, and at first it didn’t go well. Then he said we should pray about it. I immediately grabbed his hand. After praying with this Sudanese bishop and holding his hand while we prayed, I found I couldn’t hate the man. I imagined him saying Mass, blessing people, eating his food: a lovely gentle human being. A huge burden was taken off of me and I suddenly could see that no matter what the long term outcome of the conference, God was there at Lambeth, bringing people together, healing wounds, and opening different channels of communication. Francis never stopped or prevented a war, but his example still has the power to agitate me into seeking God’s help to change my life—over and over again, a day at a time.

Stories provide a glimpse of the immensity of the world and give us a reminder that our life, our individual lives are not the measure of all things. Does God have an over- arching plan? Or is it enough that God is with us, funding our imaginations with innumerable, sacred stories and providing the true measure of love and sacrifice and joy as we negotiate our way through life?

I say all this to suggest that I see us, in the context of the world today, as people of the story. Troubadour is a Franciscan image. The way the brothers reach out, opening their lives to each other and to the world is an expression of strength through vulnerability; as St. Paul reminds us, God’s strength is made perfect in human weakness. If we can get people to listen to us and care about what we are saying we are well on the way to unleashing Gospel power in the world.

The underside of our stories is a widespread sense of inadequacy. We agonize about our life, our commitments and our failures. We think we should be doing more, that we don’t live the Franciscan life fully enough, that other people are doing it better, we think our trouble with English disqualifies us, or that because people expect certain things of us we should try to meet their expectations: but we just can’t! It is a classic case of judging our insides by others’ outsides—judging how we feel by how other people appear to us. In many cases this comparison can be very debilitating and vocation destroying. Of course we all have much to learn and there is room for improvement in all of us. But if we could only begin to look at our attributes with gratitude we could become even stronger in our Franciscan identity and witness. Instead of thinking we are too old, sick, uneducated, lacking in formation, too young, or inexperienced, I wonder what would happen if we began to consider what God might require of a grateful old man like me, a village boy like me, a new Christian convert like me, a Catholic priest like me? Each and every one of us has inside himself all he needs to have an amazing ministry. When he adds it to the gifts of his brothers, our community has all it needs at this very moment to give full expression to the Franciscan charism. We don’t need any more schooling—though schooling is always a good thing. Our formation is adequate to touch the hearts of men and women with the love of God, though we are all of us engaged in a life long process of formation. Each of us has a gift or ability that the community as a whole needs. God did not call any of us as potentially useful brothers, or eventually adequate ones. No! Right now, each and every one of us carries the Gospel, our piece of it. When we share it, God often writes another chapter of it in our hearts, so the story becomes bigger.

The negative stories we tell ourselves are not humility. They are bullets in the foot, wounds that can incapacitate us. But who thinks he is being negative when he airs a long held grievance? The only ways in which to hear the story we tell ourselves is to try and take a step back and see if we are living the life we feel called to live. Does your life seem boring, unimportant, and mechanical (add your favorite adjective)? We make these judgments because we have another, punishing story in our minds that says “I am boring, unimportant, and unimaginative.” Or we say: “I have to live this way, because if I don’t do ‘x’ nobody else will, and then something else won’t happen, …. and eventually civilization as we know it will collapse (hyperbole added to evoke the compelling nature of compulsive thinking patterns).” I hear versions of these stories in every friary.

What then is a brother to do? He can talk to somebody and try to get a different perspective. One writer has put it: “unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with.” My greatest obstacles have been overcome by asking my brothers what they think of a situation. Sometimes they have just laughed at me, and I realized the problem was only in my head. Other times we shared a concern and found a new way of looking at things.

A case in point: our future as an order is one of those big problems or obstacles that seems to live among us. At one chapter meeting I sat in on a group that talked about the death of SSF at great length. Finally I said perhaps that province was going through difficult times, but certainly in other provinces the issues are about welcoming and forming many new brothers. The difference in perspective is more than just interesting. It describes the work before us. How do we work with the different population statistics of our provinces? We are an international order. Like the Anglican Communion as a whole, SSF has more brothers in the global south than in the north, in developing nations than in developed nations. The stories of the brothers contain the evidence we need to discover the way forward. Listening to the reports, listening to each other in chapel, at meals and in the down times, I wonder if we can hear the voice of God calling us to new risks, new ventures, and new ways of being human no matter where we live? What is the gift in our diverse community that can help us all?

When the brothers told the spouses at Lambeth about the joint efforts of the religious communities to bring peace to the Solomon Islands, those people nearly jumped through the roof. The important factor for me was that every brother and sister was considered part of the effort, not just those who dodged bullets. The idealism, joy, increased sense of hope and commitment, the power unleashed by their story had an enormous impact not only on those people in the room at Lambeth, but through them on the world. Can we see everything we do as part of the story of the peace effort, part of the effort to heal the earth? It is not just a turn of phrase, but an attitude, a value.

Much of our reason for being as an order is to be in relationship with the marginalized in the world, and to strengthen the Christian faith and commitment of people we meet, sparking their creativity, expanding the circle of friends and colleagues and partners in the Gospel life and ministry. We have Franciscan connections in Zimbabwe, a place of strife and uncertain future; in Brazil and the Coral Triangle of the South Pacific, two of the environmentally key areas of the globe; we have Franciscan connections in USA and Europe and Asia. Multiply these few connections by the number of First Order Sisters, Poor Clares, and members of the Third Order, square this number with our ecumenical contacts among other Franciscans, Franciscans International and other NGO’s and the result is… (Math was never my strong point, but you get the picture). We must stop telling ourselves we can’t do something. Listen to the story God is telling us: we exercise a tremendous influence, and can do so even more.

Listen to your hearts, listen to each other, and listen to God. Give thanks for what God has done in your life, and what God is doing among your brothers. God has prepared an audience for us; tell the good news wherever you go!


Friday, August 22, 2008

Religion and Food

Religion and food are two things I am always curious about. When I travel I want to see churches and temples and I want to try local food. I have been interested in these things since I as a teenager reading Gourmet Magazine, vicariously traveling the world with Lillian Langseth-Christiansen and Ronny Jacques (the photographer). Of course then I’d drive my mother crazy trying to buy exotic ingredients for the recipes that followed each article. The food gave a sense of the exotic, but also provided a way to feel what it might be like to live in a foreign country; at least I could eat what they ate, I told myself. Religion, on the other hand, appeared in Gourmet as romantic cathedrals or charming devotees praying in romantic places to be admired before going to a charming little restaurant where they serve the finest ceviche, or whatever. As my vocation developed my interest in religion became a personal search for meaning and connection. My sense of calling first struck me most forcefully standing in Sacre Coeur in Paris, staring up at the depiction of Christ in the dome, while all those charming Parisians bustled about lighting candles before going home for their coq au vin. Now that I am more or less always on the road, I still look for local food, and opportunities to pray.

In Korea I have had some amazing meals and some extraordinary encounters with religion, both Christianity and Buddhism. First the food! Every restaurant we’ve eaten in has served meals on low coffee table height tables. I find it excruciating until the legs go completely numb. Once numbness sets in, I don’t feel any pain (until I try to stand up, that is!). But authentic eating experiences are serious business, so I would never sit in a chair. No pain, no gain. I am afraid I’ll fail as a restaurant reviewer for Gourmet because I didn’t have a notepad to write down the names of the things I ate. But this is a Franciscan blog, anyway. The brothers weren’t always too sure what it was either, or at least not the English translation. But on my first day we ate walnut jelly cut in cubes with a fiery hot chili sauce. Christopher John said it was a real test of chop stick proficiency if you could get the jelly to your mouth without wearing it. Served with this was a plate of noodles and fried tofu. Now were the noodles buckwheat noodles. Some said yes, some said no. I am not sure if we were all sure what we were talking about, but we all had opinions, and the noodles were delicious! Small paper cups of Nescafe gave the meal an authentically ethnic close.

Another night, after touring the border with the communists and prowling around in the dank tunnels the North Koreans have burrowed under the border, we were starving. So we went to a favorite Franciscan restaurant (i.e. cheap) and squatted around a low round griddle. I was given a place in the corner so I could lean against a wall. A hostess came and unceremoniously dumped on the griddle a huge bowl of chopped cabbage, mixed with rice cakes, yams, and chicken coated in the favorite fiery hot chili sauce. This was stirred around until she finally pronounced it safe to eat (no raw chicken bits). It was fantastic! The cabbage had become soft and sweet, and the yam provided a lovely counterpoint texture. The chili made my nose run, so it was probably just about right.

Traveling by bus to visit our Franciscan sisters in Gumi, Br. Christopher John contacted some friends of his who are very well off. They met us and took us to a fabulous restaurant where there was a well under the table and portable seat backs to rest against: first class. Lunch was a banquet: octopus, sting ray (while all these are ordinary fish, I couldn’t help thinking of Dame Edna’s comment, “nothing so scrumptious as an endangered species!”), chicken, beef in teriyaki-tasting sauce, and about 8 kinds of kimchee. Kimchee can be liquid (it tastes like the juice from a sauerkraut jar), or slices of pickled radish, or large pieces of cabbage with red chili sauce, green beans and leaves and garlic, sesame leaves: it seems the sky is the limit. We ate small rice balls that were brought to the table wrapped in leaves, slices of yam, acorn squash and chunks of corn on the cob, watermelon, noodles in broth.

Another night the retired Bishop came for evening prayer and took us out to dinner to a restaurant which featured 101 ways to eat tofu. They fried it at our table and we added flavor from a flotilla of small side dishes. Then a large tureen of boiling red broth with large pieces of tofu was brought to the table. No matter what you do to it, tofu is tofu—and I enjoyed every bite.

Religion is going to get a bit short changed here, I am running out of time: have to pack to go to Australia. Nevertheless, the brother’s chapel is wonderful. The floor is covered with lacquered paper, and again we crouch on cushions. The lectern is a traditional Korean desk and the altar is a low table; we saw exquisite examples of these kind of furnishings in Gyeongbokgung, the royal palace in Seoul.

Visiting the Korean Franciscan Sisters in Gumi, we had a terrific liturgy in a somewhat Victorian-looking chapel. Pictured here is the inside of their home.

My hankering for exotic religion got satisfied when we visited a Buddhist temple in Seoul. The monks had put up many colorful lanterns as a protest against the President of Korea because he has systematically curtailed their life. The liberal Christians also protest against him for he same reason. He is particularly fond of his very conservative Protestant faith. I always like to see religion in the public forum, so to speak. In the area around the temple we could hear the people chanting. Peeking through the doors, I saw rank on rank of lights burning in front of some very impressive statues.

I watched a Buddhist monk walk across the courtyard. He looked very relaxed, a bit focused on meeting the person he was walking towards: smiling at her, and bowing his head as he walked. I suddenly had a memory of all the times I’d be walking towards the friary and see somebody I knew waiting by the door. You could hear the brothers singing in the chapel, smell dinner cooking in the kitchen. My ordinary is another person’s exotic. I find deep reassurance and hope watching this small Korean encounter; we all do so many of the same things, in similar ways. Life is beautiful and I feel vulnerable to it.

Francis always told his brothers to go among people of different cultures and simply share their way of life. If the example of the brothers’ life provoked questions, well and good; then was the chance to share the truth of Jesus Christ. Learning to go among the peoples of the earth with respect and love, I pray they see me and recognize something too. After swapping recipes we may get down to deeper things, deeper hungers, greater hopes and possibilities.

Hanging near the border with North Korea is a large bell. It is made of wood or papier mache or something, not metal. It is called the Peace Bell. It stands as sign of the hope and longing for the people of Korea, and people everywhere, for peace in this world. Never have wars sorted people out. I have a great deal more faith in travel writers, cooks, monks and friars.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Home near the DMZ


"Welcome to the Society of St. Francis" the sign says.

I arrived in Korea last night after a nearly 14 hour flight from Washington D.C. As we traveled back to the friary from the airport, Br. Christopher John was pointing out the various local attractions. One thing he said pierced my jet-lagged fugue state: “near the DMZ.” It turns out we are very near to the border. All day I have been thinking about how the brothers have placed themselves in an uncertain, in-between place. It is not as if they live on the Gaza strip or in Iraq, but just a month or so ago a tourist was killed at the border. It is still very difficult to travel; the friars helped to organize a peace pilgrimage to North Korea and all cell phones, cameras and laptops had to be left behind. The border and all that it means to the people of Korea is just “over there.”

This little friary seems to be part of the huge drama of the reconciliation of a people who have suffered for many years. Obviously, nearly all prayer and conversation is carried on in Korean, so any words in English stand out with a special vividness since I don’t understand any Korean. The three brothers have been reading the lessons at the daily office in English, which seems an incredibly generous thing to do. At any rate, this morning’s lesson was about the parents of Samson entertaining an angel of the Lord; they played an important part in the story of salvation by offering a simple meal. So the simple things can have the most far reaching impact.

The brothers’ prayers and welcome to men and women seeking a time and space for quiet seems all the more profound to me. There were three guests here when I arrived. Like most of our friaries around the world, there are usually a few people around. One of the essential pieces of being a peacemaker is to carry on living with integrity and joy and affirming life, welcoming people into clean and orderly spaces, and the humane routines of shared meals, silence, prayer, laughter. Franciscans seem to thrive in places like this. One of the things we talk about is that the witness of life is often more eloquent than words.

So today we shopped, ate lunch (walnut jelly and buckwheat noodles!) then went for ice cream (black sesame seed and walnut—walnuts play a big part in the local food), looked at dams, roads and lots of tunnels and other construction projects. The brothers shared a dislike for the construction boom, pointing out the encroachment on the rice paddies, the cheap and gaudy tourist facilities. And we told stories about our lives, our hope for the Franciscan community in Korea. I has been an incredibly rich and eloquent day.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ecumenical Dialogue



This week I traveled to Washington D.C. for a week of engaging conversations with some Roman Catholic Franciscans. The convener has been the Minister General of the Society of the Atonement, Br. Jim Puglisi, and there were representatives from the OFM’s and Capuchins as well as Sister Joyce, Minster General of my first order sisters in CSF, with Sr. Pamela Clare and Br. Cesar, SSF. There were 8 members all together. We were talking about ecumenism among Franciscans vis-à-vis our mission: the history of it, the way we teach new members about it, the spirituality behind it and how we can work together towards realizing even more connection between Anglican and Roman Catholic Franciscans.

I realized during the week that my whole ministry has been about making connections with people of different Christian traditions, in most cases trying to create momentum for helping the poor. Working together is not an “option”; it is absolutely necessary if we are to present the Christian Gospel with any kind of authority. But at the same time it is necessary to respect the differences among us. I had to let go of some resentments when they asked for blessings instead of receiving the Eucharist.

One of the greatest gifts God has given SSF, I realized again, is our small size. Our minority allows us a great freedom: freedom to try things, to change direction if we need to, freedom from always having to “get it right” and justify ourselves to a huge bureaucracy. But our freedom also has some pretty big responsibilities that come along with it: we are responsible for trying new things, imagining new ways to live, keeping our priorities on God, the Gospel and the people who come our way. And on loving each other; because we are so small it is possible to know every member of the order and to have a relationship with each brother, at least in prayer. That is how I understand part of my job: to know and love the brothers and sisters. Out of these relationships God will bring a new thing. We don’t need to know what it is, because if we did we might become fearful or anxious!

Growing in love for one another is of course what we did during this week. The difference between the first evening at dinner and tonight is remarkable. The first night the Anglicans sat at one end of the table, and the Roman Catholics sat at the other end. It was not intentional mind you, we simply sought out the people we knew and were comfortable with. Tonight we were all mixed together and the table was loud with laughter. The dining room crew was rattling their equipment to alert us to the late hour. Church unity doesn’t seem such a far fetched idea.