Friday, April 30, 2004

More War Crimes

Body and Soul brings to our attention the abuse of Iraqi POWs.

In some ways even more troubling is the possibility that private contractors have been "supervising" the interrogations.

I may have to reassess my previous opinion of our way out of Iraq. Maybe we need to just get out, as Dennis Kucinich said all along. The mission seems to be getting lost, and without clear goals and effective leadership, the troops, no longer driven by higher ideals, are responding to baser instincts.


Thursday, April 29, 2004

Walking Away

I've been thinking today about the Desert Fathers. They walked off into the desert rather than participate in the scurrying for status within the Church that occurred once it became a legitimate religion under Constantine. The scramble to purchase real estate and to quickly establish liturgical customs borrowed from the Roman aristocracy left them no choice but to simply walk away. The routinization of the Church stifled the movement of the Spirit. From these Bartleby-like dissenters grew the monastic tradition.

At some point one must admit that an attempt to be a catalyst for change from within is most likely based on delusions of grandeur. People are going to do what they want to do. We can't change them, and it is questionable as to what degree we can even assume to have the right to change them.

But, at the same time, can a person continue to be a part of a system, or a society, that is becoming a culture of death and a machine grinding out destruction? Can we live in the midst of a society that is rooted in a hedonism masked behind lofty ideals and the facade of freedom without these root themes becoming a part of ourselves? Can we affirm that the massive increase in options, the luxury of so many choices, is a positive development, when little wisdom is offered how to make such choices? Is the right choice even important? Or is the act of choosing the only important factor? Are we to simply be complacent consumers?

So, today I'm contemplating another option; simply walking away. What has brought me to this point? Nothing I can put my finger on. A little of this, and a little of that. Or maybe the old neurotransmitters are acting up again?

Don't miss The Jesus Factor tonight at 9 on Frontline. They will explore the spirituality of George Bush. Maybe more reasons why the desert is looking more and more attractive?


UPDATE: You can find the times for Frontline in your area here.

From the site;

The Jesus Factor
As an evangelical Christian, President Bush has something in common with the 46 percent of Americans who describe themselves as being 'born again,' or having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Often has the president recounted praying about major decisions facing the nation — but what do we actually know about the rudiments of George Bush's faith? To what extent do the president's spiritual beliefs impact or influence his political decision-making? And how closely do Bush's religious views mirror those of the country's burgeoning and politically influential evangelical movement?
...and in other news... The Rt. Rev. Otis Charles, retired bishop of Utah, married Felipe Sanchez Paris before several hundred people at St. Gregory's of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco over the weekend.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Thinking About Thugs

Tonight I accompanied Demi to a local presentation on gangs in our area. Some of it was quite informative. My main problem with it was that they let some guy with a badge give the bulk of the presentation. Even worse, he worked in corrections. In his view, every gang member was nothing but a thug. His obvious goal was to scare us. I suspect he was successful in regards to most of the people in the auditorium tonight.

He concluded his presentation by letting an ex-gang member, who is currently from prison, say a few words and answer some questions. We left when the questions started. As we walked out, some middle-aged white male was giving this con hell for being such a thug.

What was not brought up at all was how some people end up in what is often categorized as a gang. I lived for a brief time in the Nicky Cruz Home for Boys in Fresno, CA. Nicky is most well known as the main character in David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade and his own book, Run, Baby, Run. We were about half Anglo and half Latino. Since no one knew exactly what I was, due to some Cherokee blood, I spent a lot of my time keeping these two groups from killing each other. What every one of us did have in common was that we were throw away kids; we had no family except each other. One day I got fed up with the place, and what I considered their phony form of Christianity, and walked away.

About a year later I found myself in the state reformatory for boys. The cottages were split up by counties, so a number of my friends from the street were in my cottage. Once again, what we all had in common was the lack of families. I knew some boys who had first been sent to this facility when they were 12. They spent most of their teen years there. When they got out, they'd do something dumb, and get sent back. The truth was that this reform school had become their home, and the residents had become their family.

The staff considered me rather peculiar, in that I spent most of my free time reading. I've always been a bookworm since I was young. During this particular stay, one of the things I read was The Godfather by Mario Puzo. That got me thinking about families.

When I got out, I started talking to everyone I met about the idea of forming a family. We had no parents, or if we did, they were more twisted than we were. We couldn't trust the cops, or the schools, or the juvenile counselors. Society saw us as expendable trash. If we were to survive, we had to band together; we had to take care of each other.

My girlfriend made some ceramic medallions at school. They were orange triangles with a blue cross. Why the cross? I had no doubt that God was with us. I had read the bible a few times by then, and I knew that God always sided with the underdog. I knew that God was on our side. I think it's important for those working with the poor to realize this; they know that God is with them; they have few other sources for hope. They often doubt that God is with the decadent hoarders they see all around them, however. And they know for a fact that God has abandoned all politicians, and their agents who carry lethal weapons on their hip.

But, I digress. We formed The Family, identified by an orange triangle with a blue cross hanging from our necks. We did whatever we had to do to protect one another, and to survive. From what I heard tonight, I guess we were a gang, and nothing but a bunch of thugs. Maybe we were. Eventually, most of us either ended up dead, in prison, in a hospital, or simply disappeared. Maybe we were expendable. Maybe society should just give up on those like us as incorrigible thugs. Dismissing us as bad boys is one way to avoid having to do the more difficult work of trying to figure out what the root causes were that brought such creatures into existence.

Yes, there are animals out there who belong in cages. No doubt I was once one of those animals. But to have policemen, who have a built in "us" versus "them" mentality, educate the public on how to respond, is never going to solve the problem. Cops are not problem solvers. At best, they are law enforcers. At worst, they are storm troopers.

How about a discussion of some of the root causes? How about acknowledging that every one of these thugs was once a little boy who just wanted to play and be loved. Something went terribly wrong way before that boy was thrown away and hit the streets.

Most causes are over determined. There is no question that there are multiple causes for the existence of gangs. However, I do want to suggest what I consider one of the biggest causes; poverty. I consider this a systemic problem. As George Bernard Shaw once said, "The lack of money is the root of all evil."

When we respond in fear to these desperate attempts to form a family from among peers, we give them power; something that has been lacking in their lives. The more we fear, the more power they have, and the more they are motivated to play on that fear. What started out as bonding together to survive becomes a quest for power, money and fame.

Educating the public by using fear tactics will not change a thing, and could make matters worse. The discussion of this issue needs to be expanded. That doesn't mean, however, that we should not take precautions against predators who prowl some of our streets. To ignore potential danger is to show a disregard for not only our own safety, but the safety of others.

If by chance the loud white guy who was so indignant about the crimes our prison speaker had committed is reading this; here's a news flash. At any given time, about half of all gang members are in prison. That means the other half of their family is out on the street. Watch your back, fool.


Monday, April 26, 2004

Encountering the Risen Christ

From Sunday, on the occasion of the First Communion class being honored. The class is a parish custom, not my invention. If such a class is an appropriate custom, in light of the fact that the Episcopal Church no longer denies communion to anyone who is baptized, regardless of their age, is a discussion this parish may have with their new rector next year. It is not an essential discussion for an interim vicar to engage in. Here's the sermon...
Acts 9:1-19a
Revelation 5:6-14
John 21:1-14

This morning we hear of two resurrection appearances of Jesus. In the first one, Saul is knocked down and blinded by a bright light. A dramatic, and life changing experiences for Saul, who became Paul, undoubtedly the most influential missionary of the early church.

In the second resurrection appearance, the disciples have gotten tired of waiting for something to happen, and have gone back to what they know best; they've gone back to fishing. Jesus suddenly appears on the shore, invites them to breakfast, and even cooks the meal. Quite different from Paul's experience. Yet, in both, those who find the risen Christ in their midst have their lives transformed.

Jesus appeared one way to Paul, and another way to the disciples. Each appearance was in a manner that would cause a transformation. Each appearance was tailor made for the needs of the person.

How has the risen Christ appeared to you?

I'm not talking about the second coming, the one we speak of in the creeds. I'm not talking about the rapture, either. A lot of the popular talk about the rapture today bothers me. We are told that whatever this second coming is all about, Jesus will arrive like a thief in the night. We're told not to try to predict how or when this event will happen. So what do we humans do? We try to predict it, of course.

When I was in Junior High, the family I lived with belonged to the Open Bible Standard Church, a Pentecostal denomination. My Uncle Dub was the pastor. On Wednesday nights, we went to the mid-week service, which was usually a lengthy teaching from Uncle Dub on either the book of Daniel or the Revelation to John.

I have fond memories of Uncle Dub. He had a passion for the Gospel, and a winsome style. It was not unusual for him to preach for more than an hour. Sometimes, in the middle of his sermon, he would start a hymn, and then sit in silence while we sang. By the end of the hymn, he had marshaled his thoughts, and we were off again for another thirty minutes of passionate rhetoric.

When the popular series of books, the Left Behind series, came out, I had parishioners who kept encouraging me to give it a read, as they were interested in my opinion. These are books that attempt to tell, in story form, what will happen in the end times. They are written by a couple of gentlemen who are fixated on the rapture much in the same way my Uncle Dub was. I resisted reading them for some time, but eventually gave in, and read the first three volumes.

I got that far in the series by considering it as Uncle Dub would have understood it. For the most part, it is an accurate depiction of what many Christians who are preoccupied with the rapture believe.

At one point, there are terrible earthquakes and firestorms, resulting in thousands of casualties. Some of these disasters are described in vivid detail. One of the characters asks how God could allow such carnage. The response is to claim that these disasters are an expression of God's love. They are the way God is trying to get our attention. God gets our attention by making us suffer horribly. In other words, this God is some kind of monster. That was the end for me. I closed the book, and have never been tempted to read that series since.

The last volume of the series is out, Glorious Appearing. Here is a how one reviewer describes the ending;

Encountering the army of the Anti-Christ near the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the Christ Triumphant announces, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and the End, the Almighty." Upon hearing these words, the Anti-Christ's minions "fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses." Later, the Lord rides a white horse to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he sits on his throne of judgment. As he approaches, the saved sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
At least they rejoiced in all this smiting with a good Lutheran hymn!

I think that image of Christ would have even made Uncle Dub wince. It would be an understatement to say I don't agree with this interpretation of scripture. The Revelation to John, which we heard a passage from this morning, was a vision that John had. We do not know for sure exactly what John was talking about. I'm not sure he did either. It was a vision; a mystical experience; the kind of thing that it difficult to ever trap in words. To use such a text to develop some idea of what will happen when Christ comes again is about as valid as going to a palm reader. Actually, I think a palm reader might have more accuracy.

Jesus as an avenging angel might be an image that sells books. It might even make a good TV show. But it is not the Jesus I encounter in the Gospels.

It's not far from what the early Christians expected, however. They thought the risen Christ would show up and kick the tail of the Roman Empire. Instead, the risen Christ shows up and cooks breakfast.

We do not know how Christ will come again. Focusing on such speculation can blind us to the ways that Christ comes again in our daily lives. Let's set aside our imagining of some future arrival of Jesus. How do we encounter him right now?

Our answer to that question would probably be different for each person here this morning. Just like the two appearances we heard about in today's readings, Christ, the spirit of the living God, makes himself known to us in ways that are tailor made to our needs.

One of the customs we've adopted in our Wednesday night class is to take a few minutes for each of us to answer the question, "What was your moment closest to Christ in the last week?" There is no wrong answer to that question, of course. But sometimes, we are all surprised by the diversity of our responses. As the weeks go on, we find ourselves expecting to meet Christ in our daily lives; we look for the risen Christ in every situation.

There are some certain ways that we know Christ is present with us. Jesus said he'd be there whenever two or three are gathered together in his name. That means that this morning, right here, right now, Jesus has come again, and is in our midst.

As with so many things, sometimes we need these ideas, ideas like Jesus being with us, to take on some real and concrete form, some symbolic form, or the idea just floats away and vanishes. Within the Holy Eucharist, the Church teaches us that Christ is present with us in four specific ways;

Christ is present in the people gathered together. As we share this meal today, our unity with one another transforms us into a new family, the family of God. We can be the presence of Christ for one another.

Christ is present in the Holy Scriptures. As we engage ourselves in the texts, they come alive, and speak to the various conditions of our lives. Through the bible, through the testimony of those who have gone before us, our image of Christ with us right now becomes clearer. Today, we see the image of Christ as one who appears to us as a blinding light, or, if we prefer a less dramatic image, as one who invites us to breakfast.

Christ is present through your spiritual leaders, who can be special conduits of God's grace.

And Christ is present to us in the bread and wine that we share as the body and blood of Christ. When we receive these gifts, we are strengthened in our union with Christ, and we are strengthened in our union with one another. Receiving Holy Communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a banquet that we are invited to today, a banquet that we are invited to for all of eternity.

Today, 7 of our young people will officially join us at the banquet table. A., K., M., E., J., C. and M. will be making their First Communion. They have been preparing for this day for many weeks, with classes here at church, and at home with their families. We talked about a lot of things, and got to know each other pretty well. And every time we met, I could feel the presence of Christ with us in those classes.

So today we affirm the good thing that God has already done; we invite these young people to take their place at the table of the heavenly banquet. Let us who are here today commit ourselves to nurturing them in every way we can to nourish and strengthen their relationship with Christ.

We will each encounter the risen Christ as we kneel at the altar today to receive communion. We will also encounter Christ as we visit with one another in the parish hall after the liturgy. We will also encounter the risen Christ when we return to our homes.

Each and every day, expect an encounter with the risen Christ. Every night, take a few minutes to ask yourself the question, "What was my moment closest to Christ this day?"

And now, let us continue with our liturgy, as we prepare to "share breakfast" with our risen Lord.


Saturday, April 24, 2004

Truth is On the Line

By now most of us have heard about the photos of flag draped coffins being loaded into a cargo plane, and the story of how the woman who took the photo was fired, along with her husband.

The government claims that the "no photos" policy was an attempt to be sensitive to the families. Maybe that is the case. Or maybe the government does not want to draw attention to the fact that at least 510 American soldiers have died in Iraq so far, with over 100 of them dying in the last month.

In recent remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, John Kerry had this to say about the incident:

If you don't believe that this is the most important election in our lifetime, then all you have to do is look at your front pages. We see the haunting images of our soldiers loading flagged draped coffins. We see rows of them in the belly of a cargo plane for their long flight home. We see images of them being saluted on their final march to their final resting place. And those images are paired with a story about a husband and wife who took photos to show the world the touching way we honor our fallen. And they were fired for their openness and honesty. My friends truth is on the line in the election.
It is now coming out that the reasons given for going into Iraq in the first place were less than the full truth. And now the price we are paying for this action is being hidden from our view. I think we need to see these fallen soldiers; we need to be kept aware that war is always a horrible thing. Whitewashing it with approved coverage by embedded reporters makes it all seem too clean; a five minute spot slipped in between the market report and the weather.

We have yet to be told what really happened in Fallujah, either. I doubt if we will ever hear that full story. After a few days of backing off, most likely hoping that the global outrage over the loss of civilian lives would move past the limited attention span of news consumers, the Americans are gearing up for yet another attack.

It has been mentioned to me by a few people, some of whom I have no doubt are well intended, that we should not put too much weight on the reports coming out of the foreign media. I would agree that most news is written with a built-in bias, but somewhere between Fox and Al Jazeera the truth can be found. I am convinced that something very ugly is going on in Fallujah.

The loss of access to the truth should be a very serious warning sign to us all that our freedoms are slowly slipping away from us; that we are in danger of suffering from the same disease that plagued those who brought us the tragedy of 9/11...fanaticism;

A maniacal idea, inspired by fear, also is quite extreme a danger. At the present time fanaticism, the pathos of an universally-obligatory orthodoxy of truth is to be seen in Fascism, in Communism, in extreme forms of religious dogmatism and traditionalism. Fanaticism always divides the world and mankind into two parts, into two hostile camps. This is a war setting. Fanaticism does not permit of the co-existence of various ideas and world-outlooks. There exists only the enemy. The hostile powers become blended together and present themselves as a single enemy. This is entirely like, as if a man were to make the division not into the I and a multiplicity of other I’s, but rather into the I and the not-I’s, wherein the not-I presents itself to him as a single being. This strange simplification facilitates the struggle...

... The man, fanatical over some sort of idea, like a person who would save himself alone, cannot be said to seek the truth. The search for truth presupposes freedom. Truth is not external to freedom, truth is bestown only by freedom. Outside of freedom there is only that which is useful, but not truth, there is only the interests of power.

- N. A. Berdyaev, Concerning Fanaticism, Orthodoxy and Truth, 1937.
I've lived through the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Starr Report. The temptation is to not expect to hear the truth from our leaders. But this time I think it is different. Our access to information around the globe is greater than it has ever been before. We cannot plead ignorance. The cost in human lives continues to rise each day. In order to chart a way out of this killing, we need the truth. And we need it now.


Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Killing Things

I woke my five year old cousin before the sun was up. "It's time," I said. "Get dressed."

A few minutes later, he shuffled into the kitchen, still yawning and rubbing his eyes. "Here," I said, handing him the backpack. "You get to carry lunch."

"It's too heavy. Why do I have to carry it?"

"Because I have to carry the rifle."

"Rifle" was a slight exaggeration. Since I was only eleven myself, I wasn't allowed to carry a real rifle. This was a Crossman single-shot pellet rifle, powered by a CO2 cartridge. At short range it came close to the power of a .22, if you had a fresh cartridge.

It was a Christmas present from the previous year. That spring I joined a half dozen neighborhood boys in a hike up the mountain past the last tract of new homes. At this point the woods went on for miles, with good walking paths and no fences to climb. We brought our BB pistols and pellet rifles. We shot anything that moved, although our main prey were the numerous gray squirrels that leaped and ran among the branches. After a few of these Saturday hikes the blue jays began to follow us and screamed loud warnings from the top of the pine trees. We quickly learned to make them our first targets.

I'm still not sure what our fascination was with killing things. I suspect it had something to do with the god-like power of taking life. We were too young to be preoccupied with creating life; that fixation would hit in a few more years. That year the thrill was to prowl as young lions in this new kingdom we had claimed.

I told my young cousin many stories about these Saturday adventures. I finally gave into his pleas to "hunt" with me one Saturday. As the first rays of sunlight began to peek over the top of the mountains, we quietly closed the back door and struck out at brisk pace towards the hunting ground.

The last house was soon far behind us. The trees and bushes were alive with fluttering feathers, scampering flashes of gray, and a cacophony of morning songs.

I spotted a robin serenading the new sun up ahead. I tried to point him out to my cousin, but there was just too much pulsating life moving all around us for him to be able to spot one lone robin. I aimed carefully for the red breast, and he fell to the ground.

We ran to the foot of the tree, and I fanned out the wings so he could marvel at the layered fullness of the feathers. I pressed the joint on the legs to make the tiny talons stretch out. I looked up, expecting to see fascination on the face of my young cousin. What greeted me was a little boy with tears streaming down his face. Soon the tears were accompanied by sobs.

For a moment I was confused. As I tried to grasp what was going on in his mind, I saw a beautiful bird announcing the joys of life with a song that abruptly ended as he plummeted to the ground. There was no way to undo the deed. This robin would never greet another sun. We left him where he had fallen and walked silently back down the mountain.

I was to return with my friends a few more times, but it was never quite the same. There was no adrenaline rush following a clean kill. A layer of sadness, which may have always been there, was now easily discerned just below the surface.

I have killed since then, and have no doubt that I could kill again. The difference is that I no longer see this ability as a quality that makes me a superior being. My cousin exposed a side of myself that I may not have ever seen on my own. We tend to hide from our dark side. We dress up the ugly parts with terms like "sport" and "trophy" and "harvesting the herd."

Scott Peck once observed that the word "live" spelled backwards is "evil." He went on to suggest that evil is that which kills. That definition may be a bit simplistic, but I think he may be dancing near the truth. Maybe that was the fascination of going into the woods to kill things. Maybe we were being lured by the power of evil.

Gandhi knew that only those who were aware of their deep hatred for the British could practice non-violent resistance effectively. In order to rein in our dark side, we have to face it. The most dangerous people in the world are those who hide from the potential for great evil that dwells within us all. I speak out against killing because I know I am a killer.

I now choose to follow the One who is the giver of life. This is my path to salvation; to choose life instead of death, not because of any love for life I found within myself, but because that love was revealed to me by a young boy one early morning long ago.


Tuesday, April 20, 2004

A Brave and Startling Truth

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn and scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

- Maya Angelou
This poem was written and delivered in honor of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.


Monday, April 19, 2004

The Way Forward

I continue to be outraged by the reports coming out of Fallujah. It appears that there will most likely never be an admission of guilt, or even mistakes in judgment, coming out of this administration, let alone those responsible for the unlawful killing of civilians being held accountable. And time marches on. Where do we go from here?

I don't think US troops should just leave. That mistake was made in Somalia. No, I do not think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. But we are there now, and debating if the majority who supported that decision were hoodwinked or not is a discussion for another day. The reality is we have troops on the ground, and they have to stay there, for now.

I don't think we can pass the buck to the UN. We decided to move on this unilateral preemptive strike. We need to clean up our own mess.

Newsweek is carrying a piece by Fareed Zakaria, Our Last Real Chance; The way forward: The administration has to admit its mistakes and try to repair the damage. Here's how...

Although some of the recommendations are hard for me to swallow, it is the best plan I have seen yet. Without spiraling into hyperbole and tossing about accusations of who did what, etc. (which I freely admit is my personal inclination), he summarizes the current situation in a way that I think most people will accept:

...there is a distinct danger that what we are witnessing in Iraq could turn the national mood against the United States. Recent polls suggest that Iraqis remain tolerant of, though not happy with, American forces in their country. But that support is clearly waning. Images of America's massive operations in Fallujah have generated anti-American sentiment across Iraq. The United States could be entering a ruinous cycle. As attacks on its troops grow, it uses full-blown military might, which produces anti-Americanism, which helps insurgents. When pro-American members of the Governing Council resign in protest, it must be that they sense a shift in the public mood.
It is debatable if we can expect this administration to admit that the use of "full-blown military might" was a mistake. The current shift in their attitude toward the UN suggests that there is hope, however. We may never hear an admission of error publicly, but it does appear that the strategy can be changed if it's not working. And the current military strategy is not working.

To summarize, here are the steps suggested by Zakaria:

1. To succeed in Iraq, the US must establish power and legitimacy. Power does not refer to military attacks. In this case, it is primarily about security. Until Iraq is safe for its citizens, nothing else is going to get done. The reality is that the Iraqi security forces have not been well trained, and are ineffective. They need to be pulled off the streets, with American troops put in their place. This means as much as doubling the number of troops. Yes, this goes against my own grain, but until there is some semblance of security on the streets, we cannot ask our allies to put their lives at risk. For a short time, we will have to supply the soldiers necessary to patrol the neighborhoods of Baghdad. Eventually, we can accept the offers from France and Germany to assist us in "keeping the peace." In the meantime, we can be training an Iraqi security force.

2. To establish legitimacy, the US needs to immediately begin supporting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a voice that will be heard by the majority of the Shi'ites, and will be helpful in the establishment of an Iraqi government that will be accepted by the people.

Sunni leaders must also be courted, in order to separate the Sunni from the militants. This will not be easy, in light of Fallujah. But the continuation of the overuse of military force is a recipe for disaster.

I don't like the idea of putting more American lives on the line (the estimate is 500,000), but I see no other way forward at this point.

Let me offer an explanation of why I think this is the best way forward. My experience is that sometimes we can gain a little understanding of the macrocosm by studying the microcosm. So, here's the microcosm that is running around in my head;

About twelve years ago, I was serving at a Cathedral situated in the midst of a declining neighborhood of rental properties, in which a number of ethnic groups had taken up residence. I found out that the city was planning on buying up the property and tearing down the homes, as the neighborhood was seen as an eyesore and a potential source for increased crime. We served these residents at our food program each week, and so I had gotten to know many of them personally. Some of the other community groups that worked with us on the food program agreed we needed to meet, to brainstorm what we could do to save this neighborhood, as these families would most likely become homeless if these low rent residences disappeared.

We developed a coalition of churches, social service workers, and members of the local community action program. After developing a plan, we met with the city manager and his staff. With the blessing of the city, and support of the local paper, we launched a neighborhood task force. The coalition added members of the city manager's staff, and influential citizens of the city, to its membership.

We began by going door to door throughout the neighborhood with flyers inviting the residents to a community center located in their neighborhood for a Halloween event for their children. These initial contacts were critical, as the conversations inevitably drifted into the needs of the neighborhood.

When the event happened, every member of the coalition turned out; there were more task force members than residents present. Our focus was offering a first class event for the children, which we did. We also, quite intentionally, began to network with the parents, who brought their children to the event, and began identifying their leaders. At the end of the fun day, we announced the next community meeting, primarily for the adults, and had flyers ready for them to take home.

Some of the task force members worked or lived near this neighborhood. We began to drive, or walk when weather permitted, through this neighborhood, taking time to stop and talk with the residents when possible. We also functioned as a buffer with the city, and eventually gained the cooperation of the local police, who had previously taken a hard line with the residents. They continued to patrol the neighborhood, but made an effort to curtail their previous aggressive responses. Some of the officers participated in the community events, and expressed support for the work of the task force.

A small stream ran along a concrete waterway near this neighborhood. Shortly after this event, the members of the task force waded into this stream and pulled out mountains of old tires, furniture, and other trash. We made sure the press was there, and that they took pictures.

When the next community meeting was held, the residents had noted our clean-up efforts, and were full of ideas for other projects. Again, the task force was present in full force, but now more as facilitators, and accounted for about half of those present.

As the months went by, and the community meetings continued, an obvious new spirit began to be felt in the neighborhood. Front yards were cleaned up. The smell of fresh paint was in the air many days. When the residents appeared at the food program or social services, there was a sense that we were all working together as part of a team. They elected leaders for their neighborhood committee, who, working with the local police department, established a "neighborhood watch" program, and began to police themselves. We made sure that a member of the original task force remained a member of their committee, but eventually the task force was able to disband, and the staff of the city manager began to work directly with the residents toward future improvements, which involved, among other things, getting the landlords on board; a struggle more effectively mounted by the city than a group of volunteers.

This is an imperfect microcosm, of course. The residents of this neighborhood were not taking shots at us. Well, except for that one night when my car became a backup ambulance and I became an honorary member of the Latin Kings....but that's another story. I've digressed far enough for one day. I think there are some parallels between the successful intervention in that one small neighborhood, and a successful intervention in Iraq. From what I have seen, Zakaria sums up the way towards such a success quite well.


Saturday, April 17, 2004

The Silence of the Press

Why are the press silent about what is going on in Fallujah?

An excerpt from The Guardian;

Let's accept for the moment that the commander is right and accept that the AC-130 gunships and F16 fighter-bombers unleashed against the people of Falluja are precise, that the 500lb bombs falling on the city come under the definition of judicious. Let's look at just a handful of the 5% of civilian casualties the Americans concede they have inflicted.

These include the mother of six-year-old Haider Abdel-Wahab, shot and killed while hanging out laundry; his father, shot in the head; Haider himself, and his brothers, crushed but dug out alive after a US missile struck their house. They include children who died of head wounds. They include an old woman with a bullet wound - still clutching a white flag when aid workers found her. They include an elderly man lying face down at the gate to his house - while inside terrified girls screamed "Baba! Baba!" They include ambulance crews fired on by US troops - and four-year-old Ali Nasser Fadil, wounded during an air strike. The New York Times reporter who found the infant in a Baghdad hospital described him lying in bed, "his eyes wide and fixed on a spot in the ceiling". His left leg had been crudely amputated. The same reporter found 10-year-old Waed Joda by the bedside of his gravely wounded father. "American snipers shot at us as we were trying to flee Falluja," said Waed.

Every one of these incidents has been documented by journalists, aid workers or medical staff. And there are plenty more. Even allowing for casualties caused by the Iraqi resistance, the dread catalogue of American-inflicted suffering and death is long and undeniable. At this point it's worth reminding ourselves that 5% of 600 is 30. But the evidence of the bodies alone gives the lie to the American account: at least 350 of the dead in Falluja have been women and children.
Why isn't this being talked about on CNN or BBC? Why were civilian casualties not mentioned at the recent press conference?

You can be sure it is the main topic in Iraq.

"What is striking is how much has changed in a week -- a week," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "No one can talk about the Sunni Triangle anymore. No one can seriously talk about Sunni-Shiite fragmentation or civil war. The occupation cannot talk about small bands of resistance. Now it is a popular rebellion and it has spread."
Wendell Steavenson, a former reporter for Time, has been writing a series for Slate entitled Dispatches from Iraq. Here's his assessment of the current situation;

The American spin suggests a cordoned-off Fallujah full of small arms fire. I've been talking to people who have been in and out of Fallujah over the past few days, mostly friends of mine trying to take medical supplies in or to get relatives out. The Americans don't control the main highway—their supply convoys are constantly getting hit—and they have not sealed the town effectively. They do not seem to control any tract of country between Baghdad and Ramadi, and every day attacks on the western edges of Baghdad creep closer into the center of the city. The streets in Baghdad are emptier and emptier, the unease is palpable. On Saturday I drove out to the western suburb of Ghaziliya (a town on the way to Fallujah) and saw a tank on fire under an underpass. There were two Bradley fighting vehicles a few hundred yards away craning the surrounding neighborhoods with their gun turrets. Two helicopters circled overhead, like poised dragonflies in the muddy afternoon blue sky haze.
Things are spinning out of control, and we are being spoon-fed propaganda by our media about civil war, small bands of insurgents, and outside agitators. We are being given the news the government and the media think we want to hear. What we are not being given is the truth.

Listen to Rahual Mahajan from his current update;

...I know that commentators are still using the phrase "civil war," as if to suggest that that's what's going on. It's as if there are all these violent people in Iraq causing disruptions and that's why we need the U.S. forces to "provide security" -- the latter phrase used in Bush's recent press conference.

The tiny little point that this violence was triggered by the United States, both in al-Anbar province (where Fallujah is) and with Moqtada al-Sadr, seems to be forgotten (see one of my earlier articles for this). The even more basic point that this violence is directed against the U.S. military is somehow out there in limbo as well.

At the same time as their existence in Iraq provokes violence and as their brutal methods provoke violence, U.S. forces do nothing to provide security. Kidnappings of Iraqis for ransom are rife -- nobody ever investigates. Leading academics are being killed -- ditto. People are afraid to walk the streets after 9 or 10 -- nobody does anything about this. Women are far more constricted in getting around than they used to be. The list goes on and on. The U.S. military does nothing, absolutely nothing, about these security problems.

Anyone who swallows any of this propaganda about "providing security" should spend one day talking to people in Iraq.

I'm against the occupation for what I consider to be deep-lying structural reasons that would be valid even if it were conducted more humanely (I've written on this before, but I do have to collect all my scattered thoughts here and write about it again). But I have to say, from all of my experience interviewing Iraqis, one conclusion stands out clearly: had this occupation been carried out by British, Dutch, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Spanish, everyone but the United States, the level of resentment would be far lower, as would the level of violence. It is the arrogance and brutality of the Americans here that is the primary grievance of Iraqis (and second is the negligence and the fact that nothing works).
The truth might be ugly, but we need to hear it just the same, if we, the people, the real government, are going to be able to make informed decisions.

What can we do? I'm hearing of the beginning of plans on various sites. I'll update when things get more concrete. Do you know of any planned actions? In the meantime, contact your representatives in Washington, and spread the word. These brutalities and cold-blooded murders are war crimes, and must be stopped, with those responsible being held accountable.


United for Peace and Justice; Emergency campaign to end the war.

Education for Peace in Iraq; Act Now: Demand an Immediate Ceasefire.

MoveOn; Democracy in Action.

Occupation Watch; Emergency Call for Solidarity with the Iraqi People.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Sacrificing our Sons and Daughters

My youngest son called me from Florida the other night, just to let me know he's ok. He is 19. He hooked up with a company that sells zines. I advised him against it, having heard horror stories about such outfits. But he threw in with them just the same, and is having the greatest adventure of his life. He's visited most of the states, and spent Christmas in Mexico. He's making good money, has been promoted, and gets to do a lot of driving, which he loves. He seems to have found his knack; sales. Good for him.

He was a unique child. The Christmas he turned 11, he asked for only one thing; a Santa suit. A strange request, but we honored it. On Christmas day, he donned his new outfit, complete with beard and boots, and begged me to take him to the store. Since there were a couple of items needed for Christmas dinner, I finally gave in, and off we went, with this miniature Santa sitting in the front seat, clutching a red pillowcase which he had filled with candy canes.

When we entered the only convenience store open on Christmas day, there were a few young children waiting in line with their parents. They stared in awe at my little companion in his red suit, who promptly walked up to each one, and presented them with a candy cane.

As we left the store, it began to dawn on me what was going on. As he approached the age when the realization that Santa is a mythical being begins to come to light, my son was determined not to completely let go of something that had been a source of much joy for so many years. His solution was to become Santa for others. As I said, a unique child.

As we drove home, we passed the city park. Since it was a beautiful California day, there were a number of families enjoying a Christmas picnic. Santa turned and gave me one pleading look. I pulled in and parked. He got out, and a gaggle of children soon surrounded him as he began to distribute candy canes. The parents thought he was simply adorable (which he was of course, but I am a bit bias).

Finally reaching the bottom of his sack, he reluctantly returned to the car. As we pulled away, the children and their parents all waved and shouted, "Good bye Santa!" He rolled down the window, and his white gloved hand slowly waved back in forth, in perfect imitation of the best Santa from any Macy's parade.

The next few years were difficult for my boy. Some of them were spent traveling with me across the country, as we shared various apartments in cities far removed from his friends and siblings. We walked through those difficult years together, often with only one another to cling to as "family."

He showed no interest in college, and was anxious to strike out on his own when he turned 18. I had strongly encouraged him to enlist, and had even convinced him to contact a recruiter. I had enlisted at his age, and am a firm believer that every young person needs to give their country a couple of years of service. In his case, I also felt that possibly the military would teach him some of the life skills it had taught me; such as getting up to go to work if you felt like it or not; stuff like that.

He met a number of times with the recruiter, and was in the process of pulling together the transcripts and other documents needed before signing up. Then one night he called me, announcing that he had met some young people working for this zine company, and had decided to give it a shot. I stated my reservations, but could tell how important it was to him. In the end, I gave him my blessing, and he hit the road.

I don't think he ever really wanted to enlist. Today, on a personal level, I thank God he didn't. I look at the pictures of those young men in Iraq, and realize my little Santa could have easily been one of them.

These young men are doing their patriotic duty. I do not blame them for the fiasco in Fallujah. I hold their leaders accountable; leaders who have been taught how to conduct urban warfare by the Israelis. One would think that the lack of success on the part of the Israeli army to appropriately respond to the violence in their own country would be enough to convince our leaders that Israeli instructors might not be the best choice. Apparently not. And so our sons are being killed, and forced to decide if they should fire on that blurry form running across a blood-soaked street in Fallujah.

I grieve with those families who have lost loved ones. And I hold our leaders accountable for these deaths. There must be a better way than to create yet another generation of young people who are sent across the ocean, and return to us as damaged goods, haunted forever by the horror of being remade into a killing machine; with the distribution of bullets replacing the memory of candy canes.


Thursday, April 15, 2004

From Mike

Heads Up

His point about the UN is a good one. Why should those who knew this was a mistake from the beginning now have to clean up our mess? We bought into this; now we had better find a way out of it.

Listen up, John. You're barking up the wrong tree. You may look more presidential than "just get out" Dennis, but you're starting to sound like more of the same.


From Amnesty International:


Public Statement

AI Index: MDE 14/013/2004 (Public)
News Service No: 090
14 April 2004

Iraq: Civilians continue to pay the price

Amnesty International remains deeply concerned at the ever mounting civilian death toll. Half of at least 600 people who died in the recent fighting between Coalition forces and insurgents in Falluja are said to have been civilians- many of them women and children. Thousands have fled the city in search for safety since a ceasefire was agreed.

"Civilians continue to pay the ultimate price. This tragedy must be stopped and those responsible for civilian deaths must be held accountable," said Amnesty International

"It is clear from recent events in Falluja that the parties to the conflict have disregarded international humanitarian law. A full, independent and impartial investigation is needed now," said Amnesty International.

There are fears that the ceasefire may not hold for long and the population of Falluja may once again be caught in the fighting and face a humanitarian crisis.


The fighting in Falluja erupted when US Marines sealed off the city and launched military operations on 5 April to seek the arrest of those responsible for the killing, burning and mutilation of four US private security guards on 31 March.

After days of fighting a ceasefire was agreed on 11 April and negotiations began between representatives of the Iraqi Governing Council, religious clerics and representatives of the city of Falluja.

Thousands of Falluja residents fled the city, many towards Baghdad. In a press briefing on 13 April UNHCR announced that it had made available 3,500 blankets, 1,200 mattresses, five emergency health kits (benefiting over 50,000 people) and other equipment to cater for displaced people from Falluja in Baghdad.

Take action

If you would like to take action please send appeals urging the US, as the main occupying power, to:

ensure the safety and welfare of civilians in Iraq;
ensure that all humanitarian needs of the Iraqi population are fully met;
carry out impartial and independent investigations into serious human rights violations, including unlawful killing of civilians, and bring to justice those responsible.
Please send appeals to:

The Honorable Donald Rumsfeld
Secretary of Defense
Office of the Secretary
The Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301, USA

Fax: +1 703 697 8339
Salutation: Dear Secretary of Defense

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Ambulance Pictures

For those who question the validity of the source of my previous post regarding American snipers taking out ambulance drivers, Rahul has provided us with some pictures.

Read the report that follows the pics of the raid on the mosque of Abu Hanifa in Aadhamiyah by American troops.

If you are still not convinced that the American troops need to be reined in, consider this ominous quote I happened to spot this morning buried in an article of the dead tree version of Time, which Rahul also quotes;

In some neighborhoods, the Marines say, anyone they spot in the streets is considered a "bad guy." Says Marine Major Larry Kaifesh: "It is hard to differentiate between people who are insurgents or civilians. You just have to go with your gut feeling."

Jimmy Speaks

The following excerpt is from American Prospect Online in an interview of Jimmy Carter;

You spent so much of your career working toward a reasonable, peaceful solution to violence and strife in Israel and Palestine. Increasing attention has been paid to traditionalist evangelicals’ strong support for Israel, based on the New Testament prophecy that the reconstruction of the ancient kingdom of David will usher in the “end times” and the Second Coming of Christ. As a believer and a peacemaker, how do you respond to this?

That’s a completely foolish and erroneous interpretation of the Scriptures. And it has resulted in these last few years with a terrible, very costly, and bloody deterioration in the relationship between Israel and its neighbors. Every president except for George W. Bush has taken a relatively balanced position between the Israelis and their enemies, always strongly supporting Israel but recognizing that you have to negotiate and work between Israel and her neighbors in order to bring about a peaceful resolution.

It’s nearly the 25th anniversary of my consummation of a treaty between Israel and Egypt -- not a word of which has ever been violated. But this administration, maybe strongly influenced by ill-advised theologians of the extreme religious right, has pretty well abandoned any real effort that could lead to a resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians. And no one can challenge me on my commitment to Israel and its right to live in peace with all its neighbors. But at the same time, there has to be a negotiated settlement; you can’t just ordain the destruction of the Palestinian people, and their community and their political entity, in favor of the Israelis.

And that’s what some of the extreme fundamentalist Christians have done, both to the detriment of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Preach it, Brother Jimmy!


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The President Speaks

I wonder if he is going to announce that he has miraculously found WMDs?

New Reports on U.S. Planting WMDs in Iraq

Or will he praise the valiant efforts of our troops against the "insurgents" in Falluja?

Eyewitness Report from Falluja

Death Toll Approaches 700

I sure would like to have a peek at what reading material sits on the nightstand in the White House. I'll be willing to bet it's the final volume of Left Behind.

Keep an eye on the reports coming out of Occupation Watch.


Monday, April 12, 2004

Eyes Wide Open

There are things going on we will never hear about from the American and European press. Read an eye witness report of what is going on in Iraq: Destroying a Town in Order to Save It.

From the report;

A gentle, urbane man who spoke fluent English, Al-Nazzal was beside himself with fury at the Americans' actions (when I asked him if it was all right to use his full name, he said, "It's ok. It's all ok now. Let the bastards do what they want.") With the "ceasefire," large-scale bombing was rare. With a halt in major bombing, the Americans were attacking with heavy artillery but primarily with snipers.

Al-Nazzal told us about ambulances being hit by snipers, women and children being shot. Describing the horror that the siege of Fallujah had become, he said, "I have been a fool for 47 years. I used to believe in European and American civilization."

I had heard these claims at third-hand before coming into Fallujah, but was skeptical. It's very difficult to find the real story here. But this I saw for myself. An ambulance with two neat, precise bullet-holes in the windshield on the driver's side, pointing down at an angle that indicated they would have hit the driver's chest (the snipers were on rooftops, and are trained to aim for the chest). Another ambulance again with a single, neat bullet-hole in the windshield. There's no way this was due to panicked spraying of fire. These were deliberate shots designed to kill the drivers.

The ambulances go around with red, blue, or green lights flashing and sirens blaring; in the pitch-dark of blacked-out city streets there is no way they can be missed or mistaken for something else. An ambulance that some of our compatriots were going around in, trading on their whiteness to get the snipers to let them through to pick up the wounded was also shot at while we were there.
More examples of murder by American troops are included in the report. And we wonder why these people hate us?

Keep in mind this "attack" is in response to the brutal murder of 4 American "contractors" ( a funny choice of words; they were mercenaries, hired guns). We are not told what kind of terror these "contractors" brought to Fallujah. One can only imagine, since they were not held accountable by the code of military justice.

Was their brutal murder atrocious? Absolutely. Should we now destroy the entire city because a few decided to take matters in their own hands? How are we justifying the assassination of ambulance drivers? What in God's name is going on in the minds of our military leaders?

I think that part of the answer to that last question is found in a recent quote from an anonymous senior British army officer;

My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen [the Nazi expression for "sub-humans"]. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are.
The Americans have shifted from conducting a war of liberation to "teaching the untermenschen a lesson." Humanity has been here before. Have we learned nothing?


What is a Christian?

Brian Hamilton is doing a survey of responses to the question; What does it mean to be a Christian?

Personally, I find it quite frustrating to constantly hear Christianity defined as some fanatical, fundamentalist, exclusive club. As I have previously mentioned, I see no future for such extremism. The current strident voices are the last gasp of a dying tradition; a last gasp that seems determined to cast Christians in the role of conquering hero in a war to eliminate all infidels. May God have mercy on us all.

I don't think Christianity will die out (unless the Strident Ones succeed in wiping out the entire species). What I think does have to finally be put to the rest is the self-righteous, arrogant manifestation of the tradition that was dominant during most of the 20th century.

Anyway, that's my opinion. Maybe more about the direction I see Christianity emerging in the future (if there is one) another time. Take the survey.


UPDATE: For those who might not recognize the Strident Ones, here is a classic example; U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft ends a speech at a Charlotte, North Carolina seminary with a rousing rendition of a song he wrote called 'Let The Eagles Soar' (thanks Keith). Scary stuff, eh?

From Canterbury

I recommend to you the Easter Sermon of the Most Revd Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Here is a brief excerpt;

...We may and we should feel the reproach of the risen Christ as we recognise how easily we let ourselves forget; and nearer home, we might think too of those who die alone and unloved in our own society - the aged with no family (or forgotten by their family), the homeless addict, the mentally disturbed isolated from ordinary human contact. But Easter tells us to be glad that they are not forgotten by God, that their dignity is held and affirmed by God and that their lives are in his hand. In that gladness, we should be stirred to turn our eyes to look for those likeliest to be forgotten and to ask where our duty and service lies. God's justice rebukes our forgetfulness; and the truth that he will never let go of the lost and needy, so far from being an alibi for us not to bother, is a reminder of the responsibility of service and reverence laid upon all of us.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

I want to invite us to recall the time in our lives when we were small children and the games we played. Remember those hot summer days, when late in the afternoon, as the shadows started lengthening and it started cooling off, how we would get together with the neighborhood kids. Sometimes we'd play games. In our innocent youth, it seemed much easier to accepted things as they were. We were children. Humility and acceptance were normal. And so we played.

Listen to the words we used in some of our games: “London Bridges falling down, falling down”…”Ring Around the Rosies, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” As children, we didn't avoid the dark side of life. Falling, imprisonment, ashes, all parts of life. I want to talk about a particular game as a paradigm of my understanding of Easter. It's a game that's always been popular. It's the favorite of many Youth Groups. At my last parish, almost every youth group meeting ended with at least one round of this game; the game of Hide and Seek.

There's something intriguing about this game. In many ways, that's what we've been doing during Lent. We have hidden Christ, and we have been trying new ways of seeking God, ways that have often seemed frustrating and foreign to many of us. We have tasted what our spiritual life might be like if Christ had not come into the world. Easter then becomes the cry at the end of the game, the cry of "Olie, Olie, oxen free," or at least, that's how I always heard it. Of course, it means, Allie Allie, all come free. That, for me, is the meaning of Easter: All come free.

You remember the game; someone volunteers to be it, and then everyone goes to hide. The darker and more out of the way our hiding place, the better.

What is it that we hide from in our lives? We hide from our fears, the fear of dying, the fear of pain and suffering, the fear of rejection, the fear that our deepest longings will never be realized. So we venture into a deep dark place within ourselves, and we hide. This place is kind of scary, sometimes, but we feel safe in the dark.

And who is it that we are hiding from? We are hiding from "IT." IT is really the person in control. IT decides when the game begins and when it ends. IT is the one who decides who wins and who looses. IT is the one who can enter a room and turn on the lights, bringing illumination to those things hidden in the darkness. IT is the one with authority, the one with the freedom to act. In the game of Hide and Seek, IT is God.

And we don't always want God to find us. We hide because sometimes we are afraid of God, that we are not worthy, that God might reveal all the ugly bits of our lives. We hide because we don't want to see the things that we suspect God will bring out into the light. We crawl back into our deep dark place, deeper into the tomb, and refuse to come out on Easter morning into the light of day.

We hide, from ourselves, and from God. We hide from love, because love brings with it upheaval and change. That is why we are so resistant to love. In everyday life, we make do with anything that might come close to love. When my everyday life becomes more of the same, when today becomes very much like tomorrow, sometimes I want to cry out in my loneliness, curl up in someone’s arms, close my eyes, and fall asleep. Now I know that's not a longing for mature love. It's a longing for security and safety. I need to be held, to feel safe. I realize that I can no longer crawl into my mother's lap, so I seek other ways to fill this void; religion, romance, money, and power. But those things aren't quite “it.” Love becomes a way of oblivion.

Sometimes, God doesn't live up to our expectations, and so we hide from God. Our image of God, our understanding of God, shifts throughout our lives. And this is frustrating to us. Whenever we think we’ve got a handle on God, we realize that God is even more than that!

This morning I want to invite you to consider another image of God; the God who loves us and longs for us to come home. We can have a relationship with the living God, who does not promise us the end of suffering and pain, but will hold us close when it hurts so much.

Let’s return for a moment to our game. We hide, as IT comes closer and closer to our hiding place. And what happens if we're the first to be found? What happens if we lose the game? We get to be IT! We get to take on the role of God. What a shame! When I was a kid, every once in awhile there would be this strange playmate who always wanted to be IT. He'd never hide very well, and loved being the person in control. It kind of ruined the game. He loved to cry out, “Allie, Allie all come free!” And we would all come out of our hiding places, and return to the base for another game. And what was the base called? We called it home.

Linda Weltner, the award-winning columnist for the Boston Globe, tells a story of watching children play this game;

Night after night, through the long summers and into the autumn, the neighborhood children play hide and seek, streaming out into the gray twilight as soon as the dishes are cleared from the dinner table. Gathering in the street, they quickly divide into hiders and searchers, they fan out behind the garages and backyards that encircle the steps that represent home base. In the dark, my husband and I would often see the small figures sneaking past our wall, their bodies tense and ready for the long sprint to the steps. In years past, one or the other of our daughters would return from the game so far past her bedtime it was never mentioned. ‘How'd you do?' we'd call out to a child radiant with the glory of late hours and a star-studded sky. ‘I got home safe,' she'd whisper proudly before slipping up to bed.
Easter is God's call to us, a call to come home, to a place that is safe and secure, to a place where God will let us fall asleep in loving arms.

If we are too afraid to sprint for home, if we choose instead to remain hidden in our dark hiding place, God will seek us out. When we are found by God, and are held close by God, we become aware of the very essence of God within us. We become IT, and then can begin to seek out others, bringing light in the darkness, willing to suffer with those who are hurting, and proclaim the joy of being set free from the darkness, from the tomb of our own pain, set free to know what true love is all about, set free to love without reservation, set free to be IT, to be the presence of the resurrected Christ in the world today.

I know that Christ is risen, because I have seen him in so many of you. I have heard your call to me, your call to all those hiding in the darkness; “Allie, Allie, all come free!”

On this day, we make that same proclamation to the world. But the words are slightly different. As we leave this place, let us step into the light of the resurrection, the light burning bright with the love of God, proclaiming “Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is risen!”


Saturday, April 10, 2004

The Great Vigil of Easter

Tonight, we begin our celebration of Easter. Why do we start in the darkness of night? Because it was sometime during this night that the resurrection happened. Tomorrow morning, the tomb will be empty. Tonight, we begin in the darkness of death, and move toward the brightness and beauty of the light of the Resurrection.

Something spectacular happened during this night. We don't know exactly what happened, as there were no eye witnesses. But we know that something happened, and things have never been the same since.

Tonight, we are given Matthew's account of the events after the Resurrection. We can assume that the Prayer Book offers this text because it begins "towards the dawn of the first day of the week." It begins at night. We need to step into the shoes of Mary Magdalene and her companion for a few minutes. We need to pretend that we don't know the end of this story. We need to try and see the story through there eyes.

Jewish custom explains why Jesus followers waited until Sunday to come to the tomb. Jesus had to be entombed on Friday because it was against Jewish law to leave the body of a person who had been executed outside overnight. The women had to wait until Sunday, or Saturday night to us; in the Jewish tradition, a day is measured from sundown to sundown. They had to wait because Saturday was the Sabbath. It was not prohibited to tend dead bodies on the Sabbath. That's not why they have to wait. The prohibited work was the rolling away of the huge stone that sealed the entrance of the tomb.

In the darkness, the two women approach the tomb. We don't know how they expected to get past the soldiers posted to guard the tomb by Pilate. We don't know how they expected to roll away the massive rock blocking the mouth of this cave-tomb. All we are told is that they simply went to see the sepulcher. Then things start to get a little bit spooky.

First, there is an earthquake. This was a great earthquake, not a little tremor. Most likely it threw the women to the ground. Matthew goes on to tell us that an angel appeared and rolled back the stone. The appearance of this celestial creature makes it clear that this is no angelic looking young man. This creature's appearance was like lightening, and his clothes white as snow. This angel brought a dazzling brightness to this dark, earth cracking night. The guards fall to the ground in terror.

This is a spooky night. Lots of strange things happening. The women are ready to run for safety. Then the angel speaks to them, saying, "Don't be afraid."

Don't be afraid? Earthquakes, glowing angels moving huge stones, guards falling down unconscious, and he says, "Don't be afraid?"

What are we talking about here tonight? Divine intervention. Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, intervening in human events. We are talking about the Messiah, the Savior of the world, being raised by God. We are talking about death, our ancient enemy, being cast down and trampled underfoot for all time. We are talking about changing our entire way of knowing God and being in communion with God. We are talking about the transformation of the world. And the angel says, "Do not be afraid."

Maybe we need to be a little more afraid. These days, Christianity has taken on a rather warm and fuzzy aspect for many people. We've made it too easy, too simple, too user friendly. God becomes the favorite Uncle, who is generous and kind, but stays away unless we need him. We don't want a God of earthquakes and angelic armies. We want a controllable God, a gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. This is not the fear that comes from thinking if we do wrong, God's going to zap us. And itÂ’s not the fear that comes from being afraid of going to hell. The church has overused these teachings, and most likely done more damage than good. I am talking about the fear, the awe, the shock that takes your breath away, when you suddenly encounter the living God.

The best example I know of what I'm talking about is the example of C.S. Lewis that I have offered you before. Imagine that I told you that there was a tiger in the sacristy. Most of us would find ourselves torn by two conflicting emotions. The first would be fear, sending us stampeding in the opposite direction. The second emotion would be a sense of fascination and awe, drawing us to the door of the sacristy, to open it just a crack, so we can get a peek of this marvelous tiger.

This is the kind of fear we experience tonight. A fear of the unknown. A fear of change. A fear of death. A fear of new life, of resurrection. It is a fearful thing to fall in the hands of the living God, because our lives will never be the same. A sense of awe, and holy fear, seem to be appropriate on this night.

The angel continues to say amazing things to the women. "Jesus is not here. He has risen. Come and see." They depart full of fear and joy, frightened by the mighty acts of God, but hoping against hope that he is risen indeed. And then they encounter their risen Lord.

We are invited to come and see tonight as well. We are invited to see God as God really is, a mighty God, filling us with fear and joy. A God who has overcome death, a God who promises us a life that is deathless and everlasting, a God who offers us this everlasting life right now, if we will reject our domesticated visions of God, and accept with awe the power of our God.

The resurrection is not a passive story. It calls us to action. Even though we might be fearful and hesitant, we are called to come and see God's movement in the world. As we begin to glimpse God's mighty acts, our pride, our selfishness, our lustfulness begins to die, and something new is resurrected to take its place. The spirit of the living God begins to live through us, making us agents of God in the transformation of the world.

We are also called to go and tell. As we begin to see God moving in the world, we begin being part of God's mission, by proclaiming to the world the resurrection power of God. We proclaim freedom to the oppressed, release to the captives, and refreshment to those who hunger and thirst.

We refuse to give in to the human tendency to destroy one another. We find no answers at the end of a gun barrel, no hope in bombs. Our fascination with death and destruction dies, replaced by a hope in the resurrection, a hope in a new life. We must all come and see the miracle of new life, and then go and tell others the joyful news.

Tonight, we accept the challenge to become people of the resurrection. As Easter people, we have been shown that there is always new life beyond loss, disappointment, and even death. As Easter people, we move out in mission, proclaiming the resurrection hope that is in us.


Friday, April 09, 2004

What Do You Want?

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
- John 19:26, 27
What do you want?

I think that is an important question to ask ourselves every time we make any decision. So often, our decisions are fueled and informed by many, many factors. I think it is critical that we look deep within ourselves, and discover what is driving us towards one option or another.

If we don’t do this, we may very well find ourselves be tossed around like a leaf in the wind…responding to life, rather than engaging in it.

What do you want?

Even if we do honestly ask ourselves this question, our answer may prove to be less than ideal.

I helped raise 4 children. With such a big family, my home was usually absolute chaos. In one corner a war over crayons is erupting, in another is a wrestling match with the dog, and in another is the baby demanding to be changed NOW! What did I want? A little peace and quiet.

Now all my children are grown and gone. My days are quite peaceful. And now I miss all that chaos. What I thought I wanted, peace, wasn’t what I wanted after all.

What do you want?

For many years, I was the rector of a small parish in California. After about six years, I became quite frustrated. I felt my gifts weren't being used. The routine of doing the same things with the same people every year felt stifling. What I wanted was a new, specialized ministry.

For a few years now, I’ve been doing interim ministry; going into congregations and helping them prepare for the calling of a new spiritual leader. I am usually with a church for about a year before I move on. Now, I miss the close friendships and support that comes with working in a church over the long term. What I thought I wanted wasn’t “it” after all.

What do you want?

Sometimes, it seems as if we know that something is not quite right in our lives; and so we try to fix it; we try to fill that hunger for the illusive “something more.” What often happens is we end up living for some future destination. We are just one more promotion, one more new car, one more dream home, away from nirvana. When some of these dreams become concrete realities, we are surprised to find they don’t satisfy our deep, unnamed longing. Something seems missing, or maybe broken inside, and we just can’t fix it.

What do you want?

For me, some peace instead of kid created chaos seemed close to what I wanted. Then, when I got that, my heart longed to have my children back. I thought I wanted a lively ministry that recognized my gifts, but when I got that, I longed for the ties that come with community.

Jesus looked down from the cross, and saw two people he deeply loved. He didn’t have the luxury of time to help them discover for themselves what was the desire of their hearts. He knew what it was they longed for, and he addressed their need;

“Woman, here is your son…here is your mother.”

Jesus cut through all the mixed messages. What Mary and John wanted in their heart of hearts, what each of us really want, is to love, and to be loved.

Margaret Guenther, in her book, The Practice of Prayer, describes it this way;

Jesus words to his mother Mary and the beloved disciple spoken from the cross, are about the creation of a new family, one that transcends biology. At first glance, it would seem that Jesus is commending his mother to the disciples care; she is stricken and needs someone to look after her. Yet, if we look at the picture more closely, we see a relationship of deep mutuality. Mary will bring to it the richness of her years, after a life of joy and sorrow. She knows what it means to put herself aside and to carry God in her heart. She knows the deep grief of any parent; to watch helplessly as her child suffers and dies. The beloved disciple has the energy and strength of youth, bringing freshness, vision and openness to risk. Man and woman, younger and older they complete and compliment each other. They do not share the history of ordinary families, which are often fraught with hurt and resentment; rather, they share the history of their love for Jesus and that has brought them together.

This is a family story, but more broadly it is about the creation of new community, based on love of God. Like Mary and the beloved disciple, we are given to each other and charged to care for and love one another. Our love affair with God is THE eternal triangle, for it is not possible to love God alone. We are commended to the other family members. After all, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that we are not alone or solitary, but brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters to one another.
A community based on the love of God. One way of understanding the Trinity is to see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as being a community of love. The Lover (Father) loves the Beloved (Son). Before the creative act, a constant Flow of Love (Holy Spirit) bound them together. The Beloved came to dwell among us, and offered us access to this same Flow of Love. When we stand in the place of Jesus, we become what we have always been intended to be; the adopted sons and daughters of God; the Beloved of God. We become members of the household of God, that same eternal community, and participate in the constant flow of love given and love received.

What do you want?

To love and to be loved.

Let us recognize who we are called to be; the Beloved of God, and allow God's love to flow through us into the world. Let us be the healing hands of Christ in the world today.

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Once and Future Church

One of the things I do as an interim is to hold periodic congregational gatherings. At least four times during the year I am with them, we have one celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, followed by everyone adjourning to the parish hall for brunch and a discussion. The topics are;

1. Celebrating the Past - this includes a "fishing expedition" on my part, in an attempt to draw out unresolved issues. It also allows space for the anticipated grieving process as a response to the departure of their previous spiritual leader. Most importantly, it allows the congregation to see themselves more objectively, as we consider what has been done well, and what has been done not so well, in the past.

2. Evaluating the Present - this is a careful look at who the congregation is at this specific moment. Usually, much of this evaluation has already happened within the first session (our history is always tangled up with our present perspective of things). Consequently, I tend to focus on particular gifts the congregation has to offer to one another and the world. More about this in a bit.

3. Envisioning the Future - This session is held very near the time of the calling of their new rector. It is a method of "paving the way" for this next chapter in their corporate life. Using the information gathered from previous sessions; what has worked and what hasn't in the past, what specific gifts are present within the membership, dreams for the future are explored. Care has to taken to keep a bit of a tight rein on this session, as specific plans need to wait until the arrival of the new priest.

4. Annual Meeting - Somewhere between these sessions will be the Annual Meeting of the parish, which will follow the same format of the interim sessions.

Right now I am preparing for the second session, "evaluating the present." One of the tools I use is a video prepared by the Alban Institute of Loren Mead discussing his book, The Once and Future Church. I usually use part two of the video, as it addresses the need for us to recognize the wide diversity of expressions of Christianity that make up any congregation. Maybe more about this segment another time.

I've been asked to offer this video at the monthly meeting of the diocesan interim clergy. In preparation for that, I reviewed the entire tape last night. I was struck by some of the insights within the first part of the presentation; the part I usually don't use. Let me say just a bit about this presentation, as I think it is pertinent to other discussions happening within the Church right now.

Mead breaks down the history of Christendom into three eras; the Apostolic, the Christian, and the Emerging. He identifies three different environments in which each era existed. During the Apostolic era, the environment was hostile to the message of the Gospel. During the Christian era (which lasted through most of the 20th century), the environment was primarily Christian, as that was the dominant world view. In the Emerging era, the external environment is, at best, ambiguous to the message.

Some of us have witnessed this shift from the Christian to the Emerging era in our own lifetime. Here's just a few of the indicators;

In the Christian era, all of society was understood to be religious. In the Emerging era, society is often not religious at all.

In the Christian era, most public institutions were permeated with religious values. In the Emerging era, most public activities have no reference to religion.

In the Christian era, most people were expected to be members of a church. It was almost considered un-American not to be. In the Emerging era, church is for religious people, not ordinary people.

In the Christian era, religion was very public. In the Emerging era, religion is private, irrelevant, or optional.

In the Christian era, almost everyone is acquainted with the biblical story. In the Emerging era, few people know anything about the bible.

I think much of the Church is in denial of this reality. The energy seems to be drawn towards trying to recapture the glory days; to turn back the clock. In the meantime, God has continued to work in the world, but not always in the same ways as the Church has perceived the movement of God in the past.

The apostolic mission of the Church has to be rethought; no longer can the mission of the Church be primary. It has to give way to the mission of God, which can often be discovered outside the traditional boundaries of what we understand to be "church" or "religion."

Our mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ is hindered when we understand that to mean we are taking something out into the world that does not already exist; that our message is the most important one. That blocks our ability to see what God might already be doing in the life of someone else. When we insist on others accepting our understanding of God, and use the bible as a weapon to beat them into submission, we turn them away from Christ with our arrogant manner.

The world has changed. Today, we are called to meet people where they are in their spiritual life, and not drag them to where we think they should be. We listen to their story, offer our story, and look for the places that God's story intersects them both.

This doesn't dismiss the need for a catechumenate process, continuing education, amendment of life and spiritual disciplines. Those are elements that will gradually become meaningful to a person who is nurtured into developing a relationship with Jesus Christ. To demand it all from the beginning is blocking the way into the kingdom for others. It seems to me this is the error that Jesus saw within the Pharisees. Are we doomed to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again?

More about part two of this video, including the four internal tasks for equipping the Church to be apostles; proclamation, teaching, service and community, another time.


Monday, April 05, 2004

Be Careful What You Pray For

Archbishop Peter Akinola has made the news again, with the threat that he will not attend meetings where Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, is present. As the leader of 17.5 million Anglicans, as well as the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa, and the newly elected President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Akinola is seen by some to be a powerful voice for not only conservative Anglicans, but all conservative Christians. There is some discussion that his authority is already greater than that of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Akinola's recent statement follows his success in manuevering the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane into signing a joint agreement in which Ndungane backs down from his previous support of ECUSA. In exchange, the way is now cleared for other African Provinces to support the next Lambeth Conference being held in South Africa in 2008, something that Cape Town dearly wants to see happen. Akinola is flexing his new muscles.

One would think that such an emerging leader would be viewed with close scrutiny. Even a cursory glance seems to give rise to some concern. Let's keep in mind some of Akinola's previous public statements;

This is an attack on the Church of God - a Satanic attack on God's church.
The solution to homosexuality is seen as exorcism. This isn't hyperbole; there have been a few instances when African clergy have attempted to exorcise the demon of homosexuality from Western clergy.

I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don't hear of such things.

'When we sit down globally as a communion, I am going to sit in a meeting with a man who is marrying a fellow man. I mean it's just not possible. I cannot see myself doing it.
Raising the example from the animal kingdom is somewhat revealing. It tells us that the Archbishop has not spent much time on a farm. There are numerous studies that suggest that Akinola is stating his own naive bias, rather than information based on facts.

These statements also reveal what is at the root of Akinola's constant attacks against gay Christians; the "ick factor."

How does this work? My grandmother used to force me to eat cooked cauliflower. I cannot stand even smelling it today. It turns my stomach. I know for a fact that it is a sin to cook it. I think the cooking of cauliflower should be illegal. I have quite strong feelings about this. I suspect that if I dug around in enough sacred texts, I could find some support for my gut reaction that it is evil to cook this vegetable.

I have encountered many heterosexuals who have an aversion to homosexuality because their gut reaction is that it is "icky." Many have not thought about it much more than that. Some have found a handful of bible verses to justify their feelings, and follow clergy champions of their cause to exclude this icky behavior from their club. I suspect that this is where Akinola, the latest champion, began; with icky feelings.

He is now cast in the role of a world leader, without having to face his personal biases. I think this is a dangerous situation. From this global stage, he is in a postion to victimize more than just the gay Christians of Africa, as suggested by Sybille Ngo Nyeck;

I believe that the Most Rev. Peter Akinola [the primate, or leader, of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, and a vociferous critic of homosexuality] is not a fool. He is fully aware of the independence of each diocese within the Anglican Communion. His virulent opposition to Gene Robinson’s consecration to me suggests two things.

First, I see an attempt to prevent an insurrection from inside the church. Archbishop Akinola is speaking both to gays and lesbians within the U.S. Episcopal Church and to those living in his province and country (as the elected chairperson of the Christian Association of Nigeria [CAN], an ecumenical organization based in Kaduna). As the chairman of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA), his statements are supposed to be condoned as the "African view on homosexuality." In sum, what I heard from Akinola is: 'We don’t want gays and lesbians here, and we don’t want then anywhere.'
There is one more thing that troubles me about the Archbishop. One of the reasons he is hailed as the favorite among conservative Anglicans today is because of the claim that he represents so many African Anglicans. Is this the reality? Consider this statement from the past president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Sunday Mbang from a recent interview;

Nigeria is said to be the most religious nation in the world. How do you react to such a report?

I've talked about this several times. We have so many churches on the streets, in fact in every street, you have a church, but that doesn't make a country religious. It is the quality and calibre of people you have that can make you describe a country as being religious. The kind of people we have in Nigeria, with all these killings and corruption at the high and low places, it is difficult to say that Nigeria is religious or it may be religious through other religions; talking of Nigeria being a religious country outside Christianity and Islam, maybe you can say so. People in these two religions, they pretend to be very religious but when they go into their offices, it's a different story. Most of these people who kill people, come to our churches and when they come to take Holy Communion, they will walk very holy and shout holy, holy, and you don't know them. So that's the problem, and I've raised the issue at various occasions I have gone to. What Nigerians need to work for is to see how they can produce quality God-fearing people, Christians after God's heart. We have very few of them in Nigeria today.
Akinola is Mbang's successor as President of the Christian Association of Nigeria. His claim to speak for 17.5 million Anglicans might be viewed as similar to the common dilemma in the US of a rector claiming to have 1,000 members in a parish which draws less than 200 on a Sunday morning.

Is this the man that conservatives want as their new global leader? Is this the kind of leadership that they pray for? I suggest that conservatives be careful. God might grant their request.