Our new home

Four weeks ago, we picked up our 10 year old VW campervan, which had been carefully rigged up by Johnny Ashworth and his Slidepods crew in Devon, on the south coast of England.

We’ll spare you the details of false starts, but they have included

  • not knowing how to latch the roof down,
  • failing to lock the slide-out rear kitchen,
  • giving up on their drive-away rear utility tent and buying a detached one,
  • not knowing how to keep the tiny fridge going,
  • the overnight heater keeps trying to heat the whole campground, not just the van,
  • and not being able to find the fueling door.

It’s a left-hand drive van with Dutch registry, and despite having to drive on the left for another month and a half in the UK, we vastly prefer driving on the side we are used to.  A day in an English rental car was white knuckles all the way, shifting gears with our left hands and constantly drifting a foot or two too far to the left.  Mostly cringing and some screaming.  But that was so last month.

Here’s the tour: 1. kitchen slides out in back, two burners and a sink.   All six pots, lids, and handles nest and go in the little cubby under the stove. 2. roof pops up to make headroom inside and provide a very stable bed above the one that folds out from behind the kitchen.

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3. A utility tent lets us remove from the car all our clothes, bedding, a small box of dry food, foul weather gear, our travel book collection, and a duffel of Stuff We Did Not Need To Bring.  Lynnell says “either you sleep in your tent and store your gear in the car, or vice versa.”  Owing to the cold over here, we’re sleeping in the car and storing our gear in the tent.

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4. The orange extension cord carries electricity from the site.  5. The pink cotton Turkish towel dries very fast.  6. The bright green tubular folding chairs are comfortable and seem like they’ll hold up for a long time.

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Just for reference, here is a photo of our North American set up, two years ago, on our way west to the Badlands, Glacier Park, and Yellowstone:

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Six Photos from London

We’ve now been in the UK for 12 days.  Here are six photos that might give you a sense of our visit.  My sister has joined us, and our sons and their girlfriends, too.

Lynnell rejoicing at the sound of Big Ben tolling 4 pm.  We walked past the heavily-guarded 10 Downing Street and then spent a couple of hours in Westminster Abbey where so many Englishmen and a lot fewer Englishwomen are buried.  First impressions: the streets are so narrow, the Underground so efficient, Carter’s future in-laws so welcoming and interesting, and the weather has been utterly perfect.

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The Paternoster Gastropub in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  A hundred or so young men and a half dozen women in business attire stand or sit, sipping pints of beer.  “Paternoster” means “Ourfather” in Latin, the famous Lord’s Prayer.  In this very unreligious country, there are so many religiously-based place names.  Later in the week, we climbed St. Paul’s and looked down on this lane from above the gray dome.

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Will points to the room where Shakespeare was, maybe, born. We took the train from London to Birmingham, and another one back south a bit to Stratford-Upon-Avon.  On a brilliantly sunny Saturday we saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cymbeline.  It’s a play full of plot twists and secret identities.  The hero is Imogen, a princess whose parents want her to marry an evil, slimy fellow, but who has fallen in love with her lifelong friend.  The dangers mount, but there are several happy endings as the truth, again and again, wins out.  IMG_3355

 

Our sons atop St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the Thames River, the Shard, and the Millenium Footbridge in the background.  Left to right: Jackson (26), Carter (23), and Will (28).

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The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum was looted, or in the words that soldiers themselves carved on the left side of the stone, captured by British soldiers in 1801, as if it had been a prisoner of war.  It was the key to understanding hieroglyphics, because the Demotic and Greek texts are the same, word for word.  The inscription is by some priests, praising Pharaoh.

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Carter’s Professor Patrick Spottiswoode gives us a look at the Globe Theatre, where Carter studied during his junior year at Rutgers.  We ran into him quite by accident, and he happily showed us around both the main stage and the Sam Wanamaker Theatre.

Carter's Professor Patrick showing us the inside of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

By The Rivers Podcast

A month ago, my friend Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, who leads the visionary interfaith study and lifecycle center By The Rivers in St. Paul, recorded this interview with me on the eve of our sabbatical.

In it, I muse about the importance of learning about other faiths, not so we can assert our superiority, or because we can show how open-minded and knowledgeable we are, but because it’s important to just listen to each other….

Click Here to listen.

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“We’re looking for a place where we can intentionally choose our neighbors.”

Today’s The Day!  Monday, August 1: the day we fly to London.  Tomorrow morning we will be met by our son Carter and Jennifer, his fiancée. Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 7.13.52 AM Meanwhile, read my latest post about the remarkable experiment now taking shape in Omaha, which I visited last week…

The Mosque

The gentle cardiologist had a soft voice, and sometimes I had to lean closer to be sure I heard every detail.  Sitting in a booth at an Omaha restaurant, we were sipping ice tea and lemonade, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin was telling me about being in his mosque on September 11, 2001.  “Rabbi Azriel was the first person to come.  He intended to protect us.  We will never forget that moment.

The story of the Tri-Faith Initiative could well start there, although I’m also curious about how an Israel-born rabbi and a congregation of Muslims in this midwestern city had become friends.  As it turned out, there was no attack by anti-immigrants or Islamophobes that day, but their instinctive solidarity was telling: these people really do know each other.  They really do love each other.

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And their actions are speaking loudly.  The synagogue is finished.  The mosque is under construction.  The church is on the drawing board.  Within a few years, there will be three congregations and an interfaith center on a single campus in a beautiful location.  Dr. Mohiuddin (left) and I met with Wade Heidemann (right), the construction supervisor, at the construction site on Tuesday afternoon.  A cement pumping truck with its graceful long neck was reaching up and out to fill in a trench carefully prepared by five guys in the hot sun.  The hillside had been carved flat to accommodate the basement level of the American Muslim Institute’s striking new building. Groundbreaking was two months ago. In the construction trailer, Wade showed us the drawings for all the levels of the building, which will include a small basketball court, a prayer area, and day-care rooms.

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The front of the building will be all glass, facing the neighbors, Temple Israel.  The synagogue is already there, built in 2013, right across the unfortunately-named Hell’s Creek from the American Muslim Institute.   Dr. Mohiuddin told me the footbridge would be called Heaven’s Bridge.

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The top of the minaret is a five-pointed star, which is very American, but could also be Somali, Algerian, Cuban, or Filipino.  What really struck me, though, was that this was going to be a nondenominational mosque.  Not Sunni or Shi’a, not Sufi or Ismaili, not Somali or Saudi or Turkish.  Just Plain Muslim.  I can’t think of ANY Christian churches that are truly nondenominational.  Christian denominations branch like trees; almost never like rivers:

  • The National Cathedral is sort of nondenominational, but it’s pretty Episcopalian.  The Catholics built their own, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C.  The name is uniquely Catholic.  Not to be confused with Virgin Birth, Immaculate Conception is a term which neither Protestant nor Orthodox folks use.  It refers to an 1854 Papal teaching that Mary was born sinless, thus assuring that Jesus would, some years later, be born from a “vessel” untainted by Original Sin.
  • The Church of South India is a combined Protestant denomination in an overwhelmingly Hindu country.  That’s a parallel to the Omaha Muslim situation.
  • a search for nondenominational churches in Google yielded page after page of evangelical Protestant churches.  That’s nowhere near as broad as what AMI is hoping for.

A nondenominational mosque couldn’t happen in the Middle East, Dr. M said.  Maybe Malaysia.  He urged us, when we go to Malaysia, to figure out how Sunni and Shi’a manage it.  He said that AMI is committed to a new paradigm of respect between religions, as well as between Muslim denominations.  AMI used to be called the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture.  It’s not just a mosque.  In that sense, it’s similar to the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley.  Here’s a photo of Dr. Mohiuddin, President of the AMI and Professor of Cardiology at Creighton University Medical School.

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The Tri-Faith Initiative

Dr. Mohuiddin pointed out how the logo of their Muslim Institute shows the pages of scripture extending out of the box.  Opening borders is essential to the work of any inter-faith initiative.  In fact, leaders of all three faiths spent years meeting, hosting panel discussions, and dreaming about how, someday, they could do something substantial together.  He told me that in 2006, the TFI officially incorporated, and in 2009, they hosted Dinner In Abraham’s Tent, for 900 people, at which three national leaders spoke passionately about the special creative genius at work in Omaha.  They were Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, Islamic Society of North America President Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and Rabbi Peter Knobel, from the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“We’re looking for a place where we can intentionally choose our neighbors,” wrote Temple Israel’s Vic Gutman at the time.  They were outgrowing their existing worship space and parking lot.  At first, when the land became available, it was just Temple Israel, led by Rabbi Azriel and some very enthusiastic lay people like Gutman and Bob Freeman; and of course the American Muslim Institute.  By 2011, the two congregations, Jewish and Muslim, were buying land together, and Temple Israel broke ground on the east side of Hell’s Creek.

Earlier today, I was reading about singer-songwriter Craig Taubman, who bought an old Presbyterian church in L.A. and turned it into a shared house of worship called the Pico Union Project.  It’s now home for Korean Christians, the famous Womens’ Mosque America, a whole bunch of Jewish groups, a weekly salsa group called Vida Sana, and a cool-sounding midsummer night’s shabbat.  In response to all the hand-wringing about how people of different faiths need to have dialogue, he said,

             “I’m tired of the dialogue. I’m trying to create an actual practice….                                        the only way to love your neighbor is to know your neighbor.”

For a time, the third neighbor–the Christian partner–was going to be the Episcopal Church.  The Diocese of Nebraska put a million dollars into the initiative to help buy the land, but when Bishop Barker took over in 2011, he asked some very basic questions: ‘Do any of our existing parishes want to move?’ (No.) ‘Will a significant number of Episcopalians leave their existing parishes to join a new one to be built on the TFI campus?’ (No.)  ‘Are the major donors in our Diocese enthusiastic about building a new parish on the site?’ (No.)

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I met Bishop Scott Barker on Wednesday in his office in downtown Omaha.  He’s a native Nebraskan who knew most of the people involved in the Initiative, and I could tell that he had not relished the process of giving up this particular amazing dream.  But the Diocese had no choice: with only 8000 members in the entire state, their main priority has to be strengthening the few parishes they have in growing urban areas like Omaha and Lincoln. They also need to keep tending lovingly to the little churches in all the shrinking rural towns.

Fortunately, the people of Countryside Church were ready.  Quietly the leaders of the Episcopal Diocese and Countryside discussed a handoff, and an official invitation was extended.  Countryside pastor Eric Elnes invited the congregation to spend 40 days in their small groups and in bigger forums to discuss whether it was worth considering the invitation to pick up and move.

 

The Church

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Countryside is a Congregational church, which means it is considerably more autonomous than Episcopal churches are.  It’s got 1000 members, a location in a great Westside neighborhood, a rather modern building, with plenty of staff, an actual coffee shop inevitably named Common Grounds, and ample parking.  They’ve been host to Interfaith Dialogues of various kinds for twenty years or more.  Their senior pastor is a nationally-famous bridge-builder.  At the end of 40 days, 70% of the members voted yes to taking the invitation seriously to become the Christian partner in the TFI, taking over from the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.

Their next step was to invite an architect to meet with everyone and talk about what they would want, ignoring money for the moment.  When I spoke to him Wednesday, Senior Pastor Eric Elnes (below) explained it was either what they were being called to do, and Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 7.50.12 AMthey’d need to find the money; or it was not what they were being called to do; in which case they wouldn’t have to worry about finding the money.  The result: a proposal to relocate on the other side of Hell’s Creek from the synagogue, in the greenest church building in the country, with a sanctuary and classrooms more or less comparable to their existing facility, as a committed partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative.  Instead of talking about loving some abstract neighbors, they were going to move in next door.  The second vote was more than 70%.  Here’s the bell tower of Countryside’s present building on Pacific Avenue:

 

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About 10% of the congregation decided to leave, which was not unexpected, but certainly sad.  But the initiative has otherwise energized the congregation, and the buzz of creativity enlivens the many small groups which helped immensely in discerning whether this was God calling or some lesser ambition.

Shortly after the vote, the church decided to invite clergy from Temple Israel and the American Muslim Institute to take part in services.  An upcoming sermon series on the life and identity of Jesus ended up being the perfect venue, though some worried that it would be too divisive: Jews and Muslims do not worship Jesus as the Son of God.  It was perfect, though.  People don’t have to agree with one another to learn from one another.  From my friend Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein I have learned that a lot of those “gotcha” passages in the Gospel where Jesus appears to be ambushed by Pharisee debaters could have been, instead, sincere discussions among people dedicated to creating a new Judaism.  The Christians and the Pharisees were the only groups to survive the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

And I’ve learned that the world’s billion-plus Muslims believe in the miracles of Jesus, his mother’s virginity, and they expect to meet Jesus himself on Judgement Day.

The TFI campus is a part of a former golf course.  From the hillside above, here’s a view of the site of the future Countryside Church, now being graded.  The AMI building I visited Tuesday is out of this picture to the left.  Temple Israel is the beige-and-white building across the creek, behind the trees.

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The Synagogue

Temple Israel, Omaha’s biggest Reform synagogue, has a breathtaking campus.  There is a spacious lobby, a library and classrooms with floor to ceiling windows, an office wing, an outdoor amphitheatre, a courtyard, a stained-glass walkway toward the sanctuary, an intimate chapel with a round skylight, and a welcoming sanctuary.

Program Director Scott Littky (right) showed me around the place, Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 7.02.17 AMand also raised some interesting questions I had never thought about.  The three congregations are all members of the Tri-Faith Initiative, but how will they relate to each other and to the TFI?  Who will organize joint activities, and how will staff at each institution relate to each other and to the shared work of the TFI?  I will be curious to see who comes in as Executive Director of the TFI, which will have its own building and board, carefully composed of members of all three congregations.

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Scott also pointed out that each of the three congregations has a different culture when it comes to the division of labor among staff and members.  Everyone at the mosque, so far, is a volunteer.  Soon, they will hire an Imam, and later on a building manager and childcare center director.  Countryside and Temple Israel both have 20 or so professional staff already.

I was lucky enough to sit in on the regular Thursday morning Adult Ed class: 30 seniors, mostly Jewish but a few Christians like me, led by Cantor Shermet.  Her topic: ways to heal stress in our lives.  She surveyed the stresses in Omaha’s Jewish community right now.

  • at Temple Israel, the beloved 28-year Rabbi Azriel has just retired and the two new rabbis don’t “know” us yet.
  • Some in the congregation are concerned that the Tri-Faith effort might be too much of a drain or a distraction.  And they think maybe they need to keep such thoughts to themselves.  Shermet reassured everyone that Tri-Faith was a very important part of life at Temple Israel, but said they are making it very clear to prospective rabbi candidates that they will be serving the people of Temple Israel, not the Tri-Faith Initiative.
  • The local Jewish Day School is struggling to keep up enrollment.
  • People are torn between involvement in religious activities and the many other demands of their daily lives.Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 6.59.54 AM
  • The news from Israel is so discouraging.
  • Being a member of a sometimes-misunderstood minority in Omaha is challenging.

The group clearly enjoyed the discussion, and thinks highly of Cantor Shermet.  She went on to remind everyone of the Jewish resources of prayer, study, family life, and singing which all help heal stress.  Here’s a photo of the bimah of Temple Israel’s main sanctuary.

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So a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Minister walk into a bar…

Comedy Central’s Daily Show With Trevor Noah sent reporter Ronnie Chang to Omaha this last winter to humorously misunderstand the Tri-Faith Initiative.  Dr.Mohiuddin, Rev. Elnes, and Rabbi Azriel all play along, including walking into a bar.  The congregations went on to host a series of Ask Me Anythings at that same Irish pub, mostly attended by Countryside people.

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House and Houses

Next week, after our family members have gone back to their homes after this weekend’s memorial service for my mother-in-law, I’m going to take a short trip to Omaha.

The Tri-Faith Initiative was conceived by civic-minded religious leaders on the eastern edge of Nebraska.  When the buildings are finished, a synagogue, a mosque, and a church will share campus space on what was once a golf course.

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The three faiths all trace their ancestry to Abraham: 3800 years ago, he took his wife west to begin a new life, convinced that God would show him a new land and give him descendants as numerous as the stars.  Up the Fertile Crescent they traveled, to the Promised Land as well as to Egypt and Arabia, living as nomads most of the time.  In that respect, Lynnell and I will be imitating them for the next year.  Now he is honored by Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world.

There is plenty of disagreement about the specifics of his life.  The Old Testament says he nearly sacrificed his second son, Isaac, to prove his obedience to God, and that his wife Sarah, Isaac’s mother, never lived with Abraham again after that.  Christians say that Isaac was a foreshadowing of God’s son accepting death.  Muslims say that it was Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son whose mother was the servant-woman Hagar, and that Ishmael volunteered for the grim duty.  The Biblical holy places are in what would become Israel, but the Qur’an describes Abraham and Ishmael rebuilding the Ka’aba, the Stone House in the center of their holy city of Mecca.  This is an architectural rendering of the mosque now under construction in Omaha.

AMI Mosque in Omaha

People often use religious traditions to separate themselves from one another, but there is an awful lot of common ground among these three faiths: ideas like creation of a good universe out of primal nothingness, disobedience by the first human beings which caused alienation from our creator ever since, a series of leaders including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, a tradition of scripture emphasizing both justice and mercy, and ethical codes.

Setting aside for the moment all the scriptural warrants for ethnocentrism and intolerance–not easy to do–it’s very important for us to stand on that common ground.  That’s what the folks in Omaha are doing.  Here’s  a photo of the beautifully sunlit gallery of Temple Israel.

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I will be meeting with leaders of all three congregations, touring the only finished building (Temple Israel), and walking the building site of the mosque.  The Christians are lagging behind a bit, as a result of a change in leadership: the Episcopal Church had planned on being the third partner, but last year gave way to the UCC, who will relocate Countryside Church a couple miles to the new site.  I am curious to find out how that all happened.  My Episcopal loyalty feels a twinge of regret, but I’ll put denominational partisanship aside.

Below is a conceptual drawing that Countryside UCC is working from.  The diagonal axis points to the center of the campus, around which all three buildings will cluster.

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During the summer of 2017, we may visit an even more ambitious tri-faith initiative, The House of One in the former East Berlin.  With help from the Federal government of Germany, where religion is state-supported anyway, a group of idealists has designed a four-house worship and study community and hired a rabbi, a pastor (Lutheran, of course!) and an imam.  Here’s the plan:

House of One

The columns on street level reveal the ruins of a church bombed in World War 2.  The arched door on the left is the entrance to the mosque.  The Christian space will be on the far side, and the synagogue will be on the right.  A very tall central tower will allow views all over Berlin, and there will be a huge green sphere, barely visible inside the tower in this picture.  I imagine the sphere symbolizes this fragile Earth.  The central tower will feature a common hall which will be quite spacious and big enough for common gatherings to include, as they put it, people who have no particular beliefs as well.

In the photo below are members of the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative.  Maybe I will meet some of them next week. I am keeping them all in my prayers.  They are really doing the Lord’s work, difficult though it may seem.  But I bet it’s not that difficult.  Making friends, sharing meals, getting excited over construction plans–all that sounds like fun.

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Rest In peace, Alvera.

A few years ago, I postponed my sabbatical because Lynnell’s mom fell, broke her femur, and began spiraling down into increasing immobility.  She was 94.  It wasn’t her first break. She had broken both legs in a horrible car crash 30 years earlier; broke a leg again while traveling in Spain, and now walked with a kind of awkward gait, and yet even after that, she had managed to travel the world, carrying her own luggage, thank you very much.

We thought it likely she would die in those next few months, but the life in her has been surprisingly persistent.

She died last night in her sleep, after years of saying she was ready to return to God, to die and join three siblings, Berkeley, her parents, and so many others.

She’d been living at the Episcopal Church Home in St. Paul.  To our sons: if you have to send me to a nursing home, send me to that one.  The place is arranged in small residential “houses” with nice kitchen-and-dining areas and courtyards in which I could see myself happily pulling weeds someday.  The mostly-African and African-American staff has been unfailingly loving and gracious.  Lynnell and Ruth are over there now, collecting personal items to save and putting most things aside to be given away.

Last night, as they did day after day, Lynnell and Ruth told their mom of their love, and the completeness of her life.  They told her that everyone is fine and will always be grateful.  If tonight is the night you die, they both said, that will be okay, and we will all be together again one day.

Alvera’s been the perfect mother-in-law.  Like my own mom, she didn’t meddle or ever act like she knew what was best for me (ok, my mom tried that a couple of times, but I got mad and pouted, thus proving the childishness that I think she was responding to).  Alvera admired my work and adored our children, but mostly she was grateful that I was a good husband to her daughter.  But being a good husband to Lynnell is not that hard!

As a young woman, Alvera Johnson lived in Michigan City, Indiana, where her carpenter father had moved the family from a farm outside of town.  There were hardly any jobs for him in the city, either, during the Great Depression.  She went to college at Wheaton, where Lynnell would later study, and spend 1938 at Linfield College in Oregon (photo below) taking care of a relative’s home in return for room and board.

Alvera, 1938 Linfield College, Oregon

Back in Chicago after graduation, she studied journalism at Northwestern (I know: she had a brilliant mind.  No one could beat her in a debate!).  She began teaching journalism at her Alma Mater and met an equally brilliant young professor of Biblical Interpretation named Berkeley Mickelsen.  They married, had two daughters, and when the politics of patriarchy and Biblical literalism made the place too uncomfortable, he accepted a similar post at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul.

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They both taught at Bethel at the time Lynnell and I met, in 1983.  This photo is taken on October 12, 1984, at my parents’ house in Detroit.  Berkeley died in 1990, but Alvera kept up their shared work in promoting Biblically-based feminism.  The organization they co-founded, Christians for Biblical Equality, lives on; although gender equality is even less popular now in most Baptist circles than it was in the late sixties.  Her special gift was taking Berkeley’s sophisticated and nerdy analyses of the context of the early writers about Jesus and explaining them for a popular audience in plain English.

She told the truth about those first generations of Christians whose churches were often owned and led by women, and about their beloved Jesus, who counted women among his best friends and most trusted followers, even if he probably never married.

It has been an honor to know and love and be loved by Alvera.  At her memorial service in two weeks, I will introduce the scriptural passage that guided her life, from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

           “Be not conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you might know what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”

Following Charlie’s Creep

If you aren’t a gardener, you can skip this post, because it’s so nerdy, but there is a spiritual point, and I promise not to belabor it.

There’s a weed called Creeping Charlie that is actually quite a nice ground cover.  It grows fast, on fragrant vines, along the ground, under your grass.  Every few inches along the vine, Charlie sends some roots down to anchor himself, and his leaves are heart-shaped and as green as you could want.  But lawn purists like me insist that Charlie is a weed.  Never mind that clover grows similarly on trailing vines, but Saint Patrick’s shamrock, which he used to explain the Trinity, is a relative of clover, and horses happily munch clover, and the flowers of clover are really lovely, and so as far as I am concerned, it’s allowed in my lawn.

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Our infallible nextdoor neighbor, Ed Crandall, used to pay his sons a dollar for a grocery bag full of Creeping Charlie, and as I recall, the price was too low to inspire any serious pulling.  Charlie is not easy to remove: you have to pull gently if you want to get the roots, which of course is always your goal in weed pulling.  Look at American military adventures  in the Middle East and see how important it is to get to the roots: it’s not worth the bother if the thing is going to regenerate.

So today I was pulling weeds, mostly Mr. Charlie.  I tried lots of techniques, like combing the roots with my fingers to locate the vines, and twisting a cluster of leaves in the hope that I would get ahold of the hidden support system.  A few times, I was patient enough, and being on sabbatical, patience is something I can afford.  When I was patient, and very gently pulled sideways along the ground, I could see the vine straining eight or ten inches away, a clue that these few leaves in my hand were part of a chain that spread far away.  Pulling horizontally, the same way Charlie grows, yielded an amazing chain.

I was mostly kneeling on all fours in the shade, hearing three or four familiar bird calls and realizing that I don’t know which species is making which song.  Lynnell was off to watch Germany and Italy play soccer on the big screens at Brit’s Pub downtown and our houseguest Melanie was at the kitchen table, working on her application for another internship (this one in Paris, her home city).  It was a lovely afternoon.  One time, as I coaxed loose a pretty big root system, an earthworm slid into view, and spent a minute moving in the shade of the grass toward an undisturbed hole back into the earth.

Such a busy and purposeful world, with its underground tunnels and its systems of roots and vines.  And it’s invisible unless you are interested.  On this perfect summer day, religion seems like that: the human effort to pay attention to the invisible worlds that support us.  Whether God is more like the bird songs, the path of the worm, or the miracle of photosynthesis is something to wonder about.  Meanwhile, the ever-patient Creeping Charlie lets me feel accomplishment at banishing him from fifty square feet of lawn.

A visit to a Mayan saint

A year or two ago, on this same trip from our church, our group had the chance to visit the home of a Mayan priest who we have known over the years of coming to Guatemala to work for the Mision San Lucas Toliman.  In his home, up a very narrow and steep stairway, there is a shrine to San Simon, known locally as Maximon.  Probably the same saint as the ancient Mayan deity Mam, he is a bit of a tough guy, depicted in statues with a cigarette in his mouth and bottles of liquor on the altar as offerings.  (Photo: Tribal Art Wiki)

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We visited again a couple of days ago, all fifteen of us, squeezed into the top floor of the house outside the little booth in which the shrine is found.  Our friend welcomed us and sent his granddaughters for fifteen eggs, on which we wrote our names, each in a different color.  Then he began building a very small and elaborate pyre on a big iron disk with eight colors of sugar, eight colors of candles, five balls of copal (incense), and some cigars.  He invited us to pray or make wishes, so that the Holy Spirit and/or local spirits might know what was on our minds.  And then, after he got a good little fire going, we put our eggs in the fire. (Thanks to Cheryl Stevens for this photo)

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Apparently, there are many ways for eggs to behave, from exploding to cracking and leaking to just plain roasting without the shell being disturbed, and our friend the priest did his best to explain the meanings associated with the fate of each of our eggs.  His explanations were pretty simple, general, and all quite positive, so as a fortune-telling exercise, I don’t think I learned much, but when he took us inside the shrine, face to face with Maximon’s statue, it felt very intense and serious.  He sprinkled and dabbed some blue and some clear liquids that I imagine were alcohol-based, and prayed to God for me, my family, my work, and my studies.  It was a bit like going into the confessional booth.

The man and his family are obviously very poor.  He has eleven kids and a half-dozen grandkids, who joined us.  They were curious, intelligent, kind, and playful, but quite aware that Papa was doing something important.  He brought out a smaller carved statue of Maximon/San Simon, and one of the children told me he even owns a tiny one.  Cheryl Stevens took this picture, also.

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Of the priest’s many siblings, only two have continued their grandfather’s indigenous religion in addition to their Catholicism.  I wondered which of these children might someday pour sugar on a fire in this same house in front of other skeptical, curious, and respectful visitors.

Maximon has shrines in most of the villages around the great Guatemalan Lake Atitlan.  We were encouraged to visit the shrine in Santiago Atitlan yesterday by a man greeting passengers at the dock.  The shrine is a popular destination for tourists in the know, but we were headed for a shrine of a different kind: the pilgrim church of Santiago, and the study of its late heroic priest, Fr. Stanley  Rother.

Known affectionately by his Mayan name, Apla’s, Fr. Rother was murdered by a right-wing death squad in July, 1981.  He had taken sides with the indigenous people of his town, the Tsutuhil Maya, who were being murdered and “disappeared” by the army.  Having been warned numerous times that his name was on a list of those to be terminated, he finally went home to Oklahoma City earlier that year.  But his conscience told him that if he really was the “shepherd” of his spiritual flock, he needed to imitate the Good Shepherd he so often preached about, and get back to the people who needed him.  He knew that he stood a good chance of meeting the same fate as Jesus.

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In his study are plaques describing his solidarity with the poor and a bullet hole in the floor, covered with glass.  Fr. Rother may well become a saint in the next decades, in tribute to his integrity and compassion.  The walls of the church are lined with statues of other saints, all dressed in vestments of many colors.  This one is a woman mourning the execution of St. John the Baptist.  It could be his mother, or the young princess whose evil mother the queen told her to demand John’s head as retribution for his having spoken truth to power.

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Our guide and trip leader Bill Peterson showed me a carved figure of Maximon on one of the panels behind the high altar in the church where Fr. Rother preached, taught, and died.  The were also depictions of the Holy Spirit as a quetzal bird, and scenes of indigenous farmers growing corn.

Discouragingly, there were also plenty of racist statues, including a fair-skinned angel subduing a dark-skinned devil, and conquistadores all over the place, triumphing and planting crosses.

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Within just a few few decades of Ferdinand and Isabella’s cruel decree of religious intolerance, the Spanish were spreading diseases and looting gold all over what we now call Latin America.  In 1492, despite 700 years of mostly-peaceful coexistence with Jews and Muslims, the Catholic king and queen ordered all noncatholics to convert, depart, or die.  Their missionaries, once settling in the “new” world, were considerably more tolerant, allowing lots of syncretism like the merging of  Maximon and Saint Simon. The church in Santiago Atitlan contains a sacred plaque in the floor in the center of the church, opened once a year to reveal the ancient Mayan “navel of the world.” In fact, the church was built on a Maya temple, a small pyramid set on this exact spot connecting upper and lower worlds.

As we travel the world this year, in search of trees and rivers of religion, I’m hoping to notice how both branching-out and flowing-together happened.  Here in the mountains of Guatemala, where rivers rush down, chocolate-colored by sediment, we see mostly the erosion of human respect and generosity.  We see more separation than unity.  We see the results of conquest by what my cousin Paul calls Spain’s obsession with military honor: men with short-barrel shotguns guarding drug stores and gas stations, high walls around the compounds of the prosperous, and indigenous people, carrying huge loads of firewood uphill on foot, praying to their saints or gods for whatever this day will require.

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(Photo: Alamy.com)

So glad to be taking this trip!

A year ago, we celebrated my cousin’s wedding in New Orleans (photo).  Now, we are on the brink of a trip we’ve been imagining for 25 years.

We’re looking for ideas, contacts, referrals, recommendations, warnings, whatever you’ve got.  Our plan is to travel the British Isles in August and September, France and into Spain in October, Spain and into Portugal in November, and then maybe Italy, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, we’re not sure.  Home for Christmas.  Then Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Israel in winter and spring.  Everything subject to improvements and updates.  We are living in beta!