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.

Temple Israel Omaha

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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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!