Recovering Beauty

Following the July 21-25 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  held in Ft. Worth, TX, we took a few days vacation.  We relaxed in San Antonio, visiting the beautiful San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Riverwalk, and a marvelous Southwest Arts School located in the beautifully restored buildings of an old Roman Catholic School.  We spent an afternoon visiting the shops of a variety of local artists.  When we left San Antonio, and headed northeast toward Louisiana, we stopped at another Botanical Garden … the one in Beaumont, TX.  When we entered the parking lot, we suspected that we were the only visitors.  The other two vehicles likely belonged to staff or to someone we saw working on a building.  Admission to the Garden is free, so we found a path and began walking.  Recent rains had left some of the paths flooded, but we found our way.  The day was hot and muggy, the ground was wet and the little green lizards seemed to skitter and jump everywhere along the paths and through the plants.  We passed flower beds that desperately needed weeding,  paths obstructed with overgrowth, and then further into the garden we came upon piles of weeds on some of the paths indicating that someone was, indeed, pulling weeds.  Horsetail, invasive and growing out of its intended areas was being piled on the walk.  Then two voices greeted us.  A man and a woman were sitting on a bench resting.  Muddy and sweaty from gardening on this hot, humid day, they smiled and welcomed us.  I said, “It looks like you’re working hard” and she laughed and said, “You’re welcome to help!”  We talked with them for quite while, and learned that these were the only two employees of the Botanical Garden.  Other work depends on volunteers.  They are still trying to clean-up and rebuild parts of the garden following the destruction of Hurricane Rita.  The garden lost some 94 trees. (And the larger Tyrell Park, in which the Garden is found, lost nearly 3000.) The concrete walkways are still broken.  We came upon a downed tree in the Japanese Garden that they have not yet been able to remove.  Bridge railings are broken.  We came to realize that it was once a small, but beautiful botanical garden.  As its devoted keepers described,  many of those who would usually volunteer are still repairing and rebuilding their own lives and gardens.  Unlike our substantially endowed Missouri Botanical Garden, their garden depends on contributions and volunteers.  Beaumont, Texas is not a poor city, though we drove around the downtown area and the residential area surrounding it showed signs of both poverty and damage. (Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between damage and neglect.) There appear to be many social services in Beaumont.  No doubt, they have been stretched as in all cities affected by the hurricanes.   I am reminded that when the necessities of life are threatened, that which provides beauty and soul nurture is slower to recover.  I will not soon forget those two people pushing on, doing what they can day by day to uncover the beauty of the garden, so that the people of their city can be nurtured by it again … now and in the years to come.

Visiting New Orleans

While visiting family in Baton Rouge, we spent today in New Orleans.This was our first visit since Katrina and Rita visited there. Though many from the Church have gone there on work trips, this was simply a visit. We had lunch and a long wonderful discussion with a family friend born and raised in New Orleans who coordinates events for the Superdome. We sat in a restaurant in the French Quarter and discussed her journey that of her city over the last eleven months. How painfully slow the progress — the downward spiral of cause and effect that slows or prevents entirely the rebuilding of the community services necessary for a functioning city. We who live far away and who send work groups understandably focus on repair and rebuilding of homes. This work continues to be greatly needed and it is important that groups come to help. Yet today, I am reminded that when the infrastructure of a city is destroyed and the population decimated, the human and financial resources to rebuild simply do not exist. Yes, New Orleans is here. The French Quarter is open for business. Restaurants and shops welcome tourists. And it is important that people simply come and spend money in the city. Yet as we left the French Quarter, we realized the level of destruction that still exists. Passing a deserted hospital with windows broken out, a boarded up Red Cross building, and business after business simply gone. Homes uninhabitable. One might think that, by now, some level of clean-up had taken place in these homes. Yet our Presbyterian friend tells us that a volunteer group went into a home and found it just as it had been left by the flooding eleven months ago.

All to say that the stark contrast left my head spinning — At one moment we were enjoying shopping and eating in the French Quarter. We watched the Natchez Riverboat leave with a load of tourists. As it passed a cargo ship, we were reminded that, indeed, the port is open for business. We walked, dropped in shops, and took pictures, as so many have done, in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Perhaps most significantly, we spent money. One shopkeeper asked us where we were from and thanked us for coming. He then said, “Now, you’re okay in this area, but if you go very far from here it gets dicey. So be careful.”

As we were standing on a levee (one that was not breached), we were reminded that other hurricanes will come and the levees still cannot hold back the waters. We passed an older man walking down a street of boarded up houses. He was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Make levees, not war!”

I come out of this once again wondering why we humans do not work with nature rather than against it. I pray that we will develop the ability to plan, make decisions, and build for the good of creation and of all God’s people.

Noon Prayer Unfolding

Several posts ago I wrote about the beginning of our Wednesday Noon Prayers. This prayer time has taken an interesting path. The first week, I prayed alone. Though others did not join me this first time, as I prayed I could hear those who were down the hall in the food pantry, and those who were in the next room having blood pressures taken. I was moved to be able to pray in the midst of these ministries of outreach and care. The next Wednesday as I was getting ready for prayers, one of the staff members of African Refugee and Immigrant Services (ARIS) came in to see what I was doing. He is Muslim and I invited him to come join in prayer. As we talked, he said “Yes” that he would like us to pray together. He was unable to stay that day, but has come back to talk with me about praying with and for each other. On that particular day, I was joined by one church member for prayer.

The next week I was going to be out of town and we had announced on Sunday morning that Wednesday Noon Prayers would not take place that week. When Wednesday came the church member who had joined me for prayer the previous week happened to be at the church when an area pastor showed up with about 8 children and youth, saying they had come for Noon Prayer. Not wanting to turn them away, Jan explained that I was not there, but “give me 5 minutes.” The director of our hunger program got juice for the kids and Jan went to my office to gather resources for Noon Prayers, which she adapted for kids!

Today was so beautiful outside, we held Noon Prayer out in the church garden. I spread blankets on the ground and waited. I was soon joined by two church members, and the same pastor who this time brought about 10 children and youth. Expecting that they might be there, I had planned the prayers to be appropriate for an inter-generational group. What a marvelous time of prayer and song while gathered on the ground in the garden! Both children and adults prayed aloud and shared our experience of God’s care and Jesus’ love and comfort in our lives and in the lives of others who hurt and need comfort.

When Noon Prayer had ended, the moderator the congregation and I sat there on the ground in the garden and talked a bit. I wanted to stay in that place, where the earth had become sanctuary and the flowers praised God around us; where children and elders had prayed and sung. When finally we got up and I went in the church to my office, our Muslim friend from ARIS came and knocked on my door. He wanted to know if we had already finished with prayers for the day. As we talked, I thought, “No, our prayer never ends and surely this time of conversation between Christian and Muslim is prayer that rises like incense before God.

Wednesday Noon Prayer has not become what I hoped or imagined; it has become more!

Preaching from the Cloud

I’ve recently picked up again Thomas Troeger’s book Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999). Indeed, we are always ‘under reconstruction’ but it seems that in these days we are called to examine ourselves anew. In recent years the pull toward ‘seeker’ and ‘contemporary’ worship has often included a rejection of tradition. Troeger approaches preaching by calling us to see tradition not only in the image of the anchor (buried in the bottom of the sea, holding us in place, stunting our movement) but in the image of the ‘cloud of witnesses.’ I am moved by his words: “a cloud forms and reforms with the play of wind and light. An anchor may stunt innovation, but not a cloud. The cloud of witnesses reminds us that reality will not stay put. The cloud reveals that tradition is a dynamic process, that tradition initiates creativity, that tradition gives our imaginations depth and wisdom by connecting us to a greater base of human experience than the puny little domain of the present moment. Knowledge of the past feeds our imaginations and stimulates our visionary energies for preaching in a fragmented age.” (Troeger, 22)

Troeger goes on to acknowledge the danger of assuming that the witnesses who speak to one of us are the same witnesses who speak to everyone. He references Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s observation: “I learned to distrust those who claim objectivity, which in my view is merely the subjectivity of those who have the power to impose it on others.” (Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Orbis Books, 1996) The cloud of witnesses is far greater that any one individual, race, nation, or religious tradition.

Perhaps this knowledge, living deep inside me, is the reason I have been drawn in recent time to those who have gone before — not only in what I consider “my tradition,” but traditions different from my own. In fact, I find myself no longer willing to claim “my tradition” in the limited way I once did. It is all my tradition to explore and tap; the voices of those who have gone before us are able to speak to me so that I make new friends and find new family. Whether the medieval women mystics or Latin American, Asian, or African voices, or Black American witnesses, I need to hear the voices of those who have experienced God’s life-giving grace in times of turmoil and transformation for the church. I am healthiest when I remember that many, many have dared to embrace the challenge of preaching — long before I was was born. I am healthiest when I remember that I am one voice among the many. I enjoy responding to Troeger’s guiding:

“Stop. Imagine the cloud. Who emerges from the cloud for you? What wisdom do they have that you need? Let them join in the conversation. Hear them intermingling, correcting and affirming my witnesses from the cloud.”

Prayer for the 4th of July

I struggle with some aspects of the celebration of the 4th of July, yet today as I prayed at a gathering of friends, I was reminded of so much for which I am thankful. Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote and shared a prayer for this 4th of July and a wonderful colleague Maureen Fiedler sent along Rabbi Lerner’s prayer with some of her own adaptation. I share it with you:

A Thanksgiving Prayer for the 4th of July

At this celebration, let’s give thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary Americans whose struggles brought about the best of the United States…

* For the waves of immigrants from all parts of the world who struggled to accept each other and find a place in this country…
* For the escaped slaves and their allies, particularly Quakers, evangelical Christians, and freedom-loving secularists, who build the underground railroad and helped countless people to freedom…
* For the coalitions of people–women and men, black and white–who built popular support for the emancipation of the slaves…
* For the African Americans and allies who went to prison, lost their livelihoods, and were savagely beaten in the struggle for civil rights…
* For the working people who championed protections like the eight-hour day, minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and the right to organize, often at great personal cost to themselves…
* For the immigrants who fought against “nativist” tendencies and refused to close the borders of this country to new groups of immigrants, and who continue to support a policy of “welcoming the stranger” just as this country opened its gates For their ancestors when they were the immigrants and strangers…
* For the women who risked family, job security, and reputations to shift our collective consciousness about men and women and raise awareness of the effects of patriarchy…
* For all of those who risk scorn and violence to lead the struggle against homophobia and for the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people…
* For those who continue to work for equal access for people with disabilities…
* For those who advocate for sensitivity to animals and to the earth itself…
* For all of the innovators and artists who have brought, and bring, so much of beauty and usefulness into our lives…
* For those who fought to extend democratic principles not only in politics but also in the work place and in the economy…
* For those who developed innovations in science and technology, and methods to protect ourselves from the destructive impacts of some of these new technologies…
* For those who developed psychological insights and increased our ability to be sensitive to our impact on others…
* For those who developed ecological awareness and made us aware that we are one with all creation…
* For those who brought the insights of their own particular spiritual traditions which emphasize love and caring and generosity towards others, and sought to turn these ideas not only into a call for personal charity but also into a mission of justice to transform our economic and political systems in ways that reflect those values…
* For those who work tirelessly to stop war, and establish a time of peace and non-violence in our world…

For all these… who represent the best of the American tradition…we give thanks.