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The Beloved Community of Avatar, Invictus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last week was a great one for going to movies – I managed to get to Avatar and Invictus. Watching them, I considered the differences: one is fiction, the other fact; one set in the future, the other in history; one swimming with color and art, the other mired in darkness and racism. Yet they share the same message – that of connectedness with the world and each other. And since we are also honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I like to think that Dr. King’s courageous life and non-violent message was a common thread in the minds of Mandela, James Cameron, and Clint Eastwood.

Pondering the connection, I remembered one of Dr. King’s most powerful (but too infrequently quoted) speeches. Delivered in December 1956, the message of “The Challenge of a New Age” is as important today as it was back then. In it, he sets before us three challenges:

“First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The new world is a world of geographical togetherness. This means that no individual or nation can live alone. We must all learn to live together, or we will be forced to die together….

A second challenge that the new age brings to each of us is that of achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor. In the new age doors will be opening to us that were not opened in the past, and the great challenge which we confront is to be prepared to enter these doors as they open….

A third challenge that stands before us is that of entering the new age with understanding good will. This simply means that the Christian virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives…. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization…[for] the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends….It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Is that not also the message of Invictus and Avatar? Is not the “beloved community” what we all yearn for?

It was the philosopher Josiah Royce*, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term “beloved community” in the early twentieth century, but it was Dr. King who made it a byword for hope, self-restraint, justice, and love. And while Dr. King certainly knew the writings of Dr. Royce, most of us believe that he got his vision, his courage, and his words from the Bible. The “beloved community” is an idea often associated with Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John.

But what is the “beloved community”? Is it something that might happen in heaven after we die? Is it the same as the “kingdom of God”? Can we learn the message of tolerance and care from Avatar before we try to bomb our way to conquest, or is the “beloved community” just a placebo for hope without action, for feeling good without doing anything? In short, is it for real?

I truly hope so and certainly believe so! And I have been blessed to witness it on at least three different occasions in the last decade.

The most recent were the weeks in the two different orphanages in Nepal, where I was privileged to witness courage and kindness woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of new possibility. Since I have already written about that trip in this blog, I will leave that image to go back to 9/11. I was one of a team of trainers who spent the previous summer working for New York Port Authority in the World Trade Center, but I was fortuitously called away to help another client during the first two weeks of September. Thus, I was just west of Newark Airport on the morning of 9/11, when six of my colleagues and thirty of my Port Authority friends lived through the horror that has changed our world forever.

But what does 9/11 have to do with the “beloved community”?

– Statistics tell the story: of almost 25,000 people working in the World Trade Center that day, only 3,000 were killed. Seven out of every eight managed to get out safely. Seven out of every eight people walked down forty, sixty, almost eighty flights of stairs, and made it out. Seven out of every eight people groped their way down crowded stairwells that, for the last twenty or so minutes before the tower fell, were pitch black and filling with smoke.

How did they do it? Some of my friends made it down by holding hands and singing (until the smoke got too bad) and then by sharing handkerchiefs and words of encouragement. Three men worked together to carry down a young woman and her special motorized wheelchair from the 69th floor. Another nine took turns carrying down a quadriplegic from the 75th floor. There was very little screaming, except when a tremendous explosion – and the sudden loss of the emergency lights – sent many people tumbling. (This was the crash of the other building, although no one knew it at the time.) Throughout the ninety minute ordeal from the time the plane hit until the building fell, yells of “fireman coming up” and “make way, victim coming down,” meant that everyone squeezed to the sides to let others through. Of all of the dozens of people I spoke with and the hundreds of pages of newspaper stories that I read, there was not one report of anyone bullying his or her way through. People walked deliberately, but orderly, quick to make way for those in greater need.

The person I most remember was a woman named Victoria. She never made the news media, but she told me that she fell to her knees and began praying when the plane first hit. After seeing God directing the angels to protect her, she heard the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” She got up and proceeded to lead a group of about 25 people down from the 62nd floor by singing praise music and gospel songs.

I went back to Port Authority shortly after the bombing to help them regroup. The difference between working conditions in August and October was marked. We were in makeshift offices in a hastily remodeled warehouse, with ongoing threats of anthrax, concerns about more attacks, and the reminders of ongoing memorial services – as many as five a day. But the affection between the Port Authority employees was palpable. For one month, I worked with people who were not ashamed to show their unabashed love for each other. For one month, I lived in a beloved community.

The other time was January 2001, during a trip to South Africa with the Wesley Seminary choir. We were sponsored by two churches in adjoining suburbs of Cape Town. One was a black township called Langa, and the other a white village called Pinelands. On our last night, a half dozen of the white families from Pinelands came with us to worship at Langa. It was the first time that any of them had set foot in a black church, and they were unprepared for what they found. No pipe organ. No Books of Worship. Just spontaneity, fellowship, and joy! After the service and the goodbye reception, some of us were milling around in the parking lot. One of the older black women came up to me, gave me a powerful hug, and said, “When we and you and them (meaning the folks from Pinelands) are here in church, singing and dancing, and praising God together, I think that maybe, just maybe, that heaven has come down to earth.”

As tears welled up in my eyes, I could only agree and hug her more deeply. We were in community and we were all beloved. If it can happen even in the “decade of fear,” then surely we can take the message of Jesus, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Invictus and Avatar and spend the next decade working on creating a beloved community, learning to live together before we die together.

* Dr. Josiah Royce is one of the most important American philosophers, an idealist in the tradition of Hegel. He was professor of English at University of California Berkeley and of philosophy at Harvard. He emphasized will over intellect and believed that religion was the basis of human loyalty, which is the cohesive principle of ethical behavior and social norms. He argued that the highest good is achieved by “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” A diverse thinker, he also made contributions to psychology, social ethics, literary criticism, history, and metaphysics.

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On Butterflies in Nepal

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Note to readers: I’m beginning work on a collection of whimsical and serious essays about nature and spirituality and will be offering little snippets in the coming blogs. I hope that you will consider subscribing and commenting. (I appreciate your “take” on my opinions, plus my literary agent tells me that the popularity of one’s blog is very important to would-be publishers.)

So thanks for reading — and for commenting!

This butterfly was one of the enchantments of our trek, putting the leeches into perspective. And here are the thoughts that emerged from the molting of my consciousness after returning home:

A good friend told me that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal could cause a typhoon in California. His reference (though misquoted) was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who, in explaining the challenges of forecasting weather forecasts, wound up changing how we think about cause and effect. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz was one of the fathers of “chaos theory,” showing how small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could trigger unexpected and possibly outrageous results.

Now, it turns out that Lorenz’ actual quote had to do with a butterfly in Brazil causing a typhoon in Texas, but I am sure that Lorenz would have used Nepal if he had known that it sports nearly 650 varieties of butterflies (compared to about half that many in Brazil). He would have chosen Nepal if he had reflected on the fact that, in geographical size, Brazil is ranked 5th with 3,287,612 square miles (just behind the United States) while Nepal is 93rd with 56,827 square miles (about the size of Iowa).

Tiny though it is, Nepal has more diversity – in geography, plants, animals, and people – than just about anywhere else on earth. Eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world (including Mt. Everest at 8,848 meters or 29029 feet) are completely or partially in Nepal. At the other extreme is the Terai region, a tropical mosquito-infested rainforest that is less than 100 meters above sea level. The topography ranges from sub-tropical to alpine, with everything in between. As a result, it is a haven for flora and fauna of all varieties.

Including butterflies.

Including people.

With a population of over 26 million, Nepal is home to more than 40 different races and tribes. The main groups are the Mongoloids from the north and Indo-Aryans from the south, but within that broad division are Thakali, Newars, Gurungs, Magars, Kirantis, Brahmin, Sherpas, Dolpa, Larke, Manag Bas, Satars, and on and on – and each of these subgroups includes numerous sub-subgroups (Here’s a link to a good article: http://www.himalayanmart.com/ethnic_group_nepal/ethnic_group_nepal.php.) So, for those of us who value diversity and multiculturalism – and believe that God created variety to bring eternal enchantment – Nepal is heaven on earth!

But how is that that a butterfly in Nepal might cause a typhoon in California, either literally or figuratively?

— Well, other than emphasizing the importance of systems thinking in families, churches, countries, culture, and climate, I will let the scientists and mathematicians explain the chaos theory part. Solipsism is untenable, both for individuals and science. Even if I don’t know you, my actions will affect your life and vice versa. If you dispute that notion, just think about the consequences of addiction on the family level, economic decisions on the national level, and global warming on the universal level. We are dependent upon each other, for better and for worse, whether we like it or not.

This wisdom is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, where a Jewish traveler is walking along a path when he assaulted by bandits and left for dead. “Good” Jewish people (including a priest) ignore the injured man and walk away. But a traveler from Samaria (who are despised by the Israelites) stops, binds the wounds, loads him on his donkey, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. It is as shocking as if Lou Dobbs were brutally mugged and now lies bleeding on the sidewalk. Newt Gingrich and Pat Robinson notice him but avert their eyes and walk to the other side of the street. But when an undocumented migrant worker sees the half-dead Dobbs, the “illegal alien” tends Dobbs’ wounds and saves his life.

The point of the parable is not only that non-Jews (and non-Christians and even non-believers) can be more charitable than “so-called” religious people, but also that we are dependent upon those to whom we would rather not be dependent. We are vulnerable and we need help, even from those whom we would otherwise consider unworthy.

Yes, our interconnectedness is probably the most important life lesson we will ever learn. Yes, the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal can cause a typhoon in California.

But wait – there’s more! Call 1-800-THANK-GOD in the next ten minutes, and we will send you two life lessons for the price of one!

What is so special about butterflies anyway? — Well, they can flit in and out of our lives like sparkles of fairy dust that delight us with a grander world of possibility and enchantment. But they weren’t always that way. They started life as ugly worms, dragged down in dust and dirt, nearsighted and vulnerable, unable to flap wings that might cause a drizzle within six inches, let alone a typhoon halfway around the world. With the exception of hungry birds and small rodents, nobody much cares about caterpillars.

— Which reminds me of the early lives of some of the children in the two orphanages we met. One spent her early years with her mother foraging for food in the open-sewer-cum-river that runs through the center of Katmandu. After her mother died, she was found by a social service group and eventually came to New Life Children’s Home. Another remembers nothing of his early years other than begging and stealing, running from the police who would beat him if he stumbled.

Caterpillars foraging for food in the filth….

And now they are in the process of spreading their wings and becoming butterflies. Soon they will dance among the flowers, fertilizing the world with beauty and nourishment. Ama Ghar and New Life are not just orphanages or children’s homes; they are chrysalides* that provide a place for human caterpillars to find nourishment and safety until their spirits strengthen enough for them to emerge from their cocoons.

But wait – there’s more…

People ask what the trip to Nepal meant to me. I ponder: certainly it was enchanting (especially the beauty and diversity of land and people), sometimes hard (especially urban poverty, leeches, and landslides), and always humbling (especially in the orphanages).

But perhaps the most important word is transformation. For Easter children’s sermons, I have sometimes used the image of the earth-trapped caterpillar’s molting into an airy butterfly as one way of thinking of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At Ama Ghar and New Life, I was privileged to witness some of this in person – I saw children who began life hungry (for food and often for love) but emerged happy, playful, tender, and enthusiastic. I saw adults who had chosen to give up a comfortable life and live as saints instead.

Thankfully, there were times when my colleagues and I were able to be agents of grace if only by virtue of being in the right place at the right time with a hug or a listening heart (or, in one case, a bottle of Jack Daniels). There were times when we were able to honor the immediacy, spirituality, and let-go-let-God thinking of the Eastern mind while also encouraging the children to consider the advantages of planning and pushing for a quality life for themselves and others. The benefits of “Eastern” thinking (spirituality, connection, respect for elders, and a sense of acceptance and integration) can sometimes erode into fatalism, ennui, and tolerance for injustice and abuse. On the other hand, the benefits of “Western” thinking (diligence, individualism, and analytic thinking) can often erode into egocentrism, superiority, and aggression. It seems to me that the children of Ama Ghar and New Life Children’s Home are among the few who are truly multicultural in their ability to recognize the gifts and hazards of both the Eastern and Western mindsets. I pray that, as adults, they will neither “buy into” the materialism and triviality of the worst of Western culture nor tolerate the social stratification and fatalism of the Eastern mindset. I trust that, growing up where they can see the best of both cultures, they will become the hope of both worlds, holding mirrors to those who think that their way of thinking is necessarily superior to another’s.

For me, the delights of Nepal are that caterpillar children born there can enchant, redirect, and yes – transform – the adult caterpillars born in the United States. And vice versa.

Butterflies teach us that diversity and transformation are both gifts from God. We begin with an outward push into individuality and separation; we age into transformation, which is the inward pull to community and connection with God and each other. As we move from solipcism to connection, we create emotional, intellectual, and spiritual wind gusts that travel around the world, changing who we are, what we know, and how we affect each other. A typhoon is birthed.

And when that happens, we molt into butterflies, bringing beauty and joy throughout the world.

* Chrysalides is the plural of chrysalis.

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Spooks and Saints

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Yesterday was Halloween, a favorite holiday for those of us who resonate more with spooks than saints. In fact, the only saints that many of us can recognize are the New Orleans’ Saints, who with a record of 6-0 seem to be flaunting their holy powers.

I recall too many Halloweens as a day of hyperactivity followed by a week of horror. In particular, today – the day after Halloween (All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day) was often the beginning of a week where my children became uncommonly secretive about what was sneaked away under their beds or hidden in the dark crevices of their closets. After climbing the walls for a day, they closed the week with fierce stomach indigestion, or worse…. While Halloween was a delightful way of gladdening the darkening days of autumn, All Saints’ Day was a downer.

Originally, Halloween was a Celtic ceremony from pre-Christian times. The festival, called Souwen, somehow got combined with the festival of All Hallows’ Day; it then became the eve of All Hallows’, thence Hallowe’en. Unfortunately, according to tradition, Halloween was the night when the souls of the dead were released to wander abroad to scare the wits out of the rest of us before finally returning to heaven or hell the next day. I say this is unfortunate because, much as I enjoy Halloween, the combination of spooks on All Hallows’ Eve and saints on All Hallows’ Day has encouraged many of us to think of both saints and spooks as other-worldly beings. In the process, we have degraded the essence of the Christian faith.

Think of the word hallow as in “hallowed be thy name.” It means, literally, to “make holy.” More generally it means to honor and respect. There was much clamoring for saints, especially in medieval times, because having bones and relics from a disciple or well-known miracle worker translated into money with which to serve the poor and build cathedrals. Sainthood was a valuable commodity – so much so, that there weren’t enough days in the year to designate one day for each person deemed worthy of sainthood. So, All Saints’ Day was designed to honor those saints who couldn’t have their own day.

So what do you think of when you hear the word “saints”? I see three possibilities: the simplistic, the standard, and the enlightened.

In the simplistic view, saints are special people who lived in history, did miracles, and only Roman Catholics and Orthodox take them seriously. In fact, some Catholics pray to saints to intercede on their behalf before God – a notion rather distasteful to Protestants who believe that God is gracious enough to listen to us directly. In this view, saints are: 1) superhuman; 2) dead; 3) probably poppycock. This is a satisfying explanation, for we Protestants get to feel superior to those still-in-the-dark-ages Catholics. In our smugness, we dismiss Catholics and saints simultaneously. And, because saints, spooks, goblins, ghosts, and their ilk all represent the outer-worldly, we discount their importance.

The second possibility – the standard view – is an improvement. In the Bible, “saints” simply means “the faithful.” I found 63 references to saints in the New Testament, most of which referred to people very normal and very much alive. Paul routinely addresses the loyal members of the church as saints, as does Luke in Acts and John in Revelation. So also do Protestant churches proclaim their understanding of the term. For example, the Book of Common Prayer defines the “communion of saints” in the Nicene Creed as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”

Sounds good, except for one problem: despite the epistles and despite the church’s teachings, most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints. I’ll bet that each of us has said, at least once, “I’m no saint, but…” So the standard view is that the saints are: 1) a whole lot better than us, but not necessarily superhuman; 2) mostly but not always dead; 3) not poppycock … but not quite normal either.

There’s a third possibility – what I’ll call the enlightened view – in which we see the saints as living realities in our lives – as personal role models, if you will. In this model, the saints are: 1) very much alive, even if their bodies are no longer part of this earth; 2) fully human; 3) the vision that transforms the gospel from historical artifact to living truth.

To explain how I began with the simplistic “poppycock” view and ended with the living truth version is the story of my faith journey. I realized that a new understanding of how saints operate in our lives is also a new understanding of how God operates in our lives. For me, enlightenment came in an offbeat way. About fifteen years ago, I went with a friend to a metaphysical chapel where I learned many things from the medium who was there. He told me, first, that the reason I don’t like tight things around my neck is because, in an earlier life, I was a Crusader who was beheaded by the Saracens. (It is true that I generally wear open collars, but I thought it was for more feminine reasons…)

Then he told me that I would rather be too hot than too cold because, in another of my past lives, I was one of the Russian submariners who disappeared under the Arctic circle. Now, this could be, but I vaguely recall that the incident happened when I was a teenager, so I found it a problematic to reconcile the fact that I was alive then and alive now, but that I was two different people… The science of cloning has not progressed quite that far, I thought…

Then he told me that Joan of Arc was my patron saint. It seems that everyone has a patron saint, but most people get the gentle ones like St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. My patron saint was a marauding military heroine, martyr, and (probably) a madwoman. Aarghhh – this is not good… But it didn’t matter because I didn’t take him seriously.

And yet, and yet … my fascination with Joan was such that I couldn’t get her out of my mind. And clearly, I wasn’t alone. The first efforts to have Joan canonized began after her mother’s death in 1458, but the church waited until 1903 to begin the formal process, and she was not officially sainted until 1920. Despite almost 600 years of contentiousness surrounding her canonization, she is one of a handful of truly important women – way up there with the mother of Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Cleopatra, Rosa Parks, and … not many others. Her influence was such – even among non-believers – that the greatest artists (and a good many of lesser quality, including some recently Hollywood directors) saw fit to study her.

Mark Twain, the notorious skeptic who panned God in his Letters from the Earth, noted that she was the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of a nation’s military forces at the age of seventeen. Joan enthralled Twain, who penned a historical novel about her from the viewpoint of her squire. In closing the novel, the imaginary page wrote that he could finally “recognize her at last for what she was – the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One [Christ].” She may have been a madwoman, but she was the most noble madwoman ever to grace this earth.

Then I learned that there were not one, but two, Saint Felicity’s in the early church. Horrifically mauled by wild animals, both of them were among the few mothers who were martyred. The faith and influence of the first St. Felicity, a widow, was so compelling that she not only marched herself to death, but was joined by all seven of her grown sons. The martyrdom of the second Felicity, a slave, was overshadowed by the accompanying death of her owner Perpetua.

So what does it mean to have the same name as these two early martyrs and be under the shadow of the ever-formidable Joan? On the one hand, not much. The fact that two women suffered brutal deaths nearly two thousand years ago had no bearing on the fact that my parents chose a wonderful name for me. (Being non-believers, they did not know about the saints.) Neither am I made of the same “stuff” as St. Joan: I have no desire to die a martyr’s death, and I lack both the faith and the courage to live a martyr’s life. So while there many be no divine influence at work here, I freely admit that I stand in awe at the faith and fearlessness shown by these three women.

But even with all that historical baggage, the saints – even those who share my name – seem so distant. Was it easier to be a saint in Roman times, or during the Middle Ages? It seems so hard to be a saint now… Do I really need to search back in time to find appropriate role models?

Not at all! I once learned about a committee of lay and ordained ministers who were asked to recommend twentieth-century saints to be honored in ten heretofore-empty niches of Westminster Abbey. The obvious names came to mind: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero. But, here’s the kicker: the committee reported that they identified more saints and martyrs in the 20th century than in all of the previous 19 centuries combined. They considered the religious persecutions in Africa, Asia, in Germany under Hitler, in the Soviet Union under the Communists, and they could not find another century – no, not the 2nd and 3rd centuries under Rome, and not even the bloody 16th century of the Reformation – in which so many Christians died for their faith.

This made me sit up and take notice. Those millions upon millions of martyrs may not been canonized through the formal process of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were recognized as saints nonetheless.

It also made me want to learn more. I found a charming book of saints, prophets, and martyrs called All Saints. It is intended to be read as daily reflections with one saint for each day. What is intriguing about this book is that author Robert Ellsberg struggled with the same questions that plague us – what is it that makes a “saint” a saint? Can only Roman Catholics be saints? Can only Christians be saints?

I loved what the author gave as his criteria for sainthood, namely “to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” As a result, not all of Ellsberg’s saints were Christian – he includes Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet Amos, Galileo, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish nation, and Anne Frank, among others. Of the more modern surprises, he also includes Cesar Chavez, Flannery O’Connor, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame), Albert Schweizer, and probably a hundred people I had never heard of before in my life. They may or may not have died for their faith, but they lived for God.

Reading further, I noticed two very interesting facts. First, fully 122 of them – or one-third – lived during the last 100 years. Second, there’s no saint for February 29. Mr. Ellsberg leapt over Leap Day. This got me to wondering, “Whom would I include?”

Certainly, I would add Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and probably even Jimmy Carter, but – thankfully – they are still alive, so perhaps that’s why they are not yet included. So I’m inclined to add Eleanor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom dedicated their lives to the cause of peace and justice.

And there are several people that I know absolutely that I would include. Last month, I met Shrawan Nepali and Bonnie Ellison, the founder and manager of Ama Ghar Children’s Home, and Kent and Shovha Rogers and Rajendra Budhathoki and Nadine Rogers, the two sets of parents who manage New Life Children’s Home. All of them have given up much personal comfort in order to provide a loving home and a quality life for the orphans in their care. My colleagues and I came away humbled and inspired by their wisdom, courage, and love.

Another two would be my grandparents. Although he died before I was born, my mother’s father was reportedly one of the people who pushed the Episcopal church away from the country clubs and into the slums. As a result, he was hated. His job as a seminary dean was always in peril and he was officially investigated as a Communist by the Federal government. But nothing stopped him from doing what he thought was God’s will.

Thankfully, I remember my father’s mother very well. Although she has been dead for forty years, I can still hear her explaining why she took a stance on an issue that was likely to lose her some good friends. Her explanation was simple: “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Years ago, Jesse Jackson made a statement that went something like this: “Never underestimate the importance of grandparents. Spend a lot of time with them. Get to know their stories, their dreams, their hurts, their passions. For it is through our grandparents that we learn our history. And it is by learning our history that we are able to shape our future.” The same is true of saints, who are there to tell us about our religious history, just as grandparents can teach us about our family history.

Saints are not spooks, devils, ghosts, or angels. When we lump them in with imaginary Halloween-type creatures, we are doing them, and ourselves, a huge disserve. Most saints aren’t even heroes, in the common understanding of that term. They are typically tormented by insecurities, doubts, fears, heartaches – all of the anxieties that we also face. But their love of God and of God’s children is like a beacon that carries them through. The lives are a testament, fully as powerful as the Bible itself.

So let us enjoy the spooks for a day and celebrate the saints for the rest of the year!

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On Being “Aunt Happy”

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Justinian the Great, emperor of Byzantium in the sixth century, reportedly identified himself as “Emperor Caesar Flavius, Justinianus, Alamanicus, Francicus, Germanicus, Anticus, Vandalicus, Africanus, Pious, Happy, Renowned, Conqueror and Triumpher, ever Augustus.”

Whew – now there’s a mouthful! Clearly he did not suffer from a negative self-image!

But I wonder: were his titles an indication of arrogance and hunger for power? Or did they instead remind him of his purpose in life as ruler (and thus caretaker) of the French, Germans, Africans, and others – as well as to be pious, happy, renowned?

Certainly Justinian took his role (if not also his names) seriously, for it was he who brought peace to most of the Mediterranean region and created the code that became the foundation of Roman law. So perhaps his names were not merely egregious and egotistical claims of hoped-for importance but rather statements of commitment to act as leader of all the nations and an awareness of the different personality characteristics required to do so.

Who knows? What’s in a name?

A lot! If you live in the wrong part of the world, you may be killed simply by virtue of having the wrong name. Consider Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and McCoys, and tribal conflicts throughout the world. Names are identities, far more powerful than mere words.

I am one of the privileged ones who entered this world with many advantages, of which the first and best is my name. Many people have horrific names that stick with them like a curse; but mine is a talisman, a peace offering, a blessing, both within me and to those around me. I can take no credit for it except to try to live up to the challenge it offers. But it is hard to be churlish when one has a name like Felicity. And so I’ve always been curious about how we choose names and whether the name creates the identity, or vice versa.

Names play an important part in the Bible, and people change names when they change identities. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter; Saul becomes Paul. Whenever someone has a radical transformation in identity or mission, he or she has a name change. Biblical name changes indicate a new covenant between that individual and God. Something fundamental is altered in the promise between God and that man or woman (as in the three Hebrew Bible characters), or the promise between him and Jesus (as in the case of Peter and Paul). The new name symbolizes commitment. Baptism, as the first sacrament in the life of a Christian, is in fact a naming ceremony.

In Nepal last month, I was intrigued that one of the children changed his name from “Vishnu” to “Nick” shortly after coming to live at New Life Children’s Home. Was it because being “Vishnu” (the “all-pervasive” Hindu god who is expected to recognize and counteract evil influences in all its guises) was too burdensome? Or did he change his name along with his cultural identity when he acknowledged his new American father? Was “Nick” just cute (I affectionately called him “slick Nick” because of his theatrical flair) or was it connected with St. Nicholas?

I never asked his reasons for changing his name. (It seemed too personal.) But as I heard the story of his life before and after coming to New Life, it was clear that there were two children: Vishnu (who could remember nothing of his early childhood other than filth, stench, hunger, and homelessness) and Nick (who was happy, sensitive, playful, enthusiastic, and tender.)

And he isn’t the only one with a name change. Within an hour of coming to New Life, the children had given me a new name. Like the others, I would be called “Auntie” or “Uncle,” for this is the Nepali way for showing respect for elders while also acknowledging us as close enough to be extended family. In our case, there was “Auntie Carla,” “Auntie Kymri,” “Auntie Kalar,” and “Uncle Brett.”  But “Felicity” had too many syllables and was too unfamiliar. So, without thinking, I simply explained that “felicity” means “happiness.”

Aarghhh. Without a pause, I was named “Auntie Happy.” Then, concerned that “Auntie” would be misunderstood as “anti,” it was modified to “Aunt Happy.” Vishnu became Nick; Felicity became Aunt Happy.

Honored, I did my best to life up to my name.

But it was a challenge.

What would Justinian say? What would Jesus say?

Is being “Aunt Happy” within my power? Or is it a gift from God?

In Nepal, there were occasions when I was happy as well as times when I was an agent of grace. But my happiness was a gift from others – it was their happiness that enveloped me rather than the result of anything I had done. Further, it was clear that my ability to be an accidental agent of grace was a gift from God – and the children also.


It was they who believed in me. And, as a result, I was changed, transformed. Though inadequate, I was baptized by their love.

I am humbled. I am happy.

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Leeches, Landslides, and Live Music

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Carla was the first to notice the blood that seemed to come from nowhere. She, Kymri, and I had already scoured legs and arms for signs of the pesky creatures, but none were to be found. Yet the large red spots on the bedspread were proof: one had escaped our careful searching. Where was it?

Tiny though they are (typically 1/4th to 1/3rd of an inch and as thick as a .007 mm pencil lead), the leeches of the Nepali forests are ferociously clever. Mostly, they sneak their way in through the cuffs and mesh of hiking shoes, slinking under and through heavy trekking socks. Some of them wait on misty leaves, leaping onto hats, outer garments, and exposed hair.

Suffering the humiliation of being bested by these tiny mites and mindful of the furious bleeding and painful itching that accompany their affection for us, we had become quite adept at spotting them on ourselves and each other, usually finding them before much damage had been done. And on this day – after many hours of slogging through swollen creeks and soggy mud piles – we were especially vigilant. But one got through and found its way to the tiny crevice between the ring and little finger on my left hand. Though I attacked it instantly with salt and then stanched the bleeding with sugar (to counteract the anti-clotting agent left by the leech), I am still scratching the spot five days later. Give me a mosquito bite anytime.

As it happens, I was one of the lucky ones, for I tucked my pant bottoms into silk sock liners, which were themselves inside heavy wool socks, which were well cushioned by heavy hiking boots. I also had tight cuffs on my jacket and kept my head protected with both a hat and hood. And maybe – who knows – I smelled bad. (Certainly I sweated enough!) So my leech infestation usually was less than three a day.

Poor Kymri had it much harder – she usually discovered three or four of them every time we stopped for tea or a meal. There was even one especially large one (about 3/4ths of an inch) that did a cobra-type dance on her tea saucer, apparently trying to hypnotize her into submission.

But leeches, we soon found, were a trivial nuisance compared to the real challenge of the trek. Aftereffects of the Pacific typhoons included freak weather in parts of India and Nepal, specifically four days of torrential downpours that caused major flooding, treacherously slippery downhill treks, and sudden landslides. On Tuesday, we barely made four miles of a planned six-mile trek, opting to spend the night in a small teahouse without running water or electricity rather than continue in the dark through driving rain to our planned destination. We huddled round the small fire, searching for leeches and trying to dry boots and clothes while the winds howled and the waters rose.

And almost as soon as we made the decision to stay, we began to regret it. We were now trapped in a tiny glen, feeling the shakes of both land and air. Was that a landslide forming just over the bluff or the sound of a gentle brook suddenly morphing into a furious waterfall? We tried to distract ourselves with games, masala tea, and hot chocolate laced with rum. That, prayers, and bravado were all we had.

At night, gentle snores were punctuated with muffled tears. When our sherpas checked the situation in the early morning, they asked us to get packed and moving pronto. Hastily dressing in still-wet clothes and armed with headlamps and trekking poles, we looked out to find a brand new waterfall just twenty feet from the inn. A quarter mile down the road, a fierce torrent about two-three feet deep and eight-feet wide blocked our way. Three sherpas were able to move a heavy boulder (about two by four by two feet) into the stream. Then, working together like a fireman’s line, they planted themselves thigh-deep in water and carried us across what was likely to become a treacherous waterfall or landslide that would effectively close off the glen for the next few days.

When we finally arrived at the next teahouse after eight hours of miserable slogging through muddy streams, we learned that four trekkers had lost their lives in a slide not four miles from where we had been.

What does one learn after being cheek-to-jowl with the possibility of imminent death? Fear is, I believe, the default emotion that governs most of our lives; we hope to make decisions grounded in love rather than fear, but it’s counter-cultural and it’s hard work. Many of us held our fears at bay by carrying the love of our families (both dead and alive) with us as we trekked quietly through the crud. I know that a major part of what kept me going was the awareness that – cold and miserable as I was, it was a trivial nuisance compared to the daily hunger and lack of shelter experienced by many of the orphaned children we had come to love.

For most of us on this trek, it was faith in God, faith in our sherpas, and a quiet determination that kept us walking. And, in the process, I believe that – whether we can identify it or not – we came into a new kind of power, a willingness to take ourselves more seriously for having triumphed over this little piece of hell. There were no words or overt signs, but in conquering our fear we also claimed our power. Though we missed many of the gorgeous Himalayan vistas we had hoped for, we climbed up our personal mountains and emerged both stronger and gentler than when we started. Humbled by their courage, my own was bolstered.

… Or perhaps I wax grandiose when a much simpler explanation will suffice.  Perhaps what really helped us contain the horrors of leeches and the terrors of landslides was nothing more than … live music.

The first sign of something special was a surprise encounter with a young Nepali boy who happily sang the Nepali national anthem. Later the same day, we came across a small band that was celebrating Dashain by parading around the village. The most unlikely musician was a small mutt that barked in time with the music!

Then there were the wonderful evenings with Brett Holland (the professional musician in our group) who worked with the children at Loving Arms to create special musical events. Then there was the chance encounter with John Kelly Gill, an American guitarist heading to Pokhara who entertained us with a twenty-minute concert while having a rest break en route to Ghorepani.  And finally, it was an Nepali guitarist staying at our teahouse in Panthana – the final night of our trek which followed a grueling ten-hour day of ascending nearly 2,000 feet in the morning and early afternoon, only to have to find our way down wet stone stairways in the darkening afternoon and evening. Our friendly guitarist and Brett spent the evening sharing songs and instrumental pieces with us and the other guests.

How often have you been visiting friends or gone out walking in a strange neighborhood when suddenly someone is giving you a personal concert – and a multi-cultural one at that? – For us, it happened not just once but every other day.

Live music. It brought us together as an appreciative family, enjoying each other and our shared gifts and terrors. Like the salt that killed the leaches and the sugar that restored the blood’s natural coagulants, it was live music that countered the poison of fear with the power of hope.  And so we shared a love song which, for a time, infused sudden harmonies into our mournful episodes of blood-and-fear letting.

… Now I understand why music has so many grace notes!

Here is a picture of the memorable tea house where we spent such a terrifying evening:

Cold wet clothes - scared trekkers

Cold wet clothes - scared trekkers

The sudden waterfall that greeted us in the morning. It wasn’t there when we arrived. (We decided to leave pronto!)

The reason we left in a hurry

The reason we left in a hurry

And here’s a link to a news story about the horrible flooding and landslides: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/SNAA-7WN4XX?OpenDocument&RSS20=03

Note to readers: I have just returned from Nepal to Los Angeles and have to drive myself home and get myself and all of my possessions washed. But give me a few days and you’ll see lots of great photos on my Facebook page.

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Nepal Day 4 at Ama Ghar: Where Hope and Home are One

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Playing games and "hanging out"

Mending clothes

Taking a short trek to visit Buddha

David takes two boys bicycling
David takes two boys bicycling

Today, Thursday, is day 4 at Ama Ghar, the “Motherly Home” for Children in Taukhel, Godavari (about 11 miles south of downtown Kathmandu). It was founded by Shrawan Nepali, himself raised in an orphanage. Later, with the help of two Peace Corps volunteers he met in Nepal, he came to the US to get an MBA and pursue a successful business career.

Eight years ago, he started work on his greatest dream: to create a “motherly home” (“Ama” means mother and “ghar” is house) where children always “have the keys to come home.” He then convinced old friend Bonnie Ellison, who grew up in Nepal as the daughter of a U.S. State Department official, to take an early retirement from her work as an advertising executive and become the managing director of the home.

The first group of 14 children came soon thereafter and a dream became a home. Now, eight years later, some of the children have graduated into college and beyond (still returning “home” whenever possible) while others are still here, going to school, learning new skills, and finding hope.

Most of the children are not here; they are celebrating Dashain with their extended families. Lasting for two weeks, Dashain is the biggest festival of the year. Schools close, homes get painted, clothes and new furnishings are bought, and Nepalis basically think of nothing else. The holiday focuses on family reunions, exchanging gifts and blessings, and devotions. Those children who remain (about a dozen) are here because they have no home or, in at least one case, because the home is unsafe. So Bonnie and her able staff of “parents” try to engage the children in fun activities during their vacation time. We’re doing our best to help out.

In addition to the dancing and singing on our first night (just before most of the children left), we’ve been having a relaxed time with those who are still here. This means playing games, teaching them how to ride a bicycle, going on short treks to see Hindu and Buddhist temples, constructing a makeshift basketball hoop, and the like. Later today, one of the children has promised to teach us a Nepali folk song, and I’ve promised to teach them how to play the comb. (Bonnie and her staff may never forgive me, but what the heck…)

The pictures give a brief glimpse of some of our activities.

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Nepal_Day 3

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Here are some pictures from the last few days. First, the group of us are in the Bangkok airport, waiting for the flight to Kathmandu.

On the flight, I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of Mt. Everest. Look closely — it’s in the clouds.

That evening, we met with the children of Ama Ghar, who shared their music and dancing with us.

Young woman doing traditional dance

Young woman doing traditional dance

Some of us dancing with the people from Ama Ghar

Some of us dancing with the people from Ama Ghar

On Monday, we took a trek (about 5 miles) to a temple, and yesterday we went into town to get rupees and see some of the sights.  Today will be playing with children (lots of cards and board games) and — well, I’m not sure what comes next.

But the reality of the situation is beginning to hit home.  I showered this morning in cold water (all there is) and then decided to do laundry. This means hand washing in a large plastic tub. As I squatted and scrubbed, I could not get over the shameful disparity between my privileged life-style in the US compared with a life with few conveniences here in Nepal. We take so much for granted, most of all the idea that success goes hand-in-glove with exploitation. The more we exploit (of other people and the earth), the more successful we seem to be. Washing and scrubbing with the other ladies, agitating the laundry with bare feet, my eyes filled with tears at our need to exploit others in order to feel good about ourselves.

Around us at Ama Ghar are numerous other orphanages; it seems that the whole neighborhood is filled with children who have lost their parents to bus accidents, war, disease, drugs. I am in awe of the quiet calm courage of those many people (including those here) who have said adieu to complacency and comfort in favor of a life of giving, giving, giving — heart, body, mind, and purse.  I feel honored to be here.

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Grace Happens Part III (a.k.a. “Encouragement”)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Encouragement – it seems like an ordinary word that simply means “the act of encouraging” or “the state of being encouraged.” Ordinary. Bah. Humbug.

Not so! Encouragement is the bedrock of our faith, the source of our hope. This is because it is derived from “courage,” which itself comes from the Latin cors, or heart. And so “encouragement” literally means “giving heart to.” When we encourage our children, our friends, and those who are struggling, we are literally giving them a piece of our heart. And is this not the very heart of the gospel?

As I join nine others in our service trip to Nepal, I have been encouraged in so many ways. I particularly want to thank Ginny Curinga, Amy Greene, Alice Middleton, Laurel Morrison, and Jason Wright who went way out of their way to contribute money and supplies. And many more of you have provided encouragement through your prayers, enthusiasm, and help in working out logistics like dog, house, and garden care.

Please don’t stop!

I am the oldest person going on the trip and thought I was doing very well (having graduated from Dr. Dark Chocolate, M.D., to the 12-step Elliptical Program). But in the last few days, my lower back has started acting up (the same area where I had surgery four years ago.) I’m sure that it is stress and anxiety, but I really don’t want to be a burden to the other folks AND I want to help the orphanages and join in the trek.

So please continue to pray for me, for Carla, for the other eight, and for the orphaned children who need our help. I am usually a bit reluctant to ask for prayers (preferring to be the “strong” one who prays for others), but humility is a virtue and I’m learning. I need your encouragement and your prayers.

But as you “give a piece of your heart” to me and the others on this trip, please also look around you to find someone closer to home that needs encouragement. Remember that encouragement is a seed that, when sowed freely and tended lovingly, provides food and nourishment for years to come.

Thank you.

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Grace Happens! (Part II)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Two important life lessons: 1) whenever you’re unhappy, go help someone who is worse off, and 2) when you are doing good and having fun simultaneously, that is heaven on earth!

In the previous blog, I alluded to an upcoming mission trip to Nepal. It happened quite by accident when my friend Carla Friedrich, a Swedenborgian minister in San Diego, put a note on her Facebook page asking for volunteers to help birth a dream of founding a Children’s Home, probably in Mexico. She linked with the Wayfarer’s Chapel in Los Angeles that was planning a mission trip to an orphanage in Nepal and then connected with a second home in Nepal, created and run by Swedenborgian missionaries and supported by the church.

She was asking for friends to join in the mission project, make a film, and create a business/promotional plan. Having time on my hands and some experience in business, I jumped at the opportunity. Grace happens!

The trip – which begins on September 18 and ends on October 11 – includes three segments of about a week each:

1. The full group of “Carla’s five friends and helpmates” plus the six-eight Wayfarers’ Chapel folks will do mission work at Ama-Ghar Children’s Home in Kathmandu. I don’t know if I’ll be hammering, painting, cleaning toilets, or tutoring. Check out www.ama-foundation.org for pix and details.

2. Then we split. The Wayfarers’ Chapel folks stay at Ama-Ghar, while “Carla’s five” go to Loving Arms Mission, in another part of Kathmandu. While there, we help with those children and get started on the film and business plan. See http://www.lovingarmsmission.org

3. Returning to the full group, we embark on a spiritual pilgrimage in the Himalayas with seven of the ten original women Nepalese sherpas. It’s an amazing story because they come from different communities and castes, and they are now working to promote empowerment opportunities for women and youth. See http://hopebuilding.pbworks.com/Ten-young-women-who-climbed-Everest-inspire-Nepal%27s-youth,-women-to-dream-big

During our time in Nepal, Kymri Wilt (another of Carla’s friends and a professional travel photographer) and I will be adding to our blogs and putting photos on Facebook. (Kymri’s is http://miraterra.blogspot.com.)

A couple of friends have asked if they could help. I don’t have much room for school supplies, but head lamps (for children who need to study when the electricity has gone off) and financial gifts are always welcome. If you wish to help make Carla’s dream come alive, we’d be delighted. (I’m paying airfare and trekking costs of $2000, and Carla hopes to get a grant to cover some of our room and board. But we need about $50/day to cover food and lodging, so there’s a big gap that needs filling). If you are able and willing to support us, you can: 1) mail a contribution directly to me, which is easiest for me but not tax-deductible for you; or 2) make a tax-exempt gift by sending a check to “Nepal Service Project,” and mailing it to Wayfarers’ Chapel; 5755 Palos Verdes Dr. South; Rancho Verdes, CA 90275; Att’n: Rev. David C. Brown. If you do this, please let me know so that I can properly thank you.

Of course, you can also check the websites for the two orphanages (above) and get connected that way.

But please know that your prayers and encouragement are the most important gifts, so please keep them coming. And you might want to subscribe to my blog so that you don’t miss out on the coming goodies. Thank you.

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