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Happy Mothers’ Day…and celebrating what’s in the Bible!

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

ZeusStatueWe too often think of God as if HE, like Zeus reigning havoc from Mount Olympus, were an outrageously virile, sometimes malicious misogynist.  Woe on us ladies, who are hapless helpmates if not also victims…

Well, there’s lots of history and literature behind such an misconception, but it’s not in the Bible!   Okay, okay, let’s be honest — some of it is…. BUT there’s much to commend a more gentle and feminine image of God.  I’m preparing for tomorrow’s message for Mother’s Day, and I’ve gleaned the following from several sources:

In the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai is one of the words for God, along with Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, and others. Although usually translated “Almighty God,” it might better be translated as the “Many-breasted One” from the plural of the Hebrew word shad, meaning breast, rather than the ancient Semitic word shadu meaning mountain.

A. Examples of God referred to as a mother:

  • a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power
  • a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12)
  • a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)
  • a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13)
  • a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. The message to the people is two-fold: it demonstrates God’s superiority over other gods, and reiterates the divine promise to support and redeem. In short, God’s maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect guarantee Israel’s salvation.
  • a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18)
  • a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4) 2. Other maternal references: Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

B: Examples of God doing womanly activities:

  • God as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21)
  • God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9)
  • God as a woman working leaven into bread (Luke 13:18-21)
  • God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

C: The Holy Spirit is often understood to be feminine:

  • “Ruach” in Hebrew is a feminine noun; “pneuma” in Greek is neuter
  • The Holy Spirit is often associated with women’s functions: the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7b, 5:1, 4, 18), consoling, comforting, emotional warmth, and inspiration.
  • Some ancient church traditions refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms (the Syriac church used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until ca. 400 C.E.; a 14th c. fresco depicting the Trinity at a church near Munich, Germany images the Holy Spirit as feminine).
  • Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom. In Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) as well as in the Old Testament, e.g., Proverbs 9:1.

So tomorrow, with the children, we will pray:  “Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

And I do believe that the Father-Mother God will rejoice!

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Melody, Harmony, and Instrumentation: The Lessons of Bach (and of Jesus)

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

I’ve been pushing the envelope at my church — just a wee bit, i.e., enough to delight some and trouble others. After all, there’s the right way of doing things (that is, the way we’ve always done it) and the Wright way of doing things. There is confluence but not symmetry — or not as some might wish.  We have a worship planning group, and they’re excited by new ideas and approaches, but sometimes they are more adventurous than traditional (which may be why we enjoy working together).

For several weeks, I’ve pondered how to explain my philosophy of worship in a way that “traditionalists” might understand, if not agree with. And then — as if by grace — Time Warner Cable (not a standard agent of divine inspiration) created a new ad often aired on CNN. I was unmoved by the message of Ricky Gervais, but something unspoken kept me from hitting the mute button.

I soon recognized the background tune as Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. It wasn’t long before the voice of Bach or God or something offered divine inspiration to me and (hopefully) my congregation! A few hours after consulting with Google (the modern “god” of facts if not the eternal God of love and wisdom), I was reminded of two key qualities of Bach:

  1. He wrote “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — “to God alone be the glory”) on each of the 10,000+ pages of music he created;
  2. He was heralded as a great improvisor but not composer during his lifetime!

On iTunes today, I was able to find 8416 melodies either written by Bach or based on his melodies. Take the Prelude No. 1 as an example.  Though an exquisite piece for the harpsichord (as written), it also works beautifully on the piano, harp, and harmonica. Gounod used it as the underlying harmony for his exquisite Ave Maria — which has been recorded by many classical musicians, including my favorites Kathleen Battle and Nana Mouskouri. Of the non-classical versions, my choice is the one where Bobby McFerrin sings the Bach prelude-harmony while cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Gounod super-melody.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beloved chorale, and it is surprisingly enchanting when played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Leo Kottle on 12-string guitar.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded shows up with different words in numerous hymnals  plus it’s the melody that Paul Simon uses for his “American Tune.” (Of course, Bach probably thought it was a German tune, but what the heck — it’s so beloved and effective that it’s probably a universal tune.)

Air on a G String is the underlying harmony to Sweetbox’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” — in fact they did to this melody what Gounod did to the Prelude No. 1 in C. There’s also a 2010 version by the Fucking Champs, a heavy metal band from California, that is surprisingly enjoyable (from the standpoint of one who is NOT a heavy metal fan!)

You can find the Fugue in G Minor performed by illustrious organists (as written by Bach) AND a wonderful version by the U.S. Navy Steel Band!  Plus the exquisite melodies from the Anna Magdalena Notebook is given words and percussion additions in The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto.”

What does this say for worship, if not also for life?

We need to remember the why — namely the melody — of what we’re about. Personally, I may not like the harmonies and instrumental arrangements of many of the pieces I found on iTunes, but I have to acknowledge that some people are put off by the words “Bach” or “classical music.” They would never pick up an album of Kathleen Battle or Andrea Bocelli, but might fall in love with Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” sung by Stevie Wonder, Michael Crawford, the Carpenters, or Wynonna Judd. (To say nothing of “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion.)

The harmonies and instrumentations may change, but it’s Bach’s melodies that have enchanted us for centuries. Would Bach, famed as one of the great improvisors of all time, be discouraged or delighted by the many (and sometimes outrageous) re-interpretations of his melodies? I think the latter!

Similarly,  the music of Jesus warrants different expressions. For some, it’s organ and standard hymns sung by a traditional choir.  For others, it’s praise music and overhead screens. Some won’t open their lips or raise any body parts; others offer a chorus of “amens” and wave arms. In all cases, it’s about Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, justice, and all-embracing love. The interpretations may change, but the melodious message lives on — for Jesus, for Bach, and for us.

S.D.G.

 

 

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A Hero Dies … and Lives On and On…

Monday, August 29th, 2011

My cousin Frederick B. Fay died on August 20, and the world both grieves and delights. For Fred — who lived most of his life in a wheelchair or wheel bed — was a hero of great influence. If you or a friend or relative of yours with physical impairments can use public transportation to get where you want to go, thank Fred. If you are grateful for public buildings that are now handicapped accessible, thank Fred. If you are able to live a life of quality despite physical limitations, thank Fred. If you believe that ALL Americans should be able to enjoy our country’s blessings — regardless of race, age, gender, or physical capabilities — thank Fred.

As we consider the heroes of 9/11 (about which I’ll be writing in the next week), let us also give thanks for the heroes we know, up close and personal. These are the heroes who change our everyday lives by the courage they show and the lives they improve. They are soldiers and firefighters and doctors and teachers … and cousins. They are people who, by the power of their passion and the force of their “irrepressible optimism” (a phrase commonly used to describe his indomitable spirit) break through all of the usual crud and improve the world in dramatic ways.

My brother, Peter Wright (an attorney specializing in special education law) and his wife Pam are more skilled  at updating websites and blogs and they have  posted several articles that tell of the power of Fred.  (See below.) Or you can wait until October 27 to see the film “Lives Worth Living” on PBS that will feature Fred and others in the disability rights movement.

Here are Peter’s comments:

When Fred was 17, he launched his disability advocacy career. Today Fred is widely recognized as one of the most significant leaders in the disability rights and independent living movements in the nation.

As you read this story and follow the links, you can hear Fred tell his story. 

As a teenager, Fred was an accomplished gymnast. At age 16, he fell from a trapeze and landed on his head, suffering a severe spinal cord injury. Despite his injuries, Fred was determined to live a full life. He wanted to show that a person with quadriplegia could be active, own an apartment, drive a car, get married, have children, and earn a Ph.D. In the video links below, you’ll see and hear Fred tell his story.

Fred accomplished his dreams, while also working to secure unprecedented access to civil rights for Americans with disabilities.

As a disability policy adviser to the Administration and Congress, Fred was instrumental in winning passage of Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the ADA of 1990, and the IDEA of 1997.

When President Johnson invited Fred to the Rose Garden for the signing of the the Urban Mass Transportation Act 1964, his wheelchair had to bebumped up the steps – the White House was not accessible.

“Lobbying to get access for the disabled became his life’s work, achieving it has become his life’s triumph.

At home in Washington, DC, Fred found “every single curb was like a Berlin Wall telling me that I was not welcome to travel farther than a block.” When Fred read about the new DC subway system to be built he thought “Why don’t they build it so that everybody can ride it?…”

Fred Fay with Elmer Bartels, Alison GilkeyFred’s life proves that one man can change the world, even though he has to lie flat on his back just to stay alive.

videoLives Worth Living – In this trailer, Fred as he tells you about his life after a devastating spinal cord injury, and his alliance with a small group of dedicated activists who formed the Disability Rights Movement and helped drive the nation towards equal rights.

An Incomparable Tinkerer

Fred “assumes no barriers in how innovative he can be in designing the technology in his environment.” – Judy Brewer, Director of the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium.

Fred was a pioneer in the development of assistive technology and has been instrumental in the development of adaptive computer technology. For millions of people with disabilities, Fred’s innovations have provided access to the world around them.

UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library has recorded the stories of individuals who have made significant contributions to disability rights and the independent living movement. Read more about Fred here…

Fred Fay: Community Organizer and Advocate for Equal Access and Equal Rights

(This paragraph revised on 8/20/2011) If you would like to send Fred’s family a note of thanks, please send an email to:

thankyou.fred | at | wrightslaw.com

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The Journey Continues…

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Hello, dear friends and readers —

I apologize for not writing for a while, but things are going crazy in my life.  I’ve been called to The Park Church in Elmira, NY to be their next pastor.   It’s a bittersweet adventure because I have so many friends (and my wonderful son) in California while I’m also excited by the prospects in Elmira.

But what else is new?  Isn’t the journey always bittersweet?

In any case, Kyrie (the dog), Eleison (the car) and I will be driving East along Rt. 80 beginning next week.  It truly will be traveling mercies as we hope to discover new delights along the way.  We have 8 days to get to Elmira, and then up to northern New Hampshire for a family reunion and my Uncle John’s 95th birthday!  Wow — a good life, well lived.  I hope that I can do as well.

I am looking for suggestions on good places to visit along the way. It’s a geography issue: where does your soul live?

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To Scale a Mountain, You’ll Need R.O.P.E.S

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Chatting with friends at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, I was happily ruminating on the benefits of endo- and exoskeletons in the context of spirituality and religion, explaining that there are times in our lives when, like bugs, we need external structures to keep us safe and functional. Though we delight in the strength and mobility offered by our internal skeletons, we often need external buttresses as well. Most notable examples are when we are growing and our bones are not yet strong enough to support us adequately, or when we are experiencing personal or social stress during times of trauma and transformation. A protective parent, a crib, armor, and a cane are all examples of external physical structures that we need in order to flourish. But there are also non-physical supports that we need in order to be fully alive and effective. These include such things as a therapist, a twelve-step program, a personal trainer, a deadline, or a religious community.

Most people have a yearning for connection with the natural world, with other humans, and with God. Whether there is a “God gene,” or just social conditioning, I do not know. But while we may yearn for a personal relationship with a loving God, many of us have turned away from religious institutions as being more about hate than love. Those of us who have abandoned the institution often describe ourselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that we see ourselves as principled, loving, and connected to a higher authority without the constraints of an overly rigid religious institution.

So far so good, but …

I think of religion as the exoskeleton and spirituality as the endoskeleton of faith. Most of us manage very nicely with a strong spine of spirituality and a direct connection with the divine. And certainly the exoskeleton of religious systems and dogma can keep us fettered and unable to develop as we ought. Like the crib that the child outgrows or the shell that a hermit crab molts out of before it can grow, many of the creeds and dictates of the institutional church (or synagogue or temple or mosque) may be useful in our infancy but can impede true growth as we mature.

But there are times when our inner spines are not enough and we need more. Parents who know how to protect and push, friends that know how to comfort and challenge, and religious organizations that use external structures to empower without enfettering are life-long gifts. Though we prefer the mobility and strength of spirituality (our internal skeletons), we should also acknowledge the benefits of the religious institutions (our external skeletons) for helping us manage life’s challenges.

“Okay,” said one friend. “How do you answer someone who asks what to look for in a faith community? How can one identify a church that provides an external structure that is empowering rather than limiting?”

“Well, friends and neighbors can tell you a great deal about the strengths of a particular church or faith community. And a robust and updated website is an important tool,” I answered.

He pressed. “But what if someone doesn’t know what to look for or what questions to ask? What advice would you give then?”

It took me a couple of days, but here goes:

First of all, a yearning to be part of a faith community is all about connection. We want a connection with God and our fellow creatures on the journey. And to the extent that searching for God is like scaling a mountain, we need ropes.

So here are the clues (presented in the Biblical chiastic structure) that I would look for in finding a religious community that offers me a rope to climb rather than chains that will keep me in enslaved:

  • Respect – I look for genuine respect between all of the people of the community. This includes appreciation for but not adoration of clergy. Disagreements are healthy as long as they’re out in the open. The Golden Rule of treating others as we wish to be treated is critical. Respect is also evident in how we treat people of different ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and lifestyles. I worry when I go into a religious community where everyone looks like each other. I delight in seeing different ages, clothing styles, accents, and opinions (both theological and political).  It’s a good sign if there are people with obvious physical and mental challenges, as this means that they feel valued. As a visitor, I like it when people come up and show interest in me, rather than trying to get me interested in them. Respect is a key part of being welcoming. Respect
  • Openness and Opportunity – A community that is willing to try to new things is healthier than one that insists that doing it the same way it’s been done in the past. Equally important is the practice of openness and transparency in decision-making. Further, it should provide many and diverse opportunities for celebrating, learning, and serving. Thus, a wide variety of educational and arts programs, mission trips, service opportunities in the local community, book studies, prayer groups – to say nothing of different styles of worship – are signs of an empowering church. Always look for a community where the large majority of people are involved in providing services and making decisions.
  • Play and Pray and Passion – Joy is a really good sign; laughter and playfulness are green lights. But so also is the acknowledgement of sorrow. A faith community needs to provide opportunities for sharing pain and providing support for those in need. Organizations where lay people engage in visits to hospitals and shut-ins and are active in providing spiritual care are healthier than those where clergy do it all. (Churches where the pastor does most of the work – whether it be in worship or in pastoral care responsibilities – are often communities that are being cared for, not empowered.)  A religious community should have passion, i.e., a delight in witnessing and sharing the love of God and a yearning for justice among all people.
  • Experience and Encouragement – Several commentators have noted that those religious institutions that emphasize belief about God are in decline whereas those that emphasize experience in the Holy are growing. This makes sense to me, because one person’s belief can be another’s anathema. Some people use the Bible as a bludgeon – which is not helpful to them, their opponents, or God. What faith communities must do instead is to provide opportunities for people to experience God. There are as many different ways to experience the divine as there are individuals on this earth. Thus I look for diverse ways to connect through worship, study, service, e.g., choral classics, African drums, lessons for Scripture, modern poetry and stories, art, drama, dance, meditation, training in spiritual disciplines, book studies, volunteering at the local homeless shelter and elementary school. Perhaps most importantly, I look for churches where I can experience the divine through the genuine kindness and care of each other. Also, since encouragement means, literally, “to give heart to,” a religious community should be one of encouraging each other to be the best that we can be and to share our gifts and skills with those in need.
  • Spirit – Is this a faith community or a Fortune 500 company? Is the focus on numbers or on spirit? Are people more focused on budgets and people in the pews or on celebrating God and serving God’s people? While good stewardship means a healthy respect for budgets and numbers, the time we spend in fellowship with a religious community should be markedly different from the time we spend at work.

I welcome your comments on this. Do you have a better explanation or list of things to look for? I would love to hear your stories.

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Spirit Strikes Again

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and we celebrate the reality of love – or, better, of joys of connection.  Most of us yearn not just for love – which is rare and fairly private – but equally for connection. We need to know that we are living lives of synchronicity and right relationship with the world. We want to connect – to live in harmony – with both spirit and substance.

Surely it is suggestive that we share the same air – the same molecules of nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen that swirl through time and history from the earliest life forms through the great people of history to those we love and us.  It is the same air that connects us with the people of Asia and Africa, with saints and sinners, with apes and zebras.  We are all unified and blessed by the gift of air.

It is no wonder, then, that God breathed over the cosmos on the first day of creation and brought it to life.  It is no wonder that breath/air/wind is the same in Hebrew (ruach), Greek (pneuma), and Latin (spiritus).  It is no wonder that when we breathe this air, we are inspired.  All life and all creation begins with breath.

…including grand dreams and silly songs.

Yesterday, I was privileged to give the invocation of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. Until last year, it was The Very Reverend Alan Jones, the retired dean of Grace Cathedral, who had the honor.  But, beginning last year, he was traveling or otherwise unavailable. So Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada, organizers of the conference, asked me. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I “discovered” a long-lost version of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer composed especially for writers.  (See http://felicitywright.com/blog/2009/02/16/a-prayer-for-writers-the-invocation-at-the-sf-writers-conference.) It was well received – which only added to the pressure when I was expected to ferret out another long-lost gem.

But, with prayer and supplication, Spirit came once again to my aid. So here is the invocation, for your amusement:

Good afternoon. We have come together in this, the seventh convening of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, to learn, create, and connect.  And whatever our religious beliefs, we are woven together in a sacred web of art and creativity as we pray for “Spirit,” holy or otherwise.  So let’s pause and breathe deeply of the same air that inspired writers from Aeschylus to Zola. As we exhale, we share Spirit’s blessings with one another.

And then we sing:

O beautiful for spacious sighs

That soar o’er the mundane,

For purple patches’ majesties

Above the phrases plain.

O poetry and prose sublime! Muse shed her charms on thee

And crown our arts with happy hearts

From A through M to Z.

O beautiful for writers’ dreams

That see beyond the shame

Of impoverished oblivion

To works of great acclaim

O poetry and prose sublime! God shed His charms on thee

And crown Thy good with authorhood

From A through You to Z.

As we give thanks for the sun, rain, and earth that grew this food, the hands that planted and prepared this feast, and the friends who brought us together, we also honor the Holy Inspiration that lies at the core of the cosmos.  And we say:

I pledge allegiance to the Word

Of the creative force of the cosmos

And to the connection for which we strive

One yearning with the Spirit

Indivisible,

With inspiration and success for all.

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Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010
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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 9: The Goat Gene

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Note to readers: If you’re enjoying these tales from Nepal, you might also want to check out my Facebook page, where I’m putting most of my photos and different “takes” on our trip.  (In other words, I don’t duplicate.) In any case, please keep the prayers and the comments coming.

Trekking through the rice fields on our way to the Hindu temple to Ganesh last week, I slipped in the mud and fell – not once, not twice, but three times. I blamed it on the fact that I was wearing Keen sandals and didn’t have walking sticks, assuming that if I were wearing the proper hiking boots and using sticks, I would be as sure-footed as … well … the umpteen children around me wearing flip flops and flimsy sandals, galloping up and gamboling down the hills like, well … mountain goats.

Goats. Jesus said something about sheep being better than goats, but it has never made much sense to me. Sheep are dull, stupid and self-centered. With sheep, it’s all about me. Bleat, bleat, bleat.

Goats are different – a big improvement over sheep. First of all, we owe a debt of gratitude to the goatish Pan, Greek god of music, nature, sex, and general merriment. Second, most of us would rather be a “kid” than a “lamb.” (In fact, as I approach senior status, I want to stay a kid for the rest of my life.) Lambs are for eating; kids are for playing. Yes, I’d much rather be a kid.

But that’s just the beginning. Several years ago, I was on a study trip led by a friend who is a brilliant and passionate woman whom we’ll call Aurora. Also joining us were twenty students and another close friend of Aurora’s whom we’ll call Linda. At one point, when Aurora was getting rather stressed about the various activities that weren’t quite falling into place, I asked Linda how she – being Aurora’s helpmate – remained unflappable. She answered, “Well, I’m just her goat.”

Linda was Aurora’s “goat”? — I must have frowned, so she explained that there is a long history of putting a goat in a stable as a calming influence for a racehorse. In fact, the term “get your goat” refers to the practice of trying to sabotage a rival’s horse by stealing his goat the night before a race, leaving the opponent’s horse nervous and less likely to win. Getting his goat would upset the rival horse’s owner, so the phrase has evolved into modern day language meaning to upset someone. The point is that goats are calming influences, good for Type A folks of all species. I was impressed by Linda’s insight, and realized that it was an apt analogy for much of the pastoral care required of therapists and pastors.

And, in Nepal this week, trekking here and there with the various children from the two orphanages we have been visiting, I realize that all of them have served as my “goats,” calmly leading me here, waiting for me there, happy, unflappable, sensible, wise, warning me when the path was slippery and reassuring me that I didn’t need to rush. Ranging in age from 10-20, each one of them has functioned as sherpa and encourager – in short, as goat. (Having said that, please don’t presume that I think of myself as a racehorse! An old gray mare – perhaps; a racehorse – not hardly…)

Today Carla, Kymri, and I joined Kent Rogers, his 2½ year-old son Evan, and his four Nepali-born teenagers on a long trek that climbed steeply up 1700 feet along slippery paths. I watched as the four young men took turns helping the three women and also carrying Evan on their backs. Several times, as they glided effortlessly down thin slippery paths with young Evan on their backs, my heart skipped a beat knowing how prone I was to slipping and winding up on my arse. But none of them had a false step or even a close call. Mountain goats for sure!

And so, it seems to me that being a goat is what the Nepali people are all about – calm, caring, and sure-footed companions on the journey we call life. If I had my druthers, I would take a dozen or so of the children we have met and weave them into a safety net that would surround me wherever I go.

For the truth is that all of the Nepali people we have met – old and young, male and female – are genuinely solicitous and protective of us and each other – even the children who decide not to scamper up the long stairs to the temple, choosing instead to trudge slowly up each long-hard-sweaty-stop-to-catch-your-breath step until we reach the top. The Nepali people are among the most loving and most caring people on earth. And watching their calm sure-footedness, I’m sure that all of the nicest people in the world have at least one gene evolved from mountain goats. (It appears that the people of Nepal have “got my goat.”)

Thus I am surprised that one of the highlights of Dashain (the chief festival of Nepal, equivalent to Christmas in the excitement it brings) is the ritual slaughter and happy eating of, yes, goats. All along the roads are large groups of goats (they’re not herds, because they’re too smart to be herded) collected for selling, slaughter, and sacrifice. In our various walks during the last week, we’ve seen too much of the dark side of the goat’s life. It had all the symbolism of the long road to Calvary and the surrender of Jesus.

Which makes me wonder: considering the origins of the many children at the orphanages we have visited, perhaps the goat/Nepali child analogy is more apt than I would wish. Too much slaughter; too much sacrifice. When will we ever learn?

At Loving Arms Children’s Home, we had a delicious goat curry for dinner today, but there was no sacrifice or blood. Instead of a ritual slaughter, Kent’s sister Nadine created a goat piñata filled with candy. As the children (of all ages) enjoyed the happy beating and scrambling for candy, it brought out the kid in us all.

For which we thank God!

The following pictures show the leading of castrated male goats to sacrifice. (Females are not used for the obvious reason, and non-castrated males are nasty tasting — no surprise…) After being ritually beheaded, they are placed in a vat of water, cleaned, and shaven.

We were fortunate that our pinata goat was beaten, but not ritually sacrificed. Also, I’m guessing it was a female, because lots of goodies came out of her.

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Nepal-Day4 Afternoon and Evening

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Stepping back from our daily tasks at Ama Ghar, I keep thinking about the lives of the children (and of the staff). One of the girls told me that Bonnie was her equivalent of grandmother, mother, and aunt; she also calls me “Granny,” which I find delightful , enjoying the connection and affection that she offers me.

But I find myself getting uncommonly teary, overwhelmed both by the immensity of the need and also by the courage and selflessness of those who have devoted their lives to mitigate suffering, even if (perhaps especially when) it seems like they are just putting one finger in the dam to hold back a raging torrent of angry flood waters. Bonnie and Shrawan are just two in the phalanx of big-hearted and selfless people who give everything they have and are for those with less. I am truly humbled.

But I’m also horrified. Within a quarter mile of Ama Ghar, there are a dozen other children’s homes, each with 25-100 orphaned children. The war between the government and the Maoists is the primary cause, but so also are the roads, the disease, the child abuse. Some girls come after being freed from Indian brothels, where they are prized for their uncommon beauty. The cholera and malaria that orphaned Nepalese children of my generation has been upstaged by HIV and AIDS.

Growing up in an orphanage several decades ago, Shrawan’s hope is to share the dream of a better life with those who are orphaned now. Carla’s mother was an orphan and Carla herself was in foster care for a brief period (when both her parents were ill). Now she wants to share her love with children who live across the border from her San Diego church. She tells me that there are ten million orphaned children in Mexico. Ten million! How could this be happening?

The suffering, the stupidity, and the exploitation seem so enormous that I wonder if our world can exist much longer. How many more villages will dissolve into the sea before we get a grip on global warming? How many more orphans will grow up violent and hopeless, believing that victimization and abuse are the way of the world?

I don’t know. There are days when it all seems so hopeless.

But then I think of Bonnie, Shrawan, Carla, David Brown and the other folks from Wayfarer’s Chapel – and I think of the saints who have “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And so we party!

BELOW:  The first photo is the whole group, with Shrawan in the Buddha shirt on the right.

BELOW LEFT: Mangal played the comb (right)

BELOW RIGHT: Srijana enjoys her special seat on the lap of AuntieBonnie.

Mangal playing the comb (he was great!)

Mangal playing the comb (he was great!)


BELOW: Carla, Santosh, and Fran

BELOW: Brian (another volunteer at Ama Ghar, but not part of our group), Srijana, Tina, and Carla:

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