Saturday, April 30, 2016

What Do You Know?

[Sermon from Sunday, April 24, 2016.  Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6.]
Well, here we go again.  Like last week, our readings this Sunday tell us of visions – both the reading from Revelation, which itself is one gigantic vision, and the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  I can almost hear your incredulity.  We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, enlightened people who make solid decisions based on evidence and reason.  Visions of giant sheets filled with wild animals seem a little premodern for people like us.
Let’s look at what’s happening in this vision Peter describes in Acts.  I like to think of this story as an extended exercise in God asking us – all of us – “What do you know?”  What do you really know?
We meet Peter trying to explain himself to the “apostles and believers” in Jerusalem (11:1).  He’s getting flak from the church because he’s been hanging out with the wrong people.  In the previous chapter of Acts, we hear about Peter not just eating with uncircumcised men.  He saw the Holy Spirit come upon them, and then he baptized them, accepting them fully into the community of God’s people – all without their having gone through the process of becoming Jewish. 
Now, we can see this at a surface level and critique the Jewish followers of Christ for being exclusive or small-minded, for wanting to keep the doors to “the club” closed.  But that’s really not fair.  Their concern wasn’t about ritual rigor; their concern was about the survival of their faith.  Except for a few blinks of the eye of history, Jewish people have always been a minority presence in other cultures that would have been happy to see their way of life evaporate.  The Roman Empire was no different.  So, from a Jewish perspective, keeping the Law – keeping themselves set aside as God’s own people – that was the only way to ensure they’d still be there in the next generation. 
But Peter had this vision, as he told his new church gathered to grill him.  He was minding his own business, praying, when he saw “something like a sheet coming down from heaven” (Acts 11:5).  And on that sheet was the passenger list from Noah’s Ark – every kind of animal he could imagine.  And God said to him – very clearly, and three times for emphasis – that all these animals were now to be featured on the Jewish dinner menu.  That made no sense to Peter, and it may be hard for us to imagine just how little sense it made.  It ran contrary to everything they knew.  It would have been like God telling the Southern Baptist Convention they should serve mixed drinks and play cards. 
And then, Peter received a visit from non-Jewish strangers who asked him to follow them to a different city and share whatever God gave him to say with a Roman army officer named Cornelius.  Now earlier, Cornelius had had his own vision, with God telling him to summon Peter and listen to what he would tell him.  So, based on the vision of the animals, Peter told Cornelius and his household that God shows no partiality; they were welcome in God’s beloved community just as they were, and that they too should follow the risen Christ.  And as Peter said all this, he witnessed the Holy Spirit come upon them just as it had come upon the apostles themselves.  Being a keen student of the obvious, Peter suggested it might be a good idea to baptize these people and make it official.  As Peter told his church meeting, “If … God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)  For Peter, the truth had changed.  What he now knew with all his heart wasn’t the same as the truth he’d “always known” just a few days before.
Blessed with hindsight, we can see Peter was right.  But in the moment, Peter was asking the faithful to let go of something they had “known” all their lives.  The stumbling block here wasn’t the challenge of God’s new mission to show all people how deeply God loves them.  The stumbling block here was the people God had chosen in the first place, people none too happy to have Peter rock their theological worlds.  The truth of this story about the “conversion of the Gentiles” is that God’s chosen people were being called to just as much conversion as anybody else.  For God’s mission to go forward, both “clean” and “unclean” people need to change how they think, need to turn in a new direction, which is what the word “repent” really means and what we’re all called to do.  As Will Willimon writes, repentance is the “joyful … necessary … turn of a life which is the recipient of God’s gracious turning toward us.”1
That change of heart and mind, that turning in a new direction – that’s something God has been asking of faithful followers of Christ for a long time now.  Think about some of the things the Church has “known” to be true at various points in its history.  Once, we knew it was a sin to lend money at interest.  Once, we knew that God had given the Pope authority over the Western Church wherever faithful people lived, even in England.  Once, we knew Americans couldn’t have bishops of their own.  Once, we knew that black people weren’t fully human like white people and certainly couldn’t be in church leadership.  Once, we knew women couldn’t be priests or bishops.  Similarly, once we knew that the sacraments of holy orders and marriage couldn’t apply to gay and lesbian people.  Once, we knew people who were divorced and remarried couldn’t receive Communion.  And now, we know (at least officially) that only baptized people can receive Communion – but I wonder how long we will insist on “knowing” that.
We Episcopalians are Christians of the Big Tent, and that’s a complicated way of being church.  It’s messy.  It means we bump up against people who don’t see the world the same way we do, as each of us grows more and more into the “measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).  But as we struggle sometimes in asking, “Whom do we welcome?” – “Whom do we include?” – we’d probably do well to remember to ask ourselves this question:  Who wouldn’t Jesus include?
Just as the Church has had to un-know several things across the ages in its ongoing process of conversion, so does each of us.  I’m only 51 years old, but there are lots and lots of things I’ve been blessed to un-know.  I once knew that church was a scam.  I once knew that I would never have children.  I once knew that I hated standing up in front of people and talking to them.  I once knew that my marriage wouldn’t last.  I once knew that I could never be a priest.  Even after the whole ordination thing happened, I once knew that I would never be called to serve in a church “like St. Andrew’s,” whatever that means.  I once knew that I could never get a book published.  A hundred times along the journey, God has asked me to change my thinking away from what I “knew.”  As Will Willimon says, repentance is “the divine gift of being able to be turned toward truth”2 as God continues to reveal it – the truth about God, the truth about the other, the truth about ourselves.
So, Peter received a vision.  And I would dare say we receive visions, too.  It does happen, especially when we’re paying attention, that God asks us to make changes we wouldn’t have seen coming.  But how do you know that it’s the Holy Spirit talking to you and not the chili you had the night before, as friend of mine likes to say?
I think we get some hints in this story about the conversion of Peter and Cornelius and the early Church.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when we hear the same message of change multiple times.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is affirmed by multiple sources.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is so great that it would seem to take the action of God to pull it off.  We might know it’s the Holy Spirit when the change is affirmed by our hearing of God’s Word – in Scripture, in proclamation, in worship.  And when we know it’s the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves right there with Peter: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter asked.  Even the dim disciples could see it: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).  Who’d have thought?
So … what do you know?  And what might God be asking you to un-know?  What repentance – what change of thinking, what turn of direction – is God inviting you to take?
The thing is, our pesky deity calls us to change all the time.  I believe that’s not so much because our brokenness is so deep; I believe that’s because God’s M.O. is to make things new.  We can read it in Scripture; we can see it in the resurrection of springtime; and we can hear it from surprising sources sometimes.  I want to play you a snippet from one of the most deeply theological pieces of popular music ever, a song from Paul Simon.

God and His only Son
Paid a courtesy call on Earth
One Sunday morning
Orange blossoms opened their fragrant lips
Songbirds sang from the tips of Cottonwoods
Old folks wept for His love in these hard times

“Well, we got to get going,” said the restless Lord to the Son
“There are galaxies yet to be born
Creation is never done….”3

“Creation is never done.”  Well, I guess that’s not precisely right.  Eventually it is done, in the sense of God bringing to fulfillment the work of reconciliation on a cosmic scale, bringing heaven and earth back into the unity God intended “in the beginning.”  At the final restoration of that unity between heaven and earth, as we heard in today’s vision from Revelation, when the home of God comes to be fully among mortals and the restless Lord no longer has “got to get going” – that’s when God proclaims, “It is done!” (21:6). 
But my hunch is that, even at that moment, God’s sense of “done” will be a lot more fluid than we can imagine.  Even on that day when earth and heaven are one, even when “the home of God is among mortals” (21:3), even when “death will be no more” (21:4) – even then, I believe, we will still be works in progress, along with all creation.  For “see,” God says, even at the story’s end – “See, I am making all things new!” (21:5).

1.       Willimon, William H.  Acts.  A volume in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.  100.
2.       Ibid.
3.       Simon, Paul.  “Love and Hard Times.”  So Beautiful or So What.  2010.  Lyrics available at:

Monday, April 18, 2016

Shepherding Toward Sacrifice

[Sermon from April 17, 2016; Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 23]
Our second reading today comes from the strange and wonderful Book of Revelation, a book most Episcopalians associate with televangelists and other crazies.  Revelation is actually a fascinating political commentary, asserting Christ’s power and authority even over the Roman Empire – and whatever human power we might substitute for Rome in our own day.  This morning’s reading paints a picture of a great multitude, people blessed, through their tribulation on earth, to stand before the very presence of God. 
We’re blessed with our own moments of transcendence from time to time.  When we get to see through the veil and catch a glimpse of Jesus Christ reigning in glory – what does that look like?  On Easter morning, in Revelation’s words set to Handel’s glorious accompaniment, we sang out that “the kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.  And he shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)  So what do you think that looks like, when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ”?
Well, as we stumble upon that scene in today’s reading, we find ourselves in the heavenly throne room.  We come along with a “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).  Wait, standing before what?  The Lamb?  What lamb?
If we back up a couple of chapters, we learn who this Lamb is.  When the writer of Revelation sees the heavenly throne for the first time, as the Messiah is about to make his appearance, the writer expects to see the “Lion of … Judah” (5:5), the powerful liberating king the Jewish people had been waiting for.  But the writer looks up and sees instead “a Lamb, standing [though] it had been slaughtered” (5:6).  The kingdom of the Lord God Almighty has been given to a slaughtered Lamb.  It turns out the ultimate power of God – the roar of the lion – is fully revealed on the Cross, in the suffering of the Lamb.1  And now that slaughtered Lamb stands strong, ready to complete God’s project of reuniting heaven and earth, returning all of creation back to the garden God made “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). 
Now, we have trouble wrapping our minds around all that, and I think we’re supposed to.  The Book of Revelation is not a news report, or a fortune teller’s prediction, or a copy of God’s day-by-day planning calendar.  It’s poetry – a mystical vision that brings together “in the beginning” and “world without end.” 
So hold that thought, because I think I got a glimpse of that heavenly throne room two Sundays ago.  And because God is not only sovereign of all creation but also a comic genius, the scene even comes with a little humor.
Here’s something I never imagined myself saying:  I got to worship at the altar of God along with two chickens and a goat.  The occasion was a grand celebration, the 150th anniversary of the Church of St. Sauveur in Les Cayes, Haiti.  The rector there is our partner priest, Père Colbert, who has been here with us several times.  The worship began with the congregation and about 30 clergy all processing through the streets of Les Cayes, led by incense and the Cross.  It was an incarnation of intersection, of the blurred boundary between heaven and earth that the Book of Revelation points toward.  Arriving at the church, about a thousand people filled every space, including the stairs to the balcony; and others crowded at the doorways.  Stunning choirs transported the congregation with the full-throated praise Haitians always offer, singing like their lives depend on it, because they do.  Clouds of incense filled the chancel at the Gospel procession; more clouds of incense would envelop the altar before the Eucharistic prayer.  Dancers interpreted God’s Word in body and in Spirit. 
And then came the offertory.  Of course, none of us knew what was coming, other than figuring they’d take up a collection.  Well, I have never seen such a deeply sacramental sacrifice of thanksgiving, such a full presentation of people’s life and labor to the Lord.  For us, we offer bread, wine, and money at the offertory.  When we get really symbolic, we add canned food to share with people in need.  In Les Cayes two weeks ago, they presented tokens of everything God had given them.  As the choir and people sang for joy, members swayed down the aisle and toward the altar bearing bananas, and mangos, and okra, and peppers; beans, and rice, and potatoes, and onions; squash, and wood, and flowers, and sugar cane – and two chickens, and a goat. 
And then, because God is a comic genius, just as I was getting all wrapped up in the deep meaning of this stunning offering, the chickens started pecking at each other.  Now, they had been laid literally before the altar, as had the goat – each animal with its legs bound, and with the chickens’ wings wrapped in small, thin, black trash sacks.  But the liturgical planning committee hadn’t considered three key elements:  First, chickens don’t like to be right next to each other and out of control.  Second, chickens have wings, and they can move by flapping those wings even if their feet are bound together.  And third, thin black plastic is no match for an angry chicken.  And so, we witnessed a literal chicken fight before the altar of God.  Now, in the eyes of the people there, it wasn’t that big a deal.  Someone simply came over, grabbed the chickens by their bound legs, and hauled them out. 
Now, all this time, the goat was just lying there, minding his own business, looking exhausted after his long trip bouncing around in the back of a truck.  But the chickens’ misbehavior made people think twice about leaving the goat up there for the Eucharistic prayer, so he was hauled out, too.  Now, this left open two holes in the offertory décor; and this is an Episcopal church, after all, with a certain sense of order and propriety.  So, to fill the holes in the tableau left by the absent chickens and the absent goat, the Altar Guild sacristan ran up to rearrange the flowers and bananas and mangoes and sugar cane into a balanced and aesthetically pleasing visual presentation.  And, I believe, the Lord God did grin.
Now, the next scene I want to describe came a few days later, as we drove between Les Cayes and Port-au-Prince.  It was market day, so everywhere, people were bringing the products of their life and labor to the village gathering place.  We ended up following a truck on its way to market – with chickens and goats dangling by their legs off the back and the sides of the truck, clearly in great pain.  It’s a necessity of life in a culture without refrigeration: You get fresh meat by keeping that meat alive as long as possible before you eat it.  So, creeping along the road into the village, we were eye to eye with a goat, dangling by its legs, in its last hours.  There is little more pitiable, and maybe nothing more vulnerable, than a goat or a lamb about to be slaughtered.
Of course, all the Americans in our pickup wanted to get out and untie the goat, and take him down, and ease his pain.  And of course, that impulse was more about our discomfort than the goat’s well-being.  We’d been happy to have roasted goat for dinner the night before, but we weren’t so interested in looking dinner in the eye as it suffered. 
In a place like Haiti, you see sacrifice up close and personal.  Everything – and especially every good thing – comes at a cost.  At our partner school in Maniche, enrollment has increased by 50 percent from last year.  In a classroom smaller than my office, in tropical heat, there’s a first-grade teacher who every day shapes the hearts and minds of 47 little people in that small room.  Picture that.  Feel the heat.  Hear the fidgeting.  Smell the closeness.  Now, this teacher comes to work every day from her house near Les Cayes, so she bounces around the back of a truck for an hour and a half every morning and for an hour and a half every afternoon.  Sacrifice is her job description.  She is paid pretty well in a culture where the average person tries to live on $2 to $3 a day.  But she earns every penny, two or three times over.
That sacrifice will cost the teacher her life, one day at a time.  But it also brings life, and hope, to those 47 first graders, one day at a time.  That teacher’s work inspires her students’ dreams – dreams of becoming doctors, or teachers, or nurses, or agronomists, or business owners, or soccer players, or linguists, or presidents – each of them professions kids actually told us they wanted to pursue.  And it’s not just the teachers who sacrifice.  Two cooks prepare beans and rice for 300 kids every day in two pots on open fires.  The headmaster keeps the peace and maintains morale among teachers pushed to the limit, all the while teaching sixth grade, too.  Their day-to-day sacrifices bring new life to children who otherwise would simply occupy their parents’ huts in the next generation but might, instead, be president.
Of course, the other sacrifice is yours.  About 1 percent of your pledge giving goes to support these ministries in Maniche.  In addition, the Advent Card Fundraiser in the Jewell Room pays the teachers’ salaries and buys textbooks.  The Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner next Sunday funds the school’s lunch program.  These are not small investments that you, and we, make.  We, too, offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving when we pay our pledge, or buy an Advent card, or come to the Fools dinner. 
But you see sacrifice up close and personal in Haiti.  Living and dying happens right before your eyes.  And so does rising again.  That Lamb at the center of the heavenly throne made his choice to live, and die, and rise again for you, and for me, and for our Haitian friends.  And the Lamb calls us to follow him as he shepherds us into eternal life, now and forever.  He leads us to make our own life-giving sacrifice – a life of self-giving that leaves you, and the world around you, stronger and healthier than self-preservation ever could.  This is life that truly “revives [your] soul” (Psalm 23:3).  For when we follow where he leads, the Lamb who is our shepherd will guide us to springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 7:17).

1.        Harrington, Wilfrid J.  Revelation. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol, 16, Daniel J. Harrington, ed.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.  87

Friday, April 8, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 7

We’ve come to the end of our last day on this mission trip.  The conference’s final session reinforced the themes we’ve been hearing:  emphasizing being first and doing second, practicing relationship rather than benevolence, finding assets rather than scarcities, expecting mutual accountability, and focusing on individuals rather than human abstractions.  It’s the heart of ministry.  The only difference is the context and the cross-cultural challenges in pulling it off.
Speaking of which … we also learned something interesting this morning about our partner school in Maniche.  Yesterday, I wrote about the benefits of creating an advisory board made up of leaders from the community and school, as well as the church.  We discovered today that such a board not only exists but is mandatory; the national education department requires that each school have one.  I have no idea who its members might be, but it exists (at least on paper) – so, a good start.  But why hadn’t we ever heard about this before?  In a nutshell, we hadn’t asked, and Pere Colbert hadn’t thought we would be particularly interested.  Even after all these years, we have work to do in building this relationship.
The conference ended with Eucharist, and the highlight (as is usually the case in Haiti) was the singing, led by one of the choirs of the Holy Trinity Cathedral Music School.  The cathedral building was reduced to rubble in the 2010 earthquake, but the cathedral’s ministries remain not just strong but, in this case, glorious.  The music moved people to tears.
After lunch, the St. Andrew’s crew went to Haiti’s national history museum.  It survived the earthquake nicely, being built underground (reminiscent of the WWI museum in Kansas City).  It tells the story of Haiti’s oppressive history: from the Spanish genocide of the indigenous peoples, to the enslavement of African people by the Spanish and French, to the revolution that created the first black nation-state, to a series of leaders tempted by personal self-aggrandizement – several of whom proclaimed themselves rulers for life (including a couple of “emperors” of Haiti, complete with French-made royal regalia).  It seems Papa Doc Duvalier was only following a well-established pattern of leaders who exchanged a once-liberating heart for the oppressor’s fist.  And it helps explain the historical DNA that challenges Haiti so deeply simply to complete transfers of power under the rule of law.
Holy Trinity Cathedral's temporary worship space
We ended the day at Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.  The site of the beautiful church, with its famous murals, is now literally a parking lot.  The earthquake took the building, but the ministries of the cathedral’s faithful people go on. The cathedral congregation now gathers in a temporary structure, only a shadow of the old building’s towering arches and stunning paintings.  It is not aesthetically pleasing, to Northern eyes – probably not to Haitian eyes, either.  But it’s only a placeholder.  Holy Trinity Cathedral will have a new home someday, though when that will be depends on fundraising.  It will be a glorious thing when a new structure ushers in a new age, complete with reconstructed murals pieced together from the rubble.  As Haitian Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin said at our conference:  Yes, buildings toppled; 300,000 lives were lost; and countless people remain maimed, physically and emotionally.  But the Church goes on because “the ministries and mission of the Church belong to God, not to us.”  Since the earthquake, the bishop explained, the Haitian church has been living out this unofficial motto: “Haiti, stand up and walk!” (see Acts 3:1-10).
Amen.  The only edit I might make, based on today’s worship would be this:  “Haiti, stand up and sing!”

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 6

Today is the anniversary of the death of one Haiti’s founders: Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Leader of the revolution against the French slaveholders and Napoleon’s army, L’Ouverture was betrayed to the French during the revolution.  L’Ouverture was taken to the harshest and coldest prison the French could find and basically left to die of exposure.  He died on this date in 1803, just a few months short of the Haitians’ victory over their enslavers.  As I said a few days ago, Haiti clings to its national existence with a tenacity born of a centuries-long struggle just to maintain it.  If I were Haitian, I, too, would remember the date of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s passing with a sense of dignity.
Dignity came to be an important theme in what we took away from today’s Haiti Connection conference, on macro and micro levels.  First, the macro:  Much of what we heard today advocated flattening the top-down, vertical model of mission that many of our congregations have been pursuing in places like Haiti, nearly always unintentionally.  When two parties come to the table, one with great needs and the other with great resources, the temptation to create dependency has been nearly irresistible.  In any given moment, those needs cry out – in this case, both the Haitians’ need for resources and the Northerners’ needs to follow Jesus and help the poor.  But when we meet those needs reflexively, we foster a relationship that really isn’t a relationship – at least not what we want that word to mean.  The Haitians come to see us as providers with fathomless pockets, and we come to see the Haitians as recipients who should both appreciate our benevolence and understand why we want to dictate its terms.  All that we’ve heard, and hoped, and dreamed here is about changing the model to one of mutuality – one in which both parties have value to contribute, benefits to reap, and responsibilities to fulfill.  We can offer money to buy food, pay teachers, and build buildings; they can offer a model of evangelistic fervor (and results), Scriptural depth, and abiding trust in God regardless of the moment’s outcomes.  Can we say which “side” has more to offer? 
So, the micro examples of these truths might look like this in St. Andrew’s relationship with St. Augustin’s Church and School in Maniche.  We’ve glimpsed these truths in past visits, but (for me, at least) they’ve come into relief in this one:
·         We need to be in relationship with people on the ground – even more “on the ground” than the priest who visits the school every couple of months, the superintendent who also oversees five other schools, and the headmaster who lives near Cayes and commutes up and down the mountain on his motorcycle every day.  We’ve been trying to meet with St. Augustin’s vestry when we visit, but that’s been only intermittently successful.  And it’s hard to build a relationship with an annual meeting.  In this day when some rural Haitian 7th graders have cell phones, surely we can find a Maniche vestry member who’s on Facebook (the principal is; he and I are friends).  And by developing a relationship on Facebook, God willing, we can figure out how to broaden the network supporting the school to include a board made up of Maniche community leaders and parents, as well as church people.
·         We need to work with that board to create small profit centers involving the school so that some of its support can come from Maniche, not Kansas City.  At this conference, we’ve heard examples of churches starting small businesses that plow some portion of profits into ministries like schools.
·         We should change our funding model away from paying all the bills and toward providing scholarships (nearly total, at first) to defray educational costs for which the community bears ultimate responsibility.  That doesn’t mean cutting people off; it means reversing the expectation over time such that the community receiving the benefit bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring that benefit is provided.
·         With responsibility reversed, we must give up control of the process for achieving results.  We and they agree on the desired outcomes; as the headmaster said, the school should be the best in the region, bar none.  But we need to leave it to the people who live and breathe the context to figure out how to achieve our common goal in that context.  We need to stop telling people what to do, live in what will be awkward silence for a while, and learn to listen to what our partners have to say
All that builds dignity, the most highly valued resource in Haitian culture and, by the way, a core value of what it means to be a Christian in the Episcopal tradition (we promise at each baptism to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being).  Here’s a final micro example of dignity’s value here.  Dr. Stan Shaffer is with us but actually convening a different gathering; he’s working on building an international network of birthing centers like Haiti’s Maison de Naissance.  The idea is to share best practices among birthing centers, collaboratively solve problems, establish criteria for high-quality care, and award a designation as a “Good Birthing Center” according to those standards.  Here’s the question that came from the Haitian nurse-midwives at MN at the end of those discussions:  Can we get a literal stamp of approval?  Can there be a certificate of award?  Can we document, in an outward and visible way, that we have, indeed, achieved a standard of international excellence?
That’s a longing for dignity incarnate.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 5

We’ve arrived back in Port-au-Prince after a four-hour-plus drive from Les Cayes this morning.  The “plus” was the time spent alternately sitting, creeping, and zooming in Port-au-Prince traffic.  Here, driving isn’t about safety; it’s about survival.  We made it after only a couple of close calls.  Par for the course.
We’re blessed to stay at the beautiful Hotel Montana for the next couple of nights.  It is in Haiti, but it isn’t in Haiti.  I’m sitting in the bar overlooking the city and harbor below, with clouds playing at the tops of the mountains on the opposite side of the basin.  Even with the deforestation and the troubled city below, the view is stunning.  The Montana also has the advantage of being high enough to catch the lovely breezes that never seem to blow through the city. 
The view from the Hotel Montana

Here, in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, life is good.  It’s where the local elite and wealthy travelers enjoy Haiti as one imagines it could be – with (mostly) clean streets and dependable plumbing, even air conditioning and hot water.  It’s a place where you can enjoy “a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6).  Looking down on Port-au-Prince, you only see that the buildings are crammed next to each other.  You don’t see their condition from here; nor do you see the trash and stagnant water in the streets.  This kind of contrast between rich and poor is typical for developing nations, I know; but that doesn’t make it easier to see.  But it’s a good thing you have to drive through the city to get to Petionville from the airport.
The people here at the Montana for this Haiti Connection conference know the reality of rich and poor.  All of them are involved in work on the ground, far below Petionville.  The conference brings together Episcopal development efforts in education, health care, economic development, construction, and work with special-needs populations – and it includes the Haitian partners involved in those projects.  Roughly half the 200+ attendees are Haitians (though I don’t know that they’re all staying at the Montana).  Partnership is the theme, in terms of collaboration both between Americans and Haitians and among development projects.  It’s amazing how limited our scopes can be.  For example, St. Augustin’s School in Maniche might be a good candidate for solar power.  But what experiences have other partnerships had with solar?  I know of one (which wasn’t very positive), but that’s hardly a good sampling.  I’ll just bet we can find more over the next few days here.  We’ll also be sharing some of what St. Andrew’s has learned.  Carolyn Kroh is one of the presenters on educational partnerships, talking about her work to train early-elementary teachers in engaging, creative ways to teach concepts typically memorized in Haiti through recitation.  She has been a great blessing to our teachers in Maniche and all the Episcopal schools under Pere Colbert’s stewardship.
Stewardship … there’s a divine call that challenges me as I sit here in the Montana’s bar, enjoying the view.  Stewardship and justice, actually.  I believe there is huge value in gathering these people to learn from one another, Americans and Haitians from across both countries.  There is huge value in having these conversations onsite here, where the context is every bit as much part of the curriculum as the presentations.  And truly, the context’s chasm between rich and poor, in which we are clearly participating, is also there on the table for our consideration.  I don’t have a clean and satisfying way to reconcile why I get to sit here atop the cliff in Petionville, overlooking the beauty and poverty below me.  The poor will always be with us, Jesus says (Mark 14:7), and they are blessed in that God chose to come, and become human, among them.  The reign of God is about the miracle of us stewarding what God provides so that all may eat and be satisfied (Luke 9:17).  In our time in this place of poverty and abundance, may we help bridge the chasm both through what we give and through what we take away. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 4

Going up the mountains from Les Cayes to Maniche, the view from the back of the truck can be grand or demoralizing, depending on your social location.  For this visiting blan, it was wonderful to ride back there in the relative cool of this morning, experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of Les Cayes very much close up, along with the motorcycles carrying parents and kids to work and school, the occasional truck, and the many tap-taps.  Moving out of town and into the countryside, you exchange constant horns and exhaust for a more tropically bucolic scene – but you also lose the pavement and find progressively more “rustic” roadways.  Still, the air, the vistas, and the 360-degree scenery make bouncing on your bottom worthwhile. 
At least that was my experience.  Yesterday, our interpreter rode in the back of the truck because we picked her up last.  It occurred to me I should have offered her my seat inside, but we had taken off by the time I remembered my manners.  It turns out I should have asked Pere Colbert (who was driving) to stop the truck.  When I asked our interpreter this morning if she’d like to ride inside, she accepted quickly and gratefully.  “The people on the side of the road yelled awful things at me yesterday,” she said.
I wanted to know more, but manners suggested I not press her for details.  I wonder what this young Haitian business-management student endured, riding in the back of a pickup while the four blans rode in air-conditioned comfort.  In a culture where dignity is everything, her placement there probably evoked some ugly images of subservience.  Of course, it was the last thing any of us (including Pere Colbert) would have intended.  So, on several levels, it was good for me to ride in the back of the truck today – including the chance to get this video of crossing the river to St. Augustin’s School.
At the school, we took photos of the other half of the 300+ students.  Note to self:  Next time, start with the pre-kindergarteners and work up in age, rather than starting with sixth grade and working down to the tiny 3-year-olds.  My knees and back are not happy this afternoon.
As we took their pictures, we interviewed the kids (at least those in first grade and up) about their families, their favorite subjects, what they do for fun, and my favorite question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  The answers to that question seem to be growing in diversity and complexity as the years go on.  In past visits, we’ve always met a lot of future nurses, teachers, and physicians, and those are still popular choices.  But this time, we also heard from several future agronomists and business owners, two future priests (both female), a future linguist, and quite a few future members of the Haitian national soccer team.  These are dreams, of course – and that’s the point.  When children can dream, that says good things about what dreams may come.
The teachers are dreaming for St. Augustin’s School, too.  We met with the headmaster and teachers after school today.  Samuel Sauray, the headmaster, wants nothing less than his school to be the best in the area, bar none.  We asked how the teachers explained the school’s improvement in test scores, and they said it has much to do with St. Andrew’s commitment to provide textbooks for kids whose parents can’t afford them.  Sure, some political correctness may have been at play, but they have a point that students can’t complete homework without books.  Looking down the road, the teachers see a need for teaching assistants in classrooms with 40+ children (I know I’d need an assistant), as well as additional space to accommodate the growing enrollment.  From a perspective of scarcity, we can hear that and scoff, “It’s just a dream.”  But so was a hot-lunch program a few years ago.  And we already have the beginnings of a fund for new construction at St. Augustin’s.
We didn’t promise anything, of course.  As the wealthy blans dropping in for a visit, we’re always trying to be partners and not simply patrons; and it’s easy for both sides to slip into historic roles of recipient and benefactor.  Instead, we’re trying to dream, and plan, together.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 3

First, a quick addendum to yesterday’s post:  The World's Best Offertory Ever was made all the better today with the discovery that the goat at the foot of the altar was “our” goat.  It came down the mountain from St. Augustin’s in Maniche, our partner church and school where we spent today.  Given the nature of the drive, on mountain “roads” that are more like riverbeds, I know why the goat was tired by the time it got to church.
Today was our first of two days at St. Augustin’s School.  Sadly, we got there too late to see the flag ceremony, which begins every school day.  All the classes – three levels of kindergarten and six elementary grades – line up outside their classrooms to raise the Haitian flag and to sing the national anthem.  It’s a nearly sacred act in a country where simply existing as a sovereign state has never been a given.  Colonization and slavery; a war for independence; forced reparations payments to the nation it defeated in gaining its freedom; decades of ostracism by the family of nations; absent commercial development; interventions by regional powers, including the U.S.; several strings of failed governments; strong leadership turned to bloody dictatorship; more failed (and self-interested) governments; a devastating earthquake; NGO work that often shunts indigenous leadership aside; and, now, political messiness that makes simply electing a president a seemingly impossible task.  Despite failures imposed upon it and failures of its own making, Haiti defiantly continues to exist.  And at countless schools across the land, young Haitians celebrate the dignity of nationhood every morning.
At St. Augustin’s School, we found good news to report.  First of all, we were struck by the fact that the kids look generally healthy and adequately fed.  That has not always been the case.  I remember visits when we could pick out the malnourished kids because of the dullness of their eyes and the orange tint to their hair, secondary to kwashiorkor (severe protein deficiency).  A few years ago, St. Andrew’s started a hot-lunch program serving beans and rice, a high-protein meal, to the kids every day.  I can’t say the lunch program has made all the difference, but it’s certainly made some of the difference. 
Half the first-grade class at St. Augustin's School in Maniche
Second, the enrollment has increased by about 50 percent in the past couple of years.  More than 300 students are packed into tiny classrooms that seemed too full the last time I was here, when there were about 100 fewer kids.  The first-grade class has about 50 children, all in one room we might put 25 into. 
That’s a function of other good news – that St. Augustin’s test scores have been rising consistently.  Our school is now among the top three in the Maniche area, ranking ahead of the Roman Catholic school.  And when we made home visits with some of the students this afternoon, we heard it from the parents’ mouths: They have a choice of schools (something we didn’t really understand until a few years ago), and they choose St. Augustin’s both because of its reputation in the community and because they see the progress their kids are making.  As one mother said, “I want my children to be able to know things I don’t know and do better than I could do.”  It’s the same story for any parents in Kansas City concerned with their kids’ educational opportunity.
Of course, success and growth bring their own challenges.  Fifty kids in a small classroom isn’t an example of sustainable growth; and every new student is also another mouth to feed, as well as another mind to fill.  We’ve known intellectually that St. Augustin’s needs more classroom space, as well as support for more teachers, books, and lunches.  This year, we’ve seen that reality up close.  The Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner, coming up April 24, will be great opportunity to keep making a huge difference here.
We also encountered the kinds of endemic challenges mission work in Haiti faces.  This time, it wasn’t the natural elements; the river is down, and the truck could cross it “no pwoblem,” as the Haitians say.  Last year, we provided several laptops for class use.  Apparently battery life is compromised by tropical conditions, and we found today that the laptops’ current batteries can’t be recharged.  So, we asked about getting more batteries in Les Cayes, the city where we’re staying.  But of course, in a culture where few people own personal computers, batteries are scarce.  So we’ll see what we can find in Port-au-Prince.  As we discovered in a previous trip, running electricity (legally) to the school would involve multiple thousands of dollars.  But solar power generation?  Another school near Les Cayes is using it.  Perhaps that’s the next thing to consider, though I know Maison de Naissance, the Episcopal birthing center, didn’t have a good experience with solar power a few years ago.
Anyway, for every experience in Haiti – positive as well as negative – there is always the next challenge awaiting you.  As the saying (and book title) goes, in Haiti there are always mountains beyond mountains….

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 2

We’ve finished lunch after four and a half hours of procession, worship, and speeches this morning at St. Sauveur Episcopal Church in Les Cayes.  I was honored that Pere Colbert asked me to be among the 25 or so clergy concelebrating Eucharist – quite touching.  We processed through the city streets, arriving at the church about 9 a.m.  The day celebrated both the bishop’s blessing of the renovated building (which is beautiful and now has a balcony to accommodate the overflow crowds) and the 150th anniversary of the arrival of The Episcopal Church in southern Haiti. 
As an event, the morning was tremendous.  Along with the bishop and the gaggle of clergy were three choirs, liturgical dancers, a band, the local mayor, and more people than the building could hold.  Folks were sitting on the stairs to the balcony and lingering at the doorways – for three hours of worship and another hour of speeches.  Sweating through a borrowed alb, I nearly stayed completely conscious.
There was another presence in the room, one I was blessed to glimpse at the beginning of our worship.  First, you have to know that the windows in Haitian buildings are open to the outside, so visitors from the animal kingdom are no great surprise.  As we gathered around God’s altar, singing with joy and power, I saw something near the ceiling out of the corner of my eye.  It was a white bird, flying from one side of the building to the other, then going out the window and on its way.  Rationally, I know it was a pigeon; but in my memory, it will become a dove.  I’ve had this sort of thing happen once before, at St. Andrew’s a few years ago, when a bird literally walked into the narthex one afternoon, flew around a bit, and finally flew back out the door it had first used.  I saw that visit, years ago, as a sign that the Holy Spirit wasn’t content simply to be in the church.  The Holy Spirit wants to lead us out of the church and into mission with the people around us.  Well, here in Les Cayes, I think it happened again.  The Spirit flew in, nodded approvingly, and flew on out.  I think we’d be wise to follow.
The other animal visitors today were brought by parishioners.  The accompanying videos show the World’s Best Offertory Ever.  Two explanatory notes:  The chickens eventually had to be removed because they started fighting at the foot of the altar (there’s a sermon in that); and the goat is alive (though tired, apparently).  We know, intellectually, that the Offertory is intended to be our presentation of all of our life – “our selves, our souls and bodies,” as the Eucharistic Prayer says.  Whatever we have, whoever we are, whatever we feel, whatever gifts we’ve received – all of that goes into the offering plate on Sunday morning.  Well, it’s one thing to know that.  It’s another thing to sacramentalize it, and that’s what the people of St. Sauveur did this morning in the World’s Best Offertory Ever.  
You know, even when the chickens we bring to the altar act up and start pecking each other; even when our goats lie lifeless; even when we don’t quite know where to put the flowers – in it all, the Lord God is well-pleased.  And probably chuckling.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Haiti Mission Trip, Day 1

We’ve made it to Les Cayes in southwestern Haiti after an exhausting but oddly energizing day.  The 6 a.m. flight from KC seems like it left a couple of days ago now….
Today (like every kingdom day, properly understood) was a study in trust.  Once we arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport and recovered our luggage, we wheeled a comically overloaded cart out the door.  That doesn’t sound like a particularly trusting thing to do, but we actually had no idea who was coming to pick us up.  The anonymous driver was supposed to be carrying a sign with Carolyn Kroh’s name, but specific expectations are something you learn to lose in Haiti travel.  Meanwhile, we had to run the gauntlet of probably 50 young men, all of whom would be competing to touch our overloaded cart and thereby earn a share of the tip.  But the drivers aren’t allowed to come into the terminal, so out we went.  As it turned out, the driver was there, complete with Carolyn’s name on a sign. 
The second case study in trust came from the driver himself (whose name I never could make out).  He led us to his vehicle, and the lucky designees from the gauntlet of young men offloaded the luggage cart, each of them earning at least five times a daily wage in Haiti in that one tip.  The driver made the payments and convinced the hangers-on to go back to the terminal.  He started the car, turned on the A/C (blessedly) … and sat there.  Before he even put the car into reverse, the driver closed his eyes, clasped his hands, and spent a couple of minutes in silent prayer.  I did, too.  Prayer is always a good idea; but if your driver is praying, it’s probably a good idea to join in.  He crossed himself, put the car into reverse, and made his way into – and finally, out of – Port-au-Prince.  The prayers were a wise choice, both in the city and along the “highway” toward the southwest region of the country.  Imagine people walking and riding bikes along the white lines of I-70, and you get the picture – but add dogs, goats, and pigs, too.
The third case study in trust comes from the Haitian people themselves.  Every time I come here, I’m struck by the seamless interweaving of the sacred and the secular.  Flannery O’Connor writes about the American South being a “Christ-haunted landscape”; if that’s true, then the spirits of all the saints are alive and well and inhabiting Haiti.  Everywhere you look here, you see proclamations of trust in God.  And you need only look at the oncoming traffic and the businesses lining the road.  Most of the tap-taps (multicolored trucks serving as public transportation) bear proclamations above the windshield, and most of them are faith statements.  Here are a few I saw today:  “Merci Jesus” (thank you, Jesus), “Grace Divine,” “Fils de Dieu” (Son of God), “Jesus Mon Seul Espoir” (Jesus, My Only Hope), and “Jesus Revient” (Jesus is Coming Back).  Looking from the oncoming traffic to the businesses you’re passing by, you move from sublime proclamation to stunning mash-ups of deep trust and commercial necessity.  Here are some actual business names we passed:
·         Nouvelle Jerusalem Salon
·         Merci Jesus Bric-a-Brac
·         Grace Divine Pharmacia (maybe that one works)
·         Lumiere de Dieu Reparation d’Auto (Light of God Auto Service)
·         Le Sang (Blood) de Jesus Boutique
·         Jehovah Store
·         Christ Capable Matériaux de Construction (building supplies)
·         And perhaps my favorite – Pere Eternal (Eternal Father) Lotto
These may strike us as amusing, but there’s more there than meets the funny bone.  Day in and day out, people here take their faith to the level I think God would like to see from us all: to the level of deep trust that acknowledges God’s sovereignty and overwhelming love, regardless of the outcome we get in a given moment.  You see it everywhere you look in Haiti – Grace Divine.