Monday, May 10, 2004

My Easter Vigil

I have just returned from the Easter Vigil at the Anglican church not far from my apartment here in Tokyo. I have always loved the Great Vigil of Easter. It’s one of the oldest liturgies of the church and it is, in itself, a journey compacted into an hour or so of time. Timeless in its simplicity. Tonight it brought me through not only the Biblical journey but it helped me retrace, rethink and remember some of my own personal journey as well.

The agnostic in me comes out at Easter. I remember a character in a Spanish novel I read many years ago……the village priest who, when he got to the part of the Creed which said “I believe in the resurrection of the dead….” just couldn’t say the words. I say the words but there’s this twinge of doubt, this skepticism, this wonderment that hovers like a cloud whenever I do. And so it is with Easter itself. But the Great Vigil of Easter helps me in ways that no person has ever.

Tonight’s experiences brought back vivid memories of other Easter Vigils…… The priest ignited the fire from which the Paschal Candle was lit. A warm breeze came through the open door of the church…..I remembered a cold, cold Easter Eve in Slater, it was I who was the priest and it was I who had poured a bit too much starter fluid on the kindling in the little fire place I had constructed at the back of the church. The flames leaped high! I could have burned the church down! The perils of being a rooky priest. Tonight, the memory made me chuckle.

The liturgy is formed by a series of readings. The story of creation…..Genesis, our beginnings. Each evening and each morning forming the perfect days of that first “week” of our existence. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac……such a powerful testimony of a father’s love for God. Would I have had the faith to be willing to sacrifice MY two sons? I don’t think I would have. Those two, very precious boys, now men, whom I love with a vengence! Abraham’s story always stirs me, always scares me, always makes me grateful both that I am a father and that God has not seen fit to test my faith in the way he did Abraham. Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea……I’ve been there, I know that part of the world. I still can see that rugged, craggly peninsula that somehow looked more hospitable to the Israelites than their enslavement in Egypt. That image of being led through the waters to safety on the other side captivates me still. (“With your constant love you led the people you redeemed; With your might you brought them in safety to your holy dwelling.”……will he do the same with me?)

Tonight, three adults were baptized into the church. I had forgotten how beautiful that water sounds as it is poured into the baptismal font. It has been years since I’ve heard – really heard – the “Prayer over the Waters” as I heard it tonight: “….in this water we are buried with Christ…..rising from this water, we rise with Christ… this water…we are born again.” ......... Do you believe in God the Father? (I do!) Do you believe in our Savior, Jesus Christ? (I do!) Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life? (I do!) How often I have asked those questions. Tonight, I remembered that hot afternoon when we baptized Greg and Nate almost a quarter of a century ago now. I remembered the baptismal sermons I have preached. I remembered the times I have called others to renew their vows. Tonight, as I passed the font on the way to communion, I dipped my hand in, felt the coolness of that water, put it to my face, and remembered my own baptism……and took comfort from the knowledge that what God claims, God does not let go of.

As the priest prepared the Table for the Eucharist, we sang a song that I learned decades ago. One that Debby surely remembers as well as I. "I Am the Bread of Life"…. The Word of God community in Ann Arbor. 1971. Tumultuous years in the life of my country and equally tumultuous years in my own life. A charismatic Christian community with a spirit unlike any other I had ever experienced…..even until now. I can’t remember when I sang that hymn last but I know that I can never sing it without opening my hands. I realized tonight that over the years those open hands have received more than they ever deserved.

As I left the church tonight, the rector asked me, “What brought you here tonight?” I think he was just interested in where I had come from. I couldn’t answer the question….the road to “here” has been too long, full of too many twists and turns, the result of too many encounters and decisions for me to have given him an answer. All I could do was smile and shrug. But, in my heart I knew that I had come because I was pulled in by a Grace far bigger than I could ever describe. I was blessed by memories that underscored the many times I have been blessed by many other people and places. I was fed with that mystical food of Eucharist which tonight filled an empty spot. And I walked out into the night knowing a whole lot better who I was and Whose I am.

Hope and Disappointment

There are times when I teeter between high hopes and deep disappointment. Today was one of those times.

The mother of one of our middle school students came in to see me. She is a delightful woman.....Japanese, but has lived for a number of years (7 or 8 I think) in the USA. Her child is a superb student, a young person with integrity and wonderful energy. Today, after talking for a few minutes, this mother revealed the real reason for her visit: to check out a couple of rumors that had been bothering her. Was it true, she asked, that I was going to cut one of our accelerated courses? And, was it true, she went on to ask, that I was going to put an end to one of the beloved trips that our students take?

At first, I was amused by her questions. Both rumors had reached me a number of weeks ago and I was only surprised that it had taken so long for this particular mother to hear them or act upon them. But then, as we talked a bit further, I felt the familiar frustration rise in me and I sensed anew what I had learned a number of months ago: that there were people in the school who were worried that their pet projects, their favorite programs, were going to be cut by this newcomer on the block. From thence the rumors began.

My visitor could sense my frustration, I know. So, I shared with her what I have been coming to understand about this culture -- both Japanese culture in general and the school's culture in particular. What exists is a clash of cultures as strong as any I can imagine, at least in a school setting. On the one side is a culture -- Japanese and school -- which places ultimate importance on tradition and which, in the name of those traditions, eschews change. On the other is a culture which sees new frontiers, new horizons, greener grass on the other side. I am definitely of the latter, not the former.

Japanese culture honors the traditional. When something works, this culture seems to holds on to it for dear life. Our school's culture, for all its claims to being "international" or having an "American" emphasis, holds onto these core values and "tradition" takes hold quickly and firmly. Of course, like any "tradition," they provide comfort for many people, especially those who are the keepers of the tradition. Beyond institutional stability, these traditions give personal stability and steadiness to anyone who is uncomfortable with change, who may have lost a sense of self and a confidence in self that might withstand uncharted waters. So traditions continue and practices remain virtually unchanged from year to year. It's comfortable. And, it's predictable.

When someone with different cultural values enters this picture, there is bound to be tension. I come from a culture which looks for the horizon, for the frontier, for the places, people and things which haven't been seen, known, or conquered. My culture places value on movement over stagnation; traditions are young and easily broken. I'm predisposed to seeking the best way, not the oldest way and there's enough of the frontier spirit in my bones to want to see what's over the next mountain range; to know what's on the other side of the river; to want to find out if I can, indeed, cross the desert.

Today, however, I almost had the wind knocked out of my sails by this gentle woman whom I thought just might understand me and my ways. It was naive of me, I know, to think that just because she'd spent a few years in my homeland she would understand what it was that made me "tick." She claimed that I was being questioned so much here at this school because "people don't know [me] well." If that's the case, all they need to know is where I come from, what it is in the American experience that keeps people like me moving along in life. I wanted to shout: "It's not ME! It's not personal! It's my people; our experience; our outlook on life!" I'm not alone, am I, in thinking that we Americans are never quite content enough that we'd not want to know if there were a better way to do things. "American ingenuity" they call it, don't they?

Oh, I criticize my country a lot sometimes, I know. I get down on its leadership sometimes. I wish my compatriates were more aware of the world and less self-absorbed. I get impatient with the insularity of our greatness. But I'm damned proud of the American Ingenuity that has been bred in each of us so blessed with the fruits of liberty for over 200 years. Our American Experiment may sometimes run amuck but there's still an unsettling impatience that makes many of us want to look for the best way, the most effective, the most challenging way.

Schools like this one that don't want that kind of spirit would be well-advised not to look to me or my fellow Americans to lead them because, in the end, most of us will opt to critique and probe and cajole people and institutions into finding better solutions. At our best, we're frontier people, explorers, dreamers, inventors, movers. And that doesn't always mix well with a conservative world view that deifies Tradition.

One of the leaders from my youth whom I have come to admire for his own courage was fond of saying: "Some men see things as they are and say why....I dream things that never were and say why not." Robert Kennedy was killed for those dreams. I don't face anything quite so dramatic as he did but I do know what it's like to have them take pot shots at me, and my ideas. Still, I'd rather dream things that never were and ask why not.........

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Me, Green?

Those reading this blog who know me would never consider me overly concerned for the environment. Not that I'm in favor of squandering the earth's resources, but I've just never had a passion for environmental concerns like, say, Nate's friend, Brendan. I've never given money to "green" groups although I don't disparage those who do. So, it might strike some of you as ironic that I'd come back from a week in the Indonesian jungle angry that yet another US-based company is taking liberties with the earth.....again.

I was invited to travel to Indonesia to be a part of a small team of educators who were visiting a tiny, international school for the purposes of accrediting its program. The school in question was founded by the Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation to educate the children of its expatriate workers.

A number of years ago, Newmont's geologists discovered a substantial vein (I guess that's what you call it) of gold and copper. After negotiations, the company purchased a huge tract of land on Sumbawa, an island east of Bali, and they began to develop the mine. They've established a small village about 15 miles from the mine site and the expatriate workers live in that village in western-style homes constructed especially for them. And this village is on the edge of the jungle.

Wild monkeys scurry around the village, playing, foraging, fighting from time to time. As evening approaches, huge wild boar lumber out of the jungle and hunt for food. They are particularly ugly animals: black, razor-back hogs, really. Exotic birds everywhere. They told us to be careful of snakes but, frankly, I didn't venture out that much so I didn't see any. They did say, however, that a 7-meter python had been killed by a truck not far from the village.

On my last day on Sumbawa, the Newmont folks invited four of us up to the mine site to see the operation. When we arrived at the site, we were escorted up to the office area to get outfitted with hard-hats and safety vests. Safety is one of the biggest concerns of the company, along with environmental concerns. Over the course of the week, we had been told over and over how Newmont is concerned for the environment and for leaving the environment in good condition. There in the office building, we were invited to look at the spectacular photos that the company had arranged in chronological order...a sort of "before and after" sequence. It was then that it began to hit me: these folks were raping the earth!

It turns out that the jackpot of gold and copper was located in an old, dormant volcano. Wandering down the hallway, looking at the "before & after" series, I realized that over the past 6 or 7 years Newmont Mining Company has been systematically destroying that old volcano, blowing it up into tiny pieces and carting it away to extract the loot before sending it off to markets overseas.

We were taken up onto the side of what is now a huge pit........HUGE! The mine is a testimony to American efficiency. Huge, multi-ton Catepillar trucks lumber up and down the mine road. At one point, I counted 13 within my sight. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, these trucks cart out the dirt and rocks that once were the ancient volcano. They estimate that the mine is worth about $15-16 BILLION ..... about 1/4 of the assets of Newmont Mining. And, they think that it will take them about 10 more years to exhaust the gold and copper. About 15 years in all to turn a huge volcano into a garish, green "lake."

As I stood there and took this all in, it occured to me that there were no monkeys, no wild boar, no exotic birds. So much for being environmentally friendly! I wonder how they explained to all those monkeys, wild boar, and wild goats (I forgot to mention them before) that they'd have to vacate the land, that their homes weren't worth half as much as all that gold and copper. Newmont sooths any corporate conscience that it has by replanting grasses and trees on the side of the pit that doesn't contain any of the precious metal ore. But, it will be a long time before it becomes habitable for all that wildlife. By that time, they may have found another vein of ore and be off to rape -- "develop" -- another site.

And, why, I ask do we need more gold and copper? Well, for all those computers and heating elements, and cabling that makes us so technologically connected! Explain that to the monkeys and the boar and the birds and the pythons.

Turning my back on this huge, gaping hole in the earth that was once a stately volcano, I wondered what, or Who, gave us the right to rid the earth of a volcano. In the grand scheme of things, the world will probably be OK without one old volcano but, still......the arrogance of our modern technology was more than I really could celebrate. Instead, I felt badly -- really badly -- for that wildlife being forced to flee the madness that we have created. I feel angry that humankind has taken upon itself to decide which mountain is leveled and destroyed. That volcano was a work of Divine art! Born from so many forces of the earth. It now dies an ugly, violent death. It just isn't right. A nice computer or a speedy connection or anything else that this gold and copper will provide for someone like me is NOT worth more than that lush, dense jungle or that old, stately volcano.

It was hard to be enthusiastic that morning. Our hosts were obviously proud of their accomplishments and, indeed, from one point of view what they have done is really remarkable. But I went away sad. Our world never looked so beaten, so victimized, so ravaged as it did in that mine pit. Color me a bit more green today because of that trip.