Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sitting In A Zen Garden In Pocatello I Ponder The Oddness Of Life

On a soft Autumn afternoon, under blue Idaho skies, I sit in a Japanese gazebo in the Zen garden of the Pocatello airport. I live in Las Vegas, the neon capital of the Western Hemisphere. There is no neon here, just stillness. Inside the airport, there is no one at ticketing, no one in the closed cafe, no other passenger. Eventually, a pleasant young woman in a TSA uniform comes out to join me. She is not checking to see if I am a security threat. No, instead she tells me her life story and many of her hopes and dreams. She is from Preston on the Utah border but would like to live in San Diego someday. She was in Athens, Georgia once for training back when she was in the car business, and was captivated by the green antiquity.

After she goes, I remember this weekend at the Diocese of Idaho Convention. I was the after dinner speaker. I began, "It is a sweeter thing for me to be here than most of you can imagine," then told them the story of how 30 years ago God had saved my life from cynical despair through the gracious agency of the Episcopal Church in Idaho. "I was born here," I told them, "through an at risk spriitual pregnancy and an arduous labor." It was a sweet thing to be here and the people this weekend were as kind and human as ever. I told them that "when I could not see God, I saw you." The truth is I still cannot see God anywhere so clearly as in the rumpled, fallible, oft-times maddening collection of people who stumble along together as the church. It takes better spiritual x ray vision than I have yet achieved to see God behind the opaque pride of the arrogantly disbelieving and the spiritually advanced alike -- though I still try.

Here I saw a few old friends from those distant decades. I saw newer friends whom I know from national gatherings of those who try to be the church in the wild and sometimes lonely places like Pocatello, Blackfoot, Arco, Austin, Eureka, Ely, and Pioche. And I met new people: a retired admiral with bushy white eyebrows who settled in Idaho Falls after giving up his life on nuclear submarines; a tall handsome middle school teacher who discovered how rich he was while teaching English in Turkey; a lawyer who was once a high roller in the state bar but now serves as the chancellor for this church.

I flew here 3 days ago, changing planes in Salt Lake, waiting for my connection in "the back 40" where all the planes are going to Great Falls, Helena, St. George, Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, Grand Junction. I don't know what possessed me to ever leave the West. "How could I sing King Alpha's song in a strange land?" I did not tell Jesse these things. How do I know what she needs? Perhaps she too needs an exile from this arid spaiousness; perhaps for her an urban exile in San Diego or back in the land of green antiquity. I suppose I did. And I know I may leave this land again someday. Out here even the mountains are transitory. They erupted recently in geological time and may collapse in some seismic shift one of these days. As the Bishop of Idaho often says, "Life is short. There is so little time to be kind."

So this is not my life forever. Today, it is given to me to sit in a Zen garden at an empty airport in Pocatello and shake my head over just how odd that is.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Family Of God In Lincoln County, Nevada

Don’t get me wrong. I love Las Vegas. The sheer surrealism of living here amazes me every day. But sometimes it is just too much. Saturday things had been frenzied in a good way with our booth at the Pure Aloha Festival and Convention preparation going on at the same time. Then there was a barrage of the kind of incoming criticism that just goes with the turf of my curious (double entendre) vocation. But God provides. Saturday afternoon, Linda and I headed out for Pioche. But not so fast there kid. We took the I-15, little knowing it had been narrowed to a single lane for road construction. Trapped. It took forever before we could escape the jam. When we did, we had escaped onto the Las Vegas Strip. Arrrrgh! It was a tortuous odyssey wending our way to the I-95. But eventually we made it. We were sprung!

Then it was a lovely drive through the autumn afternoon up the 93, through my beloved Pahranagat Valley, through the Joshua Tree forest, along the pastures, to Pioche, once the wildest town in the Wild Wild West.

Dinner at the Silver Café. Then up the hill to Christ Church where Nick had unlocked the lower level and turned on the heat for us to spend the night in the bedroom they keep ready for itinerant preachers and roving prophets. The dog Fichu was beside himself. The steeply sloping back yard of Christ Church is his favorite place on God’s green earth. He did miss the cats that used to live across the street but they had moved on. There we spent a quiet evening, me reading A. N. Wilson’s eloquent biography of the Puritan heretic Milton.

Morning brought biscuits and sausage gravy at the Silver Café. A rangy young working man was making sweeping generalizations about the evils of socialism while an older working man was responding with a nuanced analysis of the pros and cons of the President’s Jobs Bill.

Back to Church for an early morning vestry meeting. They handled their business expeditiously and informally. As the Treasurer put it “We don’t know Robert.” His rules of order did not impede the good Christian folk of Pioche from getting on with the mission.

They had a challenge. The church musician Louie was missing. That is not unusual. He sometimes goes on walk about. To accommodate his wandering ways, they are buying one of those nifty machines that play hymns to support congregational singing, but it isn’t here yet. So they called Norma to drive a few hours down from Ely to provide the musical accompaniment on a xylophone. It was excellent. The gathered assembly of about 20 people sang right along.

The road from the 93 down to Pioche is an adopted highway, adopted by Christ Church, as a sign conspicuously announces. Civic responsibility, the Church engaged with society, the Christ light shining in a mountain village. After seeing the sign, Linda and I scanned the roadside for litter intending to stop and pick up any scrap we might find. But Deacon Kathy Hiatt and the laity of Christ Church had beaten us to it. The road was pristine.

At the vestry meeting we learned that this little congregation recently gave money to Episcopal Relief and Development to help the tornado victims in Joplin, Missouri. They support a missionary family in Chile. A thank you poster on their wall marks a donation they had made to UNICEF. They voluntarily give money above and beyond their diocesan assessment to support Ministry Development throughout our diocese.

Christ Church was founded by the first missionary bishop of Nevada, Ozzie Whittaker, who celebrated the first Pioche Holy Eucharist in a saloon, using the bar for an altar. This congregation was nourished for many years by Deaconess-in-Charge Jenny Hesmark whose biography is now being written by Karen Wilkes of St. Christopher’s, Boulder City. Christ Church was the star of Bishop Wes Frensdorff’s Total Ministry innovations in the 70s. Then they were shaped in the faith by the devoted ministry of their priest, the Rev. Jean Orr. Jean was called to priesthood by this congregation in 1975 – that’s right several years before women’s ordination was allowed in the Episcopal Church. Jean served until she was past 90. It was my privilege just last week at St. Catherine’s, Reno to confirm Jean’s grand-niece, Sophia Bedel.

When things get rough, it’s good to find the family of God to take one in and boost one’s hope.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Listening To The Heartbeat

“You look happy,” she said. She was the cashier at Maxi’s Café across from the B gates in the Reno airport. It was Sunday afternoon and I was buying a tuna and caper half sandwich when she said, “You look happy.”

“I am happy,” I said. I was happy. But I was surprised that anyone should say I looked happy, especially at the airport where my usually dour demeanor descends to anxious and morose. But I was so happy that it showed and I knew why. All weekend long, I had been listening to the heartbeat of the Church.

It started as I was “leaving Las Vegas” Thursday afternoon. I’d just finished a speaking engagement on Faith and the Practice of Law at the UNLV Law School. Things were swirling in the diocesan office and among various people in the city. They were scrambling to put together an evangelism booth at the Pure Aloha Festival to be held in the Silverton Casino the following week. We wanted to use this event to publicize our new Filipino/ Pacific Islander ministries which will kick off in January. Ellie was revising the diocesan evangelism brochure to focus on F/ PI evangelism. She was calling our people to find out how to translate Aloha into Tagalog and Igarot. The replies were coming with proposals to add floral designs. She added floral designs. More languages of the Pacific were suggested.

People at different congregations, people who three days ago had never heard of each other, were e mailing back and forth several times a day to coordinate the staffing of our booth which will be open all hours for four days. They were Filipino (Tagalog), Filipino (Igarot), Guamese, Anglo, Cuban, Mexican-American. It was a flurry of trying to do the impossible in too little time. But they were doing it with joy.

Context: we were already in full tilt panic getting ready for convention when Tom Walsh said, “What about the Pure Aloha Festival?” Within a day, we had rented what may be the first evangelism booth in a Las Vegas casino. But, hey, we are the 9th Island. Of course it’s impossible, but what would Eddie Aikau do? (If you don’t know, it’s only because you are not from Hawaii. Google Eddie Aikau). As a thousand bumper stickers say in Hawaii, “Eddie would go for it.”

Arriving in Reno, I drove straight to the Grove for the Empty Bowls Benefit to raise money for the St. Paul’s Community Food Pantry. Donning my “Bishy D” apron, I served bread, cookies, and ice cream. The place was packed. Many beautiful bowls were purchased. I bought one. A film described St. Paul’s efforts to combat hunger in Reno and Sparks. What the St. Paul’s congregation does each week is an incredible level of ministry driven by an inspiring degree of dedication.

Fast forward to Friday morning: I made my way through the line of people waiting to receive food at St. Paul’s, Sparks. Inside, I found Fr. Kirk and his son Cooper who had just come back from a night sleeping on the streets in cardboard boxes. It was an experience of solidarity with the homeless and also another fundraiser. They had sponsors like in a marathon benefit. By acting in solidarity with the homeless, they raised money for ministry to the homeless.

Then it was Saturday night. Off to Carson City (arriving late) for the Bristlecone Mass at the Brewery Arts Center. I swear half the town was there to see St. Peter’s performance of a jazz mass written by one of their own members. It was a composition with profound liturgical theology. It went from the words of institution “Do this in remembrance of me” to a song about Jesus being present as a homeless person pushing his shopping cart in the streets, pulling his coat together against the cold. This Mass understood what the incarnation that happens in the Mass means. It concluded with the eschatological welcome song “Come on in.” Along with music by a top class jazz trio and excellent solos supported by the Sagebrush Chorale, there were dancers (square, ballet, interpretive), mimes, and a juggler. The only place I have seen anything remotely comparable to the Bristlecone Mass is at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This was missional music from a missional church whose Circles of Support program provides a comprehensive array of services to families transitioning from homelessness.

Sunday morning I was at our newest free-standing congregation (the Latino ministries are hosted by existing congregations), St. Catherine’s, Reno. At 9 a.m., they had a Family Eucharist – 25 people present – almost all young parents and their children. They were a lively, joyful group singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” At 11, the larger congregation came to support three youngsters for their Confirmation. Among them, it was my privilege to confirm the great grandniece of the Rev. Jean Orr who served Christ Church, Pioche so well, so faithfully, and so long. All three of the confirmands were completely engaged and delighted to take this step in the Christian life.

All the while, the calls and e mails about the Pure Aloha Festival evangelism booth kept flying. The Evangelism Team was burning the candle at both ends to roll out our new evangelism logo which is still top secret in Nevada but Bishop Katharine and the communications people at 815 are cheering loudly and demanding t shirts.

So how was I “listening to the heartbeat of the Church?” Those words are a paraphrase of Philip Newell’s book on Celtic Christianity, Listening to the Heartbeat of God. And they refer to the end of one of Bishop Katharine’s best sermons. At the end she said, “The heartbeat of the Church is ‘mission, mission, mission.’”