Archive for religion

Language by Baptism: Parte Nueve

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2017 by timtrue

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Wrapping things up around here.

Tomorrow is our examen grande, a kind of final exam to see how effective our Spanish immersion experience has been. Then, for me and my daughter anyway, we’ll be traveling back to the southwestern United States, leaving San Miguel de Allende to continue its life without us.

By the way, while we were staying here, Travel and Leisure named SMA the #1 city in the world to visit. What are the chances?

Anyway, point is, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we want to do in our last few days. What would we reget if we were to miss it?

El Museo de las Mascaras topped the list.

So we arranged a visit (by appointment only); and we went.

And we learned a whole lot more about the history of Mexico.

Do you know there are 63 recognized languages in this country?

One language, the language we’ve been studying so intensively for the past four weeks, of course, is Spanish.

Still, that leaves 62 others (which, incidentally, are spoken by over seven million people).

So what are these 62 other recognized languages in Mexico? Those of indigenous peoples.

Yeah! In Mexico, that friendly country to the south that we in the US tend to give little mind to–or else ignore or exclude–there are 62 recognized indigenous groups. These are peoples who speak their own language; carry on their own ancient customs, albeit vestiges for the most part; and, sadly, are largely forgotten by their own government.

Yesterday in conversation class–that hour after three intensive hours of grammar and syntax when we let loose, set aside our notebooks, and just talk–the subject of indigenous peoples came up. Mind you, this was just two hours before my and Christiana’s appointment at the Mask Museum.

Jessica, our teacher, a native of Mexico to whom I cannot offer enough praise, told us about education in Mexico. It’s free through college for all citizens; but there are simply not enough schools, especially in rural areas; especially where the indigenous peoples dwell.

Imagine the closest school being more than thirty kilometers away, and your family’s main source of transportation a donkey. Yeah! This really exists in our modern world. And just a few hundred miles south of San Diego!

Maybe the government of Mexico is to blame, I don’t know. But it is very difficult to find teachers who know or are willing to learn the languages of the indigenous peoples; so even if the government were to build a school in the midst of an indigenous community, what good are such schools without teachers?

The students could be immersed in Spanish, I suppose. But would they attend? Would their family or tribe want them to attend?

And these indigenous languages aren’t simply dialects of Spanish. Indeed, they’re not even cognates! They are completely unrelated to Spanish, connecting directly to the old, old languages of the days of the Aztecs and Mayans!

So, two hours later, with these questions persisting and pestering, we headed to the Mask Museum.

Photographs weren’t allowed, by the way.

It was an incredible experience, a highlight of our entire time here–wish I could offer some photos!

So: over the last 26 years, Bill, the owner of the museum and a retired businessman from the US, has been visiting indigenous communities all over Mexico collecting masks made for festivals and dances. Over the last dozen years, Bill has been displaying his collection in his museum, continually improving it. Each room is lined with masks; each wall displays a theme. Placards all along the way explain the themes (making for an ideal self-guided tour).

We read every word, spending more than three hours there. Here was indigenous history at our fingertips!

Syncretism figures prominently into the history of the indigenous peoples in Mexico. The Spaniards came to the new world and brought their religion and military might. Their modus operandi was to overwhelm the natives with their ways. Where religious ritual could not be snuffed out, it was incorporated and baptized (in a matter of speaking).

Ritualistic dances to the gods of harvest and bounty, for instance, became religious rituals to the Spanish understanding of the Christian god. Masks were very much a part of these ritualistic dances; and thus had to be carved into acceptable images–not in the image of the god of the four winds, for example, but in the image of St. James. If indigenous persons refused to comply, well, punishment included (from one edict I read) two hundred lashes and six years in prison.

Needless to say, the natives complied.

Más o menos.

And thus dances that formerly beseeched the gods of rain and bountiful harvest now took on an air of good versus evil according to the Spaniards’ version of the Christian story. St. James was good; Lucifer bad. The disciples were good; the Jews, and specifically the Pharisees, bad. Jesus was good; Pontius Pilate bad. The Spaniards were good; the moors (Muslims) bad. And one more: the slave-owning Spaniards were good; African slaves bad.

By the way, Judas Iscariot comes into the yearly dances too. But only once a year, during Holy Week. Thus, ironically, he is not an archetype of evil. (He’s evil, sure; but not an archetype.) The archetypal enemies (in dances performed to this day!) are Lucifer, the Jews, Pontius Pilate, and the Moors.

Thus, throughout Mexico (and I’m imagining most if not all of Latin America as well), the natives’ masks and dances were overwhelmed by and incorporated into the Spanish version of the Christian story.

And thus some very nasty and stubborn versions of racism entered friendly Mexico.

It’s all there in the masks.

To this day!

Nevertheless, despite all the Spaniards’ efforts, vestiges of the old, old dances remain.

One indigenous group, not too far south from Tucson, Arizona, as a matter of fact, continues a ritual dance to this day calling upon the god of the hunt to give the community ample deer meat for the season.

The conservative side of my psyche finds much hope in this; for maybe, just maybe–I like to think anyway–the old, old ways will triumph in the end over the newer. . . .

Anyway, I began this blog post with a photo. I wasn’t able to take any photos of any masks in the museum, I mentioned. But I was able to take this one.

That’s because it wasn’t taken in the museum. I purchased this mask and am bringing it home.

Made by a mask-maker in an indigenous community not far from here, in the Sierra Madre outside the city of Guanajuato, it’s a mask for Carnival, called Mardi Gras by the French, that great party that takes place each year just before Lent.

It’s a gift to my family.

More importantly, it’s a reminder of the social injustices happening to this day in that friendly country to the south.

At the end of this Spanish immersion experience, then, I am left to wonder what I can do about it.

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Seeking with the Magi

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2016 by timtrue

Matthew 2:1-12

I used to be a Calvinist.

Is anyone here a Calvinist, or willing to admit it anyway?  Anyone here know a Calvinist personally?  Well, now you can all say you know someone who once claimed to be a Calvinist.

Whatever the case, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Calvinism.

Calvinism—you may or may not know—holds to more extreme views in a lot of ways than Jean Calvin himself held.  But that’s the way it often is with isms: a founding father espouses radical ideas in their own right; but it’s his followers that carry these ideas out to their logical conclusions.

So, after Jean Calvin died, his ideas were read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by Dutch Protestants, in Holland.  And tulips grow in the land of the Dutch Protestants.  So that’s how we know Calvinism: through the tulip: spelled T-U-L-I-P.

T is for Total Depravity.  Calvinism teaches that everyone is totally depraved from birth.  And by this Calvinists don’t mean that little babies are crawling around tagging buildings with spray paint on a rival gang’s turf and selling drugs.  It’s not total depravity—mayhem, chaos—being acted out in every possible way.  Rather, we have all been born with sin affecting all our faculties.  We are so utterly depraved—even as cute, roly-poly, helpless infants—that there is nothing we can do on our own merit to save ourselves from our depravity.

U is for Unconditional Election.  If we are fortunate enough to be saved from our own depravity, Calvinists say, it is only through God’s own sovereign election.  There is nothing we can do about it, one way or another; salvation is not based on some condition, like, “If you pray the sinner’s prayer, then God will save you.”  Only God saves—or not.  We merely hope and pray that we are one of the elect—or not.

L is for Limited Atonement.  Christ’s death on the cross atoned for the sins of many, so the argument goes, but not for all.  The “many” he atoned for are the elect.  The “not all” includes everyone else, the not-elect—which is really just another word for the damned.  So, merely out of his own good pleasure, God predestines some people to spend eternity with him in heaven.  But what does this mean for everyone else?  Just that everyone else is predestined to spend eternity in hell, that’s all.  And, because of their total depravity, God is blameless in the whole exchange.

I is for Irresistible Grace.  Calvinism says that God will save all the people he has predestined to save; and he will save them through a call that is irresistible.  There is an old adage: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  According to Calvinism, however, God will lead the elect person to living water; and, quite like a puppet, the elect person will have no choice but to drink.

And P is for Perseverance of the Saints.  Those whom God calls—all of the truly faithful—will persevere until the end.  Which is really a good loophole for those who fall away from the faith, isn’t it?  George fell into sin.  Well, no matter, he must never have been saved in the first place; for if he were truly saved, he would have stayed the course—he’d have persevered.

So then, I used to be a Calvinist.  But not anymore.  At its logical conclusion—for me anyway—Calvinism makes God out to be a harsh taskmaster; leaving me fearful, wanting to take my talents and bury them in the dirt.

But Jesus Christ is a God of love, not fear.

Now, when I first read about Emeth, I was still a Calvinist.

Emeth is a Calormene—a man from the made-up land of Calormen—in C. S. Lewis’s final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

In Calormen, the men traditionally wear turbans, grow long beards, and smell of onions and garlic.  The god they worship is named Tash.  Their capital city is called Tashbaan.

On the other hand, the Narnians’ culture is identifiably western.

Is it just coincidence that the Calormenes share many things in common with Muslims?

I don’t think so.

Muslim author Imran Ahmad doesn’t think so either.  Infatuated with the Chronicles as a boy, he writes about the tension he felt:

But there was an aspect of Lewis’s world which caused me great discomfort. The enemies of Narnia were from a country called Calormen, and we learned more about them as we progressed through the books—especially The Horse And His Boy. These people looked unmistakably like Saracens—medieval Muslims; the Narnians themselves looked like Crusaders. In wanting to identify with the characters, I was torn between a natural desire to be on the side of “good” with the white English children and a feeling that I was condemned to be in the other camp, the Calormenes, the darkies from Calormen . . . with their curved swords and spicy food and unmistakable Islamic cultural symbolism.[i]

Anyway, when I first read about Emeth, I was still a Calvinist.

After the final battle of Narnia has ended and all our heroes have passed through the doorway out of the shadowlands and into the glories of eternity, amazingly, Emeth is there too.

But Emeth is a Muslim, I protested!  In my Calvinistic mind, there was no way he could have been predestined.  There was no way he should be in heaven, with me!

But I was a Calvinist.  I didn’t like the idea that a Muslim could find Jesus Christ through authentically seeking Allah.

(Can you imagine?  There I was, in my thirty-something year-old mind, telling my little girls, to whom I was reading this story for the first time, that, no, Mr. Lewis had gotten this one wrong; that I knew better!)

But what does the story of the Magi demonstrate?

We know less about the Magi than we care to admit.  Tradition says there are three of them.  But the Bible doesn’t say this.  All the Bible says is that wise men came from the East.  Men is plural.  There could have been two; there could have been forty.  We assume three probably because there were three gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh.

But what we do know—what the Gospel does tell us—is that they came from another part of the world, the East.  They were not Jewish.  They were Gentiles.  And arguably the very first disciples of Christ!

What we also know is that they were readers of the sky.  They’d come to Jerusalem following a star by which, somehow, they discerned a child had been born King of the Jews.  Key here, by the way, is sky, not scriptures.  They had come seeking Christ by what Jews would have considered a method outside the box.

But that’s it!  That’s all the Gospel says.

Were there three Magi?  We don’t know.

Were their names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar?  Very probably not.  But we don’t know for sure!

Did they have a copy of the Jewish scriptures, left behind after the ancient Babylonian king had forced the Jews into exile?  We don’t know.

But what we do know is that they’d followed a star, the light of Christ.  With what little means they had, they’d sought Christ authentically; and they’d found him.

And thus the story of the Magi seems to align more with Emeth than it does with Calvinism.

The story of the Magi shows us that, regardless of where they come from, authentic seekers find Christ.  And by “where they come from” I don’t mean just the literal meaning, their geographical location.  It includes the figurative meaning too, their religion.

So, on this day of Epiphany, 2016, in our religiously and racially charged culture, we are left with a couple questions to ponder:

The first is a collection of questions, really.  But they all get at the same thing:

  • Can Muslims find the way, the truth, and the life through the Koran?
  • Can Buddhists find Christ through the pursuit of enlightenment?
  • Can Hindus through yoga?
  • Or—for that matter, and maybe hitting a little closer to home for us here in Yuma—can Mormons find the true light of Christ through the Book of Mormon?

This story of the Magi suggests so.  For in this story, authentic seekers find Christ regardless of geographical location or even religion.

But a second—and much more important—question is this: what about you?  Are you seeking Christ authentically?

Maybe so.  Maybe you are as eager to reflect the light of Christ today as the Magi were to find it in the days of old.  If so, yea and amen!

But maybe you’re feeling more like I felt when I was still a Calvinist.  Maybe your religion has become burdensome for you, like some harsh taskmaster leaving you feeling like you should just go bury your talents in the dirt.

If so, learn from the Magi.  Set aside all your judgment, all your desire to be right all the time, all your desire to know everything—to know what is better left in the realm of mystery—and, with the Magi of old, come and worship Christ, the newborn King.

[i] Quoted from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/imran-ahmad/narnia_b_1400025.html

Tired of Spinning?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2015 by timtrue

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Mark 6:1-13

Spin.

That’s what we do to the truth, don’t we?  We spin it.

Next time you’re at a park, just sit back and observe a couple of kids for a while.  Not so long ago I saw two little boys playing on a slide.  It was a parallel slide: two slides running parallel to each other.  And so you’d think that here was the perfect opportunity for a race.  Instead, however, one of the boys was attempting to go down the slide correctly, to slide down from the top to the bottom feet first; but the other boy was standing on the slide, attempting to block the first boy’s way.

A sort of cruel game developed where the boy attempting to go down the slide would pretend to begin a descent; and the second boy would predictably jump over to that slide and block his way.  The first boy would then quickly scurry to the other slide, the parallel one, trying to beat the other boy’s attempts at blocking him.  This pretend-jump-switch-jump dance carried on for a bit until, at last, probably frustrated, the top boy let go for a bona fide descent.  On the way down, as fate would have it, the sliding boy collided with the blocking boy, who, probably off balance, promptly fell flat on his face, connecting his lower lip squarely with the surface of the slide.

Well, I continued watching, feeling a kind of tacit vindication, as the second boy, the one who’d been blocking the slide, rose to his feet, rubbed his lip, saw a spot of his own blood on the back of his hand, began hollering, and then ran straight for his mother—who was on her phone and had witnessed nothing of the event!  Finally, grabbing his mother’s arm and pointing, he cried, “That boy pushed me!”

Spin.

Some people, as a matter of fact, put their spin on things really well—so well that we end up paying them full-time to do so!  We’ve given these people a name.  Media professionals who are really good at doing this—at putting their own spin on the truth (usually to favor one political party over another, by the way)—are called spin doctors.

(Not to be confused with the band formed in 1989!)

Anyway, this is how spin often works.  Someone, or some group of someones, wants to communicate an opinion.  But they don’t start there—with their opinion.  Rather, they start with a truth, a premise; and they build up to their opinion, their conclusion, not through logic but through spin: the manipulation of that truth.

So, spin is the backdrop to what’s going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus has set out from his home town and begun his ministry.  He’s called his disciples, he’s been teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  And word about him has spread.

Imagine the excitement some of his hometown friends and family must have felt when word of his successful ministry first reached their ears.

Yes!  One of our own has made a success of himself!  Jesus has put Nazareth on the map!

Nevertheless, by the time today’s story takes place, whatever excitement was once felt has now dissipated.  For spin has taken effect.

How could Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary, become a success?  Why, I remember when he was just a little boy, playing hide-and-seek with the other kids at dusk.  He once made a few chairs and a table for me, sure; and they’re good enough quality in their own right.  I still have them in my house in fact.  But he’s a carpenter, for crying out loud!  He’s not a synagogue leader, a teacher, or a miracle worker.  Pshaw!  How could he be?  How could anything good come out of Nazareth?

By this time, spin has taken effect and dissipated whatever excitement a minority of hometown fans may once have felt.  Spin has produced unbelief:

“And he could do no deed of power there . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

We see another example of spin’s negative effects—a much more significant example—in the Gospel of John, a story we’re all familiar with, when Jesus is standing trial before Pontius Pilate:

An angry mob brings Jesus forward.  Their opinion—their spin—is that Jesus is an enemy of the state and thus a threat to Caesar.  So Pilate asks him directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Here Jesus has the opportunity to tell his side of the story—for there are always two sides to any story.  And he says: “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Then, as if he hasn’t been clear enough, he says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And there it is!  Jesus has told Pilate his side of the story.  And it’s nothing at all like the crowd’s spin.  Jesus is not an enemy of the state; he is not a threat to Caesar.

But, sadly, Pilate’s mind is already made up.  He’s already chosen a side—the side of the angry crowd.  He’s a politician, after all, whose goal is not the truth but to get the people to embrace a certain worldview.  Perhaps this is why he answers Jesus with the haunting question, “What is truth?”

Here’s the trouble, then, with spin.  The spinner’s mind is already made up before he ever begins spinning!  Regardless of the initial truth upon which the spin is based—the premise—the spinner knows where he wants his story to go—his conclusion—ahead of time.  This is, simply stated, bias.  Or, another word for it, prejudice: pre-judging; making a judgment ahead of time.

And this is how Pilate picks his side.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.  Despite asking Jesus for his take, Pilate hears only the crowd:

  • The crowd, who is caught up in their own spin;
  • The crowd, who has twisted the truth;
  • The crowd, who refuses to honor justice;
  • The crowd, who lets a condemned criminal, Barabbas, go instead of the innocent man Jesus;
  • The crowd, who shouts, Crucify him! Crucify him!

For Pilate’s mind is already made up ahead of time.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.

Now, the question for us to consider today—with the patriotic sounds of fireworks still ringing in our ears—is, are we too much like Pilate?

And by us I mean you and me as individuals, sure.  But I also mean the St. Paul’s us, this local body; and the Episcopal Church us, the national church body to which we belong; and the broader Christian and American cultures us.  Are all of us too much like Pilate?  Are our minds already made up?

Now, a lot has happened politically and religiously in our country over the last ten days:

The Supreme Court has made historic rulings on healthcare, marriage, and the way we perform executions.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has made a significant decision or two as well.

Whatever the issue—whether it be gay marriage, healthcare reform, or issues surrounding human dignity and the sanctity of life—we are hearing a lot of spin right now—more than usual.  We are being persuaded, even challenged, to pick sides.

And with all this buzz clamoring for our loyalties, we should ask ourselves: Are our minds already made up about which way to go?  Like Pilate, is our logical reasoning clouded by an emotional crowd—by partisan loyalties?

Whenever we come to something with our minds already made up—whether a political issue, an individual person, a class of people, whatever; whenever we only give the appearance of listening (and not actually hearing); whenever we embrace an agenda or worldview whose goal is a political ideal; whenever we place loyalties in a political party; whenever we invest in social norms; whenever we believe in our own preferences—we run the risk of a compromised faith—of unbelief—in Christ.

And, as we learned from our Gospel today, unbelief renders Jesus ineffective.

So, again, I ask: Are we too much like Pilate?

And, for the record, I’m asking this question honestly.  In others words, I don’t know the answer.  In the Episcopal Church’s rulings this week, maybe we are being like Pilate, with our minds already made up ahead of time, bent on a certain political agenda.  This is certainly what a lot of conservative Christian groups are saying about the Episcopal Church.

But, on the other hand, maybe we’re not being like Pilate at all but are truly trying to reconcile what a Gospel of love means for our day and age, and how that Gospel should play out.  Maybe it’s actually the groups accusing us of heresy who are being like Pilate here.  Maybe it’s their minds already made up ahead of time.

I don’t know.  This question—are we like Pilate?—is something for us to consider as individuals, as a local church body, as a national church, and as Christians; and as a culture.

But let’s return to the scriptures we looked at today.  Having our minds made up ahead of time stymies the truth and produces unbelief.

The flipside teaches us that not knowing is a good place to be.  Jesus might in fact be calling us to rest in the tension of uncertainty for a while, maybe even a long while.

It also teaches that when we come to a place of surrender, of saying, I don’t know all the answers; I’m not in a position of authority here, but Jesus does and Jesus is—when we come to this point of surrender, our faith is increased.  For here we trust in Jesus—not the spin doctors—to provide a way forward.

Lord, help us rest in the tension of uncertainty.  Amen.

2015 Lent 16

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2015 by timtrue

alone

Jeremiah 5:20-31

An appalling and horrible thing
has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
and the priests rule as the prophets direct;
my people love to have it so,
but what will you do when the end comes? (vv. 30-31)

The Israel of Jeremiah’s day was a theocracy.  That is, it was governed politically by God.  God’s prophets and priests functioned doubly as political leaders.

What if we were to change the words up a little?  What if instead of an ancient theocracy we were talking about a modern democracy, such as our own country?  What words would we use then?  Pundits and politicians?

Okay.  But, still, one more word-change is needed.  For prophets prophesy; but what do pundits do?  Speculate?

Fine.  So we have this:

An appalling and horrible thing
has happened in the land:
the pundits speculate falsely,
and the politicians rule as the pundits direct;
my people love to have it so,
but what will you do when the end comes?

It’s surprising how modern the Old Testament can be!

Frankly, this sounds like statements I’ve heard from both poles of the American political spectrum.  Of course, they each say it about the other side.  Which makes me wonder, do they cancel each other out?

At any rate, I’m glad for separation of church and state today.  Especially as a priest!

Let the pundits speculate and the politicians politick, I say.  As for me, I’ll do what I’ve been called to do, even if, like Jeremiah, I have to stand alone.