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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

How do you celebrate a 21st wedding anniversary in Texas?

With Barbeque and bluegrass of course!
Well, the family has been in Texas now for a month, and we are still trying to adjust, having lived in England for 2 years.

John and I decided to celebrate our 21st anniversary a few days early, I guess so that if necessary we still had time for a "do over."

So, did we go to a nice restaurant and have pate and sip champaigne? Nope. We headed for one of San Antonio's famous BBQ places, Rudy's, at which you can also fill up your gas tank. Very handy. Sitting at a weathered wooden picnic table we enjoyed a romantic feast of brisket, three bean salad, chicken and potato salad, dabbing the sauce off the corners of our mouths with brown paper towels from a dispenser on the wall. We loved it.

Next we drove deeper into the heart of Texas: to Gruene, a small community settled in the 1800s by German immigrants. In the center of the town is Gruene Hall, purported to be the "oldest dance hall in Texas." It was about 6 in the evening and the heat was still going strong --somewhere around 103 degrees. We tried to adopt a Texas "saunter" as we pushed open the screen door into a building that looked like it might only have been up to a 1918 building code. The hall was cooled by about 10 ceiling fans working hard to stir the hot air. I was preparing myself for the possibility that my foot might, at any moment, find its way through the wood floor.

Gruene Hall sells beer and bad wine only, and people come to listen to music and dance. On this particular evening the featured singer was Paula Nelson, Willie's singer/songwriter daughter. The heat wasn't too bad as long as we sat very still. As tempting as it was, we might have been the only people not to carve our names in the long tables where we sat soaking in the music and doing major people watching.

What a collection of folk were gathered to listen, dance, talk and sample the Budweiser and Heineken! As you would expect in Texas, there were men with cowboy hats and buckles as big as Delaware. There were young women in the classic summer Texas ensemble of shorts and cowboy boots. There was the two year old with a Mohawk whose father was fully covered in rainbow tie dye. A guy with a barbed -wire tattoo around his upper arm shared a laugh with the young woman dancing with her niece. A man in khaki shorts and tube socks beat out rhythm on imaginary drums while a smiling senior citizen led his partner across the dance floor while wearing a baseball cap with a picture of piece of pie on it. Nobody seemed particularly hot. Everyone seemed like that was exactly where they wanted to be on a Sunday afternoon and nobody seemed out of place.

It was a great 21st anniversary.


Thursday, 7 May 2009

Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his Muslim Army of Peace

An edited version of one of my earlier entries in this blog has been accepted for online publication in the Review of Faith and International Affairs. If you are interested, check it out at Ghaffar Khan, a contemporary of Gandhi is a spiritual giant.


Thursday, 30 April 2009

Things I will miss....

My family has been in the UK now for almost 21 months. Despite the rumor (or rumour) that the language is the same, the fact that American movies (films) are everywhere, there is a Subway sandwich shop around the corner, and the American grey squirrel has taken over from the native red squirrel, one does feel constantly confronted with things that are slightly or even vastly different. There is a sort of minor, yet constant culture shock, which mostly makes life very interesting, but sometimes leaves you saying "Just could there be a Target superstore somewhere!" Driving on the left, writing the dates with the day first (which does make sense when you think about it), using the right terms for trash can (rubbish bin) and parking lot (car park) and making sure you ALWAYS say trousers and only in the most intimate company "pants," and trying not to speak too loudly in a restaurant, make for a situation of always being "on your toes."

There are some things here I will miss very much and expect to experience a kind of reverse culture shock when we return to the states in a few weeks. These are things I wish I could take with me when we move. Some are very odd, I realize and I will probably have to add more later as moving day approaches:

1. Footpaths. You could probably hike across the entire UK using footpaths that traverse villages, farms, forest, hills. Some of these paths are the ancient routes of Romans or Saxons (or whomever was taking charge at the time). These right of ways are maintained right through private property and are a wonderful way to see the country. I can walk out my door and within five minutes' walk be heading through a sheep pasture with newborn sheep frolicking in the crisp air.

2. International news as "normal news." Sri Lanka, Mexico, Zimbabwe, India, France, are the top stories, not the stories "tacked on at the end" of news broadcasts, or the back pages of newspapers. The new of the world is "the news" here. Would Angela Merkel, Robert Mugabe and Nicolas Sarkozy be on the tip of my tongue if I were back in the realm of the 10 o'clock news in the US? It's all there, of course, but sometimes you have to dig for it or be one of those people who watches public television or subscribes to the New York Times.

3. Smaller portions of food and drink. The all you can eat buffet is an extreme rarity here. As is the doggy bag. That's because restaurants tend to actually serve a sensible amount of food and you are not likely to have a pound and a half of pasta con whatever to take home with you. No such thing as drive through fast food or big gulps. Our family went to a hockey game recently (sort of a minor league affair) and there were hot dogs, beer and popcorn, just as you would expect, but nobody ate them during the game! Part of me thought "What is wrong with these people!" The other part of me (the part with the extra fat cells) said "thank goodness I am not being seduced by a footlong and I can actually pay attention to who has the puck!"

4. Public transportation. There's a lot to gripe about here about public transport. The buses are expensive and often late. The trains to London can be really crowded. But it's here! And there are bus stops and train stations in small villages, and people of all economic backgrounds ride them. The government actually restricts the sizes of parking lots (how unAmerican!) in order to make it difficult for people to park. This also means you are more likely to only buy the amount of food or clothing or video game consoles that you can actually carry in your own two hands. What a thought!

5. Tea with milk. At 4 p.m. With one biscuit (translation: cookie). Wow. this is civilized. Tea does taste better with milk.

6. Healthcare as a basic human right. Poor or rich, employed or just laid off, you can take yourself or your kid to the doctor if you are sick. No one has to choose between food and medicine. No one has to keep a job that makes them miserable just so their wife can get her chemotherapy. Even the really conservative people here would not take that away. Your doctor's waiting room might not have tropical fish in it, but you don't have to show an insurance card, pay a copay or run a gauntlet of 5 gatekeepers before you are ushered into the examining room.

7. The accent. The prediction of yet another day of rain in the south of England just doesn't sound so depressing when said in "British."I'll miss that.


Friday, 30 January 2009

Human Rights heroines in Iran

One of the phrases President Obama used in his inauguration speech I have heard repeated below are many many open hands reaching out in hopes that they will find US hands open as well.

I have just finished reading Iran Awakening, the memoir of Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace prize for her work as a human rights lawyer in Iran. She has worked there tirelessly on behalf especially of women and children. Custody rights, divorce, and morality laws have been heavily repressive under the Islamic Republic.

In order to publish her memoir in the US, Ebadi had to file a lawsuit against the US Treasury, because of the trade embargo against Iran. Her publishers in the US otherwise would have faced the possibility of prison time.

This book, along with two others I have read over the last few years (Persepolis--a graphic novel that is now a film and Reading Lolita in Tehran) have given me a great appreciation for the strength, wisdom and resilience of women in the Islamic Republic. They give me hope for the possibilities of change, yet I worry that if the US puts too much pressure on Iran, they will be unable to secure the change they work so hard for. A nation on the defensive has the tendency to increase, rather than decrease, repression.

Women were a major force in bringing the Ayatollah Khomeini into power in the first place. Angered and weary of the Shah's repressive regime, his lavish lifestyle while poverty gripped the lives of many, and his unyielding secularism, women took to the streets in millions to chant revolutionary slogans and demand the toppling of the Shah's regime. They claimed a public voice, organized tirelessly and paved the way for Khomeini's return from exile in France to become the supreme leader of Iran.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Braving the Chaos

John 14:18-27 (Jesus speaks to his disciples as part of his "farewell discourse")
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. "
New Revised Standard Version

This sermon celebrates the ways in which the Holy Spirit empowers people to come alongside those who live on the edge of chaos, embodying the ministry of the Advocate. Most of the stories used in this sermon come from the ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Click here to listen:



Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Peace be with you

This sermon, though it was preached the second Sunday of Easter a couple of years ago, speaks to the current challenge of peace in the Middle East.

Peace be with you
A sermon on John 20:19-23

"When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ " New Revised Standard Version

Click here (I hope) to listen:



Wounded and Blessed

A sermon on Genesis 32:22-32
"Wounded and Blessed"

"The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle." New Revised Standard Version

Click here to listen:



Sunday, 4 January 2009

Remembering the shedding of a Palestinian's blood 2000 years ago.

Today was communion Sunday at St. Andrew's United Reformed Church in Gerrards Cross, England. As I lifted the communion cup to encourage all gathered to drink out of tiny cups containing juice representing the shed blood of Jesus, I suddenly realized we were "drinking" the shed blood of a Palestinian. Many Palestinians have been dying in the last few weeks and many I fear will die today as Israel's ground offensive into Gaza has begun.

I have always found communion to be powerfully BOTH a somber rememberance of the tragedy of humankind's penchant for killing the innocent and trampling on the bearers of peace AND a celebratory foretaste of the Kingdom of God. It was no less this morning. I am filled with such sadness at the lack of imagination of those in leadership in this crisis, and so wish that those committed to peace and justice for Israel and Palestine would be heard and their wisdom heeded.

Among the wise Jewish voices I have come across recently is the rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin. He is the director of George Mason University's Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution and a senior researcher at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy's Institute for Human Security. He is in Jerusalem right now meeting with religious and political leaders on all sides of this conflict. I listed to a podcast of a recent phone conference he participated in on the crisis. He said several things which I found enlightening.

He cited a statistic that 2/3 of Israelis think there should be negotiation with Hamas. We as Americans know only too well of late that the average person in a country is not necessarily in favor of the options his/her government chooses. Gopin further added that the best way to create fragmentation in Hamas is to invite Hamas to the table. Some Hamas members/leaders will be anxious to come to the table and others will not, thus creating more division within the movement. He reminds listeners that in any organization, even one labeled a terrorist organization, there are people who want to negotiate and engage in diplomacy and those who want to attach violently.

Gopin reminded listeners that Israel and its allies often use a group or nation's unwillingness to recognize Israel's right to exist as a reason to refuse to negotiate with them. He looks back at history and points out that countries in conflict with the US did not make this demand as a condition of deescalation. He argues, you will see from the quote below, that a long term ceasefire and the opening of commerce for the Palestinians is much more likely to lead to this recognition and that insisting on this from the outset is fruitless and unrealistic. Here is a section of his comments:

"My intuition when it comes to the issue of the recognition of Israel and their charter, is that the great agreements of history, that prevented a catastrophe in the 20th Century, and it saved the United States from its own civil war were with Vietnam and with the Soviet Union. In neither case, did either Vietnam or the Soviet Union say, we need you to recognize our right to exist. If they had said this, if the Soviet Union had said, we will not de-escalate the nuclear conflict, unless you recognize our right to exist, then we would have to recognize their illegal and forceful occupation of half of Europe. And we couldn’t possibly do that....

....My reason why I’m so convinced of that is that if we indeed have a ten year hudna, a long term cease fire, where these Islamists are not required to say that they will recognize Israel’s right to exist, in ten years a full normalization of relations and commerce, I assure you the resilient middle class on the Palestinian community in Gaza, will not go back to a suicide bombing in Intifada. This is a process of easing a terribly wounded community out of a desperate embrace of Hamas. And I think it’s possible, with pragmatism, with care, and with a realist verification of the conditions of that treaty and that this is the most clever, and most intelligent way to pull us back from the brink of a Jihadi war, which if it escalates, will be a global Jihadi war against Israel where Jihadi will be coming from everywhere to this location. "
He leaves us with a chilling warning.

Gopin is one of those thinkers who reminds us that supporting Israel may involve trying to keep Israel from provoking even greater animosity, and finding those who are creating relationships across the Israeli-Palestinian divide of hatred and praying, supporting, speaking up for and sending money to them.

To listen to the podcast with Dr. Gopin:

other sites of interest:

Pray for the peacemakers.


A friend who is involved in mediation work with me sent me this piece. It was written by a friend of his. It reminds me of the famous "serenity prayer." It is as if it is a longer version of it.

Be understanding to your perceived enemies.
Be loyal to your friends.
Be strong enough to face the world each day.
Be weak enough to know you cannot do everything alone.
Be generous to those who need your help.
Be frugal with that you need yourself.
Be wise enough to know that you do not know everything.
Be foolish enough to believe in miracles.
Be willing to share your joys.
Be willing to share the sorrows of others.
Be a leader when you see a path others have missed.
Be a follower when you are shrouded by the mists of uncertainty.
Be first to congratulate an opponent who succeeds.
Be last to criticize a colleague who fails.
Be sure where your next step will fall, so that you will not tumble.
Be sure of your final destination, in case you are going the wrong way.
Be loving to those who love you..
Be loving to those who do not love you; they may change.
Above all, Be yourself.Just Be Yourself.



Friday, 2 January 2009

Celebrating the New Year each day

There’s something about a new year, the way it offers opportunities for new beginnings, a fresh start, a reevaluation, a new endeavor. It gives me a sense that there is no obligation to hold onto past patterns, grudges, burdens, habits, and that this year I might truly release myself fully into God’s love and the compassion of Jesus.

Perhaps I have a short attention span or a lack of willpower, but I'm not good at New Year's resolutions. A year is too big a unit of time for me, and I give up before I've even started.

On the other hand, a day is a unit of time I can think about.
Each day might be considered a microcosm of the year.
Each new day can provide, as does each new year, an opportunity to relinquish the old and embrace the new.
Each new day is a fresh start, time filled with great potential, a bud ready to open into flower.

In this new year, I think I will fare better if I focus in each new day on relinquishing that which is not of God, and opening myself, moment by moment, to the love, mercy and transforming spirit of God.

This sense of cultivating the possibilities in each day comes about for me best when I take the time to release the day in the evening before sleeping, and when I take time to embrace the day and connect with God each morning through prayer and reflection.

The most valuable, simple and meaningful way that I have found to release the day in the evening is to practice something called the Daily Examen, which comes from Ignatius of Loyola. It is a short, easily remembered practice that can be done in 5 minutes or less, but can offer a great sense of perspective, connection with God, gratitude and calm as one approaches night.

Here is one set of instructions for the Daily Examen:
1. Light a candle and sit quietly for a moment, noticing the rhythm of your breathing.
2.Ask God to help you identify the moment today for which you are most grateful. Recall that moment in as much detail as possible. What made it so special? "For what moment today am I most grateful?"
3. Ask God to help you identify the moment today for which you are least grateful. Recall that moment. What made it so difficult? "For what moment today am I least grateful?"
4. Pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the presence of God throughout the day.

If you have a journal, you might write down any thoughts or insights that you would like to refer back to later.

I have used the daily examen many times with a group (Bible Study, end of session or deacons meeting, retreat) and, in this context, it is very meaningful to allow for a few minutes of time for participants who wish to share short responses to the process.

So....may each new day hold for you the same possibility as the new year.