Category: Justice

A Breath of Fresh Air, Part 2

The image of breathing fresh air has captured my imagination lately.

In part, it’s because I’m doing the Clean Air Challenge in a few weeks (and, realized last night that it’s a week earlier than I had on my calendar … whoops!), and that’s all about breath and air. The Clean Air Challenge is a long bike ride (up to 100 miles … last year Erin and I rode 60. This year, due to injuries and stress and other factors, it will be less) out of Talkeetna that raises money for the American Lung Association, trying to make the world a better place for people with lung diseases — asthma, COPD, lung cancer, etc. People like me, and a lot of people I care about deeply.

But I also just got back from my second service trip to rural Guatemala, a small village in the highlands of Quiche.

One of the most fun things about visiting Esquipulas is getting to know the children, who are fascinated with us and the pictures we take on our smart phones. 

However, this time I noticed something different.

When I held this sweet baby, I noticed her cough.

Her sister also coughed.

These kids … I also heard coughing.

Kids cough. I was a Children’s Hospital Chaplain for over a decade, and I’ve been around a lot of kids coughing. And I finally get that when I get sick each January, and my cough lasts for 6-7 weeks, that’s likely got a lot to do with my asthma.

But where we were in Guatemala, there’s one doctor for about every 10,000 people. 

The infant mortality rate in this area is in the mid-twenties per 1,000 (compared to 5-6 deaths per 1,000 in Alaska). And the leading causes of death for kids under 5 years old are respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Again and again during this trip, I was grateful for the work of Medical Teams International, to get a clean-burning stove in the home of each family with children under the age of 2, replacing smoky open fires in homes. Still, it was sobering to realize with each cough that it could be so much more significant — even life-threatening — than what I think of here at home when I hear someone cough.

(*I also love that Medical Teams International does important work all over the world, including in Syria and South Sudan)

I’m a hospital chaplain. I watch people die because of respiratory illnesses. For a while, I probably knew a majority of people in Alaska with cystic fibrosis. And I think one of the scariest things I witness in our ER is how it feels for someone to not be able to breathe.

And so I’ll ride. And I’ll ask for your help, because a breath of clean air isn’t something we should take for granted. But it’s something I want us all to have.

You can join me in supporting the work of the American Lung Association here.


Guatemalan joy

I think what I want to remember most about this last week in Guatemala was all the laughter, and the smiles.

At Parque Cerro de la Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala

Unselfconscious, genuine laughter, in all kinds of circumstances.

I love that I caught Candelaria in this moment of laughter, holding her sweet daughter Gabriela.

I loved that while we were hauling aluminum gutters from the church to the bus, a group of mothers and daughters and I smiled at each other and giggled, with them pointing and laughing and shyly looking away … it didn’t matter whether we spoke English, Spanish or Pokomchi. The laughter was universal. 

And our team recalled several times that during our first water system installation, when we had to figure out how to make the gutters and PVC pipe slope down into the water tank that was in fact at a higher level than the house, the response of the masons working with us wasn’t frustration, wasn’t anger, wasn’t blaming or giving up. They laughed, and tried different things, listened to others’ ideas, and kept working. Ingenuity won the day, with the help of laughter. The solution? Raising the roof.

I still can’t wrap my head around the poverty we witnessed. Can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place with no water source — no well or stream or lake or community water system. What it would be like to live on $2 a day or less. To have the experience of the death of a child — or children — be more common than not. 

But the laughter is a sign of resilience, and a sign of hope. I see it at the hospital too, sitting with a family after a death, sharing stories, and unfathomably laughing. Not in denial or with bitterness, but because the human spirit is strong, and perhaps inclined toward joy.

And so I want to remember the laughter. Of teammates who began as strangers and ended up as friends. Gladis, whose laugh is like a bubbling stream, tumbling over itself. Romeo, whose laugh is somewhere between a giggle and a chuckle, and an utterly genuine sound. Edy, whose laugh is gentle and kind and makes me smile. Trying to describe laughter to Isaias at dinner, when we couldn’t remember the word in Spanish (it’s “reirse,” to laugh) … until he started laughing.

I want to remember that, and so much more about this journey. The laughter is a good place to start.

Fishing Lessons and Refugees

Four walls and a cross, a font and a table might be important, but they aren’t much if we aren’t bringing God’s good news to where people are, to where it is desperately needed. And I think especially right now, we need to remember the many ways Jesus went to the people. He went to the people who were suffering. People who were sick in need of healing. People who were outcast, who were untouchable. He provided food for the hungry. Good news for the poor. Setting the oppressed free. If we are to take seriously what it means to be Christian, to follow Christ, we need to take these words very seriously.

Mary, Do You Know La Malinche? – Sarah Degner Riveros — We Talk. We Listen.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hands-down one of the most fascinating people in all history. Praised and doubted, her integrity questioned not only in her own life time (Matthew 1:19) but also in ours, Christmas is the time of year when the Church ponders her the most. However, in a special pre-Christmas post, Sarah Degner Riveros shares with […]

via Mary, Do You Know La Malinche? – Sarah Degner Riveros — We Talk. We Listen.

Trees, poetry, beauty, sitting

Aspen Trees, Matanuska Glacier

Feeling my way through these days, I’m grateful for trees, for wisdom, for beauty, for listening, for poetry.

Today, that wisdom comes from Wendell Berry.

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight./What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

May we find a way beyond fear. May we continue our labor for a just world where all are welcome. May we hear our song and sing it. May we take the time to go among trees and sit still.

And tomorrow I’ll return to the beautifully diverse hospital where I work. Where I’ll stand ready to listen, to companion and comfort the suffering. Where we’ll work together at healing, caring particularly for the poor and vulnerable. Where I’ll continue to speak justice and hope. And I’ll stay close to the trees, and find ways to be still.


A New Day for Justice

I’m excited about the future, and feeling inspired.

That’s probably not how most of us tend to feel after two days of meetings. But yesterday was filled with inspiration and hope for the future, listening to students talk about their passion for justice and for meeting their neighbors and making sure people know about a loving God (as opposed to the mean, judgmental God of “No” and “Don’t” that gets all the press).

And it’s not often that I get so caught up in a sermon that I had to take notes, but Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary student Cassandra Chavez inspired me to grab a pen and jot things down. She talked about two types of stories we tell about change — we tell about how good things were back in the old days, and how we wish we could go back there. And we also tell the stories about the legacies we’ve left and the excitement, potential and possibility of what is to come. She was very clear that “narratives of glory” aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re incomplete. The “good old days” were never good for everybody. 

As an example, she quoted a Bay Area pastor passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, who asks about what the “good old days” were like. Those days when prayer took place in schools? Well, he wasn’t permitted in those schools. That story is incomplete.

But we do leave powerful legacies. Important legacies, and that’s something to be proud of. That is something that can shape our values and passions and stories, pointing us to something new, something creative, an as-yet unimagined future. 

I loved the “Oscar Romero Prayer,” composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw that she referred back to:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. 

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision…

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise…

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

My seminary is undergoing a lot of change. We are now Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of California Lutheran University, embedded in a university rather than being a freestanding seminary. And the plan is that beginning next fall, the campus will relocate to downtown Berkeley, in a space across from City Hall where everyone will be able to be gathered in one place, and where students, faculty and staff will be immersed in the comings and goings, protests and excitement and struggles of the city. 

Grieving what is lost is an important part of moving through change. But let us also not lose sight of the possibilities and potential ahead.
I graduated from PLTS in 2000. I’ve long loved this beautiful campus on a hill. But it always felt far away from the world, often too far, and too set apart. It was fantastic to hear the excitement and enthusiasm from both students and faculty as they prepare and anticipate the potential of this move. As they reflect on what place means and how it shapes us. As they look forward to being better equipped for justice, for learning to connect with the neighbor. 

ELCA Lutherans have been known as a Northern European, largely white, highly educated church. And more and more, we don’t match the neighborhoods we inhabit. I’m so excited to see what these new leaders will bring as we strive to make deeper connections and roots in the places we are, connecting to our neighbors, learning and growing and serving.  We will look different. I’m pretty sure that’s how God calls us to be.

Theological education will need to look different in the coming years as well, and I’m so proud to be part of a school that takes that very seriously, where faculty are collaborative, where there is a clear commitment to a just world and a future of hope.

We members of the PLTS Advisory Board spent our day listening to the stories of students and staff. We heard about their excitement about the opportunities that come with being in the midst of Berkeley, encountering people in new ways, having a smaller carbon footprint, experiencing diversity more powerfully. Learning to manage change, and to reflect more deeply about the power and connection of place — something my Alaska Native brothers understand much more intuitively and deeply than I have, a topic I yearn to explore more.

And finally, it was great to catch up with some of the incredible PLTS professors, scholars passionate about justice and collaboration. I love that the seminary is exploring ways to better equip students to do ministry with Spanish-speaking peoples. 

The future is bright and exciting. As Cassandra Chavez said to us, “We are children of the resurrection, of a future we cannot see yet.” I’m proud to support PLTS. Will you?