Category: Travel

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.

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.

I Was Here…

I was here.

I was here yesterday. I am here, in North Bend/Coos Bay, Oregon. My roots, my growing up, my innate sense of place, is here.

And as I walked the trail along the cliffs at Shore Acres State Park again I thought about the connections between the landscape and geography of my home, and the landscape of my spirit.

Ruggedness. Resilience. Windblown. Stormbeaten. Beauty. Tenacity.

I grew up in this coastal logging and fishing community in economic decline in the 70s and 80s. I was well loved, by family and church community.

I biked and played in the woods. I read so much I got kicked out of the library at recess in elementary school.

And I mostly didn’t feel like I fit in. Maybe because I was “the smart one.” Maybe because I didn’t yet understand about how drawn I was to women. Or maybe because I’m human, and which one of us always feels like we truly belong, like we’d truly be loved if we were really known?

And I love the trees, spruce and pine, still standing despite the strong winds and eroding cliffs, bending rather than breaking, storm-carved bonsai. They teach me about long, wide roots. Finding sustenance where you can, even when it isn’t obvious. Being willing to take risks, and surviving against the odds.

I was here. This place also reminds me of the cycles of life, of resurrection, of the way a fallen tree births new life and creates homes for critters, becomes a new thing.

And the beauty.

I woke up this morning having dreamt that a wise woman noted my persistence, that I wouldn’t let “no” stop me. And this morning I’ll run and walk the Prefontaine Memorial 10k, in honor of another runner who was persistent. That I could get to this place of calling myself a runner (yes, slow. yes, occasionally injured. yes, a runner), the girl who came in last in every swim meet and regularly got cut from the JV tennis team. The hills (Oh, the hills…) will remind me of how necessary persistence is in the face of challenge.

And tomorrow I’ll return to Alaska, the rugged, beautiful place that has been my home for 16 years. Seeking beauty. Loving. Helping others be resilient in the midst of challenge.

I am here.

Countdown to Guatemala…

Two weeks from now, I’ll be in a remote village in the Chicaman region of Guatemala, with a team of Alaskan Providence Health and Services employees, helping build sanitary latrines. And I can’t wait.

This isn’t my first trip to Guatemala. In my final year of college at Pacific Lutheran University, I spent a semester in Cuernevaca, Mexico, with the Women and Development Issues in Latin America Program (through Augsburg College, Center for Global Education). During those incredible, life-changing and heart- and mind-stretching months, we spent two weeks traveling through Guatemala and Nicaragua.

 I returned to Guatemala again for a three-week language program in Quetzaltenango (Xela) during seminary and again for about a week for a course on the Prophets, to Lago Atitlan.

I’ve been home sick all weekend, and have spent much of that time rereading I, Rigoberta Menchu, the powerful story of a Guatemalan peasant woman who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. I’ve also been rereading my journal from that semester in Mexico and Central America, and remembering.

Rigoberta Menchu describes the things her parents told her when she turned ten, moving into adulthood in their culture. She writes

“They told me I would have many ambitions but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to realize them. They said my life wouldn’t change. It would go on the same — work, poverty, suffering. At the same time, my parents thanked me for the contribution I’d made through my work, for having earned for all of us … My father said; ‘You have a lot of responsibility; you have many duties to fulfill in our community as an adult. From now on you must contribute to the common good.’ “

And as I traveled with my companions through Mexico and Central America, hearing the stories of refugees, mothers, activists, teachers, I witnessed the truth in Menchu’s words. Within days of the beginning of the semester, before we even crossed the border into Mexico, meeting with people who were part of the sanctuary movement and with representatives from INS and the Border Patrol, I wrote,

“What strikes me a lot, again, is how much U.S. citizens think! Other countries seem to concentrate more on survival, on the basics, and I think it’s another sign of our wealth, the luxury of time.”

 I heard stories from women who told of their own experiences or experiences of their family members being kidnapped, tortured, killed. One woman asked us why we were there, what would we do with the information we were receiving. Her question still haunts me — “What will you say to them about us?”

I also wrestled with religion, faith, the Church. I saw the impact of religion at its best and at its worst. I wrote in my journal, after a long meeting of processing and discussion (did I mention nearly the entire group of women in my group were women’s studies majors?),

…And then I wanted to say I’m thinking about the ministry, that it’s where I’m being called, and I can’t even escape it here. And that this is why I have to ultimately become a pastor, because I am a feminist. Because I care about social justice. Because I care about the environment. Because I care about and love people, and I love these women I’m in community with. After hearing these stories I realize how lucky, how blessed I am, what a healthy environment I’ve grown up in, and I see my strength. As a woman, as a person, as a caregiver. And maybe this is why — maybe I’ve been given strength for this purpose.

 Rigoberta Menchu said “I’m a catechist who walks upon this earth, not one who thinks only of the kingdom of God.” (p. 79)

She also writes about what she and her community learned studying the Bible together, “That being a Christian means thinking of our brothers around us, and that every one of our Indian race has the right to eat. This reflects what God himself said, that on this earth we have a right to what we need… we realized that it is not God’s will that we should live in suffering, that God did not give us that destiny, but that men on earth have imposed this suffering, poverty, misery and discrimination on us.” (p. 132)

I was able to spend a couple weeks living with a Mexican family, and my family members were also very involved in a similar small group Bible study. I attended some of these gatherings with them, and wrote after one, “When we prayed after the first (Base Christian Community), my (host) father prayed for me, that I would learn here, that I would learn from this community, that I would understand that ‘we are not rich, we are not poor…’ ”

My host father and I would compare Martin Luther and St. Francis of Assisi, and he would talk with me about the importance of community, and raising consciences, the need for unity among Christians, that we must not dehumanize others.  I wrote,

I’m learning so much here, and everything speaks to me so strongly — I don’t know how another person would react — I just know it’s good for me to be here.

And so soon I will return to Guatemala. I’m grateful to be going with a well-established program (we’re partnering with Medical Teams International, which has roots in Chicaman. I’m glad we will be doing something useful. If you’d like to be a part of this experience, we’re also raising money toward the work and supplies that we’ll be bringing to these communities. 

You can donate here.

Thanks to the tremendous generosity of friends and family, I’m looking forward to going past my goal (only $20 to go as I write this!) … know that ALL the funds we raise will go toward these projects — building sanitary latrines, installing stoves in homes to improve air quality and combat the respiratory illnesses that are the number one killer of children in Guatemala).

**Update: Within an hour of posting this blog, we blew past my goal … THANK YOU for your generosity! Thus, I set a new goal … I wonder if we can get to $1500?

But more than that, I’m looking forward to meeting people in Guatemala. Watching for beauty. Hope. Strength. Joy. In them, in me, in us.

Compassion, blessing and sustaining the world

This is the sermon I preached  with great joy at the ordination of one of my dearest friends, Diana Hultgren, a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Lexington, Kentucky. May it also touch your heart, as Diana has touched mine.

I’m so grateful to be here in Lexington, (the heck with Storm Jonas!) and to bring greetings from your friends and colleagues in Alaska. Also, thank you for getting me out of experiencing a 7.1 earthquake in Alaska this morning. Happily, by all reports, people seem to have weathered the quake just fine. In particular, I am delighted to bring you greetings from Providence Alaska Medical Center, where we are so grateful to have shared in your formation, your gifts, and particularly your friendship.

Diana, a week ago I asked you about particular themes or readings for your service today – I am a Lutheran preacher, after all, and we preach from texts! You said “Oh, community” and “justice.” You’re right, I probably didn’t need to ask. And everything about this celebration says both those things: community and justice. But, and rightly so, there’s another overriding message – love. And that love, truly is (and must be) the basis both for our community and our justice-seeking.

 Martin Luther King Jr reminds us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I heard this story from Pastor Robyn Hartwig, when she preached at my ordination service in August of 2000. She heard this story from Fr. Dale Fushek, when he coordinated Mother Teresa’s visit to the United States in 1989. She filled a stadium with two days notice. On the first day of her visit, she raised $33,000 for her ministries.

Fr. Dale was looking forward to celebrating mass for Mother Teresa and her traveling companions –together, Mother Teresa was staying with her sisters in a small house. On the day of the service, there were about 24 police officers outside the house, screening and admitting the approved people to the house – those who were traveling with her were allowed in, some special visitors from the diocese. And finally, when about 2 dozen people had gathered, Fr. Dale began the mass. Everyone was seated … except Mother Teresa. When he got to the first reading, he noticed that Mother Teresa was not only standing, but beginning to pace a bit. By the second reading she was pacing back and forth across the room, and he began to wonder if he’d become the priest known for presiding when Mother Teresa finally lost it! Soon she was rearranging people in the room, and finally she went to the doors to the room, threw them open, and waved everyone in. She waved nearly 400 people into that small house. People were leaning in through the windows, crowded in the bathrooms, on each others’ shoulders. But once the people were gathered together, all welcome, Mother Teresa finally sat down.

So long as anybody was excluded, Mother Teresa could not sit down.

So long as anyone did not experience the fullness of God’s love, healing, grace, Mother Teresa would not sit down.

And Diana, this is also true from what I know of you. As long as someone is lacking justice. As long as someone is lonely or in need of compassion or healing, you too will not sit down.

 Another story:

Compassion: The Legend of the Lamed-Vov

(by Rachel Naomi Remen, in  “My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp 8-9)

Rachel’s grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish teachings of Judaism, once told her a very old story that dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. In the legend of the Lamed-Vov, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of 36 good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. These 36 are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than 36 such people alive, the world will come to an end.

“Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, certain that he would say “Yes.” But he shook his head. “No, Rachel,” he told her. “Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.”

It turned out that the Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Rachel, anyone you meet might be one of the 36 for whom God preserves the world,” her Grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so.”

Rachel sat and thought about this story for a long time. She’d heard lots of stories with happily-ever-after endings. But her grandpa’s story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, Rachel realized that she had no idea what “it” was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? “How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, suddenly anxious. “What do they have to do?” Rachel’s grandfather smiled at her very tenderly.

“Ah, Rachel,” he told her,” They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

Diana, your compassion blesses and sustains the world. Just as your passion for justice and commitment to community bless and sustain the world.

But I hope that you will also hear this from this story: Rachel’s grandfather emphasized that we must treat ALL people as though they might be one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. When I think about how I’d want to treat a Lamed-Vovnik, I’d want to make sure that she is welcomed. Encouraged. Nourished. Responding to suffering with compassion may be far more about “being” than it is about “doing,” but after nearly 12 years of chaplaincy, I’m pretty sure there’s still nothing easy about that task.

 And you may already know this about Diana, but let me tell you a couple of stories. When she was in Alaska, she would housesit for me when I traveled, taking care of my three kitties, enjoying my house despite all the clutter, and, probably most important, getting to use my car. I’m still not sure where all she went those times I was away, but I’m pretty sure my car saw parts of Alaska that I’ve never been.

And when Diana lived in Colorado, I came to visit her for a week. We started in Denver, drove up through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Steamboat Springs, west to UTAH to Dinosaur National Monument, back down to I-70 past Vail and back to Denver. We had lots of great plans to hike, but mostly we drove. I saw a LOT of Colorado. Diana likes to fit it all in. And rest is not her strength.

And there are SO MANY GOOD THINGS to DO. This might be why Diana and I share a mutual longing for days in a blanket fort. We’ve planned – kitties, snacks, coloring, rest. And, frankly, with what I know about each of us, we could use more blanket fort time.

I have absolute confidence, Diana, that you will never fail in your justice-seeking, your offering compassion and love for the poor and vulnerable. But my hope for you, and what I suspect will be your greatest challenge, is to treat yourself as though you are one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. Take the time to welcome yourself home. To be nourished. To be a beloved part of community, with others who share in your burdens and joys. To rest. It is not about the doing, but about the compassionate response to suffering.

Helen Keller reminds us that the world is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.

Today we recognize your God-given gifts and calling, and celebrate your vocation as chaplain to the poor and vulnerable. Your compassion sustains the world. You contribute to the overcoming of suffering. But remember that you are not alone. You too are worthy of compassion, of rest.

The Lutheran in me feels compelled to remind you that the heart of my theology is that it is not, in the end, about what we do, so much as it is about what God does. The God of justice and compassion also calls us to rest, and most of all, calls us to life – abundant life.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. (attributed to the Talmud)
Pastor Brian talked at the beginning of this service about having a foot in both the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and loving them both.

You may have heard Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” But as I did some research this week, I learned that in fact that’s actually a paraphrase. In fact, I think I like the original better. Emma Goldman, apparently was once admonished for dancing at a party in New York, and was told “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.” She was furious, and said “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy … If it meant that, I did not want it.”

 Dance on, my friend. Dance for justice. Dance for community. Dance for love. Dance for compassion. Dance for the Lamed Vovniks. Dance until everyone is included. Dance with reckless abandon. And remember that we are all one body – we all dance together.