Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Mission Frontier, Part I

I spent the last week of my tour of the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras in the southeast part of the country, in the department of El Paraiso.  If the North Coast is the traditional heartland of the Episcopal Church here, home of its old, well-established parishes and schools, El Paraiso, like Copan Department in the far west, is its burgeoning mission frontier.  On Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning I rode out from my hotel in Tegucigalpa with Allan and Carlos who are field organizers for Aanglidesh, the Anglican Agency for the Development of Honduras, a project of the Diocese of Honduras supported by Episcopal Relief and Development.  Their primary program consists of the formation of Grupos de Ahorro, or Savings Circles, in which women support one another to build their own social and economic capital, by pooling savings and reinvesting them through small, low-interest loans, in education for their children, micro-enterprises, and other needs.  Each group is a voluntary association with a renewable one-year term.  Membership is capped at twenty-five; if a group grows to exceed that size, it will split to form two or more circles in a single community, as was the case in El Zarzal, one of the rural villages I visited.  In Potrerillos, the group had decided to allow men to participate, but the offices of President, Secretary,and Treasurer, which are  limited to one-year terms, are always filled by women, to ensure that cultural patterns of male domination do not reassert themselves.  Female students are also included as members, without borrowing privileges, so that they learn the habit of saving money.
Grupo de Ahorro, El Zarzal
After their initial establishment, the groups meet weekly, and each member brings their weekly savings, which must match or exceed a minimum amount that the women set for themselves.  In both groups I observed this minimum deposit was 10 Lempiras, equivalent to about 35 cents.  These amounts are carefully recorded, both in a ledger maintained by the secretary, and in a personal passbook provided to each member.  A fine of 5 Lempiras is collected from each member who missed the previous week's meeting, and payments of principal and interest are made by those with outstanding loans.  At the conclusion of the meeting the Treasurer reads with evident satisfaction the current balance in the joint savings account, which she maintains in a local bank.  In both meetings I attended, the cumulative savings for the year so far exceeded $2,000 in value--not bad for people living in what we would consider conditions of dire poverty.
The Aanglidesh trainers communicate with the officers regularly by telephone or WhatsApp, the ubiquitous social-media platform in Honduras.  They visit each group in person periodically, to provide counseling and support as well as oversight, and to gather quantitative and qualitative data from the members.  They also conduct trainings on topics such as self-esteem and domestic violence.  In El Zarzal, Allan announced a new training on developing a community vegetable garden, and signed up the needed minimum of ten participants, who committed to attend the initial workshop on how to make compost, and to bringing one large sack each of topsoil, animal manure, and grass cuttings.
Allan of Aanglidesh
On Tuesday night I was picked up in Tegucigalpa by the Rev. Deacon Victor Velasquez, who is Vicar of Manos de Dios in Danli, a mountain-ringed colonial town that is now a center of tobacco production, and home to numerous factories making hand-rolled
cigars, and the boxes they are packed in.  Manos de Dios is emblematic of a paradox I saw manifested in various ways throughout the Church in Honduras: the congregations that are making the most evident progress towards the Diocese's stated goal of auto-sufficiency are the ones that are best-connected with supporting churches in the United States.  Manos de Dios, for example, used to be the site of La Esperanza, but chose a new name at the time of the consecration of their new building, which was constructed with the aid of an ecumenical organization by that name based in Episcopal congregations in central and west Texas.
The ongoing support of these partnerships is what enables Victor's members to undertake entrepreneurial projects like a sewing cooperative, and a school bookstore, as well as to support the music programs and youth and adult formation ministries that are growing his congregation.
On Wednesday morning Victor and I had breakfast with the Rev. Francisco , of an old friend of Rev. Kent McNair of my own diocese, who relocated to Cristo Rey in Danli two years ago, after many years at St. John's Church and School in Puerto Cortes.  Here he has made remarkable progress in
revitalizing a congregation that had been almost abandoned, and is also developing a mission in one of Danli's poorest neighborhoods, at the feet of the San Cristobal mountain.  After a tour of the premises, Victor and Francisco conducted some business related to the program, funded by Kent McNair's former parish of Faith Church, Cameron Park, that is providing elementary and secondary scholarships to academically-gifted and economically-deprived students in Danli and El Paraiso, where many children, especially girls end their schooling with the sixth grade.
With Victer Velasqez and parishioners
After lunch, Victor and I headed out in his truck (provided by Manos de Dios, USA) to visit members
of his missions, El Buen Pastor and Santa Maria Magdalena in the Valle Jamastran, a center of corn, beans, and dairy farming.  This took us to small farms and villages far beyond where the pavement ends, an experience that was to define most of the rest of the week.  Vctor begins his Sunday routine at El Buen Pastor in Santa Maria, in the new church building constructed with the help of a Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Florida.  His second service of the morning is in San Lorenzo, where the congregation of Santa Maria Magdalena meets in a kindergarten built by the Episcopal Church.  He then makes the long drive back to Danli for a 3 p.m. service at Manos de Dios.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Companion Relationship

I came on this trip to Honduras partly with my own agenda, and partly in response to a call.  With the opportunity to take three months away from my regular duties, I was determined to do something that would not be possible to accomplish in less time, and the first that came to mind was to return to Central America, a part of the world in which I have had life-long interest.  Added to the allure of the region was the possibility of studying Spanish, which has been a hobby for almost ten years, in an immersion experience.  When my wife decided that she would like to come too, and bring our daughter, the plan was set in motion.
Then I began to think about the official companion relationship that exists between my Diocese of Northern California and the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras.  I'd met Bishop Allen of Honduras and the Rev. Olga Barrera when they attended our diocesan convention perhaps six years ago.  I also had heard over the years from my clergy colleagues Ed Howell and Andrea Baker about their experiences there.  When I let my Bishop, Barry Beisner, Andrea McMillin, the Canon to the Ordinary know that I was thinking about maybe working a visit to Honduras into my sabbatical plans they responded very enthusiastically.  They informed me that Bishop Allen was going to be attending our convention again in November 2016, and promised to introduce me to him.
I did indeed get to chat with Bishop Allen at the convention.  I told him I was thinking of going to Honduras during my sabbatical, and gave me a brief summary of the different kinds of work going on in the diocese and his message to me was, essentially, "Yes, do come.  We'll be happy to welcome you; we have a place you can stay in San Pedro Sula, and from there you can go wherever you want."  I felt sufficiently encouraged by our talk to begin planning in earnest to include Honduras in my sabbatical plans.  Taking into account my family's various work, school, and vacation schedules I put some approximate dates on the calendar, and roughed out an itinerary that would include two weeks of Spanish-language school in Guatemala with my family, mixed in with some sight-seeing and vacation, followed by three weeks of solo travel, visiting the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras.

What form that visit ought to take was still unclear to me; I spoke with Andrea Baker, who had been a missionary for a year, assisting Rev. Olga Barrera at the Holy Spirit Bilingual School in Tela, and she encouraged me to spend my three weeks there.  Ed Howell described for me his more free-ranging experience, going all over the country on his motorcycle, staying in the homes of diocesan clergy, or sometimes in hotels.  My confusion about what to do while I was there stemmed in part from not knowing how our diocesan companion relationship between Northern California and Honduras works, or how my visit might help develop it.
In January I received an email from the Bishop of Honduras, forwarded on to the seven regional deans of our diocese by Bishop Beisner, of which I am one.  It included a request that someone represent Northern California at the annual convention of the Diocese of Honduras in late May.  I offered to be that representative, thinking that an introduction to the diocese in that capacity might help better understand the companion relationship, and plan my sabbatical visit accordingly.  (I also liked the idea of doing a little reconnaissance before arriving sight unseen with my wife and daughter.). As it turned out, the convention was also attended by Bishop Greg Brewer of the Diocese of Central Florida.  Central Florida has had a companion relationship with Honduras for over 25 years and a member of the Honduras Commission of the diocese accompanied the bishop.
highly developed and institutionalized form of companionship is unusual.  With some time on my hands back in San Pedro after the convention, I did some looking into the websites of other dioceses of the Episcopal Church listed on the Diocese of Honduras website as having a relationship with them.  Of the ten or so listed I found evidence of a diocesan-level commitment on three or four.  What seems more common is that a handful of people within a diocese, often in a single town or congregation will have a continuing commitment to a particular locale, or project in Honduras.
Now that I have been here for two weeks and have had a first-hand look, it appears that this is how it works in Northern California. The relationship established by Olga Barrera, Connie Sanchez, Bishop Allen, and other Hondurans who have visited us, and by Kent McNair, Ed Howell, Andrea Baker, and
others who have visited them, has resulted most recently in a particular connection to Holy Spirit Bilingual School in Tela.
First day of classes, Holy Spirit, Tela
And in the week that spent there I was pleased to discover that our retionship ishaving a real impact.  There is tangible evidence of it everywhere, from the beautiful liturgical vestments given be St. Barnabas, Mt. Shasta, to the security camera system from Aa Saints, Redding, and from the remodeled school library, easily the largest and best-equipped of any I have seen on my tour, supported by the Milennium Development Goals Fund of the Diocese of Northern California and Faith Church, Cameron Park.  This same partnership has produced a beautiful new art room on the school campus.

New art classroom

A group from Faith Church went to Tela in June to lead a vacation bible school, and their rector, Rev. Sean Cox, was so impressd with the students from Holy Spirit who assisted with the program that he is inviting some of them to Cameron Park tnext summer to help lead a bilingual VBS there.  Holy Spirit is the beneficiary of other companion relationships as well.  A St. John's in Alabama has been sending medical mission teams to Tela for fifteen years and there gear has a permanent storage space in the shower stall in the school director's office bathroom.  St. Michael and All Angels, in the Diocese of Dallas helped build the school cafeteria.  The needs in Honduras are many, and I am excited to see how the growing relationship of mutual-assistance with Faith, Cameron Park will impact the mission of Holy Spirit in Tela. At the same time, I wonder how much more of an impact this companion relationship could have ifmore connections o like this were to develop.  How would it be congregations across our diocese were partnering with a bilingual school, acongrgation, or a social service project of the Diocese of Honduras, so our companionship became truly diocesan in scope?  How might our Trinity Cathedral, for instance, benefit from a relationship with the cathedral El Buen Pastor in San Pedro Sula, for example, and vice versa, of course.  How might an expanded relationship, and the personal exchanges and transformationds it would entail, empower the development of bilingual and multiculfural ministries to Latinos/-as in our  diocese, something the Board of Trustees has recognized as a strategic priority?
Now that I have been here, I can say that, whatever form it ultimately takes, our companion
relationship with Honduras will grow by the proliferation of direct contacts between the people of our two dioceses.  I believe that it is by encouraging these contacts, through exchanges such as the one that Faith Church is planning, short- and long-term mission trips, and the like, that  relationships will be forged that grow into alliances , with a transformative impact in Honduras and Northwrn California.  A further benefit of expanding our involvement in Honduras would be the opportunity to work in partnership with mission-minded Episcopalians from other dioceses,many of whicom represent a more "conservative" and "evangelical" strain wthin the Anglican Communion.  There is important work of reconciliation for us to do there, which will contribute to the spiritual growth of all concerned.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nothing Impossible

Yesterday I visited Holy Trinity Episcopal School in La Ceiba, Honduras, where I was greeted warmly by the Rev. Nely Varela Zuniga, who is director of the school and of the adjoining church, and the school's co-director, Ms. Veronica Flowers.
For the next hour or so, I toured the classrooms, which are arranged in three levels around a central coutyard, introducing myself and engaging them in a little bilingual conversation.  The classrooms were less than completely full.  La Ceiba has been hit particularly hard by Honduras' recent woes, due to the near-collapse of the tourism industry, and ongoing withdrawal of operations by the Standard Fruit Company (Dole), historically the dominant player in the local economy, from the country.  The result: many of Holy Trinity's anticipated students  have yet to matriculate, because their parents have not yet been able to scrape up the tuition.
Nevertheless, I met many bright children and friendly teachers who welcomed into their classes.
Rev. Zuniga told me that the school retains its reputation for academic excellence, and I could see for myself what she described as its advantage in the use of computers and realated technology, but she also described the challenge the school faces in a crowded and competitive field of bilingual schools in the area.
Because of its location near the heart of town, Holy Spirit cannot easily expand its facility.  Land is cheaper on the outskirts, and another large school recently abandoned its downtown location to construct a new physical plant, complete with olympic swimming pool and soccer field, outside of La Ceiba.  The church, which was built to replace the large wooden building, one of the first Episcopal churches in the country which was demolished over forty years ago to permit construction of the school, is likewise too small to accommodate the whole student body, and so when the entire schhol gathers for special religious celebrations, they must improvise an altar in the school auditorium.

After touring the church and school we visited a low-cost medical and dental clinic that the Episcopal Church has operated for many years at the entrance to the poor neighborhoods that lie at the base of the mountains that rise out of the littoral.  The duty doctor was absent that day, but nurse Wendy, who has also begun studies on the weekends at the seminary in San Pedro, was there.  The building was of a good size, but was poorly-maintained and badly-equipped and -supplied.  Rev. Nely explained to me a little about the up-and-down history of the
project: how it was established by a doctor and nurse who were missionaries from the United States, and who kept it funded and supplied for a number of years from their own network of donors.  The project's fortunes declined when the missionaries left, only to rise again to a new height around 2008 or 2009, when the government of Honduras partnered with the church to create a model health center, complete with psychologists and social workers.  After the coup-d'etat of 2009, the new government did not wish to continue the partnership unless the church would give it title to the property.  The church refused, and the government withdrew its personnel and resources.

 It just so happened that our arrival coincided with the visit of a former physician of the clinic.  This man has spent the last number of years rebuilding a defunct meat-packing plant in La Ceiba into a thriving business.  But throughout this time he has not forgotten about his dream of providing medical care to the poor.  He has purchased all the equipment needed to create a a modern surgical theater and he was at the clinic that morning to meet with a contractor to see what would be required to renovate to remodel and renovate the building.  I have met people like this everywhere I have gone on this journey with the Episcopal Church in Honduras: people who retain, in spite of the seemingly endless catalogue of unmet human needs around them, a lively desire to address those needs.  In spite of all the obstacles and difficulties they face, they see the possibilities just as clearly; they remain firm in the conviction that God has called them to be of service to others, and that if they continue striving to be faithful to that call, nothing will be impossible.

Monday, August 21, 2017

American Dream

Rocio, Edgar, Karla, and Sebastian Noriega
On the afternoon of Sunday, July 24th, a few minutes after the appointed time of 2 p.m., Carlos, the director of the PLQ Spanish language school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, met me and my family at the front door of the school.  He unlocked the large street door and the smaller inner door and admitted us to a spacious, plant-filled courtyard, apologizing for his tardiness which was due, he said, (in Spanish) to "a deluge near my house - and I'm not lying."  Three or four other students entered with us, or came in shortly after, and we got acquainted with one another or connected our mobile devices to the WiFi while Carlos called our host families to let them know that we were there.
About an hour later Sra. Karla Noriega arrived to take us home, accompanied by her husband Byron, and we set out to walk the four or five blocks to their house.  On the way, Byron remarked on my San  Francisco Giants cap, and asked where we were from.  That was when we learned that he knew Petaluma well; his sister lives in Novato.  That night at dinner we learned more of the story: how he had been an unauthorized resident alien in Marin County for seven years, starting out as a day-laborer picking up work on the street corner, and eventually finding regular employment painting houses and commercial buildings.  He must have obtained a false Social Security Number because I overheard him telling the kids another evening after dinner about the taxes that had been regularly withheld from his paycheck.  Apparently Guatemala's current government is making an effort to collect more of the statutory taxes people are supposed to pay but hardly do.  From other conversations, anecdotes, and asides I heard during our time in the country I gather it's not going well.  But its nice to know that, thanks to the high esteem in which my fellow citizens hold our government, I will be receiving some of Byron's lost income when I retire.
Byron and Karla have three children: Edgar, 15; Rocio, 13; and Sebastian, who if 4.  The gap in age between the two older children and their younger brother is due to the seven years That the couple was separated, Karla raising the older children alone in Quetzaltenango while Byron supported the family with the money he earned in California.  He came home at the end of that time with enough to buy the house in a working-class section of the city that we shared with the Noriega family, including Byron's mother, and two teenagers from Karla's home town of Solola.  They board there during the week, to take advantage of the superior educational opportunities that exist in the city, returning home three hours on the bus every Friday afternoon.
At dawn on Monday mornings Byron backs his pickup out of the living room (yes, you read that right) where it is secure overnight, and goes to his job driving a truck, delivering consumer goods to stores all over western Guatemala.  This takes him away from home for most of the week, though he returned for a night on Tuesday or Wednesday both of the weeks that we were there.  Although an armed guard rides with him, it is up to Byron to load the truck himself, and because it is too large to enter the narrow streets of most of Guatemala's towns, he has to park it in a central location and then deliver his goods to ten or fifteen stores from there by means of a hand-truck.  Effectively, he told me, he works three jobs but receives a single salary, which is far lower than what he earned doing less-skilled work in the U.S.

Yet he is happy to be reunited with his family, if only on the weekends.  He has provided them a house of their own, furnished with things he brought back with him in his pick-up on his triumphant return from the States.  It enables Karla to earn extra money for the family by hosting foreign students like us from PLQ.  Together, they are able to provide a private school education, which is every Central American parent's hope, for their children.  This, or something like it, is the American Dream, as it is being lived in cities and villages throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.  As we in the U. S. crack down on unauthorized immigration, and seek to make an impregnable fortress of our southern border, we are not always aware that we are depriving people like Byron, Karla, and their family of the only realistic path of upward mobility that the world provides.  It is their stories that are conspicuously absent from our debates about labor migrants.  We do not understand what it costs them to come here, or what it makes possible in their lives.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tropical Paradise

"Honduras now is like Costa Rica was twenty years ago."  Alain, the French-Canadian who owns and runs, with his Honduran wife Helen, the Villa Helen's hotel and restaurant on the beach a half-hour east of La Ceiba is talking about the potential of his adopted country: for tourist devlopment, and for a real estate market for retirees and investors looking for low taxes and inexpensive beachfront property.  There is another side to his optimism, one that I have heard expressed in various quarters here: hope that Honduras' recent nightmare of crime, corruption, and disorder is coming to an end.  Just down the beach is a fitting symbol of the recent period, in the form of a once-beautiful and luxurious beachfront home, abandoned and left to decay by its American owner.

The rutted dirt road that leads from the coast highway to Villa Helen's passes by some examples of a lost dream of a slightly different kind: modest one- and two-story cinderblock houses that were begun and never completed.  According to Alain this is due to the 30 to 40% interest rates that Hondurans frequently have to pay on construction loans.  It seems that the dream of owning one's own piece of paradise, at least in this country, is one that often leads to a rude awakening.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Also God

·  Psalm 8

Thirty years ago this summer I was living in a kind of New-Age commune in the woods of Western Massachusetts and one beautiful afternoon a few of us were eating lunch outside at a picnic table when a great strategic bomber from the air base at Springfield went roaring nearly overhead.  Pacifist that I am, I muttered some kind of grumpy comment to my table companions and my friend Bruce smiled and said, “You know, that also is God.”  Which kind of stopped me in my tracks, because I did know that what he said was true.  I knew it was true, and at the same time, I knew that I didn’t believe it.  Because the huge warplane could also be God only in a whole and unbroken world.  Which is not the world of my experience.  
I live in a world of human artefacts and human enterprise that I experience as separate from and set against the world of natural things.  And I am not alone in this.  How often have I heard a person say that he or she experiences God most vividly in contemplating “nature,” in places where wild creatures still dwell!  How often have I done the same!  In such places we can see the beauty and mystery of an order of things that we did not create, and have not yet managed to pollute and destroy.  It is as if the wild places awaken in us faint memories of a forgotten language, one we used to speak and understand in a country we left behind long ago.  And when we come back from those places to the world we think we know, our world of machines and money and war, of business and government, of working and getting and spending, the language of wild things goes silent.
It slips again into oblivion, and with it goes a part of ourselves.  It is a part that we often scorn, as “romantic” and “na├»ve,” that we tell ourselves has no place in the “real” world, the practical, modern world of human affairs.  We say it belongs to the past, to childhood, to prehistory, or to “primitive” cultures that have been swept away by the tide of progress and civilization.  We tell ourselves this as a way of denying that we still have a choice.  We prefer to believe that the potential in human nature to be in sacred communion with the whole created order of the world has been lost beyond recovery.  Because this spares us the pain of knowing that every day we actively, systematically suppress it.  We prefer the despair of human isolation in a mute and mindless universe, to the guilt of admitting we have given up hope.
If this is so, it is in part because we have forgotten how to read the Bible.  We like to congratulate ourselves for figuring out that the first chapter of Genesis is not a scientifically-accurate chronology of cosmic evolution.  As if it ever intended to be that.  And yet we have closed our minds to its poetry, to its vision of a whole and unbroken world.   It is a vision of a world of which we human beings are an essential part, in which our unique power, our dominion over the fish and the birds, the wild and domestic animals, comes from being made in the image of the creator of it all.  Our activity, our filling and subduing the earth, eating the plants and their seeds, and the fruit of the trees, is not innately a crime or a curse against the creation.  It was meant as a blessing to the creature who, more than any other, is able to see this world as God does, as good in every particular thing, and all together very good.
Of course we know what’s coming next, in the Second Chapter: how the gift of power and freedom was more than we could handle responsibly; how it was not enough for us to know the goodness of the world, we had to know evil as well; how we found that evil in ourselves and so the world we know began to be, the world of shame, and mistrust of God, of blaming one other, the world of gender inequality, of jealousy and murder, of agriculture and mining and the building of cities, and of exiles wandering over the face of the earth.  But our historic obsession with that second story—and it is, after all, the story of us as we are—sometimes has made us forget our first creation story.  We have put it aside as if it is a story of who we were, in some irretrievable dream, with nothing to say about who we might be, or might become.
And yet the First Chapter of Genesis is precisely a story of hope.  It tells the essential spiritual truth of the world as a living unity, including human nature created in the image of God.  And more than that, this story places a gift in our hands.  It gives us a way to remember and renew the highest truth of who we are: that we are not simply masters of the earth community, but members of it, with a unique responsibility to love it for its own sake, and because it is the handiwork of God.  This story gives us the gift of time, time out from all our filling and subduing the earth, time to celebrate the glorious and gratuitous beauty and goodness of life in this world, to be again like God, as only we can be.
This gift is, of course, the Sabbath.  In Genesis 1, God does not create a world in which some places are holy and others are not.  But God does create a special holiness in time— every seventh day, hallowed as a day of rest.  In a practical sense, however, only one creature is able to number the days and consciously keep the Sabbath.   This is how we human beings are unique, as far as we know, among the creatures of the earth—not just that we are clever, resourceful, industrious, numerous, and strong—but that we mark time and set some apart for the rest that comes from God.  It is our privilege to enjoy this holy time of rest, on behalf of all the creatures in the world, to share God’s love for all that has been made, to share God’s judgment that the world is very good.
In the fullness of time one came who shared God’s love and gracious judgment perfectly.  He is Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath.  The true human image and likeness of God was perfectly restored in him.  And his Lordship, his dominion, is for the sake of making the creation whole again.  It was his will, and the will of his Father, to share his true human nature, no longer broken off from God or from the world, no longer male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, with those who became his disciples.  This is the gift we hope for when we baptize a person in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as we are doing for little Zane Ra today.  But it is not only we who have this hope: “The whole creation,” says St. Paul, in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”
This is the great hope of the Bible, a hope that is always in danger of vanishing from the world—that human nature and the whole creation will be restored to harmony and share in the Sabbath peace and joy of God.  This great hope is inseparable from a great responsibility—for it lives or it dies in us.  But we do not shoulder this responsibility alone.  The Holy Spirit working in us, awakening hope for love and fulfillment, and this turns the struggle and suffering of everyday life into the path of discipleship, of growing into the full stature of Christ.  And it is the Son of God who walks beside us, God’s Word of wisdom and compassion, guiding our steps on the journey that leads to the fullness of life.  He promised to be with us every day until the ages of creation are crowned with completeness.  And because he is with us, we have nothing to fear, for though he is ever active, ever blessing, ever interceding on our behalf, he is also already at rest, already abiding in the eternal Sabbath day. 

Thick accents of love

Last weekend I was a special guest at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras, and all during the long flight down there, and the journey by pickup truck from the airport to the diocesan camp and conference center out on the Caribbean coast, I kept thinking about what I was going to say to the convention when the time came for me to speak.  Because I had a pretty good idea that I would be given the opportunity, not for a lengthy speech, but for a couple of minutes to make some courteous remarks appropriate to the occasion: greetings from Bishop Beisner and all of us in the Diocese of Northern California; gratitude to Bishop Allen of Honduras and everyone there for their warmth and hospitality; hope that the companion relationship between our dioceses would continue and grow stronger in the future—you know, that sort of thing. 
And sure enough, on Friday night after dinner, Bishop Allen asked me if I wanted to get up and say a few words during his address to the convention the following morning.   The opportunity came pretty much exactly as I had expected, so you might wonder why I had wasted so much time worrying about what I was going to say.  Well, because I had decided to give my remarks in Spanish.  Some of you know that I started studying Spanish seriously about eight years ago.  Which is one of the reasons why Bishop Beisner asked me to go and represent him at the diocesan convention in Honduras.  Moreover, I’d already made plans to go there during my sabbatical later this summer, partly to improve on my Spanish, and partly to learn more about the work Episcopal diocese there.   So I jumped at the chance to make this brief initial trip, to get a little bit of the lay of the land, and make some acquaintances.    
It was out of that desire to open doors that I decided that if I did get the chance to speak to the convention, I was going do it in Spanish.  And I wouldn’t write my remarks out ahead of time, but would deliver them in an impromptu conversational style.  That was why I spent so much time beforehand going over in my mind what I would say, and how I was going to say it.  But it turned out, of course, I really need not have worried.  Not because I ended up giving a flawless performance.  There were things I had meant to say but forgot about in the heat of the moment; and there were other things I did say, only awkwardly, after fumbling for the right word, or the correct grammar.  Still, when I was done Bishop Allen thanked me for what I’d said, and for taking the risk of saying it in what obviously not, as he put it, my “mother tongue.” 
The twelve apostles take the same risk in the story of Pentecost.  I think we often assume that because the power to speak in different languages came from the Holy Spirit, they must have spoken them perfectly.  And yet the story says that the people in the crowd that gathered were doubly amazed, because the apostles both spoke to them in their various native tongues, and did so with Galilean accents.    And it seems that their syntax was a little jumbled, and their pronunciations a little slurred, because some of the bystanders got the impression that they were drunk.  All of which says something important about the way the Holy Spirit works.  It gave the apostles the power to communicate with strangers from many foreign lands, but in using that gift they remained the persons they always were—those rough and rude, poorly-educated, fishermen from Galilee.
Which is precisely the point of the passage from the prophets that Peter quotes to explain to the crowd what is happening—that before that great and glorious day when God makes his power and judgment unmistakably manifest on earth, the spirit of prophecy will come on all kinds of people.  Young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams; your sons and daughters, even your slaves, both male and female, will be filled with the prophetic Spirit, and speak the truth that comes from God.  And it is this great outbreak of divine communication with humanity, this democratization of the power to see and know and speak and hear and understand the hidden things of God, that is the real miracle of Pentecost.   
I was able to connect more effectively with the Episcopalians in Honduras, not just because I spoke in Spanish, but also because my Spanish was not all that good.    This broke down to some degree the unspoken dynamics of inequality built into our relationship by the legacy of colonialism, so we could see eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, as sisters and brothers.  In a similar way, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, does not transform them into higher beings of perfection and light.  It does not turn them into flawlessly fluent speakers of Parthian, but uses these ordinary and imperfect channels to open the crowd in Jerusalem to receive its message.
And even though each of them heard it in a different tongue, the Holy Spirit’s message was the same to all.  It did not require an extensive vocabulary of subtle theological terms, or a grammatically complex sequence of logical proofs.  This message was a new communication that would revolutionize the world, of who God is and how God acts, and yet it came upon the crowd that day with so much spiritual power precisely because it was so simple.  It was as deceptively simple as a really good story.  And that’s what it was—a story; a story of God’s love for us.  It told how God communicated that love by taking the risk of speaking our language, becoming one of us, to meet us face-to-face, heart-to-heart, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 
The Holy Spirit’s message told how Jesus did not set himself above us, but came as one who shared the disappointment of the poor, the loneliness of the outcast, the sorrows of the bereaved, and the suffering of the oppressed.  He struggled against the religious, economic, and political powers of his day, with no weapon but the truth of God, and the faith of the little ones who believed in him.  He carried out that struggle to the death, to his own ignominious death on the cross.  Through it all Jesus never ceased to love God, never stopped offering himself to be an instrument of God’s will, never gave up hope that God would be faithful to his promises.  And God was faithful.  For Jesus’ sake, God broke the chains of death that hold us all in bondage, and raised this same Jesus to the life of a new and glorious body, exalting him to heaven where even now he sits enthroned as the gracious and merciful Lord and judge of the world. 
The miracle of Pentecost is that the fishermen told this story—in different languages, with poor pronunciation, awkward syntax, and thick Galilean accents—and many of the people in that crowd knew that it was true.  The truth of it poured into them, like water sinking into cracked and thirsty ground.  And to their amazement they felt an answering response within; the welling up deep inside them of something that they had almost forgotten was there, as if a heavy lid had been removed from an ever-flowing spring.  The Gospel of John says that the Holy Spirit will flow like rivers of living water from those who believe in Jesus. 
But our translation is a bit misleading when it says this water will come out of our hearts.  Because the original Greek literally says that rivers of living water will flow out of our wombs.  The Holy Spirit is a fire, burning away all illusions and ignorance that blind us to God’s truth.  But it is also water, dissolving hardness of heart, eroding the dam that obstructs the flow of God’s love.  We who drink in the story of Jesus discover a God who loves us with the compassion of a mother for her child.  This God, the Holy Spirit, not only pours over us, as compassion for our suffering, our fears and weaknesses and limitations; it flows out of us as life-giving rivers of compassion toward all who, like us, are mortal and sorrowful, lonely and afraid.  And there can be no mistaking what is meant by this symbol of water bursting forth from our wombs—it is this Holy Spirit, that we know in the self-giving love and compassion of Jesus, that will give birth to a new world.       

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.