30 June 2009

Proper 9

I'm preaching this Sunday at our "contemporary" service. The Gospel lesson for this week is Mark 6:1-13: the rejection at Nazareth and the sending of the apostles in mission. I'm still struggling through the early fog of what to say. So far, the only thing that has occurred to me is what NOT to say. The Old Testament lesson, 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 tells of David's covenantal installation as king of Israel. What better occasion than the Fourth of July to conflate biblical Israel with the United States? The Methodist Church's General Board of Discipleship stands at the ready.

Theolog has their weekly lectionary post up, and Ekklesia Project usually publishes theirs on Wednesday. I'm planning on steering clear of both King David and George Washington, and zeroing in instead on the "virtue" of insulating ourselves from risk and failure. I'm an extremely conservative person in this way, so passages like this week's reading from Mark are a true challenge for me. We'll see what direction the sermon takes. I had to turn in a title to the church office yesterday, so I went with the sufficiently generic, "Go With God."

27 June 2009

Exactly the same, only different.

In a statement declaring that he does not intend to resign, Gov. Mark Sanford compared his story to that of King David. Not the murdering and raping parts of that story, presumably. Just the part where David said he was sorry, and then got to continue being king while everyone else acted as if nothing had ever happened.

26 June 2009

Oh, Flannery!

Consider this the second installment in my irregular series of posts, in which I offer poorly-written, surface-level reviews of new works by and about my favorite people. (#1 was here.)

At the beginning of the summer, I read the new biography of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch. It just jumped off the shelf and into my hand at The Regulator, a favorite independent bookstore in Durham. Give the publisher ten points for the design of the dustjacket; I think it's a great cover. As for the book itself, I found it to be an engaging biography, and it's a real gift to fans of Flannery's work. For me, and I suspect for many, Flannery's appeal begins with her stories, but quickly expands to her person: we enjoy her characters, but are more fascinated by "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," the literary star confined by lupus to a Georgia farm populated by exotic birds. A detailed biography provides a trove of material about the life she led, and presents it in a more accessible manner than does O'Connor's published correspondence.

From the blurbs on the back of the dustjacket, it sounds as if this is the first serious biography of Flannery. I don't know if that is true or not. But the biggest thing that Gooch, a professor of English at William Patterson University in New Jersey, brings to the table appears to be his tireless research. Having mined the correspondence of more peripheral characters in O'Connor's life, he is able to present quotations that reflect what people in her life thought about her early writings. He has also conducted interviews with her childhood and college schoolmates, capturing recollections of the young Flannery that would otherwise have been lost within a decade or two. He also has placed his hands on some invaluable artifacts, such as a journal of the twelve year old child. (On the cover, she had scrawled a warning: "I know some folks that don't mind their own bisnis." One such person was her teacher, who criticized her poor spelling -- a lifelong battle that interested Flannery very little.)

Gooch also tells the stories of several occasions on which Flannery was invited to read her stories to small literary gatherings, usually in the homes of friends. These mostly came later in her career; as a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, her intense southern drawl caused her to ask other students to read her stories for her.

I recently came across a recording of Flannery reading one of her most alarming stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find". (Access it here.) I think the recording is from a television broadcast, but I'm not sure. In any case, it's the only time I have ever heard her voice, and if you're interested, it's worth downloading and listening to. Curiously (and supporting the TV-show hypothesis), she changes the N-word when it appears in the story. (She had once grown angry when one of her surrogate readers made the same change during a reading in Iowa.) Also, if you're following along at home, note that there is a short interruption in the recording early on in the story (from bottom of p. 118 to bottom of p. 119 in "The Complete Stories").

25 June 2009

Surveyor in a strange land

One of the most interesting aspects of our recent trip to Honduras was taking part in a community needs assessment. The Methodist missionary who works on health issues in Danli developed this four-page survey in conjunction with the municipal health board. Members of our group paired up with members of the Methodist church and went to different neighborhoods, administering the survey door-to-door. The questions deal with community life (What are the disadvantages of living in your community? What, if any, services does the government provide to this community?); nutrition (What foods do you eat most frequently? How do you store them?); and health (When someone in the family is ill, where do you go? Are there insect problems in or around the house?).

Clearly, this was never going to be a scientific survey. Over five days, we collected maybe 300 or 400 surveys in a city of 100,000. The responses vary wildly, reflecting both actual differences and differences in the way questions were interpreted. Furthermore, I don't think the surveys will tell anybody much that they didn't already know. If people don't have running water or electricity, those are the biggest thing they desire. Every community could use additional sources of work. The people who live by the dump would prefer not to live by the dump. The people who live in the flood-channels of the river would prefer not to live there, but at least they can live there for free.

These excursions were eye-opening for us North Americans, but interestingly, they seemed at times to be eye-opening for the congregants we accompanied, too. I found that really striking, and increasingly I am believing that that was the real objective of the survey project. The city government is not going to see the survey report and say, "Well, now that we finally know the people want water that won't make them sick, let's get to it!" But by involving the church members in investigating the problems, and in visiting people poorer than themselves, the missionary has achieved a big first step: she has eight or ten church members who are invested in improving living conditions in Danli, and who are asking, "Why not?"

We got to see the wheels start turning on this during a debriefing conversation one afternoon. People were throwing around a lot of ideas about water solutions might be brought to a neighborhood we'd visited, but they weren't gaining any traction because that's a big capital project. It takes a lot of other people to invest in and execute such a plan. Then the discussion turned to some more basic health and hygeine practices. A few noted how there were great differences in cleanliness from house to house, and that these differences didn't necessarily correspond to how much money the family had, or even the type of home. Then, before they settled into a resigned critique of people who don't keep a clean house, the missionary said, "If I could help you to receive training as health educators, would you be interested in returning to some of these places, and helping people to make simple changes that would improve the health of their families?" And now they're off and running.

I think I loved this part of our trip because we learned a ton, and contributed almost nothing. I spent three days with the same partner, a young woman named Karina, and mostly my job was to carry the vitamins. But here was a genuine opportunity for us to travel to another country and meet people as they really exist: not at a clinic or construction site, not just at a church service, but at their homes on an average day. The question I'm really turning over right now is whether this kind of experience is necessary for meaningful personal interaction and transformation. In other words, do we have to look for less concretely productive projects for U.S. mission teams if we want them to have more transformative experiences? Does the labor get in the way of the learning?

Also, God willing, this will be the only time I have to wear a turquoise mission team t-shirt in the airport.

18 June 2009

Grace in Sickness

"Two weeks ago, none of us probably imagined we'd be gathered here today for the purpose we have." With these words, my senior pastor began the funeral of a beloved church member who passed away suddenly about a week after I arrived in Tennessee. During the course of the funeral, an interesting refrain kept popping up: "He was taken from us suddenly, but that's probably the way he would've wanted it. Always looking out for others, he wouldn't have wanted his loved ones to be burdened by a long illness." It was always said with great tact, and never meant to minimize the sadness of his passing. But we all seemed to be invited to find some consolation in his swift death.

In a 1956 letter, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." O'Connor, who herself died of lupus at age 39, could not be accused of any naive romanticization of illness. At the same time, O'Connor was abnormal. Her stories drew their power from the peculiar light in which she viewed human experience and suffering. Many of her characters found their salvation in death (although it is interesting, in light of her quotation about sickness, to note that most of these saving deaths were sudden; she rarely portrayed sickness).

I fully believe that profound spiritual transformation can happen during illness and at the deathbed. Heather has been writing some great stuff on this, from her perspective at Hospice Africa in Kampala. But I suspect that most of us would have a hard time agreeing with O'Connor that sickness before death represents one of God's mercies. With friends whose parents have died after long illnesses, and with an aunt just beginning her own battle against cancer, I don't exactly feel like they're getting the good end of the deal. I envy the man whose passing is quick and peaceful.

The medieval study of the ars moriendi generally viewed the Good Death as one that involved minimal suffering, but sufficient time to prepare the soul, get one's affairs in order, and say goodbye. In other words, you have to know that the end is coming. Who doesn't want that? Yet, as she always tends to do, Flannery O'Connor haunts me. Her observation pulls back the veil on the ars moriendi, and asks a dangerous question: When we say that we desire God's mercy, do we mean it? Or do we actually desire only a small dose of God's mercy - just enough to wake us
up, and let us get things in order?

16 June 2009

Wise guy

Here is the best answer anyone gave to one of our community assessment questions in Honduras:

Q: How often do you eat eggs?
A: Well, it depends on the chicken.

I traveled 1000 miles north, and ended up in the Deep South.

We returned from Honduras late Sunday night. It was a really wonderful, interesting trip: I had fun seeing the city of Danli, got to meet a lot of interesting people from both Honduras and the United States, and also did some good thinking about international short-term missions work.

The most interesting thing we got to do was to help with a community needs assessment: a four-page questionnaire regarding the health, nutrition, and quality of life of a household. We accompanied local church members in going door-to-door in a few different neighborhoods. It was really a unique experience to get to visit people in their homes, to see what their life is like, and to have an excuse to ask them lots of personal questions. You don't get that kind of interaction when you stay put in a centralized location (e.g. a medical clinic or construction site).

I expect I'll write some more about the community assessment work as it relates to broader questions of short-term missions towards the end of this week.

04 June 2009

Going to Honduras

On Saturday at 3:30 am, I will be leaving from the church parking lot with a group headed to Honduras. We'll be in the town of Danli, which is a mercifully short distance east of Tegucigalpa, on a pretty major-looking road.

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While we're there, we will be working through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission to conduct an eye clinic as well as a community needs assessment. For the eye clinic, we are bringing an $11,000 piece of equipment called an autorefractometer, and 1200 pairs of donated eyeglasses that were collected by the Lions Club.

I've also been warned that I might have to preach while we are there. Because I'm, you know, the pastor.