Sunday, December 27, 2009

Simple Pleasures

One of the great pleasures in my life is sitting here at my desk in Colorado and looking out onto our front yard. Currently it's snow covered. There are some evergreen trees and bushes, green against the white snow and light blue sky this morning, but the aspen and tall cottonwood branches are bare and brown. Our juniper shrubs protect a myriad of critters, from raccoons to cottontails and the occasional toad. Even though I don't spend much time outdoors, it's a feast for my eyes and my spirit to look out onto the scenery.

Another simple pleasure that I enjoy almost daily is a pot of decaf coffee brewed in my Krups coffeemaker.  Mom prefers her little Mr. Coffee. She brews caffeinated hazelnut flavored coffee to which she adds Coffeemate and Splenda. One of these days I'll find another Chemex coffee pot, which got lost along the way with a former relationship some years ago. I gave up caffeinated coffee in the spring to prepare for the 12-day marathon of General Convention, and I find that I do sleep better drinking only decaf.

Petting Tink and listening to her purr are high on the list of simple pleasures, although she doesn't do a good job of keeping her claws pulled in. Yesterday night yielded two forearms of scratches along with some on the front of my thighs after she jumped on and off my lap. What is it about our companion animals that causes us to give them such forebearance, which we probably wouldn't give to our human companions? That is certainly something for us to ponder. What is it that our human companions "do" to us that makes us so hard-hearted towards them?

For Herb, the greatest simple pleasure is the opportunity to take a long steam shower in our newly remodeled master bathroom that was finally completed after almost a year of disruption. As Herb's anemia has become more pronounced, a by-product of his advancing kidney disease, his desire for warmth has increased. A steam shower is just about the ultimate creature comfort for someone who's cold all the time. Our biggest arguments these days arise out of control of the thermostat. Herb prefers a temperature somewhere over 80F, and I'm firmly in the 70-72F range. So, you'll find me in tank tops while Herb is in sweats.

I really enjoy just sitting a lot these days in all the different ways that one can just sit, by one's self or with others. Sitting and thinking is an activity that gets short shrift in the midst of our busy, purpose-filled lives. That's another thing to ponder - why we think it's important to be so purposeful all the time.  Yet sitting and thinking is perhaps the single activity that most renews us for the next task, the next encounter with loved ones, or the next adventure. Sitting and observing our setting, whether it's our living room or a sidewalk cafe in Paris, can afford rich inputs for reflection.

People watching in particular is a delightful occupation for leisurely afternoons. I like people watching best on a sunny day when the air is crisp and the clouds are moving swiftly across the sky. There are benches staggered around the lake down the road, where I sometimes spend an afternoon, watching dog owners and their canines stroll by. The dogs swim in the lake when it's warm enough, and their people throw sticks and balls into the lake for the dogs to fetch. I have to be quick to step aside as the wet dogs come charging out of the lake to shake themselves off, attracted to unfamiliar humans in their overly friendly way.

There are lessons to be learned from our companion animals. They really know simplicity and its blessings. Something good to eat, someplace warm to sleep, someone loving to snuggle up with, and a good run in the sun and a swim in the lake, what more can a simple soul want? Their only purpose in life is to just be, and if you're lucky enough to be a dog or a cat's "people," then they're happy to just be with you.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Family Through the Ages

Today is the day after Christmas, and everyone in the house is still asleep at 8:08 AM except for Herb and me. We tend to be both the late-stayer-uppers and the early-risers in this household, currently consisting of my mom, Frances, who lives with us here, my brother, Jon, on a 3-week visit, and our daughter, Cece, and her fiancee, Jamie, who live in Springfield, Mass., where Cece is half-way through law school.

Tink, our 10-year old Devon Rex kitty, has been up long enough to yowl for treats from both Herb and me, and is now back on the heating grate in the front hallway, sleeping. Tink always reminds me of the simple pleasures, like a nap at any time someplace warm. Given the extreme cold of this Christmas season and the multiple snowfalls and snow storms, I am also reminded of the homeless and the poor, because a home cannot be taken for granted nor heat on a cold winter's night.

It started snowing again at about 7:00 AM, and it's coming down steadily. That should make for a good day of skiing and snowboarding for Cece, Jamie, and my son, Corin, and his boys, Tristan and Aidan, at the Eldora Mountain Resort, a mere 45 minutes away, assuming the sun makes an appearance to brighten the day. Back in the day when I ventured out on skinny waxed sticks, I only liked to ski on bright, sunny days. It was often icy in spots and felt depressing on the gray days even if the powder was fresh. Bright, sunny days always make me feel glad to be outdoors, high up in the mountains, breathing fresh-smelling air, the hairs in my nostrils icing up, and seeing for miles to the next mountain peaks in these beautiful, dense Colorado Rockies.

My favorite Christmas gift this year came from Herb. It's a flower decorated collapsible cane. That's right - a cane! My trick right knee has become more temperamental in recent months, and the cane, when I do use it, will give me an extra measure of confidence in rising from my computer desk. I confess to sitting too many hours without moving, the curse of being addicted to the online delights of reaching out beyond my physical locale to the larger world. Multiple online friendships are irresistible to an extreme extrovert.

The most extravagant gift came from Steel - a Flip video camera. As Steel says, he has asked me numerous times to record some video when I've been traveling, and he has now given me the tool to do it. Video is an interesting subject to me (and Herb), because we never videoed any of our daughter's growing up, unlike many other parents. In the past, we felt the video camera interfered with the actual living out of the moment.

Plus even now, I have little patience for viewing videos, whether they're YouTube videos recommended by Facebook friends or videos of family and friends and their memorable moments. Likewise, I have always favored reading - whether it's a book, a magazine or an online article - rather than listening to a podcast or books-on-tape. I suppose you could call me a dinosaur in terms of video media. I'm a visual learner, but listening to or watching electronic media feels slow to me, or maybe narrow is a more accurate assessment, in terms of capturing only the recorder's perspective.

I'm actually very grateful and delighted to receive this Flip video camera, because I now have a purpose for it. Just two days ago, Jon and I were talking with Mom about recording her reflections on our family's history. Neither Jon nor I read and write Chinese, and it would be virtually impossible for us to trace our family's genealogy after Mom dies. We know our grandparents and great-grandparents as characters in stories, but we don't know them as links in a family history that spans 25 generations on my mother's side. (Following up on Dad's side would be even harder, because his remaining American siblings don't read and write Chinese either, and we don't know the sibs in China and Hong Kong.)

Mom actually has a copy of a written genealogy, which she brought out to show us. What's interesting to note is that only the sons and their male children are reflected on the chart. We don't even know how many daughters were born into each generation. In the Chinese culture, the children belong to the father and his family. Thus, children of daughters are not part of the mothers' families, but are part of their fathers' families. So, the girls disappeared not only due to infanticide and second-class treatment when nurture and medical attention were dispensed, because of a historical cultural bias favoring male offspring, but also by just not being counted and accounted for.

What is remarkable about my mother and her family is that her grandfather was the sole Christian in the family, who were Buddhists, and he mandated that both girls and boys be taught to read and write. Without my great-grandfather's leadership and example, our history on my mother's side would surely have been lost to our branch of the family, because there would have been no one to note and record it.

I feel like I owe it to my mixed ethnicity children and grandchildren to capture some of our Chinese family's history for them, because as each generation intermarries, more and more of our ethnic heritage becomes diluted and is lost permanently. Assimilation may not happen by choice for one's self, but it does happen through the choice of whom we fall in love and have children with. Like the Borg say, resistance is futile when it comes to assimilation, which happens even when we're paying attention.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Walking Prayer

Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace,
God with us,
Hear our prayers.
We are unworthy to speak your name,
unworthy to be your children,
Yet you shelter us in your abiding love
always and in all ways.
Your love lights our darkness,
Your love inspires our hearts,
Your love feeds our souls
always and in all ways.

Almighty Father,
Compassionate Savior,
Redeeming Spirit,
Hear our prayers.
We have been unfaithful,
sorrow filled amidst our worldly woes,
Still you shower us with goodness and mercy
always and in all ways.
We are humbled by your son's sacrifice,
We are overwhelmed by your love,
We are saved by faith in you
always and in all ways.

King of creation,
Redeemer of the world,
Wonderful Counsellor,
Hear our prayers.
Teach us forgiveness,
grant us your peace,
Walk with your children, Lord,
always and in all ways.
Through your word we live,
Through your grace we are saved,
Through your love we win eternal life
always and in all ways.

[Written 1-17-96 as a prayer to be recited while walking in a group.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Point. Counterpoint.


In a foreign dimension
unencumbered by
a Ministry of Tourism,
Transportation or Travail,
there is a Ministry of Love

its counterpart
a Ministry of Sorrow
in this land I call home

separated by time
whose undulations
warp and fold
marrying time to space

love is the gentle glance
that seals our fate


In the beginning
your fingers barely
touched mine
as we exchanged
business cards
and repartee

I wrote you letters
You littered your conversation
with futurity
arriving each Monday


Entwining love and sorrow
weaving mystery into romance
surety into loss
remorse into compassion
discourse into silence
gleaning redemption
from end pieces
a taste is all we're given


Your bid meted out in public
all in, doubling down
a gambler's calculated risk

I always liked
the thrill of the die
rolling out of your hand
your eye sweeping the board
seeing invisible moves ahead


of unknown provenance
kidnapped from Hell
perform orations of fate

Secrets within lies
within unsettled histories
foretell the collected works
cross-dimensional collaboration
of the Ministry of Abandonment

The sands have dissipated
the bolt unraveled
the loom smashed into bits


At the end of the day
I hold your hand
your skin fitting loosely
like snakeskin
while its owner
lies vulnerable
enduring the
passage of time

End Point

All nights are difficult
all days hard

Missing you
before you've left
leaves me bereft

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lessons from Disappointment

Shikata ga nai is a Japanese expression that means "nothing can be done about it," "it can't be helped," or, at its worst, "it's hopeless."

Being an optimist to the tips of my toes, in fact, being someone who sees the cup as not just half-full, but full to overflowing, I am reluctant to subscribe to such a notion as Shikata ga nai. I prefer, instead, to think of occasions that cause such feelings to arise as "Lessons from Disappointment" as compared to "Lessons in Disappointment."

Surely none of us needs more lessons in disappointment; they come unbidden and unwanted. Dreams not only haven't come true; as we grow older, we learn that some dreams will never come true. Those dreams weren't bad or unrealistic dreams. Their time has just passed. I will never be fifteen again no matter how hard I wish it. How we relate to the world is very much about how we frame our perceptions of what we see and experience. Our choice of language to express our perceptions matters.

I wasn't always an optimist. In a recent conversation with my training partner, we talked about our bouts with depression. I can enumerate mine, dating back to ages 15, 19, 23 and 27, and thankfully, stopping then, I hope, for good.

The bouts with depression at ages 19 and 23 were severe enough to make me contemplate suicide more than once. Having a child to consider, not wanting to burden my son with a mother who killed herself, was enough to hold me at the brink of despair. I have since met several people who have had mothers who suicided, and you can tell that there was a gaping hole in their growing up that left their personalities truncated. The sense of these people is quite different from other friends whose mothers died from accidents or illnesses when they were young.

My first major step to coming to health was a decision at age 26 not to retreat from Hawaii back to the mainland, from "exile" back to friends who loved and supported me, just because my husband dumped me. As I have since reflected, he never loved me anyway. He only loved the idea of me, which he wanted to capture and own, like I would somehow be an amulet against his demons. That was a problem of mine: to allow others, men in specific, to use me as a soporific for their own issues of inadequacy.

I remember thinking, "I'm an adult, I have a good job, and divorce is not a good enough reason to quit my job and run away." I was interviewed soon afterwards by the bank's CEO/Chairman of the Board as I was about to launch a new retirement savings department. His comment, which I took as a sign that I was claiming my own ground successfully, was that my divorce didn't seem to have affected my job performance. Indeed, not, since I was also going to school full-time in the evenings at the University of Hawaii, traveling by bus, bike and foot. Hard work, I contend, never hurt anyone, and it certainly fills the empty days and nights while one is regrouping from disappointment.

The second major step, which I think of as a turning point in my life, was a conscious decision at age 32 to become what I characterize as a "good person." Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a bad person before then. I just hadn't been consciously focused on making choices that represented being a good person.

The active decision to be a good person was like embracing a personal mission statement to be a good person, to be someone who intentionally turned towards the light and uplifted people, rather than someone who thought of herself first. Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World talks about "reverencing humankind," of paying attention to humans, created in God's image, and their relationship with all of Creation. It is this kind of attentiveness, focus and enfolding within myself and my life of others that my decision to become a good person was all about.

The major lessons that I have learned from disappointment are simple:

  • I get to choose how to think about the disappointment, how to frame it, and to decide its relative importance in my life.
  • Don't let someone else's angst about my disappointment become my angst. My feelings are valid just as they are.
  • There are very few decisions that must be made right this instant, and I can take some time, maybe sleep on it, before deciding.
  • Walking away from a disappointing situation, person or event is a valid choice, and I don't have to explain my choice.
  • I'm not required to be consistent, logical or right. I am required to own my choices.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cheaters and Cheating

Okay, I admit it.  I am somewhat addicted to the latest news/gossip about Tiger Woods and his beleaguered marriage. I am fascinated by his cheating ways and the lengths to which he went to cover up for himself. Woods certainly has enough money and sycophants on his payroll that covering up for him was done automatically without a care for its morality or legitimacy within the context of a marriage with two young children or the bounds of what comprises an appropriate business relationship.

Really, was the pay so good that the legions of lawyers, managers and agents were able to engage in the cover-ups without feeling any sense of distaste that was strong enough to cause them to declare, "Enough," and refuse to do the deeds anymore? How did they face Woods' wife, knowing what they knew? Is this what "work" and "professionalism" are supposed to be like?

Now I have some experience with this subject of cheating.  The sense of betrayal is like a first degree burn received in your burning house, from which you think you're not going to escape. Just like in a fire, you find yourself struggling for the next breath, and the sense of panic rises as the taste of bile in your throat threatens to suffocate you. You are paralyzed as to which way to go, how to get out of the burning house to safety.  From where you stand, you can see no safety, no higher ground where the flames won't pursue you.

Somehow though, miraculously, you get out of the house, you get out of the marriage, you get on with your life, but you're not the same person you were before the fire consumed your home, your relationship or your sanity.

Even after the burns have scabbed over and the scabs have fallen off, years later, the pain and the sensation of being burned remain, vivid as the darkened patches of skin where the scabs once marred your body. Because of the children, you don't talk about the betrayal in your marriage. It smoulders within your psyche, and you find yourself sensitized to cheaters.

Let me be clear, I know of wives who have cheated as well as husbands. So, it's an equal opportunity transgression, not limited to a gender.

For me, things changed and my life opened up again when one St. Andrew's Day at church, amidst the congregants all dressed in red and plaids, amidst the bagpipes and the singing of Amazing Grace as we filed out of the church nave, forgiveness for my ex flooded my being. It was a gift from God, an invitation to live again in hope and in reconciliation.

I had not known how to forgive. It was beyond my ability to reach that level of generosity to my ex. Now, years after that fateful St. Andrew's Day, I am so very grateful for the forgiveness that entered my life, because reconciliation has been a wonderful building up of familial relationships that bless us all.

What once was lost was found, a willingness to be vulnerable and to trust another person, to allow another person close enough to have the power to burn me again. The difference is that this time, I know that cheating is about the cheater and not about the one who's been cheated on. This time, I can see the woundedness in the cheater, the hole in his soul that gapes and yearns for filling up.

I am so profoundly sorry for billionaire golfing genius Tiger Woods, who feels so unloved and unlovable that he has to lie to himself about his marriage in order to lie about cheating with other women. I pray that he and his wife Elin and their children Sam and Charlie find forgivness and wholeness in the days and months and years to come. It will be a tough journey since it will be traversed in the glaring spotlight of celebrity, money and excess. Pray for them, because they need our prayers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Duty of Lovers*

What is the duty of lovers
when faced with reports of death
suicide and worse

How do you comfort the mother
whose soldier son succumbed
to a mortar blast
while on the phone with Dad

What liturgy makes sense
to one who knows no god
whose prayers lie dormant
in an undiscovered room

Lovers bereft
unable to surrender
the loved one to fate
prolong the inevitable

Dying is a process
for novices
Those with experience
want the unvarnished truth
They find no comfort
in prolonging the inevitable

in the end
marks days and nights
with a period

Silence permeates
the final curtain

Your head turns
listening for
your name
spoken by
the loved one's voice

intense as the yucca's thirst
Your need flows between
the interstices
of each day's moments
weaving a net of desire
that will remain

*"The Duty of Lovers" is a phrase from a Leonard Cohen song.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Cold Day

  • Keeping up with email can be wearying even for extroverts. As much as I like stimulation and contact with friends and acquaintances, it's not the volume of the emails, but their noise that wears me down. A couple of the lists to which I subscribe have some loud and persistent voices that object to lots of things, often with righteousness and justice on their sides. I've got to admit that sometimes I just need a break.
  • Why do they advertise movies with dogs that way? I finally viewed "Marley and Me" on cable and was surprised to discover that the movie is based on a book and about more than just a difficult dog. There was a story about a real family that you could care about. You wouldn't know that from watching the previews, which were a complete misrepresentation of the movie. The same thing happened a number of years ago with the Tom Hanks' film "Turner and Hooch," which was actually a good detective story, but was advertised as a movie about a slobbery dog.
  • Where is the sun when I'm ready to go for a walk? I've been getting up at 5:00 AM everyday since arriving in Washington last Saturday. But it takes me a while, actually a long while, to gather myself and to slog through the emails, till I'm finally ready to face the outdoors and a walk, say, around 2:30 PM. By then, the sun has circled halfway 'round the front of the apartment, and it's not blazingly bright like it is at 9:30 AM. I suppose I will have to adapt my schedule to get outdoors by 9:30 AM and come back to do the emails. This is when I miss the caffeinated coffee that I gave up back in the spring of this year, in preparation for General Convention in July. Two pots of decaf do not equal a cup of regular coffee.
  • A container full of chocolate macadamia nut caramels is a dangerous thing. My brother Jon says that a bag of chips, regardless of whether it's the one ounce individual snack size or the two pound party size, is a one serving bag. The same could be said about a two pound container of chocolate macadamia nut caramels. It's a one serving container, and I'm in trouble because I don't want to share either!
  • Christmas specials at the liquor store. I discovered something new on a visit to the liquor store to purchase a birthday gift for a scotch-drinking friend of Herb's. There were many variations of liquor and liqueur filled chocolate candies in gift bags and boxes for sale, obviously packaged as Christmas stocking stuffers. I like it--some gift ideas for the hard-to-buy-for folks on my list.
  • Condiments at the Sterling's restaurant in Kennewick. I had noticed the quart size bottle of Vietnamese chili sauce on the table of our booth, as well as three kinds of Tabasco sauce plus Worcestershire sauce, but didn't realize what was actually in the peppery looking shaker until it was too late. I shook its dark contents generously onto my clam chowder only to taste soup that was too salty to eat. The waitress very kindly brought me another cup of chowder and explained that the concoction was a steak condiment.
  • Rain is the new Bruce Lee. Korean singer, dancer and actor Rain is the new Bruce Lee. We saw him in the very graphically violent film "Ninja Assassin" on Sunday night. Rain is a gorgeous twenty-something Korean man, with piercing eyes, charisma to spare, and a great body built for martial arts. I look forward to seeing him in future American films and hope that he has a long career. It was a bonus to see Randall Duk Kim as the tattoo master in "Ninja Assassin." I first saw Duk Kim at the American Conservatory Theatre performing the lead in Shakespeare's Richard III back in 1975 in San Francisco.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Christmas, Tourism and Timeshares

It's getting to be a lot like Christmas . . . everywhere I look.

This is our last night in sunny, warm and windy Aruba at the end of November. Tomorrow we fly home to reality. Meanwhile, we've been surrounded by signs of Christmas everywhere we look here in Aruba. The Christmas decor started going up before we arrived, and each day we have seen workers struggling to assemble large artificial trees and displays that would put our North American cities to shame. My favorite display is the winter fantasy land with its own St. Nick and tropical pool and waterfall just outside the Dutch Pancake House in the Ocean Marketplace, shown below.

You have to get that Aruba is built around tourism, since it doesn't have any other large income producing industry or trade. And the numbers of tourists, which are largely from the U.S., are way down this year. I overheard the proprietor of an ice cream shop tell some locals that it's been a very slow year for him because of the economic problems plaguing the U.S. and its residents this year.

I took a couple of walks down the main drag in Oranjestad, Aruba's capitol city and downtown shopping area, during the week we've been here and peeked into the many high end jewelry stores and Rodeo Drive type retailers. I didn't go into the stores, because I can't afford to be tempted by overpriced merchandise that I can't afford either. Mostly the jewelry stores were empty, and the Rodeo Drive type retailers weren't any busier. A few of the jewelry stores I entered had one or two customers, and when I eavesdropped, I learned that they were locals who had come in to do some specific shopping.

I ate lunch a couple of times at the buffet restaurant in our hotel, where lunch was $19.95 plus a $3.00 service charge before tip. The restaurant was never full, maybe more like half filled with people, and I overheard a mother ask the waitress to check her bill to be sure she had not been overcharged. At poolside, I saw two older couples who had brought salads from somewhere else, and I ran into a young fellow on the elevator with a Subway sandwich and a Diet Coke on his way to his room. Another sign of the times, people being careful with their finances while on vacation.

And also, another sign of how interconnected this little globe of ours is. The economic downturn that has affected my neighborhood's real estate prices and caused job layoffs in our high tech companies has also affected far off Aruba's people and businesses. We can't afford to travel, and the Arubans make adjustments as best they can. At the hotel we've seen some deferred maintenance, and in the hotel's casino, it's pretty clear that the staffing levels are down, because there's no one around when you need them to clear a malfunctioning slot machine.

There are some major building projects underway in Aruba, and I'm wondering how the sales are going at the multitude of timeshare projects coming on line. The Divi Divi project has staff at the arrivals area of the airport passing out free tote bags and timeshare presentation invitations offering $100 in services for an hour of your time. The financing of these building projects was put together at least two or more years ago, but the sale and financing of the timeshare units are happening now in today's economic environment. The outcome won't be known for probably another year, and I'm thinking the results won't be what the developers had planned on to retire their debt and take their profit.

I'd like to come back in a year to check out the economy here firsthand. Now wouldn't that be a nice Christmas present to myself next year? We'll see.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day 2009 in Aruba

On this Thanksgiving Day, which we are spending in beautiful, sunny, warm Aruba, I give thanks for life itself.

Herb is not feeling well these days and hasn't for the last several difficult days spent in bed in our hotel room. At noon today, the doctor associated with the hotel will "pass by," as the doctor puts it, to look in on Herb. A doctor who offices at the hospital who is willing to pass by at noon on a weekday is a blessing in and of itself, and for that, I am also thankful.

Herb's had cold and flu-like symptoms, and it may be as simple as just that. But we are being cautious and want to ascertain that it's not pneumonia, since Herb is experiencing congestion in his lungs and difficulty breathing. A heart attack five years ago while traveling on a family reunion trip, followed by a quadruple bypass surgery upon a quick return to Colorado, lurks in our minds. I have some experience companioning my husband with doctors, hospitals and hotel rooms in a distant place.

As we have been known to say on occasion, aging is not for the timid. We have our share of aches and pains and symptoms to fill our medicine chest to overflowing with prescription drugs and over-the-counter palliatives. For these I am also thankful beyond measure that I am blessed to live in a first-world country and to be blessed with adequate income, health insurance, and education to be able to partake, I hope appropriately, of the medical system in the United States.

I am mindful of those in this world who have far less than Herb and I and our family have. Every moment of our lives has been filled with grace and gift from God. I want to remain in a posture of thanksgiving and prayer and resist the temptation to give in to forboding and fear that does, regrettably, accrue with age and the experience of loss of those who have gone before us.

Blessings to one and all.

Monday, November 16, 2009

ELCA Church Council Meeting

The mosaic tile installation at the first floor
elevators in The Lutheran Center.

I just returned from attending a 3-day meeting of the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at The Lutheran Center in Chicago. The Lutheran Center is an 11-story building near O’Hare Airport with dedicated space for Church Council meetings and a chapel with organ on the first floor. The entire building is filled with religious art worthy of a separate tour.

The organ in the first floor chapel during the last day's Eucharist.

The lobby of the 9th floor of The Lutheran Center.

I’m the invited ecumenical advisor, elected from the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church (TEC), our counterpart to the ELCA Church Council. In both cases, the Councils are the governing bodies in the interim between the TEC’s triennial General Convention and the ELCA’s biennial Churchwide Assembly. Incidentally, the Lutherans generally don’t use the initials “ELCA” when referring to themselves but say “Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

The Church Council is comprised of 37 (vs. 38 in the TEC Executive Council) elected members including four presiding officers: the Presiding Bishop, a lay Vice President, a lay Secretary, and a lay Treasurer, all of whom are on staff at The Lutheran Center. Guests include synodical (diocesan in TEC lingo) bishops, and representatives from program units, advocacy organizations, and ecumenical partners.

Three interconnected rooms held approximately 120, with the Council members seated in two U-shaped tables facing the head table, the bishops and youth representatives behind them, and the guests on either side of the Council members. Although expensive to include so many advisors in Church Council meetings, the Lutheran commitment is to inclusion of all the voices of the church, particularly during small group and committee work.

The Church Council meeting room.

The bishops' seating is on the right.

Even though the ELCA is intentional and attentive to racial, ethnic, gender, youth, pastors and lay representation in its elected members (mandated quotas of 40% female, 60% male; 10% youth; 10% people of color), the room held mostly Whites, a handful of Blacks, and even fewer Hispanics/Latinos and Asians (no Asian Council members, however). I also did not see anyone who was visibly handicapped.

Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson stated that the ELCA is 97% White, and the intentionality towards diversity is very present. Their concept of “Reconciled Diversity” acknowledges our unity always in the ground of our diversity with reference to First Corinthians 12 (There are many parts, yet one body), which was referred to repeatedly as reports and resolutions were presented.

“The ELCA Church Council is committed to lead the church toward racial and gender justice and full inclusion and participation,” is a statement on the daily “Process Observation Form” which attendees complete. Process Observers reported at the close of each day’s business session as a means of addressing racism within the Council itself.

Goodsoil, a consortium of organizations working for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the ELCA, had a cadre of six to eight persons present throughout the Council meeting. They took up the entire back row of one side of the guests’ seating. A retired bishop told me that in response to his query, Goodsoil representatives said they would keep showing up for Council meetings until LGBT people are fully integrated into the sacramental and ministerial life of their church.

The Lutherans approach “ubuntu,” the theme of TEC’s General Convention this past July, through the words “interconnected,” “interdependent,” and “neighbor.” Ubuntu, a Bantu word, means “I in you and you in me,” or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself . . . .”

From Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson to numerous pastors and lay leaders in breakout sessions, the interdependence of human beings was foundational in every discussion and in every document that was presented to the Council members and guests. Part of the Lutheran theology is that they seek to respond to God’s love through care for the neighbor, and they acknowledge a pastoral responsibility to all God’s children.

One of the challenges of serving in this liaison post is learning a whole new church vocabulary and church polity. The Lutherans are sticklers for language, especially right now as they engage the reactions to the August, 2009, adoption of their tenth Social Statement entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” Two concepts from the Social Statement were discussed widely during the Church Council meeting: “the bound conscience” and “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationship.”

The bound conscience refers to the different understandings of Scripture and what constitutes responsible action that faithful people come to in their discernment of ethics and church practice. The ELCA acknowledges that consensus does not exist regarding same gender sexual relationships.

Publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships are no longer a barrier to full inclusion in the rostered (ordained pastors) life of the ELCA in terms of church policy. How each bishop and each congregation responds (calls or doesn’t call an LGBT pastor) is a matter of bound conscience. Much discussion ensued around what “publicly accountable” means. Among the ideas raised by Council members was that a possible benchmark might be that the same gender relationship would be marked by whatever is the highest civil designation, e.g., civil union or marriage, in the relevant locale.

Many Council members were uncomfortable with the lack of clear guidelines, and it was suggested that clarity may not be possible. Presiding Bishop Hanson referenced the “Background Essay on Biblical Texts for ‘Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality’” as another example of how clarity is not always possible. (Journey Together Faithfully is the Lutheran study guide that preceded the Social Statement on Human Sexuality.) The Background Essay’s authors, Arland J. Hultgren and Walter F. Taylor Jr., concluded that biblical scholars cannot be the final and only arbiter of human sexuality: “But finally their contributions are only one part of a larger discussion among those who seek the mind of Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

One last observation is on the discipline that the Lutherans exhibited in not using the term “dissenters” to refer to those who disagree with the actions of the August, 2009, Churchwide Assembly in adopting the Social Statement on Human Sexuality and thus, removing any policy bars to full inclusion of LGBT people in rostered ministry. The theology behind this is that all are within the circle, all are full, equal and necessary members of The Body of Christ, and "dissenter" is a term that makes the neighbor into the other.

Bishop Hanson reported that a recent survey of the 65 synodical bishops indicated that out of approximately 10,400 congregations in the ELCA, 87 have held the first of two required votes to leave the ELCA of which 28 failed to reach the 2/3-majority required, and only 5 have held a second vote. He pointed out that the ELCA is at present living at the intersection of hope and fear and is committed to the proclamation of the Gospel and service to the neighbor.

I was greatly enriched and blessed to have the privilege of attending this Church Council meeting. Four highlights stand out in my experience. The first was doing Bible Study with Presiding Bishop Hanson and retired Bishop Donald McCoid. The second was "Cafe Conversations," a guided hour and a half discussion on reactions within the synods to the Social Statement on Human Sexuality. I was at a table facilitated by the deeply reflective Synodical Bishop Michael Burk, who has been spending the vast majority of his time in recent months pastoring to those who are discomfited by the actions of the Churchwide Assembly.

The third was Lutheran Evening Prayer, which turned out to be what we Episcopalians call Evensong. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the hymns from the Lutheran Worship book, which seem to somehow be more liltingly melodic than the hymns of the Episcopal Hymnal. And the fourth was an early morning (7:00 AM) breakfast meeting to learn more about the Church in Society Unit, comprised of the domestic and world mission and public policy and advocacy portfolios of the ELCA.

I was warmly welcomed and well orientated along with the new class of 13 Church Council members. I look forward to the next Church Council meeting in April, 2010.