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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Some Day

It's hard to concentrate on austerity
when I'm smelling fresh baked bread
as I'm typing on my top-of-the-line PC.

I'm chatting with my friend in Ghana
trying to downplay my first-world affluence
sophisticated world traveler that I am.

He's never been to the next country over
though he's got a yearning from the learning
done at the local Internet cafe.

A friend subscribes to simplicity
release from abundance
atonement for plenty.

Tis the season for retail therapy
perusing the shelves and racks
for a new skin, a new attitude.

Dining at the new rib joint
there's a waiting line to eat
Solidarity with refugee campers.

You've got to be kidding, you say
I say the sky fell when you weren't looking
My sister weeps, wrenching her heart inside out.

My friend staggers beneath a plenitude of grief:
Brother-in-law, brother, daughter-in-law.
Dying. Almost dying. Enough. Enough already.

How dare I connect the words
living and dying in one breath
Superstition that saying it makes it so.

Prayers seem somehow inadequate
What is solace? Compassion is
a hot meal delivered to the door.

I'm trying on the grieving. I'm next in line.
I don't know how to give comfort.
Nor to take it.

I'm auditioning for statue
marble avatar of contemporary woman
who stares but does not see.

Your withheld tears wash over me
salty rain upon a monument
invading my cracks and crevices.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Real Life

It's been almost two months since I last posted to this blog. A lot of life has intervened, and a lot of writing has occurred in other venues, including lots of opinions expressed and advice given. It was a relief to give myself permission to let go of this and my other blog "Stories from Mom's Mouth" so that I could attend to the people in my life who needed my love and my presence completely.

Chief among those people has been my lovely Goddaughter who has emerged on the other side of a five-week mis-adventure not entirely of her own choosing. Please pray for "Ms. Debate Queen." Her spirit is indomitable, and her love is enormous. She is not wrong; she just needs some time and some help.

Families are complex organisms that are never static for a moment. In my Goddaughter's family, each member has strongly held points of view, dreams, hopes, fears, idiosyncracies, stubbornness, flaws and more that complicate an already complex mix when actions are taken that throw everything into a free-wheeling, gyroscopic spinning out. One would like to think, to believe, to cling to, the thought that there are bounds, much like the walls of a pinball machine, that will keep the loved one contained in safety, but life is not so measured. Life, lived large, is not so benign.

I have counseled acquiescence to a pragmatic reality that is irresistible. The words of the Borg, "Resistance is futile," ring in my ears. I am a pragmatist, bottom line. If reality is what is ahead, then let us meet it with eyes wide open, scouring the contours of the horizon for strategic handholds and footholds where we just might be able to make an imprint that is personal, that marks a claim of ownership unembellished by someone else's spoor.

Acquiescence is a sort of choice, a very limited sort of choice between non-choice A and non-choice B. Acquiescence is the choice gleaned out of non-choices. I believe, truly, that in acquiescence lies a glimmer of hope, because acquiescence is about choosing to stay in the game, however stacked the cards against you, choosing to keep your eyes and ears open for the opportunity to make better choices next time.