Haiti Rundown #1
August 17, 2010

Had zero web access while there, so I’m having to re-cap. Here’s an idea of some of the things I experienced on the first two days of my trip to Haiti, as we traveled to our final destination:

Day 1:

There was a distinct variety of people in the Miami airport gate for the flight to Port Au Prince. A couple church groups in matching t-shirts with logos like “Mission Haiti 2010.” I felt sorry for one of those groups, who looked very tired, lost, and overdressed, but at least they all matched. There also were some Mennonites. And there were a few men in Rotary Club golf shirts. Some people from a company that makes shelter boxes. Maybe a journalist or two. And of course our rag-tag group (no matching shirts allowed!). And then you had a lot of Haitians, whose faces were noticeably more drawn than all of ours.

Landing in Port Au Prince, we flew over lots of blue tarps, tent cities. Lots of walls without roofs. Also thousands of tiny tin-roofed shacks crammed against each other with rag-clothed humans wandering everywhere between. Burning trash. Broke-down bulldozers. UN trucks. After landing we were welcomed by humidity, heat, and a lot of sounds. We waited in customs and baggage lines and eventually made it out of the very sweaty airport an into sweaty streets, where mobs of people seeking any kind of work tried to get our attention, help carry bags, sell us cell phones, whatever.

Immediately, images of utter devastation punched me in the face and sank into my heart. “You wanted to see it?” the scene seemed to say. “Well, here it is. You asked for it. Welcome to Haiti mother-f-er.”

Crumbled buildings filled the foreground and the horizon. People bathing in street gutters. Re-bar sticking out everywhere. Ladies cooking their families’ meals in the micro-space between the street and their tent. A man re-bandaging his wound. Obviously malnourished people staring at our baggage-laden van. Diesel engines whirring, horns honking, motorcycles crowding every turn, people shouting. But also saw lots of smiles. Perfect white teeth lighting up smoggy streets. There was some unseen beauty, peace, and hope weaving itself between, under, and around the destruction.

Drove to Sister Mary’s, a sweet and spunky nun who runs a charity hostel. She had a little tent city within her compound. Hundreds of people living in sun-faded blue Lions Club-donated tents. One large tent converted into a school. Kids playing soccer. Laughing, goofing off.

Ate an amazing meal, had wonderful conversation with other visiting helpers, experienced beautiful prayer and a sense of connection with strangers, and then fell asleep sweating.

Day 2:

Headed to a smaller airport to fly from Port Au Prince to the little port town of Jeremie, on the more remote southern peninsula. Crammed into a tiny, old plane and waited a long time…dogs on the runway blocking landings and takeoffs. About to take off, we abruptly turned around and headed back to the plane parking lot. Hydraulic fluid was puddling out of our plane. Switched planes, dogs were shooed off the runway, and we flew. Marveled at the beauty of the island below, but also noticed major deforestation, erosion, and dead reefs. Landed on a dirt strip, exited the plane walking toward the little one-room airport, and noticed children and ladies casually walking across the “runway” to their homes in the jungle just on the other side, carrying water and fruit on their heads.

Then made a grueling 1 1/2-hour ride in the back of a little flatbed trailer towed behind a truck, winding down rocky, pot-holed dirt roads toward the village of Marfranc in the Grand Anse river valley. Got covered in dust and got a sore butt. Said “Bonjour” to a bunch of people all along the way, half-naked kids carrying water, old ladies carrying fruit. Young men carrying what looked like red diesel but was Kleren, the moonshine-like spirit distilled from sugar cane, used as the base for rum. People bathing and doing laundry in the river beside the road. Excited kids, most of whom rarely see white people, shouted “Blanc!” pointed at us and jumped up and down. So many half-naked kids, and some not wearing anything but a smile.

The farther we got from Jeremie the more it began to look like remote Africa: Homes made from hand-hewn boards, corrugated tin, mud, rocks, rough concrete, thatched roofs of banana and palm leaves, dirt floors, absolutely zero power lines or phone lines, no power, no plumbing, no water except what the kids harvested from the river or an occasional hand pump. Each family has an average of about 6-8 people (often more) sharing a one-room home, which is usually sized about 20 feet by 15 feet by my estimation. But smiles everywhere and surprised stares following our little parade of white people.

Finally there: Turned off the main road, down a smaller, muddy road that briefly snaked between even smaller huts, set off behind banana trees, and came to the home of our hosts, the Moores, who have lived in Haiti for the past 15 years. Their home was built to serve as a hostel for work teams, so by comparison to all other homes in the area it was like a mansion, although it was the size of an average three-bedroom American suburban home. We pulled into the rock driveway, peeled our asses off the trailer, dusted off, and were greeted by the Moores, their local helpers, and Bouki, an incredibly excited chocolate Lab with an oral fixation.

After scarfing down a small meal, some of our team hiked into the center of the village of Marfranc. There they soon were offered a baby. “You like our baby? You want her? You can have her. Please take her.” They were in desperate need and wanted their baby to have a better life. This was our introduction to the realities of Haiti.

More to come, including pix and vids.

No Experience Is Better Than False Experience (Guest Post)
July 2, 2010

Following is a guest post from my Kiwi friend, Jonathan Elliot, who writes about faith and being a friendly agnostic at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

***

I’d like to tell my story of not being slain in the spirit.

I spent a fair bit of time in spirit-filled practice when I was a student, attended a charismatic church and worked closely with Pentecostals in our campus christian group.  I can still speak in tongues on demand, if you want me to. At the time, a pentecostal ministry ran a revival week in a huge tent out in the countryside. I’ll let the cynical among us note the appropriateness of using a circus tent for such events.  They brought a number of apparently-big-name preachers in from overseas and one of them was a clean-cut young man who was surely not even thirty years old. I’ll call him Redfords LaGrange. God had allegedly been talking to him since he was seven years old, and he’d made a study of “God’s Generals,” famous spirit-fooled preachers.

Standing at the rear of some 1500 people, I listened to him. On another night I’d heard Redfords exhort the whole crowd to voluntarily speak in tongues at the top of their lungs.  I felt uncomfortable with this, mainly for what I felt were Scriptural reasons. It also seemed kinda stupid and I quietly left to stand in the dark field and pray. As the roar of the crowd behind me surged, I could hear the cry from the poor folk trying to sleep in a distant farmhouse: “SHUuuuuuuuuT UuuuP!” This rather amused me, especially since they actually used more colorful language.

Anyway, on the night in question Redfords LaGrange called for those engaged in youth ministry up the front; he was going to pray for them. I walked up the long aisle into the spotlights along with about 50 others and we stood in a line along the front.  Now, when you’ve got 50 people to pray for individually and you’re a preacher with no time to spare, you have to kind of rush along the line and spend about 15 seconds with each person.  You don’t have time to even ask the person’s name. As Redfords was coming, I prayed “God, I’m open to anything you want to do. Do anything you want to me. Make me fall over if you want, only please let it be you and not psychology.”  I’d been praying that all the way down the aisle too. Let me say, I was very sincere about both things.  I wanted a touch, but only if it was real.

I knew falling over was likely, as that tended to happen in these kind of meetings. I always preferred to call it “falling over”, as the term “slain in the spirit” is not one found in scripture. The cynical can point to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were slain BY the Spirit.  I doubt anyone wants to recreate that experience.

Indeed, as Redfords came down the line, I saw people falling over out of the corner of my eye. “Catchers” ran forward to make sure they didn’t hit the ground too hard. Many of us already had catchers standing behind us in advance. If it’s an experience from God, I always wondered why he would allow you to be hurt?

Redfords LaGrange reached me and prayed, his hand gently on my head. I didn’t sense any physical pressure from him, I was alert to being pushed.  He prayed kindly and briefly, and moved on.  Did I sense him hesitate when I didn’t collapse? I stayed there praying, slowly realising that out of the whole line, I was the only one who hadn’t fallen over.  Maybe I was resisting the spirit, maybe my intellect had made me hard-hearted. But I know I was sincere. I just didn’t want it to be weak buckling at the knees under the influence of emotion, tiredness or peer pressure.

Mark Vernon migrated from christian clergy to atheist, and now calls himself an “agnostic christian”. He’s an advocate of silence and
not-knowing. Vernon says it’s important to draw a clear line between silence and an experience of ecstasy.

There is an emphasis on experiencing ecstasy in much contemporary churchgoing. This is Christianity that is authenticated by some kind of peak experience, from speaking in tongues, to being healed, to seeing a statue move.  Typically, the experience is noisy, demonstrative and, qua the experience, often barely distinguishable from a bungee jump or druggy high.  But this is Christianity as psychological buzz; its passion is no more than emotion.  It’s aims may be valid – happiness, satisfaction, belonging – but they eclipse the goal of spirituality, at least according to [Meister] Eckhart, which is that of sacred ignorance. For the pursuers of pure experience, the unknown is regarded suspiciously.  They substitute the language of personal fulfillment for the language of … doubt.” –After Atheism, p 120.

So what do I make of this? As it happens, in the course of many other meetings I’ve never fallen over. I’m not a hater; I believe that if God was there, then my prayer was honored. I also have a funny feeling that at least some of those people fell over because they felt they had to, or look unspiritual in front of the audience. Have you ever felt left out when others all seemed to be getting blessed? What did you make of it?

Again, check out Jonathan’s blog at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

4 Anti-Prayers to Screw Up Your Life (and Save It).
May 13, 2010

The following is a prayer that I as an agnostic Christian love to pray because 1) I can say it just to myself if I have trouble imagining God, and 2) it doesn’t really involve statements of dogma, and 3) it’s really about trying to better myself instead of relying on a Flying Spaghetti Monster to rain down luxuries on my life. (This flies in the face of the Prayer of Jabez, and for that I love it too.)

For me, it’s sort of like a manifesto for my life, or at least one I aspire to. A manifesto for a new way of living that seeks to live deeply, beyond the noise of upward mobility and more-ness.

Also for me, I’m declaring an end to the passé drone of self-interest. This is about running, against the wind, toward a way of living that brazenly asserts that another world really is possible.

I’m trying to intentionally meditate on this to help me feel more centered and grounded. It’s made up of four individual prayers, and I’ve been trying (sputteringly) to focus on one each day, or each hour or whatever. Below is my slightly modified version of what’s known as the Four-fold Franciscan Blessing, which I call My Anti-Prayers, because it goes against the common notion of requesting favors from God, and puts more responsibility on me…although I certainly need a Grace that’s beyond me to help make it a reality:

My Anti-Prayers

Bless me with discomfort. Discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that I will live from deep within my heart. (Amen.)

Bless me with anger. Anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that I will work for justice, freedom, and peace. (Amen.)

Bless me with tears. Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that I will reach out my hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy. (Amen.)

Bless me with foolishness. Enough foolishness to believe that I can make a difference in this world, so that I can do what others claim cannot be done. (Amen.)

_____

By the way, because of the sort of screwed-up thinking outlined above, I’ve gotten all idealistic and I’m actually starting to try and make a little difference:

So I’ll be going to Haiti this coming August. (Really.) Let me know if you want to help make this possible and I’ll fill you in on details. (I’ll need to raise about $1,500 as my part — or $15,000 total for our entire group of 10.)

This ministry’s site will give you an idea of what we’ll be doing, and I’ll post updates here on my blog as well.

Name That Heresy
March 3, 2010

Part two of my Journey: Refractions blog series…


Christianity does not have the exclusive claim to God.

There, I said it. You can label me now. Reduce me to a category, or better yet, a brand, like we’ve done with God.

I just think maybe God is like me: A Large that can’t be squeezed into a small.

A big muffin-top that bulges over low-rise jeans, even “relaxed-fit” ones.

A form that refuses to stay in any container, even cross- or steeple-shaped ones.

A quiet stream that is also a pillar of raging fire. A lion that is also a lamb.

A Father who is also called “Many-Breasted One.” Google it.

A loving wise man who throws tantrums in the temple.

The Unknown God and “YHWH.”

An Unfathomable Power that we don’t even have sounds to express.

And we think we can nail all this down with one creed, a few rituals, and 66 books.

Sounds to me like we’re making someone in our own image.

What would it take to open up the lines a bit?

Leave some space between our words to let the Indescribable seep through, expand, and mess up our syntax.

Let the Holy Chaos randomize our code.

Then we might see that we really don’t have the puzzle figured out, even after ages of apostolic succession, ancient scholarly councils, apologetics, hermeneutics, and innumerable sermons.

So maybe we could work together with others and swap stories to get a bigger picture.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Nah. That would be heresy. At least that’s what I’ve been told that God told somebody somewhere sometime, and if God said it I believe it and that settles it.

Nevermind.

Conquerers for Christ
February 28, 2010

“[The natives] are so naive and so free with their possessions… [I can get you] as much gold as [you] need and as many slaves as [you] ask. …Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way…”

— Christopher Columbus, circa 1492

(In a fundraising letter to Spanish royalty, as quoted in A People’s History of the United States.)

Constantine's Dream

I could go on with examples like this of conquests in the name of God. And this is the Christian tradition that founded the Americas, though many Americans may never have heard such words about Columbus, that “great hero.” From Constantine to Columbus, from Gideon to George W., and from Pizarro to Pat Robertson, the list is long. The line of such religious tirades dates back to ancient times and unfortunately that tradition has carried on through today, with determined Christians using the actions of Moses, Gideon, and David to justify their thinking, just as medieval Catholics, like the inquisitors and conquistadors, did. And another thing that both ancient and modern conquests have in common: deep ties to political and economic interests, but that’s another story.

Of course, even the most hardcore fundamentalist crusaders of today would probably not go so far as to dash gentile infants against the rocks and rip open pregnant women, as the Old Testament encourages, but the same principle is at work : Take the land for (our version of) God. And today’s Godly crusaders have focused more specifically on taking over on behalf of Jesus, a cause which, interestingly enough, most direct descendants of Moses, Gideon, and David (Jews) detest.

Haven’t Christians learned anything from the thousands of years of bad reputation that religious conquests have given the church? Why do Christians still take the Great Commission to a level where it was never intended? Why must Christians still adhere to the imperialist tradition of Constantine? Why do Christians still feel a need to vehemently defend their way of life, when so many others in the rest of the world wish simply to be left alone? And why does that defense so often manifest in the form of preemptive strike? Maybe today’s “Christianity” is in fact under attack on some level, but I contend that’s because Christianity has attacked the rest of the world and is merely getting a taste of its own medicine.

Yes, Christianity deserves credit for some of the most precious advances in humanity, including hospitals, the Red Cross, and the preservation of some history and science (as long as it was approved). And apologies have been made for such atrocities as the inquisitions and crusades. But why have today’s Christians just turned from physically violent crusades to philosophically violent crusades? Could Christians ever really take to heart the message that so often gets forgotten…the message that actually gives Christianity a good name that doesn’t need defending:

“Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (James 1:27)

Some Christians might jump to use that last phrase to justify a defensive position, “…guard against corruption from the godless world.” But I contend that, especially considering the context, the corruption being mentioned there meant the typical way of doing things for that society, especially the way the Romans did things during the time when this letter was written: Imperialism. Greed. Fear of insurrection. Hunger for power. Arrogance.

(By the way, remember that group of people that the Old Testament talked about and suggested killing their children and ripping open their pregnant women? It was the exact same people group Jesus later threw in the face of the religious establishment and used as an example of true religion…the Good Samaritan. He knew the Jewish religion abhorred this people group because the Jewish holy book talked negatively of them, like they were a threat to God.)

The entire message of Jesus was anti-imperialist. That’s why he was killed. He wasn’t killed because he kept himself sinless or because he never cussed or never listened to secular music. He was crucified because he suggested that there was a different “empire,” a kingdom that didn’t need defending. A way of living that spoke for itself.

And I’m guessing a kingdom that speaks for itself probably does not need recruiters like this: