Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Little Red Hen strikes again

About 25 years ago in La Paz, Bolivia, I gave a class in a Friends Women’s Conference that has haunted me down through the years. I taught the class in Aymara, thanks to the patience of my language teacher and hours of practicing the lovely raspy sounds. Knowing the Aymara’s love for their own animal stories (the rascally fox, the astute humming bird, the deceitful condor), I chose to tell the American folk tale of the hard working little red hen who tried in vain to get the other barnyard animals to help her with her work that went from sowing the wheat to baking the bread.
As I mimicked the sounds of the cow, the sheep, the pig and the llama coming up with all sorts of excuses, the ladies laughed until they cried. Their reactions surprised me. Then I related the story to us women in the church and the need to be hard-working (another Aymara value) like the little red hen, not lazy like the other animals. I went on to teach about spiritual gifts and the Spirit’s help as we do God’s will.
I gave that class several times in different areas of the country, accompanied by a flip chart with my silly animal drawings, and always with the same enthusiastic result. It was the most fun I’ve ever had teaching a class.
Much time has passed since then. Recently we find ourselves visiting La Paz several times a year on different assignments. What has amazed both Hal and me is how many old ladies come up to me and tell me their memories of the little red hen. (I taught lots of other classes on biblical women, on the Christian family, etc., etc., etc. No one mentions—or probably remembers—those. What is it about that hen?)
It happened again last week. Our old friends Ildefonso and Brígida invited us to their home, and we had lunch with them, two of their five kids, and Brígida’s parents who have come to live with them. As we were sharing memories of experiences our families shared together, the Grandmother piped up in Aymara and began talking about the little red hen. She not only remembered details of the story, she summarized the lesson about working hard for Jesus in the church. That was 25 years ago.
It’s wonderful when cross-cultural communication works. I’m always amazed. And I continue to wonder—what is it about that chicken?

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Quaker Aymara blessing

Hal and I have been in La Paz some five days now and are slowly adjusting to the high altitude. This past weekend we participated in the Bolivian Friends Pastors Conference here in the city, with some 70 people in attendance. It was challenging, but I want to write about yesterday, Sunday.
At the conference our good friend Humberto invited us to worship on Sunday in the Villa San Antonio Friends Church. We’ve had close contact with this congregation during the years we lived in La Paz, so we gladly accepted.
Early Sunday morning we found a trufi (mini-van bus) whose regular route literally took us from the door of our hostel, across the city and up the hill to the very door of the church. (Usually one has to take several trufis to cross the city.) We arrived at 9:00 to take part in a Sunday school class of older people that Humberto teaches. These are Aymara people who prefer using their own language rather than Spanish, and who prefer the old hymns above the newer praise songs. (Sound familiar?) So Humberto taught in Aymara, inviting lots of participation as these wonderful old men and women shared from their experiences of how God reveals himself to them. It’s been a while since I’ve actively spoken Aymara, so a lot of it went over my head, but I reveled in a sense of being washed in the beautiful sounds of this language. There were just a few in attendance at 9:00, but around 30 people an hour and a half later as we concluded.
For the worship service, young people and families with kids filled up the sanctuary. We kept our place among the old ones. After an hour of praise songs in Spanish, accompanied by a small band (that made a very loud noise) and a team of worship leaders, pastor Juan Yapura, another old friend, gave announcements and welcomed Hal and me to the service with words of appreciation and warmth that almost embarrassed us. As if that weren’t enough, after the morning offering and a few more songs, Juan told the congregation that he felt led of the Spirit to take a love offering for us, in gratitude for years of service and to help us in our present ministry. The congregation gave a great “Amen!” So the baskets were passed around. We felt humbled and blessed.
Hal then went up to the pulpit to give a word of greeting. Juan gave him a big hug and then stepped down, and at that point Hal realized he was to give the morning sermon. He had done no preparation, didn’t even have his Bible with him, but that may have all been for the best. He spontaneously shared memories of our family’s relation with the congregation, thinking back to when the group met in a small adobe sanctuary on the side of the mountain until a heavy rain sent the building sliding down the hill. He recalled the miraculous project of the new property, of sharing in the ceremony of laying the foundation stone, of the many trips with elders out to the Lago Norte region to plant new Friends churches (now an established quarterly meeting). He mentioned how important this congregation was to our kids, how the youth group sponsored Kristin’s quinceñera, of all the friendships formed. This was in the context of remembering God’s faithfulness and being grateful. It was quite moving.
When Hal stepped down, Juan invited us both to kneel and asked all the people there to gather around us for a prayer of blessing. Juan led the prayer, using the microphone, while everyone else also prayed aloud, as is the custom. It was a beautiful prayer for our health and our ministry, for David and Kristin, their work and families, full of gratitude. These were no mere words. This was a blessing, real and tangible, a prayer that will make a difference in our lives. After the blessing, one by one, people gave us the abrazo (hug), another lovely Aymara custom.
We hung around a while, visiting with people, taking photos, saying “Goodbye” yet again. Then Humberto took us to a popular restaurant where we each had a huge bowl of chairo, a traditional Bolivian soup full of chuños, vegies and meat, topped by a delicacy called chicharón, actually deep-fried pig fat. (It’s a delicacy I usually skip.)
Looking back at the experience, I’m reminded that generosity and hospitality are core Aymara values. These are magnified when people become Christian. And the affection of these people comes from long years of shared experiences and deep friendship. Yes, we have been blessed.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The body (human and otherwise): Spirituality and the Arts

Last week my concept of art was expanded—or should I say “exploded”?—in a stunning presentation that Craig Goodworth entitled, “Art, Spirituality and the Body.” Craig demonstrated art that flows from a grounded spirituality, a spirituality that rises up from physicality, materiality, geography and culture.
According to his bio, “Craig Goodworth is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice lies on the boundary between landscapes of theology and poetics. Working in sculpture, drawing, installation, performance and prose, core themes in his art are the experience/idea of the body, and place.” Drawing a metaphor from the Passion of Jesus, Craig explained to us that his work is “Saturday art.” It occupies the liminal waiting space between the pain of the crucifixion (Friday) and the triumph of the resurrection (Sunday). Light and shadows intermingle. It is art with “real world contact.”
Craig divided his presentation into sections dealing with the human body, the body of the animal, the Body of Christ, the social body and the body of earth. In the section on the body of the animal, he told of a three day experience in the high desert of Arizona where he worked with the carcass of an elk, exploring it with a camera, turning it into a three-day experience of performance art, with the intention of understanding and living out the three days of Easter. (See Triduum Excerpt.)
In the section on the social body, he spoke of the importance of place (“You are where you live”) and presented “Liminal Space,” an installation and performance-based art project situated in Phoenix, Arizona, Craig’s own home town. An empty warehouse was transformed into a welcoming place of immigrant history, a social sculpture, as Craig put it. One of his intentions was “to create a space in a decaying place that would be hospitable to the other.” The way Craig links geography with spirituality reminds me of Kathleen Norris and her reflections on the Dakotas. Christianity Today documented “Liminal Space” in a short DVD. (See "You Are Where You Live.")
“Installation art,” “performance art,” were new concepts to me, and I’m intrigued. Craig has made art a way of life. He sees—and portrays—life from angles that startle, like looking into the rib cage of a cow and discovering a temple. Concerning the connection between art and spirituality, Craig says that we go through two conversions: one from the world to God and the other from God back into the world. He is working—drawing, sculpting, writing, installing—his way through his second conversion.
Craig and his wife Marie Christine attend the unprogrammed worship service at North Valley Friends. Not brought up Quaker, they are attracted to the way Quakers emphasize waiting on God, which is a type of liminal community space.
He ended his presentation with three queries (the last one a question from CS Lewis’ novel, ‘Till We Have Faces): 1) Describe your conversion from the world to God, and then from God back to the world; 2) How do you connect your spirituality with your body?; 3) Is holy wisdom clear and thin like water or thick and dark like blood?
I’ve been pondering that last one for a week. No answers yet.
Craig Goodworth’s whole website is well worth checking out.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Green and grounded in dirt: Spirituality and the Arts

True spirituality engages the five senses and has dirt under its fingernails; this was part of the message of a recent session of the seminar on “Spirituality and the Arts.” Miriam Bock and Phil Thornburg presented from the perspective of landscape artists. Brother and sister, they grew up in Burundi, and the African flora and fauna early formed part of their experience of the life of the Spirit. Phil now owns and manages a landscape company called Winterbloom, and Miriam works for him as a landscape designer.
They demonstrated how art and spirituality join in this profession, a profession where, according to Phil, “Practicality and aesthetics need to be married; but practicality comes first.” He presented the practical side of his art, telling fascinating before and after landscaping stories, with photos, that addressed real problems having to do with such issues as drainage, depleted soil, small areas, etc. But the result, as he puts is, gives the client “art that is not finished but is something that person can step into and become an ongoing partner with creation.” 
Phil also brought and demonstrated the four most valued tools a home gardener can own; these included a Japanese hori hori. I definitely want one of these, even those we don’t have garden space in our condominium. I would love to casually mention my hori hori to people, partly because it would be such fun to say.
One of the most insightful moments of the evening came as Eric Bock, part of the audience but also another of his Uncle Phil’s employees, told about how humanely Phil treats those who work for him, encouraging as well as training them and giving opportunities to grow personally and professionally. This relationship has been transformative for Eric. I realized that discipleship can be an art, and that Phil is an artist on more levels than maybe even he realizes.
The Winterbloom website contains Phil’s artistic philosophy, as well as photos of his work.
The integration of art and spirituality that Miriam and Phil live out encourages me to appreciate the artistry of the Creator of all this green splendor, and to be grateful for the trees and flowers that draw us closer to our Center.