Monday, February 28, 2011

What's in a Song?

"Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry..." If I'm late to chapel, my walk is enriched by the sound of voices lifted in song. They are loud enough to be heard several blocks away

Singing here in Zambia is joyful, vigorous, and forceful. Most of the singing is a cappella, at least in chapel and many gatherings. One congregation I visited used discarded American hymnals, but all the others have had songbooks with words only--or nothing at all. Most people know the words to the songs by memory. And, as I noted in a previous blog, hardly anyone here reads music. So all that is required is the written words and someone who knows the melody.

The hymns in Bemba are mostly "call and response" praise songs. The ones in English are traditional hymns brought over by the first missionaries, complete with ancient English terms (like "hath" for "has") and 19th Century sentiments.

This provides a challenge for me. Not only is the language totally male-dominated, but the theology is outdated, or at least out of fashion in the churches I attend at home. We no longer use military imagery in many of our mainline churches, but here we sing, "Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross, Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss..." Although we have not sung it often, "Onward Christian Soldiers" is in the book, too.

And then there is the fascination--or at least a full comfort--with blood. "Would you be free from the burden of sin? There's power in the blood, pow'r in the blood, Would you o'er evil a victory win? There's wonderful pow'r in the blood...There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r, in the blood of the Lamb, There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r in the precious blood of the Lamb." I counted seven "blood hymns" in our songbook, including "Are you washed in the blood?" "Nothing but the blood of Jesus" and "Wash me in the fountain of your blood." An American pastor here who teaches in the Theology Education by Extension Program (TEEZ) located on the MEF campus told me that in African-American churches where he has worshipped in America, songs with reference to the blood of Jesus are also popular.

But the biggest area of cultural clash for me comes from the overwhelming popularity here of hymns counseling submissive obedience. The two that we sing over and over when we ask for requests from the songbook are "All to Jesus I Surrender" and "Trust and Obey." The choruses go like this: For the first, "I surrender all, I surrender all, All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all." The other is "Trust and obey, for there's no other way, To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." There is an important message here, and perhaps one we Americans with our self-reliance, skepticism, and challenging questioning need to hear more often. But here it seems to reinforce an orientation toward unquestioning acceptance of authority. It tends to discourage any critical thinking in areas of faith.

No one here seems to have heard my favorite hymn, "Help Us Accept Each Other" (tune: barrownita) or Andy's favorite hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory." One of the verses of mine says "Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some, to love them as we find them, or as they may become." Andy's hymn calls us to have courage and wisdom as we use the power God gives us to confront the world's warring madness, greed, and other social (as well as personal) evils.

We are going to print a supplement to our chapel songbook, so I'm looking for ideas of more contemporary--or at least more diverse--strong hymns to put into the collection. Any suggestions?

Good news: our songbook does include "Lord of the Dance," which we sing with gusto!

Monday, February 21, 2011

What's in a Name?

One of our Pan African students is named Divine Engagement. Her African given name, Botho, means respect, in the sense of respect for all creation. She is from Botswana. Imagine having a name meaning Respect For All Creation [with] Divine Engagement!

For some people, a set of names suggesting such lofty ideals might be a burden. Not for Botho. She radiates joy. She brings enthusiasm into the room with her. When she leads worship in the chapel, she dances as she directs us in singing songs of praise. She's small in stature, but large in presence.

BBC World Service broadcasts a program on Sunday mid-day called "Something Understood." Yesterday the theme was spiritual energy. After a series of readings and musical offerings, the commentator suggested that spiritual energy was available to all of us, if we were willing to seek and ask for it. But it doesn't just come, unbidden. We have to desire it, to be open to it, to embrace and use it. I thought of Botho Divine Engagement when I heard this program. She is full of spiritual energy, and she uses it to connect with those around her in a deep and joyful way.

Was it spiritual energy that kept Nelson Mandela strong during his years of incarceration? Was it spiritual energy that has enabled Aung San Suu Kyi to thrive despite years of persecution and house arrest? Certainly Ghandi radiated spiritual energy.

I used to lead Alternatives to Violence workshops in the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, as well as in the community. In that program, we talked about Transforming Power. Hard to define but easy to recognize, Transforming Power was understood as a resource bigger than ourselves, but available to us, that could help us change our attitudes or responses in potentially violent situations. I think somehow we were talking about spiritual energy. Participants gave testimony to the turning points in their lives that were created when they called upon Transforming Power.

Some might say it was spiritual energy that the early Christians received at Pentecost, that inspired them to take a message of love and forgiveness out to the world. Spiritual energy leads to action.

It's easy to think of our great examples of people who seemed to possess and use spiritual energy--the Martin Luther Kings and Eleanor Roosevelts of the world. But if spiritual energy is potentially available to all of us, why don't we see more of it? Botho Divine Engagement brings light wherever she goes. She is an ordinary person, but a person in touch with a power and a spirit that she transmits to others. Maybe spiritual energy is like a gift we have, waiting to be unwrapped and used.

I suspect that we have the potential to cultivate spiritual energy through practicing such disciplines as meditation, prayer, and reflection. We also must want to have it. Being filled with spiritual energy would mean that we would have to be willing to let it lead us into deeper engagement with others and with the source of all being.

Is that what scares us off...or keeps content with where we are? Or perhaps I should be honest and ask if that is what scares me and keeps me too busy with life?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Musical Chairs

In the party game of musical chairs, the room is set up with a row of chairs containing one chair fewer than the number of participants. Music plays, and when the music stops, everyone must try to find a seat. The "leftover" person is sent out of the game, another chair is removed, and the music begins again. It ends when there is just one chair and two contestants, with one competitor winning the seat--and therefore the game.

I have always liked the cooperative version of the game in which the chairs are set up the same way, say 9 chairs for 10 players. When the music stops, the ten participants must fit themselves into the nine chairs. Lap sitting is allowed, as well as squeezing two people onto one chair. It becomes more challenging as more and more chairs are removed, but there are still 10 participants. In the end all are laughing as they try to see how many people they can squeeze or stack onto a few chairs.

Well, I have thought of musical chairs on more than one occasion here at MEF. Each set of students has an assigned classroom in which to meet for classes and group work. In general, classrooms are equipped with large wooden tables and various kinds of chairs. It's sometimes the tables, but more often the chairs that are the challenge. They seem to migrate from time to time. Sometimes I would arrive at the classroom, only to discover that it was beautifully set up with white cloths on the tables and a full complement of padded chairs. Then I knew that it was intended to be used by a workshop, and my students and I would be using a substitute room. Other times, the chairs would be an odd assortment of plastic chairs, wooden chairs, and chairs with padded seats. If there were too few chairs for the number of participants, students would go into an empty classroom and borrow chairs. They didn't always remember to return them, which was one of the causes of chair migration. And, of course, the underlying problem is scarcity of resources.

Chair migration was a more notable problem in classrooms on the far side of campus. We were never troubled by having our room appropriated for a workshop, perhaps because these rooms were so poorly equipped. We had tables, but if we had chairs, they were usually the old chapel chairs--wooden and poorly constructed, so that some had rough patches that caught your clothes, others were unstable. And all were uncomfortable. There were usually a few nicer chairs, and the first arrivals moved them to their favorite spots around the tables. Some days we would find half as many chairs as students, and we would go on scouting parties to round up enough from various other rooms. Several times I mentioned this problem to someone in administration, but nothing changed.

When the semester started, I tried once again to advocate for enough suitable chairs for this classroom. Although help was promised, nothing happened that week, until Friday. On that morning, there was a festive ceremony in the chapel. It was set up with rows and rows of padded chairs. Later in the day, I saw many of those chairs being placed in the empty room next to my classroom. My students and I then gathered up our broken wooden chairs, placed them in the storage area, and replaced them with the simplest of the padded chairs. Success!

Monday, we were comfortable and happy. Tuesday we discovered two of our tables and several chairs missing, but I knew where they were. A previously empty room across the hall was scheduled for large classes, and I had seen workers moving tables and chairs into it and suspected that they didn't have enough without some of ours. We took back one table and enough chairs for our needs, but we returned the chairs at the end of our class so they would have enough. It seemed like a good plan, just move chairs back and forth as needed, and all would go well. It worked the rest of the week.

The following Monday, we entered our classroom to find that the table we had reclaimed had been removed again, as had all the padded chairs. We had the old wooden chapel chairs back. The particular class that morning was Community Based Intervention Strategies, and the students decided to put what they were learning into practice and try to resolve the chair problem. One student suggested demonstrating, but after discussion the class decided to go through proper channels, and to present their concern in writing as well as by requesting a meeting to discuss the issue. We drafted a respectful and constructive, but clear and critical memo. I agreed to print it the next day and deliver it to the office.

Just after I left the memo with administration the next day, I went to teach again in that classroom--only to find no chairs at all and yet another of our tables missing! I crossed the hall to take some chairs out of the large classroom, and found it padlocked. Now what were we going to do? The students hadn't arrived yet. I scribbled a note of complaint to the head of social work and went to find him at his nearby office. He wasn't there. As the students arrived they sat on the tables and we discussed our options. The storeroom was empty, the other classroom locked. One student went out and found the social work head. We gave him my hand-written note, and the students, still sitting on the tables, vented their frustration and their sense of being second class citizens. He agreed to try to help.

The next day, we had the full set of tables and the correct number of padded chairs in our classroom. So far, it has stayed that way. Was it the memo? The involvement of the social work head? Or just the persistence of raising the complaint enough times that it finally got through to the right person? We don't know, but the students feel more empowered as a result of their part in the intervention.

Let's hope we have seen the end of musical chairs, at least in the classroom!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

We and They

It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and bright, as Zambian days can be after a night of windy rain. I had given out several peanut butter sandwiches and cups of cold water to some of the older kids, middle school age. As I went back to washing dishes, I heard voices raised. The volume and intensity of the interaction increased. It became clear that a child was quite upset. She ran out of the yard, yelling something over her shoulder as she left.

"Violet," I asked. "What was that all about? I didn't like the tone and sound of what the kids were saying." (The argument had all been in Bemba.) "They were teasing Nyla because she isn't Christian," Violet replied. (She is part of the only Muslim family on campus.) "They would not believe her when she said she worships the same God, and she became upset. She said she would come back with a gun and shoot them."

I went out to have a conversation with the boys who had been teasing Nyla. They were astonished to learn that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God and shared some of the same scriptures and prophets. "But she worships Allah," they insisted. It took quite awhile for us to become clear about the common core of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and then we turned to a discussion of how it felt to be disrespected and teased. I'm not sure how much of our conversation stuck with them, but they did listen. Some of them consider me an honorary grandmother, with whatever credibility that designation brings.

Cultivating understanding and mutual respect for different religions can be challenging for all of us. I recently read The Faith Club, an account of the exploration of their religious traditions by three women. Their group was formed by a Muslim woman after September 11, when she was afraid that her children might experience discrimination because of their identity. She reached out to a Christian and a Jewish woman with the idea of writing a children's book to promote better understanding of the common elements of the three major monotheistic faiths. The women came to see that they needed to explore their understanding of their own traditions as well as their beliefs about the other faith traditions before they could undertake the writing of a book. Their story is honest, rich and complex.

Zambia matter-of-factly calls itself a "Christian nation." Public schools use Scriptures and Bible stories quite naturally in everyday teaching. There are a multitude of diverse Protestant and Catholic churches here, and most of their services are packed on Sunday mornings and other worship times. Having one strongly predominant faith tradition means that opportunities for interacting with, understanding and respecting different faith traditions is less likely, unless one makes an effort to study or to reach out beyond one's natural community.

I suppose that it is human nature to consider our particular belief system and world view as "right." We may not even be aware that there are alternatives if we live in a mostly homogeneous society. But why, when we encounter difference, don't we automatically think "that is interesting" rather than "that is wrong" or "weird"? How can we cultivate an openness to discovery and understanding rather than fear and apprehension about alternative faiths, political systems, and traditions? Appreciation need not imply acceptance, much less conversion. It does imply a willingness to listen to other perceptions and systems of thinking and an awareness that there are many ways to travel in the journey of life.

My hope is that we will continually seek opportunities to explore the beliefs and traditions of others, and to reflect on our own. Through this exercise, we may come to appreciate the rich diversity in the pathways of the world, as we simultaneously find, create, or confirm the particular path that allows us to live in the light and to radiate light to others.