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First day in India

(written Wednesday, posted Thursday….this might be how most of my posts go from here on out)

Just before I arrived in India, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s *Outliers*. (Note of warning: don’t read the chapter on cultural reasons that planes crash WHILE FLYING OVER THE OCEAN….I kept praying, “For all their faults, God, make sure that British Airways communicates in direct and assertive fashion so that the plane lands safely.”)

Gladwell’s premise is that there’s no such thing as a self-made person. Our situations, our context, and certainly our drive equip us, as does the sheer luck of circumstances. In the list of the 100 richest people in all of history, 25 were American, and of those 25, 14 were born in the same 5-year period. (Yup, if you want to express gratitude for Carnegie Mellon University or Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, now’s the time to thank that remarkable window of opportunity for profiteering.) That combination of drive, circumstance, resources, context and particular windows of opportunity are what make for the statistical outliers we lift up in society. (Bill Gates, for example, and Steve Jobs and a really cool guy called Bill Joy who rewrote linux or unix or something like that and gave us a lot of the programming that brought us the internet….btw, did I mention they were all born at the same time, too?). And hard work turns out to be a better indicator of success than sheer aptitude, which is good news for all of us with less than a 150 IQ.

So what does all of this have to do with India?

When I arrived in Kolkata (and still got overcharged even though I took a prepaid taxi; go figure), my first stop was to meet the person I’m staying with, Reena Bose (I call her Reenapishi, or aunty on father’s side, even though there’s no blood connection between us, because she helped me navigate my three months in Kolkata as a volunteer at Emmanuel Ministries back in 2003, and her family adopted me as their own while I was here). I met her at the nursing school she has established between the last time I saw her (2004/2005) and now. Yup, as in from scratch. As in, graduating their fourth class and about to become financially independent.

Reena Bose is a registered nurse and very high up in the Church of North India’s Synodical Board of Health Services. She lives in an area of Kolkata called Behala, and her home is about ½ mile or so from the Oxford Mission Campus. For ten years, the orphanage space has lain empty (lush and green with a fish pond and jackfruit, mango, coconut, betelnut, banana and pomelotrees grow in abundance, and a slice of tranquility 5 yards from the chaos of the main road running through Behala to the shopping area of Sakher Bazar). She convinced the Diocese of Calcutta to help fund it, took out a sizeable loan herself, and built up a nursing program in the space.

Oh, and the students can help themselves to any of the fruit for free, except the coconuts, which require someone climbing a tree to cut down the young ones—those are five rupees each (on the street these days they’re up to ten rupees, or about 20 cents). I bought 12, which are sitting in my room waiting to be punctured so I can drink the juice at my leisure. It may not be mango season, but there are still plenty of reasons to be happy to be in India, hot humid weather and regular power outages notwithstanding.

My original point is that the Sister Florence School of Nursing is making a big difference. And it appears to have sprung out of nowhere. And it’s driven by committed teachers and generally willing volunteers (I watched Reenapishi demanding that her mechanic donate some work to the school since she was a longtime client—they finally agreed he would install backup generators in some of the rooms and the main office). And it’s the vision and passion of Reena Bose that brought this project into existence.

And that happened, Gladwell might argue, because of the class and religion she was born to and parents who didn’t believe she should dream less because she was a girl, and lots of remarkable mentoring and training, and decades of work helping to set up smaller but similar projects in the field to train health aides in rural areas and lots of time spent mastering the art of nursing administration (Gladwell also argued that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill—turns out Mozart was a bit of a late bloomer, having logged in more hours than that before he wrote his first masterpiece).

So that’s my first reflection on India.

Gladwell’s ultimate argument (and this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book; he’s much more compelling and engaging than this summary might suggest) is that if more people were given more access to opportunity, we might end up with more “outliers,” or the outliers might even someday become the norm. How great to experience one of those outliers living into the goal Gladwell articulated, reducing the number of outliers in the world by making them the norm.

Now go out and buy that book. J

the best ever tour of Madrid

Last night I became a member of the Wellington Society.

I know, sounds alarming, right?

Well, my Time Out guide suggested a couple of slightly offbeat tour options, and described the Wellington Society in these terms: If you miss your mad British uncle and want a surrogate who really knows his history, join the Wellington Society (joining is the only way to get a tour). Stephen Drake’Jones warns that if you don´t like wine and history, this tour is not for you.

I confirmed with him by phone, met him at Plaza del Sol at 8 PM, gave him my 50 euros, became a card-carrying member of the Wellington Society, and promptly sat down with him for a glass of white wine and the best empanada I´ve had in my life before the tour started. He quickly sussed out my personality (I was the only one on the tour, although generally there´s a minimum of two), and decided to give me the Bloody Madrid tour (perfect for the Inquisition obsessor), complete with tracing the steps of the assassin of the duke de someone, a potential threat to Philip II (or was it Charles III? the wine might have muddied my recollection a little).

Phenomenal, dramatic tour that included tucked away local tapas stops for nibbles and drinks as well as riveting history so that as I wandered Madrid today, I saw it in a slightly different light. And I´m on my way to pick up some cheese and pate from the place he insisted was the best deli in Madrid so I can have a peaceful picnic dinner on my last night in town. (This to balance out the one high-end meal I allowed myself at lunch, which was crashed by these three wealthy and banal kids travelling the world until one of them goes to Canada to heli-ski….I kid you not; his dad texted him during lunch to get it on his calendar for November. It apparently involves a helicopter and skiing, as the name suggests. Just a note: they claim that group seating at big tables is a charming European tradition….but not when you have a good book that you can´t read because your companions are busy talking about how they´re having beer for breakfast, even though it´s 2:30 in the afternoon.)

They say you can´t understand Madrid without seeing a bullfight. I´m pretty comfortable leaving Madrid having loved it but not understood it.

I still owe you a report on Goya, Guernica, and I have to add to it the Hopper painting ¨The Hotel Room¨ which I had to walk away from at the museum today lest I start openly weeping. Who´d have thought–in Madrid, moved to tears by an American original. God is good.

Plaza Mayor

How alarming and humbling to stand in a square so alive, where bullfights and executions competed for most popular attraction a few hundred years ago. I´ve been reading a wonderful book with excerpts of people´s experiences in Madrid over the last 500 years. One British visitor in the late 1700s complained that the sight of the flagelants crossing the square during religious festivals was really irritating. I believe public self flagelation was outlawed in 1782, so it´s no longer an issue.

That said, what a riveting city with such rich and disturbing history and vibrant art. Next post, Goya´s black period, 2 May and 3 May 1808, and Guernica, for which you can forgive Picasso any of his late-in-life commercialism.

final reflection on Iona (for now)

This is a picture from Rachel’s camera of part of the group as we were leaving Iona on the ferry to Fionnphort (before the bus ride across Mull to Craignure before the ferry to Oban before the bus to Glasgow–this is a day-long affair). As is always the case with retreats, the people make or break an event. One of our group members this week, Ian Campbell, goes every year, and he said the group doesn’t always function this well. On the first night, I looked around the refectory and thought, “What could I possibly have in common with anyone in this room?” But sure enough, as lives unfolded, everyone had something to teach me, from the public health professor to the woman who organized a choir for homeless people to the Swedish pastor who pursued ministry as a second career, having been told she couldn’t as a woman the first time she tried. You don’t get a dynamic, compassionate, willing to ask hard questions group every day.

What’s remarkable about Iona is that as ancient as it is, the place also feels very modern (or postmodern, if you will). It felt a little disconcerting at first, but it was intentionally designed as a living, breathing community dealing with the lived experiences of people right here right now, always. So even if it’s cliche, I think it might be by design that the people end up being the most central part of the Iona experience. And I was incredibly fortunate to get to learn from all of them.

Next report– Madrid sans bullfight.

A tie between Iona and First Christian Church of Oakland

I was really inspired by this cross in a tucked away corner of the Abbey. It made me feel connected to my home church, which is discerning its call to be a church oriented around a vision of peace. It was a reminder to me of how big that vision is, even though we’re trying to keep focused on the implications of that in Oakland. What a gift to know we do not stand alone in that process of bringing about God’s peace in the world!

An Iona ethic?

In an interview in Time magazine in 1948, Iona founder George MacLeod said, “As feudalism was the earthly seeding-bed of Thomas Aquinas, as emergent capitalism was the forcing house of Calvin, so our scientific, political, economic structure, without precedent, whose birth is our present agony, will be the seeding-bed of new discoveries of God’s approach to Man, and of the manner of our response. . . . Like Christian in his Progress we are inclined to say ‘We do not see the Gate, but we think we see a light.'”

What I find compelling about the worship at Iona is the fierceness of other-focus, and the dignity and divinity of humanity that is embedded in the liturgy. At the end of scripture reading each morning, instead of “The word of God. Thanks be to God,” the reader says, “For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us,” and we respond, “Thanks be to God.”

By and large Iona seems to draw a certain type of pilgrim–the type that would appreciate the Carrie Newcomer song “Betty’s Diner,” which Rachel Frey and I sang at the talent show last night. Her lyrics about how God is found in people comforting each other and drawing strength from each other in the booths of an all-night diner were described by more than one listener as “innately Iona.” That bridge between the sacred and the secular continues to be lived out here 70 years after it began to take shape, and it’s something I’m excited to share when I get back to the states.

I’m not sure whether MacLeod would have loved knowing he also shared this same passion for Holy Work with Bengali native Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote at the turn of the 20th century one of my favorite religious poems of all time in his collection Gitanjali:

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put of thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.

My favorite comic, Billy Connolly, comes from Edinburgh. He comments, “People tell me all the time, ‘I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never been to Scotland,’ like it’s a special accomplishment. Or they’ll say, ‘I went to Scotland and it rained.’ OF COURSE it bloody rained! What do you think it is, Majorca?!”

I’m on the vaguely remote isle of Iona (you take a train and a ferry and a bus and a ferry to get there from Glasgow). And it’s, yup, raining. Apparently the founder of the monastery kept sailing until he found an island where you couldn’t see Ireland from the highest peak. You find yourself wondering, “If St. Columba was experiencing such fierce persecution by the Irish in the 500s, why didn’t he sail SOUTH?” How did they manage to worship when it feels cold and wet in August with far better heat retention in 2009?

Perhaps the same way the cold and wet doesn’t stop people from meeting God here now (even in winter, when the staff stay as the tourists/pilgrims thin out). It’s what I’ve heard described as a “thin place,” because the divine and the profane dwell so close together. We do not sit at the end of morning worship because moving directly from the sanctuary to our assigned morning tasks is one motion of continuing to worship God.

Every dinner conversation has been rich and meaningful. Yesterday I heard a phenomenal story from a Swedish pastor. It reminded me that transformation is as difficult a task abroad as it is in the states. He said that in 1975, someone had managed to take down the fence and icons at the communion table so communion was closer to the people. He came to the parish in 1977. He was walking up from the cemetary in clerical robes when an old woman exited the sanctuary, saw him, and made a beeline. “Ah, a pastor; I have something to tell you. I haven’t been here in 30 years. I’m here now and they’ve CHANGED something. Make them put it back the way it was!”

Usually this type of confrontation would make the pastor freeze. But he got up his gumption and said, “You haven’t been here in 30 years and you expect me to change things back from the way it was made by people who HAVE been here?”

“They can BE here,” she huffed; “they just can’t CHANGE anything!”

(Imagine telling that story in your second language, by the way.)