Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Donald Lewis Filan 1931-2010

My parents divorced when I was nine: I barely saw my father after 1974.  He married his second wife soon after his divorce from my mother became final, and they have been together since that time.  I carried my grief and my anger about their separation for a very long time.  Sometimes I blamed my mother, sometimes I blamed my father: more often I blamed both.

By the time I finally came to some sort of terms with my loss my mother was dead and my father long established in a new family.  We had gone from estranged to strangers: while we made a few halting and painful efforts at re-establishing some sort of relationship, they never amounted to anything. When love and grief become too painful, you learn to lock them up and keep them safe.  One grows accustomed to absence: it is so much more reliable and predictable than presence.  And so both of us continued on with the families we had chosen, doing the best we could with what we had.

We touched upon that a bit in our last conversation, a little over a year ago.  We knew by then that the distance between us was insurmountable. But we no longer blamed each other for the rift.  The anger was gone and the hurt had long since faded to a dull ache.

Rest in peace, Dad.  I am glad we made it to absolution even if we could never find our way back to love.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Death of Grandfather Maridjan

In 1930 some 1,300 people died when Gojung Merapi (Mount Merapi), Java's most active volcano, erupted.  Late in the morning of November 22, 1994 Merapi sent out what the locals call fearfully a wedus gembel (curly-haired sheep). This wedus gembel, a searing hot cloud of gas and ash, touched down in a small village near the mountain's southwestern slope and incinerated 66 people.  In 2006 Merapi exploded once more: while the ensuing eruption was sizeable only two died. Although reeling from an earthquake that had left over half a million people homeless, the Indonesian government was able to organize an evacuation that saved many lives.

In October 2010 Merapi began rumbling again: as seismologists warned this was going to be a major event, Indonesia began another round of evacuations.  Many of the farmers who lived near the volcano's fertile plains departed in haste.  Others chose to ride out the impending danger, afraid they might lose their few possessions to looters or confident that the spirits of the volcano would not harm those who paid their proper respects.

Among those staying behind was 85-year old Ki Surakso Hargo, better known as Mbah Maridjan, or Grandfather Maridjan. Thirty-five years earlier Maridjan had inherited his role as Mount Merapi's juru kunci, (spiritual guardian) from his retiring father.  In that role, he acted as mediator with the mountain, propitiating its spirits with a mixture of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous prayers, offerings and propitiations.  He answered to Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, hereditary ruler of the province (and current elected governor), presiding with him over ceremonies to ensure the region remained fruitful and at peace.  As Maridjan explained it, “My job is to stop lava from flowing down. Let the volcano breathe, but not cough.”

During the 2006 eruption Maridjan led a procession of 100 villagers on a 54 kilometer (33 mile) march around local villages and left the local spirits offerings of apem (rice flour cakes) and other gifts to appease their anger. While local officials tried to take credit for the evacuations, many of the people believed that it was Maridjan's prayers that saved the day.  The brave juru kunci who refused to leave his post became famous throughout Indonesia, especially after he appeared in commercials promoting Kuku Bima Ener-G, a popular energy drink.

As the scope of Merapi's latest outburst became apparent, many of Maridjan's community left, including most of his family.  Once again Maridjan stayed behind. He knew how dangerous Merapi could be: he was badly burned during the 2006 eruption, spending five months in the hospital and leaving with permanent scars.  Yet he stayed at his post. To some he explained himself with an
old Javanese expression, "Nek aku mudhun, mengko diguyu pitik" or "the chickens would laugh at me if I run away from this place."  He was more serious with a close friend, saying "My time to die in this place has almost come, I can’t leave."

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 28, the mountain erupted.  Maridjan was kneeling in a position of prayer when the 1,000°C (1,800°F) wind hit him.  His batik shirt and sarong were fused to his skin by the heat: white ashes covered his charred corpse. According to Broto Seno, commander of Yogyakarta’s search and rescue team, "There were no signs of pain. His body was prostrated rigidly, not like he suffered from the fire."

Indonesian public opinion on Maridjan's death is divided.  The Sultan denied that it was Mr. Maridjan’s job to face down an eruption, stating "His duty wasn’t to guard Merapi, but to carry out his obligation to the palace and conduct ceremonies."  Ahmad Susanto, a cleric from pan-Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, said that Mr. Maridjan’s death was a call from God for the Javanese to abandon superstition and join the steadily rising tide of Indonesians who are adopting a more orthodox form of Islam. Surono, Indonesia's chief seismologist, complained about Maridjan's hubris and recommended that people trust in science rather than superstition when dealing with volcanoes.  Others wondered how many villagers died because they followed Maridjan's example... including 13 people who were in Maridjan's home begging him to evacuate.

But even those who think Maridjan's sacrifice silly are impressed by his bravery. His earlier commercials have been refilmed as a tribute to his life and his death.  Speaking on behalf of the Yogyakarta Palace, Gusti Prabukusumo (the Sultan's brother) said "We had known long before it happened that Mbah Maridjan would be taken by Merapi. Now that he's gone, we have to choose a new gatekeeper soon." Although the current eruption has claimed over 250 lives (with more bodies sure to be found as the site cools) and although Merapi is certain to erupt again, this is unlikely to drive people away from the region.  As one Indonesian website notes:
But Merapi does not act always as "a bad guy", most of the time "it is a good guy", handsomely gives tremendous fertility to the land, stands strongly guarding the nature.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Courage and Structure: more from the Blogosphere

After my post on the Rev. Jim Swilley's recent "coming out", Robert posted an entry in response asking "what is courage?" A few days prior, Ian Corrigan commented on my post concerning the language of  orthodoxy.  In the spirit of efficient blogging, I felt I might be able to answer both my commentators in one entry.

Ian shares my feelings on the dangers of DIY spiritual systems, hearkening to his personal experience and noting:
A big risk in a self-constructed, ad-hoc approach to spiritual work is that you will only manage to affirm the self you already were when you began, with little growth except perhaps in size. You might become a bigger, shinier, more powerful person of the sort you have always been, but you can also miss the opportunity to balance your natural tendencies against their complementary things. Worse, I’ve seen folks exaggerate and empower characteristics that might reasonably be discarded, if their goal was a productive and happy life. (If for some reason – artistic soulfulness or some crap – you don’t seek a productive happy life then I haven’t much to say to you…) This exaggeration of tendencies is, I’ll repeat, a real trap of the ‘do-what-feels-right’ approach to spiritual self-training.
While Robert provides two different examples of how a gay minister might engage with homosexuality.

Fictional Minister Number 1 is a good man in every respect. He is gay. He preaches from the pulpit that homosexuality is wrong while secretly having gay lovers. Is it courageous to preach what he feels is the truth even when he can't practice according to his words no matter how hard he tries? Is it courageous after years of failing to change his own behavior to change his mind and support another point of view? Would it be more courageous to simply admit he is an abomination as he has taught homosexuals are and walk away from the church? I could easily argue all three points. 
Ficitonal Minister Number 2 is a good man in every respect and preaches against gays as being ungodly. He says they should be cast out of the church. His son admits he is gay. Is it courageous to hold onto his son and love his son despite the words Number 2 spews from the pulpit? Or, is it courageous to disown his son, no matter how much he loves him, so that the son cannot 'infect' other members of the congregation? I could argue both ways.
Rev. Swilley is obviously devoted to his religion, Evangelical Christianity.  He is so committed, in fact, that he was willing to follow this path despite his sexual orientation.   It would have been easy enough for him to walk away from the pulpit and the church altogether, especially in the early days when he was preaching to small congregations and struggling to get by.  Yet Swilley persisted in his ministry, painfully aware of his homosexuality yet passionately in love with his faith and his community.

Failing that, he could also have taken the route of "do as I say, not as I do."  Pastors like Eddie Long and Ted Haggard condemned gay rights and the "homosexual agenda" while engaging in trysts on the side.  While Swilley has been quiet about his own sexual history (indeed, it's really none of our business), he never engaged in the kind of gay-bashing and intolerance which is so popular among many Evangelical leaders.  Excerpts from his 2003 book show him wrestling with Scriptural issues and with his community:
Many years ago I worked with my father in his midtown Atlanta church where we experienced what we thought was a great 'revival' among many of the gay and lesbian people of the inner city. Over the years I counseled with these people, took them through what we believed to be deliverance and inner healing, cast demons out of them (or so we thought), and pressured them into heterosexual relationships, including marriage, so that they could live normal lives... During that period I saw everything from grown men vomiting into trash cans, trying to exorcise the demons of homosexuality, to men who had been gay from their earliest memory trying to maintain a sham marriage so that they could fit the definition of being a Christian.

To my knowledge, all these years later, every one of these men and women have gone back to living openly gay lives, and all the ones who were married to the opposite sex are all divorced... I honestly don't know the right way to look at this situation anymore. I know everything that the Bible says about it, but in my heart I really don't believe that people have any control over their sexual and romantic orientation, and that makes me feel hypocritical about some of the positions that I have to take as a minister... when you tell [homosexuals] that if they come to Jesus they will become a new creation, and they expect to change to the point of having their sexual and romantic orientation altered, they are devastated when they discover (only too soon) that it isn't going to happen.
For now Swilley may have found a temporary solution to his quandry.  According to one purported member of the Church of the Now, Swilley is
willing to remain celebate and alone for the rest of his life in order to keep from any sin or jepordizing the church any further…so the problem here is not really a homoSEXuality issue (in the video he even said it wasn’t about sex or relationship), it’s simply about orientation…just because a person is gay doesn’t mean they act on sinful impulse…
We might not agree with Swilley's alleged decision, or with the idea that homosexual sex is sinful.  But we can certainly admire his willingness to take his path seriously, even the parts which he does not understand and which involve the deepest part of his being.  He has accepted the structure and tenets of his faith and struggled to put them into practice at great cost to himself: he has recognized the importance of its tenets concerning sexual behavior as well as its commandments concerning love, tolerance and personal honesty.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rev. Jim Swilley and Christian Courage

Apologies for the delayed pace of new postings.  I've been hard at work on a number of projects.  (Among them are Opiated Shamanism, my latest entry into the Blogosphere and my first promotional effort for the upcoming Power of the Poppy). But while I may not have been writing as much here, I have been reading as time permits: I also have several more responses that I hope to post here in the not-too-distant future.

When I saw Jason Miller's recent post on Jesus and Christian Magic, I thought I should give credit to someone who embodies Christianity's best efforts. It's fashionable to complain about the horrible Evil Fundamentalists who are just a few votes and some lighter fluid away from launching the latest remake of Ye Burninge Times. And there have certainly been some lousy things done in the name of Christ, from the murder of Hypatia to the pedophile priest coverup. But if we are going to hold a world religion at fault for its failures, it is only fair that we give credit for its successes: let us present Christianity's best along with its worst.

Some 25 years ago, Rev. Jim Swilley's congregants prayed in strip malls amidst rented space. Today their Church in the Now campus in Conyers houses one of the largest megachurches in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Swilley founded Church in the Now

... on a concept taken from Psalm 2:8 in the KJV, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” More recent and better translations say, “Ask of Me and I will give you the nations…,” but CITN embraced the more archaic term “heathen” for the simple reason that this house was/is to be a place of human recovery for those who have not been reached by the conventional church…those who have been overlooked…those who have slipped through the cracks. Jesus gave an illustration about the king who told his stewards to go into the streets and compel the unwanted ones to come to his banquet after the original invitees had declined his invitation, and CITN has answered the call to become those stewards carrying out that mission.
By 2010 he had every reason to congratulate himself on his success. Yet his second marriage had crumbled at the beginning of the year, his wife announcing she was tired "of living a lie."  The comment stung: when he read about the surge in anti-gay bullying and teen suicides, he decided to take action. Before his congregation, without a scandal lurking in the wings and his entire career at stake, Swilley announced,
There are two things in my life that are an absolute. I did not ask for either one of them. Both of them were imposed on me. I had no control over them.  One was the call of God on my life ... the other thing was my sexual orientation...
When I heard that the fifth teenager in the last few weeks committed suicide. It really makes me want to say to people who have no idea what people go through, 'You probably don't need to say anything about it.' Because, I've got to tell you something; a 14 or 15-year-old doesn't just say one day. 'Hey, I think I'm going to make up this story that I'm gay so I can jump off the George Washington Bridge.
The responses to his confession were predictable. Even before this confession, some Evangelicals were accusing Swilley and his wife of practicing an "apostate new age theology" with possible ties to Roman Catholicism. He has resigned as a bishop in the International Communion of Charismatic Churches after its Archbishop David Huskins said "if [Swilley] is yielding to a lifestyle that is contradictory to the Word of God, and then no, he would not be qualified to lead in the Church of God."   While he thanks his many well-wishers for "an outpouring of love and support," he admits that he may not be able to continue leading Church in the Now should members desert en masse. But despite all this, he has no regrets: as he says in his blog,
More than anything else, though, I have loved hearing from so many young people, including teens who are dealing with some serious issues, along with parents of teens who have been touched by some things that I’ve said. If you’ve been helped at all, it’s been worth any negative reactions or bad publicity that I’ve received.
To those few of you who have severed ties with me, I want you to know that I understand, and that I love you, and I also want you to know that I hope our division is not permanent. If my transparency has offended anyone, I apologize.

I pray that all of you will be blessed, and again, I can’t thank you enough for your support…