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Archive for July, 2013


Take a little trip . . . with me, low riders, on “Rojo.”

Think of me as your free Belizean “park and stride” travel guide.

Mahogany Resort, Bullet Tree Village.

Mahogany Resort, Bullet Tree Village.

The weather Saturday and Sunday was picture perfect here in western Belize.

Saturday I mounted my trusty red steed “Rojo,” my red motorbike, over to the nearby river village of Bullet Tree, and tramped around for four or five miles taking pictures of the picture-perfect day.

Started at the Mahogany Hall Resort, which is a quiet and scenic little gem of a riverside hotel and bar.

Belize has a few of the super resorts that are always on the media lists of the world’s greatest–like the two eco-resorts owned by Francis Ford Coppolla and also the nearby Cha’a Creek Eco Lodge that I’ve featured a few times here because it’s so near and accessible to me.

But Belize has scores of much smaller, budget-friendly places like Mahogany Hall, partly owned by my Belizean friend the owner of “Mr. Greedy’s” but mostly owned by his mom.

Tubing n the Mopan River in front of the beautiful little Mahogany Hall Resort, Bullet Tree Village, Belize

Tubing in the Mopan River in front of the beautiful little Mahogany Resort, Bullet Tree Village, Belize

The terribly relaxing riverside lawn area at Mahogany Hall, below the little resort hotel and bar and restaurant and overlooking the Mopan.

The terribly relaxing riverside lawn area at Mahogany Hall, below the little resort hotel and bar and restaurant and overlooking the Mopan.

The Rio Bar and Restaurant at Mahogany, which my Belizean friend Mr. Greedy of Mr. Greedy’s Pizzaria in San Ignacio sometimes refers to as “Greedy’s 2.” He owns a piece of the mahogany bar/eatery but his mom is the boss.

Of course I went and explored the lonely country road a couple of miles past the Mahogany Resort to follow some of the lonely roads and trails just to see where they go–exploring rural roads is either an obsession or a compulsion of mine. Always was. But there’s worse ways to spend a picture-perfect day.

These creatures are so skittish--didn't mean to scare yaw off.

These creatures are so skittish–didn’t mean to scare yaw off.

What the Belizeans call “a mercy seat.” Walking these roads and sitting on a mercy seat gives one a chance to catch one’s breath and get still a while.

Meanwhile, back at the village center.

Meanwhile, back at the village center.

Sunday I got my motor running and rode Rojo over to what is one of my favorite rural getaway areas around the cozy and popular little rustic resort at Clarissa Falls, not far from where I lived for six months in Succotz Village, near Guatemala.

Down from Clarissa Falls, not too shabby this lodging hard by the beautiful Mopan and a ways down from Clarissa Falls Resort.

Down from Clarissa Falls, not too shabby this lodging hard by the beautiful Mopan and a ways down from Clarissa Falls Resort.

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What is that?

What is that?

Oh, just another little riverside attraction in the odd little country of Belize.

Oh, just another little riverside attraction in the odd little country of Belize.

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Another humble Belizean House of God. No problem leaving the musical instruments and equipment exposed to all the world. No way to lock up all these open-air churches anyway.

Another humble Belizean House of God. No problem leaving the musical instruments and equipment exposed to all the world. No way to lock up all these open-air churches anyway.

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Until next time . . .

Until next time . . .

when we wrap up our “Noon Wine” series on the poor and poverty . . . .

Happy Trails

Happy Trails

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Or . . .

Or . . .

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This is the seventh “Noon Wine” reflection in a series on material poverty, with some final thoughts.

Stay tuned for another series to come on “spiritual poverty,” the other kind cited so often in the Bible including Revelation, that terribly misused, abused and misunderstood book-end to the book of Genesis.

What special sinner would Jesus neglect, reject, denigrate or demean with hostile words and actions? The homeless drug addict and lazy, absentee father hanging on the street with a bottle? Or the alcohol abusing adulterer and "family man" who is in church every Sunday with his family in the family's own pew? Which neighbor of ours does God not love and call us to love and care about?

What special sinner would Jesus neglect, reject, denigrate or demean with hostile words and actions? The homeless drug addict and absentee father hanging on the street with a bottle? Or the alcohol abusing adulterer and “family man” who is in church every Sunday with his family in the family’s own pew? Which neighbor of ours does God not love or expect us to love and care about?

SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 15: 1-18

KEY VERSE: (11) “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (My italics for emphasis.)

* * * *
Christians intimate with the bible will recognize the verse cited above, from Deuteronomy 15: 11, because of something the very Jewish Rabbi Jesus said:

    “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (Mark 14: 7). (Again, with my italics for emphasis.)

Matthew 26: 11, of course, gives a condensed version. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying only that “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” John gives the same short-handed quote of Jesus in his gospel version as well. (See John 12:8 here.)

The quotes about perennial poverty from Matthew and John are the ones invoked routinely by Christians with all kinds of self-serving, ulterior motives. They typically want to downplay a command from God, which is to show love for God by showing love and care and kindness to the poor. They typically cite the condensed gospel versions from Matthew and John for political or economic reasons–or maybe out of fear of the fact that they are a disaster or two away from being thoroughly broke and losing everything.

I submit that it’s that fear and insecurity driving much of the widespread hostility toward the poor in America, the nation that still has, far and away, the most financially and materially prosperous people in the world, bar none.

Only two things in life are guaranteed–God’s extravagant love for us all, and death. Lifelong prosperity and financial security for even billionaires can’t possibly come with a 100 percent, money-back guarantee (even though, admittedly, billions of dollars make for a pretty solid, personal safety net).

That’s why I suspect that so many Christians can turn a blind eye to the poor, or demean them as “bums” and misfits undeserving of charity or loving-kindness. It’s a fear thing, an insecurity thing, that lies beneath the many currents of contempt for some, if not all, of the poor.

I suspect that an equal number of well-to-do Christians don’t want to pay the cost of the self-sacrificing discipleship that Christ demanded, even though Jesus tells us that to whom much is given, much is required. (He said that; you could look it up.)

Granted, there is such a thing as lazy poor people who game the systems of government and charity. They will always be with us.

But there’s such a thing as greedy, me-first people, and people of all kinds who game government systems for further gain.

Wall Street and Washington D.C. are running over with them.

To paraphrase Deuteronomy 15: 11, “there will never cease to be the needy and the greedy on earth.”

America does have her share of lazy people, whose numbers include, unfortunately, a countless number of lazy Christians who can justify their hostile attitudes toward the poor by lifting up the scriptures, totally out of context, about the poor being always with us.

I suspect, admittedly at the risk of sounding righteous and judgmental like a preacher or something, that the lazy Christian doesn’t care to be intimate with the whole of the Bible because it requires the time and commitment of digging deep into the Bible with actual Bible reading and study.

So the lazy Christian picks and chooses scriptures from the Bible that he may have heard some other lazy Christian repeat, such as “the poor you will have with you always.”

As the “Church Lady” of Saturday Night Live used to say, “How conveeeenient!”

Becoming intimate with the Bible--and not just a few scriptures lifted from texts to justify what we want to believe about God--is not for the lazy Christian.

Becoming intimate with the Bible–and not just a few scriptures lifted from texts to justify what we want to believe about God–is not for the lazy Christian.

Someone once asked Billy Graham what it means that Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Rev. Graham actually cited the key verse (Deuteronomy 15: 11) that I cited at the top of this posting.

“The Bible repeatedly commands us to help the needy, and condemns those who take advantage of the poor,” said Graham, who’s never been of the “prosperity gospel” ilk. He preached against hyper-consumerism, materialism and spiritual poverty in America from the start. (Click here to see the full context of his quotes I’m citing.)

The operative phrase in that Billy Graham quote is “the Bible repeatedly commands.”

God and Christ and the Bible leave us no wiggle room to show anything less than love and care for the poor. You won’t find any biblically convenient loopholes.

God was speaking to Moses when he made the clear commandment to open our hands to the needy in our land. Jesus never commanded any less and Matthew and John never expected any less with their condensed quotes. They knew very well that God expects us to help the poor and never mind that the poor will always be with us.

Billy Graham goes on to say:

    “You and I live in the most prosperous society the world has ever seen—-and yet hunger, homelessness and poverty are still a tragic reality for millions every day. At least half the world’s population lives on the edge of survival because of the effects of poverty.

    “How can we remain indifferent to their plight? Ask God to show you ways you can help those whose lives are crushed by poverty.”

Indeed, if we ask God to show us ways to help those crushed by poverty and to be in ministry with (not for) the poor–if we knock at the door and ask what we can do with the unique gifts and graces as well as the money that God blessed us with–there will be an answer.

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This is the sixth in a series of seven scriptural reflections on poverty and the poor, not intended make any Christians feel guilty or shame them into taking up a radical life of serving the poor like a Dorothy Day or a Mother Theresa–serving might be as simple as being a barber and giving free shaves and haircuts to the homeless . . . with payments in hugs. More on the intent of this series in the final wrap-up posting on the poor coming soon.

(For Sister Lora, “Nun on a Chicken Bus,” con amor.)

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SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 58: 1-9

KEY VERSES: (6, 7) “Is not this the fast that I choose . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The other side of Paradise: The one-room home of a Belizean friend at San Pedro, the popular tourist island and home or extra home of many of the rich and famous expats. As a priest friend of mine said of this house, "It's like so many of them in Belize--one big tropical storm or hurricane away from non-existence."

The other side of Paradise: The one-room home of a Belizean friend at San Pedro, the popular tourist island and home or extra home of many of the rich and famous expats. As a priest friend of mine said of this house, “It’s like so many of them in Belize–one big tropical storm or hurricane away from non-existence.”

To start out this posting I want to refer you back, dear reader, to the prior posting in this series.

It included a quote I’d like to unpack from a Baptist Standard interview with Dr. Scott Wang, a physician who brings his considerable powers of medical and spiritual healing to the poor and working poor in Garland, Texas.

And mind you, I aim to tease out the good doctor’s statement from my own theological and personal point of view, not Dr. Wang’s, whatever his may be.

Dr. Wang said the following of the poor and working poor patients that he serves (with my italics for emphasis): “They don’t have as much materially to cover up their pain.”

As I see it, acquiring more possessions, shopping till dropping, “movin’ on up” and arriving at some sprawling dream house–perhaps on the island of false security that something like life in a supposedly safe and but insular gated community brings . . . . well, possessing and acquiring ever more riches and possessions can cover up and bury all kinds unresolved stuff within a wounded soul.

Dr. Wang went on to say in the interview that because the poor lack material things to “cover up their pain,” a lot of pain and raw emotion will pour out out of them if you build a trusting rapport with them and really hear what they have to say about their hardships and struggles.

Longtime readers at this blog know that I’ve condensed my theology into this tagline:

    We’re all broken people, doing the best we can, or the best we know how to do, in a broken and violent world, with all of us standing in need of God’s healing power of endless love, endless grace and tender mercies.

To expand on that I’d say that our brokenness, and that of the world; our nagging “dis-ease” in and with life; our “baggage” packed with unhealthy habits and patterns that keep us stuck in the same unhealthy or self-destructive ruts; all of our pain, anxiety, fear and insecurity we harbor and try to bury deeper within ourselves; all of our craving for someone’s unconditional love on this earth; all of the psychological “stuff” that we cover up with everything from over-drinking, over-eating and over-sexing to over-shopping and hyper consumerism–it’s all enough to keep us feeling vaguely alienated and ever-more vaguely, if not outright, dissatisfied.

So we want and need more in our pursuit of happiness and peace of mind, or think we do, thinking that one more, higher paying job that we might hate will put us on easy street and relieve all our problems–or at least a house with a pool and jacuzzi will finally help us cope with problems if they do arise.

But of course, as the salesman, retail companies and their advertisers know, we get what we want, only to want more.

A character in a short story by the wonderful Kentucky writer Bobbie Ann Mason tells another character,

    “You got so many wants, you don’t know what you want!”

All too often, the harder we work to succeed and have more, the more stuff we want, the more callous our hearts grow toward the poor. It can make us willfully blind to the many ways that the fixes are in against the poor simply “pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.”

MLK Jr. said it’s a cruel thing to tell a man to pull himself up by the bootstraps when he has no boots.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in relationships with the poor and working poor in the U.S. and other countries, it’s that they want to earn money and have the same basic possessions that we take for granted. I’ve found that they just want to work and have enough good, healthy food, clean water and some sewage, decent clothes, decent housing, reliable and comfortable and affordable transportation, and good schooling for their children.

Most of the poor I’ve gotten to know want nothing more than enough to keep their young off of mean streets and away from the temptations of escapism from poverty through drugs and alcohol and the lure of “easy” money in drug dealing, prostitution and casual, unloving and potentially destructive sex.

Like anybody else the poor, who are caught up in the many vicious cycles of poverty that are hard for the “haves” to know or comprehend, above all want their children to have lives more comfortable and convenient than their own, without the crushing, relentless, desperate struggles it takes just to survive another day, week or month.

The vast majority of the poor want to live and raise children and enjoy their lives and families in neighborhoods, communities and nations in peace, with peace on earth and good will toward all.

And that’s where Christians, the peacemakers, with all their Christian love of God and equal love all of their neighbors of the world–our “own kin,” as Isaiah mentions in the scripture reading–come in.

Or is that so much Christian talk.

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Your Jitterbug July 4th thought for the day, fitting for any day is:

Always be yourself–be your independence–and don’t let anyone–any group, any political party, any media take your mind.

But as for this day, be thankful a million times over if you’re an American.

And have a happy and safe and blessed 4th, America–I love you and miss you!
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"They're poor down there but they're the happiest people in the world," that passing acquaintance in Dallas said of Belizeans. Here a 14 y.o. Belizean boy, whose family couldn't afford his schooling anymore, pushes his vendor cart uphill to level ground where he can pedal a while. But he'll push up a rocky road to get it home before dark.

“They’re poor down there but they’re the happiest people in the world,” that passing acquaintance in Dallas said of Belizeans. Here a 14 y.o. Belizean boy, whose family couldn’t afford his schooling anymore, pushes his vendor cart uphill to level ground where he can pedal it on level ground a while. But he’ll push up a rocky road to get it home before dark.

This is the fifth in a seven-day series of “Noon Wine” reflections on the poor and poverty.

Lest I give too distorted a view, many Belizean people, as in any country, prosper with their businesses or professions. My landlord, for example, is in the construction business, among other businesses, and building his dream home with plans for solar panels that are becoming hot sellers in ecology-concsious Belize these days. A neighbor lived in the U.S. for seven years where he was in mid-level management at Goldman Sachs in Miami and seldom missed a Miami Heat home game. But so many seemingly happy and gusto-filled Belizeans live with daily, uphill struggles in a country where unemployment has been stuck for 10 years at 50 percent. When you hear their stories you may realize you sometimes look at poor and struggling people with your eyes wide shut.

Lest I give too distorted a view, many Belizean people, as in any country, prosper with their businesses or professions. My landlord, for example, is in the construction business, among other businesses, and building his dream home with plans for the solar panels that are becoming hot sellers in ecology-conscious Belize these days. A neighbor lived in the U.S. for seven years where he was in mid-level management at Goldman Sachs in Miami and seldom missed a Miami Heat home game. But so many seemingly happy and gusto-filled Belizeans live with daily, uphill struggles in a country where unemployment has been stuck for 10 years at 50 percent. When you hear their stories you may realize you sometimes look at the poor and struggling people with eyes wide shut.

For Luz Garza, June 24, 1970 – June 26, 2013, R.I.P. in perfect rest, perfect peace, good man.
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When I was a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland, I knew and worked with a wonderful young physician, Dr. Scott Wang.

Dr. Wang was assigned by Baylor to two faith-based clinics for the many and very many poor and working-poor residents of Garland. In an interview with old and always good Baptist Standard–which you can link to at the bottom of this posting–the devoutly Christian Dr. Wang said something that I’ve kept in my “truer words were never spoken” file. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

    “I am able to spend ample time with patients,” Dr. Wang said. “Because the clinics are Christian-based, I don’t have to be cautious about crossing boundaries by talking freely about spirituality. Even some non-Christians are open to my offer of praying for them.”

    Wang acknowledged his surprise at experiencing the raw emotions of people who live at society’s margins.

    “They don’t have as much materially to cover up their pain. They are depleted, and the emptiness is so evident,” he said. “If you say the right thing and ask the right questions, the floodgates open.”

Many of us in the largely prosperous West like to believe that many, maybe even most, of the poor are plenty happy and content with their lot in life.

Last year, when I told a passing acquaintance of mine in Dallas that I was moving to Belize, he noted that he and his wife are scuba divers and vacation at least once a year in Belize for the great diving in Belize’s famous Blue Reef. He said that one summer they vacationed an extra week, rented a vehicle and drove aimlessly all over Belize for all the inland beauty and adventure it offers.

“Those people are really poor down there,” he said, “but they’re the happiest people in the world.”

I can’t deny that there’s some truth in his assessment of happiness in Belize. If you come to see me here in the country promoted as “the Caribbean Jewel,” you’ll see a lot of gusto-filled Belizeans laughing and smiling or chilling out like they don’t have a care or worry in the world.

But you’re invited to ride with me some night from 7 to 10 on the overcrowded, cheap and bumpy “chicken buses”–or crammed into a pre-historic Toyota taxi. Notice the utter exhaustion in the faces and the slumping body language of most of those riders.

Talk to those friendly Belizean riders (but don’t wake those sleeping while sitting straight up over every jolting bump and constant stop-and-go motion) and ask them how far they have yet to walk to get to their homes and families when the bus or taxi drops them off at some dark and rocky road.

And by the way–they might be getting off the bus or out of the cab in a drenching, rainy season downpour. with their umbrella, a purse or bag, and undoubtedly with groceries or something else to tote on these steep-hill roads.

Ask some friendly rider what time he or she will have to roll out of bed to tend to feeble or disabled parents or grandparents or great-grands while getting the kids off with enough money for their bus and cab fares to get to school in their mandatory washed-and-cleaned school uniforms that require so much constant washing and drying.

And oh yeah–the school kids have to eat, and there’s precious little that is free of charge for a Belizean student.

Get up and out and about with me at 5 the next morning–rain or shine–and you’ll see Belizeans already boarding those rattle-trap taxis and chicken buses looking fresh and radiant and smiling those warm and radiant Belizean smiles.

But when it turns dark tonight–and it’s dark at 6:30 every night–come walk a local neighborhood in San Ignacio/Santa Elena with me–or better yet in one of the multitudes of Belizean villages–and you’ll see a lot of people looking like life just whipped them down today. Because it did. And if it didn’t whip them today, you can bet your vacation money that another life whipping will come around all too soon.

That passing acquaintance, whom I mentioned above, managed in his tour of Belize to see a lot happy and smiling faces. But like so many prosperous people of the world, he was looking at Belize’s people through the tunnel vision of his own prosperity.

I doubt he’d want to trade his happiness with that of “the happiest people in the world” if he looked and looked closer at them through the eyes with which Christ sees them.
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