Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The House That Built Me

My oldest daughter, Rachel, had the assignment in her U.T. English class to write a paper about a song. She had many options, but one was to write about a song that had an impact on her in some way. The following is her paper, just as she wrote it, about Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me."

You Can’t Go Home Again

During the first weekend of May 2010 a flood washed away my city and my house. Nashville “Music City,” Tennessee is the home of country music and was my home for thirteen years. I was never a fan of Nashville’s famous country music. I was drawn more to the rock, blues, and the singer/songwriters of Nashville, because they were more original than the country music that used the same guitar rifts to sing about growing up in the back woods, drinking beer and driving pick-up trucks. After the flood, I gained a new appreciation for country music with the song “The House that Built Me.” Miranda Lambert’s song would become the theme song for all of Nashville as the city was rebuilt, for my family as we packed up our home of thirteen years, and for me as I moved to Knoxville.

“The House that Built Me” was released in February of 2010 and became widely popular around the time of the flood. It was said in all of the media coverage of the flood that Nashville was a big city with a small town feel, a town where six hundred thousand people could call home. In “The House that Built Me” Lambert sings of specific memories associated with certain parts of the house, such as learning to play guitar in her “little back bedroom.” For many Nashvillians, like myself there were a lot of places in Nashville that had sentimental value similar to a little back bedroom. During the flood many of the places that made Nashville what it is were damaged. The Titan’s stadium, Predator’s rink, and the Grand ‘Ole Opry House were all flooded, and all these places held fond memories for many people. Lambert’s song is about returning to a childhood home in hopes that the her current “brokenness inside [her] might start healing.” For Nashvillians, we had to return to the devastated parts of the town in order to heal the city that built us.

I was raised in was a very old, small house built on top of a steep hill. My parents, especially my dad, were never happy with the look of the house so he renovated the basement, bathrooms, and kitchen. He built the house “nail by nail and board by board,” in the same way Lambert’s family built their home. Personally, I knew the house was small but I always liked it because it was home. Then on May 2, 2010 a mudslide pushed my house off its foundation and a tree fell through my sister’s bedroom and the kitchen. From that day on we would only return to the house to move our belongings, search for our cat that ran away in the wake of all the commotion of the slide, or to simply sit on the front steps wondering how it would all work out. We “thought if [we] could touch [the] place or feel it [the] brokenness inside [us] might start healing” and our questions might be answered.

A few days after the flood water’s receded and we moved in with my grandmother, my dad built a playlist with music either about floods or songs to help our family cope. In this playlist was Lambert’s “The House that Built Me,” which quickly became the song that my family related to the most because some of her memories were identical to our memories at 525 Holt Valley Road. Lambert’s mother and my mother both “cut out pictures of houses for years from Better Homes and Gardens magazine.” Lambert had her favorite dog buried under a “live oak,” while we had our favorite cat under a pear tree. It was the house my sister learned to play the piano and the house we I spent hours doing homework. It was the house with the kitchen where we had thirteen years worth of family dinners. For my parents and sister, the song reminded them of all the memories that we had shared at 525 Holt Valley and it made them sad that they had lost the place that held all of the memories. As for me, I was leaving for college in a few months so the song had a different meaning for me.

Since I was already moving out of my childhood house before the flood hit, Lambert’s song became a reminder of my roots. Lambert returned to the house to “take nothing but a memory from the house that built [her].” The song reminded me that even if I could not physically return to my childhood home, I could remember all of the things that built me. I was built by a family full of love for one another, for animals, for music, for sweet tea, and barbeque. I was built by a city full of friendly faces, country music and southern accents. For me, “The House that Built Me” is not a reminder of the home we lost, but a reminder of the how “I [can] find myself” so that I never feel “like I’m someone else.”

Country music may not always have the most original lyrically or musically, but in reference to the flood it was appropriate to have a country song be the song that embodied Nashville as it was rebuilt. The fact that “The House that Built Me” was country became moot once I was able to appreciate it significance to my life and to the lives around me. The song connected with my family because of the eerie similarities between Lambert’s house and our house. The idea that “a memory from the house that built me” could heal the “brokenness inside me” is the part of the song I carry with me, because even though I can’t return home I will always have the memories.

(Oh, and she got a 98 on this one.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Breaking the Law

Breaking the Law

Luke 13:10-17

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Franklin, Tennessee

August 22, 2010

Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

For the most part, I am a rule-keeper. I obey the laws. At least I try to obey the laws. I am, for the most part, aware of the big ones and I do try to obey them. I am sure that I don’t know every law. I just saw this one the other day from Article XI, Section l5 of the Tennessee Constitution that says “No person shall in time of peace be required to perform any service to the public on any day set apart by his religion as a day of rest.” Since I read this, I have been trying to figure out if I ever asked my kids to do any public service on a Sunday. And… maybe sometimes I do drive too fast too. I didn’t say I was perfect, but I do try to obey the laws and, I guess I don’t just mean the state or federal laws. I also try to observe those more unspoken cultural rules too. I don’t like to do things that draw a great deal of attention to myself…Okay, maybe the tattoo and the motorcycle that have are kind of a gray area on this one, but I’m really not WAY out there. I try not to put non-recyclables in the recycling bins. I never liked my kids to cry on the plane or make a scene in a restaurant. I don’t necessarily like to wear really flashy clothing. In fact, my wife gives me a hard time because she says I dress now like I did when we met 27 years ago. I don’t really know if that is true, but I do like to stick with a “classic” style.

I am a person who likes to keep the rules, I feel like things go better in general when people keep the rules. It annoys me (and sometimes angers me) when people blatantly and flagrantly just disregard the rules and the norms and put others at risk or cause others harm. Rules are there for a reason. They are there to help protect us and to make life easier or better. I was recently in Haiti where there seem to be very few traffic laws. I have to say, I am very glad someone else was driving us around because I would have gone crazy trying to deal with that traffic. Most of the roads are not paved and there were big pot holes everywhere, so cars and motorcycles go speeding down the road weaving back and forth across the road dodging the potholes and narrowly avoiding head-on collisions regularly. Where we were, there were few traffic signs or signals and when they did exist, they were blatantly ignored. Every intersection was a fight for survival and threat to life and limb. In short, it was sheer chaos. So, when we try to play loose and free with the rules and the laws it really does seem to threaten the stability of society. Things are better when we obey the laws.

This is exactly the feeling and the mentality of the leader of the synagogue described in our gospel reading this morning. While teaching in the synagogue, Jesus took a moment to heal a woman who had been crippled by an illness for years. The leader of the synagogue does not seem to be angered because Jesus healed the woman, but because he healed her on the Sabbath. Of course, this person - the head of the Synagogue - was responsible for the order in the synagogue. This person prepared for worship in the synagogue. This is the person that was responsible for what was to happen in the Synagogue and Jesus had just threatened one of the most important rules for the Jewish people – the rule of the Sabbath. We can assume that that this man feared that if Jesus, and others, began disregarding the rules of the Sabbath, then the structures of faith and society could be called into question and foundation of society itself could be threatened. Maybe you think that is a bit absurd, but I am not so sure that this man wasn’t acting from thoughts pretty much like this.

The difficulty with this thinking in the story is a bit easier for us to see because we have years of perspective and the teaching of Jesus, but Jesus has to spell it out for this man. He had become too focused on the wrong laws. Earlier in Luke, Jesus had a confrontation with other religious leaders and had said to them that they focused on many details of the law, but they had neglected “Justice and the Love of God” (Luke 11:42). He told them that they should have practiced more of THESE things. This is probably why Jesus calls this man, the leader of the Synagogue, and those like him, “Hypocrites”. They focused on many many laws, but they missed the point of the law. Jesus noted that these people would allow a man to free an animal on the Sabbath because of concern for the animal, but they gave him a hard time for freeing this woman – this child of God – from her debilitating illness on the Sabbath. Wasn’t this woman more important than an ox or a donkey?

Jesus seems to call us to focus on a different law – or at least to not lose sight of why we have the law. The law of God is to help us in our relationship with God and our relationship with others. The law of God is to help us in practicing Justice and embodying the love of God for others. We should be focused on the law that helps us in these things. But doing so can be difficult.

As we see in the life of Jesus, following these laws of love and justice do not always fit with the laws of the land or the cultural expectations. When we follow THIS law, others may look at us oddly. This is like a couple of years ago, when my mother and her husband decided to take in a man who had a mild mental illness and was dying of cancer and let him live with them because his family had forsaken him. My brother and sister and I thought my mom had lost her mind. Many others looked at her oddly and questioned why she and her husband would do such a thing, but my mother and her husband kept Joe at her house and cared for him for almost a year, until he died of his illness.

When we follow this example of Jesus, others may not understand, like the father I heard of recently who could not comprehend why his daughter who had just finished college would “give up on a real career” to go and use her skills to serve people in Africa.

Sometimes when we follow this law of God’s, people may even respond to us with hatred. As has been the case for the Thompsons, a missionary family I met in Haiti, who have been yelled at and threatened for teaching about the love of Jesus to people in Gonaives.

This law of God may lead a student to forego a spring break on a sunny beach to go and serve on a mission. Many couples now are now choosing to give up on traditional ideas of a honeymoon to provide acts of love and service to those in places of need. My friends, Jason and Elizabeth, recently celebrated their 25th anniversary by joining with a group from the Global Orphan Project to work with orphans in Haiti.

We may be called to stand with people who are rejected, hated, or unloved. Following this law of God’s may have us join with people and causes that we would never have imagined. Our friends may question our sanity and others may find us an inspiration, but we cannot ignore that we are called to a greater law and bigger cause. What will you do for the cause of justice and God’s love? Are you up to the challenge or would you prefer the safety of what is proper and the way it has always been done?

I pray you will seek the higher law. Amen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Haiti 2010

I have just returned from a trip to Haiti with 6 of the recent high school graduates from our church and two other adults. Our group met with 15 others from Lincoln, Nebraska and went to take supplies to three orphan villages as part of the work of the Global Orphan Project. The Nebraska team was made up primarily of educators and others associated with a school in Lincoln that has adopted one of the orphan villages that we visited. Though our trip was brief, only 5 days, we were able to see and do quite a bit in those 5 days.

We arrived in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, July 22, and traveled from there to the Kaliko Beach Club in Cote des Arcadins. Friday we traveled up the coast to Gonaives, an area that even Haitians call the armpit of Haiti. While in Gonaives, we visited three orphan villages, delivered some clothes and supplies, and interacted with the children there. On Sunday evening we returned to Kaliko and then on Monday morning we returned for a bus tour of Port-au-prince before boarding the plane home. What I saw and what we did has changed me. A friend recently shared with me the song, “I Saw What I Saw”, by Sara Groves and her lyrics about her trip to Rowanda have captured my feelings in reflecting on Haiti.

I saw what I saw and I can’t forget it.

I heard what I heard and I can’t go back.

I know what I know and there’s no denying.

Something on the road cut me to the soul.

Your pain has changed me.

Your dreams inspire.

Your face a memory.

Your hope a fire.

Your courage asks me what I’m afraid of and what I know of love (and God).

While in Haiti we saw devastating poverty and we heard stories of miraculous hope. Pastor Benoit, a pastor who was raised Haiti, told us of his life growing up the son of a voodoo priest and priestess. He described his life in voodoo, a religion still followed by about 65% of people in Haiti, as a life filled with fear and hatred. He said there was no peace for him in voodoo. He described hearing of peace and hope in a relationship with Jesus through a radio broadcast. He came to know that peace and hope and now has a church, a school, an orphanage, and a senior adult home in Haiti that by next year will be fully funded by his concrete block business. He is an advocate for Haitian financial independence, but a huge advocate for physical visits by people from the U.S. who can share their love and their skills with the Haitian people.

Pastor Benoit also recounted the story of Haitian independence from France and how the people made a pact with the devil with a promise to dedicate the country to Satan if they won their independence. I am not usually a very devil/spiritual-warfare kind of person, but I could not help but think that if there were ever a place controlled by evil, this would be it. This is a place where the government conspires to keep the people illiterate and poor. This is place with little infrastructure and little hope. Haiti is a place of “dog eat dog” mentality and people struggle for advantage and survival. I could not help but thinking of Alice Cooper’s song, “Nothing’s Free”, in which he imagines the attitude of the devil who has enticed someone with a deception that only turns out to be prison of another sort and in the end, says, “But you’re free. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

Though we were not in Haiti for a long period of time, I am grateful for those like Pastor Benoit, the Thompsons (a missionary family) and others who are making a long-term commitment there. I do not think that our time there was a waste, however. We went to demonstrate the love of God to some of the most vulnerable in this society. We brought supplies to help with their health and education. We made an investment in the future of Haiti. There are thousands of orphans in Haiti. Some who have lost their parents to disease, accidents, and natural disasters and some who have been voluntarily given up by parents who can no longer care for their children. Many of these are not in orphanages. Those that are in these orphanages, have varying levels of supplies and care. Just in the three orphanages we visited, we saw a huge disparity in resources. In one village (Mapou), there are four rooms approximately 10x8 where children sleep 20 to a room. There they have only 4 bunk beds and the children sleep two to a mattress. The others sleep on mats on the floor. In another village, Fayeton, the children have four dormitories where each child has their own bed. In each of these villages we played with the children and did crafts with them on very hot days. Our people had their water bottles when we were hot, but these children never had a drink while we were there. We saw children with toothaches and infections that were not adequately treated. There cooking conditions were questionable and their surroundings filthy.

While we were there, our group leader (Bob Sparrow) challenged us to reflect on James 1:27 which says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows, in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (NRSV). Our religious practice is not meaningful – or does not exist – if we do not care for those most vulnerable in our world. One of my personal mantras is the last line sung in the musical, Les Miserable, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” As I experienced the need for compassion and love in the children the past 5 days, my heart has been broken and felt the love of God for these little ones. I could not help but think that I was truly seeing the face of God. I do not know how a person can visit a place of such devastation and poverty without being changed forever. I will be challenged in the months and years to come to figure out how to integrate this awareness into the things of my life here and I look forward to a time when I may be able to return to Haiti.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What I know after May 2, 2010

Many of you have followed the saga of our house for the past couple of months and I cannot express my gratitude for your concern, your prayers, and your gifts to my family and me. I have thought many times about posting these thoughts to my blog, but kept putting it off – thinking that at some point, I would be able to report on the solution of things. However, our situation is not yet resolve and we do not yet know how it will be completely resolved. However, there are some things that I do know that I want to share.

I do know what has happened to our house. On May 2, while most of Nashville was experiencing floods, there were several mudslides in my neighborhood. My neighbors have experienced horrible effects of these slides. At my house, several smaller sections of the hill behind our house gave way, but a larger section of the hill apparently moved towards my house and stopped. The pressure of this movement has cracked the foundation of our house and slightly bowed the foundation wall. All walls that are connected to that wall are now warped. In addition to this, a tree from behind our house fell through our house smashing the roof, our attic, and ceilings in our kitchen and in my daughter, Jessie’s, room.

After talking to numerous government officials, FEMA, the SBA, geologists, contractors, insurance agents, adjusters, and real estate agents, I know a few more things. Insurance only paid for damage caused by the tree. FEMA gave us money, but not enough to cover the other damage to our house. The SBA is unable to process our request at this time. The city may consider our home in a “buy back” program, but not for at least two years. Though I had purchased additional coverage from my insurance agent because I feared such an event, the coverage I purchased does not cover this (we are still dealing with the agent over this.) The cost to stabilize the hill behind our house will be over $100,000. With the combined cost to repair our home and stabilize the property well over $150,000, it is not economically feasible to restore our house to its pre-storm condition. Therefore, we have been exploring our options for “losing” the house.

Every day since May 2 (And I literally mean EVERY day), has included a phone call, an email, a form, a fax, or a face-to-face visit related to our house. Almost every day brings a new bit of news, a new wrinkle, or another set-back. Exactly how this will ultimately be resolved is still unknown. All of this has been very stressful and though most days I do well, there are days that don’t feel like leaving the house and other times I just cry. But that is not the final word on what I know.

Through this time, I have never once questioned “Why Me?” and I have never once wondered where God is in the midst of this. I do not think that “God did this to me” and I do not question that good has and will come from this. I feel blessed that my family was all safe – including my oldest daughter who was upstairs when the tree fell through the house. With every thoughtful gift we have received, I have felt the tender comfort of God. Many people have sincerely asked how they can be of help and we have tried to let people know when we know what are needs are (like help with moving, storing our “things”, financial assistance, and other gift cards). However, I have been especially moved by the spontaneous gifts that we have received; some of which are things that if I had asked for, I would have been WAY out of line. There have been spontaneous financial gifts to us. My friend, Jenny, who makes cakes offered to make a cake for Rachel’s graduation party. She just said, “Tell me how many people and when.” My friend, Ray, who is storing my motorcycle for me, had a new tire put on the back of my bike and had a general maintenance check done on my bike for me. A doctor at Vanderbilt, who knows Lynda, has offered to have a graduation party for Rachel to make sure that she has all she needs to be ready to go to college in the fall. My mom and her husband, Jim, have given us a place to live as long as we need. These are just a few of the amazing things that people have done for us. In each act of kindness, I feel the presence of God with us.

There is one great thing that I have felt through this experience. Several nights since we moved out of the house, our family has eaten together as a family (both at home and out) as we have always done regularly. As we have gathered around the table, we have talked about our lives; we have laughed, and shared deep reflections. I continue to be blessed by my two daughters and my wife. Eating these meals is an ordinary event, but when we share with each other and I experience the joy of these precious moments, they are transformed into holy moments of divine incarnation for me. I have realized that my hope does not lie in my house (and certainly does not lie with insurance companies). My hope is in the love and connection of my family and the goodness of God. I have thought more than once that I we could be living in the homeless shelter and I could be unemployed and while I would not be “happy” about it, I would feel content. Serenity, for me, has not been in everything working out (because it definitely has not worked out well yet), but serenity has come in knowing that no matter what happens, the love of God and the love of my family are steadfast. These are the things that I know. Some of the details of this story will change as time goes on, but some most certainly will not. Thank you all for your continued prayers.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Little Rant about the Drop-off Line at School

I do not understand why it takes some parents 20 minutes to drop their kids off at school every morning. Every morning when we arrive at school my daughter collects her things and gets out of the car. The whole process takes less than 15 seconds. Then I sit behind some mom in an SUV while their child has to open two car doors to get all of their belongings. THEN the mom calls the child back to the car to tell them one more thing before they leave for the school. THEN the mom sits in the car and watches their child as they take the leisurely stroll to the school door. Meanwhile another car has pulled behind me so I can no longer back up and try to get around the over-protective SUV mom. All I can say is, "somebody needs to get more organized and somebody needs to get a life." Okay, I'm done now.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Arrogance Will Get You Nowhere

Several years ago I was asked to lead a class at my church on grief. As part of the class, I had visitors from the Muslim and Jewish communities come on different nights and talk about how each of those traditions cares for those who are grieving. I love the way that care for those who are grieving is built into the regular worship at Jewish temples and synagogues and I thought we might could learn from this and other aspects of others' faith practices. Later I was criticized by one participant who said we didn't need those "foreigners" to come to our church to tell us anything.

Today I watched the ABC Documentary "Different Books, Common Word" that highlighted the dialogue between Baptists and Muslims in various parts of the United States. The program highlighted how several different people found themselves with the opportunity to interact with a person from another faith group and learned something about the common humanity of the other. So many times in church, I hear more of the "We are right and 'they' are wrong" kinds of rhetoric. Whether it is about religion, politics, race, gender or some other division, there seems to be a tendency to talk about those who are in and those who are out. Too often, what is called tolerance by such thinkers is the willingness to allow others the "right" to live life by their own cultural standards as long as "those people" know that "they" are in the minority and not in positions of power. There also seems to be an idea that if I truly enter a dialogue with someone who is different from me, I will have to give up something of who I am. This just simply is not true. In fact, dialogue that requires that a person give up a part of who they are lacks any potential for genuine connection. However, we do have to set aside our need to be right long enough to enter into the world of the other and try to see the world through their eyes.

This point has been portrayed beautifully in movies such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and more recently, Avatar. If we just keep saying why we think we are right and why others or wrong, we never truly understand the other. (And this is true in world politics, marriages, and parenting.) In an encounter with another we may find something that changes us, or we may be reminded of why we believe as we do, but that cannot truly happen if we approach such conversations with arrogance. To a lesser extent, I have the privilege to practice this on a regular basis as I get to visit other congregations as part of my work. I have learned to appreciate the liturgy and practice of other Christian Churches. In each visit, I find things that I like and reasons to return to my own congregation. However, every encounter opens my eyes to new ways of doing things. For a couple of years I had regular lunches with my friend, A.J. Levine. A.J. is a Jewish woman who is also a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt. I loved our conversations both about her faith and practice and her views on Christian faith and practice as she critiqued it through her studies of the New Testament. I have loved the rich conversations that I have had with those who are just across party lines from me or those that have different ethnic background. Each time I come away from a conversation with something I have learned and something that affirms a part of myself.

I do not understand the need to draw deep divides between people or those that express anger when they encounter views that are different than their own. In fact, if there is one place that I need to practice my own tolerance for others, it is for people who seem to demonstrate these types of rigid stances. As we learn what it is to love our neighbor as ourselves or as we truly try to embody the teachings of the "Good Samaritan", I think we have to learn to love - not tolerate or endure - others; others from different religions, countries, cultures, races and political parties. My life has been enriched as I try to overcome my own prejudices daily.