I’ve decided that it is time to go to work. For the last couple of years, I’ve been able to pull off wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops most of the time. I know it makes me look like a youth minister from 1998, but I feel comfortable. In some ways, too comfortable. When I am that comfortable in how I dress, I can get comfortable in how I think. One might even say complacent or lazy (not that seminary leaves much room for laziness.)
Today, I’m intensely aware that we have work to do. We have work of discernment. What is the truth when it comes to disaffected communities, people under threat, and the relationship of our past to our future? As we come to see the truth, we must tell the truth. We must talk about who we have ignored and about who we have been blind to. Maybe we can work on reconciliation, but we must first be honest about the degree of our separation. We have lots of work to do.
Now is not the time for me to be lazy. Now is the time for me to show up for work, wearing the proper clothes. That includes appropriate footwear. Closed-toed shoes. I put on my old Clark’s chukka boots this morning. They were old when I started seminary two years ago. They are really old now. And kind of frumpy. But then again, I’m planning on wearing a lot of black in the near future. Is this a time for buying new brown shoes?
As I sat in Noonday Prayer and pondered such things in my heart, I realized two ideas at the exact same time. First, I’m thinking about shoes and shoe shopping. Yes, our world still needs healing and no, buying stuff is not the way to heal it, but the sun did rise in the east this morning. Tonight it will set in the west. While we are working on some big challenges, the little joys of life persist. (I’m open to considering that formulation in reverse, but the challenges don’t seem little in this moment.) Second, I’m ready to get to work. I’m excited. Not so much because I think we can get it all done (or at least not easily and quickly) but because I get to do it with you.
I know, I know. You’ve been wondering all this time, “What about the canal, J Dot?” Well, yes, indeed there is a canal in Panama. It’s been there for some time, and the canal is a pretty inescapable fact of life in the isthmus. For one thing, it divides the country more or less in half. The vast majority of stuff — the cities, the roads, the industry — are on the eastern side.1 For years and years, this created a problem, especially for the folks on the western side. That’s being addressed slowly and by no means least of all because they’ve built several bridges across the canal. But you can easily imagine what sort of hassle it would be to deal with a huge canal right in the middle of your country.
On the other hand, imagine all of the fun you could have dealing with a canal right in the middle of your country. Everyone would want to go through it, right? Right! You’d be very popular, if not always for the right reasons.2 But let’s stick with the right reasons, shall we? Like, you are very helpful to people who want to get from China to New York without going around Argentina. Not that Argentina is a bad place, but you just don’t want to have to go there. For the last 100 years, you haven’t been forced to. Thanks Panama!
Here’s the thing about Panamanians and the canal. They run it, and they are good at it. Judging by the efficiency, profitability, and condition of the canal, the Panamanians have done a better job operating it over the last 16 years than the U.S. did in the period immediately prior to that. In addition, the U.S. talked for a long time about expanding the canal locks so that bigger ships could go through. The Panamanians actually got it done. We were in the country on the day that the first ship went through the new locks. It was a big deal, and you could sense that the whole country was proud of their accomplishment.
And rightfully so. They did a big job well. They do a big job every day, and while this work and the presence of the canal are an inescapable fact, somehow it does not seem to define who Panamanians are. Their history as a crossroads of the Americas and a focal point for interaction with Europe and Asia has significantly shaped the people of Panama, yet they are a distinct nation rather than an assortment of co-habitating clans. Being welcoming has not served to dilute their identity, but rather to become a central feature of it.
Reflecting on my time in Panama, there are plenty of things I take away. What we do can help us discover who we are, but that doesn’t mean our work is our identity. Extending hospitality is a risk worth taking, and being able to rely on the kindness of strangers is blessing. In worship, remember the Duke Ellington rule, “If it sounds good, it is good.” A sense of history is important, but not at the expense of an openness to the future. Above all else, be flexible. These might seem like too simple aphorisms, but understanding them in a theoretical sense is perhaps much easier than their practical application.
1. Ok, time out for a geography lesson. You’d think, given that Panama connects North and South America, that it runs, um, north to south. Ah ha! Fooled you! It is kind of an S shape, if the S is lying on it’s side — what Texans would call a “Lazy S.” Anyway, That means the Caribbean coast is to the north and the Pacific coast is to the south. It also means that, in certain parts of the country, you can watch the sun come up over the Pacific. Whoa!
2. Reference “The Panama Papers” for less-than-stellar-reasons to be popular.
I haven’t been much for marching in the past, but if I take it up in the future, that might be my call and response. It’s not that we shouldn’t call on our governments to uphold justice and bring about peace, but I think we expect too much when we think governments will lead the transformation of our societies or be the sole agents of change. In fact, I think there are examples of communities that have started the process and perhaps led the government to make changes. Colon on the Atlantic coast of Panama is one of those places.
Christ Church in Colon has been around for a century and a half. That kind of time doesn’t come without some baggage, but it also creates some opportunity for action. In a city hard hit by unemployment and decades of governmental neglect, the church has not only endured, it has taken responsibility for helping to feed the community. That’s not a terribly novel action for a church, but the same folks who are putting together food supplies are visiting elderly friends and neighbors who can’t get out. They are involved in the lives of the children of Christ Episcopal School. In other words, they are vital parts of the civic life around them.
And in some ways, they are life. Their connections to each other and to their neighbors forms a network of giving and receiving in which people can take care of one another. Take, for instance, Connie, the woman who hosted us in her home for a week. Her apartment was much like one you might find in New York City: tiny kitchen, modest bedrooms, and space in which to eat and talk. Through those rooms moved people who might help Connie cook, clean, or run errands. In those rooms she hired people for small jobs, engaged children with simple games, and fed everyone constantly. (Seriously, go to Connie’s hungry.)
This sharing of gifts, whether they were skills, strengths, or resources, formed a little galaxy mutual support which, from where I observed it, had Connie at the center but which moved according to its own logic. It was not controlled by anyone. I felt like I was maybe seeing only one arm of this galaxy — maybe even only one solar system in one arm. This galaxy stretches out into Colon, across Panama, and further. You just, I think, have to know where to look.
You can see it in what we would call a formal system, like a school. Everybody knows that some schools are dead as a post while others are living, vibrant organizations. What’s the difference? I think part of it is folks in the system acknowledging and operating by the logic of this galaxy of mutuality instead of trying to drive it forward by their own power. You can see that happening, or trying to happen, at Christ Episcopal School in Colon. But it’s hard to let go of trying to operate things under our own power.
Yet when we do let go and get with a higher logic, people tend to notice. The streets in Colon are all torn up. All of them are torn up. The government is replacing the sewers, the water, the electrical service, everything. After decades and decades of neglect, the people have not done abandoned the city. They have knit themselves together and are now being supported by the government. Or at least the support seems to be starting. In any event, the future they hope for is being made real in the ways they have come to see how they depend on one another. The Kingdom made real, right before our eyes!