Broad strokes on the country of Panama

Almost a month ago, I packed up the largest suitcase my family owns, kissed my wife and daughter goodbye, and took off to the Republic of Panama for three weeks. I had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. Mostly, to channel Cool Hand Luke, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Somewhere in the Miami airport, as I changed planes amidst roving packs of adolescent missionaries in matching t-shirts, I realized I was about to spend the better part of the month with people I had met once, by Skype, in a place where I did not know the language and which was separated from my home by at least four countries, one of which is Mexico. And I’ve been warned against driving through Mexico for the time being.

So, I guess it was going to be Panama for three weeks. In preparation, I had read David McCullough’s book about the canal, in which you will learn a lot about the history of France and the United States around the turn of the 20th century. You’ll learn much less about the history of Columbia, and very little about Panama itself (except that it is the worst place in Central America to build a canal with the exception of all the other places.) So, it was exciting to look out my airplane window and see ships lined up to enter the canal.

Also, from the air and from the ground, Panama City looks pretty impressive. In a country of 4 million people, about 2 million live in Panama (as residents of the Republic of Panama refer to Panama City. Or just “the City,” in a manner similar to residents of the greater New York City area in reference to that city.) It does not take long, however, to discern that there is the City and there is the Canal but they are not all that makes up Panama. The next three weeks would reveal much more to me about the fascinating mix of people and cultures that sometime blend and sometimes clash to produce a distinct Panamanian identity.

Which gets to the point that Panama is not just a thing Teddy Roosevelt made up in 1903. The country has a history which stretches back past the arrival of Christopher Columbus on its shores in 1502, and Panamanians are proud of where they have come from and who they are. International trade has shaped Panama since the Spanish Colonial period, but even as the United States exercised authority over the canal, students in Panama asserted the sovereignty of their nation. There is a sense in which Panama continues to be denied the respect it deserves on the world stage.

Yet Panamanians do not seem to carry a tremendously large chip on their shoulder. Our group was made to feel very welcome every place we went, and folks in Panama clearly know how to have a good time. While we have given up so many social activities in favor of the sanctuary of our living rooms, Panamanians are often gathered outside, visiting with one another or perhaps rehearsing the band in preparation for the parades that happen in November. The sacred and the secular get mixed in city blocks and on countryside buses. Over the course of several posts, I hope to be able to share at least a little bit of what I found there.

Sounds like a whisper

Oh my Lord, that’s a good song. All of Hamilton is good, of course, but this song in particular is on my mind today, July 4. The day of our declaration that the American colonies would be independent of the British Empire. This song, sung from the perspective of King George III, could just as easily reflect the sentiments of the Emperor Nero in the age of Jesus. That’s right, I’m comparing the revolutionary movement of Jesus to the colonial uprising in these United States. (And I think you could easily add to this comparison the revolution led by Mohammed against the oligarchy in Mecca as well as the revolution Moses led against the imperial forces of Ramses the Great. Probably the Buddha’s revolution against the caste system too.)

The idea that the dignity of each person’s life demands that they have the freedom to exercise their own agency is not an idea unique to Christianity, but I think it is undeniable that the culture in which the founders of this country were steeped was thoroughly infused with the Christian tradition. The early Christian movement not only sought to oppose the injustice of the Roman Empire, but also to break the strangle-hold that complicit Temple authorities held over Jewish religious life. (Which, by the way, I think the Pharisees may have also been trying to break, but by a more traditionally Jewish route.) The revolutionaries of this country were by no small measure inspired by and acting in accord with the Christian movement of the first century.

Until, of course, they stopped. Many of the revolutionaries never even contemplated things like the abolition of slavery or the equal status of women under the law. Inclusion of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations would have blown their minds. When the common folk got restless and rose up against the American aristocracy, we got a new Constitution specifically designed to slow the revolution to a snail’s pace. But not to stop it.

So we find ourselves in a time when we can consider so many of the things that would not have been fathomable 240 years ago, much less 1986 (give or take a few years.) How far are we willing to allow the revolution to go in our generation? Who does our faith challenge us to include, whether we belong to the Jesus movement, the Mohammed movement, the Maccabean movement,  or any other theistic or atheistic movement? Today while we give thanks for all that has brought us to this place and time, we might also ask what comes next.


If I could, I know just I would do

WARNING: This version of this song contains salty lyrics!

Of course I bought a lottery ticket. Despite what the New York Times might tell you, your chances of winning are better if you buy a ticket than if you don’t buy a ticket. I only bought one ticket, and I did not buy the power play (whatever that is.) I don’t really expect to win the lottery, but someone, somewhere will win. What if it was me?

That’s really the value of the ticket, if you ask me. Thinking about what I’d do if I won. I’d move, immediately, to a house with more than one bathroom. I would not want to move out of the neighborhood or to a different city right this minute. I’d just want a second bathroom. If that bathroom were en suite with the master bedroom and had two sinks, so much the better. We have a teenager in the house. We need greater bandwidth when it comes to privies.

I have not asked my sweet lady if she would quit her job. Tallulah would have to stay in school, of course, because I don’t want to go to jail. I would definitely stay in school too because:

  1. I’m not in seminary simply for a job. I would have gone to business school at Western Carolina University if that were the motivation.
  2. I want to be a priest in the Episcopal Church.

That was a little bit, but I hope not too much, surprising to my sweet lady. I think she has seen me struggle against my extroverted nature to sit in a room, by myself, and read books. A lot of books. Also, deadlines make me anxious, and school is nothing but deadlines. So why would I keep doing that if I had a billion dollars?

Because this is the dream, this going to seminary and becoming a priest thing. It’s kind of a weird dream, but it’s mine. What might change is what type of priest I would become. I’ve seen people in positions responsible for building, or raising funds for, a community who did not really need the job for income. They were independently wealthy or whatever and seemed to have a different perspective on the outcome of their work. They did not have the same amount of skin in the game as the folks who really needed to be successful in order to pay the bills.

So, I would want to be careful about getting into a position of leadership where I did not care about the success or failure of the venture. The again, I might find a whole other reason for caring, some other skin to put into the game. I’d want to give some money away, and I would want to give it to people who are already doing good work instead of founding some new initiative or organization. (I might start a foundation for tax purposes, but I’d hope to keep it simple.) Food banks and mentoring programs could use all the money we have to give them.

The answer to the “what if” question for me is, essentially, “nothing much different.” I’m grateful for that and grateful to the people who have made sacrifices so that I can do this. Three or four years ago, my answer probably would have been quite different. Back then we lived in a house with two bathrooms.

Years ago, my heart was set to live

Here’s a thing. REM was a great band. (Are they still a band? If so, they’re a great band.) But REM was a cover band. They covered Big Star, and they did the best they could, bless their hearts. I like REM. I like Big Star better.

There’s a documentary about Big Star on Netflix. If you don’t have a subscription to Netflix, get one. Then watch the Big Star documentary.

Every artist, every group, inhabits at least two places in time. One is the place wherein the person or persons what was doing the recording did the recording. The other is the place when I heard the recording. Or you heard the recording. Or they heard the recording. So, there could be multiple, or infinite places, in time. One of them is always fixed. The other varies depending on where you are right then.

I first listened to Big Star not long out of college. I had ears, but I did not hear. Later, much later, I heard. And there they were, summoning up Memphis in 1973, and the parts that they were summoning up looked pretty much like Nashville in 1983. I was standing with them under the lights of Jumbo Little’s Big Star. That was a place.

So they got their place right and the place I was in when I heard them, really heard them, was right. It’s easy to take a place and time and make it into a time that was right or happy. I’m kind of doing that here. It happens. But I can also give you some empirical evidence that it was right. Not that I’m going to.

Because will proving it to you take me back there? Is back a direction in which I want to go? Or rather, can we look at what was then and see how it might inform what is now?

Maybe that’s what REM was trying to do with “Everybody Hurts.” I think it is a decent attempt to cover “The Ballad of El Goodo,” but it’s not the same thing.