Back when I was growing up, we’d descend from Palm Beach and venture to the Florida Keys for vacation, navigating waters such as shown at the right. One of the more memorable side trips we took was a visit to a museum where artefacts from sunken Spanish galleons were on display. The Spanish were most interested in precious metals in the New World; they systematically enslaved the Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayas, Incas and other people whom they conquered to dig gold and silver out of the mines for shipment back to Spain, in conditions one shudders to even think about. The Straits of Florida were the main route from Mexico to the Old World, and since the reefs that parallel the Keys were there, some of those galleons never finished the voyage, depositing ship, crew and cargo on the bottom. Some of these had been salvaged and I found the gold and silver coinage on display to be especially fascinating.
A little later in life I was introduced to another story of subaqueous gold: Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, his epic opera in four parts. In this case it was a less inviting body of water (the Rhine River) where gold was guarded by Rhine maidens and available only to the one who would forsake love. Sure enough, there’s always someone who will do anything for money, in this case dwarf Alberich, who got the gold and forged a ring of power.
In the meanwhile the Teutonic gods decided they needed a new home, so they contracted with the giants Fasolt and Fafner to build their new magnificent Valhalla. Through a long ruse they managed to beat the payment for this out of Alberich, ring included. Alberich curses his lost ring (as if that were necessary,) Wotan and the gods got clear title, and Froh, the god of spring, created a rainbow bridge for the gods to cross into their new home. But the effort was doomed from the start by the way they were forced to pay for it.
Fast forward to the year where the left made its last attempt to defeat George W. Bush electorally. (There’s a political angle to the “rainbow bridge” but I’ll skip it.) My own church, which was my employer, had been engaged in a massive expansion of its central offices (with expense following,) and the process was complete. Amidst one of the sappiest responsorial readings I had ever been a part of, the buildings, which surround an expansive prayer garden, were dedicated, and we crossed our own rainbow bridge.
There were prophets amongst us. One of my colleagues proclaimed that Jesus had turned his back on us. We peered out of the lobby of the building where our new office was (and is, for the moment) and saw truth in his words. And there was the matter of payment.
The expanse of Wagner’s musical productions were only matched by the controversy they generated. Their creator had a high view of his operas, but in his time he had detractors. Instead of applause, there were many times when the audience was simply clasping its hands above their heads. Such was also the case with our new Valhalla.
With life faithfully imitating art, it was time for the hero to appear. Somewhere in my preppy education the idea that heroes didn’t come from warm climates bubbled to the top, that only cold, harsh climates could produce such. As a South Floridian, this doesn’t sit well, and my response is here. For once I was right. Not so far from the sunken Spanish gold, where the animals are tame and the people run wild, a hero appeared that would doom Valhalla and many of its inhabitants. It’s taken some time and the process has generated more heat than light, but earlier this year our reorganisation began, I announced that I was taking my leave, and we began the painful process of downsizing that has continued unabated to the present day.
Unfortunately, as was the case in the Ring, the hero’s appearance wasn’t an automatic solution to every problem. The bottom line to our hero’s crusade was that less of the denomination’s cash flow would flow to the centre and more would remain in the field. But, unlike mythology, there are many Valhallas out there, products of a generation whose penchant for grandiosity combined with availability of credit produced a proliferation of economically unsustainable physical plants. (That’s what happens when the church follows the culture rather than the other way around!)
But someone needs to take a lesson from this. It is my prayer that the gold will find its way once again to the bottom, the descendants of those who mined it (and others on the wrong side of slavery and colonialism) will take their rightful place in the church, and that I will never, ever again cross the rainbow bridge.