Monday, May 23, 2016

Dear Susan

Dear Susan,

Thanks for the essay “Can the Christian Left Be a Real Political Force?”  I was dubious at first because the author was Ruth Graham, Billy Graham’s wife who died in 2007.  However, it turned out that some other Ruth Graham wrote the piece you shared with me.

I’m not certain that liberal Christianity will be much of a force politically any time soon.  For that matter, Christianity in any of its dimensions may not have much influence these days.  The evangelical right-wing Christians have turned out to be just plain right-wingers whose Christian faith is superficial and ignorant.  Liberal Christianity, both evangelical and orthodox, are certainly present with a strong voice, but not many are listening.   Consider the Bernie rallies; they are large, emotionally charged, and largely devoid of anything remotely religious, much less Christian.  In a curious way, they are stimulated by Bernie pushing hot buttons in much the same way Trump pushes the hot buttons of his crowds.  Bernie has more tangible policy proposals than Trump, but the likelihood of support from Congress is very slim, even from those who think they are pretty good ideas.  Not many of them are pragmatically workable, and Bernie is not known for his ability to negotiate from the ideal to the possible. 

Ms. Graham notes that politically active liberal Christians are often involved not through Christianity, but in spite of it, as they do their best to distance themselves from the popular conception of Christians as narrow minded, judgmental, and anti intellectual.  The theologians of the Christian Left, if there is such a thing, have another problem.  They think.  They think deeply.   That doesn’t sell very well in the public market place.  

My final observation is that the left goes from center-left to far left-wing.  I consider myself to be center-left, and I find my far left-wing acquaintances to be naive, unrealistic, and as stubbornly resistant to evidence as are those on the far right.   Liberal Christianity is not a bloc.  Having said all that, fearless proclamation of the gospel, the Good News of God in Christ, which is not the same thing as the bible, but which is communicated to us through the bible, leads in the direction of political engagement as an essential element of the Christian life.  For my part, I take my lead from the Sermon on the Mount.  It pulls me toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, but it does not encourage naïveté about what is workable.

Fr. Steve+

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Romance, Mission, Strategy and Tactics

Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and it’s time for my annual Harland Miller article.  For those who don’t know, Mr. Miller survived being blown up in North Africa during WWII, spent years in the hospital, and lived out his life back in Walla Walla as an impoverished hermit.  Nevertheless, he was generous with the pennies and nickels that were his tithe, faithful in his desire to know God better, and oddly comforting to those whom he allowed to become his friends. The congregation was his family.  The folded flag presented at his funeral rests on the bookshelf in the rector’s office.  

If you want to know more, you can search for previous Memorial Day articles about him.  This one, written in his honor, is about romance, mission, strategy and tactics.  

We’ve been at war for several decades with little positive to show for it.  The current administration has done what it could to get us out of them, but like the proverbial tar baby, getting free is almost impossible once stuck.  The lessons of war are seldom heeded.  One would think that educated peoples would have learned from the insanity of the wars of antiquity, but they were merely a preface to the greater insanity of the twentieth century.  Their horror inspired world leaders to say never again, but situations arose and into war we plunged yet again, always for what we were led to believe were good reasons, and sometimes they were.  It raises a question; have we become morally inured to war?

Many of the men I talk with, and a few of the women, have been conditioned (by what?) to view war and combat as romantic.  Wrapped in unreflective patriotism, they celebrate the gallantry of brave warriors fighting the enemy with valorous courage, willing to give their lives to protect their country and its freedom from an evil, inhuman, unscrupulous enemy.  They proudly weep over flag draped coffins.  That our country’s freedom is not jeopardized in any serious way by those whom we have identified as enemies is irrelevant, because they have been sold on the snake oil that says it is.  To be sure, I hear little about gallant valor and willing sacrifice of life from combat veterans, but many appear to be as convinced as anyone else that the cost they have paid was for a good cause.  How else could they live with it?

I recently finished reading a management book written by two retired Navy SEALS.  In it they rehearsed the management skills used to take the Iraqi town of Ramadi, and explained how corporate leaders could improve their own management by applying the same techniques in civilian settings.  As far as applied management theory goes, it’s basic, proven advice.  Not bad at all.  But there were several things about it that bothered me.  Each chapter was introduced by a story about some aspect of the battle for Ramadi that they were involved in.  Let’s face it, SEALS are the heroes of the moment, and they capitalized on that by telling each story as if it were a heroic adventure of righteous men facing a devious, evil, savage enemy.  No doubt it has helped sell their book and make them some well earned money. 

The authors had a lot to say about mission, tactics and strategy; all important to effective management.  But the stories they told took place within a very small square on a global chess board where the overall strategy was unknown and unknowable to them, partly because it may not have been known even to those who moved the pieces around.  As it turned out, whatever gains they made in Ramadi were quickly lost not long after they left.  And who won?  No one knows because no one can say what winning means.  Besides, the battle for that little chunk of ruins may not yet be over.  What they called mission was merely a move to take a pawn or two.  What they called strategy was no more than someone thinking a couple of moves ahead hoping to outsmart the other side, whoever the other side might turn out to be.  Moreover, the game was in three dimensions with several players moving pieces, each playing by different rules.  

Courage, valor, heroism, great leadership of well honed teams may all be present.  Great literature tells of it, movies celebrate it, young people play unending killing field video games imitating it, and we (including me) aspire to see ourselves as the heroes.  It’s all a lie.  War may have its legitimate ends, but not as often as we might think.  In the end it produces impoverished hermits whose bodies and spirits are so broken that life becomes hard, sometimes too hard.  Rest in peace Mr. Miller.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Discouraged by Political Ignorance

I meet with several groups for coffee each week. Given the election year, conversation often turns to politics, and I have been surprised and discouraged at the depth and breadth of ignorance that gets displayed.  It isn’t just about the blatant lies being slung about that are yet believed because they touched a hot button or two.  It’s not even about the willingness to take unsupported assertions as truth without bothering to verify them.  It is about the dreadful lack of knowledge about how elections work, the function and organization of our various levels of government, and what the basic functions of government are.

Our area of Eastern Washington (the dry side of the mountains) prides itself on being conservative with a strong libertarian bent, which, in the not so distant past, meant something like cautious pragmatism that was hesitant to employ government action unless it could be demonstrated that it would be good for the community, would work, and could be paid for.  Make the case, and the conservative community would be all for it.  I think you could call that center-right.  The minority liberals were more center-left; willing to engage government for the welfare of the community, but still cautious about how to make it work, and whether the cost would be worth it.  

That thoughtful approach has been replaced gradually over the last few decades.  Center-right has given way to far right-wing.  Conservative is now just a label, and anything stamped with it is acceptable without further examination.  Is it good for the community has been replaced with suspicion about the community itself.  Will it work has been replaced with ridicule.  Can it be paid for has been replaced by a knee jerk faith that lower taxes are always better, and no increase should ever be tolerated.  All of that is colored by nostalgia for a time that never existed.   It’s a curious nostalgia because it is not warm and fuzzy; it’s expressed with angry, inflexible stubbornness.    

The liberal minority is growing thanks in part to in migration, but it’s bifurcated.  One part remains center-left, pragmatic, and forward looking.  The other part is far-left with almost the reverse of right-wing nostalgia.  If right-wing nostalgia looks back to a time that never existed, the far-left looks forward to a time that never will exist.  It’s a fantasy of sorts, but expressed with angry, inflexible stubbornness.  Idealistic proposals are seldom evaluated on their merits, their ability to work, or how they might be paid for.  That said, I’m more hopeful about the liberal side of things because I sense that its growth is almost entirely in the pragmatic center-left that maintains a cautious optimism about the near term future, and is adamant about making evidence based decisions.

Having set the stage, what troubles me most is the wide spread level of ignorance about how government works.  Call it basic civics if you will.  To be sure, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the poor quality of high school civics now being taught.  But the groups I meet with are adults who were taught in the good old days when civics was an important subject.  Yet their knowledge about government at every level is abysmal.  They have a sketchy, egregiously biased memories of American history.  They know little about the organization and purpose of government at every level.  They know very little about basic economics, that most political of disciplines.  They don’t even know how the election process works, especially for federal offices.  This is basic stuff.  Every immigrant taking the citizenship test has to know it, and most of my adult, born in America, patriotic weekly coffee mates don’t.  It’s discouraging. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Personal Eccentricities and Abundance of Life

What follows is a collection of thoughts that have yet to arrive at a cohesive whole.  That may come in time.

We were in Portland (OR) for the weekend, and spent a day wandering around using the city's streetcar system.  Which brought up a personal psychological curiosity.  I like streetcars and feel comfortable using them to get around.  I don't like buses and am not comfortable using them to get around.  Why?  What's the difference?

I have warm memories of streetcars from my childhood.  Everything about them was warm.  Soft warm lighting.  Warm wood and cane seats.  Warm sounds of bells and the clickity-clack of the railroad track.  I imagine them as a warm refuge on cold winter days.  On warm summer days, open windows let in the sounds and smells of parks and lakes.  My few city bus experiences were not warm.  They were cold, wet, late, confusing, and long.  So that's part of it.  But I think there is more.  I think it has to do with the certainty of knowing exactly where a street car on a track is going.  It has a certain kind of reserved right of way..  It doesn't try to navigate through traffic because it can't.  Other traffic has to navigate around it.  I was never quite sure where a bus would go, even if there is a printed route map.  Buses spewed smelly exhaust as they grumbled along on badly tuned Diesel engines.  Buses were easily delayed or detoured by other traffic.  In short, streetcars were friendly, buses were not.  They still are.  It’s a childhood thing brought into adult life.

It’s just one example of how much of our childhood experience we tote along with us into adulthood, even into old age.  For most of us, childhood based attitudes and beliefs that pop up in our adult worlds are curiosities, sometimes very amusing curiosities, the source of jokes told at our own expense.  But sometimes they are the source of dysfunctions that present themselves to pastors, therapists, and consultants (now sometimes called life or career coaches).  Well trained therapists may be able to dig down and do some fixing without causing any more damage.  Most of the rest of us can't and shouldn't try.  Nevertheless, we do have to take them under consideration, as we work around them to help a person in need.  

I thought about that the other day when talking with a someone about trees.  He was angry and emotionally defeated by a neighbor's tree that littered his driveway and yard after a storm.  As we talked it became clear that the offending tree was symbolic of something altogether different; a deep fear instilled into him as a child that failure to be neat and clean in all things and at all times was a moral failure that jeopardized his value as a person worthy of love and acceptance.  With that out in the open, it made sense of his lawn without a single weed, of a house never in need of painting, and of things repaired or replaced before they needed it.  This was a guy with an otherwise successful life and well along in age, so deep therapy seemed like a waste of time.  What would be the point?  On the other hand, it made the offending tree make a lot of sense, and  it opened a way to talk it through so that the tree, if nothing else, could be dismissed, at least for a little while, as something destructive to his quality of life. 

What else is there besides streetcars and littering trees?  Likely answers tend to go in the direction of serious psychiatric problems, but that avoids the more common issues that haunt our otherwise reasonably sane adult behavior.  As a pastor, and sometime management consultant, I see these kinds childhood inspired behaviors acted out in the normal ways of getting through life.  For the most part, they are benign, causing problems only when they disrupt one's ability to live and work in a comfortable way.  

Yet, some adults take their childish neuroses as signs of imperfection that must be treated with unending therapy as they pursue an ideal of mental health that is always just behind their grasp.  They are much like the man obsessed with the littering tree.  Others fashion them into life long excuses for lazy, sloppy habits of life.  Neither leads to abundance of life.  In fact, they throw up unnecessary fences of limitation that inhibit abundance of life. 

The point is that we sometimes make too big a deal out of minor neuroses that are nothing more than mildly interesting eccentricities unique to each of us, or we sometimes employ those eccentricities to manipulate the world about us in inappropriate ways.  Classical Christian practice suggests ways to keep both in check through the disciplines of self examination, honest confession, and repentance (i.e., choosing a new path).  It is’t always easy work, but the intention is to open the way to a life of greater abundance and joy.  Other traditions agree: Plato for instance with his commendation of an examined life, and Jung with his injunction that to know the shadow self is to open the way to a more full and healthy life.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance, but living into it requires a little work as we strive not to take ourselves too seriously while, at the same time, assuming responsibility for the habits of life that make for abundance.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A few thoughts about Pentecost

In a sermon on May 1 I asked my little rural congregation to reflect on the reality of the Holy Spirit as the physical presence of God among us, even if it cannot be seen or touched.  It isn’t that easy to do.  We are not accustomed to the idea that the physical and spiritual realms coexist in creation.  Our ancestors had no problem with it because, to them, the world was filled with spiritual beings of all kinds.  That was not always a good thing.  Superstition about “ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night” too often had more reality for them than did God’s Spirit.  Superstitions also led some Christians to execute supposed witches, burn books, persecute strangers, and more.  All those superstitions made spiritual reality appear like a bad idea, something to be reserved for phony fortune tellers and new age goofiness.

Having said that, we lost something when we rejected the reality of the coexistence of the spiritual and physical realms in order to abolish superstition.  The Celtic Christianity that underlies and inspires so much of our Anglican ways went in another direction.  It recognized and honored God’s Holy Spirit as it was encountered in “thin places,” and as it was experienced in everyday activities such as milking a cow, reaping grain, or kneading bread.  Unfortunately for us, that got tossed out along with the ghoulies and ghosties, except that it didn’t stay tossed out.  Our way of being Christian is too deeply rooted in it, even if we are not that aware of it.  More on that at another time.

All of this brings me to Pentecost, which remembers that moment when God’s Holy Spirit was revealed to a frightened and defeated band of Jesus’ followers through physical signs of its forceful presence.  Contrary to the common way of thinking about our need to come to Jesus, God came to them, and why should that be a surprise?  Didn’t God come to us in Christ Jesus?  And that is what God does still.  It is not something that happened a long time ago, but something that happens daily in our own lives, and never more so than in the gift of new life we receive each Sunday in the Holy Eucharist.  On Pentecost Sunday we not only remember what happened then, we do what we can to open our hearts and minds to God doing it again for us, not once but daily.

It is time for us to reclaim the reality of the coexistence of the spiritual and physical realms.  Realms not filled with scary demons, but overflowing with God’s Holy Spirit made known to us in uncountable ways through creation itself.  To paraphrase the writer to the Hebrews, the spiritual realm that coexists with our physical world is not something we are to be afraid of.  No!  It is a realm in which the living God, innumerable angels singing, and all the saints in heaven are now and continue to be a part of our every day lives.  It may not be in the form of roaring winds and tongues of fire.  We may not wander out onto Main Street speaking in a dozen languages.  But we will encounter God’s Holy Spirit just the same.  What that will mean for each of us?  That remains to be seen.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Egotists and Limelight

I have not spent any time in D.C. for over twenty years, but I doubt that it has changed in one respect.  It’s a town overfilled with immature egos, each striving to be known as an insider, close to power, if not in power, and vengefully jealous of anyone who gets the public acclaim they wish they had, and are certain they deserve.  Other places suffer the same syndrome, especially state capitols and metropolitan city halls, but D.C. tops them all.

Let’s face it, it’s a very exciting town, a world capital, the center of powerful people doing powerful things, and a magnet for ambitious, smart young men and women who want to be a part of it.  It’s hard to not get sucked into the ego driven power games that go on.  It’s hard not to be seduced by the abundance of sex, booze, and opportunities to make a deal that may promise a bit of intrigue.  Obtaining, retaining, and selling information and connections is like a real life game of Monopoly.  Forging ahead with the cunning of a Richelieu or Machiavelli is the path many try.  Few have the skills needed to make it work.  The most common ending is a career train wreck for somebody.  Navigating successfully requires emotional and moral maturity that many young people have not yet developed. 

For that reason I feel sorry for Ben Rhodes who has labored away in a windowless, basement office in the West Wing writing speeches and advising the president on international issues.  Apparently he is as good or better than anyone else in that role, but few outside the White House paid him much attention until David Samuels of the  The New York Times wrote a long, well written article about Mr. Rhodes, who carries a lower mid-level white house title and has become a trusted presidential altar ego on international issues.  It was a good article, but it lifted Rhodes out the basement and into the lighted target range of a legion of adolescent egotists who will do everything they can to bring him down.  Not for anything he has done, but because he got the limelight and they didn’t.  They will be aided and abetted by another legion of wannabes climbing over each other to pander to him in whatever way they hope will bring them into his circle of influence.

There are only two options for top notch background staffers who make it into the limelight, if they want to avoid the onslaught of slings and arrows.  One is to ignore it as if it never happened by steadfastly refusing to get sucked into any conversation about it.  The best way for him to do that is to hide out in his basement office, move to a new address, and get on with his work to the best of his abilities, looking neither to the right or the left.  It’s my recommended option because the slings and arrows don’t last long.   Other targets easier to hit will pop up soon enough, and the second option will always be open at the end of the president’s term.

The second option is to resign at the earliest opportunity to take a job on K street, or some other prestigious place, and begin making a lot of money based on his real or imagined contacts.  It’s a sure path to riches, especially if one remembers that the big income will continue for only a few years, so long term investing is in order.   Of course he could always become a teacher, writing novels and articles in pursuit of a Pulitzer.  That third option carries too many financial risks for some, but it could lead to a happier life. 

What will young Mr. Rhodes do?  I have no idea.  Like I said, D.C. is overfilled with immature egos.  I hope his isn’t one of them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Coach vs. First Class

I read a recent news article on airline rage problems from a source called AFP that included this statement:
Despite common beliefs that it is flight delays, lack of leg room, and a general decline in manners that cause us to lose our cool, researchers from the university of Toronto’s Rotan School of Management and Harvard Business School actually found that it was the presence of a first-class cabin onboard that caused air rage incidents to increase by nearly four times as much, equivalent to the effect of a nine-hour flight delay.

That is the most self serving bit of B.S. I’ve read in a long time.  Even the presidential candidates aren’t that blatant.  I often flew several times a week in my business career, almost always in coach, or on planes with single class service.  I’m retired now, but we fly a few dozen times a year coast to coast and overseas, not often in coach.  So I have a few thoughts on the matter.

There was a time when flying in coach was not an uncomfortable feat of human endurance in which passengers were crammed into as little pace as possible and treated with thinly veiled contempt.  It may not have been as spacious as first class, if there was a first class, but there was room to stretch out a bit.  the person in front might recline a few inches, but it didn’t cause pain and suffering.  Passengers were usually treated as valued customers.  Complementary food of some sort was served if the flight was long enough.  At its best it may have been no better than a bad t.v. dinner, but it was served.  First class was great, but coach was not bad.  Maybe it was not the most cost effective way to run a business, but there wasn’t any in flight rage worthy of a news article.  So what is different now?

I think it has more to do with the obvious difference between generous comfort in first and painful discomfort in coach; between respectful, attentive service in first and contemptuous disrespect in coach.  Some airlines have figured part of that out by offering, for a price, several coach rows with more leg room, but not at the cost of reducing the number of coach seats.  The remainder have been scrunched together just a wee bit more.  I imagine there are corporate psychologists who calculate how much discomfort can be tolerated for how long in the design of seating plans.

Except for Hawaiian, I know of no airline that offers complementary coach meal service on domestic flights, and that’s not so bad.  Those t.v. dinners were never any good.  Some have begun to offer meals for sale that are worth buying.  Others offer disgusting junk food of no nutritional value, but at a hefty price.  A few have begun training flight crews to interact with passengers as if they were valued customers, which they are.  It will help.  But in the end it’s not only about on time performance, bag fees, or meals.  it’s about some degree of comfort for every passenger. 

The airlines’ excuse is twofold.  First, by maximizing passengers per plane they can increase profit margins and keep fares low.  Second, as long as people are willing to buy tickets for flights they know will force them to endure physical and emotional suffering for a few hours, it’s a smart business strategy.  Smart is one thing, moral is another.  The underlying assumption is that the dignity of every human being is irrelevant.  On too many airlines, coach passengers are not treated like cattle, they are cattle.  They are not worthy of proper respect because they have been dehumanized, made into mere commodities to be transported between A and B without causing death or obvious physical injury.  How infuriating is that when one can easily see how well the few passengers in first class are being treated?

Advertising campaigns claiming friendly skies are notwithstanding.  It’s sheer propaganda serving marketing schemes intended to entice willing buyers into an intentionally demeaning experience.  And willing buyers do it, figuring they can give up all control of their lives, endure hours of airport hassle, and tolerate three to six hours of extreme physical discomfort in order to get to wherever they are going.  All of that adds up to simmering rage, and for a few people that rage erupts in inappropriate ways.

The obvious solution is to improve the physical comfort of coach seating, and to treat every passenger with courteous respect.  That might require a ticket price increase reducing passenger load a bit, but I doubt it would affect profits at all.  A small decrease in passengers per plane offset by higher ticket revenues and happier customers – that’s not a bad tradeoff.  Besides, there will always be budget airlines such as Ryanair who are up front about not giving a damn about passenger comfort or convenience.  For a low fare they will jam you in an take you there, and if you don’t like the way you’re treated, tough.