Thursday, April 20, 2017

Amoral Leadership

John Le CarrĂ© is known for spy novels in which there are no heroes, and what is good or bad is uncertain.  Many feature spy master George Smiley, whose devious mind is adept at probing dark corners of human  souls.  Among his early works are stories of Smiley solving more ordinary mysteries in his unusual way.  One of them, A Murder of Quality, has Smiley confronting the murderer with a withering assault on what an amoral person is.  Written so many years ago, it is, perhaps, the best description I’ve read of some of the political leaders of our own day.  Here it is.
“There are people like that…do you know their secret?  They can’t feel anything inside them, no pleasure or pain, no love or hate, they’re ashamed and frightened that they can’t feel.  And their shame, this shame…drives them to extravagance and colour; they must make themselves feel that cold water, and without that they’re nothing.  The world sees them as showmen, fantasists, liars, as sensualists perhaps, not for what they are: the living dead.”

The drive to feel what they cannot feel is part of what inspires them to accumulate power, fortune, fame, and public adulation.  Their amorality deprives them of understanding or caring  about what the consequences might be for others. The idea of an amoral leader is not the same as alleging they are immoral.  Philosophers can happily obfuscate the difference for years on end, but I’m content to say that the amoral leader is one who is utterly indifferent about most issues of morality.  It’s not that he or she can’t express a moral viewpoint when it’s in their interest to do so, but they really don’t care.  For them, that indifference extends to questions about their personal accountability for actions taken, or obligations to others that the rest of us take for granted.  They feel no guilt for wrongdoing, nor the remorse that causes others to amend their lives.  As the center of their own universe, the rest of creation consists of objects that are useful, or not, depending on circumstances.

Are there persons who are utterly, one-hundred percent amoral?  Probably not.  But there are certainly those whose observable behavior displays an abundance of amoral characteristics, which, again, is, not the same thing as immorality.  For something to be immoral, it must be recognized as bad, evil, wrong, against some defensible standard of good, holy, and right.  The immoral person knows that it is wrong, and can talk about why it is wrong.  The immoral person is the sinner who sins, knows that it is a sin, and knows that he or she is a sinner.  Are there any utterly, one-hundred percent immoral persons?  I have a hard time thinking it could be so, but Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, claims there are those few who have, for whatever reason, become evil, the very incarnation of what we often imagine the devil to be.

Do ordinary good, decent people exhibit amoral behavior?  Yes, until we are called on it, and the immorality of it is brought to our attention.  For something to be morally recognized, it has to touch us, touch our souls, at least a little.  Our amorality sometimes goes under the name of ignorance and apathy.  We don’t know what’s going on, and don’t care.  Even when we do know, horrible events causing much suffering in far off places are so distant and unrelated to our daily lives that we are indifferent to the harm they have done, and feel no responsibility to do anything about it.  It doesn’t even have to be that far away.  “Yeah I heard about that shooting in the slum neighborhood out by the prison.  Let them kill each other.  No concern of mine.”  I’ll bet  you have heard something like that in your town.  Our town is having a vigorous public debate about the homeless.  More than a few have written letters to the editor saying something like: “They’re homeless, and it’s their own fault.  We have no obligation to help, and what happens to them is not our concern.”  While others may find that an immoral thing to say, the persons saying it have no idea what that means, and don’t care.   So, yes, we can all exhibit amoral characteristics. 

But it is a concern when national leaders exhibit their amorality as a primary characteristic of their personalities.  When the plight of the nation and its people is of personal interest only to the extent that it feeds the leaders’ personal needs for power, fortune, fame,  and public adulation, the nation and its people are in trouble.  The rest of us may be busy hammering away at each other about the virtues and vices of socialism, capitalism, individual freedoms, community obligations, and the like, because we think they are important.  Amoral national leaders are disinterested, except as political circumstances can be manipulated to increase their power, fortune, and fame. 

Do we have amoral national leaders?  I think we do.  One in particular.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Great Vigil of Easter given new vitality

Holy Week and Easter Sunday are behind us, but the questions they raise remain.  One, for those of us of a more high church liturgical bent, is the right way to celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter.  For some few of us, the Great Vigil is the most important service of the year, also the least attended.  I spent years working on it because I really love it, but building congregational support was difficult.  

It begins outside, in the dark of Saturday evening, with the ritual lighting of a new fire accompanied by prayer, and from it, the lighting of the Pascal Candle.  Followed by the congregation, the candle is brought into the darkened church, pausing three times for a cantor to chant “the Light of Christ” with the congregation to responding “Thanks be to God.”  Then comes a very long chanted prayer called the Exsultet that explains why this night is so important.  Still in the dark, the reading of many lessons from the Hebrew scriptures finally leads to the proclamation of the resurrection.  With loud noises and shouts of acclamation that “the Lord is risen indeed”, the lights come on, candles are lit, the church is revealed in all its Easter glory, and the service starts all over again, this time from the beginning of the regular Eucharistic worship.  With any luck, baptisms will be sandwiched in.  When it’s all done, three hours may have passed and everyone goes home exhilarated but tired.  For the few who attend, Easter Sunday morning services are very nice but anticlimactic.  

The traditional Vigil is not a family friendly event: long, dark, ancient, plodding along toward Easter.  Those who come are mostly like me, in love with the deep, sacred and mysterious beauty of it.  Like me, they tend to be older, but not so old that they no longer drive at night.  Let’s face it, it appeals to a niche market that was bigger in the late Middle Ages, and has been growing smaller ever since.  It takes some committed endurance to get through the Great Vigil. 

What if the Vigil was rewritten to give important parts to every person, most especially the youth?  What if it was a service of the family, by the family, for the family?  What if there were not quite so many readings, and the ones that were included could be acted out in unusual ways?  What if the Eucharist was celebrated around a table that also included healthy finger foods for munching a bit later on?

In a Vigil service utterly without authorization or official sanction, my former parish has done it.  Children light the new fire.  Sentences in the prayers are divided by color so that everyone has a part to read according to the color assigned to them.  The long chanted prayer that accompanies the Pascal Candle to its place is also divided by color so everyone has a part.  The ancient stories are fewer in number and presented by groups of youth and adults in respectful, engaging ways.  This year the creation story included visual aids and sound effects.  Baptisms, or renewal of baptismal vows, are celebrated with some parts of the priestly prayers said by children.  Even (theologically appropriate) parts of the Eucharistic prayer are said by others, according to the color given them.  When Holy Communion of blessed bread and wine is complete, finger food munching begins.  Kids swarm all over the church.  Adults laugh and visit.  Eventually everyone goes home exhilarated and looking forward to the great Easter service of Sunday morning.  

Attendance is still on the low side, but there are some differences.  It’s growing.  Moms, dads, children, teens, young adults, and enthusiastic elders make up the congregation.  The kids will grow up knowing the story because it’s their story.  They have been a part of it.  The young adults and parents, who have probably never been to a “proper” Vigil, will have learned the story too.   The mystery of the liturgy will have become less alien but more deeply probed.  

My former parish has been celebrating the Vigil this way for four or five years, producing kids who love church, and new parish leadership who, would you believe it, are really into liturgy and church doctrine.  Who woulda thunk it?  I suppose the liturgical police could come by to say it’s not authorized and has to be stopped, but you know what?  The liturgical police can’t hang around forever.  In fact they’re probably off chasing down a recalcitrant priest who wore the wrong vestments, or an errant acolyte who lit the altar candles in the wrong order.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Life Continues to be an Adventure

Some time back I wrote about life as an adventure.  There’s more.  As a healthy, vibrant man in his seventy-fifth year, I recognize two things.  One is that I have five or ten years of vibrantly active healthy life ahead of me, but probably not more.  After that, things are likely to slow down quite a bit.  The other is that life is to be lived to its fullest, as one is able to live it to its fullest. That means different things to different people depending on their condition in life, but living to the fullest as one is able remains the goal. 

Years pass quickly, as Facebook reminds me by suggesting photos from the past it thinks I’ll enjoy seeing.  They are often about about something from four or five years ago that, in my memory, happened last year.  How is it possible that four or five years could have passed?  If they have gone by so quickly, what about the next five or ten years?  How fast will they go?  No slower, that’s for sure.  It gives added importance to treasuring yesterday, loving today for all it’s worth, and looking forward to tomorrow without trying to live into it before it gets here.   

Of course, five or ten more years of active life is not guaranteed.  Anything can happen, and often does.  That's part of what makes it an adventure.  But let’s assume good health and good fortune.  Hanging around with friends both younger and older, it’s fairly obvious I am not up to the the same things I was five or ten years ago.  I can still do most of them, just with a bit less endurance and agility.  Mid 70s is not old, it’s well seasoned.  By the mid 80s, age has a way of slowing things down enough that being vibrantly active takes on a different character.  It’s not that life ceases to be an adventure, it’s just that some forms of it become less urgently desired than they once were, and new forms of adventure bring pleasant enjoyment.  The point is to launch into the future with joyful anticipation of what lies ahead and some kind of flexible plan for it.  We enjoy travel, so our plans are to visit new places we have always wondered about, revisit others that have special meaning for us, and embrace whatever opportunities those places present.  It also means not lamenting the places we haven’t seen, or the disappointments we may experience along the way.  

I’m too old to be a Baby Boomer, but with many of them finally coming of age there has been a glut of articles about the trials and opportunities of one’s “senior years”, and about Boomers doing anything they can to preserve the illusion of youth while denying their mortality.  Death, that’s what they mean when they say mortality, is an uncomfortable subject for some people.  It doesn’t have to be.  I recall the visits we made with my parents in the last decade of their lives.  Each visit was littered with names of friends who had died, names not shared with with sadness, but with contented memories of the good times they had shared together.  I imagine the  same will be happening to us before long.  I suppose what makes the difference for some of us is our Christian faith.  Firm in the conviction that we are already living into our resurrection life, we have no fear of death, nor are we eager to pass through its gates.  When it comes, it comes.  That’s life.  No pun intended.  It really is life.

Not everyone buys that.  I’m a priest, they note.  I’m expected to talk about God, but not to be taken seriously.  The silly idea that there is a God, and the naive faith of so called Christians, is nothing but a fairytale camouflaging the reality of life.  So they say.  A few acquaintances of my age who have endorsed that view for years are now not so sure.  Life as an adventure seems less attractive than it once did.  From here on out life is a defensive maneuver against the threat of death, because, for them, the prospect of death reveals the futility of all they have done and accomplished.  However enjoyable it was, it is past, gone, and adds up to nothing.  A few have begun to ask the difficult questions about the God whom they have dismissed, wondering if, perhaps, they have been mistaken.  My response?  Yes, you have been mistaken, so let’s talk.  Life is still an adventure, and we have many places to go and things to do.  Come along.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dishwasher Orthodoxy

There is a right way to load a dishwasher.  All other ways are wrong.  As the primary dishwasher loader in our household, I know the right way.  Other members of the household, not meaning anyone in particular, appear to have no sense of dishwasher loading etiquette.  Indeed, I suspect they are deliberate in the haphazard way they toss things in as a sign of their rebellious nature, a manifestation of original sin, and an indication of the inner chaos that troubles their souls.

I, however, with abundant and steadfast forbearance, am willing to patiently reload according to the eternal laws of Moses’ second letter to the Kitchenaidians as recorded in chapter six, verses iii through mdlxx.  They were delivered to him on the frigid slopes of Mt. Adair after forty days and forty nights.  For those of us who maintain a strict orthodoxy about these matters, there is no such thing as heterodoxy, just heresy.

What to do with a heretic?  Considering that other members of the household, not meaning anyone in particular, are very good cooks, and hunger does need to be satisfied, burning at the stake seems inappropriate.  Other favors also being of some value, banishment wold be a really bad idea.  It comes down to a broad sort of tolerance as the best out.  Sometimes we orthodox have to suffer in silence.  But, being who we are, it’s a golden silence, a benevolent silence, a generous zen like silence because that’s the sort of people we are. 

Reflections on Affordable Housing

I’ve begun serving on an affordable housing committee charged with crafting a plan that could result in a county wide vote raising funds to address the issue.  It’s a tricky assignment because the years are littered with ambitious plans having no access to implementation.  It’s not a problem unique to our area; it’s one confronting many places throughout the nation in  small cities like ours, metropolitan areas, and economically vibrant communities everywhere.  

Exactly what the problem is, and how to understand it, remains an unanswered question. There are many sides to it, but when connected they don’t necessarily add up to a whole.  That’s because housing, in all its forms and constituent parts, is one element in the complex web of an urban landscape flavored with cultural biases and expectations.  However, within the web are some strands that demand immediate attention.  Many people with good jobs have a hard time finding affordable housing.  It isn’t being built.  It’s not available in the existing housing market.  

Wage growth has been stagnant for several decades for nearly everyone but those at the top.  Upward economic mobility for all is no longer a cultural reality, even as it remains a cultural dream.  Growing income inequality has created conditions where developers can make a healthy profit building top end housing, no profit building for the low end, and the murky middle depends on the overall cost of living, how distant a commute can be borne, and the character of the available market.  The high cost of land in cities all but ensures that any housing built on it will be expensive to buy or rent no matter what.  Gentrification drives up returns for owners in older neighborhoods.  Like it or not, it’s what happens when the upwardly mobile seek adequate, convenient housing within their current means.  In other words, the private sector, operating on it’s own, has little incentive to build for the low and moderate income market.  There’s not much profit in it.  At the same time, the public sector’s access to financing for development of low and moderate income housing at the low end of the market continues to diminish.  Cutting domestic spending, holding down taxes, avoiding debt, and philosophical objections to public investment in housing all contribute to an environment in which public agencies are having difficulty holding onto what they have, much less adding to housing inventory.  

The broad need for housing options in-between the bottom and top end is ill defined.  Levittown developments still exist in environments of urban sprawl, but their degree of affordability is questionable.  Tacky townhouse, condo and co-op developments pop up where market conditions promise a good return.  But market conditions promising a good return are not always the same as market conditions in need of affordable housing.  From the occupants’ point of view, affordability remains a problem.   

Moreover, there seems to be little agreement about what affordable housing is, or should be.  Whatever it is, the conservative political ethos dominating the current environment in my community believes it should be the product of the private market place, with quasi-governmental assistance limited to mortgage insurance and the like.  On the income side, is it housing that a family earning 50% of area median income should be able to afford?  Should it be 60%, 100%, or maybe 25%?  If affordable, what is adequate?  Is it new, existing, up to code, or simply a bit shy of slum status.  What size is adequate?  Do large families “deserve” larger quarters?  Is a room in a boarding house adequate for a single person?  Should everyone, no matter their income, have access to adequate and affordable housing?  Answers will always involve government decision making of some kind, and that will probably reveal a role for government that goes well beyond mortgage insurance.  

When I’ve raised the question of affordable housing in social gatherings, the response almost always assumes ownership of a house on a lot with a yard, not too big, basic but adequate for a family.  It’s the post WWII American dream that created the suburban landscape of today.  It’s faltering dream in many large metropolitan areas, but it’s alive, if not well, in smaller urban areas such as the one in which I live.  Aspiring to own the house of the American dream, many are enticed into mortgages they struggle to pay for houses of marginal quality, but they give the appearance of what the good life is supposed to look like.  

What are the alternatives?  What about renting as a better option than owning?  Studies and articles have tested the waters for renting over owning, with some success, at least in bigger cities.  In my community, 37% of the adult population are renters.  Excluding the elderly in assisted living type developments, renters are mostly at the low end of the socioeconomic scale, with the subtle bias that they are not the most desirable of residents.  Living one’s life in a rented apartment is a sign of one’s inadequacy at many levels.  

With that said, what are some of the conditions particular to my community?  A recent survey produced by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that an hourly wage of about $20 is needed to rent an adequate two bedroom house or apartment.  The estimated mean wage for the area was about $11at the time the survey was made.  For many, making $20 requires two wage earners working two part time jobs, neither offering benefits.  Is cheaper housing available?  Yes.  Slum conditions exist and slumlords have no problem renting up.   That American dream house?  It requires two wage earners working two full time jobs with a combined income approaching $100,000.  So, yes, we have an affordable housing problem, even out here in the intermountain West, but it’s a complicated problem, and it will not be solved without government engagement in the market place.

Will the committee come up with a workable plan the community will support with higher taxes?  We shall see.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Sad Sunday Cartoon

The Sunday comics included a “Family Circus” cartoon featuring mom, dad, grandma, and four small children sitting in church.  The children, all squirming, had a lot to say: “If we have to whisper, why is that man up there talking so loud?”; “Does the man who passed the basket get to keep all the money?”; “If God is everywhere whey do we hafta come to church to talk to him?”  There were a few more, but you get the idea.  It was supposed to evoke a smile, maybe even a chuckle.  

It didn’t.  It was a sad commentary on several fronts.  If church is worth going to at all, it’s worth going for communion with God, for renewal, solace, and strength.  It’s worth going for confession, repentance, and amendment of life.  It’s worth going to learn and practice what fullness of life in abundance means, whatever one’s condition in life.  In other words, it’s worth more than going a few times a year out of social obligation. 

Children who grow up in church, yes, in church at the main service with the adults, absorb the rituals, customs, words and meanings as quickly as they learn colors, numbers, and their ABCs.  And when they sit up front, they are entertained by all the drama, color, and movement going on in front of them.  If they squirm, or make a few noises, so what?  It’s better than sitting in the back staring at the backs of adults, hearing indecipherable noises coming from a loudspeaker.  

Moreover, the man up front may well be a woman.  The man who passes the basket may well be a child.  Rather than little Billy asking why we “hafta come to church to talk to him?”, little Billy’s family would be in the habit of talking to him daily, with weekly worship at church in the community of others as a special gift.  Indeed, little Billy might not be in the pew at all, but up near the altar helping the priest or pastor lead worship.

And that’s what I have to say about that!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Reflections on a Dinner Party

English murder mysteries are my source of mental relaxation: all the better if they are set before WWII when the imaginary elegance of the English countryside was still a believable fantasy.  Obviously one needs a corpse to get the story started, but the recently deceased becomes nearly irrelevant as the clues and suspects accumulate.  Every good mystery needs at least one dinner party during which conversation reveals important hints about those sitting around the table.  What about your own dinner parties?  Are there still such things?  What do they reveal about you?  I wondered about that when six of us gathered for one last night.  What might we learn from listening in?

We were all in the vicinity of 70, some older, some younger.  We were all physically and intellectually active.  Not a doddering old fool in sight (according to us).  Professions always say something, but at our age profession can be a mixed bag.  Mathematician, Physician, Nurse, Theologian, Yogi, Artist, Nurse, Dance Professor, Public Policy Consultant, Musician, another Artist, Wilderness Guide, Cosmetics Executive, Pharmacologist, Teacher, First Responder,  good grief one more Artist, Writer, Cleric, and I may be missing a few.  It’s hard to know what to make of all that.  Maybe it’s that people and life are more complex than “what do you do?”  Whatever those occupations are, or were, we brought to them an abundance of experience from the different places we grew up and lived in before finding ourselves here in the same small city out in the intermountain West.  Add in our lives as spouses, parents and grandparents, and the soup gets pretty thick. 

A motley crew to be sure.  So, what came up as conversation around the table?  What did it reveal?  I made a list just for the fun of it: statistics, children, pharmacology, art, favorite t.v. serials, movies, books, politics, polygamy in Utah, nutrition, diet, exercise, federal budgets and appropriations, changing health care environments, suicides, entertaining for a local charity, obscure card games known only in Indiana, EMS, Scotland, France, French language, continuing education, Chautauqua, civics, travel, Abba’s greatest hit, Alexa, Pink Martini, wines, wind storms, prickly pear salsa, posture, screen doors, and I think that covers most of it.  Oops, mustn't forget organ recitals.  People our age have fascinating organ matters of interest .  Siri, by the way, thinks Abba is somebody’s father and you can’t talk her out of it.  No doubt she went to seminary.  Need to check that out, but I digress.

What does it reveal?  Without a corpse in the copse, or a detective knocking at the door, one is left with no suspect to ferret out, but still there must be something revealing in all of that.  It showed four hours can quickly pass with a feeling that conversation had not yet been exhausted.  It demonstrated that being interested in what the other has to say makes what the other has to say more interesting.  A diversity of education and experience adds volumes to the list of potential subjects yet to be discussed.  Intellectual curiosity makes learning about things new and strange highly entertaining.  Modest portions of superbly prepared foods paired with excellent wines enhances conversation.  70 is just a starting point for getting the fullest possible enjoyment out of life.  Even numbers of guests means no one is left out of the loop.  Spouses will tolerate an old joke because they know the others haven’t heard it five-hundred times.  It revealed that one cannot be stuffed into a pigeon hole according to occupation, age, or status.  It goes against the tradition of most novelists, but we had a good time and everyone went home contented with the evening.  It happens.