Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Corrals & Ping Pong: mixing metaphors to make a point

Conservative or Liberal?  Choose one.  There are no other choices.  It comes up that way in coffee conversations, at dinner parties, over drinks, and even in ecumenical clergy study groups.  Conservatives are all right wingers.  Liberals are all closet socialists.  Conservatives work hard, take responsibility for themselves, and care for their families.  Liberals want everything handed to them on a platter and expect someone else to pay for it.  Conservatives want tax goodies for the rich, never met a tax cut they didn’t like, and have no regard for the poor.  Liberals want to soak the rich to pay for public services that make life easy for the undeserving few.  Conservatives would be happiest with no government regulation of anything: survival of the fittest.  Liberals want a nanny state providing cradle to grave care, controlling every aspect of life.  I think that covers a good part of it.  

This exaggerated political bifurcation was in evidence during this morning’s coffee conversation.  The subject was affordable housing.  It took only seconds for someone to blame unwillingness to get a job and keep it as the reason some people can’t find affordable housing.  Any effort to involve the government in solving the problem was just pandering to their laziness: another sign of creeping socialism.  That’s what it looks like when someone on the far right corrals a small example and declares it to be a universal truth.  Not to be outdone, in another gathering a few weeks ago a left wing acquaintance announced that all the nation’s problems stem from rich people controlling the market place with malicious intent to create and maintain a permanent underclass (of servants?).  Different corrals, same fallacy.  

Examples of extreme views such as these would be mildly entertaining if they were not replicated daily ad nauseam on talk radio, cable news, and through pronouncements from legislative leaders.  In coffee conversations they’re usually allowed to go unchallenged for fear of starting a heated argument.  Although both ends participate, it’s not a case of right and left equivalency.  It’s the far right that has been the aggressive instigator, and the least willing to negotiate in good faith toward any solution that deviates from their original position.  “Aha,” might my right wing friends might say, ”It’s just as we suspected.  You are a leftie, a socialist, you don’t believe in personal responsibility, you are among the enemy that wants to take away my freedom.”

Like a ping pong ball, it seems that one is going to be swatted from one end to the other, and getting stuck in the middle is point losing fault.  What a surprise to discover that I am not a ping pong ball, nor, I suspect, are most others.  I consider myself to be center-left, which, ipso facto, throws me into the far left category, at least according to right wing friends.  It wasn’t always so.  Not so many years ago I was center-right, which made me an arch conservative, at least according to left wing friends.  My politics have not changed that much, but it seems the scale has been recalibrated, so there you are, and here I am.  

However, changes are afoot, to quote Holmes.  I’m becoming more determined to assert a voice that does not tolerate being ping ponged into one corral or the other.  It’s a voice that doesn’t like corals and hates being swatted like a ping pong ball.  It’s a voice that demands open, rational conversation about issues involving public policy and possible workable solutions.  You can’t, as a case in point, offer an unverifiable opinion about the laziness of unemployed people to explain away the affordable housing question, assuming that your immoral moral judgment will not be challenged.  It’s not simply one opinion among others.  It’s wrong.  We did get the conversation back on track.  We went on to talk about working people striving to make it who cannot afford a decent place to live.  Did we have any solutions?  No.  But we pondered what they might look like.

It got us away from the knee-jerk reaction that government is the enemy, and toward the recognition that government has to be a part of the solution.  It only has a part to play.  What that part should be will not be known until we have workable plans, and that remains the subject of good faith negotiation.  Obviously our morning coffee conversation is little more than a few  men (in this case) sitting around talking about the future of the community, but coffee conversations among various groups of interested citizens can add up to an informed electorate through whom important decisions are made.  They can, but only if they stop playing ping pong politics, and hold each other accountable for well reasoned, rational conversation.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Relax! Let It Happen

A previous column on thinking outside the box referred briefly to initiatives in our diocese to become creative and compelling witnesses to Jesus Christ.  Being compelled to think about that raised more anxiety than the usual discomfort with “evangelizing,” as we have come to understand it.  Very small, aging congregations in rural towns have another source of anxiety.  “How can you ask us to do even more than we are already doing?  How much more can you ask of us?”

These congregations of twenty or thirty senior citizens, of whom maybe fifteen or so show up on any given Sunday, have worked hard their entire lives for their families, their communities, and their church.  They still do.  But they’re aging, their endurance is not what it used to be.  Being asked to do more seems unfair and wholly unrealistic.  Don’t ask where the young people are, and why they are not picking up the load.  Most of these rural towns have few young people as it is.  The town where I serve a small congregation a few times a month has a stable population, but the majority of new residents replacing those who died or moved away are mature adults without dependent children.  That may change, but it seems unlikely.

What I suggested to the congregation is that they take a lesson from St. Peter who, in his first letter, wrote, “…let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood…”  The key word is ‘let’.  Don’t try so hard.  You are not being asked to do more on top of what you are already doing,  You are being asked to relax and ‘let’ the Holy Spirit take the lead.  Be willing to ‘let’ it happen, and don’t worry about it.  

It’s not the same thing as saying sit down and rest a while, let somebody else do the work.  We get ourselves in a lather about being asked to do more, when the question is really about doing what we do well, and enjoy doing, but in a way that is open to God working in us so that what we are doing anyway becomes a creative and compelling witness to Jesus Christ.  It’s a process.  Processes proceed one step at a time.  Let it happen and don’t worry so much about it.  

Paul made a point of admonishing his congregations that not everyone has the same gifts.  Some can teach, some are good pastors, some have generous hearts, some can run things well, some are more able than others to be comfortable talking about Jesus in public.  Not everyone has the same gifts, but each working together is what makes the body of Christ.  

If each one does as he or she is able to support others in the exercise of the gifts they have, the Church will be doing the work God has given it to do.  But what are your gifts?  Don’t worry about that either.  Scripture offers a couple of lists, but they’re not definitive, just examples, so there’s no list to draw from.  Whatever your gifts are, you already have them.  There is no test to take to find out what they are.  Relax.  Don’t worry about it.  ‘Let’ yourself be built into a spiritual house, a member of the royal priesthood.  It is God who will do the building.  Just let it happen.

Is there something more you have to do?  Yes.  Stop fighting the Spirit.  Relax. 

What does that look like in real time?  I had an interesting experience the other day, and wrote a brief Facebook post about it.  Here it is.

Teeth are not my favorite subject. This morning I saw a dental specialist for a consultation about one of them that seems to be misbehaving. Glancing at my paper work, he noted I was clergy. A little later, with me saying I didn’t want to get trapped in some foreign land with a tooth problem, he asked if we traveled on mission work. “No,” I said, “good grief no!  I’m retired.  We travel for fun.”

I got to thinking about that. It’s not the whole truth. Everywhere we go turns out to be a mission trip, even when I try to avoid it. Let’s face it, nothing shuts down conversation faster than letting on that one is a priest or pastor. I try to keep it quiet until forced to admit it. Just the same, if you get me you get God. That’s just the way it is. We offer a blessing at meals. We talk about going to church, or visiting a church, or the meaning of art we’ve seen in museums. I’m quick to say I write about politics, economics, and theology. It always raises questions about what one has to do with the other two, and why on earth would I wade into such a swamp.

Eventually Jesus comes up. It’s shocking that I can say his name in only two syllables with a drink in one hand and a plate of vaguely edible whatever in the other. “You seem like a regular guy. Are you sure your’e a pastor?” Sooner or later someone will seek me out with a question they would just as soon no one else knows they have asked. Sooner or later someone will challenge me in public to defend Christ and Christianity. It always happens..

So yeah, I guess we do travel on mission work. It’s just that we do it for fun.



Thursday, May 11, 2017

Boxes and the problem of creative, compelling witness

Think outside the box.  I imagine you have heard that before.  A recent clergy conference encouraged conversation about how to become a more creative, more compelling witnesses to Jesus Christ, which, as Episcopalians, was a frightening idea.  It sounded a lot like evangelism.  What could we do?  It was the theme of the day.  Several suggested that we needed to start by thinking outside the box.  Good grief, what does that mean?  Bible thumping door knockers, and demands to accept Jesus as one's personal savior, are not our thing.  They make us uncomfortable.  We reject much of their underlying theology.  But they have become the de facto standard for what witnessing to Jesus is all about. Indeed, we are mildly repelled by it, quite certain it's the very poorest form of evangelism.  Is that the box?  Probably not.  It’s not a box we were ever in.  But it’s a handy box to point to as we claim to be thinking outside of it.  It doesn’t fit, it’s misleading, and we need a different understanding of boxes before we can get outside of them.

I would rather ignore the imperative to think outside the box altogether.  It’s not an answer to any question.  It's not even a decent platitude.  However, we’re stuck with it, and it can be a decent metaphor for where we have to begin.  If we need to think outside the box, we need to know what the box is, what’s inside it, and where we are in relation to it.  What can we say about the boundaries that identify  what Episcopalians have called witnessing to Jesus Christ within the context of their worship experiences and daily lives?  That defines the box, or at least one of them.  Is there a difference between what clergy say, what lay leaders say, and what other lay people say? What evidence can we offer to support our descriptions of what those boundaries are?  Anecdotes are not evidence, at least not adequate evidence.  One colleague always seems to have an abundance of anecdotal stories to tell, each one drawn from experience of decades ago, yet applied to today as if nothing has changed.  Another cites a variety of assumptions garnered from social media, and the occasional article in some magazine, as if what is done in or said to be true about one part of the country is equally true for our part.  We have our own history of what we meant when we entered the various decades of evangelism or promises to be bold in Christ, and we need to describe the boundaries of our boxes by those meanings.

Some might argue about that, claiming they never agreed to what bishops or conventions adopted as evangelism goals.   OK, what did your box look like?  Does it look like that now?  Do you even have a box?  Maybe you never had a box labeled witnessing to Jesus.  I don’t think I did, at least not for a very long time.     

That aside, what’s in the box?  As soon as someone brought up the subject of thinking outside the box, several others reached into theirs to pull out a few examples: walking around the neighborhood, stopping now and then to huddle in prayer; walking around the neighborhood to get to know it; offering “Ashes to Go” on Main Street; operating a soup kitchen; making up kits of food for poor children to take home over the weekend, etc.  All very good things to do.  I’m sure God approves.  All pulled out of their boxes.  None easy to verify as providing a creative and compelling witness to Jesus Christ.   

It brings up the final question.  What is our relationship to the box.  Do we hide in it to keep from doing the hard work of thinking about what a creative and compelling witness might look like for Episcopalians?  Are we so confined by it that we cant envision another way?  Some clergy and lay leaders are so committed to the good things they already do that they treat any suggestion of another way as a personal indictment requiring a vigorous defense.  Defensive maneuvers seldom move in the direction of creative and compelling.  Moving in the direction of creative and compelling may not require an enormous leap into an alien dimension.  Maybe it requires only a modest midcourse adjustment.  Even modest adjustments are impossible if, like the Titanic, one ignores the iceberg and refuses to change course.

Do our personal anxieties override our ability to think in a new way.  One person confessed that she simply cannot bring herself to talk about Jesus outside the church.  She just can’t, and it’s humiliating to be shoved and prodded to do what she cannot do.  OK, but there are others who are willing to become more comfortable doing that, so for her the question is: what can you do to support them, what can you do to encourage the Church to be a creative and compelling witness?   That was a new idea to her, and something she could do.  A related obstacle is ignorance of changing conditions in the market place.  One person proclaimed that we need to work on getting folks back into church.  You can only get people back if they have once been there.  There are few of them.  Most are in their second or third generation of never having been in a church, having no knowledge of Christianity, other than what they pick up from the media, and can see nothing compelling about it.

There’s more, but you get the idea.  Maybe it would help to start in another way.  Forget about being a creative and compelling witness to Jesus Christ.  Just focus on finding out what is creative and compelling about something else that is good and worthy in the world.  Then add Jesus Christ back into the mix.  

Thinking outside the box is hard because boxes are easy to get into and hard to get out of.  It could be that one of the smallest boxes in our inventory is the one marked Jesus.  Maybe we keep him in it, and then try to climb in with him.  Maybe we don’t need to think outside the box at all.  Maybe we just need to pull Jesus out of the box and let him go. 




Sunday, May 7, 2017

Loaves, Fish, and Small Rural Congregations

Congregations from our part of the diocese gathered not long ago for one of their semi-annual meetings designed to support and encourage one another.  Early in the day, each was asked to choose a biblical metaphor that that seemed to resonate with who they are at this time in their congregational lives.  Ours is a sprawling, mostly rural diocese, and our part of it has only seven parishes, of which three are in very small, aging towns.  It means they are, like their towns, very small, aging congregations.  The other four are in economically healthy college towns, none growing, but none failing either.  Their parishes are like the towns they’re in, financially healthy, none growing, but none failing either.  

What was curious is that all three of the small town congregations chose the same biblical metaphor: five loaves and two fish.  They did it independently, without conversation between them.  What was that about?  It would be wrong to deny there was a little complaining going on.   Our congregations are small, and among the few of us there are only four or five who do the work to keep us going.  The rest are just along for the ride.  What can we do to get the others to help?  Sounds more like Martha than loaves and fish, but when that little bit of whining was over, something more important, and more promising became the focus of discussion.  

It was the recognition that they are the loaves and fish.  Well, forget the fish.  Who wants to chew on a dried up days old perch?  No one.  But the bread, that’s another matter.  What they began to chew on was that five loaves were enough to feed five thousand, but only after Jesus had taken them, blessed them, broken them, and gave them out.  A worshiping community of a few senior citizens in a small rural town is enough to do a lot if they let Jesus take them, bless them, break them, and give them.  

That’s quite an insight because it’s a dramatic transition from being obsessed with the little they have, their own hunger and need to be fed as they grow older and fewer, to the realization that they they are the bread of Christ that can feed countless others if they will let it happen.  They may not have much, but much can be done with the little they have.  What are five loaves and two fish for so many?  Enough for twelve baskets left over.  

These are Christians who are not going to leave the Church until their funerals.  They’ve lived a long time.  How often have each of them been among the five thousand, fed with the body of Christ, the bread of life?  Not that their days of needing to be fed are over.  They come back each week, bowl in hand, asking “more please.”   But what a revelation to see that they are also the bread that has been taken, blessed, broken, and sent  out to feed others.


How will that get translated into something new back home, away from a full day of encouraging interaction with others?  It remains to be seen.  The ones who didn’t come, didn’t share in the new insight.  Maybe they don’t care.  Does it matter?  The five or six who were there are still the loaves and fish.  They are enough, but will life get in the way of allowing God to take bless break and send them out to feed others.  That’s a question yet to be answered.  Maybe it only takes one to carry through.  One like the little boy who had the loaves and fish.  He started the whole thing when he gave them to Jesus.  We shall see.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Walking in Love with Hate?

“I hate you!”  It’s a word learned early in life.  Not long after a toddler has adopted No! as a favorite word, hate comes along.  Where do you suppose they learn it?  Who teaches them what hate means?  They certainly know.  They may not know it’s filled with angry loathing for somebody or something, but they know it’s used to express a deep, unpleasant emotion for which other words might be more appropriate, but they don’t know them.  I wonder what it would be like for a toddler to grow into adolescence without once hearing a parent, or other close adult, use the word hate directed in an angry voice at another person?

The Merriam Webster gang purports to chart the frequency of word usage over the years  I have no idea how they do that, but for hate their chart shows moderate, unchanging frequency from 1800 to about 2008 when it spiked upward and never stopped climbing.  What on earth happened then that might have cause that.  The financial crash?  Probably not. We’ve endured far worse without any change in the use of hate.  Wars?  Riots?  We've had those too.  The election of a black man to the presidency?  H’mm, what a surprise!  Who would have though it?  Yes, I suspect that deep, emotional loathing of the despicable idea that such a thing could happen in America, and of the man himself, is the likely cause of the sudden rise in the use of hate.  But what does it mean? 

Hate's an ambiguous word because, like so many, it has been trivialized.  The toddler in us still uses it in place of other words that would be far more appropriate.  I hate broccoli, for example, does not meet the dictionary standard of deep, visceral loathing of something.  Liver, yes; broccoli, no.  Nevertheless, I hate broccoli works for not liking its flavor and texture, which in the scheme of things is a pretty minor issue.  Hate has thus become an overly used word applied to almost anything, or anybody, we don't like for whatever reason.  If it has been trivialized, I think it's also been reenergized in the aftermath of Obama's election, reaching new heights during the recent presidential election cycle to express true loathing of ideas and people.

Not too many years ago, we applied the title of hate crime to certain acts as a way to make it more clear that in America violent expressions of bigotry would not be tolerated on the basis of their bigotry as well as on their criminality under existing law.  That infuriated some people who believed their bigotry was tacitly approved as an acceptable value by the nation as a whole, even if no longer endorsed in law, as it had been until recent decades.  Combine that with years of economic transition that no longer promised upward mobility for millions who had expected it as their right, and a presidential candidate who openly appealed to fears and prejudices , even encouraging violence, and the public expression of hate became epidemic.

Liberals and progressives hated the idea that such a person could become president.  They hated what he preached at his campaign rallies. Tea partners proclaimed their hatred of elites of every stripe, especially intellectual elites.  Rallies were riddled with signs expressing hateful slogans.  A woman interviewed on t.v. echoed several local letter writers by screaming her accusation that Trump opponents are filled with hate for working class people.  On the whole, we seem to have hate nailed down as the primary motivating force in contemporary American politics.  How curious for a nation that has been superficially dominated by generic Protestant Christianity for several centuries.  If there is nothing else that defines Christianity, it is at least this taken from a passage in John's second letter:  "I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another.  And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning— you must walk in it."  Well, dang.  A society nominally dominated by Christians politically motivated by hate, in which Christians are commanded by God to walk in love. Now what?

How can we learn to walk in love among things and people we don't like and disapprove of?  Maybe it would help to stop using hate to describe everything we disapprove of and don't like.  Could we begin using calmer voices and adult words to say plainly that we don't like thus and such, and here's why?  Could we begin using calmer voices and adult words to say plainly that we disapprove of a behavior, speech, or idea, and here's why?  There is a difference between not liking something and hating it.  There is a difference between disapproving of something and hating it.  We are not toddlers.  We have the words to use.  Reserve hate, if it must be used at all, for that which is truly deeply, emotionally loathsome.  Liver, for instance.  And then ask the fearless, searching question: Is my hate rooted in bigoted prejudice?  If it is, then the problem lies within me, not somewhere else.  That's just me.  That's who I am.  I am who I am.  They are not acceptable answers.  It's time to confess and repent.  


Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day and Capitalism

It’s May Day.  That always brings up a few news stories about extreme left wingers demanding an end to capitalism, and extreme right wingers outraged that the commies are coming.  Given the ease with which both can be sensationalized, and the ubiquity of social media through which to do it, we may get more than the usual this week.

Capitalism, Free Market, Private Enterprise: terms loaded with emotional content but slim on understanding of their practical meaning.  Sometimes capitalism is used as an equivalent for the melange of ingredients that add up to American democracy infused with private enterprise.  Sometimes it’s defined through the lens of 19th century Marxism, which is not the same as Leninism or Maoism, but it all gets labeled as communism, which is not the same as socialism, and by this time emotional content has overridden any move toward rational understanding.  It’s not helped by battalions of economic and political philosophers who offer oceans of words to obfuscate what could be described in simple ordinary terms about how this stuff works in daily life without bringing up Aristotle and Kant. 

What we have in American democracy is a form of capitalism anchored in private enterprise, not free enterprise.  Enterprise without government authorization or restraint has never existed.  What does exist is the proclamation in law that people have a right to buy, own, use, and sell property as they are able and see fit, but within bounds established by law.  Some property is capital, wealth,  that owners can invest in enterprises they think will earn a return, thus providing a flow of income to them.  Capitalism, the right of private persons to own capital and invest it, has been a central tenet of American society since the first colonists arrived.  The Revolutionary War was fought, in part, to preserve that right.  It’s enshrined in our constitution.  

Capital exists in every system of government.  Old time Leninist and Maoist forms of communism made the state the owner of all capital.  It didn’t work for Russia and China, nor has it for anyone else.  That’s why they have both moved into private enterprise systems.  Not democratic to be sure, but private and capitalist just the same.  Capital and capitalism is amoral.  It has no moral compass of its own.  It can be employed for good or evil.  Wealth, by itself, doesn’t care one way or the other.  The only question is what will provide the greatest return.  Social standards can have a mitigating influence.  Social pressure to do what is right according to the standards of the day have some value, but not much.  That’s where government comes in.  It is only through the power of government that capital can be restrained from greater evil and directed toward greater good.  Libertarians may not like hearing that, but that’s the way it is.  Americans like to give capital, and capitalists, as much freedom as possible.  Most other developed nations are less trusting, more willing to use government to restrain and direct.  Americans call that socialism without recognizing it’s not a matter of kind, just degree.  

All clear so far? Happy May Day.



Sunday, April 30, 2017

Life would be better without all those damn regulations

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes the the popular God Squad column featured in many papers.  He recently addressed a  reader's question about fear of punishment as a motivation to do good.  Doing good, or doing right, should be done because it is good or right, not out of fear of punishment, said the reader, so why do religions rely on fear of punishment to motivate good behavior?  Gellman said is was something like the police using radar to enforce speed limits.  Let's face it, some people drive safely mainly to avoid getting tickets.  Doing good, doing right, should be done because they are good and right, but some people need a little added inducement.  

It reminded me of a conversation I overheard at the airport last week, which, in turn, reminded me of dozens of other coffee conversations over the years.  Waiting at the gate to board, two men were sitting near me talking about what they do for a living. One was a lab tech for a food processing company, and he described the many tests he conducted to assure that his company's products met standards of quality.  Between the two of them, it suddenly got twisted to a complaint fest about government regulations that required all these tests, which led to the usual round of moaning and groaning  government bashing.

I wondered to myself, if the government did not require those tests with their associated paper work, what would you do that is different from what you do now?  What role would food safety  and quality play for you and your company if the government did not regulate it?  Maybe you would do nothing different because you and your company are the kind who do what is good and right because it is good and right.  What about others?  Could they be relied on to do the same?  Or might they be like those who have little regard for red lights and speed limits?  Might there be some who would treat food safety and quality with the same seriousness as driving drunk, or drinking while driving?  What's Wong with a little roadie in the cup holder to make the trip more enjoyable?  

The two airport guys reminded me of my friend Keith, a young wheat farmer.  His wheat, like most of the wheat grown around here, is destined for export, mostly to Asia.  He's a libertarian twice over who detests the federal government meddling in the affairs of its citizens.   Regulations are the bane of his existence.  What would he do differently if there were no regulations about pesticides and fertilizers?  Maybe nothing.  He's an honest man whose integrity is unimpeachable.  Could he rely on others to do the same?  Could he rely on Monsanto to be honest about it's seeds and farm chemicals?  You decide.  What would his business be like if there was no federally underwritten crop insurance?  No federally underwritten marketing program?  No federal involvement in trade agreements?  Wheat farms around here lost money last year.  They may lose more this year.  It all depends on international market conditions.  It's not a business for the faint hearted.  Would they be better off going it alone without government help?  That would mean no co-ops, no water or electricity from Columbia and Snake River dams, no county extension services.  

Dreaded regulations have several reasons for existing.  One is to protect us from unnecessary danger and health risks.  Another is to protect us from predatory commercial practices.  Yet others protect the environment from us.  There are more.  They all intersect.  Are some unnecessary?  Are some too complicated, redundant?  Are some inappropriate for our area, even if they are needed in others?  Have federal bureaucrats forgotten that they are in the business of customer service?  Maybe they never knew.  It's all true, at least in part, but regulations are not bad per se, and they certainly are not indifferent commodities.  The president's plan to cut two for every one added treats them that way.  Does that make any sense?