Thursday, December 13, 2018

Liberals must make the political arena safe for Conservatives

Not long ago, a woman whom I know fairly well had quite a bit to say about the misguided effort by liberals to equate men and women.  Women are not equal to men, they are different from men.  They can do things men can’t, and can’t do things men can.  Liberals should stop trying to make them the same.  She’s solidly anti-abortion, believes husbands are the undisputed heads of households, finds homosexuality distasteful, is utterly baffled by the transgender thing, and so on.  She supported Trump’s campaign based on what she was led to believe he would fight for, but don’t be too quick to judge.  She’s also one of the best young moms around, fun to know, a well trained R.N., kind to everyone, and an enthusiastic lover of life.  It would not be a good idea to put her in a pigeon hole.

I don’t know where she got the idea that liberals want to equate men and women, because she’s equally upset that men in positions of power would dare to tell her what she can and can’t do, or that the worth of what she does is not what a man is worth doing the same job with the same level of skill and experience.  My suspicion is she pays too much attention to right wing propaganda.  It appeals to her conservative politics.  It feeds her rumors about liberal agendas to destroy America’s core values.  It exaggerates germs of truth into fantastical camp fire horror stories.  It declares  contrary evidence to be fake news.  Once you’re sucked into a propaganda machine like that, it’s hard to get out, and even harder for anything else to get in.  

It creates a strong fortification nearly immune to breaching from any angle.  Broadsides of fact checking just bounce off.  Well reasoned arguments are deflected into scatter shot, and then, poof!, there’s no reasoning at all. Even carefully crafted emotional appeals fail.  Inside the propaganda walls, life is secure.  Outside of them the world is full of unknowns and conflicting claims to truth.   

So why bother?  Why not let well enough alone?  Everyone’s entitled to their opinions.

The reason bothering remains worthwhile is that serious issues of justice are at stake.  Core American political values are at stake, values enshrined in the Constitution that have evolved slowly and painfully with each succeeding generation to include more people, more equitably.  Genuine conservatives, like liberals, are committed to them, and have something positive to offer in the debate, but who and where are genuine conservatives?  Tea party populism helped build the propaganda fortress walls, and locked them out of the political arena, at least for now.  Locked inside are people who could be genuine conservatives but for their incarceration.  

Genuine conservatives, not taken in by right wing propaganda, are reasonably informed by the facts, aware of issues that must be addressed collaboratively, and cautious about the downside of elaborate schemes liberals are prone to come up with.  They tend to be favorably inclined toward corporate business interests, suspicious of higher taxation, worried about over regulation, have different demands for accountability, and are reluctant to put too much trust in social programs.  In other words, they create obstacle courses to be navigated, and that’s not a bad thing.  It keeps things in perspective, and requires liberals to prove their points.

In today’s electoral environment, would be genuine conservatives such as my young friend, have been highjacked by far right Trumpian neofascists, and led to believe that’s what being conservative is.  I’ve heard all the reasons for the rise of far right wing populism marching down the fascist road.  Knowing the reasons is no reason to let it go on.  It has to change.  Apparently, it’s up to liberals to restore a place for genuine conservative voices.  The lies of the far right have to be made clear, not to liberals, but to conservatives in right wing captivity.  They don’t have to be convinced that liberals are right.  They have to be convinced that there is a better way for conservative voices to be expressed.  Genuine conservatives remaining free of captivity must be given respect, and not treated as if they are simply right wingers in disguise.

It sounds counter intuitive, but liberals making room for conservative voices is part of what we need to do to restore integrity to our democratic processes.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Bad Decision Making as Life Long Practice

Bad decision making again.  A few years ago I wrote a piece on bad decision making, and the subject seems to have forced itself into my field of vision once again. 

We all make bad decisions.  That’s just the way it is.  Hopefully, we learn from them to make better decisions on similar matters as we go forward.  On the whole, most of us, regardless of condition in life, are able to evaluate decisions that lie before us, recognize the best available choice given what we’re able to know, and act on them.  It may take a while.  We may have moments of uncertainty.  We may ask others for advice, but in the end we make reasonably competent decisions, and live by the consequences.  That’s most of us.  

There are others who just can’t do it.  They have long histories of making obviously bad decisions, reaping the predictably unpleasant consequences, and wondering why the world has conspired to do bad things to them.  When I wrote about it the first time, I was reflecting about experiences on fire calls responding to incidents where life times of bad decision making had resulted in death.  It’s not always that way.  There are more habitual bad decision makers who manage to otherwise get through life one way or another. 

True, substance abuse and mental illness open doors to bad decisions.  An elderly semi-homeless friend (he really is a friend) suffers from mental illnesses that cause him to fantasize about the perfect place to live, which is never the place he’s in.  Not long ago he got  V.A. assistance to move into a brand new apartment where he could have enjoyed the rest of his life, but it wasn’t perfect.  The last I heard he was living in a basement room in a small town about fifty miles from here, still looking for the perfect place.

Years of pastoral counseling have brought into my study middle class people about to lose their homes, jobs or businesses because, in the face of clear and reasonable choices to avoid it, and against all advice from those whom they’ve sought out, they make the obviously wrong decisions, ones that will bring them the very outcome they’re trying to avoid.  Why?  I’ve observed a recurring set of reasons forming strands tangled together.  Separating the strands, they tend to look like what follows.

One is not unlike my mentally ill semi-homeless friend.  Others less ill than he still have fantasies about what they want, an imagined reality with an imagined pathway to it that doesn’t correlate with reality, but they’re committed to it, certain that it will come true no matter what others say.  There are enough stories about success through grit, determination, faith and perseverance to give them hope, so they just plow ahead into disaster.  For some it’s a form of magical thinking involving miracles of faith, luck or fate they’re sure will materialize.  For others it’s the conviction that nothing can defeat the brilliance of their plan.  In a previous career, I once had a staff member who addressed every problem or goal with a complex Rube Goldberg type plan dependent on every part working to perfection.  Doing things the simple way never occurred to him.  It was the beauty of the plan’s complexity that he prided.  None ever worked.  He didn’t last long.  

Another strand is a conviction that, with Emerson like self reliance, one can be in control of all decisions and outcomes affecting one’s life, all problems solved through transactional deal making with other individuals.  It’s a conviction that ignores, or is ignorant of, community and the agencies of community that involve collectively working together.  Self reliance is important.  One-on-one transactional problem solving works a lot of the time.  But it all takes place in the context of community where advocacy and decision making are collective processes.  It’s why towns not only have governments, they also have chambers of commerce, service clubs, and not for profit organizations doing good things.  Ignoring the value of the collective processes that make community work, and trying to go it alone based on nothing but a series of individual transactions is bound to reap bad results. 

The habit of acting on intuition, or impulse, appears to be a third strand, at least in my experience.  There is such a thing as well informed intuition, but impulsiveness is not it.  Rex Tillerson was interviewed recently on CBS during which he observed that Trump is undisciplined, doesn’t like to read or get involved in details, and makes impulsive decisions.  Trump calls it something else,  a gut feeling far superior to other people’s claimed knowledge.  His life long track record doesn’t give much it much credence, but everyone’s gut feeling can be right now and then, and it can be enough to strengthen confidence that this time it will work.  Trump may be the most visible example, but it’s replicated many times over in the lives of people who habitually make bad decisions on important matters.  Impulsiveness, intemperance, following your gut, call it what you may, it’s decision making that doesn’t bother with the hard work of objective evaluation.

It’s close cousin is dithering.  Dithering can look like diligent study before making an informed decision, but it’s really a way to avoid making any decision at all, which, of course, is a decision and usually a bad one.  Ditherers, fearful of making a wrong decision, spend so much time and effort considering potential pros and cons that the optimal timing of a decision passes them by, never to be recovered.  Dithering may be inconsequential more often than not, but when it comes to truly important life choices, dithering has already gone in the wrong direction.  Military history is filled with stories of dithering generals and admirals whose indecisiveness caused death and defeat, the very thing they wanted to avoid by having made a wrong decision.  Generals and admirals may make history, but ordinary ditherers make life miserable for themselves, loved ones, co workers, and friends.

Fantasies, over reliance on self reliance, impulsiveness, and dithering may be identifiable strands, but the get tangled together like last year’s Christmas lights to make for habitually bad decisions.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Church is the Problem

I ran across Joe today.  We manage an occasional street wave a few times a month, but don’t know each other except by sight and first names.  I was surprised when he said, “You’re a pastor aren't you?”  “Yeah, I am, how did you know?”  “I read your columns in the paper.”  Well I’ll be; someone other than family and close friends actually reads them. That’s nice to know. 

Joe had more to say.  He doesn’t go to church often.  He should.  It’s the season.  Maybe he will.  My guess is there are many Joes out there who will show up on Christmas Eve.  Clergy tell each other stale jokes about C&E Christians (Christmas and Easter), but this is a time of year when seeds planted early in life try to bud once again.  Maybe it’s the music, decorations, catalogues, tv movies, and holiday parades that give them energy to produce a nagging urge to reconnect with church.  Why is it so seldom a take?

The problem is church.  It gets in the way whenever church is a place one should go to.  It’s an hour or two of time.  It’s a half remembered ritual.  The urge to go there is present, but why, what’s the purpose?  Life seems to get along fine without it.  Going there a couple of times a year is good, in some way, but why is it good, what do you really get out of it?  Those are the questions Joe is bound to ask himself as January unfolds.  At least going to the dentist twice a year has a purpose, but what’s the purpose of church?

My pastoral answer may not be enough, but it’s all I’ve got.  There is no good reason to go to church, if church is just a place, no matter how nice the music or inspiring the sermon.  But there is a reason to join with others to be nourished with God’s word, receive God’s blessing, and to know there is more to life than getting teeth cleaned twice a year.  People who have any belief in God at all know that communing with God is to be in communion with the source of all life, and that a more intimate relationship with God is nourishing in ways nothing else can be.  But how to do that?  Our tendency is to stumble around trying to figure it out for ourselves when God has told us how, pointed the way, opened the door and invited us in.  It’s church.

Church, in its proper sense, is not a place.  It’s a gathering of people to hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest what God has to say, and to be nourished with holy food that will give them the strength to go on.  Can you do that on your own?  Apparently not, at least not very well.  God, and particularly God as revealed in Jesus, called people into community to enter into holy communion with God,  and through it to become agents of God’s healing and redeeming love in the world.  

Many people have a sense of what that might mean, but keep looking for it in all the wrong places.  For instance, there’s a lot of New Age talk about using the power of crystals to focus the energy of the universe for human good, or about various places in the world where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin.  You can fork over a lot of money trying to get the right crystal, or travel to the right place, to discover if the hidden power of the universe can be yours.  God, whom we know to be manifested in Jesus, says forget it.  Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is the power so many are seeking.  He isn’t somewhere else. He’s here. You don’t have to find him.  If you let him, he’ll find you.  God’s power doesn’t flow through crystals but in the community of people gathered for worship.  Thin places are real, but not rare.  They exist in every gathering of the church.  Maybe not always easy to experience, but always there. 

Admittedly, not every place that calls itself a church is one.  If the message it offers is centered on loving God, loving yourself, loving your neighbor, and following where Jesus leads, it’s probably a real church.  If it promises prosperity, easy self help, or threats of all kinds, it probably isn’t.  Moreover, every real church is a gathering of sinners and miscreants of all kinds stumbling toward more faithful communion with God.  Real church doesn’t offer perfection.  Different churches offer access to God’s presence in different ways because people are different.  What works for some doesn’t work for others.  How can you tell which is right for you?  We clergy hate the idea of church shopping, but it can work.  When you find the thin place you’ll know it.  Needless to say I’m biased, and am certain the Episcopal Church has it all. 


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Superficial People behaving Superficially

A very long time ago I read a short story.  I have no idea where, or by whom, or even the details of it.  What I remember is the protagonist was a famous person, more by reputation than sight, who wanted to enjoy social gatherings, but never did.  As soon as he introduced himself, and was revealed to be a famous person, others treated him as a fragile object too precious to be handled, or worse, as an exotic acquisition to be paraded around like a circus animal.  But no one cared about him as a person.  He discovered that if he pretended to be a friend of himself, others began to take interest, still with the same selfish motives, but at least they wanted to get to know him better, and were willing to engage in extended conversation.  Clever, right?  No.  

It was a sad story of social superficiality bereft of any  desire for genuine friendship or community.  There was not a hint of interest in getting to know something about the other for no other reason than that people are interesting in and of themselves.  It was a cartoon of cocktail parties attended by selfish superficial people behaving with selfish superficiality.  But like a well crafted cartoon, it revealed a truth we all recognize because we’ve experienced it, at least in part.  

It came to mind because ’tis the season of holiday parties, when the joy of celebrating over a drink or two in genuine friendship with genuine friends, the subject of greeting cards and Hallmark movies, is seductively dangled before us.  Sometimes it happens.  Often it doesn’t.

It happens when people take delight in others because they’re interesting in and of themselves.  It’s not who they know, whether they might provide a desired connection, or be an opportunity to bask in the reflected light of celebrity.  Everyone is a somebody.  No one is a nobody.  Everyone is worth getting to know because they’re interesting.  It’s as simple as that.  Not everyone needs to become a friend.  There’s no requirement to even like everyone.  But everyone is a unique person, and that makes them interesting, worth getting to know for no reason other than their presence in your life at that moment. 

To take delight in the other simply because they’re interesting can happen even in brief exchanges at parties, in the street, or waiting in line at the grocery store.  It doesn’t require deep extended conversation, as desirable as that is.  It does require some sense of boundaries.  Not everyone wants to be talked to.  Not every encounter is a time for it.  And sometimes superficial people behaving superficially are just jerks who should be avoided.

Enjoy the party.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Tribes are Good. Tribalism is bad.

Tribalism, and the tribalization of America, has been in the public debate for some time, and now the president has added nationalism to the menu, with white nationalism as a subtext.  It raises a question about the proper role of boundaries between tribal and national identities.  Tribes have boundaries.  Tribalism creates barriers.    Trumpians complain that liberals don't believe in boundaries.  They want open borders and a one world government that destroys national identity.  It’s silly at best, but I remember similar scare tactics from the 1950s and ‘60s.  Thought they were dead and buried.  Guess not.  

In the meantime Europeans are discovering that it’s hard to have economic union and maintain different cultural identities, because economic integration invades long cherished cultural territory.  Added to it are pressures from immigrants bringing strange, alien cultures with them.  It must seem to Europeans like reverse colonization, and it does have some of that flavor.

As a Christian, I’m committed to following Jesus who led the way in breaking down barriers that separate us one from another, but that’s not the same thing as eliminating boundaries, or demanding that tribes and nations be abolished.  For one thing, boundaries are permeable while barriers are impermeable.  Barriers keep others out.  Boundaries mark where one tribe or nation ends and another begins, permitting passage from one to another.  

Jesus broke down barriers that prevented people from abundance of life and enjoyment of a welcoming place in community.  He never demanded that Pharisees and Sadducees become Pharducees.  He didn’t demand that the centurion cease being Roman, or the Jews and Samaritans merge into one.  He did demand that no tribe or nation impose on others that which would prevent them from a full and complete life.  

For all our dysfunction, America may have something to teach other nations about tribes and boundaries.  Of course we struggle with systemic racism, it’s a huge problem, but we know it and continue the struggle.  In the meantime, we’ve managed to form a nation of enormous variety in cultures, heritages, religions, strange names and stranger words.  I thought about it the other day when reading articles written by authors with Asian, African, and Arabian sounding names who argued passionately as Americans, about America, for America.  

American English, our unofficial official language, is filled with a growing vocabulary of words and phrases from any number of immigrant groups.  In fact, they help mark cultural boundaries between regions.  I grew up in Minnesota where Scandinavian phrases were woven into everyday conversation.  It’s hard to do the NYT crossword if you don’t know a handful of common Yiddish words.  Some Spanish is essential to getting around in Santa Fe. Louisiana has its Creole, and Hawaii has a patois mixing half a dozen languages.  American Indian words are a staple of geography.  All of them are integrated, in small ways and large, into American English spoken in every region.    

So what’s the point?  Part of it is that language helps carry the continuation of cultural heritage into a new place, and it helps make it a part of the larger culture of that place while maintaining its unique identity.

Here’s another point.  I don’t believe we need to be paranoid about tribes.  Being a member of a tribe is not tribalism.  Not too far from us is the land of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.  The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes maintain their identities but live in confederated union.  With increasing confidence and economic clout, they’re engaging with the communities around them as important players in the life of the region.  Tribal identity is important. There’s nothing wrong with it as such.  It goes wrong when tribal identity is used to denigrate, oppress, or erect barriers that prevent members of other tribes from enjoying universal rights and privileges.  That’s tribalism.  White nationalism is tribal identity that intends to do just that, and it’s morally wrong.

My final point is that nationalism is, or should be, an expression of pride and patriotic loyalty to a nation state, its history, customs, and hopes for a better future.  Think of it as super tribe.  It’s the kind of patriotic pride that has no need to put down the patriotic pride of other nations, nor does it feel compelled to define the world in terms of enemies, allies, and the rest who can’t be trusted.  Borders?  Certainly?  Secure if need be, but not excessively so.  The United States, perhaps more than any other country, ought to know how to do that.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.

We need to put away tribalism, confronting it for the immoral thing it is.  But we need not put away our tribes, and the pride we take in them.  Like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla, our tribes can live together in harmony, sharing with each other the best of what each has to offer, without one claiming privilege of place at the top of a competitive heap.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

King is such an indadequate word

Christ the king Sunday was celebrated this morning.  I heard a good sermon about how hard it is for modern day Americans to connect with the idea of kingship because it’s so antithetical to our democratic ways.  It reminded me of a time quite a few years ago when an enquirer gave up on becoming a Christian because she was unwilling to accept a God that was not the product of her own design and election.  No king for her.

Maybe we need to get at it from another starting point.  John’s gospel asserts that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, which to me to captures the meat of it.  Another way of saying it might be that Jesus is the human manifestation of such powerful love that through it all that is was brought into being. 

It’s not kingship in any ordinary way of understanding monarchs, by whatever name, but it is the declaration of ultimate authority through which, and by which, we exist.  I just finished reading Johnathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion.”  My brother in law had read it, and wanted to get into a conversation, so I read it too.  Haidt surveyed several ways to catalogue morality, noting that religious people have a strong sense of obedience to authority which they posit in gods of many kinds.  This deontological basis for morality didn’t have much appeal to him, mainly, I suspect, because he believes all religions share the same psychological and sociological processes, differentiated only by the names of their gods and the flavors of their rituals.  Besides, he claims to be a modern day utilitarian following in the path of Bentham and Durkheim.  

We Christians, following in the path of our elder Jewish kin, recognize God whom we cannot know, and cannot mold to our own tastes (not for lack of trying), but whom we we can come to know in part through God’s own self revelation.  As Christians, we are certain that in Jesus all the fullness of God that can be shown in human form has been made known to us.  It means that what he did and said has ultimate authority, and by that authority he made it clear that loving one another as he loved us is the way to abundant life. 

Maybe king of kings and lord of lords makes little sense to modern day Americans, but the idea that the ultimate power of the universe intends us to live life in abundance, and has told us how to do it, should have some appeal.

A member of the small rural congregation I serve several times a month asked the obvious question a few weeks ago.  If that’s true, why can’t we do it?  Did he goof up on our design?

Haidt’s answer, echoed by many others, is that we weren’t designed, we just evolved.  Our brains are not yet wired to live in love with one another, except in predictably limited ways.  Maybe they’ll never evolve to a higher morality.  My more sophisticated theological answer was, “I dunno.”  We Episcopalians don’t get hung up with questions about intelligent design.  We’re content to let science slowly reveal the processes by which we came to be without displacing God from the center of it all.

It brings me back to the beginning.   As Christians, following in Jewish footsteps, we have to admit we cannot comprehend God.  As an anonymous medieval mystic wrote, God exists within a cloud of unknowing.   All we can do is apprehend God as God is revealed to us.  To us God has said “I’ve shown you the way and demonstrated how to do it, follow where you have been led.  You asked how to live well, and I’ve told you and showed you.”

For all the reasons Haidt describes in his book, we’re not good at doing it.  But here’s the really curious thing.  God knows it, and has said that our life here is a waypoint on our journey to a more perfect one.  It’s through the gate of death.  We can get glimpses of it, but only glimpses.  

That’s way too much for many.  Silliness to the extreme.  A childish fairy tale.  Be that as it may, Christians are convinced of it by the evidence of those who bore witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Different denominations have different ways of understanding it.  Episcopalians tend toward the universal salvation side of things.  But my guess is that if you don’t want to go through that gate, you don’t have to.  Nobody’s going to force it on you.  

Now where were we?  King of kings and lord of lords.  I can live with that. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Advent is Upon Us

Advent is upon us.  What does it mean?  For many it’s a signal to begin hyperventilating anxiety about the strain of the holidays on an already strained budget, the expectations and disappointments sure to come with gifts given and received, and parties that are supposed to be fun.  Amidst joy filled decorating, eager anticipation in children’s eyes, and the comfort of reunited families, some are lonely, grieving, and scared.  Confusing, isn’t it? 

Advent is upon us.  What does it mean?  It’s a time to prepare in heart and mind to receive once more God’s presence in our lives through the most intimate way possible: the Word of God made flesh in a baby born of Mary.  It happened only once a long time ago, but you and I need the annual renewal of the wonder of it.  We need it to be reminded that it’s not we who must struggle to reach up to God, but God who has reached down to us in humble, trusting vulnerability.

The Holiday Season has other intentions.  After all, it’s rooted in pagan celebrations of the new year, and let’s admit it, it’s fun to engage in at least a bit of it.  If we’re honest, there’s a little pagan blood in each of us.  But Advent can be an effective inoculation against too much.  Advent can slow us down, redirect our attention to Jesus, remind us that the enduring gift of life is ours to have for all eternity.  Advent can calm our fears, ease our anxieties, and hush the noise so we can hear the angels sing.  What we have, we have.  What we don’t have, we don’t have.  Let it be.  What we need is important.  What we want is not.  What we most need and want is love that accepts us as we are.  We can give love like that, even to those we don’t much like.  We can receive it, even from those we’re not fond of.  We have received it freely from God, and can give it freely in Christ’s name.  Advent is a time to work on it.