Friday, February 5, 2016

Pineapples and Hospitality

The other day I wrote about pineapples, or at least mentioned them in passing.  They came up again in a conversation with my wife about pineapples as symbols of hospitality.  We have a large ceramic pineapple plaque hanging near our front door, symbolic of the hospitality we hope to offer to those who visit.  So how is it that a pineapple became a symbol of hospitality, and what is hospitality?  

The Internet is fascinating trove of useless information, and there is quite a bit about pineapples and hospitality.  The stories vary but they tend to circle around pineapples from the Caribbean as the only tropical fruit that could withstand long voyages.  Sea captains brought them home as treasured gifts presented with great fanfare at dinner parties celebrating their return.  As I said, the stories vary, but they all agree that it didn’t take long for wealthy New Englanders to adopt the pineapple as a symbol of welcome carved into furniture, staircase newels, and incorporated into chandeliers.  Now they are everywhere.  Just look around.  

So let’s turn to the question of hospitality.  It’s an old word, and it means the same in every language: to welcome with grace and generosity.  The hospitality symbolized by pineapples at colonial dinner parties was extended not to everyone, but pridefully in limited portions to wealthy friends.  Certainly not to the community at large, even in a small community.  The more generalized symbolism in carvings and chandeliers was likely not found in any but the wealthiest of homes for a very long time. I wonder if the original owners might have thought they were an attractive design that illustrated their knowledge of exotic things from afar, and were a wonderful expression of the idea of hospitality as long as it wasn’t taken too seriously, or trespassed on by the wrong sort of people.  That’s the way with symbols.  

Consider the hospitality offered to three strangers by Abraham who rushed to make them welcome and urged them to rest while his household prepared a feast for them.  Or what about the Samaritan woman at the well who not only offered the hospitality of water to a stranger, a man, and a Jew at that, but continued by inviting a long, rather intimate, conversation with him.  All four gospels tell of the feeding of the five thousand in which no one was deemed to be deserving or undeserving, only that they were hungry and tired.  Then there is the parable of the wedding feast to which the hoi polloi were invited without discrimination when the right sort of people declined the offer of hospitality.  Do you recall Christ’s teaching about what it means to offer the hospitality of water, food, and clothing to the thirsty, hungry and naked?  This being Friday (as I am writing),  I’m reminded of a collect in which we are urged to remember that Jesus stretched out his harms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  That’s radical hospitality.  Is that what the plaque near our front door symbolizes?  Probably not.  We are a little more cautious than that.  You probably are also. But what about the places we claim to epitomize hospitality, our churches for instance?  How openly hospitable are they?  How restricted?  How fearful of being ill-used or having something stolen?  How willing are we to open them to the risk of radical hospitality?

Those are questions we have struggled with for years, not always with success.  Restricting access, having armed guards, and being more attentive to the wrong sort of person coming in, has become a subject regularly present in congregational and clergy meetings all over the country.  It’s even been covered in The Christian Century.  Without being able to answer our own questions about ourselves, we are now being asked to wade into the same debate on a larger scale, the one about refugees from the Middle East and immigrants from nearby countries seeking asylum and opportunity.  To the examples of radical hospitality illustrated scripture, and the commandments of God to go and do likewise, we are inclined to say “Don’t be stupid!”  Too often we are more like Joab and Abner, offering one another suspicion filled, hypocritical hospitality resulting in death.  We may not have a hand in killing as such, but we establish and maintain conditions under which the life of the other cannot flourish.  We do it in the name of not being stupid, not in the name of Jesus Christ.  We can do better than that.

Got a pineapple anywhere around?  What kind of hospitality does it symbolize for you?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Demons and the Demonic

I’ve been rereading Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers that I first picked up some twenty-five years ago.  I was particularly struck by a passage that reflected a lot of my own thinking in recent years.  Who knows, maybe I got it from him in the first place.  It has to do with the reality of the demonic.  I’ll get to what he wrote in a moment.

In the meantime, the question has come up sooner or later in every bible class I’ve taught: Are demons real?  What are demons?  Of course it comes up!  It’s not a silly question.  Demons are mentioned with some regularity in the gospels.  Moreover, popular culture is inundated with demons as characters in fiction and fantasy.  The Western world pretends to enlightenment that knows better, but it’s a thin patina.  Much of the rest of the world lives in the certainty of demons everywhere all the time.  

I’ve preferred to answer by speaking of the demonic as a spiritual reality rather than demons as creatures apart from humanity.  It hasn’t always been a satisfying answer for a couple of reasons.  It requires some abstract thinking that many find uncomfortable, and it doesn't excuse humanity from responsibility for hosting the demonic, sometimes with religious conviction and enthusiasm.  

That brings me to what Wink wrote that clarifies the question, at least for me.
The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization.  When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby heard of swine.  The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event.  The unclean spirt can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside.  …They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations. 

The reality of the demonic does not require demons as creatures, nor does it deny the existence of demons as spiritual manifestations of evil in all of its forms.   Are they things of heaven or things of earth is a question that makes no sense because they are not things in our ordinary sense of what a thing is, and there is no boundary that separates the heavenly from the earthly, even though we find it useful to pretend that there is.  Where do they come from?  I suspect that they come from us. We bring them into being and sustain them with the nourishment of our individual and collective behavior.  Once brought into being, they may go on in the lives of persons, institutions, offices, crowds, informal gatherings, and congregations for years, perhaps for many generations.  We create them and nourish them, but they take on an existence apart from us. 

How do you get rid of demons, or at least tame them?  Remember Martin Buber’s I and Thou?  Demons thrive when we treat other human beings as things rather than persons.  Whenever we dehumanize a person, a class of persons, or whole populations of persons, we create demons and the environment in which they flourish.  When, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant in my tradition, we respect the dignity of every human being, we take away everything that demons need to exist.  We are no longer hosts for the demonic, nor do we encourage environments in which the demonic can live in others. 

What was it that Jesus did to dispose of demons?  He restored persons to their place in society, and to the possibility of fullness of life.  The oppressed were blessed, and the margins that made for the marginalized were removed.  Most important, he embraced each person with God’s love.  Not only can we do the same, we are commanded to do the same.  It isn’t always easy, but I think we must also have the courage to recognize and call out when we encounter the demonic being created and nourished by others.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of  what that looks like.  Most of us are not called to become martyrs in that fashion, but last Sunday I heard a powerful sermon by Bob Nelson at Holy Innocents in Lahaina in which he boldly named the demonic of the current presidential contest.  It took courage to preach that sermon.  I imagine it did not go down well with some of the visitors in this tourist dominated congregation.  But he was right.

Love the LORD your God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else hangs on these two commandments.  If that is’t clear enough, there is a new commandment: love each other as Christ has loved you.  The demonic cannot exist in that environment.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Land, Maui, and Change

Friends know that this is the time of the year when we spend a few weeks on Maui, something we’ve been doing for many years.  I can’t say why it became important for us to be here, but it is.  We love the history, culture, music and people.  I’m a great tour guide who happily does all the standard tourist things all over again whenever newcomers visit.  We can never be locals in any sense of the word, but we can observe, respect, and enjoy.  I’m also content just to be.  In many ways it’s the best part.  We are not in a hurry to do anything.  Sitting on our lanai, I’m watching a brilliant rainbow form to the north.  Molokai across the channel is ringed with a lei of clouds.   Otherwise the sky is blue and the ocean bluer.  The trades have picked up and the air is clear.  Why not just enjoy taking it in?  It’s almost instant relaxation when we get off the plane and smell the warm sea air.  OK, I may have to adjust that a little.  There is a certain aggravation that comes with baggage claim, the queue at the car rental place, and the horde of first time visitors trying to navigate toward the road to wherever they are going.   That seems to be the universal condition of travel these days.  But that’s not what I want to write about.

Except for 1,300 acres on the slopes of Haleakala, commercial pineapple farming on Maui died out almost a decade ago.  The local Maui Gold is an amazing low acid, sweet pineapple grown mostly for the local market.  Now the last sugar cane operation is closing down.  It doesn’t mark the end of agriculture, but it does mark the end of plantation type farming.  Not much land is required to produce an abundance of local produce to be consumed locally.  A couple of cattle ranches, a goat dairy, landscaping nurseries, and flower farms continue to prosper, and are likely to continue doing so for a long time to come.  They blend so well in harmony with the surrounding flora that they are seldom given more than glance by tourists who are more interested in getting to the top of Haleakala or winding their way to Hana.  Those who stay on the beach never see them at all.

On the other hand, the introduction of sugar cane and pineapple in centuries past changed the landscape in dramatic ways.  What was scrub covered sand dunes or forested mountain slopes became many thousands of acres of irrigated pineapple and sugar cane.  Water was piped in through a series of ditches and pipes that disrupted natural flows.  Labor was imported from Asia and Portugal in such numbers that no race or ethnicity is now in the majority.  Native Hawaiians were part of the change, and also buried under it.  In some ways one could say that plantation agriculture erased what had been and wrote an entirely new way being in its place.  Now it’s happening again.

From the lanai of our rented condo, I look up at the vacant fields on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains, and wonder what will become of the land?  The enormous vastness of the central valley, still covered with cane: what will become of that land?  What will become of the water flowing through ancient ditches and pipes to places that are no longer irrigated?  No doubt the owners will want to monetize the land’s value as best they can, and that raises all kinds of nightmarish possibilities.  I have no say in the matter, but if I did I’d like to see it in the public domain.  The owners would be paid something approximating a fair value, and decisions about future use could be made slowly with deliberation.  Returning it to it’s state prior to agricultural development is not a very good idea, but nurturing it with non-invasive endemic and indigenous flora appropriate to climactic conditions might be a something to consider.  So might encouragement of more small scale farming for local consumption.

As for the wags who either fear or hope for hotels, condos, and golf courses, not to worry.  That market is close to saturation – I hope.  I can’t see this place becoming another Dade or Collier County.  The native Hawaiians in company with others who are deeply rooted in the history and culture of Hawaii have the political will and savvy to make that all but impossible. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

I agree with Trump

Exaggerated claims and outright lies told with an air of complete conviction are common elements of almost every campaign for national office.  I don’t know why.  It doesn’t seem to be the case in our local elections.  I can’t speak for what happens in yours.  But the traveling hucksters’ medicine show that the Republicans have been passing off as a debate between candidates has set new records that may never be broken.

Taking a quick look through the fact checkers reviewing last night’s attempt at performance art is a case in point.

Cruz claimed that six years of Obamacare has been  disaster with millions thrown out of work or forced into part time work.  That 18 million people have health care coverage when they had had little or none before is apparently irrelevant.  Unemployment is nearly at an all time low.  Whether the ACA has had any impact on part time employment is an unknown, except for anecdotal stories one hears now and then. 

He’s also deeply concerned over our tiny little Air Force of only 4,000 planes.  He apparently didn’t see the 1 that comes before the 4 that the DOD reports to have on hand.

Rubio bemoans the small size of today’s Navy as if numbers of things that float take precedence over the purpose and capabilities of what we have.  Maybe if he counted Zodiacs he’s be happier.

Christie still claims he knew nothing about the politically motivated bridge closure, and cites his own investigation of himself as proof.  

Fiorina is disgusted at the number of veterans who are not being given health care in a timely way.  So are we all.  It’s a real problem.  Not a Republican problem.  Not a Democratic problem.  It’s just a problem that needs to be solved quickly.  However, her claim that 307,000 have died waiting for health care is a number that cannot be supported by any thoughtful examination of the data.  For instance, my dad is one of those numbers, but he never sought VA medical treatment because he had wonderful coverage through other means.  He just died in the normal way that we all do.

She also mashes the numbers on HP employment during her tenure as CEO in such a way as to imply wonderful growth that never happened.  Smoke and mirrors, without the mirrors, just smoke.  

Huckabee (the Rev. Mr. Huckabee) claimed he cut 90 taxes as governor, which he did.  He conveniently failed to note the taxes he increased that amounted to a net increase of about 500 million.

Those are only the highlights, but you can be sure that a great many people watching believed it all.  

The so called debates on the Democratic side are better, but by a matter of degree, not kind.  It may be due in part to having only three people on the platform, each genuinely interested in the well being of the nation, and each holding the others accountable without (very much) rancor.

And then there’s Trump, “ Along came Trump, long-legged, lanky Trump.”  Not exactly the slow talking Jones of the old song, but like Jones, all he does is show up.  Never actually does anything.  What he says brings to mind a petulant sixth grader trying to fake his way through and essay test for which he had never studied.

My solution.  There is little one can do about the exaggerations and lies, but I agree with Trump on one point:  get rid of the debates.  They are a sham.  They bring global ridicule and disrepute to American politics.  It hurts to see adult persons claiming to be fit for the nation’s highest office making absolute fools out of themselves week after week.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Flusterbluster on Seminar Evaluation Forms and Other Things

I attended a day long seminar on death and grieving, which for a pastor should not seem like an odd way to spend a day.  Others included staff from hospice, a number of therapists and social workers, a few hospital staff, and too few clergy.  The presenter, Dr. Pam Cress of Walla Walla University, was outstanding.  She knows the subject and presents it well.  If you think it’s something your community could use, talk to Pam.  But that’s not the point of this brief flusterbluster.  

Like most continuing education seminars, this one ended with an evaluation form to be handed in before leaving.  That makes me uncomfortable, especially the old hat question: What did you learn today?  Maybe that’s easy for others, but I need time to reflect.  It may be days, even weeks, before I am able to say what I learned.  It isn’t as if the subject was new to me.  For most of us continuing education is in the familiar realm of the work for which we have been educated and trained.  It certainly reinforced some things I knew; reminded me of some things long forgotten; corrected some mistaken ideas; and made new connections with other disciplines.  But let me think about it for awhile.  

“Thank you for coming.  We hope you enjoyed the day.  It’s late.  You are all tired and want to go home, but please take five minutes to tell us what how we did over the last six hours of presentation.”  No!  I can’t do it.  It’s the same thing at clergy conferences and our annual diocesan convention.  To be fair, the diocesan convention gives you as much as ten minutes to fill out the blasted form after three days of meetings.  Big of them.

Maybe that’s the way it’s always been done, but what seems different about today is the environment in which we live.  Reflecting on that brings me to a whole new level of rant.  It’s an environment of instant everything.  Events are instantaneously shared as news with no time given to verify, value, or thoughtfully examine consequences.  Mobile phones chirp instant messages that demand instant answers no matter what else is going on.  Social media invites instantaneous sharing of the minutiae of daily life, and instantaneous acknowledgment that we know you shared it.  A few weeks ago a respected journalist “tweeted” his unreflective thoughts about a candidates’ debate as it went along.  I wonder if he was eating fast food as he tweeted while watching his split screen TV with the debate on one channel and several other programs of interest on others?  I don’t care what his hastily drafted 140 character notes had to say.  I do care what he thought after digesting it, giving time to write an intelligent article.  

The more we are inundated with information, the more we need time to reflect.  We need time to do our own fact checking. We need time to consider impacts and consequences.  We need time to understand connections and meanings.  We need time to reflect, perhaps prayerfully, on moral implications.  We need time, in the words of a favorite collect, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

So no!  I will not give you five minutes to tell you how you did.  I’m going home.  Ask me in a couple of days.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Question of Sexual Consent

The following essay is based on nothing more than one of the periodic dinners during which my friend Tom and I explore whatever question happens to fall on the table.  Absolutely no research of any kind went into it.  So here goes.

Maybe it’s because we are a college town, the subject of campus sex and what consent means has a higher profile that it might in other places.  It is a problem.  Nonconsensual sex is intolerable.  The question arises with what consent means.  There are some obvious acts well outside the boundaries of consent: rape, sex with someone not capable of giving consent, sex with persons deemed to be too young to give consent, etc.  But there is another issue, and that is with pubescent awakenings to and explorations of what it is all about.  Just to be clear about it, college students, even very bright ones at elite colleges, are pubescent.  I don’t mean that they are entering puberty, but that they are still goofy teenagers trying to find their adult footing.

It’s commonly said that sexual activity starts very young, everyone is doing it, and everyone knows what they are doing.  Is that true?  I wonder.  However, because kids are exposed to so much sexually explicit content through the media, they certainly have more knowledge of the mechanics than I did as a youth.  But are they any more sophisticated or mature about it?  They still have to go through the same learning curve we all did.  Where are these urges headed?  Why do they seem so overwhelming at times?  What am I supposed to do?  What am I not supposed to do?  What is the right thing to do?  What if I do something and wish I hadn’t? 

College is an abrupt transition for some kids.  One day they are expected to behave according to the standards of the household, even if they don’t.  Some form of adult supervision surrounds them at home and in school.  They strain to be free of it all, and college gives it to them like an ice cold bath.  Handling it can’t be easy for some of them, and sex is one of the freedoms that hormonally driven day dreams are made of.  Apart from the legendary amoral frat boys (those prowling packs of voracious wolves), my guess is that the average college student, male and female, is still struggling with the same questions we did back in the dark ages. 

This where the difficulty with consent come’s in.  It would be nice if it was a simple yes or no, but it isn’t.  I suspect it’s an awkward dance in which different moves are thought about, tried, accepted, rejected, rearranged, and dropped or tried again in a different way, all within the context of complex moral standards.  Yes emerges but as a limited yes, or no emerges but as a limited no, and maybe is for another time maybe, or maybe not.  Offense is given and offense is taken.  I don’t  think that awkward dance can be avoided.  Honesty would require us to admit that we were there, and that the moments of embarrassment, stupidity, and regret outnumbered the moments of delight.

What may be different about today is a less trustworthy moral grounding.  Throughout the ages, college students have often laid aside their childhood religious practices for a time, but they did have them to lay aside.  Professor friends observe that now it’s common for many students to arrive with no religious or moral grounding.  That doesn’t mean that they have no moral standards.  It simply means that each has jury-rigged something that seems to work in getting them through the ethical decisions of daily life.  Political ideology often appears to fit the bill.  Having spent many years in that arena, it’s a very unstable moral rudder.  I think that’s a problem, and it relates to the question of what yes means and what no means.

What should be done about it?  My opening recommendation is for today’s parents of young children to commit to early childhood education in the Christian theology of the Episcopal Church that is continued at home and throughout the years of growing up.  I may be a bit biased about that, but I am serious.  However, I am informed that there are other possibilities.  As for today’s student’s, I might suggest a required sex-ed course with a strong social-psychology component to open, and a strong ethical component to close.  I know, I know, they got sex-ed in high school, but they need something more suited to intelligent, quasi-sophisticated college students.

OK, when Tom and I get together, our dinner conversations have their limits, and so does this essay.  If you have more to say, be my guest.

Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK: A Different Way of Remembering

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day of remembrance there are many who are going deeper into what he taught, and others who are rededicating their efforts to continue his work.  I want to go in another direction and remember in a different way.

Civil rights was a confusing issue to me, and to most of those I knew.  The movement was just gaining traction when I began my professional career.  What was happening in the South was a confusing mystery in a foreign country.  So it seemed to a Minnesota boy who had never been in the South.  It was manifested in Minneapolis and St. Paul by unrest that occasionally broke out in violence, but as close as that was, it was a city problem unrelated to our town that was then on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.  It took a while for me to recognize the unrestrained bigotry that had been there all along, hidden because nothing ever happened to give it a good shaking.  It was a bigotry embedded in unquestioned cultural values that explained the way things were because that’s the way things were.  There was nothing mean spirited about it. It’s just the way things were.  

A few years later, when MLK was at the height of his influence, I was working for the State of Minnesota.  I remember a meeting with a top public safety official to go over plans for reorganizing his department.  He had another agenda.  Pounding his desk, turning red in the face, lower lip trembling, he went on a tirade against that communist agitator King who should be tried for treason and locked up forever.  I had no idea what brought that on since MLK had never been in the state as far as I knew.  What he had written, what he had taught, what he was doing, it was all subsumed under paranoia about race riots and anti-war protests going on around the University.  As for me, I was trying to untangle the mess one strand at a time without letting it interfere with my work and life.  Untangling took a lot of work.  Understanding came slowly.  I envied those of my friends who were convinced about things I struggled with.

Jump ahead a few more years.  The various civil rights bills had been signed into law.  Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.  The war was an even bigger issue.  Riots of one kind or another were common place.  I had begun what would become a long career in a hodgepodge of management consulting, lobbying, policy analysis, stuff like that, and was in Alabama for a week of meetings with young executives who wanted to improve their management skills.  In our social time together I began to learn about the New South from the point of view of young, well educated, southern white men who saw their implied inheritance of unquestioned position and authority slipping out of their hands.  Oddly enough, to me, they seemed to accept it as inevitable and ultimately right, but with apprehension over the abilities and intentions of the newly emboldened black leaders.  Maybe they were the exception.  I’ll never know.  They didn’t like King, or any of the civil rights leaders, but they respected their courage and ability to make things happen.  It was the psychology of certainty in full play.  

That was something few in the North ever had to face.  There never was a moment when the full force of federal legislation and law suits catastrophically disrupted the way things were.  I think that made it easier for Northerners to hang onto their prejudices by hiding them a little deeper, but I digress.  Here we are with a half century behind us.  Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an icon of Christian virtue, a touchstone for moral theology, and a revered member of the American pantheon.  Times have changed, but icons and touchstones can sometimes be relegated to the fireplace mantel as little more than decorative trophies.  The American pantheon can be just another museum where busts are trotted out once a year to be dusted off.  Too much blood has been spilled, and too many red faced table pounders have been put in their place, for us to allow that to happen.  Something of the turmoil needs to continue because without that pressure it’s too easy to quit untangling the mess one strand at a time as we seek understanding.