Saturday, July 19, 2014

A very short rant about nullification.

The platform for a local candidate for the state legislature is based on lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.  I find that almost mindless, but it has attracted the tea party gang.  Her Facebook page includes comments from supporters urging a state statute to nullify ‘unconstitutional’ federal legislation, which is a strongly held sentiment I have often read and heard these days.  

Frequent readers of these occasional articles already know that nullification is not a new idea.  South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification in 1832 in an attempt to overturn tariffs.  Nullification arguments were raised over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The Civil War itself was in part a struggle over nullification.  The issue was settled at the cost of 620,000 dead, and I have no idea how many non-combatants were killed, or how many lived the balance of their lives wounded in body, mind and spirit. 

At what point and at what cost will people understand that the issue is resolved?  We have serious matters to address.  It’s time to stop the silliness that, but for our constitution and laws, could become a violent tit-for-tat killing field such as witnessed in other parts of the world, and that sometimes has broken out in our own land.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is it the worst of times?

Memories are short, and world views are fuzzy, but what’s there is is firmly held. 

The other day, while sitting in the clinic waiting room, the guy next to me started up a conversation.  The gist of it was that things are so bad, worse than they have ever been, that it must be a sign that the Lord is coming very soon.

I asked him if he could remember a time that was better, a time when it seemed less likely that the Lord would soon come.  That puzzled him.  He wasn’t sure.  So I asked if he thought our times were worse than, say, the times of the Hundred Year War, or the Thirty Year War, or the Black Death.  He didn’t know what those were.  It didn’t quite end the conversation, but it did change the subject to the importance of loving one’s brothers and sisters.  That’s one of those agreeable topics that could be very dangerous if pursued beyond billboard platitudes, but I digress.  

Is this the worst of times?  I suppose it depends in part on one’s political world view and condition in life.  Because we view all things from where we are, the universe, history, and contemporary events revolve around us.  We are at the center, and what we perceive most clearly is what is within our reach.  For some, perhaps like the guy sitting next to me, there was a better time when they were younger.  Women ,and certain others whom we cannot now name because it is politically incorrect, knew their place; gays were hidden away in closets and only talked about, if ever, in the context of rude jokes; children were always respectful of their elders; our only real enemies were in Moscow, and maybe Beijing;  and America had no serious industrial competitors.  None of those things is true anymore.  They weren’t true back then either, but that’s the way it gets remembered.  Around here that kind of remembering is aided and abetted by the popularity of photographs running in the local paper, on the Internet, and in coffeetable books depicting romantic images of the way it was back then. 

What distorted memory asserts as the solid truths and goodness of another time is assaulted by today, and everything about today.  Nobody seems to know what truth is, and those who claim to have a corner on it are steeped in contentious debate with others who are certain of other truths.   And so it is, at least for some people.  Who are they, apart from the guy sitting next to me?  I suspect they are folks whose world view is limited mostly to what has happened in their own lifetime and within their scope of vision.  History, I suspect, is a vague mystery.  Events in ages past are unknown and irrelevant.  Walking a mile in another man’s moccasins; that is, to embed one’s imagination other cultures, lives, and times is an unlikely thing, maybe an impossible thing.  If all of that has been compounded by a life that has not lived up to early hopes and dreams, if it has exploded or imploded, leaving one sitting in a pile of Job like ashes, this may indeed be the very worst of times. 

My prejudice is to claim that arch conservatives are more guilty of this kind of thinking than others, but probably not.  A good many of my liberal friends are equally infected.  Moreover, I wonder if some of the radicals of the sixties and seventies have become the most ardent tea partiers of this decade.  What complicates things a bit more are the dueling banjoes on radio and television who make their living inciting divisiveness and discord through manipulation of facts and rumors.  People like that have always been around, but they have never had such instantaneous, easy, broad access to so many.  Shoot, we used to rely on Satan as the big deceiver.  He’s not only been demoted, he’s been put out of business.  But I digress again.

Is it the worst of times?  No, not from a historical perspective.  But it is a violent time, a cruel time.  Because we claim to be a just people, the injustices we experience and can see are more obvious.  And our own complicity in them cannot be easily avoided. The myth that America could be an island of goodness, safety, and opportunity protected by oceans, above the morass of human failings elsewhere, has long been shattered.  I can understand why the guy sitting next to me at the clinic wondered if it’s time for the Lord to come and straighten out this mess.  I think he’ll wait and see if we can’t grow up and show a little more responsibility for our own actions. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reflections on the Fourth

As we approach the July 4th holiday, I’ve seen several articles celebrating our hard won freedoms while lamenting their creeping loss through - through what?  I’m never sure, but most of the complaints seem to revolve around immigration, gay rights, religious freedom, and the perceived intrusion of big government into daily lives.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to remember that our War of Independence was a fairly conservative affair.  Unlike the French revolution that pitted the oppressed and dispossessed of the lower classes against the landed elite, the American revolution was more about protecting the rights of free, white, male land owners from a government in London that failed to adequately recognize or respect them.  To be sure, in America it was possible for any free, white male to own land in one form or another, and that was very unlike any other place.  It truly was a place of opportunity unlike any other.

That was not a bad thing.  The rights we take for granted today had to start somewhere, and the philosophy of rights imagined in the Declaration of Independence would, in time, be understood to reach far beyond the world view of white, male colonists huddled along the Eastern seaboard and living under English rule.  In the same way, the rights of Englishmen imagined in the Magna Carta of 1215 began as a struggle of landed barons against the power of the king.  British parliamentary democracy emerged from that spring, but it took almost five centuries.  The development of American republican democracy proceeded at a faster, if not smoother, pace.  It’s only been 228 years since the Declaration.  The scope of freedoms first asserted as belonging to free, white, male land owners now extends to almost all.  And therein lies the problem, at least as I see it. 

Rights and privileges formerly restricted to certain classes, and now deemed universal, begin to erase advantages that had been built into the system and on which the advantaged relied, even if without awareness.  The barons at Runnymede asserted their rights, but never imagined they might become the rights of serfs who, once receiving them, would no longer be serfs.  Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of them, did not know, nor could they have known, that the Declaration of Independence would become the linchpin of rights and freedoms broadly defined as unalienable for all persons in every condition of life.

We have had many turning points in our history, but perhaps only a few that might be called hinges of history.  The War of Independence that led to an experiment in republican democracy ordered by an unheard of  Constitution was one of them.  The Civil War and its aftermath was another.  Some have said that the FDR era of depression, New Deal, and WWII was a third.  I suggest that the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a fourth, and we are yet struggling with what that means.  The current legislative impasse in Washington, recent Supreme Court decisions, and the public attention granted to populist tea party type movements represent, to me, the remnant of free, white, male privilege fearful of losing its place to the riffraff of ‘others’ who may not deserve to share in them and cannot be trusted to respect and protect them. 

I don’t know what will happen.  Other nations have tried and failed.  The British seem to have finally got it down, as have Canada and Australia.  The French are on their Fifth Republic.  Japan and Germany are new democracies not yet fully tested.  China is tottering toward something that could become parliamentary, if not democratic.  As for us, we are at a fork in the road.  We might embrace rights and freedom in new, expansive ways in a nation where no race or creed enjoys systemic preference.  We might embrace a more mutant version in which authoritarianism is masked with the language of rights and freedom.  We’ve been at forks like that before and have chosen well.  I hope we do again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Those lunatics who want to control guns and trample the second amendment

The Sunday paper always brings out the best in looney letters to the editor.  They can go on for pages.  This week’s gem was from a man in a nearby town fulminating about the fringe lunatics and their rabidly hysterical demands for gun control legislation as they trample the second amendment underfoot.

So far as I can tell, the only rabid hysteria around here is coming from guys like him.  They appear to have been incited by a move underway in Washington (state, that is) to get an initiative on the ballot that would require mandatory background checks for all gun sales.  I’m not a fan of legislation by initiative, but It seems like a reasonable idea to me.  The gun lobby has reacted as if the sky is falling, the earth quaking, the volcanoes blowing, and the end of civilization as we know it on the horizon.  They could be right about that last point. 

When did guns become such a emotionally charged issue?  I grew up in the suburbs, not out on the farm or ranch.  Nevertheless, most every home had firearms of one kind or another.  They were used for sport, taken for granted, and not as items of worship - idols of self righteous defense and retribution.  My farming friends and relatives used theirs against varmints and livestock predators, as well as hunting.  Friends who spent time in the mountains often carried theirs for self protection against bears and cougars. The NRA provided firearms safety training, and probably a few other services, but that was the only one I knew about.  And all of this was during the height of the Red Scare tactics of Sen. McCarthy, and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, when war and the threat of internal insurrection was the hysteria of the day.  Even during the race, civil rights and anti-war riots of the sixties and early seventies, there were very few who felt the need to be armed for self protection.  

When and why have so many gone nuts about concealed carry, open carry, stand your ground, and the need to be armed for self protection against others who are armed for self protection, all shrouded in hyperbolic second amendment faux patriotism?  I have a couple of guesses.  The first has to do with the immediacy of repetitive sensationalized news coverage that brings every violent death into our field of awareness as if it happened next door, and then pummels us with it for twenty-four hours.  That same sensationalized coverage also gives the impression that half the world carries AK47s and bandoliers of ammunition while chanting death to Americans.  Persons inclined to be frightened of imaginary enemies behind every door can be spooked into a guns for self defense mentality by that kind of stuff.

Who would engineer such a thing?  Well, since conspiracy theories are all the rage these days, I’ll offer one possibility.  The gun industry saw a golden opportunity to prop up sagging domestic sales by taking advantage of sensationalizing news casts, tweaking the fear factor, and moving the NRA into the role of frontman for a campaign to arm every citizen.  Of course I have no facts or proof of such a thing, but good conspiracy theories don’t need them because they’re not really theories in any scientific sense of the word. 

My final guess is that the popularity of revenge movies,television episodes, and video games has something to do with it.  We learn our morality from something somewhere.  Movies and video games give strong, emotionally powerful, portrayals of morality in which vigilante justice and deadly revenge is celebrated.  That has to have some influence on what our personal moral values and standards are. 

For Christians, I wonder when the gospel will take over.  For all of us, I wonder when common sense will take over?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Another Bird Story to be read only if you have nothing better to do

A few weeks ago I wrote a short piece asking where all the birds had gone.  Our multitude of birds seemed to have vanished from the neighborhood.  This afternoon I came back from an errand to find one of them in our kitchen.  No doubt scouting for a new home with more to offer than the birdhouse.  It had flown in through the garage while my wife was unloading gear from the car - not an easy way to do it - showed real determination.  Apparently it did not like what it found and wanted out. 

That side of the house has walls of windows, so it tried all of them except the wide open patio doors.  We tried various forms of shooing that produced various forms of pooping, but little else.  Eventually, taking a breather on an orchid, it was tired enough for me to hold it, momentarily, just long enough to get close to the patio doors so that when it wriggled out of my not very tight grip, it made its escape.  

And that’s our shared adventure for the day.  Our individual adventures were less dramatic.

Using a  little allegory, you can make some decent theological points out of this if you want to.  I’ll leave that up to you.  I just enjoyed holding it for a few moments, and then watching it go free.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The VA, General Motors, and Human Nature

Problems in the VA health care system have prompted some to blame them on the inherent incompetency of big government.  Get rid of big government and things like this wouldn’t happen.  A few of the most rabid anti-big government voices in our area consider state, county, and city governments to be big government as well, so it’s a little hard to know where they are willing to draw the line.  In an odd contradiction, they believe the nation owes good medical care to veterans but don’t trust the government to provide it.  

They are not far from those who blame the General Motors ignition switch problems on the inherent incompetency of big corporations.  We should do away with big corporations but keep the economies of scale they bring to the market place.  I wonder how that would work?  It’s a little weird how the anti-Socialists and anti-Capitalists meet on the common ground of their imaginations.

Imagine it.  A nation of small governments and small businesses that, nonetheless, enjoys all the benefits of economies of scale, nationwide access to goods and services meeting high standards of health, safety, and value, and dependable infrastructure systems built and maintained without intrusive planning or oversight from big brother, whether governmental or corporate.

The problems at the VA are problems of the VA, not of big government.  They need to be addressed at that level.  In like manner, problems at General Motors are problems of General Motors, not of big corporations.  In both cases the problems have something to do with the efficacy of policy and procedures, and with organizational culture run amok.  One cannot be fixed without addressing the other, and neither can be fixed by blaming the existence of the generic institutions of government and business. 

On the other hand, and being Episcopalian there is always another hand, all human organizations, regardless of size, tend to fall into habits of performance in which people do what they can to insulate themselves against criticism and liability.  The larger the organization, the greater the opportunity and incentive to do so.  It’s a function of collective human nature.  Laws, rules and regulations help establish boundaries that mitigate against abuses.  An impartial legal system helps to resolve disputes.  Intentional management of organizational culture helps to promote more ethical behavior through the general acceptance of higher standards.  It’s never foolproof.  Conditions are always changing.  What is acceptable and what is not is always debatable.  Agents of misfeasance and malfeasance will always find a way to corrupt whatever system is in place.  Human greed, laziness, and incompetence will always fall into whatever cracks those agents open up.  That’s life.  It’s pretty well laid out in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, and it hasn’t changed much since then.

Perfection is not ours to have, at least not in this life.  But we can do better, and doing better begins not with blaming straw men or chasing after red herrings.  Nor does it begin with better managers.  It begins with better management.  I might suggest the Sermon on the Mount as a good place to begin the search for better management.  The problem with that is that too many competitive types would rather play “screw your neighbor” than do the hard work of managing well.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Gifts of the Spirit and Very Small Congregations

Gifts of the Spirit have been on my mind lately.  We find them mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in his letter to the Romans, and again in the letter to Ephesus.  I’m aware that some make a list of all the gifts mentioned in scripture as if they represent the entire catalogue.  Some favor the idea that they are gifts humans do not have but for the giving of them by the Spirit.  A few even sell tests to help one discover what his or her gifts are.  It’s all neatly packaged and priced.  

I’m of the opinion that every human being has some degree of the gifts mentioned in scripture, and many more besides, each according to the uniqueness of our individual humanity.  The Spirit comes into it not by conferring them, but by calling them into the light to be used for God’s purposes.  Many of us, for whatever reason, are reluctant to claim our particular areas of knowledge, skill, and ability in the service of the gospel.  It drives rectors and bishops nuts as they try to tease out the use of gifts so desperately needed for healthy congregational life.  It shouldn’t be surprising since many of us are equally reluctant to claim them in our secular lives as well.  No doubt it’s a question rich for mining by psychologists and sociologists, and I’ll let them get on with it.  If you’re interested, you might want to take a look at Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. 

What interests me right now is how spiritual gifts are called forth for employment in the congregational setting.  I imagine there is a critical mass of some number of active parishioners that assures one of a broad distribution of knowledge, skills and abilities so that most roles can be filled by qualified persons,  and no one person is expected to carry too heavy a burden or be saddled with unending responsibilities (not that it doesn’t happen).  From my own experience, I would put that critical mass at several hundred active parishioners.  Below that, things can get problematic.  Some desired gifts may be absent.  Some may find the demands on their gifts to be excessive.  It may be difficult to maintain a flow of persons in and out of needed roles.  

Very small congregations, such as the one I serve in retirement, are a special case.  With less than thirty, and often less than twenty, active parishioners, there is no possibility that all spiritual gifts will be present.  The knowledge and skills sets of those who are active may be limited.  Required roles may become permanent positions that end up driving the Spirit out of performance.  Moreover, some may experience a strong measure of guilt that they do not have the gifts needed for the congregation to flourish, and wonder if they are personally responsible for that failure.  It can create abrasive moments in the intimacy of life in very small congregations.  

The trick is to go with what you have as best you can, and not worry too much about what is left undone.  It really is a trick, especially when legal and denominational requirements assume an ability to do things one does not have, or when well meaning church consultants encourage greater development of gifts that are not present.   So what is the trick?   It begins with the recognition that while we can’t do or be everything, we can do and be something, and that something can be very good.  It is to do what one can to open the doors, that is; to engage the larger community as fully as possible while working against becoming a closed refuge for the few growing fewer.  It is to employ the gifts that are present by encouraging the greatest possible trust in the Spirit to guide, guard, and use whatever they are in unexpected ways, amplified by God’s power and presence, to accomplish what God purposes.   

Finally, because very small congregations are very small, it means that things will progress by fits and starts.  When someone gets tired, it’s time for them to rest, and there may not be anyone to take over.  When someone leaves or dies, their gifts depart with them.  When someone new arrives, their gifts may be unfamiliar and untested.  It also means finding ways to get along when something is not going well, and something is sure to be not going well.  All of that requires, perhaps, a little more trust in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit because without it our limitations and failures are more obvious to each other, and that can obscure the gifts and successes that we should be celebrating.