Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thoughts on the futility of teaching stewardship

We talked about trust in a stewardship workshop yesterday.  To Become a community of stewards requires a high level of trust between members of a congregation and their leaders.  Today we took up Matthew 6:24-34, Christ’s encouragement to trust in God who knows all our needs.  Merton, and other monastics, speak of learning the discipline of trust through obedience to a superior, even when that superior makes inferior demands.  
Most of us are not monastics.  Obedience is something to be rendered only provisionally.  Trust has to be earned, not given.  Our leaders are especially suspect since we don’t really know what they are doing with our tithes in those late night meetings of theirs.  That goes for God too.  We are not unlike the Israelites called to return to Jerusalem after years of exile in Babylon.  It doesn’t matter what God says through Isaiah about bringing them home to a land of milk and honey.  They don’t trust him, and they are not going to trust him until they drink the milk and taste the honey.  We are not going trust God, except through hypocritical assertions, until we see some evidence that God can be trusted.  Whether God can ever find us to be trustworthy seems irrelevant.  
We, like they, are equally inclined to distrust our leaders.  It’s odd how even a small congregation can separate the us who sit in the pews from the them who are on council, vestry or session.  
If trust is an essential element of stewardship, it’s no wonder it’s such a hard sell.  
Maybe we should just give up on stewardship altogether.  It’s a losing battle.  Maybe should concentrate on helping congregations learn how to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  It is in that striving that we will learn to trust God, and trust, at least provisionally, one another.  Then maybe stewardship will take care of itself. 

Public Employee Unions and American Politics

Several commentators on the national scene have supported Wisconsin Governor Walker and others with the argument that public employee unions are political fund raising machines that work to elect their bosses (mostly Democrats) who are then under their control.  With the political clout thus engineered, bargaining becomes a sham because they are sitting on both sides of the table.  Busting the unions will return them to their rightful place as employees of the public and accountable to the public for their jobs, performance, pay and benefits.  Moreover, pro business governors, such as Walker, will assure that state governments, no longer controlled by unions, will also no longer hamper business development with anti business regulation and inefficient bureaucratic enforcement of the few regulations that are needed.
There are some very interesting assumptions and projections in that argument.
Before looking at them it is important to also recognize the germ of truth in them.  There are some public employee unions that have shown little regard for the public good, and approached the bargaining table as if it was a war zone from which only one victor would emerge. It is also true that private industry unions can also be extremely short sighted. That is not characteristic of the labor movement as a whole, although people remembering the labor strife of the mid-twentieth century may have a hard time believing that times have changed. 
It is also true that public employee unions can raise a lot of money for political purposes, back candidates and turn out the vote.
However, the idea that Democrats elected to state legislatures and governorships with labor backing are under the thumb of the unions at bargaining time, or any time, lacks evidence.  Union funds raised for an election are only fraction of what gets spent.  Candidates they back are also backed by other, often competing, interests.  The votes they can turn out may provide a turning point edge, but recent elections challenge even that idea.  By their nature unions represent particular employee groups that are often in competition with each other and have a hard time coordinating a united voice in lobbying or bargaining.  The days of a political leader being bought and paid for by labor are over.   Labor can have influence, but not control.
A part of what is going on is a form of psychological projection.  The so called pro business political interests are accusing the public employee unions of being able to do precisely what they themselves are doing.  The days of a political leader being bought and paid for by private interests are not over.  Especially with the Citizen’s United ruling, corporations are perfectly capable of farming their own crops of state legislators and governors from seedling to harvest.  Technically unions could do that also, but the private sector union movement has been effectively emasculated, and the public sector unions, for all the publicity, are simply not that dominant or wealthy. 
Entering into the fray are two other elements, each of them well known to American political history.  Ideologically driven political activists are one element.  At present they are represented by the so called Tea Party movement of extreme libertarianism.  They are willing to risk the benefits of modern society in exchange for relief from regulations that they see as a hinderance to their freedom.  They would rather take their chances with matters of health, safety and welfare than have government involved in them.  The other element is the return of the robber baron.  Particular persons of great wealth who control the production of goods and services in significant portions of the economy are able to bankroll candidates who, if elected, will be their personal agents in setting and enforcing public policy. 
I’m not sure what will happen.  Most likely the unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere will be busted.  Imputed efficiencies will be brutally imposed on public employees.  Some of them will turn out to be good ideas, but on the whole they will lead to a deterioration of the quality of life. The public will eventually discover that Tea Party ideology leads toward third world status, that major corporations are global entities not national entities, and that the American economy is only a subset of a very complex global economy.  New state governments will be elected that will restore bargaining rights to unions that will have become less steeped in hubris.  Perhaps a new Teddy Roosevelt and a different Supreme Court will rein in the new generation of robber barons.  Maybe we will learn that quality of life need not be a competition in which a few will win and many will lose.  In the meantime, I think we are in for a very rough time of it, unless, of course, your own personal well being is based on your investments and not on your paycheck.  

Friday, February 25, 2011

Penetration

Penetration.  Our diocese is sponsoring three Saturday workshops tomorrow in three widely separated communities. The idea is to take the best in continuing education out from the cathedral precincts and into the places where people live.  The workshops have been on the books for months.  They are featured on our diocesan website, announced, without fanfare, in our weekly bulletin e-mailed to all clergy and many lay leaders, and announced again at clergy meetings.  
When called a few days ago to see how registrations were coming along, the secretaries in two of the local sites denied knowing anything about a workshop, had no preparations in the works and never heard of registrations.  My own random checking with a few lay leaders in three congregations revealed the same thing.  Never heard of these workshops.  
What’s going on?
The problem is penetration.  How do we penetrate the blizzard of information that confronts everyone every day?  We are inundated with information about worthy events being sponsored by every organization we ever supported.  E-mails and mailings from every organization, including the church, are mostly boiler plate, so we skim them quickly, if at all, to see if anything leaps out as being personally important to us.  Particular information on websites is often difficult to find and undifferentiated from everything else on the site.  Diocesan leaders assume that if clergy have been told about something, it will somehow translate into effective communication with parishioners.  Diocesan leaders assume that if someone has been asked to do something and they say yes, no more communication is necessary, the thing will be done. 
The contemporary communication environment needs something else.  If something is important, it needs to be communicated in an important way.  If a certain audience needs to be reached, they need to be reached directly and not through second and third party agencies.  If we are asking for another person, not our employee or direct report, to do something, we need to engage in a relationship with them that will move things along.
I have sympathy for the parish secretary, or other person, who agrees months ahead to set aside time and space for some diocesan event and then never hears another word about it.  In the meantime services come and go, bulletins have to be produced, funerals and weddings arranged for, dozens of church committee meetings accommodated, community use of space facilitated, the furnace fixed, irate parishioners tended to, and so it goes.  That’s the here and now of local ministry.  Whatever it was the diocese wanted is easily forgotten and for good reason. 
I have sympathy for clergy.  What seemed like such a great idea while gathered together in diocesan meetings, quickly fades into insignificance on return to the demands of the local congregation.  What one enthusiastically promised to do slips lower and lower toward the bottom of the to do pile on the desk.  What one got talked into does not have to sink, it just gets put on the bottom. 
I have sympathy for lay leaders in congregations.  They have families, jobs, other organizations and causes important to them, a social life and more.  Christ may be at the center of their lives, but church isn’t.  Just because we tell them that a wonderful workshop will be held nearby on February 26 does not translate into commitment, or even awareness.  Looking at my own mail, e-mail and piles on my desk, retired though I am, I find agendas and minutes for boards I am on, appeals for support from a dozen organizations that are important to me, invitations to community events filling up several nights each week, and long reports to be reviewed in connection with community projects.  
Right now I’m working with one of our local hospitals on a day long seminar to be held next fall.  We intend it to be for local spiritual care givers, medical staff and maybe mental health counselors.   Our planning committee is very excited about it.  We cannot imagine that it will not be a success.  But, if we are the only ones who know about it, there will be six of us attending.  Simply announcing it will not be enough.  We must make sure that the people we want to come are contacted directly, not indirectly.  They have to be made aware of it, which will take several iterations.  They have to be given the information needed to make a decision, which will take several iterations.  They must be asked to make a decision, which will take several iterations.  That all takes work, and we are all volunteers.  The one staff person leading us has a full time job doing something else.  It’s not easy, but it must be done. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

URGENCY! and a message from Mark

There I was toodling (spellcheck says it does’t know this word. Too bad.) along on the treadmill at the Y, listening to a little Bach, watching a cooking show on the TV, and breathing in the aroma of the gym.  Meditative exercise I call it, engaging each of the senses, just like a  solemn high mass.  I’m sure Thomas Merton would approve.  
Anyway, my cellphone beeped with a voice mail, which prompted that first signal of urgency.  Listen to ME, and NOW!  It might be IMPORTANT!  It was a friend from Spokane wanting to know if I had any idea how many might be coming to a workshop we are presenting on Saturday.  That’s when the second signal of urgency went off: STOP RIGHT NOW, CALL HER BACK, SHE NEEDS TO KNOW!
A rising chorus of Bach Amens, and a tantalizing view of celery being chopped in the most amazing way, brought me back to my senses.  It could wait.  It could wait until I was finished exercising.  It could wait until I got home.  It could probably wait until tomorrow.  In fact, it might not have to be answered at all. 
I don’t think I’m alone here.  Modern life, partly driven by computers, smart phones and cable news, has become infused with a sense of manufactured urgency that many of us have unreflectively bought into.  Today’s (and I mean today's) spike in oil prices, the fall of the dollar and the sudden rise in the value of the Swiss franc are examples of the artificiality of it all.  It has nothing to do with whether the turmoil in Libya or threatened turmoil in Saudi Arabia will have a long term impact on the global economy.  It has everything to do with traders betting on manufactured psychological urgency opening the door for them to make some big bucks on the downside of panic for a few days, and on the upside of recovered sanity for weeks after. 
A few friends avoid at least some of this by keeping their old unsmart phones, or forgetting to carry them everywhere, or simply ignoring them when they ring.  A few others never watch television and listen only to NPR.  I was visiting many years ago with a farmer in southern Minnesota.  The phone in the barn rang, but he ignored it while we kept on talking about duck hunting, cows, corn and whether his pickup might need a new muffler.  I asked him about the phone.  “They’ll call back if it’s important,” he said.
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. (Mark 6.30-32)
I think the farmer was a little too laid back for my tastes.  But he had a point.  My cell phone is still in my pocket.  My fire department pager still hangs on my belt beeping and whooping its calls.  All my other electronic gadgets still surround me with their siren songs.  But Jesus’ calls to come away with him to a deserted place and spend some time in quiet.  I think I’ll go - right after I feed the dog who is whining with increasing urgency as he paces back and forth between me and his empty food dish.  Oops, two e-mails just came in: MUST READ THEM!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Few Thoughts about the Bill of Rights

There are several regulars among the writers of letters to the editor in our local paper.  Regulars, I have discovered, are highly focussed on a particular world view and political outlook expressed in volatile language so predictable that one has only to skim for any sign of a new thought.  They are on the left and on the right.  Among them are several who adhere to something I call Christianized Libertarian Paranoia.
It is Christianized in the sense that almost every letter asserts the writer’s own Christian imprimatur while condemning any contrary view as anti-Christian.  Beyond that it’s hard to tell what they believe in or how Christ might be a part of it.  It is Libertarian in the sense that they have little regard for government at any level, and are certain that the nation would be better off with a federal government limited to the bare essentials, although what those bare essentials are is unknown.  They are paranoid in the sense that they are convinced that the current administration is stripping them of their freedom, that the Constitution has been abandoned, and that everything the government is doing is part of a deliberate scheme to deliver the nation into the hands of (insert favorite bogeyman here).  The level of anxiety expressed in their letters is palpable.  It’s sad, and I imagine that they live in a frighteningly dark world.  
One recent writer asserted that the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, does not establish a single right but only recognizes a set of natural rights that are individually and universally ours.  I understood him to mean that they are not related to any sense of the collective welfare.  The idea of collective welfare is anathema to him.  The individual is supreme, and it’s each person for her or himself.  We are only individuals living in proximity to one another, working out whatever relationships are needed to do that with an acceptable level of assurance of the means of securing one’s personal safety with the fewest restrictions possible.  It goes without saying that this paradise of individuality also needs a military force to prevent outsiders from invading.
I’m not sure why he took on the Bill of Rights to make his point, but is there anything in them that might give us a clue?  Let’s take a look.
Arguments from natural law philosophy are evident in them, but it’s hard to see a connection between that and his understanding of natural law as something rooted in extreme individualism that would be self evident to a reasonable person living a normal life.  It seems to me that they are all centered on the need for, and importance of, identifying and protecting the collective rights of a free society as those rights are expressed in the lives of persons.
The first amendment prohibits congress from making any law to establish or prohibit the exercise of religion.  It also prohibits the abridgment of freedom of speech, the peoples’ right of peaceable assembly and to petition the government.
The second recognizes the need to have well regulated militias to protect the security of the state, and, therefor, the right of the people keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
The third, prohibits the government from peacetime quartering of soldiers in private houses without the owner’s permission, and in wartime only as prescribed by law.
The fourth prohibits searches and seizures except by a duly authorized warrant issued only on probable cause. 
The fifth says that no one can be tried for a capital offense except through indictment by a Grand Jury, that they cannot be tried twice for the same offense, that they cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and that one cannot be deprived of one’s property without just compensation.
The sixth establishes a right to a speedy trial, to be confronted by one’s accusers, to be able to compel witnesses for the defense and to have the assistance of counsel.
The seventh guarantees a right to a trial by jury in civil cases.
The eighth prohibits excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment.
The ninth says that these and other rights enumerated in the Constitution are not exhaustive, and there may be others retained by the people (which is not the same thing as saying they are retained by individual persons).
The tenth states that powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, or to the people.
There are, of course, another seventeen amendments, but these are the ten that make up the Bill of Rights.  They both empower and restrict the role of the federal government, but most of all they are about freedoms that accrue to a society of people living in a nation of laws and under the authority of a republican form of constitutional democracy.  They are not definitions of rights that belong to individuals just because they are persons regardless of the society in which they live. 
The universality of rights such as these has been recognized by the United Nations, but who can trust that agency of the antichrist’s One World Government?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reunion Intimidation

This summer I’ll go to my fiftieth high school reunion.  I find that a little intimidating.  Many people have kept up with high school classmates over the years.  Some have never left the community and maintain close relationships with childhood friends who also never left.  I had best friends as a teen, but they were not enduring friendships.  I saw a few of them off and on during college, but for the most part they quickly dropped out of my life.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I was busy building a career, first in my home town, and then living nearby while working elsewhere in the metropolitan area.  New people became acquaintances, if not friends.  Travel took me away for long periods.  In time I moved to the other end of the country.  Whatever the reasons, it was as if high school dissolved into the ether of things remembered, but only on occasion.  
Time and distance have passed, and now I am planning to go back.  The reunion committee has set up a website showing where classmates live, listing all those who care to be listed, and offering opportunities for brief stories.  I was surprised to see how many of them have not moved more than a few dozen miles away.  Were they ever in my field of awareness during the time I also lived there?  Apparently not.  I was also surprised to see how others have clustered in certain places such as northern California and central Florida, and that some of them have found each other to renew their friendships.  A relatively few of us moved to places remote from one another.  My closest classmate neighbor is 400 miles away in Whitefish, MT.  From time to time we exchange Facebook greetings.
I have only one comparison to make, and that was my wife’s reunion in her home town last year.  Her’s was a small school, and she was reunited with people whom she had known from kindergarten through graduation.  Though the intervening years had taken her into worlds and experiences few of them could imagine, the ties of childhood ran deep as evidenced by the embracing affection that was shared between them.
It will be an interesting experience to be a stranger among strangers at my own reunion.  My ties do not go as deep as those rooted in my wife’s small school.  Mine was a consolidated high school that brought in students from miles around.  It seems unlikely that there will be much sharing of mutual affection among those who had known each other from potty training through graduation.  So why do I want to go to it?  I’m not sure.  Curiosity has something to do with it.  We all started into our adult lives from the same acre of ground, regardless of differences in our family circumstances.  We were all, more or less, exposed to the same secondary education, which, in my opinion, was a very good one.  Where did that lead us?  What paths did we take? What have we learned?  Who have we become?  I wonder too if, perchance, there are among old classmates some with whom friendship can be renewed again for the first time.
I’m also curious about the town.  I was active in community affairs in my early adulthood, and had a role in developing plans for its economic future.  I wonder how that worked out.  I wonder if there is another young person who is active in community affairs with a vision of what could be in thirty or forty years.
Finally, I’m curious about the idea of maturity.  It is said that many people do not mature emotionally much beyond age eighteen.  But what about regression?  How often I have had adult parishioners confess that the core of their problem in dealing with their parents is how quickly they regress to the child-parent relationship of years past when they get together.  Do emotionally mature men and women in their late sixties tend to regress to their teens when assembled with others whom they have not seen since then?  I guess I’ll find out.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

God, Isaiah and National Policy

OK, the national deficit is too high and the debt too large.  Contrary to what Speaker Boehner says, we are not broke.  We are not on the edge of financial collapse, ready to join the ranks of Greece, Spain and Ireland.  Nevertheless, years of national financial irresponsibility have caught up to us and we need to change.  I could be petty and point out that most of our problems are the result of Republican mismanagement, but why beat a dead horse, especially since my Republican friends simply do not believe it.  Besides, as political parties go, the Democrats are not much better.  As several pundits have said, we don’t need Democrats or Republicans, we need grownups.  
The issue before us is, what will congress do?  It does not look promising.  The e-mails I get from my member of congress are ideologically driven and show no sign of sophisticated thinking or, for that matter, much concern for the welfare of the nation.  Where might we turn for guidance?  Why not Isaiah’s chapter 58?  God, through the pen of one of the Isaiahs, speaks not to individuals alone, nor to religious institutions alone, nor to the government alone, but to the society as a whole as well as each of its parts.  And what does he say?  
God holds in contempt policies and behaviors that use religious language in pursuit of one’s own business; that oppress workers; that are marked by little more than quarreling and fighting.  It sounds familiar, does it not?
God makes it clear that he desires a society in which the bonds of wickedness are undone; the yokes that oppress are removed; the hungry are fed; the homeless are housed; the naked are clothed.  Take away, God says, the pointing of the finger and wicked speaking.  Create a society in which there is no affliction.  Some of that comes through the faithful and dedicated work of individuals.  Some comes through the equally faithful and dedicated work of religious institutions and secular non-profits.  Much of it can come only through governmental agencies.  Moreover, the visions, goals and policies of a nation can come only through its government.  Reagan was wrong, government is not the problem, it is an essential part of the solution.  Government is not the enemy.  It is what makes a civilized society possible.
Theocracy is not the answer.   We ought to have figured that out by now.  But legislators who are persons of the book, mostly Christians in our society, ought to be guided in their deliberations by what God has made clear.  Of course I can imagine some of them sputtering that they are better Christians than I am, and who do I think I am to tell them what they ought to be doing!  My imagined answer is that I’m not telling them what to do, God is.  If they don’t like it, take it up with her.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Learning by Observing

Learning by observing.  I wonder how well we do that?  Some of you know that we spend quite a bit of time in Hawaii, mostly on Maui.  Over the years I’ve watched cruise ship passengers get off, walk around Lahaina for a few hours, then line up to catch a tender back to the ship.  Others board huge buses for a long day of hitting all the sights for at least a few minutes in each place.  We shared a table at the Ulupalakua sandwich shop one day with a couple on tour from a ship.  They were exhausted, but more telling, they did not know where they were or why they were there. 
How, I arrogantly wondered, can anyone learn anything while being herded around on big buses for short stops here and there before being loaded back on the ship heading off to the next day’s port-of-call?
That was then.  Now I have become one of them.  A few years ago we took our first cruise, with all the tour stops, in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Last fall we did the same thing in the Central and South Pacific.  Last month we did it again, this time in South East Asia.  I’ve learned a couple of things.  One is that having brief encounters with significant sites in many lands and cultures is better than not having them at all.  To be sure, it is only a sampler, but it can be an eye opening sampler that can inspire one to learn more, see more and experience more.  The other thing I’ve learned is that one can learn a lot through disciplined, intentional observation, even on a bus going from point A to point B.
Roads, fields, houses, vehicles, animals, people, overhead wires, villages, ditches, waterways, outskirts of cities and throbbing city centers all have their stories to tell if one will just take the time to look, mentally record and reflect.  As in a movie, one is always directed to pay attention to a central image in each scene as pointed out by the guides.  They do that because the central image has importance, so pay attention.  But the scene that surrounds it is also important.  Who and what else is there?  What are they doing?  What can one learn by watching a troop of school children being ushered into the Rome’s Vatican or Naha’s Shuri Castle?  What can the street vendors teach?  What is going on down the ordinary streets and alleys that are not on the tour map?  What is advertised on the billboards or displayed in non-tourist shop windows?  What seems segregated and what integrated?  What stands apart from the picturesque, whether old or new, that it is too easily overlooked, taken for granted.  There’s an old saying in church work that the building trumps liturgy.  What can one learn from a building, inside or out, that says something about the “liturgies” that fill it?
All of these things have stories to tell, and they can keep on telling them for a very long time.  I wonder how well we learn by observing in our own home towns? Have they become so familiar to us that we fail to read the stories that are right in front of us?  I suspect so.  
For what it’s worth, I still don’t like being hauled around as one of fifty or sixty faceless, clueless tourists dutifully following a guide holding an umbrella.  I hate being in crowds of any kind.  I can get more than a little claustrophobic, or is it agoraphobic?  In any case I’m willing to tolerate it for the joy of experiencing yet one more part of the world that is new to my eyes.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winning a War

Our recent trip into Southeast Asia included a cruise on a small ship of six hundred passengers.  We stopped twice each in Thailand and Vietnam with the six hundred dispersing in many directions to do many things.  One grumpy old man had a lot to say about Vietnam when he got back on board.  To him they got what they deserved when we “lost” the war: an impoverished country with no future, a country lost to modern civilization, and all because do-gooder, weak kneed, liberal politicians had not allowed the U.S. to win the war when victory was at hand.
He apparently had not seen the extraordinary development occurring in every place, prosperity expanding to embrace more of the population, the verdant abundance of agricultural land, and the emotional relief that has come with decades of peace, even if the government is not all that popular.  He also did not seem to recognize that the Vietnamese had been in the midst of armed conflict for almost a hundred years, conflict that involved competing tribes, the French, Japanese, Americans, Chinese and Cambodians, as well as their own simultaneous civil war.  What a blessed relief to live without war, to live with growing prosperity, to live with some expectation that one’s children would reach old age.  
All of that aside, my question is this: what does winning a war look like?  The grumpy old man was angry that America had not won the war in Vietnam.  Daily one hears talk about winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  No cutting and running for us; this time we’re going to win.  What would that look like? 
What would Vietnam look like today if we had won?  The governments we backed in those days were not democracies.  They were just a series of petty dictators.  Would they and their successors be the government today?  As it is, today’s government calls itself Communist but everything they do is oriented to private enterprise capitalism.   It’s not democratic by any stretch, but it’s not really a dictatorship either.  As I wrote earlier, it’s more like an old fashioned oligarchy.  Best of all (for some), It's fertile ground for American, European and Japanese investment.

What about Iraq and Afghanistan.  Do we daydream of victory resulting in peaceful nations of gentle people, pro American of course, happily living in civilized democratic societies?  Would all the terrorists and insurgents have been killed or converted?  Would it be a nationalistic version of “Bully Beatdown?”  I want to know what winning a war looks like.  Could it mean that those places would have been pummled back into the stone age so that whoever was left to till the land could not possibly pose a threat to us and we could safely ignore them?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Miscellaneous Political Blathering

The rhetorical question headlining some of tonight’s new reports is whether the President’s speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will result in a thaw in his relationship with the business community.  My guess is that his relationship with the bulk of major corporate CEOs is pretty good and doesn’t need much thawing.  They are, on the whole, a savvy group who are nothing if not politically pragmatic.  The hullabaloo about smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation is for public consumption, and not to be taken too seriously otherwise.  Their lobbyists and friends throughout the government have their back.
So the remaining question is whether the administration’s relationship with the Chamber, as one of the more strident public voices of the business community, will improve.  That misses the point altogether.  As a carnivorous organization that desires to feed itself as much as possible, it knows that food comes to it most readily when it has prey to hunt.  There will be some skillful crowing in their marketing about how powerful they have become to make the President of the United States come to them on bended knee.  It will be just enough crowing not to anger the administration too much, not to totally cut off their new found access to the White House, but enough to generate new members and higher dues.  
Then it will be back to attack, because attack is their game.  The worst years for the Chamber are when the nation has a president such as GW or RR.  When the owner of the attack dog is safe in the house, and the dog is well fed, there is not much for it to do except snarl now and then at passersby.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Darkness or Light. Which will it be?

A young man died a few days ago.  He took his own life.  I was his pastor for a brief time a few years ago, and then he returned to the denomination of his childhood.  There were many causes for what happened.  No one of them was beyond solution, but collectively they might have seemed impenetrable to him.  No one who has not been behind that dark curtain can understand what impenetrable really means.  However, at his funeral one thing was said that stood out as flash of insight.
It was said of him that he knew right from wrong, good from bad, that he was not confused by the grayness of moral uncertainty, that for him the world was black or white.  His friend who offered the eulogy tucked that observation in among the many characteristics of his personality that made him such a wonderful person.  
What struck me is this, a world view in black and white is brittle.  It might be able to withstand enormous tension as others try to pull it this way or that, but it can be too easily snapped.  There is little flexibility in such a world view.  Self examination in the light of such a world view is even less flexible.  How can one reconcile the certainty of a black and white world view with the moral ambiguity of one’s own life?  There are some ways: gentle illusions and delusions can work; self generated amnesia can work; blaming the devil or some other enemy can work.  Drugs and alcohol can dull the senses, help us forget and take us into other worlds, but they also add to the guilt when their effects wear off.  
I ran into another example of this not too many months ago in a meeting with another young man well known for his social and political views that have no room for moral ambiguity.  What is right is right.  Everything else is not just wrong, it bespeaks of evil with the devil’s hand in it.  Our conversation had to do with his discovery of moral ambiguity in the heroes of his life and his questions about whether anything can be believed or trusted.  
Odd, isn’t it, that we who proclaim the love of God in the light of Jesus Christ, the one who would not quench a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed, the one who partied with sinners and Pharisees alike, the one who forgave even on the cross, have not been able to make that power and that presence a reality in the lives of so many professing Christians. 
Remember how in Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis described the devil’s way of undermining the Church?  Merton says something similar in a brief essay on “The Moral Theology of the Devil.”  It begins with a theology that proclaims a God that demands punishment, even the punishment of “his son.”  Not love but punishment is the fulfillment of the Law.  Says Merton, “The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect, or because the have come to an agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy.” “...[T]hey feel a certain sense of relief at the thought that all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone but themselves.”  Merton has more to say on the subject, but you get the idea.
The problems come when one wakes up from delusions and illusions such as those to discover the reality of the human condition that lives in one’s own heart, mind and soul.  To awaken and see nothing but darkness, or to awaken and see the light of God’s redeeming love; to what will one awaken?  We have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Self, the Whole Self and Nothing but the Self

Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was published in 1961.  I first read it in 1996 and am rereading it now.  I’m finding more sentences to underline and more pages to mark so I can easily go back to the wisdom and insight they contain.  At the same time, I have found myself disagreeing with a portion of Merton’s introductory chapters just as I did fifteen years ago.  
It has to do with the idea that the self one portrays in daily life, the persona that one presents to the world, is somehow less authentic than the true and presumably good self buried deep inside.  Merton writes, in part, that “[t]here is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.  We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self.”  Clearly he has more to say about that, but this sets the scene.  
That idea is not Merton’s alone; it is the bedrock of much psychological theory and therapy.  But I am not so sure of it.  Consider any other created thing, an apple for instance.  Is the superficial apple the skin but the real apple is the core? It seems to me that the external self, indeed the external selves, that we offer to the public and with which we identify, are as much an authentic part of who we are as anything buried deep inside.  With Jung, I have no doubt that there is more to the authentic self that is buried deep, and that we cannot know fully who we are until we know that deep part and the role it plays in our external part. 
Moreover, I’m not convinced that digging deep will uncover an especially good self buried under the illusions and delusions of our external self.  What lies deeply buried may be nasty and rotten.   We are, I think, both psychologically and spiritually, a whole that cannot be so easily subdivided.  That brings me to a final point.  I wrote above that the external self can be characterized by illusions and delusions.  In an odd way, those illusions and delusions are as much a part of who we really are as anything else.  The phony love, good will or happy faces one presents to others says much about who one really is, a person who is authentically a projector of phony love, good will and happy faces.  On the other hand, one might be an authentic projector of genuine love, good will and happiness, at least some of the time.
Having said that, I am equally convinced that there is in each of us that which is created in the image of God, and that we cannot fully know ourselves until that part infects every other part until the whole becomes holy.  Maybe that can’t happen in this life.  Maybe that can begin to happen in this life with the sacraments being the sure and certain sign of it. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Plan A, Plan A and Plan B

Like many others, I preached on the Beatitudes last Sunday.  I don’t know how seriously they are taken by most Christians, but it took me many years to come to an adequate understanding of them.  My memory of how they were taught and preached when I was young is rife with sugary sentimentality more suitable for display on cross-stitched samplers than anything else.  If Jesus said that the poor in spirit, mourners, peacemakers and others were blessed in some particular way, then he was describing people who were not me nor anyone I knew.  They were abstractions to be honored in an abstract way.
I’m not sure when it occurred to me that they were not descriptions but instructions, and two part instructions at that.
The first part has to do with being blessed.  How can anyone be blessed unless they receive a blessing, and how are they to receive that blessing unless through the presence of another bearing it in God’s name?  Who would that other be if not followers of Jesus continuing the work of Jesus as members of the body of Christ, his church?  
The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for righteousness sake cannot be blessed unless the followers of Jesus recognize who they are and bring God’s blessing into their lives.  Doing that may not always be the safest thing to do, which is why Jesus offers his personal blessing to them when they are reviled for doing it.  Suddenly the Beatitudes began to look less sugary sentimental.  Not being an experienced bearer of God’s blessings, but being quite experienced at lazy Christianity, and not understanding what meek meant anyway (see Deirdre Good’s Jesus the Meek King), I wondered if there might be a plan B.  
There isn’t.  There is another plan A, and it’s more difficult that the first plan A.  It seems that Jesus not  only instructs us to be bearers of blessings into the lives of others, but he also instructs us to be among those who are humble in spirit and demeanor, to mourn for this fallen world and our part in it, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart (whatever that means), to be peacemakers, to be willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake, to be persons of integrity.
With that there is not one drop of sentimentality left in the Beatitudes.   They are hard.  They demand commitment.  They are not suggestions, they are imperatives.  They are not about some abstract others, they are about us, individually and specifically.  Rats!  How did that happen?  I am marginally less lazy as a follower of Jesus than I was when I was young.  I still wonder now and then if there might be a plan B.