Friday, April 27, 2012

The Illusion of Control

I was pondering the illusion of control while playing solitaire on the computer.  Solitaire is a game that can easily give one the illusion of at least some control because there is a pinch of strategy and a dash of skill involved.  It’s just enough to give the player the illusion of control over the outcome.  Moreover, failure to complete the game, losing, is easily explained away with an ‘if only I’d played that instead of this’.  It can be further ameliorated by claiming partial victory based on how far toward completion one has got.  
For all of that, the game is ruled by the random order of the deal over which the player has no control.  The player’s sense of control is an illusion.  
Life is a lot that way.  Having control over one’s own life, one’s own destiny seems to be a human obsession.  Controlling the lives of others, controlling one’s environment, controlling the variables leading to success or failure, having control, being in control is all symbolic of both mental health and mental illness, maturity and immaturity.  
The facts are that, however responsible we are for the consequences of our own decisions, the outcomes of those decisions can only be partially predicted, and the very popular law of unintended consequences is always in operation.  Someone once said that good luck favors the well prepared, and that is no doubt true, but luck, good or bad, is just shorthand for randomness that lies outside the realm of human control.
That, if nothing else, should be an antidote for inappropriate pride, hubris, haughtiness and the like, but it’s not.  Some of us treasure the illusion of control so much that we actually believe we are in control of our lives, able to exercise control over others, and are completely responsible for the good fortune that is ours by rights through our hard work, skill and cleverness.
On the other hand, some of us are so overcome by the randomness of events that we give up all sense of control, losing the greater part of our own self-worth, and taking up residence as permanent victims.  There is a certain perverse kind of hubris in that also.  
It seems to me that a spiritually and emotionally healthy person is one who can comfortably live in the in between of a world in which randomness and control struggle in creative tension, and where control, as exercised by each person, accumulates in the aggregate to create conditions of justice, injustice, increased randomness and marginally coordinated movement away from randomness.
OK, enough of that.  Time for lunch.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Liberals vs. Conservatives: Wear Your Helmet

Some interesting new studies purport to show physiological differences between the brains of those identified as liberals and conservatives.  Related studies say that the characteristic differences between the two have to do with openness to new things, alertness to danger, need for consistency, willingness to tolerate unpredictability, desire for certainty, and so on.  
I wonder?  I just returned from a joint clergy conference with the Episcopal Dioceses of Olympia and Spokane - the wet side joining the dry side, the west side joining the east side - the two sides separated by the Cascade Mountains.  Here on the dry, east side, I am a fairly obvious liberal.  Were I on the wet, west side, most people would consider me a borderline conservative.  Maybe driving over the pass causes brain structure anomalies.  If true, one would be well advised to wear one’s aluminum foil helmet on the trip.  
I know nothing about the efficacy of these various studies, and am not much interested in finding out.  But I am interested in the way liberals and conservatives use language to talk about the common good.  Both say that they are vitally interested in the common good.  Each seeks policies to promote it.  But I think they mean very different things.
Conservatives appear to see the common good as derived from maximizing the rights, privileges of individuals to exist as free agents bound together only by the merest of government needed to provide the flow of commerce and a reasonable degree of safety.  Persons are responsible for the consequences of their decisions, and bad decisions need not create public obligations.  It’s not so much a matter of the greatest good for the greatest number, which has little concern for whatever might be good for various minorities.  It’s more a matter of the greatest good for those who believe that they have control over resources and processes, and intend to keep it that way.   Conservatives do not form a coordinated bloc so much as they appear as a mosaic of individuals who are wiling to be collaborative only insofar as collaboration does not require surrender of individual identity.  
Liberals appear to see the common good as a condition of the entire community, all of its members and each of its members, taken as a whole.  Individual rights, privileges and personal responsibility are a part of that, but not preeminent.  The greatest good for the greatest number can never be allowed to overwhelm what might be good for minorities.  Persons and groups having control over resources and processes do not have an inherent right to that control, but enjoy it temporarily as (my word) stewards accountable to society.  Government, of necessity, represents the public arena where what the common good is, is worked out.  Liberals do form a coordinated bloc, but it is for the purpose of debate, not action.  Action requires more collaborative effort than they can muster for more than brief surges.
If that is true, liberals and conservatives can be equally concerned about particular public issues, and equally dedicated to the public good, and never come within range of genuine conversation.  They use the same words with such different meanings.  The cores of their beliefs about what the common good is are in very different places, and seldom articulated in ways that the other can, or is willing, to understand.  The product is mutual anger and distrust.  
I don’t believe it was always that way, and am not sure why it seems so now.  Several years ago, during the previous administration, I wrote a piece suggesting that we might be on a course to become a second rate nation with a second rate economy providing second rate jobs for most of our people.  I think we might still be on that course because the current recalcitrant divisiveness of the public debate leads that way.

Friday, April 13, 2012

So Where is the LIne?

This is an article about worship in traditions other than one’s own, but it begins with CPE.  Most clergy have benefitted from, or endured, at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) during their seminary years.  It’s a form of on site practical education, most often in a hospital, in pastoral counseling.  I don’t know what the curriculum is like these days.  When I took it, seminarians were introduced to so called “depth psychology” with enough tools for it’s use to become marginally helpful and possibly dangerous.  For my own part, I was grateful for an undergraduate education in psychology, graduate education in organization development, and a thorough grounding in pastoral care through the Stephen Minister program.  
But where does worship fit in?  For some reason I was reflecting this morning on the experience and meaning of worship, and remembering experiences in other traditions.  Like many others, I have had opportunities to observe worship in Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic settings, feeling comfortable about offering my own prayers without joining in the worship being observed.  At the same time, during my NYC years I wholeheartedly entered into worship with the congregation of Temple Emanu-El on many a Friday evening.  But there is a line that cannot be crossed, and I recalled such a time when I was taking CPE.
Ours was a very mixed group from different traditions and religions.  Seminarians took turns leading chapel services from their various traditions with the expectation that all would join in.  That worked out reasonably well until the day it was the turn of one whose religion seemed to center on nature as the physical embodiment of the idea of a god who may or may not exist in any other way.  A pantheist I guess, although it was never clear that her religion had enough of a theology to have a name.  The point is that, while I could reverently observe the worship service she led, I could not join in, and that was a problem because the liturgy she had prepared required participation from each person.  I found a reason to be excused for important work elsewhere.  It caused some hurt feelings.
Several of my fellow seminarians were quite upset at my rudeness, my unwillingness to show an adequate level of support for a fellow CPE student, and my narrow minded, stiff necked orthodoxy, a charge that more than a few friends would find ironically humorous.  After all, what harm would there be?  It raises an interesting question.
So here is the question.  Where do you find the line that cannot be crossed?  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Communal Life in Acts

Our lectionary study group took less time than usual to get off the track this week.  The culprit was the very short episode in Acts 4 that describes the communal life style of the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem.  
No one ever seems to notice that this brief moment of utopian communal life did not last long, and was not replicated in any other place where early Christians gathered.  So the first departure from the track had to do with the common assumption that it was the general rule in the life of the early church, and is prescriptive of the way we should live, at least as a romantic ideal.   It’s evidenced by a sort of collective sigh accompanied by a vaguely expressed thought about how sad it is that the Church has drifted so far away from that ideal.  Of course we have not the slightest interest in living like that, and are content to point at, but not get too near, various Amish and Mennonite communities as living in the way we should if we had any desire to do so, which we don’t, and wouldn’t even if given the chance. 
That is not to dismiss the value of that early communal life style.  No doubt it really was an earthly moment in time reflecting a little something of the eternal life in community that awaits.  It could endure for a while because of the overpowering presence of the resurrected Christ whose reconciling love cascaded over and through the early believers.  That reconciling love is still ours to share in the already but not yet between times in which our earthly lives are spent.  But it is ours only in part because we remain a work in progress, complete with the human weaknesses of Ananias and Sapphira, the grumpy apostles who had to wait on tables, the hellenistic faithful who were not treated well by native Israelites, and all the rest of them who were unable to maintain that communal way of life for very long. 
As for me, I’m delighted that they were able to give us a foretaste of the feast yet to come.
So much for theology.  The other way we got off track with such ease was the temptation to compare the communal life in Acts to communism and socialism. Most people have very little idea of what either actually is, but that doesn’t keep their very little idea from being firmly held.  The one thing they are certain of about communism is that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were all Russians committed to world domination and the destruction of the American Way of Life.  As for socialism, it’s the junior cousin of communism largely responsible for the nanny state excesses of Europe, and the demise of the Christian faith everywhere.  Beyond that, there seems to be little interest in knowing more about the political theory and practice defining either one.
If nothing else, it would be helpful to be reminded that the people of Acts never heard of either one, and would be dumfounded to discover that they were being held up as an example of them.  Nineteenth and twentieth century political theory and practice need to be kept where they belong and not transferred back to the first century.  It would be even more helpful if those with strong opinions knew what they were talking about before they started talking.  
Just to be fair, it is equally true that, regarding the American Way of Life, far too many, skeptics and true believers alike, do not know very much about capitalism, private enterprise vs. free enterprise, the principles of republican democracy, or, for that matter, the differences between the various types of democratic systems of government.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pleasure and Delight for Mutual Joy in Marriage

There are many facets adorning the sacrament of marriage.  In this brief essay, I want to focus on the role of pleasure, delight and mutual joy.
The Book of Common Prayer proclaims that the first purpose of sacramental marriage is “for their mutual joy.”  The obvious meaning has to do with the joy that a married couple find in each other with each other in the exclusive domain of marriage, but leaving it there would miss a far more important meaning. 
Mutual joy also means, in a much broader way, the delight each takes in that which delights the other, even if it is not something that they share together.  Married couples often begin their lives together wrapped up in each other to the exclusion of other relationships and interests, but that cannot be maintained.  Each of us has obligations and interests that take us away from the exclusive domain of marriage.  Some of them bring us great pleasure and delight.  They also engage us in relationships with other people that have their own dynamics independent of yet having an effect on marriage.  Work is a primary example, and we certainly hope that work gives one pleasure and delight.  In most cases, work is a realm well apart from the exclusive domain of married life.  What goes on at work can be shared in part, but not in whole.  Nevertheless, what delights one about his or her work can be shared, and encouraged, one for the other.  Hobbies, sports, intellectual and artistic pursuits, and so much more involve activities that may bring great delight into a person’s life.  It’s nice if some of them are shared with a spouse, but it’s not a requirement.  What is required is for each to find delight in that which provides pleasure and delight for the other.  And, parenthetically, to also share the burdens of disappointment.  
My spouse, for example, may enjoy running, even to the point of participating in organized races.  I, on the other hand, may dislike running to the point of avoiding it at all costs.  At the same time, I can take delight in the delight it gives to her, and take pleasure in being present to encourage her on.  It’s only one example, and probably not a very good one, but there are as many other examples as there are interests and activities in which to be involved.  
At least from the standpoint of marriage as a Christian sacrament, a Godly covenant into which two people enter, mutual joy is far more than the exclusive domain of the marriage embrace.  If God’s purpose for married couples involves mutual joy, then it implies an obligation on each to create and maintain conditions in which each can find and experience that which gives pleasure and delight.   
In other words, marriage is not a spectator sport, it is not a passive activity.  Each partner is obligated to take an active interest in that which delights the other, and each is obligated to openly share that delight as much as possible.  
When that doesn’t happen, couples, as they say, drift apart.  Each pursues pleasure and that which delights them without regard for the other, without sharing that delight with the other, without taking delight in, or even caring about, that which delights the other, and without doing the work of enabling and supporting that which delights the other.  
There are, of course, limits.  So called pleasures and delights that betray and corrode the exclusive domain of marriage are beyond the limits.  That is why the marriage covenant includes the injunction that, forsaking all others, each will be faithful to the other until death.  
It would be nice if it all worked out in such a simple way, but we are complicated creatures, and, as the hymn says, prone to wander.  It’s too easy to get bored, forgetful, lazy, and sloppy in marriage.  It’s too easy to take each other for granted, to become too comfortable in routines that lead toward relational atrophy.  It’s too easy to give up responsibility for our own well being and good health.  It’s too easy to fail to take responsibility for our own happiness.  Sometimes it’s too easy to expect the exclusive domain of marriage to provide for all our needs and solve all our problems.  
Marriage is work, but God intends it to be work for our mutual joy.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why I am a Tea Party Republican

I want to explain why I am a Tea Party Republican.  Well, actually, I am not a Republican at all, but you have to vote in some party, and those I might prefer either don’t exist, or, if they do, carry too much historical baggage.  It’s uncomfortable to be identified with them.   However, back to my point.
The root problem is poverty.  We have done too much to ease the burden of poverty.  All these welfare programs do nothing more than discourage the servant class from taking on the work for which they are intended, which is to provide the labor needed to support the lives of those of us who are not impoverished.  
If one is wealthy enough, one need not worry about such trivialities, but the majority of us who are not impoverished are finding it more and more difficult to afford the labor needed to provide the kind of life that is ours to be had.  Some small portion of the impoverished are willing to do that work if paid enough, but the greater number can avoid it because the nanny state offers them an alternative.  It even promises them the opportunity to enter the ranks of the not poor, which, as we know, is largely a fairy tale, but true enough that some will make it, thus eroding the base of the servant class and overpopulating the ranks of the not poor. 
We have achieved some success by whittling down the number of so called middle class persons, but more needs to be done.  We need to abolish the minimum wage, provide income earning opportunities for youth at a younger age, be less concerned about higher education for those incapable of benefitting from it, increase protections of private property from government intrusion, and, above all, eliminate most government sponsored welfare programs, although something like a workhouse or county farm might not be a bad idea.  They worked well once and might again.  
The result will be an expansion of those willing to enter the laboring market place to do the work of servanthood, thus providing sustenance for themselves and a higher standard of living for us.  All in all, everyone will benefit, and the cost of government will shrink to almost nothing.  
Thank you.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

This Fragile Earth, Our Island Home

One of the Eucharistic prayers in the Episcopal Church acknowledges that, at God’s command, all things came into being, including “this fragile earth, our island home.”  When I think of an island home, what comes to mind is a beautiful tropical island nurtured by a sea abundant in life.  Perhaps some other vision comes to your mind, and I’ll bet that whatever it is, it is a place surrounded by other life. 
The fragile earth, our island home, is not like that.  The small portion of the universe in which we travel is not surrounded by life.  We are alone.  To be sure, we are suspended in that magical zone just so far from the sun about which we orbit that we are neither burned to a cinder nor frozen out of existence.  Life here, human life, is possible even if it is not possible anywhere else in our neighborhood. 
This fragile earth, our island home, is a living breathing space ship capable of sustaining itself along with the flora and fauna it supports.  It renews itself through climactic cycles of warm and cold, the shifting of its outer skin, and the sometimes violent respiration of wind and weather.  All living things on its surface and under its water both depend on it and affect it by the mere fact of their existence.  The displacement of a single plant or animal makes a difference in the ebb and flow of all life, including the life of the planet itself.  The life and death cycle of nature is an essential part of what is needed for the planet to sustain life, generation to generation.  But among all that life, we alone, we human beings, are the only ones who can deliberately affect the life cycles of this fragile earth, our island home, by the decisions we make and the actions we take, and therein lies the problem. 
We cannot help but be significant among the causes affecting the cycles of earth’s life through the decisions that we deliberately make.  The wolf and the deer may also affect the cycles of earth’s life, but they cannot do so through deliberate decision making.  We can and do.  For many thousands of years our use and abuse of the earth had no significant impact on climactic change because there were not enough of us, and we did not have the technology needed to create significant impact.  Just the same, we were instructed to care for the land, giving it its much needed periodic sabbath rest.
Times have changed.  Our numbers have exploded.  The Industrial Revolution began a time of rapid change in the technology human beings have available to manipulate their environment in untold ways.  What followed has resulted in better health, longer lives, improved nutrition, higher standards of living, and the abundance of conveniences without number.  All of that also brought with it an ever increasing impact on the environment itself; some good, some bad, and most an unanticipated mix of each.
I am very much aware that there are many who steadfastly refuse to believe that we are the cause of climate change, or even contribute to it.  It doesn’t matter that thousands of scientists working over half a century say otherwise.  They are simply dismissed with a “You have your opinion and I have mine” shake of the head while pointing to the normal cycles of earthly change as evidence that whatever is happening is no fault of ours.  
Given that reality, I wonder if we might approach the issue from another direction:  stewardship, holy stewardship.  Made in the image of God, given dominion over the earth, commanded to care for the land, and instructed by Christ to tend his sheep, we under a holy obligation to use what is available to us in obedience to God, with respect for those who came before, in deference to those who will come after, and with due regard for all other life with whom we share this fragile earth, most especially because they cannot make decisions about how to use it, and we can.  
Many of us have seen the television shows about hoarders, about how the abuse of their immediate environment has horrible consequences affecting not just them, but everyone around them as well.  Each of us knows someone who so abuses the things they own that we wonder at their lack of respect for themselves, their belongings, and others.  We see plainly what poor stewardship means in particular instances.  Why then is it so difficult to see what poor stewardship of this fragile earth, our island home, means?  Forget about climate change.  Don’t worry about global warming.  Ignore the spotted owl.  Pay attention to the simple act of holy stewardship of God’s creation, and our responsibility to do our best to pass on to future generations a fragile earth that we have not corrupted by our greed, selfishness, and failure to  be good stewards.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Do You Love Your Congregation?

A recent edition of Christian Century featured an article on church planting.  The Alban Weekly that comes to my computer is frequently devoted to useful advice on growing congregations in the face of mainline decline.  Regional gatherings in almost every denomination include workshops on congregational growth and development. 
In every instance, help is offered in the form of methods, disciplines, templates, and time honored wisdom that, if properly applied, are sure to result in congregational growth.   Recommendations are well and thoroughly researched.  They represent the best in organizational theory wedded to faith and prayer, and are generally endorsed by examples of success in one place or another.  
It’s all true, but none of it will work if one ingredient is missing.  Love.  The clergy who serve a congregation must love them.  They must love them collectively and individually.  They cannot fake it.  Their love must be authentic. 
Looking around my own diocese, and among the congregations we visit in our travels, it is clear that healthy congregations are served by clergy who truly and abundantly love their congregations.  Some of them are avid practitioners of the latest and best in congregational development thought, and they prove the usefulness of those tools.  On the other hand, some of them just muddle through as best they can, yet inspire healthy congregational life.  The common factor is the love they have for the people they serve.  
Without that love, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the best of modern church management tools are used.  The people know if they are loved and will respond accordingly.
Of course congregational health does not equal congregational growth, but I don’t think it’s possible to grow an unhealthy congregation over the long run.  Gatherings of unloved, unhappy people, like an out of control cancer, can grow, but only to self destruct.
Don’t you suppose that is part of what Jesus was trying to get Peter to understand when he kept asking him “Do you love me?,” and then directing him to tend his sheep?  It’s not about loving Jesus with your back turned to everyone else.  It’s about loving the portion of God’s people one is called to serve with the love of Christ that is there to be shined upon them through you.  
So what if you don’t love them?  What should you do?  Quit.  If you don’t love them, get out of the way.  That is not to say that clergy are not allowed to have problems of their own, but working them out in the midst and presence of the people you are called to serve is not the place to do it.  Nor does it mean that loving the people will suddenly solve all problems.  It may just uncover hurts and abscesses long hidden that need to be aired in the light of Christ’s love through the clergy who serve them, and that can be a royal pain in the butt.
I know a pastor who served his congregation long, faithfully and well, but he wasn’t too far into his time with them when long hidden issues boiled to the surface threatening to take him down in the process.  Whatever else was going on around him, he never faltered in proclaiming Christ’s love for them through his ministry.  That was a long time ago.  The congregation grew from illness to health.  It didn’t grow much in numbers, but it didn’t decline either.  He’s retired now, but a wing of the church building is named in his honor.  I doubt if he ever read a single church management book in his entire life. 
To grow a congregation it must first be a healthy congregation, and to be a healthy congregation it must be truly and abundantly loved by the clergy who serve it.  I think the first question a bishop should ask a pastor of a struggling congregation is, Do you love them?