Friday, June 29, 2012

Critical Incidents

Have you ever heard of Critical Incident Stress Management and the debriefings that are a part of it?  They are so much a part of my world that I often forget they are invisible to most others.  
Let me put it this way.  First responders (fire, police, medics, and ER staff) are in the business of bringing urgently needed help into the lives of those who are experiencing an emergency.  It’s routine for them, even if it is not for those needing their help.  They see and experience a great many of life’s tragic events, so when an incident is bad enough to become a traumatic experience for them, it is a Critical Incident, one serious enough to, perhaps, lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Critical Incident Stress Management debriefings are a form of psychological first-aid provided by trained teams following well tested protocols.  As Fire Department chaplain, I am a member of the local team, and lead most of the debriefings we conduct for all public safety and ER personnel.  We are not psychologists providing long term therapy. We are not even pastors and counselors providing short term pastoral counseling.  We may be either or both by training, but our job is to function in much the same way as medics in the field: assess, stabilize, bind wounds, and point the way to full recovery.  Often that’s enough.  Sometimes it isn’t.  It’s psychological first-aid.
I’ve just returned from leading my fifth Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing in the last eight weeks.  It’s unusual for a small city in a rural setting such as ours, but tragic events happen everywhere, and sometimes they seem to come in clumps, even here.  I think we’ve had enough for a while.  Too many violent suicides, infant and child deaths, fatal wrecks, etc.  Events such these ripple through smaller communities because we are more aware of the connections between us.  First responders and victims families.  We see each other in the store.  Our children go to school together.  Sometimes we are close friends, or even related.  We always know someone who knows them.  There are few degrees of separation around here.
I think it’s made a difference.  The old get tough and suck it up mentality was not a good one.  It too easily led to substance abuse, inappropriate behavior on and off the job, breakdown of personal relationships, and serious health problems.  We see less of that than we once did.  If nothing else, our first responders know that someone cares and takes the time to show it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sidewalk Theology about Nicea

To my friend Jay.
The other night we had a brief sidewalk talk about the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed during which you suggested that perhaps the Greeks had won out over the Jews.  I’m not so sure that’s what happened.  The issue of Greek vs. Hebrew thinking about God, humanity, the soul, eternal life, heaven and hell is very complicated.  You know from your own studies that it dates back to the heavy influence of Hellenism on the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean world during the intertestimonial centuries.  At the level of ordinary day-to-day thinking, the Greeks clearly won, and are winning still.  We are all Greeks in our thinking whether or not we know anything about Greek philosophy.  With that in mind, I doubt that it was much of an issue at Nicea because I don’t think it was ever raised.  
On the other hand, it is a huge issue for contemporary theology because it is obvious that there are significant inconsistencies between Greek and Hebrew ways of approaching questions about God and humanity; there are more than a few points in which the two are simply incompatible.  For instance, the Greek idea of the eternal soul is in dramatic conflict not only with Hebrew scripture, but also with the recorded teachings of Jesus in which life eternal, whatever that may be, is a gift granted by God and not something that is an inherent part of being human.  On a more subtle level, Hellenistic dualism is unknown in the Hebrew scriptures until it begins to creep into books attributed to the Hellenistic era, and in Christian scripture Hellenistic dualism is alluded to but not endorsed.
As for Nicea, the main question revolved around the nature of Jesus as Christ.  One side, the Arians, asserted that there was a time when “the Son” was not, that he was brought into being and subservient to God, the Father, and did not fully share in the divinity of God.  The other side, the Athanasians,  held that there was never a time when the Son was not, and that Jesus, as Christ, shares fully in the divinity of God.  It took a long time through much bitter, and sometimes vengeful, debate, but in the end the Athanasians won out.  For what it’s worth, both Arias and Athanasius were from from Alexandria, one of the four centers of Christian learning at that time: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Rome. 
The earliest Christians would not have thought to raise a question like that because they had a more intimate connection with Jesus through his immediate disciples, and were fairly well rooted in Pharisaic theology, even though they may have been gentiles.  Later generations, almost entirely gentile, and long separated from the Jewish roots of the faith, did not have that relationship.  They needed to understand who Jesus was in terms that would satisfy Greek ways of thinking.  Again, it was not a matter of the Greeks wining, but a matter of how to understand who God was within the context of Greek rationality because that was the only context that was widely shared.
Christianity sort of lurched forward by asking a series of questions, the answers to which have dominated theological inquiry for centuries at a time.  I believe these questions were raised sequentially as follows: Who was Jesus and how was he related to God?;  Who is God and how does God related to God’s self?;  Who is ‘man’ in relationship to God?;  Who is ‘man’ in relationship to himself?;  What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in relationship to society?
I believe that each of these questions was raised within the context of a first century Greek world view, heavily colored in the last century or two by the Enlightenment.  I think that today there is another question that has come to the fore, and that has to do with challenging the Greek world view by turning again to a world view more deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What is Liturgy?

Liturgy, whatever else it is, is art.  Properly choreographed and executed, it is poetry in music, word, and movement flowing seamlessly from beginning to end, sweeping all into a closer encounter with the Holy.
Too often that doesn’t happen.  It’s not, at least in the Episcopal Church, that the words and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer are not followed.  It’s that they are followed, but with little sense of graceful rhythm hospitably inviting all into God’s presence.  Put another way, there is often too little awareness of how one’s words and movements effect a response in one’s audience, and what that response is.
One key, it seems to me, is to focus on beginnings, endings, and transitions.  What is the most graceful and hospitable way to move from one element of the service to the next so that worshipers are gently guided without jarring stops, starts, and verbal jerks that disrupt more than help?  I don’t think it’s a problem of expecting worshipers to juggle too many books and bulletins.  Some clergy conduct the entire service out of a comprehensive booklet, but still manage to make it feel like a cold, mechanical process, while others, using Prayer Book, hymnal and bulletin, make it flow with effortless joy.  What is the difference?
The difference is in the consciousness of the worship leader about how what he or she does and says affects those who are listening and responding.  A bishop friend is a master at establishing a slow, adagio type tempo that seems to almost envelope and synchronize the congregation’s breathing.  Maybe it has something to do with his earlier training as a musician.  Another friend in Hawaii introduces and guides the service with such fluidity that visitors from all over the world feel an intimate familiarity with it, even through the peculiarities of local custom and language.  Maybe it has something to do with his earlier career as a courtroom lawyer.  Yet another acquaintance is known for leading at a fairly fast pace, yet even occasional visitors from other denominations routinely report that they were made to feel comfortably at home throughout the worship service.  I have no idea what her background was.  The point is that each of them has honed the ability to be in touch with the congregation as audience in a very personal, almost intimate way. 
I think it would be a good idea for all clergy to have at least some continuing education in the art and psychology of performance, including a practicum in which they are videoed for later critical review.  It’s not the same as homiletics.  It’s about performance.  It’s also not the same as liturgics.  Getting liturgy down pat is one thing.  Performing it well comes after that.  If I were to put together a course like that from local talent, I think I would recruit the director of our annual Chamber Music Festival, a professor of theater from one local college, and the director of the choral program from another local college to be the faculty.  Not a clergy person in sight.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gay Marriage in the State of Washington: take two

Will it be 33 of 33?  There is a good chance.  Washington State will have gay marriage on the ballot this November.  Opponents to gay marriage have won 32 of 32 ballot measures so far.  So why do they have a shot at it again?  After all, a clear majority of Washingtonians favor, or are not opposed to, gay marriage.  The state has had a civil union law for several years, and all the brouhaha about that died down some time ago. 
Here is why.  Those in favor, or not opposed, almost take it for granted that it’s a good idea.  It has ceased to be a lightning rod issue for them.  Driven by fear and disgust, those opposed are rabidly opposed for all kinds of strange, but deeply held, emotionally charged reasons.  With vengeful hatred in their eyes, they will vote.  They are already determined to get rid of a president they detest for all kinds of spurious reasons.  They will be aided and abetted by Tea Party type propaganda, along with Republican candidates too scared of the far right wing to say or do anything that might offend them. 
Voter turnout, even in presidential election years, is not all that great, so the side that can claim the most emotionally charged and committed voters will likely win, and right now that looks like the far right, supplemented by those who go along to get along.
Progressives, or liberals, or moderates, whatever you want to call them, have a tendency to get all hyped up about this or that, hold rallies and protests, and then burn out.  They can’t sustain the effort.  They have learned how to organize, but not how to deliver the votes.  On most issues, they are driven more by the desire to do good than by fear, and fear is a more enduring motivator than the desire to do good.  The sarcastic epithet, ‘Do Gooders,’ makes the point: well meaning pansies who can be politically bullied with impunity.
As far as Eastern Washington is concerned, the outlook is dimmer yet.  Voters who are not conservative Republicans tend to cede every election with little more than a whimper, and seldom do anything, in a constructive way, to hold office holders accountable.  Far right conservatives, on the other hand, do everything possible to see that candidates submit to their demands, at least in public.
Will it be 33 of 33?  According to the Magic 8 Ball, the outlook is good.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sex Ed. & Moral Decision Making

Reading Amy Frykholm’s sex education article (Christian Century, June 13, 2012) reminded me of my own pubescent experiences.  Oddly enough, I got my introduction to puberty and sex at Hopkins (MN) Jr. High in the mid 1950s.  I didn’t know then, but I guess it was quite unusual for the time.  By contemporary standards it was very basic.  I recall that boys were sent off to one classroom and girls to another.  Whatever it was that the girls were told was a mystery to us.  We tried hard to find out, but no one would talk.  As for we boys, we learned about pubic hair, erections, wet dreams and deodorant.  Later, in a joint class, we learned the basics of what causes pregnancy, although any relationship between that and sex between human beings went over our heads.  
All the kids in my neighborhood got a copy of The Facts of Life and Love for Teen-Agers (1953) at about the same time, so I figure the neighborhood parents must have got together on that one.  In any case, it filled in a few gaps, left others, and provided enormous room for speculation.  Even illicit copies of Playboy failed to adequately inform.  Too much airbrushing of the essentials in which we boys were interested.
It may have been basic, but my wife got not even that in her small town Oklahoma school system where such talk was considered off limits for a variety of squeamish reasons.  My Kansas cousins learned mostly by experience, of which they apparently had an abundance, but I didn’t figure that out until years later.
So what about today?  From my point of view, knowing more is better than knowing less.  Obviously, it’s impossible for kids not to know a great deal more in today’s media market where things sexual are at the core of much advertising, television and movie plots, books, magazines, and the Internet.  At the same time, the sheer ubiquity of it all means that the importance of sex to the fullness of human life is shoved into the background, covered by the static of sex as sales gimmick.  They see and hear but do not understand.  The connection between raw information and the moral interpretation of it requires sophisticated mentoring for young minds that are just learning the discipline of moral decision making.  I doubt that we have made much progress in that arena.
Somewhere back in the days of my early teen years, in spite of the rudimentary information we got, there were also caring adults to help us think things through, not just in terms of consequences, but more important, in moral terms of what was respectful, responsible and honest.  It didn’t keep me from blundering my way into adulthood, but it did provide a platform from which to launch forth.  Maybe that’s what’s needed today as well.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Can We Do Better Than That?

The Israelites of Samuel’s day wanted a king.  A king they got.  They also got sectarian strife that led to harsh dictatorial rule that led to rebellion, that led to a cycle of repetition. 
We humans have a confused relationship with authority.  We want it.  We value it.  When we get it, we rebel against it.  We clamor for someone to lead us with unerring certainty as long as their certainty agrees with our certainty, and then we rebel against their authority the moment they try to exercise it.  As with the Hebrews of old, we send our own versions of Moses up the mountain to find out what God wants of us, and then argue with what is said on God’s behalf, preferring whatever golden calf is nearby.  A few of us contend that we are Moses with God alone is our authority in everything, but ascribe that authority to a five hundred year old edition of the bible, or worse, to whatever we claim has been “laid on our hearts,” which we then feel free to impose, if we can, on others. 
The authority of parents vs. the rights of children.  The authority of the law vs. personal freedom.  Bosses vs. subordinates.  Coaches vs. players.  Popes vs. nuns.  We just have a hard time with finding a comfortable place to live with authority.  Today’s Tea Partiers want as little government as possible, and would happily endorse autocratic rule to get it.  We contradict ourselves at every turn.  
I am way out of touch with contemporary research, but in the early 1970s O. J. Harvey produced a study in which he claimed that 65 - 70% of the U.S. population were most comfortable in authoritarian environments, divided, it seemed, between those who were more comfortable as active order givers, and those who were more comfortable carrying out orders.  That quickly leads to competing realms of authority with members in each camp almost certain that everyone else is wrong.  No doubt they need some form of corrective action to set things right.  He also asserted that another 10-15% could be labeled as anarchists rebelling against authority, either actively or passively, just because.  A perfect recipe for constant turmoil.  
It was a long time ago, and I’ve probably left out important variables, but the point he tried to make then was that we cannot assume that the majority of the population is interested in, or capable of, responsible self direction.  Was he right about that?  I’m not so sure.  If so, it’s pretty demoralizing.  The prophet Samuel, looking at the people of his own time and place, seemed to go along with Harvey.
I prefer to think that there are more of us who are capable of something better than that, although these last few years of political nonsense have left me in doubt.  Moreover, in retirement with more time to listen to a wider variety of people as a fairly anonymous bystander, I have become more aware of how many think in black and white terms, terribly uncomfortable with the grays of life.  Some are attracted to the certain authority of the Catholic Church, or the fundamentalist teaching of conservative Evangelicals. Some reject all authority, yet search endlessly for something to believe in.  Some are scared to death to question their own political, religious or social views on the assumption that, if they are not firmly, inflexibly held, they will collapse altogether.  Perhaps, for them, they are right.  How very sad.  Just the same, collectively I think we can do better than that. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Syria and Assad

Almost everyone wants Assad out of Syria.  Resign, they say, just resign and get out.  It isn’t going to happen.  He’s reasonably literate.  He can read.  He can see what happens to ex-dictators guilty of heinous crimes.  Taylor, Mubarak, Milosevic, Qaddafi, and, of course, the ever popular Saddam Hussein, just to name a few.  There is no such thing as resigning and getting out.  There is only death or life in prison accompanied by world wide public scorn.
That isn’t always true.  Idi Amin pulled off life in the prison of his own choice: Saudi Arabia.  Assad might be able to do the same by claiming refuge in Russia, but I don’t imagine that a lifetime under close supervision in Moscow holds much allure. 
So, what’s the alternative?  Becoming a nice guy working toward a more open and “democratic” society is one, but highly unlikely.  It’s not in his genes.  The other is to squash all opposition by whatever means possible, the more horrendous the better, and remain tyrant for life, deluded into believing that his people love him, and that he, above all others, is the very symbol of what it means to be a Syrian.  Getting away with thumbing his nose at the West, and especially at the U.S. is just an added benefit.
It’s not an Assad thing.  It’s the way of all tyrannical dictators, and has been for thousands of years.  In the end, as I hope we have learned, it is up to the Syrians themselves to do something about it.  They have to decide what kind of society they want to live in.  No one else can do it for them.  See Iraq and Afghanistan for more on this point.  It’s hard to know what the rest of the world can do that might help while causing the least additional harm.  Maybe something like the Libya operation, but it would have to be led by Arab nations if it was to have any credibility.  How likely is that, considering that most of them are led by dictatorial, albeit not altogether tyrannical, rulers?
My own guess is this, provided that American war hawks don’t mess it up.  Egypt settles down after the election to become more Islamist, but moderately so, state.  Together with Jordan and Turkey they figure out a way to underwrite the Syrian opposition without too much publicity about it.  Assad eventually goes the way of all such as he.  Syrians struggle for a decade or so trying to figure out who they want to be.  In the meantime, Lebanon gets to mature into permanent civility without Syrian interference, and a new Mideast bloc emerges that is more comfortable in its own skin, and with its global neighbors.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Squirrels and Crows

I finally decided that feeding the squirrels was easier than keeping them away from the bird feeders, which is something I was never able to do anyway.  So now we have a couple of bird feeders and a squirrel feeder in the back yard.  
Prepared I was not for the amount of entertainment they provide.  Their feeder is an old covered bird feeder hanging from a slender pole. They have to climb it, perch on top, make a leap for the roof of the feeder, and hang upside down to get at the food.  The general rule is one on top and two or three on the ground, all keeping watch for the dreaded Westy, who may come darting out in squirrel ambush mode at any moment.  
I’m never sure if they are playing or mating when the ‘ring-around-the-tree-trunk’ games begin, but they are fun to watch either way.  Squirrels mate young and quickly produce offspring, so you would think we would be overrun with them, but not so.  The two, or maybe three, resident nests, have stayed the same for years, and the resident population remains stable at four to six.  That has to mean a squirrel diaspora of some kind, as well as, of course, the usual road kill solution to over population.
The birds don’t seem to mind.  In fact, some of them prefer the squirrel food and happily partake along side the furry critters.   A crow, not known to be an avid seed eater, has become a full time member of the back yard gang with a particular affection for corn.  All of them, song birds, squirrels and crows, share the bird bath in apparent harmony.  Some drink, some bathe, some drink and bathe, and the crow dips food in it to soften things up a bit (probably left his dentures in the nest). 
Is there a lesson to be learned from this?  Yes there is.  Sitting quietly on the patio just watching brings peace and a smile, and that’s a lot these days.