Friday, August 31, 2012

The Cult of Self Reliance


So called conservatives are certain that they are the party of rugged individualism and self reliance, and equally certain that all others are liberals, the party of nanny state dependency.  It’s a silly idea at best, but firmly held by many.  The problem with silly ideas is that they cannot easily be refuted, but they can be explored. 

For instance, we have witnessed much ado about an Obama quip taken entirely out of context, something along the lines of “You did not build it.”  Many a self proclaimed self made man and woman took umbrage.  By their own initiative and hard work, they are proud of the businesses they have built up.  And rightfully so.  They have exhibited courageous initiative and worked hard to overcome the risks inherent in starting, building and sustaining an ongoing business.  It isn’t easy.  Many fail along the way.  But  succeed for fail, it is never done alone.  It requires a complex interdependency of time, resources and conditions from others to make it happen, and failure to recognize that is nothing short of unrighteous hubris. 

Self reliance and individualism are not the property of conservatives.  The primary difference between so called conservatives and those who are not, is that those who are not do not fear government as the sworn enemy of self reliance and the rights of individuals, but as a tool to encourage, enable and develop both. 

A couple of side notes are in order.  First, why do I call them so called conservatives.  It’s because I don’t think they are true conservatives who recognize the value of what is tried and true, and work to conserve the best of what it offers.  Second, those who are not are not thereby liberals, especially the sort of liberals labeled by so called conservatives as European Socialists and radical left wingers.  I have no idea what that means, and don’t think they do either.  Third, those of us who claim to be liberal, progressive or true conservative are not naive about the danger of government.  For all the good it can do, government can only be enforced through coercive means.  Therefore, it must always be treated with caution and respect.  As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, so we might say about government, it’s good but not safe.  But I digress.  Back to self reliance.

The most self reliant men, and they were men, I have ever met have been the homeless men of New York City among whom I worked for several years.  Whether unwilling or unable, a great many of them could not abide any rules other than their own, and often not those.  They had honed the art of survival under the harshest of conditions, and approached the concept of interdependence with the cunning of the urban jungle, knowing that survival depended on separating others from at least some of their resources by any reasonable means.  I guess that if they must be compared to a wild animal, it would have to be the coyote: working alone, living together when needed, opportunistic hunters satisfied by whatever is available, seldom taking more than needed at the moment.

To be sure, their lives tended to be short.  Drug overdoses, exposure, pneumonia, tuberculosis, AIDS, and various forms of organ failure were the usual causes.  But that’s beside the point. They were self reliant to the end. 

That, of course, is not the sort of self reliance the so called conservatives claim and accuse liberals of disclaiming.  What they have in mind is something more in the line of old legend best told in recent times by authors such as Louis L’amour.  His stories always featured the self reliant hero who appeared on the scene of dastardly goings on, managed to clean up the mess, and set things right for a better, more civilized future.  That’s the sort of self reliant individual so called conservatives have in mind.

A closer reading might be in order.  There is always a pre-story explaining how the hero became self reliant through a series of mentors and trials.  On entering the story the hero always finds a set of true and loyal friends who help him at every turn.  The bad guys are almost always rapacious entrepreneurs of private enterprise willing to use any means to gain the advantage over ordinary people.  There is always a scene where the hero appears to be beaten, recovering against all odds through his self determination, the skills he learned from others, and help from the community.  The final showdown ends with the evil guys dead or running, and the hero proclaiming that his own way of life is a dying way that must reject the gun and give way to interdependent communities governed by law, of which he and the girl (there is always a girl) want to become members.

If L’amour wrote morality tales, the far right has forgotten the moral.  Their twisted cult of individualism and self reliance leaves out the part about what makes for civilized society: interdependence, rule of law, community.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Shame on those Russians


I don’t like Putin.  The Russian legal system is suspect.  The Russian Orthodox Church is way too cozy with the Kremlin.  Human rights really are in jeopardy.  The two year sentence of Pussy Riot performers is far too harsh.  But if some masked rap/rock troupe invaded the Holy Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral, interrupting worship to chant and dance against the president (regardless of party), I, and presumably you, would be horrified at such a desecration of holy time and holy space. Tried and convicted within minutes by television and talk radio, harsh penalties would be demanded and expected.  And if some other country attempted to instruct us on our shortcomings, it would be met with a bellicose response.

I don’t think we need to worry about it. The American way to invade holy time and holy space is with a gun, and it’s usually not about politics, but about some personal grievance.  We quickly label the invader as crazy and wonder why we don’t do something about crazy people.  The idea that we might do something pragmatic and sensible about gun control is verboten.  We can’t even talk about it without the gun lobby going ballistic (so to speak) about the only part of the Constitution that means anything to them, and the gun toting public demanding to carry more guns wherever and whenever they want, even into holy time and holy space.  But I digress.

Shame on those Russians.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Holy Cow Communion

Good grief there are a lot of Sundays devoted to John’s gospel and bread.  Most every pastor I know has declared, at one time or another, that they have run out of anything new to say about bread.  Being retired, I have not had to preach on the full run of bread lessons for several years, until this year.  Somehow I got myself scheduled for almost every Sunday.  Well, that’s what happens when you don’t pay attention.  

Bread, of course, is not about a loaf of sliced white or wheat, but about that which gives us the nutrition we need to sustain daily life from whatever source.  What keeps coming back to me as I think about that and study these lessons is the difference between taking life and giving life. 

We take the life of other living creatures, plant and animal, to provide the nutrition we need.  They do not willingly give it.  Like every other animal, we have to take it from them, and we have to do it every day for as long as our life in this world endures.  It satisfies us for a fairly short time.  Each creature has only one life we can take, and when it is consumed we have to take it from another living creature.  It can give us great pleasure, but only for a moment.  That moment passes quickly, and the memory of even the best meal ever cannot bear even the slightest measure of nutrition.  Nevertheless, consuming the flesh of other living creatures is what the normal meaning of our daily bread is all about.  We have to be careful, good stewards of the supply of the life we will take, because it can run out.  Between nature’s unpredictability and our own selfish carelessness, we can diminish or exhaust the supply.

That’s one reason why it is so important to say grace, to give thanks for the blessing to our well being that was the life that we have taken by force.  It’s not silly or sentimental to thank not just God, but the cow, pig, chicken, fish, carrot or cabbage that rests on our plates.  I’m not so sure about zucchini, but that’s my problem.  The need to give thanks was a more obvious truth when we were a more rural population living at close quarters with farmers and ranchers who raised, harvested and slaughtered their food and ours.  It’s not so easy for urban populations where the life that has been taken lies washed and wrapped in super market coolers.  I think about that when we are with friends a few miles out of town, and I look at the particular cow that will become steaks in just two more months.  It is not an anonymous cow, one among hundreds in a factory feedlot, but a particular cow that we have seen grow from a calf.  How can one not thank the cow for the life that will be taken so that others may have life?

Consider then the bread that comes down from heaven that Jesus so outrageously claimed to be his own flesh and blood which we must eat and drink as the nutrition we need for our eternal life.  There is a very high yuck factor to that image, and it drove some of his followers away.  It still does.  Yet, this is bread that comes not from life taken by force, but life freely given.  Yes, the authorities did what they could to take his life by force, but in the resurrection it was made clear that this is a life that cannot be taken by force; it can only be freely given.  Not only is it freely given, it can never be diminished, it gives eternally in abundance without limitation.  It’s supply can never be exhausted because it is the very source of life itself.  

We eat this bread in the form of ordinary bread and ordinary wine, understood in different ways by different Christian traditions, to carry the very presence of God in Christ Jesus.  Without getting into a debate about the right understanding, which, of course, is the Anglican understanding, how can we do any other than to pour out our thanksgiving for this bread of eternal life that has been given to us for our spiritual nutrition?  Calling it the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, is not just another churchy sounding word to be mumbled out of rote memory, but something to offer with our whole being: body, mind and soul.  I fear that, like the Corinthians of Paul’s first letter, we too often let our Holy Communion become an occasional habit to which we give little thought as we head up to the altar or pass the plate down the pew.  

Maybe it would help to go out to the farm, look the cow in the eye and thank it for the life that will be taken.  It could help to make it more real as we look Jesus in the eye and thank him for the life he has given and continues to give.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Oh To Be Normal

When I was a teenager I had a friend who could not stand the thought of being normal or average.  To her, normal meant to be like everyone else, a “Pleasantville” teen, undifferentiated but for a few decorations.  Average meant to be tepid, uninteresting, neither excelling nor failing, a cipher with no aspirations beyond getting by, an unthinking conformist.  In other words, she wanted to be special.  

Don’t we all want to be special, to stand out in a singular way, at least in the eyes of those to whom we turn for love, encouragement, acceptance, and support?  For her, being special meant to stand apart from others in such unusual ways that others would form their social circles around her rather than her having to find a group to enter.  I don’t think it worked very well.   
Being like everybody else has its advantages.  There is a certain comfort in being like the others with whom we live and socialize.  It helps us find our proper place in the scheme of things, knowing that we fit in.  Keeping, as it were, a low profile, is a way of avoiding unwanted attention and responsibility.  Going along to get along offers the promise of psychological and physical safety in numbers.  On the other hand, it also leads to prejudice that  justifies exclusion and oppression of others who are not like us.  It can burden us with fear that, if we don’t conform, we may find ourselves among the excluded.  Most important, it shrouds the particular gift of our uniqueness that makes each one of us someone special to be known and loved for who we are that is not like everybody else.  

My high school friend was wrong about what it meant to be normal.  The most normal thing about each one of us is that we are unique creatures, and, therefore, quite special.  As Christians, we believe with absolute certainty that God knows us each by name in all of our particularity.  It is why we are able to say that Christ died for all, and for each.  It is why we do not proclaim the forgiveness of collective sins, but of the particular sins of each.  We make our collective confessions of faith, but we make them each in our own voice, even as we speak together.  Our eternal souls are not a function of the human condition, but a gift given by God to each according to God’s grace.  Embedded in John’s proclamation that God so loved the world is the knowledge that God loves the whole of creation and each element of it individually.

I wonder why that seems to be so hard to grasp?  Even my evangelical friends who insist on a personal relationship with Jesus as their personal savior, personally, appear to have a hard time recognizing that it is not so much they who have crafted a personal relationship with God in Christ, but it is God who has crafted a personal relationship with them, a relationship grounded entirely in God’s love of them and for them.

And that brings me to the question of what it is to be average.  It should not require much explanation to note that an average is a quantitative, not qualitative, measure of some middle place.  John and Jane Q. Public, and the average Joe and Jane, are figments of pollsters’ imaginations to represent clusters of beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.  It means that there is no such thing as an average person.  LIke the children of Lake Wobegon, we are all above average.  Enough said.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Amazing Grace

I had my second eye surgery yesterday.  This morning’s post op exam declared it a success.  People have asked me what kind of surgery I was having done, and almost to a person they have explained it all to me without listening to what I tried to say about it. 

Oh, you’re having Lasik, they butt in, and go on to tell me that they know all about that because their mother in law had it done ten years ago, and it was:  a) a huge success, or b) a huge failure.  Are they taking out cataracts?  Oh, I know all about that, it’s laser surgery, are you having it done at that place where they do hundreds every day?

The fact is, I don’t know what the surgery was called.  The word laser never came up, although I’m certain it was the main cutting tool.  Laser eye surgery in all of it’s forms, including Lasik, has been around for a while, but my ophthalmologist had made it clear to me that I was not, nor likely to ever be, a candidate.  Then, a little over a year ago, she announced that the technology had caught up to me.  I was indeed a candidate, and the work could be done by a particular specialist who was most definitely not running the so called laser factory.

Yes, they removed cataracts.  Yes, they did some other work to lessen conditions that caused blurry vision.  Yes, they removed my natural lenses and installed artificial lenses.  And yes, I’m sure it just the same as your mother in law had done ten years ago, so why am I even telling this story?  I’m telling it because to me it is miraculous that I have been able to go from, in the popular vernacular, 20/800 vision to something close to 20/20.  I think it’s wonderful to have peripheral vision that’s in focus.  Now I can wear really cool shades.  I may have to get used to losing glasses, reading glasses, which i shall wear down at the end of my nose in the most snobbish way possible.  In all my years, I never feared losing my glasses because they were either on me or next to me on the night stand where I had checked and checked again to know that they were there if I had to get up and go somewhere in the middle of the night.  

To me it’s a holy gift through the equally holy gifts of science and technology.  I sometimes wonder if we fail to thankfully grasp the holy that is embedded in the science and technology that has made modern life possible?  I was reminded of that when my surgeon spoke of time he spent in Nigeria where traditional healers continue to practice the art of “couching” cataracts.  Couching is the same process used in the Middle Ages, and involves unsanitary needle like tools, used without reliable anesthetics, to penetrate the eye, knocking cataract material loose.  The results are predictably erratic.

Before I get back to working on my piece on what it means to be normal and average, I think I’ll stop to give thanks to God for these wonderful gifts of healing that I am privileged to enjoy, to pray that the time be not far off when all persons everywhere can have access to the same, and that, in our own nation, we finally come to the recognition that they ought not to be only for those fortunate to have adequate private insurance.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Catharsis of a sort

The Chick-fil-A issues has been much commented on, so I might as well wade in along with the others.
The first thing that should not need to be said is that Mr. Cathy has the right to speak as he pleases whether or not I agree with what he says.  The second does need to be said, and that is that the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco also have the right to speak out, but not the right to announce a preemptive ban on a business that otherwise meets all legal requirements to exist in their cities.  A vindictive Mr. Cathy might open a restaurant in each city just to make a point, even at the cost of losing a lot of money.  
Moving on, having listened to news excerpts of his speeches and writings, I’m terribly disappointed to learn that Mr. Cathy has little understanding of the bible, and easily confuses custom with exegesis.  Marriage is often mentioned in scripture, and in such a wide variety of settings that I don’t think one can draw any kind of line that defines what God says marriage is.  The church hierarchy in the Christian west has tended to accept and enforce, in the name of God, whatever the cultural norm was at any given time, and there have been many changes in that norm over the centuries.  As for my denomination, the Episcopal Church, I think our recent ten or twenty years of study was probably the first time that we have taken the time and invested the energy to do careful and prayerful theological study on the question of marriage.  Even now, our recently authorized rites of blessing are for same sex unions, not marriage per se.  Going against the cultural norm is not easy, even if we are convinced that it is the Godly thing to do, and the direction in which cultural norms are changing. 
That aside, I have not given much thought to Chick-fil-A for many years, but this episode brought to mind a men’s prayer breakfast in New York City that I was invited to attend sometime around 1996 or ’97.  Mr. Cathy (the elder, I presume) was the featured speaker, and had been described to me as an upstanding Christian man who was unafraid to run his business by Christian principles and speak boldly for Jesus.  The only thing I knew about Chick-fil-A was that I had walked by its outlets in the Atlanta airport many times.
The prayer breakfast seemed to revolve around two themes: first, to thank God that we successful (or wannabe successful) men (mostly white) were especially blessed - thank you Jesus; second, to assure one another that God looked favorably on our desires for the kind of people we believed ourselves to be,  the kind of country we lived in, and the way we did business.  What soon became clear was that this Christian testimony was nothing more than a reactionary political agenda wrapped in an American flag to which the name of Jesus had been affixed as many times as possible.  It was patronizing to the nth degree, self laudatory, and indeed he did speak boldly for Jesus, which is to say that he authorized himself to speak authoritatively on Jesus’ behalf.   For what it’s worth, I don’t recall that he had anything to say about homosexuality or marriage.   
I was dumfounded.  I had never heard such condescending, self serving hubris in all my life.  At the same time, it was equally clear that he was a true believer.  Whatever else he was, he was no phony.  He really believed everything he was saying to the last syllable.  That meant that, for at least a part of the audience, he was a most persuasive salesman.  Not for all.  New York City is a place where skepticism flourishes.  As for me, I left with an unpleasant sense that the patriotic, mercantile Christianity he was selling had little to do with the Christian faith that I had been a part of all my life, and now served as ordained clergy. 
What I did not know then is that he spoke, if not for Jesus, for a great many others who believe as he did, as his son does now, and that troubles me.  They are free to say whatever they like.  It’s their First Amendment right.   They do not have the right to stand unopposed by others exercising their First Amendment rights. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Healing to Wholeness is not Fixing (Usually)

A recent cartoon in the paper showed a psychologist and his patient as two onions.  The one on the couch had shed many layers, while the psychologist smugly noted that now they were getting somewhere.  Silly isn’t it.  Are the inner layers of the onion any more real, as onions go, than the outer layers?
Too much of modern psychology, at least as commonly understood, does the same thing with human beings, holding that the persona, the facade, we present to the public is not as authentic, as genuine, as the real person that lies beneath the surface.  The deeper we go, the more we will discover what is true and virtuous about the real us.  That’s ridiculous.  Whatever we present as our public face is as much an authentic presentation of who we are as any other part of our psyche.  It is not the whole person, but it is as genuine as any other part.  The good fellow well met two bit phony we have all encountered is, at least in part, an authentic good fellow well met two bit phony.  
Most of us are better than that, but whatever our outer image, it is an important presentation of who we really are, at least in part.  Who do you present in public?  I have a half dozen or so personae to present before the various publics I’m likely to encounter: priest, lover, wise elder, enthusiastic if ignorant nature nut, quiet introvert, etc.  The point is that each of them is an authentic presentation of who I am in the context of the publics I am among at the time.  Amusing things, sometimes embarrassing, can happen when the wrong persona is displayed in the wrong place.  Wonderful, laughter filled conversations with new acquaintances have come to an abrupt halt when it becomes known that I’m an Episcopal priest.  Wearing the required black suit, shirt and clerical collar while walking hand in hand with my wife through Grand Central during rush hour, and then kissing her goodbye, was akin to Moses parting the Red Sea.  Who even knew an introvert would do such a thing?  Offering one of my trademark flippant bon mots in the wrong setting has earned confused, angry looks from my audience.  And so it goes. 
Of course there are deeper more private parts of the self, and they are also authentic, but they are not more authentic.  The problem is that these other, deeper parts of the self often go unrecognized, unknown, and uncared for.  In return they can haunt us, scare us, accuse us and inhibit our ability to prosper in the life we are given.  It is not that we need to dig deep to find our real self, it is that we need to dig deep to find our whole self if, indeed, that is what is called for.  
The popular idea is that the tarnished self lives on the surface, but the golden self lies untarnished and deeper.  Don’t count on it.  Not all digging hits gold.  Sometimes there is just a lot of dirt down there.  Besides, not all that is gold is good.  Not all that is dirt is bad.  Worse yet, sometimes we get preoccupied with fixing things that don’t need to be fixed, or we get sidetracked into trying to fix others as a way to fix ourselves.  Systems theory, for instance, has sometimes led us to believe that we can’t fix whatever it is about ourselves we think needs to be fixed unless others in the system first reveal and fix whatever lies deep within them that we think needs to be revealed and fixed.  That can be true, but often, perhaps most often, it is little more than a very rude, possibly vengeful, invasion of personal space just to see what kind of trouble can be stirred up.  
And how did fix get into it anyway?  Do you see how easy it is to drift from discovering the authentic self to fixing things?  Fixing means to repair a broken thing so that it is as good as new, as if whatever broke it never happened.  In counseling that very quickly becomes a quest to change the past so that what happened becomes something that didn’t happen.  A lot of damage can be inflicted along the way on a quest like that.  Moreover, finding the authentic and fixing the broken are different things. 
Not to get too Jungian, but to get very Christian about it, what we are after is not so much fixing as integrating.  Ah, look at this, here is a part of me I didn’t know about.  I wonder where it can fit into the rest of me to help make my life more full?  Maybe it just needs to stay on a shelf in the basement, and I can get it if I need it.  Oh, here’s a memory, and not a good one.  It hurts.  If I can’t get rid of it, how can I stop it from hurting, or learn to live with hurt that does not damage.  Here’s another one.  It brings joy.  I wonder if they can fit together in some way?  That’s the kind of healing Jesus brought, a healing to wholeness, a healing that restored the parts to their proper place in the whole.  
On the one hand, even now we can seek that kind of healing from God in Christ through the discipline of prayerful meditation in which we consciously present before God the many parts of our self, both known and unknown, by words and sighs too deep for words.  We don’t have to ask for anything.  We need only to present with as much honesty as we can muster. 
On the other hand, we are also called to be agents of God’s love continuing Christ’s healing ministry in the world by being fully present to as much of another’s whole person as we are able to apprehend while speaking truth in love with them.  I’d like to leave it there, but personal experience suggests that too many who call themselves Christian seem to think that speaking truth in love means criticizing, accusing and demanding adherence to their particular take on truth, but with a smile.   Others, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, mumble a few platitudes of no particular value.  Neither is the way Jesus did it, and before this turns into a book, I will leave it at that.