Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Words, Guns, and Consequences (Actually this is not about guns, but I figure adding that in might attract the odd reader)

A lot has been said lately about freedom of speech.  Some feel that one should be free to say whatever one wants to say, and to do so without censure or consequence.

Freedom of speech is vital to our American democracy, but words have consequences.  Wars are begun and ended by words, not guns.  Our rights and liberties are defined and defended by words, not guns.  The decisions we make in communities and states about the rules by which we live together are expressed in words not bullets.  The words we say to each other can build up or destroy.  Whatever uses guns have in settling things between human beings, they are crude and, in the end, can only destroy.

Words are powerful, and they can be easily abused.  They always have consequences.  Whatever freedom of speech we have claimed as a right, it cannot include freedom from the consequences of exercising it.  That’s because we intend the words we use to have consequences: to help and hurt, to ask and answer, to love and hate, to build up and tear down.  We speak and write to have effect.  To say of something said or written that it is of no consequence is simply nonsense. 

The problem comes when the some of the consequences are not what we wanted.  It’s exacerbated when the consequences rebound to slam into us. It’s partly the unintended consequences problem that we hear so much about, but unintended does not mean innocent.  Ignorance, malice, and thoughtlessness lie just under a thin veneer of common sense and acceptable behavior.  Our proclivity for showing disrespect to others is largely untamed.  We say hurtful things and hope to avoid the rebounding consequences by adding that we didn’t intend to hurt.  Disingenuous, that’s what it is.

For these reasons and more, we are accountable for the consequences of the words we use, regardless of our freedom to use them.  We are subject to censure from others whether we like it or not.  When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I am, or should be, subject to some degree of censure most every day because of my careless use of words in the exercise of my right to say whatever I want to say.  But there are others among us who are deliberate in their use of words to oppress, abuse, and intimidate.  It’s a brutal demonstration of the use of the power of words to subject others to personal tyranny, and the reason why a civilized society must be willing to censure and enforce accountability without jeopardizing freedom of speech.  It’s a work in progress, something we do inconsistently and not well. 


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Where You Are Today Is No Accident

One of my Facebook friends posted the following text that someone had shared with her: “Where you are today is no accident.  God is using the situation you are in right now to shape you and prepare you for the place he wants to bring you into tomorrow.  Trust him with his plan, even if you don’t understand it.”  I imagine it was intended to give hope and encouragement.  For a nanosecond, it does, but then a few questions are bound to rise up.

Today, on the feast of The Holy Innocents, does anyone believe that God planned and was using the death of innocent children in Bethlehem to shape someone, their parents perhaps, for a better life tomorrow?  I’ve been to two heroin overdose incidents this week.  Does anyone seriously think their being addicts overdosing on bad heroin was in God’s plan to shape them for a better life?  My dishwasher flooded the kitchen this morning.  A hose coupling broke.  Was that part of God’s plan?

That kind of thinking is just plain lousy theology.  Which is not the same thing as saying that God cannot be present in any situation, accidental or otherwise, offering the opportunity for something good to emerge from it.  Moreover, something good emerging from a bad situation does not magically make everything all right.  What was bad, hurtful, unjust, or immoral is still bad, hurtful, unjust or immoral, but it is possible that, through God’s presence, something worthwhile might yet emerge, and it most certainly would require a little cooperation from you and me.  

There are only two words in that unoriginal broken down aphorism worth paying attention to: trust him.  Not trust him with his plan, just trust him.  That’s all.  Accidents happen.  Evil people do evil things without God’s permission or intent.  You and I do dumb things that no doubt have God shaking her head in disbelief.  What I am certain of is that I can trust God, as I know God in Christ Jesus, to be there with an offer of grace and direction.  That’s not the same thing as believing that God caused me to be in whatever condition I find myself, even as he leads me in a new a better direction, a direction I may or may not go in.

Let me put it a different way.  Paul matured enough in his faith (his trust in God) to let God lead him to his final days in Rome.  I have no doubt that God knew, in whatever mysterious way God knows, that the trip would involve many unpleasant hardships, but that does not mean God planned or caused those hardships.  It only means that Paul could trust God to lead him through them to the completion of his ministry.  The completion of Paul’s ministry may have been God’s plan, but God had to rely on the unreliability of a human being.

If you are not happy with that, you have three choices.  One is to say that God is in charge of absolutely everything and we have no choice except to perform as God has planned for us.  Another is to claim that there is a plan, and unless we find and follow it we are condemned to hell.  The third is to assert that the devil is the ruler of this world, and we are the victims of his plan of destruction with our only hope being God’s partial and tentative victory over him.  Oddly enough, I know some who hold all three positions at the same time.  Curious that.

That’s not what I find in the gospel record, and I don’t think you can find it either except by stitching together a patchwork of verses separated from their context.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

With Whom is God not Pleased

The angels appeared above the shepherds to sing God’s glory and to announce peace on earth to those with whom God was pleased.  What about those with whom God is not pleased?  Who are they?

I’m a Christian, God is pleased with me.  You’re not a Christian, God is not pleased with you.  I get peace.  You don’t.  Is that how it works?  Many think so, usually with a caveat or two such as, you’re a Christian if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, or you have been born again, or you have been slain by the Spirit, otherwise you’re a Christian in name only, but not really, so God is probably not pleased with you.

When I pick up the scriptures to search out what God says is not pleasing to him, this is what I find: oppressing the poor and others, cruelty, acts of injustice and unfairness, and worshiping other gods are on the list.  So too are religious practices that claim to worship God but are a self righteous cover for behaving in ways that are oppressive, cruel, unjust and unfair.

As for worship of other gods, most of us are not big on the pantheon of historic gods, except for entertainment or intellectual curiosity, but contemporary gods abound:  cars, money, sex, careers, power, social position, clothes, celebrities, sports, drugs, you name it.  We worship this stuff.  We construct rites to honor them.  We sublimate our lives, and the lives of those we say we love, to them.  Some of us do it while claiming the name of Christ.  Others figure all that God stuff is a fairy tale.  These other gods are more available and reliable.

If God creates the world, God loves the world, and God redeems the world from it’s own ways of error and sin, then I don’t believe anyone has to be outside the circle of those with whom God is pleased.  Stepping outside that circle is something we do all by ourselves, and it has more to do with our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors than it does with whether we confess Jesus Christ with the correct formula that unlocks the doorway in.

So who is God pleased with.  I think God is pleased by those who by word and deed, by what they say and how they live their lives, proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has come near.  I’m not very good at it.  It’s a work in progress.  


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Good King Wences Last Looked Out On The Feast of Steven

As a young boy, the song became one of my all time favorites because it was all about me, although why it was sung at Christmas time when my birthday was in February was confusing.  It would have been better had it been sung by Gene Autry, but you had to go with what you got.

“Good King Wences Last Looked Out On The Feast of Steven.”  At least that’s the way I heard it, and it made sense.  Señor Wences was a popular ventriloquist on the Ed Sullivan Show, so why shouldn’t there be a King Wences?  Probably a Spanish King of long ago, although I was a bit suspicious of the snow laying round about, cold and crisp and even, because I figured Spain was a sunny, warm place, perhaps something like Florida.  I was old enough to know they had made a terrible spelling mistake, Stephen rather than the proper Steven, but it was forgivable.  My teacher sometimes made the same one.

That’s a memory that resurfaces each December 26 as I begin to hum the tune, and it reminds me to consider the children in church who are hearing the old stories and songs that are old to us, but new to them.  The hermeneutic of the young is inventive.  Searching for a context into which words might fit, words that are themselves unfamiliar, will result in some strange takes, but if the words are important, children will do what they can to make sense out of them.

We want those words to be important, so we might want to consider how to craft contexts that go in the right direction.  I think that is part of what the popular Godly Play program is about, and I think that’s what pastors try to do with children’s sermons, but seldom achieve.  

Once upon a time, there was a young man who was a follower of Jesus.  He liked to tell the story of Jesus to anyone who would listen, and he was very good at it.  But he died at a young age, so we remember him each year on the day after Christmas to remind us to do what he did and tell the story of Jesus to others.

Once upon another time, a time when there were a lot of bad kings, there was a very good king who lived in a very cold country.  His name was Wenceslas.  It was a cold, windy, snowy day after Christmas, and the king was remembering about Stephen.  He looked out and saw a poor man struggling in the snow to find wood for a fire.  King Wenceslas went out into the storm to bring the poor man into the castle for food, drink and warmth.  We sing a song about him to remind us to be kind and generous, even if it isn’t easy or convenient.

I might have understood the song better had I heard it explained that way, although I would have been terribly disappointed to learn that it wasn’t about me or a king related to Señor Wences.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Obligatory Christmas Article - Bah!

You’ve noticed, I suspect, that many, maybe most, newspaper and magazine columnists feel obliged to churn out the obligatory Christmas article.  Radio and television news media salt most every broadcast with something Christmasy.  Around here it’s usually something on house decorations, a parade, or cops shopping with kids.  Pastors are no different, at least from what I see in parish newsletters and on websites.   It’s enough to make me begin mine with Bah Humbug!

I enjoy the holiday season as much as anyone.  The decorated houses look great.  Downtown in our small city is alive with traffic.  Restaurants are full.  Festive concerts abound from the symphony, to country rock, to the eighth grade choir, and everything in between.  Non Advent observing churches have been at it for weeks.  Which brings up a question.  How come the Adventists don’t observe Advent?  But I digress. 

All that I love.  I’m not too fond of the nonstop sentimentalized, sugar coated, made for t.v. movies.  There are only two plots, and there’s not much difference between them.  As one friend noted, they must not pay their writers much, and they’re overpaid at that.

The holiday season is so predictable, and if there is one thing I’ve come to know about God it is that God is not predictable.  There is nothing that prepared Elizabeth, Zachariah, Joseph or Mary for what was about to happen to them.  The shepherds were caught off guard and terrified.  Herod was blindsided.  Only the wise men seemed to have a clue, and they got lost.  The true meaning of Christmas came crashing into an unprepared world through the lives of unprepared people who did the best they could with what they never wanted to do in the first place, and for whom the true meaning of it all remained a mystery to be held and pondered. 

My friend David, a recovering fundamentalist, has a hard time with that.  He was taught that all these folks were so fully in tune with God that they performed like a well oiled team responding to the plays as they were called in by angelic quarterbacks.  

God doesn’t seem to play by those rules.  Most pastors have had people ask for help to discern God’s plan for their lives, and they are sure it can be done because there are many books and pamphlets that say so.  That’s not how it works, or at least that’s not how it has worked according to the scriptural record.  God just interrupts normal life to show up out of nowhere needing a quick meal and directions to Sodom, to light a bush but not burn it up, to call a child into the life of a prophet, to call a shepherd out of the field and onto a throne, to confront a young woman with an unplanned pregnancy, to call fishermen out of boats to become disciples, to knock and enemy off his horse and make him an apostle.  

I’m as surprised by, and unprepared for, Christmas as was Joseph.  That’s part of what keeps it so fascinating.  I have no idea what God has in mind for the remainder of my life, and considering the adventures that have taken me through the past seventy years, I’m almost afraid to guess, but I do trust him, or her, as the case may be, if there is a case.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rabid Gun Rights Aficionados Have a Point

NPR ran a story about guns and gun control.  Part of it included an interview with a gun lobbyist from Colorado who rehearsed the usual litany about the inviolability of the Second Amendment, which he understands to establish a universal, unlimited right, and how the nation would be safer if more people carried guns, especially teachers.  It wasn’t until the end of the interview that he said something more revealing.  It was the because clause.  Everything in his prior argument was because our freedoms are being taken away and we cannot trust the government.

That’s the key isn’t it?  At least for him, the gun arguments are a way of expressing his irrational fear that his freedoms are being stripped away by a tyrannical government.   Several local acquaintances are of the same opinion.  It’s all about anxious fear that freedom is being taken away.  To me their fears are irrational to the point of being psychotic, but are they?

In some ways they are right.  Their freedom to prevent others from enjoying the same rights they have always had has been steadily eroded over the last forty years.  The laws will no longer prop up a huge arsenal of segregation practices that they once endorsed.  They are still enormous issues in our society, and will be for years to come, but with the laws no longer behind them, the customary practices that continue to give them life are slowly dying.   

Their freedom to rely on white men to hold the reins of power is gone.  A black man is in the White House.  Some are even generals and admirals.  Women lead legislative bodies, and are named to top posts in government and business.  The local preacher is more likely to be female than male.  Hispanic sounding names keep getting on ballots.  Gays and lesbians are pouring out their closets, sometimes onto the sacred turf of manly men sports.  Moslems are everywhere.  Hordes of illegal immigrants and outsourced jobs are ruining the economy, and it doesn’t take much of that kind of talk to craft a comprehensive story line that relishes a Rambo like response as the only one left. 

Then along comes the NSA to put the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on even the most bizarre conspiracy theory.  “Aha, they really are conspiring to get me!”  After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.  A hoodied robber in every 7-11.  A kidnapper in every Walmart parking lot.  Carjackings at every corner.  Gang signs on every teenager.  Oh we got trouble right here in River City and only my weapons will keep me safe from THEY and them and probably from you too.

It makes a certain kind of sense from that point of view.     

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Western Libertarian Ideology

In 1981, Joel Garreau wrote a book about the Nine Nations of North America, regions separated by settlement patterns, language, political outlook, density of population, etc.  Out where I live, in the intermountain plateau of the West, we were labeled the Empty Quarter because of our sparse population density.  Characterized by romantic images of the Old West, we were said to be an independent minded collection of folks a tad on the contrarian side.

A more recent author, Colin Woodard, made a few minor headlines not long ago with his take on the Eleven Nations of North America.  My region is now called The Far West, which, he asserted, is intensely libertarian.  Voting patterns seem to point in that direction.  Our congressional district has lived up to that label in recent elections, and even more on the editorial pages of local papers, but Tom Foley came from here, and the voices of those who are not of the far right are growing louder, so there may be more political diversity than some imagine.  

It is a fascinating contradiction to me that those holding the dominant libertarian view are unwilling to recongize that they can exist at all in this region because government largesse (read taxpayers somewhere else) paid for it, and yet they distrust government, especially the federal government, confident in their  assertion that everyone needs to stand on their own two feet, like they do, without expecting a handout from the nanny state. 

Let’s review.

The Indians who inhabited our part of the Far West were relatively peaceable and prosperous until European settlement began to push them out of the way.  Assuring a future for continued European settlement and development required federal armed forces to build forts and conduct wars of attrition to make the region safe for white settlers.  Who paid the cost?  Well, apart from Indians who paid in disease, lives and land, Eastern taxpayers did.  And let us not forget the Homestead Act of 1862 and its successors.

The 19th century towns that arose, especially those bustling with gold rush fever, were rough places of saloons, brothels, and greed.  Rough places required rough justice, vigilante justice, and it didn’t take long for the good people of our communities to demand strict gun control, hire legitimate law enforcement officers, establish fair courts, all to make towns safe for good church going families.  It took a while, but local governments leaned hard on those who felt free to shoot the place up.  They also leaned hard on would be settlers who were not white Europeans, but that’s another story.

Bringing transportation to the region required generous federal incentives to railroad companies; direct federal investment in river navigation; and federal, state and local investment in roads and highways.  Among other things, government investment in transportation opened up global markets for Western grain, most of which is exported.  The local population’s share of those costs was not much.  The greater burden was carried by taxpayers from other parts of the country.

Rural electrification didn’t come until the 20th century as one of those dastardly socialist FDR New Deal programs.  Those same programs began the process of damming the Columbia and Snake rivers to prevent floods, create cheap hydropower electricity, enable the irrigation of the high desert, and opening barge traffic to Pacific coast ports.  It transformed our area into one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions.  Who paid for all of that?  

In each case, the cost to the national taxpayer was seen by legislators as an investment in the future of the nation as a whole.  No individual person in Ohio, Virginia, or New York would see any direct benefit, but they were required to pay their share just the same.  It was an investment that paid off handsomely.  Local folks who took advantage of all this government largesse became prosperous, if not rich.  The nation’s Gross Domestic Product soared.  I’m sure that most Easterners didn't recognized that their return on the investment came on grocery store shelves, lumber for houses, gold in their teeth, etc.

It helps, of course, that various farm bills have been enacted to underwrite, subsidize, and promote farms not only as an investment in food self sufficiency and export opportunity, but also to prop up a treasured American way of life that few enjoy but many revere.

Westerners like their wide open spaces with easy (local) public access.  They have it through national forests, national parks, national monuments, national wilderness areas, BLM lands, and more.  They especially like that, even though the rest of the country owns it, they can treat it as their private domain and not worry too much about the cost of maintaining it.  

None of this is bad, and none of it takes away from the grit, determination, and courage that it took, and takes, to make it out here.  It can be a hard life.  Not many are up to it, but it’s foolish to hang that grit, determination, and courage on the fiction that it was all done by pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps through the self sufficiency of rugged individualism that had no need of government help or interference.

The extreme libertarian ethos is a mirage that, perhaps, will dissolve away.  I hope so.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Welcome, Acceptance, and Hearts

My friend, colleague, and neighbor, Fr. Ernie, is, like me, a retired rector of St. Paul’s in Walla Walla where he served for twenty some years.  At eighty-six he just keeps going along as a gifted pastor and supply clergy for other nearby churches.  He preached recently at Grace Church in Dayton, and I got to worship in the congregation as just another person in the pews.  It’s a rare treat.  On more Sundays than not, I’m the celebrant and preacher.  It’s not only that I get really tired of hearing my own preaching, Ernie’s sermons always feed me in unexpected ways.  It was true again yesterday.  

Among other things, he said that being “saved” must mean to be welcomed and accepted if it is to have any meaning at all.  God in Christ Jesus may welcome and accept with abounding and steadfast love, but we often stand in the breach preventing others from receiving it.  That may be one reason why John the Baptist was so scornful of the Pharisees and Sadducees, breach standers of note, who came to see what he was up to at the Jordan.  Well, there was more, but I want to get to something that was said in response to the sermon.

Someone wondered it we need to be more willing to “know the hearts” of others in order to make welcome and acceptance possible.  Ernie wondered if it might be more important to know our own hearts than to try to know the hearts of others.  Those are challenging questions worthy of consideration. 

I’m reluctant to go down the path of knowing the hearts of others, especially newcomers to church, because I’ve seen too many cases where that has become a form of interrogation probing into corners that the other is not ready to reveal, or ever will be.  That’s not welcome acceptance, it’s just plain nosiness.  I’m more inclined to suggest an attitude of “I don’t know who you are or what is on your heart, but you are welcome and accepted here.”  What we must do is to signal openness to be active listeners when an other needs to share what’s on his or her heart, but even there, boundaries need to be set.  We need to actively listen to what is being said, but not pry deeper than invited.  We also need to restrain ourselves from trying to fix the other.  Let us neither prescribe solutions nor take on responsibility for their lives, as we are so apt to do.  It’s easier said than done since prescribing and fixing is what we are most inclined to do.

Knowing our own hearts isn’t much easier.  The fearless self examination required in AA is easily avoided by most of us because it’s hard work, requires confession and repentance, and demands a level of honesty with ourselves that is uncomfortable at best.  If cruising along on our own patented persona autopilot seems to work well most days, why mess with it?  Of course, problems arise for the body of Christ when that autopilot is well grounded in ignorance and programmed with prejudice.  I doubt that any of us is completely free from those bugs, but they are so easily hidden that we can deny their presence without guile.

So where does that leave us.  I think that if knowing the hearts of others or of ourselves is the price of welcome and acceptance, then we have little chance of either.  However, we can point in that direction, and do the best we can, trusting that, by God’s grace, it will be good enough.  It’s taken years, but I’ve come to recognize that God’s grace is not only essential, it is also what fills in the gaps between our incompetence and good enough.  Learning to trust in that grace may be where we need to turn our attention.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rescuing the Poor

A tea party regular on the letters page in our local paper wrote a scathing rebuke to liberals who use generous welfare benefits to keep the poor dependent on government handouts, thus buying their votes.  The best way to help the poor, she believes, is to cut jobless benefits and other welfare programs so that the poor would be free to enter the labor market and make it on their own. 

I remember that argument from my high school days in the 1950s, along with a popular pamphlet about the danger of creeping socialism that would surely lead to Soviet style communism.  And my memory is predated a couple of decades by claims in the 1930s that the same was true about various FDR programs aimed at easing the effects of the Great Depression.  Fear more than facts.  

I would like to say that such claims are without merit of any kind, but, sadly, there is a smidgen of truth in them, a smidgen being some but not much.  Among a few well meaning persons, the desire to help the poor is prefaced by an assumption that they cannot help themselves without our benevolent support.  It’s a type of patronizing colonialism, with the poor playing the part of uncivilized childlike people who need our care and supervision.  It is also true that some persons, who live on a variety of government assistance programs and private charity, have mastered the art of survival in that context, but have no knowledge, skill, or expectation that survival is possible in any other context.  It’s not a life of ease.  It takes constant vigilance, an ability to maneuver through a Byzantine maze of regulations, and a keen eye for the gentle scam that might bring in a few more dollars.  For all of that, it’s survival, not abundance.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  For certain hedge fund managers, and their kin, manipulating the system and scamming the public has made them billionaires, but that’s another story.

The greater truth lies elsewhere.  Our regular letter writing tea partier and patronizing liberals each dismiss the poor with more than a little racism underwriting their beliefs and behavior.  Our letter writer at least cherishes the illusion that a fair and equitable market offers opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard enough.  Some of her fellow travelers are better informed, and know that a large portion of the population will sink to the bottom, forming a permanent impoverished underclass to provide cheap labor for those who float above them.  That’s the way of life, and good for those who are higher on the food chain.  Government handouts just mess up the natural order of things, costing us money we don’t need to spend. 

At the same time, well meaning liberals spend so much time trying to save, or expand, the social safety nets provided by governments and private charities that they fail to focus on the need for systemic reforms to make the market place more fair and equitable, and to open doors that have been culturally shut against access for others.  They need to stop their patronizing, pandering ways and recognize that the poor are quite capable of functioning as mature adults in an adult world. 

I’d like to think it would be easy, if we would just bend to the task, but it isn’t.  Our social prejudices are firmly held and hard to let go of.  Moreover, why should the poor trust the rich?  They are notoriously unreliable. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

St. Nick and You

On December 6 we will remember Nicholas, 4th century bishop of Myra, known for his compassionate generosity to the poor and needy.  Thinking about it reminded me of a recent conversation with a gathering of local clergy where talk quickly turned to examples of people who have been icons of the Christian life.

There is nothing wrong with talking about those examples.  They are all worthy of remembering, but it occurred to me that we almost always use examples of the godly lives of others to deflect useful conversation about how, or whether, we, you and I, are agents in our ordinary daily lives of God’s redeeming and reconciling work through Jesus Christ. 

Our clergy group tried to wrestle with that, but, for the most part, it ended up being a recitation of good deeds that could just as well been attributed to any local service club or well intentioned atheist doing what they can for the good of the community.  None of that is bad.  It’s all good.  But where is the good news that the kingdom of God has come near or is at hand?  How do we, as Christians, go about doing our good deeds with the light of Christ shining through?  It’s a hard question.  

For one thing, many of us have been beat about the head and shoulders by Christian do gooders demanding that we acknowledge Jesus as our personal lord and savior as they go about their work.  The kingdom of God seems strangely distant when that happens.  So we go about our work with no outward sign that it might be infused with God’s grace because we don’t want to be accused of bludgeoning someone with a bible.

Perhaps you have some thoughts on the matter, and I’d like to read them.  What I don’t want is your story of someone else’s good work.  What do you do in your daily life that others would recognize as something of the kingdom of God becoming present in their lives?  Would they ever connect that with your being a Christian?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Lurching Toward Justice

Not long ago a young friend posted on his Facebook page something he had picked up asserting that the churches of the country, not the government, have the responsibility for caring for the poor.  The short piece boldly stated that the bible says so.  I’ve heard that before in casual conversations around the Y locker room and elsewhere.

How curious!

As I pour through the scriptures, I can find dozens of passages where the people of God are commanded to care for the poor, as both individuals and society, but nowhere can I find such a commandment directed at synagogue or church.  I can find passages in Acts and Paul’s letters urging local congregations to care for the needy in their midst, but, unless I’m missing something, nothing about the needy in general.

More especially, the ethical prophets have a great deal to say about how kings, the wealthy, and society as a whole, had failed to address issues of justice, fairness and the needs of the poor.  God was not pleased.  To me the message is unmistakable, God expects society to be organized and governed so that justice and fairness extend to the poor and needy.  To be sure, Jesus and the writers of letters have little to say about government, and much to say about individual responsibilities to God.  But to carry out those godly responsibilities in daily secular life can be accomplished only by doing what one can to influence the rules by which we live together, especially as they impact the lives of the poor and needy.  

Our governments are not alien creatures forced on an unwilling people.  Our governments are not the enemy.  They are the collective wisdom of the people making decisions, through their elected representatives, about how we will live together as a society.  Over the short history of our nation, our governments, at all levels, have lurched toward a more godly form of justice, in part because some Christians have engaged their secular political lives as guided by God in Christ Jesus.  

What bothers me now is that the loudest voices claiming to represent our collective wisdom seem to be hard of hearing, shortsighted, and ill informed, but maybe that’s part of what lurching toward godly justice has to endure.   I’m reminded that Jesus healed the deaf, blind and dumb once, and he can do it again.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Do You Love Jesus?

A few days ago, I spent some time with a couple I had not met before.  They were delightful, very comfortable in their born again, fundamentalist way of experiencing and expressing their Christian faith, and more than uncomfortable in how I was introduced to them as Fr. Woolley.  Not a title that appealed to them in the least.  Nevertheless, it was reassuring to them that we did worship the same God, although she asked, in earnest, whether I loved Jesus.

I thought about it for a few seconds and said, sometimes.  I don’t think that’s the answer she wanted.  I am certain that Jesus loves me even if I don’t understand why he should, but my loving Jesus is more problematic.  I seldom think about loving Jesus one way or the other, it just doesn’t cross my mind that often.  Besides, I’m not sure what loving Jesus means.  

The English word love is so imprecise that unless I know the context in which it is used I have only the faintest idea of its meaning.  Often that context has to include the idiosyncrasies of the person using it.  At it’s least it has something to do with an affection for something that is affiliated with a degree of undefined pleasure.  I love what?  My wife, children, pumpkin pie, guitar music, oceans, Donne, cozy fires, Anglican choral evensong?  We use the word love to cover a lot of ground, we can even love hurtful, destructive things.  I don’t think it does much good to pull out the seminary card and argue for agape.  That’s not the word we use in everyday life.  We say love, so that’s the word we have to deal with. 

The Shema instructs us to love God with all our being.  Jesus said it was the greatest of all the commandments.  At the end of John’s gospel he interrogated Peter about whether Peter loved him.  Peter seemed to have a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about.  I’m with Peter.       

Do I love Jesus?  I guess so, but sometimes I don’t like him very much.  He doesn’t see the world the way I do, and isn’t impressed with my arguments of self justification.  His teachings are admirable in the abstract, but it turns out that they weren’t meant to be abstractions.  He’s serious about putting them into daily practice as a way of everyday living.  How crazy is that?  What he says are practical habits leading to divine blessings seem a bit excessive.  They are not in sync with some of my own well developed habits.  They interfere with my plans and prejudices.  He and I have long conversations about that.  He’s patient, and a far better listener than I am, but the only way I can win the argument is to walk away, slamming the door behind me like a petulant child.  I’ve finally learned not to do that.

A life spent in conversation with him means that what I thought I knew about being a Christian in decades past has changed dramatically, so much so that I recognize that what I think I know, I can know only provisionally.  God, whom I know in Jesus, keeps changing what I’ve always thought to be true by introducing new information, and opening my eyes to new understanding.  As they say, God is not done with me, and it appears that God is not done with anything else either.  Everything is in some state of becoming.  It‘s not reassuring for those who expect a priest and pastor to tell them what is absolutely and eternally true about all things, especially about things that relate to contemporary social and political issues.  What I can say, and what I have come to understand, is that I can trust God, whom I know in Christ Jesus.  I can trust him always and everywhere, even when he can’t trust me.  If that’s what it means to love Jesus, I’ll take it.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Time Honored Holiday Traditions

I am struck by the epistle reading for the first Sunday of Advent in which Paul exhorts his readers not to revel in drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, nor in quarreling and jealousy.  How untimely is that considering that’s pretty much what a lot of the holiday season is all about?

Isn’t it the time honored tradition of office Christmas parties to drink too much and do stupid things?  Aren’t we supposed to get giddy and flirt a little too much at neighborhood gatherings?  Don’t we earn bragging rights for eating too much, especially too much of those delicious calorie laden, artery clogging foods of our traditions?  “Too much” is a badge of honor not to be trifled with, and, after all, it’s only once a year, and it is the holiday season after all, after all.  And, if we get caught doing something we shouldn’t, well, it is the holiday season after all, and perhaps we had a wee bit too much to drink.

Why is Paul messing around with our traditions?  Doesn’t he read the papers or watch TV?

Needless to say, we Christians don’t participate in that kind over indulgent frivolity, although we have to admit that our family gatherings, if there are any, can become a bit mired in quarreling and jealousy.  Soberly, of course, but mired just the same.  Not my family, of course, but probably yours.  Sometimes it even spills over into our congregations where long simmering discontent erupts over disagreements about when and how to “green the church;” whether the annual whatever party will again be held since no one wants to be in charge, but everyone expects it to happen because it always has; where the creche will be put; when the children’s pageant will be held, and who Mary will be.  Not in my congregation, of course, but probably in yours.

Get a life Paul!  These are our time honored Christmas traditions.  We will get more serious about cutting down on drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy in January.  That’s what January is for.  It’s tradition.

We are going to try a Blue Christmas and see what happens

Regular readers, both of them, know that several times a month I serve a very small rural congregation, and love it.  So on December 22 we are teaming up with the UCC church across the street to host a Blue Christmas service.  It’s one they’ve done before, but it’s a first for us.  You probably know that it’s a simple service of readings, prayer and music designed especially for those who find the holiday season emotionally hard to bear.

I was trying to explain it to my wife, who wondered whether a Blue Christmas service was something of a liturgical pity party making an already difficult holiday season even worse.  A very good question, because advertising it to the broader community has to overcome that hurdle and a few others.  

For one thing, the larger community is made up of two fairly large groups.  First, those who attend conservative churches that emphasize the dark days in which we live, the importance of fighting the devil, the slim and slippery grasp we have on salvation, and a dose of right wing politics whenever it can be worked in.  The other, and larger group, are those who attend no church at all, are turned off by what they think they know about Christianity as expressed by the churches in the first group, and know for certain that their lives bear zero similarity to those depicted on the Hallmark Channel’s nonstop parade of saccharine Christmas shows.  So whatever Christianity and Christmas are about, it has nothing to do with them.

We shall see what happens.  We are going to advertise it as well as we can in the local papers and social media.  It will be held at our church, but the Congregational pastor will lead it.  I will be the celebrant for Holy Communion offered at the end, with some inviting explanation about what Holy Communion means as a sacrament of healing within the context of Anglican tradition.  It will be gentle and filled with hope and blessing for those who need it most.  I may have more to say about it after the 22nd.  In the meantime, on to other things.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Do Your Politics inform the Gospel?

I’ve recently been able to spend some time with one of my favorite very conservative friends: a man who will only watch Fox News, only listen to Rush Limbaugh, and only read books by Glenn Beck.  If he could, his paper would be the Washington Times.  At the same time, he is a devoted Christian who is unafraid to ask the hard questions, and always wants to know more.  Part of what makes him one of my favorite people is that he enjoys conversation with folks on the other side, is willing to listen, and always speaks with respectful civility.  

It’s made me ask my own question.  Do politics inform our understanding of the gospel, or does the gospel inform our understanding of politics?  It’s probably a combination of both, but we have chosen the wrong path if the gospel is not predominant.

I like to think that it is the gospel that informs my politics, which, of course, makes me a perfectly fair and balanced observer of how others answer the question through their words and deeds.  For instance, I’m fairly sure that my friend’s politics inform his understanding of the gospel, and he hopes that, if he asks the right questions, sooner or later it will endorse his conservative libertarian world view.  To the extent that it has not yet done so, he is able to compartmentalize, keeping Sunday, church, the bible and Jesus in one place, and his politics in another.  I suppose it would help if he had more politically conservative pastors in his life.  He’s tried that, but it is the gospel as wrestled with in the Episcopal Church that feeds his soul and gives him the blessed assurance he craves, so he puts up with pastors who are unable to cross his political threshold.  

You can see how fair and balanced I am about this, very close to the Pharisee in the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  But the question is a good one.  Think about it.  Does the gospel inform your politics, or do your politics inform the gospel?  As pastors, we need to ask it repeatedly because the answers will be slippery little devils, quickly appealing to our various assumptions and prejudices.  Answering it through thoughtful, prayerful discernment will force us to examine them, while making room for us to listen when God has something to say.  And, as scripture so often reminds us, what God has to say is often something we don’t want to hear.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

You Don't Work, You Don't Eat!

I belong to an ecumenical Tuesday morning clergy group that gathers to talk and study the lectionary lessons for the coming Sunday.  Sometimes it’s more talk than study, and that’s OK.  

Recently we worried over that portion of 2 Thessalonians where Paul commanded that those who don’t work don’t eat, which he prefaced by condemning idlers, testifying to his own hard self supporting work, and encouraging all to work quietly.  Now, you can exegete and parse that out anyway you want, the fact remains that it’s one of those “Aha, I told you so, it’s right there in the bible: you don’t work you don’t eat” passages that seems to endorse solid libertarian politics in opposition to the welfare state, especially welfare for the lazy good for nothings who feed at the tax payers’ trough. 

How, as a pastor, are you going to handle that?

I don’t think a sophisticated theological argument based on a systematic examination of scripture, even if limited to 2 Thessalonians, will do much good.  Most of the people sitting in the pews understand the Christian faith, the bible, and the denomination in which they worship with little more than a superficial Sunday School education.  They’re always impressed with their pastor’s erudition, particularly when she tosses in a few Greek words, but it doesn’t change their politics.  They know what they know, and what they know is anchored more deeply in cultural prejudice than in scripture, which, as is the custom, is best used to support cultural bias anyway.  

I wish I knew what would make a difference, but just a day ago I was a gathering of some of the more wealthy people in town.  One person at our table wondered if society has a moral responsibility to see that effective health care is available to all, and the response was a horrified no.  That’s just code talk for (gasp) socialized medicine that takes goods and services away from people who can and do pay for them through hard work, and gives them away to the (lazy) poor.  In another setting, an acquaintance asserted that the relatively few deserving poor could, and should, be taken care of by the churches and other local non profits.  A few days before that I was with a small group that shared their first hand knowledge of food stampers who a) sold their benefits for cash to buy drugs, b) bought unapproved goodies and beer, c) took out good food but kept junk when it was clear they could not pay for everything.  When pressed for details it became clear that they a) were repeating rumors, b) easily generalized from one reported incident, c) assumed that food stampers needed to be treated with suspicion and closely monitored.

I don’t know where one can gain traction with mind sets like that.  In its Wit & Wisdom column, the November 15 issue of The Week cited Henry Rosovsky as having said, “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.” 

What I do know is this, we pastors must be faithful in proclaiming the gospel in as profligate and promiscuous way as the sower of seeds in Jesus’ parable.  Our job is to continue sowing the seeds that Christ sowed with no care about where they land or fear that we might run out.  For what it’s worth, my seed sack is filled with a blend of Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission salted with a bit of Matthew 25.  What’s in yours?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Come on in, Sit down, and Rest a little while

We have traveled a lot in the last few days, with much our time waiting around in airports for the next flight.  One airport had recharging stations set up on tables similar to library reading tables, and I sat across from two men who worked for a technology company that had something to do with fluid dynamics.

Both were hard at work on their computers, and sometimes on their phones with clients or coworkers.  One was in his late 50s, and clearly the master of his profession.  The other was in his 20s, and clearly the master of quick thinking, and the mechanics of his work.  I got to watch them for an hour or so as close to an invisible presence as possible.   

What I noticed was the younger man’s impatience with older man’s questions that required reflective answers, especially questions that touched on some issue involving calculations or statistical analyses, on which each was working.  The younger man would snap back that he had already done it, had it under control, and was way ahead of the other on everything.

The older man wanted some reflective thinking about how what they were working on would affect customers, suppliers, and coworkers in other departments.  The younger man expected mathematical analysis to speak for itself with no need for additional reflection about things that could not be calculated or factored into computer code.  It would just slow things down.

Yes, there was a bit of youthful arrogance in the form of, “I’m young, smart, and fast while you are old, slow, and behind the times.”  But the older man’s knowledge, speed and abilities appeared to the be the equal of his young companion.  What was more striking was the younger man’s inability to recognize the importance of how much work is a function of relationships between humans that must be factored into any calculation that will affect those relationships.  I don’t think that’s a characteristic of youth as such.  It seems to be something more in keeping with an education lacking in the liberal arts, the failure of management to provide appropriate training and education, and possibly a function of one’s basic personality type. 

I’m a little hesitant on that last part because I’m unconvinced that we are so hardwired into particular personality types that we cannot adapt.  Arguments of “that’s just the way I am” are signs of emotional laziness more than anything else.  I’m reminded of a class I taught in an executive MBA program some decades ago.  It was called Management and Society, the only first year non-quantitative class they were required to take.  Most of my students were technical people from engineering or medicine, and they were uncomfortable trying to cope with issues that could not be graphed or calculated, but they did it.    

It may not have turned engineers into diplomats.  Reflective thinking about relationships may have remained a struggle.  But they were smart enough to know that they now had the basic tools to engage in that work, and that it was an important work.  The only question that remained was whether they would be too lazy to do it.  I often wonder about what happened to them.  How many went on like the young man across the table from me who could put numbers on faces, but could not put faces on numbers?  

Beyond that question, the brief play acted out before me also had something to say to the Church.  Ours is a faith that encourages slow, reflective thinking.  The entrance bar is low: a little water, “accepting” Jesus, and a juvenile grasp of the text is all there is, maybe all there needs to be.  But it offers so much more when the text is comprehended on multiple levels that compete with each other while revealing something new at each reading; when life is lived slow enough to allow suspension of judgment; and when enchantment is allowed to penetrate the ordinary of daily life.

That doesn’t lend itself to a text messaging, spreadsheet informed society lived at digital light speed, nor should it.  Maybe we need to be more assertive about inviting the world, in the words of the old spiritual, to come on in, sit down, and rest a little while. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Playing Ain't it Awful

The clergy in my diocese are having a vigorous online conversation about the meaning of contemporary ministry, burnout, change, and so on.  It’s probably a familiar litany to any gathering of clergy.

I can see in the exchange a tendency to focus on one issue or another that, if solved, would make everything OK.  It’s very hard to examine issues as elements of systems in which the interconnectedness of things is both recognized and understood, especially if overlapping systems are in play, which they always are.  So it’s not surprising to hear the argument that if we could just solve this one thing, all would be well.  

Now and then someone will suggest taking the broader view of things, but even that seems to be prefaced on assumption that if you simply understand the systems, they will somehow work better.  The connection seems to be lost between seeing the big picture and working on one thing at a time within that picture.  Of course there are dozens of books and consultants who, for a few bucks, will tell you how to do it right, and, for the most part, it’s good advice.

Not much has changed in the forty years I’ve been working on organizational systems, and I do get discouraged at the lack of progress.  Maybe it’s that working on these issues is hard, and most people are so busy trying not to drown that they don’t have time to learn to swim.  It may also have something to do with the glazed over eyes whenever a consultant starts into the interconnectedness of all things.  It’s just too complicated and intimidating.  The not infrequent response is, “Oh yeah, I read that book, but it didn’t work.”  Which is true: reading a book does not make something happen. 

I think that’s what keeps me going back to the AA model.  It’s God centered.  It’s simple.  It’s focussed on what one person can do, one step at a time.  It introduces the concept of interconnectedness at the right time in a way that one person, doing what he or she can, is able to comprehend.  The problem is that it requires commitment, time and patience, which flies in the face of the too busy and want a fix right now mentality that many of us share. 

So, will I share these observations in the ebb and flow of the on line conversation in our diocese?  Absolutely not!  No one wants to hear from an old retired priest that they are unlikely to accomplish anything more than continuing the ancient game of Ain’t it Awful.  Who knows?  Maybe there’s something therapeutic in playing the game, and maybe that’s enough.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Land, Culture and Grudges

Yesterday, a friend told me about a new member at Rotary with the endorsement that his family goes back five generations in the valley.  That seemed to put an indelible seal of approval on him as a man of worth.  I wonder why?

What is it about generations of rootedness in a place that become a mark of authenticity and approval?  How does that add up to the mythic assumption that families with generational roots have a greater say in and ownership of the community than do newcomers?  It’s an especially poignant question considering that generational roots in this part of the country were laid down barely 150 years ago on land that was taken from Indians who consented to the taking only at the wrong end of a rifle.  

I don’t have answers, just questions, and a few guesses.

Part of it might have to do with our human desire to shortcut the assessment of others by imputing worth according to the accumulated deeds or misdeeds of previous generations, which is hard to do if previous generations are unknown.  Some current generation families assume a degree of social standing for themselves based on their ancestors’ successes, and are not reluctant to judge others on the failures of theirs.  It’s a handy way to judge self and others without bothering to look very deep, but it’s a pain in the neck when newcomers, whose families are not known, settle in.

Part of it might have to do with a desire to preserve and value the history, culture and traditions of a place.  Hawaiians have a word, kama’aina, that means someone who belongs to and loves the land.  In contemporary usage it means anyone with a State of Hawaii drivers license, but the more traditional sense separates someone who is kama’aina from visitors who have no vested interest in the land and its culture, and cannot be relied upon to respect it.

The Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes that once populated our valley understand that because early European settlers did what they could to erase the tribal culture that permeated the land in order to replace it with their own.  In like manner, families representing several generations of European settlement fear that newcomers, and the social changes they bring, will erase the cultural values that their people sowed, replacing it with something unknown and probably disrespectful.

How long does it take to get over that kind of thinking?  Considering the current movements in Britain calling for the secession of Wales and Scotland from the United Kingdom, it takes more than a few centuries.  The Picts and Celts are still angry about the invasion of those upstart Anglo-Saxons, who are still smarting over the drubbing they took from the Normans.

We hold nothing closer or longer than a good grudge.

Obviously there is more to this subject, but that’s all for now.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Question About Holy Sight

How do we see each other?  I’ve been pondering this in view of the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and tax collector who were praying in the same place, but not together.  You may know the story.  The tax collector beat his chest, confessing his sins, while the Pharisee gave thanks that, unlike the sinful tax collector, he was an upright religious man.  

Obviously the Pharisee saw the tax collector kneeling in prayer, but he could not see him in the fullness of his humanity or dignity as a child of God.  Within the context of the parable he could not even see himself in any truthful way through the veil of his prideful religiosity.

As for the tax collector, he could more honestly see himself as an unworthy and sinful man.  Perhaps, through the act of being in conversation with God, he might also become more open to seeing himself as one created and loved by God.  We don’t know.  Maybe he could see himself more fully if he could also see the Pharisee in the fullness of his humanity and dignity as a child of God.  Maybe, but did he even know he was there?

It brings up the question of how well you and I see the other, and whether, for those of us who claim to be Christian, it’s an important ingredient of our faith?  How well do we see ourselves?  How well do we see the other?  How well do we see us in our relationships with each other?  I suspect not very well because the discipline of seeing the other, through eyes that have been fearlessly honest, is hard work.  

Consider the healing stories in which Jesus restores sight to the blind.  In all but one, the newly sighted person can see immediately with full understanding.  Persons long blind who recover their sight have a hard time doing that.  The visual image of something as simple as a chair may be all but incomprehensible to one who has only learned its use through other senses.  How much more difficult to comprehend a crowd of people.  Yet those healed by Jesus could see with understanding, and I think that’s important. 

When Jesus heals our blindness, we are able to see both ourselves and others with understanding.  I call it holy sight.  However, we are reluctant to receive that kind of healing, because we don’t think we’re blind, a little short sighted maybe, but not blind.  We are like the blind man in Mark’s gospel who was taken to Jesus for healing, but on the first try could see only things that looked like trees walking.  Jesus had to take another shot at it.  

I was struck by that in recent meditations on St. Teresa and John Calvin.  To oversimplify, Teresa’s life long search for holy sight discovered an essentially good self, which contrasts with Calvin’s lifelong search for holy sight that discovered an essentially corrupt self.  Each could see, but not clearly.  Perhaps an unlikely marriage of Teresa and Calvin would bring them closer to the restoration of holy sight. 

The Episcopal baptismal covenant takes me in that direction by asking me to affirm that I will, by word and example, proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and that I will respect the dignity of every human being.  I’m not very good at doing that, but the more intentional I am at engaging in that work brings me a little closer to the restoration of holy sight.  

In like manner, during the general confession each Sunday we admit that we have not loved God or our neighbor in the right way.  In other words, we have not seen with holy sight either ourselves or the other.  I regret that I too often mumble the confession out of rote memory without pausing to consider the depth of what I have said.  Like the man with restored but fuzzy, out of focus sight, I need Jesus to take another shot at it.  It’s what we all need.  I’m not very good at it.  How about you?


Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Diversity

One of the things I most enjoyed about my several days at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary was the diversity of students in the TEEM program (see previous posts).  I’ve been to a number of gatherings where diversity was celebrated, but mostly it was in the form of there are some blacks here, let’s make them feel welcome in our white group.  Or, there are a couple of white guys here, let’s help them feel comfortable in our black community.  You know the routine, and have probably been a part of it at one time or another. 

The diversity of this group included Caribbeans, Africans, Indians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and a collection of North Americans in a variety of colors and ethnicities.  There wasn’t any dominant culture into which anyone could be welcomed.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  All but we eight Episcopalians were Lutheran, but it worked out OK.  

Three of us in a small group discussion talked about where we grew up and when we first became aware of people not like us.  It turned out that each of us grew up knowing only our own tribe, found moving to other places where there were other tribes both exciting and filled with anxiety, and admitted that we are still most comfortable in the midst of fellow tribe members, even if they are not personally known to us.  That was common ground from which our three member community found enough to form the potential for friendship.  

Like any workshop, the moment came and went, but it accomplished the work of a few moments to live comfortably in a different frame of reference, and that is something that is not easy to achieve. 

So often when the members of a dominant culture want to be inclusive of outsiders, they offer a form of hospitality intended to welcome others to become one of them.  For example, a former congregation went through a period wanting to be open to Hispanics in the community.  With the very best of intentions, they thought they could welcome our immigrant Mexicans into our very Anglo Episcopalian space with a few Spanish language prayer books on a table near the door, singing a few songs in Spanish, and maybe reading a lesson or two in both languages, all with the expectation that visitors would soon be just like us, except for language.  It never panned out for obvious reasons, one of them being that many of our immigrant Mexicans have been here for several generations.  Moreover, thinking of them as ‘ours’ unintentionally and offensively implies ownership.

I think the diversity we desire is neither tolerance nor integration.  I think it is something akin to the experience at PLTS in which we recognize, respect and honor the variety of cultures and ethnicities we each bring to the gathering.  Recognition, respect and honor will always lead to friendship.  True integration will probably be the function of sex over quite a few generations.  At least that’s what Michener and Schlesinger thought, and I believe they were right. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Workshops on Racism, A Waste of Time?

At a recent conference I heard one person tearfully lament mass incarcerations and its relationship to systemic racism.  Another passionately spoke about the built in advantages and privileges that have accrued exclusively to white European Americans.  In each case their tone was accusatory, and since they were both white European Americans, it bordered on verbal self flagellation.  Or it would have if they had not exempted themselves from the class of rich, white elite to which they ascribed the collective sins of racism and economic injustice.  

I tried to listen with the ears of my friend Ed, a crusty tea party type, rich, self made, and certain that weak kneed, namby-pamby, nanny state liberalism is ruining our country.  Ed thinks imprisoning criminals is a good idea, as many as possible for as long as possible, and if there are more blacks in prison than anyone else it’s because they commit more crimes than anyone else.  He grew up poor and made it big.  If he could do it, so can anyone else, so quit complaining.

Do you see the problem here?  Both use English words, but their languages are anchored in such different world views that they might as well live in separate universes.  Moreover, each ascribes to the other a moral turpitude that the other would both deny and find irrevocably offensive.  

Where can a bridge be built?

I think maybe in two places.

Left wing liberals, such as those at the conference, need to be made aware of the rude arrogance of their self-righteousness.  Arch conservatives, such as Ed, need to understand what systemic advantages and privileges really are, and how they have benefitted from them.  Leave the other issues alone until this foundation has been laid.   

The workshop I attended was led by Judith Roberts of the ELCA with a presentation as solid as any I have experienced.  I think that if persons of her calibre could present it in separate sessions for liberals and conservatives, it could make a real difference.  Each would have an opportunity to hear without the other making it difficult.  That doesn’t seem likely, but it does occur to me that a workshop like hers, conducted in local congregations, with the clergy disinvited, might be a reasonable approximation.  Why disinvite the clergy?  The congregations in our diocese are a mixed bag, but they tend to be more conservative than the clergy who serve them, and clergy are sometimes inclined to speak out when they should be listening, I being first among them.  

The key would be the presenter.  Other workshops I have attended often had two weaknesses.  First, they were labeled as antiracism with the premise that those who attended needed to be convinced about how racist they are. Second, they tended to be led by liberal persons who managed to raise the prickly defenses of any conservatives who may have attended.  Folks went away more convinced than ever of the rightness of their position.  However important the issue of racism is, it is someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem, and each was pretty sure who that someone is.  Maybe what is needed first is a workshop for presenters at which someone like Ms. Roberts would explain not what to teach, but how to teach.