Friday, September 20, 2013

Liberal, Conservative, God, Wealth. You Choose.


Liberals believe in big government, the nanny state, high taxes, uncontrolled spending, disregard for debt and deficit, avoidance of personal accountability, and unbridled intrusion of government into the private lives and liberties of people.  That’s pretty much what most of my self proclaimed conservative acquaintances believe, and, if they are members of a religious faith, they add a variety of anti-religion and secular humanist adjectives to the list. 

It’s a curious thing since liberals, at least in the historic sense, are the ones who have championed religious and political freedom, the rights of the individual, the expectation that government should be responsive and accountable to the people, and that society should be as fair and open as possible.  Moreover, as Theo Hobson wrote in the September 18, 2013 issue of “The Christian Century,” modern liberal democracy is firmly rooted in the Christian faith.  It is a working out in secular society something of the fullness of Christ’s teaching, and the here and now of the presence of God’s kingdom. 

I can understand where some of the conservative angst comes from, especially when I watch the performance of our state legislature, to say nothing of congress.  There are legislators who promote whatever spending they think is needed for whatever good idea they have come up with regardless of our ability to pay for it.  If those good ideas are aimed at helping the poor, they are labeled as liberal.  If they are aimed at helping business and industry they are labeled as conservative.  I think they are cut out of the same cloth.  

It is said that conservatives favor limited government and balanced budgets.  If the Republican party is the litmus test, they don’t live up to their hype.  It is true that, on the whole, liberals are not afraid of government, and are willing to use its power martial resources for the improvement of society.  Contrary to Tea Party types, when conservative whine about big government intrusion into their lives, it seems they have no objection to using it to protect their own interests, including behavior that is oppressive, selfish, favoring the advantages of the already advantaged, and, as we have often discovered after the fact, environmentally destructive. 

Nevertheless, conservatives raise a valid point.  Government has only one form of power, and that is coercion.  We must be very careful about how that power gets used, because once out there, it’s all but impossible to take back.  I wish we could rely on conservatives to be an effective loyal opposition working to keep governmental excesses in check.  It doesn’t seem to work that way.  When people claiming to be conservative, and backed by powerful corporate interests, get the chance to use the power of government, they tend to be ruthless and reckless with it.   They go apoplectic over liberal socialism but are perfectly happy with corporate welfare, the more the better.  Whatever they are afraid of, it’s not big government.

It gets complicated and confusing, but what really confuses me is the tendency of those struggling at the lower end of the middle class to support policies intended to benefit the richest and most powerful, with those in the upper middle class riding along for free.  Give them their unlimited right to guns, promise them lower taxes, and they don’t much care what else happens.  Add to that their conviction that folks on welfare are living the easy life while they struggle from paycheck to paycheck, and you’ve got an easy sell for a weird Dickensian alliance between those with power and those subjected (sometimes abusively) to that power.  

The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that, as a Christian, you cannot live by the gospel and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal at the same time.  Gee, somebody else said something like that.  You can’t serve both God and wealth, you have to choose.  Wasn’t that it?  Who said that?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Is Your Family Dysfunctional? What is a Functional Family?


I don’t know when dysfunctional became an adjective routinely attached to the noun family, but in my years of pastoral counseling the common denominator has been a complaint that “my family is so dysfunctional.”  It’s led me to wonder what a functional family might be, and does anybody actually live in one?  Before we get into that, it’s important to note that there are families, and family like groups, that are habitually self destructive, imposing serious physical and emotional damage on one another.  They are not the subject of this article. 

I recently posed a question on FaceBook of what a functional family might be.  The most common responses asserted that they are families where all work together for the good life of each.  Each member enjoys being a part of the happy whole family, and each works to keep it happy.  They are a group of people living together, helping each other, because they love each other.   Give me a break!  Where, other than The Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver, did that come from?  I don’t believe images such as these are helpful because no one’s family lives up to them.  Each of our families falls short, some more short than others.  It leads to the unrealistic expectation that, since we don’t live in that kind of family, our family must be dysfunctional, and we have been shortchanged for having to be a part of it while others are enjoying the fullness of life in their functional families.

Who sold us an ideal like that?  I’ll tell where it didn’t come from.  It’s not biblical and it doesn’t fit into the stories of Christian faith.  True, we are commanded to love one another as Christ loved us, but we don’t do it very well, and those who have learned how to live into the fullness of Christ’s love have most often paid dearly for it.

A functional family is a family that is good enough, a family that muddles through the vicissitudes of life with endurance, hope, and an ability to laugh and cry at the same time.  I used an analogy at the fire department this morning that I think I’ll use here as well.  Our department has an old ladder truck no longer certified as safe for fire work.  Is it functional or dysfunctional?  It starts and keeps running.  It can get from point A to point B without breaking down (very often).  It’s ladder goes up and down, and is safe enough for something like, say, tree trimming.  It’s functional.  It can do the essential work of a truck with a ladder on it.  

Functional families are like that, and most of us, but not all, are members of one.  Functional families can do the essential work of raising up new generations with a reasonable expectation that they will be well enough equipped to enter adulthood in an OK way.  They are able to maintain relationships with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and even parents, through strains, fights, separations, tragedy, disappointments, successes, celebrations, good fortune and ill, hurt feelings, joy, delight, and tears.  

One respondent to my FaceBook question put it this way.  
Scott Peck defines "community" as a group of people who fight gracefully. So I guess one element has to be managing conflict, which means dealing with differences and keeping relationships intact.  A functional family probably starts with parents of reasonable emotional intelligence, who make each other's needs as important as their own, yet give each other the space to be their own person.

I like that, “reasonable emotional intelligence.”  It’s not perfection, it’s good enough.  Functional families are good enough.  They are like your family and my family, including all the skeletons in the closet.  But wait, surely we Christians have higher standards than that.  Let’s turn to the bible.  

Consider Jesus’ family.  As far as we know, his mother was widowed at a fairly young age.  Her eldest son, a skilled carpenter, could have supported her financially, as was his legal duty, but he wandered off to be an itinerant preacher.  At one point his family thought he might be crazy, and tried to capture him.  In the end, he was hung as a criminal leaving his mom to weep at the foot of his cross.  I don’t think that story line would be acceptable to the Bradys or Cleavers.  James and John, working in their dad’s successful fishing business just up and left to follow Jesus with no warning at all.  Talk about disrespect.  The last thing we heard about Peter was that he was off on a mission leaving wife and mother-in-law to fend for themselves as best they could.  Did he have any kids?  Abraham had sex with his wife’s maid, and that didn’t end well for the maid.  David’s son pulled a coup d’etat on him.  It would probably be a good idea to put the bible down now and look elsewhere.

I suggest the marriage ceremony.  In our tradition we invite the couple being married to live into a covenant that includes foreknowledge that their life together will bring mutual joy, help and comfort, prosperity and adversity, sickness and health, riches and poverty, better times and worse times.  It’s a life, that with God’s help and God’s blessing, will be a greater gift than anything else could possibly be, and yet it will come with that whole range of peaks and valleys.  Perfection is never promised.

Yes, each of us is disappointed with something about how our parents raised us, what our siblings did to us, and all the squabbling and petty jealousies that raise their ugly heads whenever we get together, but that doesn’t make our families dysfunctional.  It just marks them as normal as most other families.  If your family is truly dysfunctional you will probably need more than a pastoral counselor.  You will need crisis intervention, child protective services, a restraining order, serious psychological care, and God’s strongest saving grace.

Friday, September 13, 2013

To Mall or Not to Mall?


Not so many years ago, when malls were all the rage, Walla Walla got the Blue Mountain Mall, and, except for Macy’s, the high volume stores downtown bolted for the new place.  Two things happened.  First, downtown did not die but revitalized itself to become the preferred shopping and dining venue for the community.  Downtown Macy’s prospered while mall stores such as J.C. Penny, Sears, and several others went out of business.  Second, mall walking and hanging out became the primary uses of mall space.  It’s hard to stay open if you are nothing more than indoor decoration for elderly mall walkers and bored teenagers.

The fact was that we did not have the population or income base to support a mall with all the chain stores that everyone said they wanted.  Eventually it closed its doors and fell into disrepair.  Actually, more than disrepair: it looked like a bombed out ruin in a Mideast war zone.  Several would be developers stepped in to bring it back to life, but each one turned out to be an excessively leveraged web of shell corporations effectively hiding the true owners and lenders.  They milked whatever funds and tax benefits they could, then disappeared to be replaced by even murkier interests.  The last one fled the country to avoid prosecution when he was finally uncovered.

It took years to unravel the mess so that the city could force disclosure and sale to a responsible owner able to do something with the derelict, and with a track record to back it up.  That sale was announced yesterday.  The public has not been understanding.  They could not believe that the government they so distrust did not have the power to simply take over the property and do whatever it wanted with it.  They could not understand how ownership could be hidden behind layers of shell companies with no presence other than a mail drop somewhere.  They were unwilling to recognize the difference between city and county governments.  Most of all, they wanted a nice, safe, indoor place to walk in even if they never bought much.  Better yet, they wanted a mall with those classy high end stores featured in the catalogues because that would say that Walla Walla had arrived.  

I was a little surprised myself to learn how easy it is to set up shell corporations to hide behind.  Even the NSA would have a hard time penetrating some of the legal mazes that define them.  But I digress.

Walla Walla has grown up a bit.  The wine industry has made us a destination for wine tourism, and that is slowly expanding into other areas.  Our Blue Mountains could be a huge attraction as accessible but unspoiled wilderness.  Our three colleges are ranked among the best.  We have a professional symphony orchestra, several theater companies, jazz and chamber music festivals, as well as the rodeo and demolition derby.  The county population, however, has grown slowly, and our median family income remains a modest $46,000 with about 18% below the poverty line.  Just the same, there are pockets of real wealth, and tourists spend a lot when in town.  We can support a bit more and higher end retail, a bit, not a lot.  But, do we really want a mall?

A larger urban area, the Tri-cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland, is only fifty to sixty miles away.  A less inviting stretch of desert along the Columbia River you have never seen, but transportation and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have given them the population base to support a large (ugly) mall of second level shopping, as well as every big box store and chain restaurant known to the Pacific Northwest.  There are no downtowns in the Tri-cities, just strips of store fronts here and there.  We cannot compete with that, nor do we want to.  

I believe we need to admit that we are at a point where we should boldly trade on our snob appeal as the green valley in the high desert; an oasis of culture, higher education, and premium wines, up against the beautiful Blue Mountains.  A place where bling and glitz are not welcome, but the coastal wealthy are welcome if they come with an attitude of humility and respect for local ways.  It could work.

So what will go in on the mall property?  Who knows, but whatever it becomes will have to be well balanced, respectful of downtown, and backed by patient money.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Today We Intered 300 Persons Known to God Alone


Today we intered the remains of almost three hundred persons who had been lingering, unclaimed, on storage closet shelves in the county coroner’s office.  Some of them had been there since the 1940s.  Most are men.  Some are women.  Maybe a third bear the name of “Baby Boy/Girl, Unknown.”    Our city cemetery made space available for them all in a new public crypt.  A local monument company provided a memorial bench engraved to honor the unclaimed and unknown lying within.  Prayers were offered from several traditions: Christian, Jewish, and the spirituality of the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla Tribes. 

It is tearfully sad to think that a baby can be born into this life full of promise and potential only to die unmourned, unclaimed, and unloved.  The deuterocanonical book of Sirach reminds us that, while we might sing the praise of famous men, “...of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten...” 

Godly men of righteous deeds might be a stretch.  But they are not forgotten.  Surely they are among the least of these for whom our Lord came that they might have abundant life.  We don’t know their stories, but I suspect that in each of them was some failure by the rest of us to offer water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and clothing to the naked.  Perhaps we were moved in that direction but stopped to decide who was deserving and who was not.  Who can say?

In any case, the jars of ashes that are their earthly remains are off the shelf, out of the closet, and repose in space made sacred by prayer and song.  I wonder about the ones born today who will someday join them.  The neonatal nurseries of St. Mary’s and General Hospital are filled with such promise and potential.  Why must any of them die unmourned, unclaimed and unloved?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Titans of Industry


Sunday night I watched an episode of “The Men Who Built America” that featured Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, T. Roosevelt and others.  Interesting show.  It included commentary by a variety of academics and business elite.  A few of them did their best to assume the aura of those old titans of industry.  It was a crown that didn’t fit very well, but that didn’t stop them from trying it on.  

One asserted that he was really a nice guy, but if you picked a fight with him he would do real damage to you because he was a winner, not a loser.  My immediate thought was that he had already lost.  That sort of attitude seems to be followed up with behavior that “does not suffer fools gladly.”  In my former occupation I frequently ran into corporate and political leaders like that.  It didn’t take long to figure out that they were usually surrounded by fools of their own choosing.  To employ another old bromide, they tended to operate on the principle of “lead, follow or get out of the way,” by which they meant “I’m leading so either follow me or get out of my way.”  The result was to be surrounded by sycophants of marginal ability feasting on the crumbs left behind.  

It works as long as the boss makes enough right, sometimes brilliant, decisions not just to get the job done, but to get it done in a spectacular way.  There is always a limit to how often that can happen because those kinds of decisions are as much a matter of fortuitous coincidence as they are of skill.  The ancient writers of Greek tragedy understood that well, and contemporary examples of hubris outrunning ability can be seen.  ITT, American Airlines, Enron, and AIG come to mind.  Even when affairs of business go well (for at least one person), losses of immense magnitude pile up in personal lives, indeed in the very ability to enjoy life at all.

How sad is that!  By contrast I’ve been observing the firefighter/paramedics for whom I am a chaplain, and while none of them is likely to ever be a wealthy titan of industry or politics, they are, for the most part, far more successful in life.  Their business is saving lives under life threatening conditions, and they do it very well.  They know how to both lead and follow, and because they are confident that each one has the another’s back, no one is shoved out of the way.  There is simply no room for yes-men or sycophants in a well run fire department.  Because life is so precious that they will risk their lives to save other lives, life itself is to be enjoyed.  Yes, they have all the normal problems of any group of human beings, sometimes more.  Post traumatic stress for instance.  But, as far as I can tell, they also rejoice in family, children, friends, and community.  Isn’t that what success is about?

The nation does benefit from certain titans. They burn bright for a while, and in their moment have made the building of America possible.  That does not excuse their ruthlessness, but we can admire their accomplishments.  The wannabe titans who may be wealthy but have built little of any value to society are another matter.  Hopefully they won’t do too much damage before they go their way.

Monday, September 2, 2013

On The Trail


Our diocesan office in Spokane is about 130 miles north of my home in Walla Walla.  It’s a drive I make regularly with two routes to choose from.  The longer one by forty miles is mostly freeway.  At seventy miles an hour it crosses the intermountain plateau.  To me it’s a boring landscape.  The shorter route is two lane highway that twists and turns through the Palouse, down through the canyon like valley of the Snake River, up the other side, and through towns and dots on the map such as Dixie, Dayton, Dodge, Dusty, and Colfax.  That’s the way I like to go.

There is a place on the drive back where the road crosses a ridge, and on a clear day I can see our Blue Mountains with still two hours of driving to go.  For some reason I’m always a bit surprised at the sight.  “That’s home,” I say to myself, “I can almost touch it, but it’s so far away and I won’t be there for two more hours.”  The road falls away into another valley, and I won’t see the mountains again until I am almost there.

It reminds me of a piece from John Donne, and, now that I want to offer an exact citation, I cannot find my collected works of Donne, which is always close at hand, but seems to be hiding somewhere in another galaxy at the moment.  Anyway, it’s a portion of one of his satires and observes that God’s truth can be seen in plain sight on the top of a mountain, but the path to it is a twisting, difficult one with truth often hidden from view.  Nevertheless, the trek is worth it.  In like manner, a life of following Christ can often lose sight of the ultimate goal.  The way of the cross may be the way of life and peace, but it sometimes feels more like the way of defeat and grief with no end in sight, and nothing ahead but more plodding steps to take. 

Sometimes I have to be reminded that, like the road home from Spokane, and Donne’s mountain trail to God’s truth, the way of the cross is sure and certain.  I will arrive if I stay on it, but maybe today I’ll just sit by the river and watch life go by.  I’ll get back on the trail tomorrow.