Friday, May 23, 2014

Harlan Miller Day

As Memorial Day rolls around, it’s time for my annual Harlan Miller article.  Mr. Miller, he was known as Mr. Miller to many, was an impoverished recluse with no family.  He made St. Paul’s his spiritual home, and its people his family.  He was severely wounded in North Africa during WWII, spent years in hospitalized recovery, and was never able to live a normal life thereafter.  He died and is buried in the city cemetery.  

Memorial Day is reserved to honor those who gave their lives in the military service of their country.  Not every one who gave their lives died in battle.  Some, like Harlan, were killed off bit by bit, physically, psychologically, and spiritually.  They didn’t die on the beach or in the trenches, but they were killed by war just the same.  Harlan, and those like him, were not heroes.  They were just doing their duty, often wondering what that duty was, and trying to stay alive in order to come home.  

My dad was not Harlan.  He was a naval officer serving on destroyers in the Pacific.  He never talked about it except in abstract ways.  The only time I ever saw him cry was when he and I toured an old destroyer, now a museum piece, on which he had served.  I have no idea what the story was behind those tears, but some part of him was left in the Pacific, never to return home.  Harlan and my dad were part of what we have labeled The Greatest Generation.  Maybe they were.  Now we have generations of soldiers killed in battle, and veterans who have returned home partly killed from continuous decades of wars, each one of questionable justification.  No one calls them greatest, but they have done their duty just the same.  


So, this weekend, as we place flags on graves, and go to patriotic parades, let us also remember those who have been killed by war one piece at a time.  Let us not be glib with superficial praise of American heroics.  Let us pause to reflect on the cruelty and injustice of war itself, asking God’s forgiveness for romanticizing it.  Let us honor the Harlans of this world for the sacrifices they have made not only with flags and flowers, but by doing what we can to give them back their lives.

Monday, May 19, 2014

They Guy is a Second Rate Hack

Looking over my two last posts, I find the writing jerks along from subject to subject with almost no effort to smooth the transitions.  Grand assertions are made with very little evidence to support them.  If not footnotes, then at least citations and attributions of articles and research would help.  I complained to my wife about my writing.  The guy’s a second rate hack, I said.  I wanted to make changes that would double or triple the length of most of the short essays I write.  

She talked me out of it on the grounds that people do not want, and will not take the time, to read Internet articles that are much over 500 words.  That’s sad, but I think she’s right.  The language I find so terse and disconnected doesn’t bother her at all.  Laying out a reasonably cogent argument in relatively few words without worrying about anything approaching elegance works just fine for her, and, she says, for most others who read things on the Net. 


I find that both understandable and sad at the same time.  Well, that’s life, so here’s to a very short essay about the lack of elegance in writing, and why it’s OK (or not).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Comfort Zones

Yesterday I wrote about class, and how I suspect we are not very good at crossing class boundaries.  This continues that train of thought.  Well, perhaps not train of thought  Think of it more like bumper cars all trying to go the same direction.  For a long time we were convinced that upward economic mobility was the American way, and that each generation would be better off than the one before.  It was the way to move from class to class, always upward.  That seems to be no longer true, at least according to the news reports than come across my desk.  As long as it was true, we didn’t have to think too much about class because we assumed that upward economic mobility was the conduit between classes, and we could all be in it. 

But if class is only partly a function of wealth, and if other things, such as social networks, cultural values, belief systems, myths about community, etc. that sociologist Suzanne Keller has written about, are even more determinant of class, then it may be harder to cross boundaries than we thought.  Without the heavy artillery of wealth to blast through walls that divide classes, what will open them up?  

I think the current emphasis on getting out of our comfort zones may be the answer.  Motivational speakers, personal coaches of one kind or another, corporate consultants, gurus of church growth and development all seem to think so.   It’s what they are selling these days, and they may be right for a change, but what does getting out of one’s comfort zone actually mean?

On the one hand, I think it means to challenge one’s self to do things in new, creative ways that may seem a bit alien and unpleasant in order to grow in knowledge, skill and success.  If we can no longer rely on upward economic mobility, are there other pathways to upward mobility, and, if there are, do we need to get out of our comfort zones to get on them?  Perhaps getting out of our comfort zones is the pathway.

What is my comfort zone?  If I find it so comfortable, why would I want to get out of it?  My wealthy right wing bigot acquaintance referred to in the last post figures that his comfort zone is the one everyone else ought to aspire to join, and he certainly sees no reason for him to leave it.  Do I feel the same way about my comfort zone, my enlightened, progressive, self righteous Christian comfort zone?

Do we have collective comfort zones that describe our communities, regions, and nation?  How can political decisions break away from collective comfort zones so that growth, in some new way of understanding growth, can take place?

I encourage everyone, including me, to challenge their personal comfort zones, not so much to achieve upward mobility, but to fight against atrophy, apathy, and ossification.  Maybe we can do the same thing with collective comfort zones.  Upward economic mobility really was a way to churn the society, keeping it lively, innovative and forward looking.  Political decisions relied on it as much as individuals did.  If we cannot rely on it anymore, it is incumbent on us to find other ways to do the same, and a new myth, as it were, of each generation willing to leave its comfort zone may be the ideal answer.  Otherwise we face the probability of becoming a people content to live off the memory of who we used to be while existing within increasingly impermeable class boundaries  that make an interdependent, harmonious community hard to attain.  Think sixth century Rome for example.  


It should be an easy thing for those of us who are Christian to lead the way.  The incarnational theology that is the meat of a Christian life should impel us to venture forth with courage into new places, among new people, pursing new ways.  It should, but we have proven ourselves adept at praying that we may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith without actually doing it.  Why is that?  We like our comfort zones.  Maybe that’s why God, in God’s wisdom, has created a world in which we can so easily be yanked out of them by circumstances beyond our control.  Maybe we need to metaphorically march around in the desert for forty years every now and then just to get us back on the right track.  I hate that idea.  I like my comfort zone as much as you like yours.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Let's Have a Little Class Around Here

I’ve been thinking about the nature of social class, at least as it seems to be expressed in our community.  Class is one of those things that we Americans are slightly embarrassed about and secretly fascinated with. The news cannot go half a day without some piece featuring the One Percent, and all the reality TV shows are about class, or the lack of it.  Dividing classes into rich, middle and poor is an American pastime of long standing.  Contemporary sociology texts and studies are far more sophisticated than that, so I’m told.  While I can’t pretend to have any such sophistication, it hasn’t stopped me from thinking about class in other ways.

It started with reflections on the life of a young friend I’ve known for over a decade who is now in his early twenties.  He was an indifferent student in school, but a nice kid with lots of friends.  He tried his hand at  community college, mostly in training for several trades, but the technological skills required were a bit much for him.  

In years gone by he could have earned a decent wage as an unskilled or low skilled worker in one of the canneries, or maybe in the public works department.  The canneries are gone, and the public works department no longer has permanent jobs for unskilled or low skilled labor.

Today he earns his living as a clerk in a local convenience store that caters to a recognizable “class” of folks who would feel uncomfortable and out of place in other stores.  Is the service sector the only place in which he can succeed?  Has he already reached  the apex of his career?  We’ve got big new Marriott going in downtown.  They will be hiring quite a few people at slightly higher wages.  Could he make it there?

Here’s my guess, and it’s only a guess.  He would feel out of place at the Marriott.  The people he knows and is comfortable being around will not be Marriott customers.  The workers they will hire are not likely to be representative of his friends.  So, even though he might have a chance at some kind of career ladder there, he will not take that chance.  It’s a matter of class, a sense of where one belongs among those who share similar social and cultural values, where one does not have to feel socially vulnerable.   

Another friend said it in plain words when he observed that he was uncomfortable with the idea of brining new people into his church because they would probably not be from the class of people with whom he would otherwise socialize or consider his equals in the community.  It sounds snobby, but I see the same dynamic working at every level, and we do think of them as being levels.  A few days ago I was at an incident involving a family who lives at the very bottom.  Their ramshackle house was filled with police and medics.  There was nothing criminal going on, but it was painfully clear that the members of this family, and their friends, were more than uncomfortable around the symbols of proper, well regulated life in a community they live in but are not a part of.  The atmosphere was deeply suspicious, almost hostile.  The barriers between their class and mine are high and wide, and they have helped build them.  They would no more invite my friend into their house than he would invite them into his church.  We know our place better than we like to admit. 

It gets more complicated when one factors in things such as race and ethnicity.  We end up with classes within classes.  Native vs. newcomers.  Hispanics vs. Anglos.  There are subsets within subsets.  The local Hispanic (almost all Mexican) population ranges from newly arrived immigrants to families with roots going back several generations.  Right behind them are the Russians, almost all of whom are Russian Baptists.  Partly because of their minority and persecuted status in Russia, many, but not all, are reluctant to do anything outside of their tightly knit group.  They may live in our community, but are not a part of it, and yet they are.  

We are a very class conscious people no matter how much we deny it.  The rules of class are very complicated, but we all seem to know them.

One of my more bigoted right wing acquaintances firmly believes that anyone can pull him or her self out of the terrible conditions of the lower classes.  All they need is a little gumption and effort, and he can unleash a torrent of examples.  I probably don’t need to say that he believes every right thinking person should aspire to be a financially secure, well educated American of Northern European heritage regardless of their race or background.  It does not occur to him that his torrent of examples includes less than a dozen who have achieved celebrity status not because they are anyone, but because they are extraordinarily  gifted individuals who also experienced unusually good luck.  Knowing him, I do not believe that he could have done the same.  As locked into  as he is to the self image of class to which he thinks he belongs, I suspect he would be just as deeply locked into the self image of whatever other class he might have been in. 


So, to close this off this rambling, there is yet another way of thinking about class that amuses me in my idle hours.  I call them posers.  They are the people who strive to pose as if they belonged to a class that they believe is important to belong to.  We dramatize them as social climbers, but I think it’s just a hobby for many, an adult game of make believe or pretend that is not very different from the games we played as kids.  As long as it doesn’t become pathological, or hurtful to others, it’s probably harmless. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Few of my Favorite Things

Writing these occasional short essays is a strange experience.  When my wife encouraged me several years ago to get into it, I wondered what I would write about.  I still wonder about that.  The past few weeks have been a dry spell during which nothing special has triggered my mind into writing mode.  It makes me ask what it is that triggers that mode.  Most often it seems to be something that has got under my skin, raising enough ire to want to say something about it.  At other times it is something I’ve read or witnessed that inspires more lofty thoughts about God and people.  

Things are just simmering right now.  Nothing seems to be pushing its way through.  Among the simmering subjects are questions about the meaning of hospitality and inhospitality; the dynamics of small town life, especially church life, which is much less, and yet more, idyllic than many might think; the romanticization of guns and vigilantly justice; why the working poor are so easily seduced by the tea party; concern that so much of the recent job growth is in low paying work; wondering what a healthy personal relationship with God in Christ Jesus looks like; wondering why God in Christ Jesus does snot resonate with those who want everyone to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior;  rediscovering my own amazement that so many don’t know how the bible came into being, and how hearing of it shakes their belief; wondering if the people I know who claim to read The Economist actually read it; why the WSJ can have such good reporting and lousy editorials - don’t they read their own articles?; why the NRA is so powerful these days.

Those are a few of my favorite things - to think about.  Maybe I need to turn to raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, and brown paper packages tied up with strings.  They seemed to work for Maria (otherwise known as Julie Andrews) and are far more conducive to a good night’s sleep.

So how about something more trivial.  My friend Earl gets up early each morning and goes into the country to get terrific wildlife photos.  I get up early too, but spend those hours in morning prayer and reading, especially the comics.  I go into the same country area that he does, but about two or three in the afternoon - not a critter is stirring at those hours, so I’ve left off carrying my camera.  If I really want photos like Earl’s, I guess I’m going to have to go outside early in the morning.  I’m not too keen on that.

An old college friend I have not talked with in forty years or more called me the other day.  He’s building a kit airplane.  When he gets done he’ll work on getting his pilot’s license.  Not bad for man in his 70s.  A current old friend just bought two kayaks and wonders if I might join him in some river kayaking this summer, and, also, would I teach him how to paddle board.  My wife is running in a 10k this weekend.  It’s sandwich in between two shows featuring her art while she prepares for yet a third.  I know nothing about fly fishing, but have a date this coming Thursday to begin learning.  This decade of the 70s is turning out to be a good one.  

So, what shall I fulminate about next?  We shall see.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Right Time, The Right Place, The Right Person

I have a couple of adult friends who are discovering, or rediscovering, the joy of Christian faith, and the value of Christian community and worship.  The thing is, their newfound delight in knowing Christ is at a juvenile level such as one might find in a third grade Sunday School class.  According to Mark and Luke, Jesus said that one needs to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” in order to enter it, but Paul expressed some discomfort with his churches that should have been ready for the meat of the gospel,yet were capable only of a baby food version.  I’m with Paul, and I think Jesus intended a childlike trust in God rather than a childish way of believing. 

The thing is, pushing for a more sophisticated understanding of scripture and faith can risk discouraging any development, if it is done too early or in the wrong way, but what is too early or the wrong way?  For that matter, why push at all?  Isn’t a childish faith in Christ sufficient, and certainly better than no faith?

My objection is that a childish faith is a weak faith unable to withstand the vicissitudes of  adult life.  It’s likely to crumble into the dust of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or harden into an unrealistic fundamentalism that makes coping with life more difficult.  Adults need an adult grounding in what it means to be a Christian.  Scripture, Tradition, and Reason is not a bad formula for that, if it’s understood that tradition is not the way we’ve always done it, and reason is not one’s prejudiced opinion.   Moreover, it requires some understanding of from whence scripture has come and the multitude of ways in which it can be interpreted.  

It’s not an easy thing.  One adult friend was horrified to learn about the messy way that the bible was assembled in the form we have it from among available writings purporting to be scripture.  It shook her faith in the bible as The Word of God.  Another is strengthened in his belief in the literal and inerrant truth of the bible by discoveries of pieces of the real ark on Mt. Ararat.  If the flood did not happen as described in Genesis, then could anything in the bible be trusted?  Yet another is certain that God intends all events for some godly purpose, even the most heinous crimes and tragedies.  

I do not want to put an obstacle in the path of their newfound faith, but I also do not want to see them fall flat on their faces stumbling over their own obstacles of childish belief, when a well reasoned adult faith is what is needed to navigate through a life strewn with many obstacles.  

These are friends, not parishioners.  They attend other churches led by other clergy.  And yet they are enthusiastic about their new faith and want to talk about it with me and other friends.  Would that staid old lifelong Episcopalians felt the same way.  What I want to do, as a friend, is find the right time, place and way to lead them from childhood to adulthood, if they show an interest in developing a more mature faith.  Perhaps they will.  Perhaps they won’t.  Perhaps I’m not the right person.  We shall see.