Sunday, January 31, 2016

Land, Maui, and Change

Friends know that this is the time of the year when we spend a few weeks on Maui, something we’ve been doing for many years.  I can’t say why it became important for us to be here, but it is.  We love the history, culture, music and people.  I’m a great tour guide who happily does all the standard tourist things all over again whenever newcomers visit.  We can never be locals in any sense of the word, but we can observe, respect, and enjoy.  I’m also content just to be.  In many ways it’s the best part.  We are not in a hurry to do anything.  Sitting on our lanai, I’m watching a brilliant rainbow form to the north.  Molokai across the channel is ringed with a lei of clouds.   Otherwise the sky is blue and the ocean bluer.  The trades have picked up and the air is clear.  Why not just enjoy taking it in?  It’s almost instant relaxation when we get off the plane and smell the warm sea air.  OK, I may have to adjust that a little.  There is a certain aggravation that comes with baggage claim, the queue at the car rental place, and the horde of first time visitors trying to navigate toward the road to wherever they are going.   That seems to be the universal condition of travel these days.  But that’s not what I want to write about.

Except for 1,300 acres on the slopes of Haleakala, commercial pineapple farming on Maui died out almost a decade ago.  The local Maui Gold is an amazing low acid, sweet pineapple grown mostly for the local market.  Now the last sugar cane operation is closing down.  It doesn’t mark the end of agriculture, but it does mark the end of plantation type farming.  Not much land is required to produce an abundance of local produce to be consumed locally.  A couple of cattle ranches, a goat dairy, landscaping nurseries, and flower farms continue to prosper, and are likely to continue doing so for a long time to come.  They blend so well in harmony with the surrounding flora that they are seldom given more than glance by tourists who are more interested in getting to the top of Haleakala or winding their way to Hana.  Those who stay on the beach never see them at all.

On the other hand, the introduction of sugar cane and pineapple in centuries past changed the landscape in dramatic ways.  What was scrub covered sand dunes or forested mountain slopes became many thousands of acres of irrigated pineapple and sugar cane.  Water was piped in through a series of ditches and pipes that disrupted natural flows.  Labor was imported from Asia and Portugal in such numbers that no race or ethnicity is now in the majority.  Native Hawaiians were part of the change, and also buried under it.  In some ways one could say that plantation agriculture erased what had been and wrote an entirely new way being in its place.  Now it’s happening again.

From the lanai of our rented condo, I look up at the vacant fields on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains, and wonder what will become of the land?  The enormous vastness of the central valley, still covered with cane: what will become of that land?  What will become of the water flowing through ancient ditches and pipes to places that are no longer irrigated?  No doubt the owners will want to monetize the land’s value as best they can, and that raises all kinds of nightmarish possibilities.  I have no say in the matter, but if I did I’d like to see it in the public domain.  The owners would be paid something approximating a fair value, and decisions about future use could be made slowly with deliberation.  Returning it to it’s state prior to agricultural development is not a very good idea, but nurturing it with non-invasive endemic and indigenous flora appropriate to climactic conditions might be a something to consider.  So might encouragement of more small scale farming for local consumption.

As for the wags who either fear or hope for hotels, condos, and golf courses, not to worry.  That market is close to saturation – I hope.  I can’t see this place becoming another Dade or Collier County.  The native Hawaiians in company with others who are deeply rooted in the history and culture of Hawaii have the political will and savvy to make that all but impossible. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

I agree with Trump

Exaggerated claims and outright lies told with an air of complete conviction are common elements of almost every campaign for national office.  I don’t know why.  It doesn’t seem to be the case in our local elections.  I can’t speak for what happens in yours.  But the traveling hucksters’ medicine show that the Republicans have been passing off as a debate between candidates has set new records that may never be broken.

Taking a quick look through the fact checkers reviewing last night’s attempt at performance art is a case in point.

Cruz claimed that six years of Obamacare has been  disaster with millions thrown out of work or forced into part time work.  That 18 million people have health care coverage when they had had little or none before is apparently irrelevant.  Unemployment is nearly at an all time low.  Whether the ACA has had any impact on part time employment is an unknown, except for anecdotal stories one hears now and then. 

He’s also deeply concerned over our tiny little Air Force of only 4,000 planes.  He apparently didn’t see the 1 that comes before the 4 that the DOD reports to have on hand.

Rubio bemoans the small size of today’s Navy as if numbers of things that float take precedence over the purpose and capabilities of what we have.  Maybe if he counted Zodiacs he’s be happier.

Christie still claims he knew nothing about the politically motivated bridge closure, and cites his own investigation of himself as proof.  

Fiorina is disgusted at the number of veterans who are not being given health care in a timely way.  So are we all.  It’s a real problem.  Not a Republican problem.  Not a Democratic problem.  It’s just a problem that needs to be solved quickly.  However, her claim that 307,000 have died waiting for health care is a number that cannot be supported by any thoughtful examination of the data.  For instance, my dad is one of those numbers, but he never sought VA medical treatment because he had wonderful coverage through other means.  He just died in the normal way that we all do.

She also mashes the numbers on HP employment during her tenure as CEO in such a way as to imply wonderful growth that never happened.  Smoke and mirrors, without the mirrors, just smoke.  

Huckabee (the Rev. Mr. Huckabee) claimed he cut 90 taxes as governor, which he did.  He conveniently failed to note the taxes he increased that amounted to a net increase of about 500 million.

Those are only the highlights, but you can be sure that a great many people watching believed it all.  

The so called debates on the Democratic side are better, but by a matter of degree, not kind.  It may be due in part to having only three people on the platform, each genuinely interested in the well being of the nation, and each holding the others accountable without (very much) rancor.

And then there’s Trump, “ Along came Trump, long-legged, lanky Trump.”  Not exactly the slow talking Jones of the old song, but like Jones, all he does is show up.  Never actually does anything.  What he says brings to mind a petulant sixth grader trying to fake his way through and essay test for which he had never studied.

My solution.  There is little one can do about the exaggerations and lies, but I agree with Trump on one point:  get rid of the debates.  They are a sham.  They bring global ridicule and disrepute to American politics.  It hurts to see adult persons claiming to be fit for the nation’s highest office making absolute fools out of themselves week after week.  



Monday, January 25, 2016

A Flusterbluster on Seminar Evaluation Forms and Other Things

I attended a day long seminar on death and grieving, which for a pastor should not seem like an odd way to spend a day.  Others included staff from hospice, a number of therapists and social workers, a few hospital staff, and too few clergy.  The presenter, Dr. Pam Cress of Walla Walla University, was outstanding.  She knows the subject and presents it well.  If you think it’s something your community could use, talk to Pam.  But that’s not the point of this brief flusterbluster.  

Like most continuing education seminars, this one ended with an evaluation form to be handed in before leaving.  That makes me uncomfortable, especially the old hat question: What did you learn today?  Maybe that’s easy for others, but I need time to reflect.  It may be days, even weeks, before I am able to say what I learned.  It isn’t as if the subject was new to me.  For most of us continuing education is in the familiar realm of the work for which we have been educated and trained.  It certainly reinforced some things I knew; reminded me of some things long forgotten; corrected some mistaken ideas; and made new connections with other disciplines.  But let me think about it for awhile.  

“Thank you for coming.  We hope you enjoyed the day.  It’s late.  You are all tired and want to go home, but please take five minutes to tell us what how we did over the last six hours of presentation.”  No!  I can’t do it.  It’s the same thing at clergy conferences and our annual diocesan convention.  To be fair, the diocesan convention gives you as much as ten minutes to fill out the blasted form after three days of meetings.  Big of them.

Maybe that’s the way it’s always been done, but what seems different about today is the environment in which we live.  Reflecting on that brings me to a whole new level of rant.  It’s an environment of instant everything.  Events are instantaneously shared as news with no time given to verify, value, or thoughtfully examine consequences.  Mobile phones chirp instant messages that demand instant answers no matter what else is going on.  Social media invites instantaneous sharing of the minutiae of daily life, and instantaneous acknowledgment that we know you shared it.  A few weeks ago a respected journalist “tweeted” his unreflective thoughts about a candidates’ debate as it went along.  I wonder if he was eating fast food as he tweeted while watching his split screen TV with the debate on one channel and several other programs of interest on others?  I don’t care what his hastily drafted 140 character notes had to say.  I do care what he thought after digesting it, giving time to write an intelligent article.  

The more we are inundated with information, the more we need time to reflect.  We need time to do our own fact checking. We need time to consider impacts and consequences.  We need time to understand connections and meanings.  We need time to reflect, perhaps prayerfully, on moral implications.  We need time, in the words of a favorite collect, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

So no!  I will not give you five minutes to tell you how you did.  I’m going home.  Ask me in a couple of days.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Question of Sexual Consent

The following essay is based on nothing more than one of the periodic dinners during which my friend Tom and I explore whatever question happens to fall on the table.  Absolutely no research of any kind went into it.  So here goes.

Maybe it’s because we are a college town, the subject of campus sex and what consent means has a higher profile that it might in other places.  It is a problem.  Nonconsensual sex is intolerable.  The question arises with what consent means.  There are some obvious acts well outside the boundaries of consent: rape, sex with someone not capable of giving consent, sex with persons deemed to be too young to give consent, etc.  But there is another issue, and that is with pubescent awakenings to and explorations of what it is all about.  Just to be clear about it, college students, even very bright ones at elite colleges, are pubescent.  I don’t mean that they are entering puberty, but that they are still goofy teenagers trying to find their adult footing.

It’s commonly said that sexual activity starts very young, everyone is doing it, and everyone knows what they are doing.  Is that true?  I wonder.  However, because kids are exposed to so much sexually explicit content through the media, they certainly have more knowledge of the mechanics than I did as a youth.  But are they any more sophisticated or mature about it?  They still have to go through the same learning curve we all did.  Where are these urges headed?  Why do they seem so overwhelming at times?  What am I supposed to do?  What am I not supposed to do?  What is the right thing to do?  What if I do something and wish I hadn’t? 

College is an abrupt transition for some kids.  One day they are expected to behave according to the standards of the household, even if they don’t.  Some form of adult supervision surrounds them at home and in school.  They strain to be free of it all, and college gives it to them like an ice cold bath.  Handling it can’t be easy for some of them, and sex is one of the freedoms that hormonally driven day dreams are made of.  Apart from the legendary amoral frat boys (those prowling packs of voracious wolves), my guess is that the average college student, male and female, is still struggling with the same questions we did back in the dark ages. 

This where the difficulty with consent come’s in.  It would be nice if it was a simple yes or no, but it isn’t.  I suspect it’s an awkward dance in which different moves are thought about, tried, accepted, rejected, rearranged, and dropped or tried again in a different way, all within the context of complex moral standards.  Yes emerges but as a limited yes, or no emerges but as a limited no, and maybe is for another time maybe, or maybe not.  Offense is given and offense is taken.  I don’t  think that awkward dance can be avoided.  Honesty would require us to admit that we were there, and that the moments of embarrassment, stupidity, and regret outnumbered the moments of delight.

What may be different about today is a less trustworthy moral grounding.  Throughout the ages, college students have often laid aside their childhood religious practices for a time, but they did have them to lay aside.  Professor friends observe that now it’s common for many students to arrive with no religious or moral grounding.  That doesn’t mean that they have no moral standards.  It simply means that each has jury-rigged something that seems to work in getting them through the ethical decisions of daily life.  Political ideology often appears to fit the bill.  Having spent many years in that arena, it’s a very unstable moral rudder.  I think that’s a problem, and it relates to the question of what yes means and what no means.

What should be done about it?  My opening recommendation is for today’s parents of young children to commit to early childhood education in the Christian theology of the Episcopal Church that is continued at home and throughout the years of growing up.  I may be a bit biased about that, but I am serious.  However, I am informed that there are other possibilities.  As for today’s student’s, I might suggest a required sex-ed course with a strong social-psychology component to open, and a strong ethical component to close.  I know, I know, they got sex-ed in high school, but they need something more suited to intelligent, quasi-sophisticated college students.

OK, when Tom and I get together, our dinner conversations have their limits, and so does this essay.  If you have more to say, be my guest.

Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK: A Different Way of Remembering

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day of remembrance there are many who are going deeper into what he taught, and others who are rededicating their efforts to continue his work.  I want to go in another direction and remember in a different way.

Civil rights was a confusing issue to me, and to most of those I knew.  The movement was just gaining traction when I began my professional career.  What was happening in the South was a confusing mystery in a foreign country.  So it seemed to a Minnesota boy who had never been in the South.  It was manifested in Minneapolis and St. Paul by unrest that occasionally broke out in violence, but as close as that was, it was a city problem unrelated to our town that was then on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.  It took a while for me to recognize the unrestrained bigotry that had been there all along, hidden because nothing ever happened to give it a good shaking.  It was a bigotry embedded in unquestioned cultural values that explained the way things were because that’s the way things were.  There was nothing mean spirited about it. It’s just the way things were.  

A few years later, when MLK was at the height of his influence, I was working for the State of Minnesota.  I remember a meeting with a top public safety official to go over plans for reorganizing his department.  He had another agenda.  Pounding his desk, turning red in the face, lower lip trembling, he went on a tirade against that communist agitator King who should be tried for treason and locked up forever.  I had no idea what brought that on since MLK had never been in the state as far as I knew.  What he had written, what he had taught, what he was doing, it was all subsumed under paranoia about race riots and anti-war protests going on around the University.  As for me, I was trying to untangle the mess one strand at a time without letting it interfere with my work and life.  Untangling took a lot of work.  Understanding came slowly.  I envied those of my friends who were convinced about things I struggled with.

Jump ahead a few more years.  The various civil rights bills had been signed into law.  Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.  The war was an even bigger issue.  Riots of one kind or another were common place.  I had begun what would become a long career in a hodgepodge of management consulting, lobbying, policy analysis, stuff like that, and was in Alabama for a week of meetings with young executives who wanted to improve their management skills.  In our social time together I began to learn about the New South from the point of view of young, well educated, southern white men who saw their implied inheritance of unquestioned position and authority slipping out of their hands.  Oddly enough, to me, they seemed to accept it as inevitable and ultimately right, but with apprehension over the abilities and intentions of the newly emboldened black leaders.  Maybe they were the exception.  I’ll never know.  They didn’t like King, or any of the civil rights leaders, but they respected their courage and ability to make things happen.  It was the psychology of certainty in full play.  

That was something few in the North ever had to face.  There never was a moment when the full force of federal legislation and law suits catastrophically disrupted the way things were.  I think that made it easier for Northerners to hang onto their prejudices by hiding them a little deeper, but I digress.  Here we are with a half century behind us.  Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an icon of Christian virtue, a touchstone for moral theology, and a revered member of the American pantheon.  Times have changed, but icons and touchstones can sometimes be relegated to the fireplace mantel as little more than decorative trophies.  The American pantheon can be just another museum where busts are trotted out once a year to be dusted off.  Too much blood has been spilled, and too many red faced table pounders have been put in their place, for us to allow that to happen.  Something of the turmoil needs to continue because without that pressure it’s too easy to quit untangling the mess one strand at a time as we seek understanding.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Keeping a Journal

Do you keep a journal?  I don’t.  I’ve tried, but nothing much has come of it.  There are three or four journal books stashed somewhere in my study.  Each with a few pages of inconsequential jottings, and then nothing.  My kids are going to wonder what dad was up to, and why he never followed through – if they ever find them.  The most significant events of the day are often matters of confidentiality, and the rest are mundane.  It’s true that some conversations end up as grist for posts on Country Parson, but that’s not the same as keeping a journal.  Matters that are very personal are not matters I am going to put on paper.  Chalk that up to being raised in Minnesota.  We only know about what’s going on in Lake Wobegon because Keillor eavesdrops.  

For a few years I kept daily records of our adventures on various trips.  Editing them into a narrative, and adding photos taken along the way, made for something to share with family and a few friends, but for no discernible reason I stopped.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it goes back to the Minnesota thing where it’s in poor taste to go on about places and adventures that others may never get to enjoy.  I remember a couple who would return from somewhere with slides and little homemade booklets to share during presentations at church fellowship events, during which they proudly announced the number of countries they had now visited.  It qualified them, they assured us, to be reliable sources of wisdom about world affairs.  In the ebbing days of apartheid, they reported on their guided trip to South Africa, and how fortunate it was that the blacks could rely on the kind paternalism of the white regime.  Some wisdom that was.

We’ve wandered around parts of Europe, the South Pacific, up the coast of Southeast Asia, and through northern China: not all at once of course.  Many photos remind us of it, but for some reason I had stopped keeping a daily journal.  I deeply regret not documenting our week in Istanbul, that amazing womb of Western civilization.  When I go back to look at the photos, I can’t be sure where each was taken, but we had a great time.

Old journals are often sources for academic study of former times, but I wonder how reliable they are.  If I had kept a journal of my consulting career, I no doubt would have made myself a hero constantly engaged in battle with business and community leaders who, with all good intentions, were consistent in ignoring my counsel and making really bad decisions.  Reflective old age suggests that I might have been more like Don Quixote riding off without the help of Sancho Panza.  Thank goodness I became a pastor. 

In a few week we will be off on another adventure that will take us from Maui to Buenos Aires,  the Falklands, around Cape Horn, to Santiago, with stops along the way and lectures by geology professor Bob Carson from our local Whitman College.  I know, Maui does’n’t fit, but it’s been our place of winter refuge for many years, and we’re going by way of Maui.  I am going to try to keep a travel journal this time.  The plan is to jot notes in my notebook, and transcribe them into a readable narrative each evening.  Not to be defeatist up front, but plans like that tend to have the duration of New Year’s resolutions.  We shall see.  I’ll let you know.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Assimilating Immigrants

A recent letter to the editor lauded America as a melting pot, and demanded that new immigrants assimilate as quickly as possible by getting off the dole within 90 days, learning English within three years, and melting in to the greater American ethos.  At least that was the general idea, and I guess he believes that is how other generations of immigrants did it.  Was it?

What is assimilation?  For some it seems to mean something like adopting a generic white middle American way of life that dispenses with the cultural baggage of the old country.  What if it’s something different?  What if it means incorporating the best of that cultural baggage into an evolving American way of life?

Where I grew up in the 1950s, the countryside was dotted with small towns: some German, some Norwegian, some Swedish.  Up north is was said to be mostly Italian and Finnish.  Minneapolis was mostly Scandinavian and German, except for the Polish north side.  St. Paul had a reputation for being French and Irish.   An acquaintance of my parents’ age had to learn her catechism in German.  Adopting English as one’s primary language often extended into the second generation.  Cultural identity was not left behind in the process of assimilation, but was incorporated into the American way of life.  Of course we celebrated the Fourth of July, but that didn’t stop celebrations of Syttende Mai and Svenskarnas Dag, which we plain old run of the mill Americans enjoyed along with Norwegians and Swedes.  The last time I visited my home town there were many shop signs advertising Middle Eastern fare, some in Arabic.   People of a variety of skin shades were everywhere, and the whole place looked more vibrant than ever before. 

I’ve been gone from Minnesota a  long time.  I live in Walla Walla now.  It’s a much more recent place, having emerged from the frontier as a proper small city only in the last quarter of the 19th century.  What about immigrants here?  It’s a broad mix of about everything.  That happens when a gold rush drives the early in migration.  But among them the French, Italians, and Russians stand out as groups that maintained the old language and customs for a long time, including newspapers and schools.  Some were not that interested in assimilating with the dominant group, even if the dominant group was another immigrant community, especially if you were an Italian expected to assimilate into St. Patrick church.  There is a reason why we have a small St. Francis church only a few blocks away.   The Frenchtown historical site, and an Italian heritage day celebration are among the ways we celebrate cultural diversity.  Cinco de Mayo is a big day for the whole town.  In fact, we have a Cultural Diversity Day that celebrates in music and dance all of the ethnic identities one can find around here.  Assimilation looks a lot like that.


In the end, I think our letter writer expects more out of recent and future immigrants than we have ever demanded of those who came before.  Besides, he wants them off the dole within 90 days.  What dole would that be?  Well, at least he has that in common with the way we treated earlier waves of immigrants.  Ridiculed, shut out of decent jobs, shunted off to the worst of places to live, and, if you were Japanese or Chinese, banned from coming at all.  On the other hand, if you were an American Indian you were herded onto reservations and your children made to attend Indian schools whose intent was to make good little all American white boys and girls out Indian children.  But that’s another story isn’t it?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Responding to violence without deadly force

Even our small city has its share of violent incidents requiring a forceful response from police.  Maybe we’ve been lucky, or maybe being in a small city makes a difference, or maybe our police and sheriff departments are well trained and well disciplined.  Whatever the reason, we have not had to face questions about whether the police were justified in using deadly force.

A few nights ago an armed man with a history of violence sent a text to another household that he was on the way to kill them.  Members of that household prepared themselves with their own weapons.  More information came in that the man had forced a relative at gunpoint to drive him to the house of his intended victims.  You can see where this could lead.  

From what I know, our police department convinced the members of the household to put their weapons away in a safe, secure place.  They conducted a textbook felony stop of the car, secured the release of the driver, and in over an hour of hard work, disarmed the man and took him into custody.  No one got killed, no one got physically hurt.  

In the fourteen years that I have been a public safety chaplain, I have witnessed our police and sheriff departments resolve other incidents ripe for the use of deadly force without using it.  Several involved violent persons who held drawn weapons on police officers and others.  With a combination of good training, steady nerves, and intelligent action, no one got killed, and the suspects were taken into custody.  There may come a day when, like other communities, an incident will not end as well.  In the meantime, we sigh in collective relief, and offer collective thanks to our cops who know how to do things right, and do it.  

Sadly, there are a few public voices who would rather see a shootout.  I don’t understand it very well.  Part comes from the bellicose far right wing that fulminates over whoever they see as the bad guys, and proclaims a desire to shoot first and ask questions later.  As trite as that sounds, that’s what they bellow.  I’m always surprised at what a cowardly noise they make.  Part comes from their kin who proclaim no tolerance for criminal behavior (except for their own).  In the old days they would have been the instigators of lynchings,  but not the ones who actually did the deed.  

It’s a relief that they have so little influence on our local law enforcement departments.  Why not?  It may be that our local police and deputies are also coaches, scout leaders, church elders, and the like.  In other words, they are active participants in the life of the community.  They have kids in the local schools.  Their spouses are teachers, nurses, lawyers, and such.  Many have extended local families who farm, ranch, and own small businesses.  More than a few are bilingual.  I think it makes a difference.  It's community policing applied not as a strategy but as a fact of life.  When the police are of the community they have an investment in its well being and future because their own well being and future are a part of it.  In like manner, because they are of the community, they probably know the potentially violent perpetrator or suspect.  They know his or her habits, history, family, and patterns of behavior.  The bad guy may be very bad indeed, but he or she is probably not a stranger.

For the time being I’m ignoring two other related voices because they tend to squeak rather than bellow.  One comes from a small and aging group on the far left that continues to view law enforcement as “the pigs” they distrusted back in their hippie days.  I imagine they’ll take that attitude with them all the way to the nursing home.  The other comes from a few teens and young adults who just don’t like cops.  They exist in two subsets.  The larger subset is drug and gang related, and the smaller one is college related.  The larger subset doesn’t like cops because they interfere with their business interests and social habits.  The smaller one is just immature.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What Does Authentic Prayer Look Like?

The subject of prayer has been on my mind for several months, as previous posts attest.  Part has to do with questions others have asked about how to pray, as if there might be a proper formula that must be followed if one has any hope of getting God to listen.  Another has to do with the popularity of awkward forms of prayer language.  In any case, what follows is not so much for regular readers as it is my early thinking on what a morning forum on prayer might include.  

Some old time Episcopalians are certain that God only listens if prayer is formal, read from the Book of Common Prayer, and filled with thee and thou.  Such formal prayers must also be introduced by a recitation of who God is, in case we don’t know, or he forgot.  We’re not the only ones.  We have passed, thankfully, through the time when evangelical prayers were laced with just, as in we just want to thank you, we just want to ask you, and you’re just so awesome.  Now their prayers apparently can’t be said unless every phrase is bracketed by “Father God,” or something like that.   Now and then I hear a hybrid version that uses both in place of commas, periods, semicolons, and every other sign of punctuation. 

From such prayers, Good Lord deliver us.

For exemplars of what prayer should look like, I submit Jeremiah and Job.  Jeremiah was terrified at the frightening power of God’s presence when he was called into ministry, yet God invited him into conversation.  He always showed humble respect when talking with God, but that did not keep him from natural ways of speaking, nor did it keep him from daring to be bold, even argumentative.  He was forthright in telling God that he did not want to be the bearer of bad news, and he was obedient in doing it anyway.  As his own people were plotting to imprison or kill him, he boldly argued the case for their defense before God.  In all of this, scripture records him as speaking with God in worshipful deference, but normally, as one would speak with another human being.  And he listened with ears that did not presume to put his own desires or judgments into God’s mouth.

Jeremiah was very young when God called him into service.  The intimacy of that event formed a bond with God that was up close and personal in a way that few others have experienced.  In that respect, we have more in common with Job.  The writer of Job did not give him the privilege of meeting God personally until the very end after all had been said and done, even then it wasn’t very satisfying.  But Job knew there was a God even if he didn’t know God.  He was certain that if he could meet God, they could work things out, person to person.  He argued at length with his friends about what God was like, particularly what God’s justice was like.  He included God in the conversation, and felt free to confront God directly by asking questions and demanding answers.  He spoke as a normal person would speak under the conditions of unexplained pain and suffering.   When the time came for him to listen, he listened.  

I said we have more in common with Job than Jeremiah, but that might be wrong.  More likely we wobble between the two, more in the direction of Job than Jeremiah.  We are between them because, unlike Job, we can know God.  To know Jesus is to know God, and we can know Jesus if we will patiently engage with him through scripture, tradition, reason, and let me add another: through prayer that is authentic conversation in which, like the twelve year old Jesus in the temple, we ask deeply and listen carefully.

Ask what?  Listen to what?  The usual laundry list of askings is not what I have in mind, although they are important enough to be included.   Ask about what is wisdom, what is understanding,  what is just, what is right, how can I know?  Then listen.  To what?  To trusted guides in faith, to strangers on the street, to scholars, and to the still small voice that is not your own.  Let it sink in.  Let it ripen.  Let it age.  Don’t be afraid to argue, even with God.  Take time to reflect.  Do your best not to assume anything about what God might have to say, or how God might go about saying it.   Most especially, don’t assume that God is like you.  Keep the conversation going.  That is what prayer looks like.  There is no amen to prayer in the way we use it to mark an end to it.  It’s an ongoing conversation that has no end.  Use the same voice you would use to talk with another person that you like and respect.  It’s not hard.  Try it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Thoughts on Western Lands and Militia Standoffs

Regular readers know that overheard conversations in the Y locker room can be fodder for observations about what local right wingers are talking about, but every now and then I run across a kindred spirit that can lead to a real conversation, and so I did today.  The subject of the Bundy gang’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon came up.  

It reminded me of other kindred spirits: the ones I came across on the Net who are sympathetic to Bundy.  Although the stream of comments was long, there was a certain consistency in them with three assertions being made repeatedly.

First, it’s all the fault of the feds, as if the feds (which I take to be a singular noun) is an alien entity unrelated to “We the people,” meaning the nation.  Their immediate villain is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but it seems that the BLM is simply a place holder for anything that can be labeled as the feds.  They proclaim affection for the Constitution, but hateful distrust of the government that it established.  Does that seem peculiar?

Second, they assert that the land does not belong to the feds, but to the people, and the people they have in mind is them, and not anybody else.  It’s true that Bundy claims the them he has in mind are the several thousand residents of Harney County,  of which he is not a resident, but news reports suggest that county leaders are not so sure they want to be associated with him.  What his sympathizers mean when they say the land belongs to the people are the particular ranchers who want to use land belonging to the nation in any way they see fit, preferably for free, because the people to whom it belongs is them.

Third, they appear to be ignorant of or uncaring that the local indian tribes were the “owners” of record before the nation took over.  I suppose you could argue that the British were also in there for a time,but almost nobody remembers that.  If there is any just claim of prior rights, it’s the local tribes’ and nobody else’s.  I suppose a lawyer might try to make a case for adverse possession, but I don’t think it would fly because the BLM never surrendered or ignored it’s supervisory responsibility.

Those are the sympathizers’ three points.  They are made in  dozens of ways, but they’re always the same three points.  Now here’s a question.  Is there any validity at all to their claims?

When I was doing consulting work in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains many years ago, I heard scores of complaints about the BLM and its stewardship of the land.  It was said that the agency was too often led by people who ruled with a heavy hand, and had little understanding of western lands.  To make it worse, they showed arrogant disinterest in what local people had to say, even though local ranchers and small towns depend for their livelihood on their ability to use BLM lands.  Some had ranched on BLM lands for several generations, so it’s not odd that they would adopt a sense of ownership.  I would have done the same had I been there.  I also talked with local BLM managers, and learned that they knew the land and its needs very well, were deeply concerned about the poor stewardship record of some ranchers, and understood full well that their several years on site would never allow them to be treated as locals, if only because they were seldom given the chance to not be the enemy.  It made conditions ripe for mistrust.  Maybe things have changed since then, but I have my doubts.


Add to that the Bundy types who operate in a make believe world in which they feel free to name God as their authority for doing whatever they want, and whose idea of loyalty to the Constitution does not include adherence to the nation’s rule of law, only their own.  The result is a gang that has the potential for the kind of violence that, in some other context, might be called Taliban, or even ISIS.

Morning Rituals

I suspect that most people have a morning ritual that helps them get moving into the new day.  Mine is constructed around the Daily Office, but it’s evolved over the years in ways that may need adjustment.

To begin with, I’m not someone who wakes up full of energy, eager to get going.  The long slow grumpy walk to the kitchen for the first cup of coffee is about all I can handle.  Conversation with anyone else is not an option.  Then I need to get my brain working enough to focus on the daily readings, so I start with the weather report, any breaking family or fire department news on Facebook, and a couple of comics.  Another half cup of coffee, and it’s time for prayer. 

For many years I read the full office, and a day felt out of kilter if I that didn’t happen.  Expediency during travel led to reading only the lessons followed by extemporaneous conversation with God, and that led to being expedient most every day.  It’s a lazy way to do things, so I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of the full office.  It helps that it is available on line.  So what’s so important about the office?  Why not a more informal extemporaneous time of prayer?  Isn’t the dreadful custom Episcopalians have of praying out of the book less authentic and terribly stilted.

At least for me, I’ve found that extemporaneous prayer is not that extemporaneous.  It tends to be fall into a boring rut that consists mostly of requests for God’s blessing on my family and the list of ailing friends I keep in my head (a very poor repository), with an occasional aside to ask a question that seldom gets fully asked because I have the attention span of a dog in a park full of squirrels.  The office imposes discipline that leads, or should lead, to a deeper conversation with God, including the silence needed to hear what God might be saying.  Moreover, the collects point in different directions each day, and that helps to keep me from getting in a rut.  So I’m working on getting back into the office habit.  Still, there are some other tweaks to be made.


An acquaintance of mine once complained that reading the newspaper before saying the office was a big mistake, because he found the news raised his anxieties and incited angry feelings (righteous, of course) that got in the way of prayer.  He was determined to get prayer first and the news second.  Not a bad idea; I think I could do without spending so much time doing my version of the same thing.   I need to get my brain working, but maybe a quick glance at the weather is enough.  We shall see.  As for some of my Adventist friends who have suggested giving up coffee – forget it!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Stuck with English

You would think I have better things to think about on New Year’s Day, but I don’t.  This thought has been rattling around in my head for a while.  It started months ago when I reflected on the local grocery store cashiers who flip seamlessly back and forth between English and Spanish, something I find impressive in so many ways.

Sometime recently I read an article about why English is such a difficult language to learn, even for native speakers of English.  Now I can’t find it, and so can’t properly cite it, but it did lead me into a brief study of its history.  It’s a wonder that any of us can learn it.  Built on intermingled layers of Celtic, Germanic, and Romantic roots, it lacks any reasonable measure of consistency in grammar, spelling, or usage.  In high school they tried to get us to use the rules of Latin grammar, but the more flexible customary way of writing won out.  The problem is that customary ways of doing things follow a host of unwritten rules that are in a constant state of flux.

If grammar is a moveable target, how about spelling?  As one writer pointed out, unlike other countries, we have spelling bees.  The erratic nature of English spelling allows bees to become a competitive sport.  And then there are different meanings for the same word, and homophones that sound alike but have unrelated meanings.  Consider bees, the word I just used.  We have be, a verb; bee, an insect; bee, a gathering of quilters; bee, a spelling contest; anything else?  How is anyone supposed to learn all of that. 

Idioms.  I love idioms.  They constitute their own theater of the absurd.  Years ago I worked with a well educated colleague from Columbia who spoke fluent American English.  One would never guess she was not a native speaker, until she came out with curiously inappropriate idioms that were often funny, especially in uptight business meetings.  Terribly embarrassed, she would wait for a private moment to ask us to explain what had happened.  Around here, farmers and ranchers happily use idioms to keep city folks off balance, which they do with both a twinkle and a smirk.

Imported vocabulary adds to complexity.  American English is salted with hundreds of Spanish words, except in Hawaii.  There it’s salted with Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and its own version of Pigeon.  Some Brits are fond of adding whole phrases that sound like French to the middle of sentences.  Maybe they are. 

Have you ever tried to understand what a Cockney taxi driver is saying?  English does not have dialects as such, but its variety of accents can make one speaker all but unintelligible to another.  We enjoy traveling in England where we share a common language, except where local accents obliterate our ability to hear the words that we share in common.  I imagine that our American accent is painful to their ears, but what can we do?  On a recent trip back to New York City, I was reminded of how painful a certain nasal LonG EyeLand accent is to my ears.

Well, English is what I’m stuck with.  It’s the only language with which I have any fluency, and that’s debatable.