Monday, February 15, 2016

Conversations with a Libertarian: he has some thoughts worth pondering

I’ve been having a fascinating exchange about the state of national affairs with a friend, a true hearted right wing Libertarian if ever there was one.  He is a very nice guy, warm hearted, generous, and as earnest in his beliefs as is possible to be.  He is certain beyond any doubt that hope for the future of the nation lies with his brand of Libertarian policies.  

He has no time for climate scientists when it’s as plain as the data NASA publishes for everyone to look at that global warming is nothing, and whatever there is, humans have had almost no impact on it.  The national debt limit should be set and never breached.  The Constitution should require a balanced budget.  The federal government should limit itself to defense, building and maintaining the national transportation infrastructure, regulating only those things that are clearly and obviously intrastate, and staying out of all things having to do with education, health, local environmental issues, and anything related to civil rights not clearly enumerated in the Constitution.  Military intervention overseas is the right way to assure that terrorists stay there and don’t come here.  Everyone should pay their fair share of taxes, and that includes the rich who so easily avoid them.  Raising taxes hurts the economy.  Lowering them helps it.  There are too many regulations.  People should be allowed to do what they want to do, the best way they know how to do it, without being regulated on everything. 

He’s willing to negotiate, but negotiation means discussion about how best to implement this agenda, not discussion about some other agenda.  Do these things, says he, and the nation would prosper.  Would it?  No.  Of course not.  It would be plunged, almost overnight, into economic chaos with levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression.  U.S. bonds and notes would become nearly worthless.  Capital that could flee would flee.  While some would cheer the return of “states rights”, others would quickly discover the loss of hard earned civil and human rights.  My friend cannot and will not believe that such a disaster could be true.  What he wants is a healthy America where happy people live in prosperity and without fear.  So do we all.

What if we look at it from another perspective?  In our conversations he’s made clear what he values for the nation: quality education for all, but not standardized education that works for some and not for many;  health care that is affordable and permits the maximum amount of freedom to choose treatment and providers; a national transportation infrastructure that meets today’s needs, anticipates tomorrow’s, and is well maintained; reliable power supplies at the lowest possible cost; greater respect for the ability of locals to be responsible stewards of the lands and waters where they live; government agencies that treat people as valued customers, not suspects; taxes adequate to pay for all of this and that are fairly apportioned so that everyone pays their fair share; transparency and simplicity in government such that ordinary people can understand what’s going on; security from the violent chaos that seems to be rampant in the elsewhere in the world.  They are worthy goals and reasonable expectations.  Progressives, moderates, and traditional conservatives (if there are any) have almost identical goals and expectations.  At least we can share that.

He also has some legitimate fears.  The current national debt is not out of control, but it is on the edge of what is reasonable and sustainable.  Policies that would encourage economic growth combined with adequate  and fair taxation would go far to reduce the operating deficit and lower the debt as a percentage of GDP.  Spending is not out of control, but certain elements of national spending are beyond wasteful, and most of that is in defense and homeland security.  Some federal agencies, epitomized by the VA, are so corrupted by decades old cultures of inertia and disregard for clients that they are an embarrassment to us all.  Congress keeps meddling in management minutiae by inserting regulatory requirements into legislation that benefit no one but a few “special interests.”  Big money can too often buy what it wants from Governments at all levels.   Good grief, no wonder he is suspicious.

In our many conversations, I have found no point of entry where he might consider a change of mind, so I’m hopeful that there are not many of him, not enough vote in a majority, and not enough to continue the idiocy of the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.  But I believe that his goals and expectations for the nation, apart from his agenda, should be honored and celebrated.  

We progressives and moderates (and any old time conservatives that still live) must find ways to make them more visible as elements of our own agendas. And, we must be disciplined pragmatists firmly grounded in evidence based proposals.  None of this ‘throw some money at a problem and see if it goes away’ stuff.  No more incomprehensible reorganization of departments into even more incomprehensible bureaucracies and calling it progress.  And we must contain the power of “big money” to buy whatever it wants.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Travel Writing Begins Here

Travel writing many years ago was a way to share exotic adventures with an audience that was unlikely to have them otherwise.  That isn’t true anymore.  On any of our walks along the Maui beaches we can hear a dozen accents in English, Japanese, Mandarin, German, French, and a smattering of Eastern European languages.  Ordinary people travel a lot.  Now days most travel writing is more about promoting a destination or journey so that others will want to go (and spend lots of money).  It is with some reluctance, therefore, that I begin a few travel articles over the next several weeks.  After all, the few regular readers of this blog are well traveled, some with far more experience that we have had or will have.  They may be inclined toward that trite old “been there, done that” snub.  Well, too bad, here goes anyway.

You know that we come to Maui every year.  It is our retreat, our place of refuge, our time to just be.  This year we are cutting our stay short to go on a two week cruise from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn to Santiago, and then home.  South America has not been high on our list of places to go, but a local professor of geology at Whitman College has such a great reputation for his lectures and guided hikes that we, and over a hundred others from our area, signed up to go with him on this trip.  I’m looking forward to learning more about Argentina, especially Patagonia, with a side trip to the Falklands (Maldives), and then on to traversing the straits Magellan traversed, and exploring the fjords of the Chilean coast.

Getting there is going to be an adventure in itself.  This Thursday evening we will fly from Maui to Seattle, then to Houston, then to Buenos Aires.  It’s going to take a while, but it’s something of a technological miracle that we can do it at all.  We are not unaccustomed to long flights; we’ve had our share to Asia and Europe, but we have often divided legs and layovers into separate visits to favorite places along the way.  We learned one lesson a year ago on a many legged trip to Turkey where we were without luggage for a few days, so this time we will pack a small carryon bag with a couple of changes of clothes just in case.  

In fact, packing bags is what this is really about.  We pack for six weeks or more on Maui in two smallish bags, plus another for our swim and hike gear.  What’s to pack?  Shorts, shirts, underwear, and toiletries.  That’s it.  This year we can’t do that.  We’ve got our Maui stuff to be sure, but we also need cruise wear including semi-dressy stuff appropriate for ladies and gentlemen.  Then we need comfort clothing appropriate for cold, windy, wet weather of the far southern latitudes.  We know not what is appropriate street wear in Buenos Aires and Santiago, but we’re covered.  It’s not like we have steamer trunks filled with clothing that the servants are left to schlepp around for us, but we have a lot more than is normal for us, and we are the schleppers.

I will confess to you that instead of the total relaxation I normally feel sitting here on our lanai, I have some apprehensive anticipation of what lies ahead four days from now.  Can’t really call it anxiety.   It’s something more like sadness at having to leave here too soon, and eagerness to get going to places we have never been and know little about.  It may also have something to do with our longest flight legs booked on United, an airline with one of the worst records for customer service.  We shall see if they have changed their ways, as their new management has promised they have done.

OK, enough of that.  It’s Sunday, time for a nap.  It’s Valentine’s Day, and we have plans for the evening.  It’s the first Sunday in Lent, and worship was good.  It’s a beautiful day.  Thursday will come soon enough.  Enjoy today.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Seven in Six Days

The last couple of weeks have witnessed too many fatal shootings of law enforcement officers: seven in six days.  They were killed while making arrests, serving warrants, responding to routine calls, and eating in restaurants.  Friends in law enforcement have called it open season on cops, and they are not happy about people who have been so vocal about police use of excessive force yet seem to have no regard for what’s happening.  I agree.  However egregious excessive use of force in some locales may be, those who use it to denigrate all police everywhere demonstrate appalling ignorance about what goes on in police work.  Routine events can turn deadly in seconds, and in America's gun happy culture every incident, no matter how routine, has to be treated as having potential for deadly confrontation. 

Why?  How has it come to that?

We’ve endured at least a decade of propaganda by guns rights enthusiasts, backed by the NRA and gun manufacturers, who have created a gun culture in America that feeds on two sided paranoia.  Side one lives in unreasonable fear that their precious Second Amendment rights might be in jeopardy.  Side two lives in unreasonable fear that unless they are armed, some other person who is will shoot them.  They are aided and abetted by so called “stand your ground” laws that encourage the potential for gun play for any spurious reason.  After each round of non-stop publicity about some shooting, gun sales sky rocket.  Yay for the gun industry!  Alternative attempts to enact common sense gun regulation are met with pugilistic intransigence more stubborn than the  Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives.  

The result is a heavily armed public.  Among them are those who are unwilling to control angry outbursts, who are accustomed to abusing and bullying others, and who are intolerant of laws and law enforcement that impedes their freedom to do whatever they want to do regardless of consequences to others.  You know them.  You’ve known them all your life.  Some are criminals.  Many are not.  And they are armed.  They are armed and inclined to act irresponsibly.  They are armed, inclined to act irresponsibly, and the gun culture doesn’t give a damn!  The best their leaders can do is mumble something about mental health, which, for a bunch of tough guys, is pretty wimpy.  As an aside, those of us who have been working on mental health issues for years are glad for the heightened awareness even as we know that gun right advocates don’t intend to anything about it.  It’s just a red herring for them.

And so, every encounter that every cop has with every member of the public must be treated as potentially deadly.  What impresses me is the polite, good humored way that our local officers do that knowing that they can’t be too careful, even with people they know well.  Maybe yours are like that also.  I hope so.

It isn’t just common sense gun regulation that we must have the courage to enact.  We must reveal the gun culture mythology for what it is: wantonly corrosive of the national ethos we claim for America.  Several organizations are urging citizens to wear blue on Friday, February 12, as a sign of respect for those who have died, and in solidarity with those who are out there on the streets doing their job.  That’s nice. Go ahead and wear blue.  But more important, do something useful that will help to unravel the insanity of the popular gun culture.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Golf, Time, and Treasure

So the guy says, “Hey, you’re here every year aren’t you?  Where do you play golf?”

“We don’t play golf.”

“You don’t play golf!?  What do you do if you don’t play golf!?”

So I told him that we swim, take long walks, go to galleries, are involved a local church, visit with friends, read, whale watch, mess around Up Country, stuff like that.  He just looked at me as if he doubted that such a waste of time was even possible.

Jesus said that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  I think its normal to think it has something to do with money.  In fact I remember someone saying that a look at your check book would show where your heart is.  My checkbook, or its modern electronic version, would put my heart close to the dry cleaners, lawn service, grocery store, favorite restaurants, and travel adventures.  Not very informative.  Maybe the golfer was on to something.  Tell me where you spend your time, and I’ll tell you where your heart is.

Several popular personality surveys do that.  They ask would you rather do this or that?  Are you more comfortable here or there?  How do you learn to do a new thing?  Would you rather be with lots of people or by yourself?  It’s all about the ways in which you invest your time, and, according to them, it reveals something about your true self, it reveals where your heart is.  Pastoral counseling heads in the same direction.  To make sense of the presenting issue, we need to know something about life events in which time has been invested that have led up to it. 

Our treasure is not the money we have, it is the time we have, and where we spend it will reveal where our hearts are.  Maybe that’s one reason Jesus was so concerned with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.  Their time was spent on survival.  Their hearts, as it were, were so absorbed in what was needed to get through the day at hand that there was little room for anything else.  No room for abundant life here and now, and no room for consideration of whatever the next life might offer.  It might also explain why he was so tough on those with resources that gave them the time for other things that they invested it in:  the pursuit of power at the expense of others, the pursuit of righteousness that condemned others, and the maintenance of conditions that preserved their privileges while denying them to others. 

If time is our treasure, then we are to do something with it that is somehow connected with the kingdom of God where neither moth nor rust consumes, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt. 6.19)  That’s a dandy idea, but what on earth would that look like?  I think that’s what the entire Sermon on the Mount is about.  It’s about what, on earth, that would look like.  It’s not about how you spend your money, it’s about how and on what you spend your time.  In the life of the church it was once believed the only way to invest one’s time in storing up treasures in heaven was to become a monk or nun, or, perhaps, if one was fortunate, through acts of supererogation.  How else would one have the time to do that?  I think Jesus was interested in the more ordinary ways of life.  One of the legends surrounding the famous management expert, W. Edwards Deming, is that his theories of excellence in management were inspired by the Sermon on the Mount.  Taking that at face value, one might observe that a manager investing time in the success of his or her employees was contributing to the possibility of abundance of life for others.  In other words, Christians are called to invest their time, even in their secular pursuits, in such a way that they are ever mindful about whether and how it reflects what Christ has taught.  It also means being intentional about remembering God’s desire for the abundance of life for all persons, regardless of whether they claim the name of Christ.  Most especially in means being intentional about remembering God’s special concern for those who do not have the resources needed for abundance of life to be possible.

I think about that now and then when I reflect on my life in which I have the resources that allow me to live without worry about getting through the day, that allow me to make elaborate plans for tomorrow, and that permit me to spend time in ways I choose, not in ways forced on me.    

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Wiper Blades and Salvation

A few weeks ago I took my wife’s car to get new wiper blades.  Whatever radio station she had been listening to was garbled and staticky, so I turned the dial one notch to the right and picked up a strong clear signal from some Christian network.  It was a call in show with two pastors advising callers who had questions about their faith, about their salvation, and about the salvation of their loved ones.

These two men spoke in calm, reassuring tones that reeked of confidence and sincerity.  No doubt they were.  Peppering their comments with biblical citations, they assured each caller that they were saved if they had been born again, and were keen to hear when and for how long each had been saved.  They gently assured callers that their loved ones were yet condemned to hell if they had not been born again and accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior.  They expressed sadly voiced skepticism that any Roman Catholic could ever be saved.  Other mainline Christians were possibly saved even if their denominations were seedbeds of the devil’s work.  It all depended on whether they had been born again.  Needless to say, they had no doubts about the eternal future of homosexuals who refused to give up their “life style.”  Non Christians were without hope.

The callers were equally sincere, grateful for the answers to their questions and guidance for their lives.  They were especially heartened to know that they had been saved, and most of them renewed their intention to do what they could to assure the salvation of their loved ones.  At no time did I hear any mention of engaging with the world as agents of God’s kingdom in which the oppressed and marginalized are set free, and the broken healed.  It was all getting into heaven after you die, or avoiding burning forever in hell.  Is that what Christianity is about?  

Maybe the ten or fifteen minutes to get to the dealer’s service bay was not enough time, but it was enough for me.  Their theology is a popular one, but appallingly unbiblical no matter how many verses can be cited.  It’s formulaic and legalistic.   It expresses certainty about things that are uncertain.  It compresses God into a tightly defined configuration that is fully reflective of the contemporary cultural values of a portion of the American public while simultaneously promising escape from the dangers of what they claim is the dominant culture.  

There is another side.  I ran into a brief post on a Facebook site called "Kissing Fish" that caught my eye.  Whoever posted it said: "I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to heaven when I die — or conversely, to avoid going to hell. That’s a cheap form of faith that is really nothing more than fire insurance. I follow Jesus here and now for the sake of experiencing salvation (which means “wholeness” and “healing”) here and now – and to help others do the same.”  I like that.  Is heaven unimportant?  No.  Whatever heaven may turn out to be, it is our Christian destiny.  However, in our affirmation of the truth of God as one God whom we experience through Jesus as Father, Son, and Spirit, we cannot deny that destiny to others, nor can we establish the rules by which God chooses to work things out.


Having said that, there is a plus side to the radio gang’s approach.  Because we Episcopalians have a different theology of salvation, one solidly grounded in what some call incarnational theology, we are less inclined toward vigorous evangelism.  In fact we are just plain lousy at it.  On the other hand, because they are convinced that their loved ones will burn in hell unless they are saved according to the formula, they have every incentive to be as vigorous and forceful as possible.  The eternal lives of others depends on them, and woe if they do not bend to the task of saving as many as possible.  We could use some of that fervor.  Not too much.  All things in moderation.  We are Episcopalians after all.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

Pineapples and Hospitality

The other day I wrote about pineapples, or at least mentioned them in passing.  They came up again in a conversation with my wife about pineapples as symbols of hospitality.  We have a large ceramic pineapple plaque hanging near our front door, symbolic of the hospitality we hope to offer to those who visit.  So how is it that a pineapple became a symbol of hospitality, and what is hospitality?  

The Internet is fascinating trove of useless information, and there is quite a bit about pineapples and hospitality.  The stories vary but they tend to circle around pineapples from the Caribbean as the only tropical fruit that could withstand long voyages.  Sea captains brought them home as treasured gifts presented with great fanfare at dinner parties celebrating their return.  As I said, the stories vary, but they all agree that it didn’t take long for wealthy New Englanders to adopt the pineapple as a symbol of welcome carved into furniture, staircase newels, and incorporated into chandeliers.  Now they are everywhere.  Just look around.  

So let’s turn to the question of hospitality.  It’s an old word, and it means the same in every language: to welcome with grace and generosity.  The hospitality symbolized by pineapples at colonial dinner parties was extended not to everyone, but pridefully in limited portions to wealthy friends.  Certainly not to the community at large, even in a small community.  The more generalized symbolism in carvings and chandeliers was likely not found in any but the wealthiest of homes for a very long time. I wonder if the original owners might have thought they were an attractive design that illustrated their knowledge of exotic things from afar, and were a wonderful expression of the idea of hospitality as long as it wasn’t taken too seriously, or trespassed on by the wrong sort of people.  That’s the way with symbols.  

Consider the hospitality offered to three strangers by Abraham who rushed to make them welcome and urged them to rest while his household prepared a feast for them.  Or what about the Samaritan woman at the well who not only offered the hospitality of water to a stranger, a man, and a Jew at that, but continued by inviting a long, rather intimate, conversation with him.  All four gospels tell of the feeding of the five thousand in which no one was deemed to be deserving or undeserving, only that they were hungry and tired.  Then there is the parable of the wedding feast to which the hoi polloi were invited without discrimination when the right sort of people declined the offer of hospitality.  Do you recall Christ’s teaching about what it means to offer the hospitality of water, food, and clothing to the thirsty, hungry and naked?  This being Friday (as I am writing),  I’m reminded of a collect in which we are urged to remember that Jesus stretched out his harms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  That’s radical hospitality.  Is that what the plaque near our front door symbolizes?  Probably not.  We are a little more cautious than that.  You probably are also. But what about the places we claim to epitomize hospitality, our churches for instance?  How openly hospitable are they?  How restricted?  How fearful of being ill-used or having something stolen?  How willing are we to open them to the risk of radical hospitality?

Those are questions we have struggled with for years, not always with success.  Restricting access, having armed guards, and being more attentive to the wrong sort of person coming in, has become a subject regularly present in congregational and clergy meetings all over the country.  It’s even been covered in The Christian Century.  Without being able to answer our own questions about ourselves, we are now being asked to wade into the same debate on a larger scale, the one about refugees from the Middle East and immigrants from nearby countries seeking asylum and opportunity.  To the examples of radical hospitality illustrated scripture, and the commandments of God to go and do likewise, we are inclined to say “Don’t be stupid!”  Too often we are more like Joab and Abner, offering one another suspicion filled, hypocritical hospitality resulting in death.  We may not have a hand in killing as such, but we establish and maintain conditions under which the life of the other cannot flourish.  We do it in the name of not being stupid, not in the name of Jesus Christ.  We can do better than that.


Got a pineapple anywhere around?  What kind of hospitality does it symbolize for you?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Demons and the Demonic

I’ve been rereading Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers that I first picked up some twenty-five years ago.  I was particularly struck by a passage that reflected a lot of my own thinking in recent years.  Who knows, maybe I got it from him in the first place.  It has to do with the reality of the demonic.  I’ll get to what he wrote in a moment.

In the meantime, the question has come up sooner or later in every bible class I’ve taught: Are demons real?  What are demons?  Of course it comes up!  It’s not a silly question.  Demons are mentioned with some regularity in the gospels.  Moreover, popular culture is inundated with demons as characters in fiction and fantasy.  The Western world pretends to enlightenment that knows better, but it’s a thin patina.  Much of the rest of the world lives in the certainty of demons everywhere all the time.  

I’ve preferred to answer by speaking of the demonic as a spiritual reality rather than demons as creatures apart from humanity.  It hasn’t always been a satisfying answer for a couple of reasons.  It requires some abstract thinking that many find uncomfortable, and it doesn't excuse humanity from responsibility for hosting the demonic, sometimes with religious conviction and enthusiasm.  

That brings me to what Wink wrote that clarifies the question, at least for me.
The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization.  When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby heard of swine.  The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event.  The unclean spirt can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside.  …They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations. 

The reality of the demonic does not require demons as creatures, nor does it deny the existence of demons as spiritual manifestations of evil in all of its forms.   Are they things of heaven or things of earth is a question that makes no sense because they are not things in our ordinary sense of what a thing is, and there is no boundary that separates the heavenly from the earthly, even though we find it useful to pretend that there is.  Where do they come from?  I suspect that they come from us. We bring them into being and sustain them with the nourishment of our individual and collective behavior.  Once brought into being, they may go on in the lives of persons, institutions, offices, crowds, informal gatherings, and congregations for years, perhaps for many generations.  We create them and nourish them, but they take on an existence apart from us. 

How do you get rid of demons, or at least tame them?  Remember Martin Buber’s I and Thou?  Demons thrive when we treat other human beings as things rather than persons.  Whenever we dehumanize a person, a class of persons, or whole populations of persons, we create demons and the environment in which they flourish.  When, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant in my tradition, we respect the dignity of every human being, we take away everything that demons need to exist.  We are no longer hosts for the demonic, nor do we encourage environments in which the demonic can live in others. 

What was it that Jesus did to dispose of demons?  He restored persons to their place in society, and to the possibility of fullness of life.  The oppressed were blessed, and the margins that made for the marginalized were removed.  Most important, he embraced each person with God’s love.  Not only can we do the same, we are commanded to do the same.  It isn’t always easy, but I think we must also have the courage to recognize and call out when we encounter the demonic being created and nourished by others.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of  what that looks like.  Most of us are not called to become martyrs in that fashion, but last Sunday I heard a powerful sermon by Bob Nelson at Holy Innocents in Lahaina in which he boldly named the demonic of the current presidential contest.  It took courage to preach that sermon.  I imagine it did not go down well with some of the visitors in this tourist dominated congregation.  But he was right.

Love the LORD your God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else hangs on these two commandments.  If that is’t clear enough, there is a new commandment: love each other as Christ has loved you.  The demonic cannot exist in that environment.