Thursday, April 20, 2017

Amoral Leadership

John Le CarrĂ© is known for spy novels in which there are no heroes, and what is good or bad is uncertain.  Many feature spy master George Smiley, whose devious mind is adept at probing dark corners of human  souls.  Among his early works are stories of Smiley solving more ordinary mysteries in his unusual way.  One of them, A Murder of Quality, has Smiley confronting the murderer with a withering assault on what an amoral person is.  Written so many years ago, it is, perhaps, the best description I’ve read of some of the political leaders of our own day.  Here it is.
“There are people like that…do you know their secret?  They can’t feel anything inside them, no pleasure or pain, no love or hate, they’re ashamed and frightened that they can’t feel.  And their shame, this shame…drives them to extravagance and colour; they must make themselves feel that cold water, and without that they’re nothing.  The world sees them as showmen, fantasists, liars, as sensualists perhaps, not for what they are: the living dead.”

The drive to feel what they cannot feel is part of what inspires them to accumulate power, fortune, fame, and public adulation.  Their amorality deprives them of understanding or caring  about what the consequences might be for others. The idea of an amoral leader is not the same as alleging they are immoral.  Philosophers can happily obfuscate the difference for years on end, but I’m content to say that the amoral leader is one who is utterly indifferent about most issues of morality.  It’s not that he or she can’t express a moral viewpoint when it’s in their interest to do so, but they really don’t care.  For them, that indifference extends to questions about their personal accountability for actions taken, or obligations to others that the rest of us take for granted.  They feel no guilt for wrongdoing, nor the remorse that causes others to amend their lives.  As the center of their own universe, the rest of creation consists of objects that are useful, or not, depending on circumstances.

Are there persons who are utterly, one-hundred percent amoral?  Probably not.  But there are certainly those whose observable behavior displays an abundance of amoral characteristics, which, again, is, not the same thing as immorality.  For something to be immoral, it must be recognized as bad, evil, wrong, against some defensible standard of good, holy, and right.  The immoral person knows that it is wrong, and can talk about why it is wrong.  The immoral person is the sinner who sins, knows that it is a sin, and knows that he or she is a sinner.  Are there any utterly, one-hundred percent immoral persons?  I have a hard time thinking it could be so, but Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, claims there are those few who have, for whatever reason, become evil, the very incarnation of what we often imagine the devil to be.

Do ordinary good, decent people exhibit amoral behavior?  Yes, until we are called on it, and the immorality of it is brought to our attention.  For something to be morally recognized, it has to touch us, touch our souls, at least a little.  Our amorality sometimes goes under the name of ignorance and apathy.  We don’t know what’s going on, and don’t care.  Even when we do know, horrible events causing much suffering in far off places are so distant and unrelated to our daily lives that we are indifferent to the harm they have done, and feel no responsibility to do anything about it.  It doesn’t even have to be that far away.  “Yeah I heard about that shooting in the slum neighborhood out by the prison.  Let them kill each other.  No concern of mine.”  I’ll bet  you have heard something like that in your town.  Our town is having a vigorous public debate about the homeless.  More than a few have written letters to the editor saying something like: “They’re homeless, and it’s their own fault.  We have no obligation to help, and what happens to them is not our concern.”  While others may find that an immoral thing to say, the persons saying it have no idea what that means, and don’t care.   So, yes, we can all exhibit amoral characteristics. 

But it is a concern when national leaders exhibit their amorality as a primary characteristic of their personalities.  When the plight of the nation and its people is of personal interest only to the extent that it feeds the leaders’ personal needs for power, fortune, fame,  and public adulation, the nation and its people are in trouble.  The rest of us may be busy hammering away at each other about the virtues and vices of socialism, capitalism, individual freedoms, community obligations, and the like, because we think they are important.  Amoral national leaders are disinterested, except as political circumstances can be manipulated to increase their power, fortune, and fame. 

Do we have amoral national leaders?  I think we do.  One in particular.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Great Vigil of Easter given new vitality

Holy Week and Easter Sunday are behind us, but the questions they raise remain.  One, for those of us of a more high church liturgical bent, is the right way to celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter.  For some few of us, the Great Vigil is the most important service of the year, also the least attended.  I spent years working on it because I really love it, but building congregational support was difficult.  

It begins outside, in the dark of Saturday evening, with the ritual lighting of a new fire accompanied by prayer, and from it, the lighting of the Pascal Candle.  Followed by the congregation, the candle is brought into the darkened church, pausing three times for a cantor to chant “the Light of Christ” with the congregation to responding “Thanks be to God.”  Then comes a very long chanted prayer called the Exsultet that explains why this night is so important.  Still in the dark, the reading of many lessons from the Hebrew scriptures finally leads to the proclamation of the resurrection.  With loud noises and shouts of acclamation that “the Lord is risen indeed”, the lights come on, candles are lit, the church is revealed in all its Easter glory, and the service starts all over again, this time from the beginning of the regular Eucharistic worship.  With any luck, baptisms will be sandwiched in.  When it’s all done, three hours may have passed and everyone goes home exhilarated but tired.  For the few who attend, Easter Sunday morning services are very nice but anticlimactic.  

The traditional Vigil is not a family friendly event: long, dark, ancient, plodding along toward Easter.  Those who come are mostly like me, in love with the deep, sacred and mysterious beauty of it.  Like me, they tend to be older, but not so old that they no longer drive at night.  Let’s face it, it appeals to a niche market that was bigger in the late Middle Ages, and has been growing smaller ever since.  It takes some committed endurance to get through the Great Vigil. 

What if the Vigil was rewritten to give important parts to every person, most especially the youth?  What if it was a service of the family, by the family, for the family?  What if there were not quite so many readings, and the ones that were included could be acted out in unusual ways?  What if the Eucharist was celebrated around a table that also included healthy finger foods for munching a bit later on?

In a Vigil service utterly without authorization or official sanction, my former parish has done it.  Children light the new fire.  Sentences in the prayers are divided by color so that everyone has a part to read according to the color assigned to them.  The long chanted prayer that accompanies the Pascal Candle to its place is also divided by color so everyone has a part.  The ancient stories are fewer in number and presented by groups of youth and adults in respectful, engaging ways.  This year the creation story included visual aids and sound effects.  Baptisms, or renewal of baptismal vows, are celebrated with some parts of the priestly prayers said by children.  Even (theologically appropriate) parts of the Eucharistic prayer are said by others, according to the color given them.  When Holy Communion of blessed bread and wine is complete, finger food munching begins.  Kids swarm all over the church.  Adults laugh and visit.  Eventually everyone goes home exhilarated and looking forward to the great Easter service of Sunday morning.  

Attendance is still on the low side, but there are some differences.  It’s growing.  Moms, dads, children, teens, young adults, and enthusiastic elders make up the congregation.  The kids will grow up knowing the story because it’s their story.  They have been a part of it.  The young adults and parents, who have probably never been to a “proper” Vigil, will have learned the story too.   The mystery of the liturgy will have become less alien but more deeply probed.  

My former parish has been celebrating the Vigil this way for four or five years, producing kids who love church, and new parish leadership who, would you believe it, are really into liturgy and church doctrine.  Who woulda thunk it?  I suppose the liturgical police could come by to say it’s not authorized and has to be stopped, but you know what?  The liturgical police can’t hang around forever.  In fact they’re probably off chasing down a recalcitrant priest who wore the wrong vestments, or an errant acolyte who lit the altar candles in the wrong order.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Life Continues to be an Adventure

Some time back I wrote about life as an adventure.  There’s more.  As a healthy, vibrant man in his seventy-fifth year, I recognize two things.  One is that I have five or ten years of vibrantly active healthy life ahead of me, but probably not more.  After that, things are likely to slow down quite a bit.  The other is that life is to be lived to its fullest, as one is able to live it to its fullest. That means different things to different people depending on their condition in life, but living to the fullest as one is able remains the goal. 

Years pass quickly, as Facebook reminds me by suggesting photos from the past it thinks I’ll enjoy seeing.  They are often about about something from four or five years ago that, in my memory, happened last year.  How is it possible that four or five years could have passed?  If they have gone by so quickly, what about the next five or ten years?  How fast will they go?  No slower, that’s for sure.  It gives added importance to treasuring yesterday, loving today for all it’s worth, and looking forward to tomorrow without trying to live into it before it gets here.   

Of course, five or ten more years of active life is not guaranteed.  Anything can happen, and often does.  That's part of what makes it an adventure.  But let’s assume good health and good fortune.  Hanging around with friends both younger and older, it’s fairly obvious I am not up to the the same things I was five or ten years ago.  I can still do most of them, just with a bit less endurance and agility.  Mid 70s is not old, it’s well seasoned.  By the mid 80s, age has a way of slowing things down enough that being vibrantly active takes on a different character.  It’s not that life ceases to be an adventure, it’s just that some forms of it become less urgently desired than they once were, and new forms of adventure bring pleasant enjoyment.  The point is to launch into the future with joyful anticipation of what lies ahead and some kind of flexible plan for it.  We enjoy travel, so our plans are to visit new places we have always wondered about, revisit others that have special meaning for us, and embrace whatever opportunities those places present.  It also means not lamenting the places we haven’t seen, or the disappointments we may experience along the way.  

I’m too old to be a Baby Boomer, but with many of them finally coming of age there has been a glut of articles about the trials and opportunities of one’s “senior years”, and about Boomers doing anything they can to preserve the illusion of youth while denying their mortality.  Death, that’s what they mean when they say mortality, is an uncomfortable subject for some people.  It doesn’t have to be.  I recall the visits we made with my parents in the last decade of their lives.  Each visit was littered with names of friends who had died, names not shared with with sadness, but with contented memories of the good times they had shared together.  I imagine the  same will be happening to us before long.  I suppose what makes the difference for some of us is our Christian faith.  Firm in the conviction that we are already living into our resurrection life, we have no fear of death, nor are we eager to pass through its gates.  When it comes, it comes.  That’s life.  No pun intended.  It really is life.

Not everyone buys that.  I’m a priest, they note.  I’m expected to talk about God, but not to be taken seriously.  The silly idea that there is a God, and the naive faith of so called Christians, is nothing but a fairytale camouflaging the reality of life.  So they say.  A few acquaintances of my age who have endorsed that view for years are now not so sure.  Life as an adventure seems less attractive than it once did.  From here on out life is a defensive maneuver against the threat of death, because, for them, the prospect of death reveals the futility of all they have done and accomplished.  However enjoyable it was, it is past, gone, and adds up to nothing.  A few have begun to ask the difficult questions about the God whom they have dismissed, wondering if, perhaps, they have been mistaken.  My response?  Yes, you have been mistaken, so let’s talk.  Life is still an adventure, and we have many places to go and things to do.  Come along.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dishwasher Orthodoxy

There is a right way to load a dishwasher.  All other ways are wrong.  As the primary dishwasher loader in our household, I know the right way.  Other members of the household, not meaning anyone in particular, appear to have no sense of dishwasher loading etiquette.  Indeed, I suspect they are deliberate in the haphazard way they toss things in as a sign of their rebellious nature, a manifestation of original sin, and an indication of the inner chaos that troubles their souls.

I, however, with abundant and steadfast forbearance, am willing to patiently reload according to the eternal laws of Moses’ second letter to the Kitchenaidians as recorded in chapter six, verses iii through mdlxx.  They were delivered to him on the frigid slopes of Mt. Adair after forty days and forty nights.  For those of us who maintain a strict orthodoxy about these matters, there is no such thing as heterodoxy, just heresy.

What to do with a heretic?  Considering that other members of the household, not meaning anyone in particular, are very good cooks, and hunger does need to be satisfied, burning at the stake seems inappropriate.  Other favors also being of some value, banishment wold be a really bad idea.  It comes down to a broad sort of tolerance as the best out.  Sometimes we orthodox have to suffer in silence.  But, being who we are, it’s a golden silence, a benevolent silence, a generous zen like silence because that’s the sort of people we are. 

Reflections on Affordable Housing

I’ve begun serving on an affordable housing committee charged with crafting a plan that could result in a county wide vote raising funds to address the issue.  It’s a tricky assignment because the years are littered with ambitious plans having no access to implementation.  It’s not a problem unique to our area; it’s one confronting many places throughout the nation in  small cities like ours, metropolitan areas, and economically vibrant communities everywhere.  

Exactly what the problem is, and how to understand it, remains an unanswered question. There are many sides to it, but when connected they don’t necessarily add up to a whole.  That’s because housing, in all its forms and constituent parts, is one element in the complex web of an urban landscape flavored with cultural biases and expectations.  However, within the web are some strands that demand immediate attention.  Many people with good jobs have a hard time finding affordable housing.  It isn’t being built.  It’s not available in the existing housing market.  

Wage growth has been stagnant for several decades for nearly everyone but those at the top.  Upward economic mobility for all is no longer a cultural reality, even as it remains a cultural dream.  Growing income inequality has created conditions where developers can make a healthy profit building top end housing, no profit building for the low end, and the murky middle depends on the overall cost of living, how distant a commute can be borne, and the character of the available market.  The high cost of land in cities all but ensures that any housing built on it will be expensive to buy or rent no matter what.  Gentrification drives up returns for owners in older neighborhoods.  Like it or not, it’s what happens when the upwardly mobile seek adequate, convenient housing within their current means.  In other words, the private sector, operating on it’s own, has little incentive to build for the low and moderate income market.  There’s not much profit in it.  At the same time, the public sector’s access to financing for development of low and moderate income housing at the low end of the market continues to diminish.  Cutting domestic spending, holding down taxes, avoiding debt, and philosophical objections to public investment in housing all contribute to an environment in which public agencies are having difficulty holding onto what they have, much less adding to housing inventory.  

The broad need for housing options in-between the bottom and top end is ill defined.  Levittown developments still exist in environments of urban sprawl, but their degree of affordability is questionable.  Tacky townhouse, condo and co-op developments pop up where market conditions promise a good return.  But market conditions promising a good return are not always the same as market conditions in need of affordable housing.  From the occupants’ point of view, affordability remains a problem.   

Moreover, there seems to be little agreement about what affordable housing is, or should be.  Whatever it is, the conservative political ethos dominating the current environment in my community believes it should be the product of the private market place, with quasi-governmental assistance limited to mortgage insurance and the like.  On the income side, is it housing that a family earning 50% of area median income should be able to afford?  Should it be 60%, 100%, or maybe 25%?  If affordable, what is adequate?  Is it new, existing, up to code, or simply a bit shy of slum status.  What size is adequate?  Do large families “deserve” larger quarters?  Is a room in a boarding house adequate for a single person?  Should everyone, no matter their income, have access to adequate and affordable housing?  Answers will always involve government decision making of some kind, and that will probably reveal a role for government that goes well beyond mortgage insurance.  

When I’ve raised the question of affordable housing in social gatherings, the response almost always assumes ownership of a house on a lot with a yard, not too big, basic but adequate for a family.  It’s the post WWII American dream that created the suburban landscape of today.  It’s faltering dream in many large metropolitan areas, but it’s alive, if not well, in smaller urban areas such as the one in which I live.  Aspiring to own the house of the American dream, many are enticed into mortgages they struggle to pay for houses of marginal quality, but they give the appearance of what the good life is supposed to look like.  

What are the alternatives?  What about renting as a better option than owning?  Studies and articles have tested the waters for renting over owning, with some success, at least in bigger cities.  In my community, 37% of the adult population are renters.  Excluding the elderly in assisted living type developments, renters are mostly at the low end of the socioeconomic scale, with the subtle bias that they are not the most desirable of residents.  Living one’s life in a rented apartment is a sign of one’s inadequacy at many levels.  

With that said, what are some of the conditions particular to my community?  A recent survey produced by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that an hourly wage of about $20 is needed to rent an adequate two bedroom house or apartment.  The estimated mean wage for the area was about $11at the time the survey was made.  For many, making $20 requires two wage earners working two part time jobs, neither offering benefits.  Is cheaper housing available?  Yes.  Slum conditions exist and slumlords have no problem renting up.   That American dream house?  It requires two wage earners working two full time jobs with a combined income approaching $100,000.  So, yes, we have an affordable housing problem, even out here in the intermountain West, but it’s a complicated problem, and it will not be solved without government engagement in the market place.

Will the committee come up with a workable plan the community will support with higher taxes?  We shall see.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Sad Sunday Cartoon

The Sunday comics included a “Family Circus” cartoon featuring mom, dad, grandma, and four small children sitting in church.  The children, all squirming, had a lot to say: “If we have to whisper, why is that man up there talking so loud?”; “Does the man who passed the basket get to keep all the money?”; “If God is everywhere whey do we hafta come to church to talk to him?”  There were a few more, but you get the idea.  It was supposed to evoke a smile, maybe even a chuckle.  

It didn’t.  It was a sad commentary on several fronts.  If church is worth going to at all, it’s worth going for communion with God, for renewal, solace, and strength.  It’s worth going for confession, repentance, and amendment of life.  It’s worth going to learn and practice what fullness of life in abundance means, whatever one’s condition in life.  In other words, it’s worth more than going a few times a year out of social obligation. 

Children who grow up in church, yes, in church at the main service with the adults, absorb the rituals, customs, words and meanings as quickly as they learn colors, numbers, and their ABCs.  And when they sit up front, they are entertained by all the drama, color, and movement going on in front of them.  If they squirm, or make a few noises, so what?  It’s better than sitting in the back staring at the backs of adults, hearing indecipherable noises coming from a loudspeaker.  

Moreover, the man up front may well be a woman.  The man who passes the basket may well be a child.  Rather than little Billy asking why we “hafta come to church to talk to him?”, little Billy’s family would be in the habit of talking to him daily, with weekly worship at church in the community of others as a special gift.  Indeed, little Billy might not be in the pew at all, but up near the altar helping the priest or pastor lead worship.

And that’s what I have to say about that!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Reflections on a Dinner Party

English murder mysteries are my source of mental relaxation: all the better if they are set before WWII when the imaginary elegance of the English countryside was still a believable fantasy.  Obviously one needs a corpse to get the story started, but the recently deceased becomes nearly irrelevant as the clues and suspects accumulate.  Every good mystery needs at least one dinner party during which conversation reveals important hints about those sitting around the table.  What about your own dinner parties?  Are there still such things?  What do they reveal about you?  I wondered about that when six of us gathered for one last night.  What might we learn from listening in?

We were all in the vicinity of 70, some older, some younger.  We were all physically and intellectually active.  Not a doddering old fool in sight (according to us).  Professions always say something, but at our age profession can be a mixed bag.  Mathematician, Physician, Nurse, Theologian, Yogi, Artist, Nurse, Dance Professor, Public Policy Consultant, Musician, another Artist, Wilderness Guide, Cosmetics Executive, Pharmacologist, Teacher, First Responder,  good grief one more Artist, Writer, Cleric, and I may be missing a few.  It’s hard to know what to make of all that.  Maybe it’s that people and life are more complex than “what do you do?”  Whatever those occupations are, or were, we brought to them an abundance of experience from the different places we grew up and lived in before finding ourselves here in the same small city out in the intermountain West.  Add in our lives as spouses, parents and grandparents, and the soup gets pretty thick. 

A motley crew to be sure.  So, what came up as conversation around the table?  What did it reveal?  I made a list just for the fun of it: statistics, children, pharmacology, art, favorite t.v. serials, movies, books, politics, polygamy in Utah, nutrition, diet, exercise, federal budgets and appropriations, changing health care environments, suicides, entertaining for a local charity, obscure card games known only in Indiana, EMS, Scotland, France, French language, continuing education, Chautauqua, civics, travel, Abba’s greatest hit, Alexa, Pink Martini, wines, wind storms, prickly pear salsa, posture, screen doors, and I think that covers most of it.  Oops, mustn't forget organ recitals.  People our age have fascinating organ matters of interest .  Siri, by the way, thinks Abba is somebody’s father and you can’t talk her out of it.  No doubt she went to seminary.  Need to check that out, but I digress.

What does it reveal?  Without a corpse in the copse, or a detective knocking at the door, one is left with no suspect to ferret out, but still there must be something revealing in all of that.  It showed four hours can quickly pass with a feeling that conversation had not yet been exhausted.  It demonstrated that being interested in what the other has to say makes what the other has to say more interesting.  A diversity of education and experience adds volumes to the list of potential subjects yet to be discussed.  Intellectual curiosity makes learning about things new and strange highly entertaining.  Modest portions of superbly prepared foods paired with excellent wines enhances conversation.  70 is just a starting point for getting the fullest possible enjoyment out of life.  Even numbers of guests means no one is left out of the loop.  Spouses will tolerate an old joke because they know the others haven’t heard it five-hundred times.  It revealed that one cannot be stuffed into a pigeon hole according to occupation, age, or status.  It goes against the tradition of most novelists, but we had a good time and everyone went home contented with the evening.  It happens.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Collisions & Good Friday

I want to talk about Good Friday and Easter in terms that might appeal more to first responders than theologians, because the more theologianish one gets, the less understandable one is to anybody else.

Collisions!  Have you ever witnessed a head on collision.  They’re not pretty.  Injury, often death, is unavoidable.  Blood, body parts, car parts, they’re everywhere.  Police, medics, fire trucks work to sort things out.  Traffic is snarled.  Lives are put on hold, bent in the wrong direction.  For some, life never returns to normal.  For them, the new normal is painfully abnormal.  The world has changed forever, and they wonder how it could be that others don’t seem to notice.  Meanwhile, for those who weren’t there, life goes on as usual..  There’s no disturbance in the ebb and flow of an ordinary day.  It is as if nothing had happened.

Good Friday through Easter is a head on collision.  Watching some of the t.v. offerings at this time of year, you can get the idea that Jesus, offering nothing but gentle goodness, was the innocent victim of secular and religious leaders, intent on his destruction.  They wouldn’t, couldn’t recognize the reality of God’s loving presence among them.  I don’t think that’s it at all.  To the contrary, what we have is a high speed head on collision between God in Christ Jesus headed one way, and a convoy of ordinary sociopolitical power headed the other.  The convoy, I submit, had little interest in Jesus’ religious insights and practices, and not the slightest idea of what was about to happen.  It was simply engaged in the ordinary work of being socially and politically powerful in an unstable, potentially dangerous country.  Jesus was an inconvenient obstacle that did not get out of the way in time.  Jesus, on the other hand, could see it coming and new he was about to be crushed.  And so it happened.  And so he was.

Pronounced dead at the scene, with no real harm done to the convoy, it was time to move on to more important matters.  We create a lot of drama around Jesus, buy my guess is the authorities really didn’t care that much.  He was just another of the many religious babblers and rabble rousers that had come and gone.  As for the rest of the country, unless they had some connection to Jesus, they didn’t know what happened, and didn’t care.

Christ’s resurrection is what turned that upside down.  Emerging from the dead amidst the detritus of the wreck, revealed as the ultimate power in all creation, indeed the power of creation, is not what a carpenter turned trouble making preacher normally does.  Yet, there he was, the Word of God made flesh revealed in all his glory but recognizable as the Jesus he had always been.  If he had not been demolished, and there really was a wreck, what had been demolished?  Anything?  I’m reminded, oddly enough, of a scene from a tacky war movie, “Force 10 from Navarone,” in which an explosive charge set off inside an enemy held river dam does’n’t appear to have any effect.  “Just wait,” says the expert.  Cracks slowly appeared, then holes, then collapse.  The metaphorical point is that in the waiting moments between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it is the convoy of sociopolitical power that was demolished.  Maybe not to outward appearances, but God is not bound by human appearances.  It took a little time for the cracks, holes and collapse to become known.  In another forty years Jerusalem was gone.  Four centuries later Rome was gone.  But Christ lives, and the kingdom of God is still at hand.  It doesn’t always look like a total victory.  Sociopolitical power is still around.  It alway will be.  It still acts as if God is irrelevant, or that it alone is God’s agency, or that it is God, but it is never able to endure.  It’s always temporary.  It’s always fragile, cracked, full of holes, and tottering toward collapse.  It is the risen Christ and the kingdom of God that endures, and is always and everywhere at hand.

What about today?  Does the Pax Americana world order appear to be toppling?  How much danger are we in?  Will our way of life collapse?  Is there anything we can rely on, anything at all?  What can we really believe in that won’t let us down?  The answer is on the cross and at the open grave.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Heidegger, Harrison, & Art

Heidegger, Harrison, and the art of Dianna Woolley: What do they have in common?  It’s a stretch, but it all seemed to flow together for me the other night.  I’ve read a little Heidegger.  Can’t say I remember much of it, but as it is I have a philosopher friend at Walla Walla’s Whitman College who hosted a gathering of Heidegger scholars last week.  To be polite, we attended the keynote lecture delivered by Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison (Stanford) who talked mostly about rivers and time; subjects of his recent writings.  Contrary to the little I recall about Heidegger, Harrison was coherent, understandable, and humorous.

Rivers, he said (or at least I think he said), are a dynamic whole participating at once in their origins, endings, past, present, and future.  They are, at the same time, a part of the springs that give them birth, and the seas into which they empty.  They are part of both without having to leave one in order to become the other.  They are part of each place through which they pass, not sequentially but simultaneously, never stopping yet always present. Taken further, they are local manifestations of the greater whole that is the hydrological cycle through which the oceans are the ultimate source of all rivers, and the ultimate receivers of their outflow.  One can sit on a river bank watching its coming and going.  One can speculate about not entering the same river twice.  But the river has other ideas.  Always present, always changing, It is all of it in every place at one time, past, present, and future.  That resonates with me.  Something profoundly theological can be made of it.  Contrary to Heidegger, as I vaguely recall him, it's  a workable metaphor for the Triune God of our Christian faith.  I’m not sure how much Heidegger Harrison intended, but now and then he attached a string or two back to him with a little Thoreau thrown in, who, I did not know, liked rivers more than he liked ponds, or so I was told.

On the way home I said to Dianna that it reminded me of her art.  She’s a gifted artist and student of art, skilled in the crafts of realism, but whose heart is in the abstract.  In recent years, much of what she has produced has been inspired by the waters surrounding islands, flowing in glacial fjords, and stretching to the ocean’s horizon.  It might seem strange, living as we do in the high desert of the Inland Northwest, but we travel a lot, mostly to islands in the ocean.  Following the once wild Columbia through the Wallula Gap, and down the Columbia Gorge that cuts through the Cascade Mountains, is our route to Portland, our takeoff point for islands and oceans.  It’s only partially, temporarily tamed by locks and dams.  A little farther on where the river meets the ocean at the Columbia Bar, it loses all pretense of civility, with many wrecks to prove it.  Sort of like shaking off the constrictions of time and place.  What does that have to do with Dianna’s work?  Abstract art, at least her art, tends to shun civility for the untamed wildness of a river that can live in the fungibility of time and space, bound only tentatively by banks and levees. It captures something of water’s ability to participate in time and place beyond the limitations of linear daily experience.  She captures watery moments, presenting them, as it were, in a collage or mosaic that is not confined to anything but the artist’s skill and imagination.  No philosopher she, it did not surprise me that Harrison’s lecture spoke to her own sense of the power of water to bend time and place, although she wondered if he had watered down the impenetrable language of philosophy so she could understand it.  He hadn't.

So there you go.  Who knew?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Flesh vs. Spirit: Who will win?

As we proceed through Lent, the scripture lessons for Sundays and daily prayer are once again filled with the dichotomy between flesh and spirit.  Between Paul and John it’s easy to get the idea that the flesh is bad while the spirit is good.  It’s a theme that has influenced a lot of poorly thought out religiosity parading as Christianity.

What is flesh is often framed as carnal desire, lust, or anything to do with sex.  By extension, it includes things culturally related, such as drinking, dancing, gambling, and all the rest, depending in large part on what one’s cultural milieu is.  To a lesser extent flesh can mean anything connected to excesses of wealth, consumerism, secular power, or whatever one does not have but another does.  Then there is good old secular humanism, a wonderful catchall for anything that is inconsistent with local church customs.  From golf on Sunday morning to belief in evolution, secular humanism can encompass it all.  More than behavior, what is flesh becomes all that is material in which fleshly behavior is engaged.  

Spirit, by contrast, is taken to mean whatever is consistent with one’s church customs and cultural beliefs about what is religiously right and good.  Divorced from materiality, spirit stands in opposition to the whole of whatever is flesh, firmly confident that it is what God has established as the standard against which the righteous and unrighteous will be judged.  Whatever else it may be, spirit is not material flesh.  It comes close to being anti-material, or anti-flesh, in the way that antimatter opposes and destroys matter.  It is spirit that must destroy flesh if one is to be united with God.  Very Buddhist isn’t it?  Ironically, spirit, for all of its fierce opposition to flesh, is frequently manifested sentimentally in romantic terms of warm, fuzzy feelings about Jesus.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does remind me of Psalms 26 and 101 in which the spiritually self righteous can’t abide even the thought of being in the presence of those who aren’t, according to the psalmist’s personal judgement about who is to be allowed in, and who isn’t.

Can that be right?  If we are, as our faith proclaims, embodied souls.  If the Christ whom we worship was manifested materially in Jesus, born of a woman.  If, as God proclaimed in the beginning, that what had been materially created was good.  If all of that and more is true, then what is flesh and what is spirit are complementary parts of a holy whole.  It’s sinful to try to pull the two apart, placing them in enemy camps.  Indeed, the gospels’ healing stories are about the reconciliation of flesh and spirit, not the destruction of one by the other.  So what is it about the flesh of Paul and John that is so troubling?  Why are we to be suspicious of that which is flesh?

I think it’s this.  It’s the destructive, but perhaps unavoidable, habit of incorporating into the fabric of our religious beliefs and practices the culturally acceptable ways of our own time and place in such a way that we assume them to be God’s ways that, coincidently, are our ways also.  It means that other ways are not God’s ways, and since God's ways are also our ways, we are the judges of who and what are with God, and who and what are not.  It inclines us to interpret scripture by what our local culture says is acceptable, rather than interpreting the local culture by what scripture reveals to be God’s word.  It’s what allows us to live comfortably with established patterns of injustice and discrimination in their many forms, without any awareness that they may not be in accord with God’s will.  It’s what stands between us and the new things, new understandings, being brought by God into creation.  At its worst, and for some people, it gives a lot of power to the devil, and very little to God by setting up the illusion that it’s “You and me, God, just the two of us (and maybe a few others) against everything else out there,” as if everything else out there must be of the devil.

Whether Paul or John would agree with my take remains to be seen.  As for me, when I follow Jesus into that discussion, it always arrives at the same place.  The warnings about flesh are warnings that the ordinary and comfortable ways of being religious can never be more than approximations of God’s ways.  They are always in need of testing, always in need of reformation, and always in need of staying in conversation with the centuries of others who have shown the way of doing that.  They do not set spirit against fleshly materiality.  They are always about working toward reconciliation of the whole.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What would it take?

A friend posted an interesting question on Facebook to challenge the church sign that proclaims all are welcome.  I think she got it from a church publication.  Anyway, it goes, “What would it take to convince me that I can walk in uninvited and participate in what they are doing?”  Someone responded with another question: “Where does that sense of feeling uninvited come from?"  Two very good questions.

I’d like to start with the second one.  Speaking for myself, I feel a tinge of apprehension anytime I’m invited to a new place among new people, wondering if the invitation is genuine, and whether sincere acts of welcome will be found once inside.  There is mild anxiety that it will be filled with people who know where they are, have been there often, and who exhibit a sense of ownership that excludes newcomers until they have been vetted according to the customs of the place.  By contrast, I enter in a state of ignorance and vulnerability.  Entering a new place uninvited, and a sign out front is not really an invitation, it’s an advertising slogan, but I digress.  Entering a new place uninvited exponentially explodes such apprehensions and anxieties.  BrenĂ© Brown may preach the value of allowing one’s self to be vulnerable, but she pushes against a lifetime of working hard to avoid being vulnerable in a culture that treats it as a personality defect.

I’m not lacking in social skills.  After a lifetime of going into new places among new people, I can do it with as much self confident bravado as anyone, but it doesn’t prevent those inside emotions from being present.

Church represents a special problem.  It claims to be a public place, but it’s really a private place where one brings one’s most intimate vulnerabilities to be placed before God in the presence of others who, no doubt, are not nearly as vulnerable.  It’s easier when one has gained a sense of familiarity with what is going on, who is there, what is expected, and how safe it is (or isn’t).  For a newcomer, none of that is present.  The risks are high.  For some of us, being assaulted by a welcome that is more prying than welcoming is an enormous hurdle to get over.  Second to it is the stony welcome of raised eyebrows commencing the vetting process check list of acceptability.  Church is, after all, the lair of the self righteous, at least in one’s imagination, which is abetted by bible stories about religious leaders, and what we learned in school about Puritans.

So when a church hangs out a sign proclaiming that all are welcome, maybe supplementing it with a rainbow flag, is that a genuine invitation or a bait and switch trap?  “What would it take to convince me that I can walk in uninvited and participate in what they are doing?”  I had an experience of that many years ago, long before the thought of becoming a priest entered my head.  Having screwed up on an important breakfast meeting invitation, I found myself wandering around the Upper East Side in the general direction of the subway.  An Episcopal Church appeared.  It’s doors were open.  A sign out front said Morning Prayer was about to begin.  I figured it might be a good idea to sit in the back nursing my failure while the office was being celebrated.  It turned out to be a small group meeting in a chapel.  The leader said they would wait for me to get settled before they started, and if this was a service unfamiliar to me why not just relax and enjoy it.  Would I like some coffee?  And they got on with Morning Prayer as if I had always been there.  Afterwards there was time for handshakes, and a thank you from them for joining their time of prayer, along with an invitation to come again.  I never did, but I never forgot because it wasn’t a welcome to their little prayer meeting in their parish.  It was a welcome into the body of Christ wherever it might be experienced.

What would it take?  It takes a welcome that is fully aware of the anxieties and apprehensions of being the stranger in a strange place without making them the target of attention.  Most greeter and welcome programs begin from the point of view of those already inside.  It’s the wrong place to start.  Start from the point of view of the stranger, the newcomer.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Loyal Opposition and Good Faith

As I wrote several years ago, traditional conservatives are great at serving as the loyal opposition.  They keep traditional liberals from going off in too many directions with too many poorly thought out ideas.  They are cautious and don’t want changes thrust on them without first being fully examined.  They are wary of using the coercive power of government to limit individual freedoms while being equally wary of recognizing new freedoms (or rights) for those from whom they had been withheld.  It’s not all bad.  It keeps us from straying too far afield.  But when it comes to governing, traditional conservatives stumble.  Other than lowering taxes and holding the line on non-defense spending, they don’t have much of an agenda.  In spite of their touted business sense, they’re not good at running large, complex organizations.  Still, interregnums of traditional conservatives holding the reins of power often give the nation domestic breathing room needed to prepare it for the next surge in vitality, in whatever way vitality is measured.

Traditional liberals understand the value and use of government to address pressing economic and social needs.  Contrary to Mr. Reagan’s quip, government is not the problem, it is an important part of the solution.  They recognize that many of today’s conditions and issues may once have been local or state concerns, but are now matters requiring federal attention.  However, they are committed to employing the power of government within the context of a private market system in a society that highly values individual and local rights and freedoms.  Traditional liberals are said to be poor managers, but they know how to run governments surprisingly well.  Decades of traditional conservatives and liberals working with each other while against each other helped give us a century of growing social and economic prosperity, even through the toughest times.

Do we have any traditional conservatives and liberals anymore?  Is there such a thing as the loyal opposition?  There are few signs of such creatures at the federal level, and they are not easy to find in my state capital, maybe yours too.  Traditional conservatives have been displaced by the political bullying of tea partiers and hard core libertarians who simply don’t want government to mess around in their lives.  They appear clueless about the interdependency that holds society together, and blind to the dystopian future the realization of their fantasies would unleash.  Traditional liberals have been vilified as leftist, statist socialists, leaving them fulminating over the misuse of language, effectively sidelining thoughtful attention to the work at hand.  Emboldened hard core leftists are no more ready to negotiate in good faith with others than their right wing counterparts.  They’re twins in many ways, twins like Esau and Jacob.

Loyal opposition and negotiating in good faith, what does that mean?  Loyal opposition means, to cite Canadian lawmaker Michael Ignatieff’s 2012 address at Stanford, “The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself… Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.”  Loyal opposition strives for the well being of the people as served by the state, with the understanding that the other side is also committed to the same good end – even if misguided.  Negotiating in good faith is to honestly seek agreement with the other side without deception or malicious intent.  Anyone familiar with “the prisoner’s  dilemma” knows that deception and retribution are often elements in negotiation, and yet acting in good faith can take that into consideration without losing the trust needed to reach agreement.

Good faith was brutalized in the aftermath of Vietnam.  Under G.W. Bush, good faith was tested beyond its limits of endurance.  With the advent of the Obama administration, the door was opened for members of the opposition who had no intention of being loyal, and no intention of negotiating in good faith.  Without over analyzing, eight years of that was enough to prepare the ground for a person seeking high office who had built his life on intentional deception and retribution, who had no understanding of loyal opposition, and no interest in negotiating in good faith.  His desire to deconstruct the federal government's role in society may appear similar to hard core libertarian ideology, but he has no affection for the their mythical paradise.  It’s all about creating conditions in which his style of doing business can succeed without interference from the pesky rules imposed on him by traditional conservatives and liberals working together for the well being of the nation and its people.

So where do we go from here?  There are still traditional conservatives and liberals in substantial numbers serving in the halls of congress, and many of our state legislatures.  It’s time for them to say ‘Enough!’  Let the so called freedom caucus throw its tantrums, but ignore them.  The same for the few on the far left, which, by the way, does not include Bernie Sanders who is not the far lefty he is reputed to be.  It’s time for negotiations in good faith for the well being of the nation and its people.  If we have to live through an entire four year Trump term, it means using every tool to fight for the protection of American democratic values.  As of today, that seems unlikely, but not impossible because there are people of good faith on both sides who want something different.

Is that all we need?  No.  There’s an addendum.  There’s a reason the right wing has been able to garner as much support as it has.  There’s a reason the left wing has found its voice.  The federal bureaucracy has, like many major corporations, forgot that it is in the business of customer service.  For the most part, the programs it administers and regulations it enforces provide needed services and protection from danger and abuse.  We need the programs and the protection, but when administering them becomes and end to itself, when the customers becomes obstacles or targets, then public support disintegrates, public opposition escalates, and it’s not loyal opposition.  Reframing government service as customer service, and making it stick, has got to be a high priority.  Otherwise the bad guys might win.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Do not hide it from your children

“What our forefathers have known, we will not hide from our children,” so sang the psalmist (Ps. 78).  He, or she, goes on to praise the groundwork needed for generations yet to be born to know the story.  We are not too far from Passover (April 10-18) when observant Jewish families will do that when they once again sit down to dinner and rehearse the story of their deliverance, prompted by a child’s age old question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It is something we Christians have not done well, and it may be one reason why so many “Nones” have arisen.  I was a boy in Sunday school in the 1950s when churches were packed.  What happened?  For one thing, Sunday school was a silly waste of time during which inquiring minds were set to doing crafts as they listened to stories no more believable than fairy tales told by teachers who knew little more than what was on the page of the book they read from.  Why should it be a surprise that these children grew up to treat their religion in a cavalier fashion, passing on to their children, and the children after them, an accelerating disinterest in church, and no interest in Christianity?

Two things made a difference in my life.  One was my dad, the spiritual leader of our family who insisted that we would attend church, in spite of my disdain for Sunday school, and even in the summer.   A blessing was offered at each meal, and the moral teachings of the bible were to be taken seriously.  No Puritan he, his was a gentle, unsophisticated faith that lived comfortably with the habits of ordinary life including laughter, singing, cocktails, parties, dancing, card playing, golf, cigars, and black licorice.  It wasn’t unusual to spend some part of an evening with mom at the piano, dad leading the singing, and the music a mix of cowboy, gospel, and pop.  Christianity was not a religion stuffed into a box reserved for Sundays.  It was unceremoniously incorporated into everyday life.  No fanfare.  Just there.

The second was the pastor of our (Lutheran) church during my teenage years.  A stern Scandinavian, he was determined to bring us to confirmation and beyond through lectures suitable for entry level college teaching.  He didn’t pander to our immaturity.  Not that we agreed with everything he said.  Stern as he was, he was open to probing questions.  He was a little old fashioned.  For him there were few after Luther who had anything useful to say.  He was more than prudish when faced with our hormonally driving teenage urges.  That may have been because, as a chaplain during the war, he had seen more of what that could lead to.  In any case, when I finally ended up in seminary at age 50, I was surprised to recognize as strangely familiar some of what the faculty taught.  It came from Pastor Ranum all those years ago.

What’s the point?  The point is that it's the bounden duty of adult Christians to tell the story so that it will not be hid from the generations to follow, and to tell it in depth, challenging intellectual capabilities, not dumbing it down.  Within the family, no matter how family is defined, it is a story that must be incorporated into daily life, not as a barrier to keep out “the world”, but as a way to enter the world in all of its wonderful complexities.  In a sense, it is a story about who we are to be unconsciously woven into the fabric of ordinary living.

Maybe we could learn something from our Jewish brothers and sisters.  Liturgical churches set aside Maundy Thursday as a special day of worship to remember the gift of Holy Communion and the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.  It prepares the way for a fuller celebration of Easter.  Many congregations include a meal, certainly not an imitation seder, but an appropriate remembrance of the Last Supper.  Maybe that meal shouldn’t happen in the church fellowship hall.  Maybe it should be a family meal during which a young person asks “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  We Christians have our own story of deliverance to tell.  We need to tell it over and over again so that it will not be hid from our children.  It needs to be told not in the church but outside the church because that is where it must be lived.  But what story are we to tell?  That’s were priests and pastors come in.  Who are they if not the ones called to teach others about how to tell the story?  To be sure, they are primary tellers of the story, but even more important, they are primary teachers of others about how to tell the story, and why the story must be told.  We are coming up on Maundy Thursday.  It’s only a few weeks away.  What a good time to teach others how to tell the story.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reflections on Ten Years of Country Parson

I've been writing Country Parson for almost ten years.  It would be nice, I sometimes think, if I had a large, loyal, enthusiastic readership.  As it is, it's a small group of regulars, with an occasional burst when an article headline grabs attention through Google searches.  A few readers come through The Christian Century blog network, of which I am an contributor.  Every once in awhile I check Google Analytics to see where traffic comes from, and it's clear that scammers in Russia and China have tagged Country Parson as a site to monitor.  What a waste of computer power that is!

Blogs are curious things.  Although there are tens of thousands of them, only a handful continue for more than a few months.  More often they are momentary tries at recording an important event or interest in one's life.  When that's done, it's done.  Even fewer are published regularly with fresh articles week after week.  Like Country Parson, they are essentially one author journals, which, let's face it, can get pretty boring.  How much of one author's writing can anyone take?  How arrogant to think it's worthwhile for others to know what one thinks.   At least newspapers are filled with a variety of columnists to choose from.  Moreover, bloggers have no editors or fellow columnists to set reasonable standards and challenge what is being said.  The very few that have large followings tend to be written by people who consider themselves to be D.C. insiders, Wall Street gurus, or noted spiritual leaders, and have convinced audiences that what they say is important to know.  I’ve read a few of them over the years, discovering that they are merely reincarnations of old time Hollywood gossip mongers.  It’s one part entertainment, and one part ego pandering to politicians who can’t wait to see “what they are saying about me.”  With a large enough following, they can exert some influence.  Columns from a Country Parson are seldom read, they bear little influence.  So why do it?

I write on theology, politics, and economics because I have years of practical (not academic) experience with them.  In a sense, they are the only things I know about.  Should my observations have any merit greater than your own thoughts and ideas?  Generally speaking, they don't, which is not to say that any opinion is as valid as any other.  I try to offer well thought out commentary based on verifiable information.  There is no question that the gospel informs my thinking about politics and economics, and for me that makes me a progressive on the center-left.  Thirty years of experience in and on the edges of the political arena assure me that negotiation in good faith between persons of opposing views can, does, and has produced decent, workable public policy.  It can again.

With all of that said, I write, as said a couple of years ago, mostly for myself.  There is something comforting about getting words down on paper (or computer screen).  It helps to clarify my own beliefs in the context of what others have written over the ages.  If it is of value to someone else, so much the better.  I hope it is.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Working Class Resentment of the Poor

"Trump budget proposal reflects working class resentment of the poor" was the headline of a March 7 Eduardo Porter article in The New York Times.  The short version is that working class Americans are happy with the dismantling of the nanny state because they get no benefit from it, except for things like defense and national security.  They work hard, take care of their families, and are tired of those who don't living off welfare while they struggle so hard to make ends meet.  They have a right to benefits from social security and medicare because they're earned.  They're not a government handout.  It's different from sponging off the government for daily needs.  Moreover, liberal elites, who have a soft heart for the (lazy) poor, hold working class people in contempt, so who cares what they think?!  They're the enemy.

The article, and others like it, implies that working class people believe if one is not in the working class (ill defined but generally understood) or on welfare, one is probably a (coastal) liberal elite.  It fails to recognize the core population of hard working people, some of whom are making it, or have made it, or never will make it, who are not of the liberal elite, whatever that is, yet are deeply concerned about the welfare of the nation as a whole, including issues of justice and equity.  That they may live on the coast means nothing more than location. They could just as easily live somewhere else, and probably have.  In their lives they have worked on farms and in factories, pumped gas, clerked in stores, flipped burgers, and maybe still do.  They own small businesses, work in giant corporations,  and (gasp) have government jobs.  Their politics tend to be cautiously progressive.  If there is a liberal elite, and they have held the working class in contempt while heaping largesse on the poor, shame on them.  But if they exist, they are not a large group, and, frankly, not very influential in electoral politics.  In other words, they're a handy bogeyman, and little more.

The nation may be in need of a corrective, but it distresses me to wonder at what cost in human suffering.  Right wing libertarians, the feedstock for the working class, are certain it will all work out for the best.  Before them lies the shining image of a nation where everyone works hard and does well without government help.  The few who can’t will be served by churches and charity.  Yes, there will be some pain and fallout, a sort of social Darwinism, and we’ll all be the better for it.  It’s a romantic image, but the path chosen to get there fails to understand the nature and purpose of community built through collective investment in the common good.  Community, collective, common good: words guaranteed to raise the hackles of the far right.  What could they mean if not a threat to American individualism through socialism forced down their throats?  The working class, whoever they might be, have bought it, according to the article.

Maybe they have, but it's preposterous for anyone, working class included, to think they have not benefitted from classic liberal government programs.  Lay welfare aside.  Working class folk, like all of us, benefit from clean water, safe food, decent roadways, safe air travel, forty hour weeks, mortgages made fairly available to all, houses built to code, clean air, effective medicines, what else?  In my community the local housing authority provides subsidies to over 1,000 households who otherwise could not afford an apartment in the private market place.  Most work full time, often at more than one job.  Some are disabled.  Others are low income elderly.  Dismantling the federally funded programs that make it possible would put them on the street.  Is that part of the libertarian dream?  I don't know what kind of nation we would be if federal programs are dismantled, as some want to do in the name of a more free, less regulated society.  We may be about to find out.  My guess?  Not the romantic Eden of unregulated freedom imagined by right wing libertarians, but a rapid descent into second tier status as a has been nation with a deteriorating quality of life for all but the financially secure, of which for the time being I am one.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Born Again? Maybe not.

There is a passage from John 3 that comes up from time to time, including now, in which Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again or from above if he is to enter the kingdom of God.  When Nicodemus asked how one can be born again, Jesus went off on a tangent leaving both Nicodemus and us to wonder what being born again might mean.  Is one born again through Baptism, even as an infant?  Does being born again require an experience of spiritual renewal?  If one has no idea what born again might mean, are they excluded forever from God’s kingdom?

Uncertain what born from above (or again) might mean, Nicodemus asked about reentering the womb.  It’s a question that draws attention toward images of human birth, which is both misleading and restrictive.  There are many ways in which something might be born other than birthing a baby.  Moreover, being born again has become a modern day imperative enforced by inflexible rules about how it is to be done.  Perhaps it would be helpful to lay the ‘above’ or ‘again’ question aside, and concentrate for a few moments on what born and birth might mean.  Our English word is heavy with meaning that covers everything from bearing children to bearing burdens.  The Greek of John is equally heavy with meaning centering on the origins of everything in creation, indeed on the origin of the Christ in the unoriginated Godhead.  To be born is to begin somewhere and emerge somewhere else, to begin as one thing and end as something else, carrying the burden and doing the work needed to make the change.

As I write, Beethoven’s 7th is playing.  It was born in his imagination, emerging as a completed score through the hard work of putting notes to paper, reaching fulfillment in a well rehearsed performance by skilled musicians guided by expert direction.  It’s a process that takes time, energy, work, patience, and cooperation with others.  I think that’s the kind of born Jesus had in mind.  He wasn’t chastising Nicodemus for not having already been born from above or again.  He was inviting Nicodemus to enter into the process of doing the hard work of becoming a new creation in Christ, it was a call to discipleship.

It would take time and effort, but it would bring him to the recognition that the kingdom of God was at hand, near, present.  It had always been there, he just couldn’t see it.  He had always been in it, but didn’t know it.  The NRSV puts it this way, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  The kingdom is there to be seen.  It always has been.  Again, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  Does that mean baptism? Does it mean an ecstatic experience of God’s Spirit?  Or does it mean doing the work of becoming a new creation in Christ?  I’m certain it is the latter, but what is the necessary work?  Is any work needed?  Aren’t we saved by grace, not works?

Becoming new creation in Christ who can both see and enter the kingdom of God that is present in the eternal now requires the hard work of recognition, surrender, and participation in God’s work of salvation.  It’s a free gift in the sense that we cannot earn it.  It’s simply, freely given, but it’s a costly gift in the sense that in the act of accepting it changes everything.  What it isn’t is initiation into a club from which others are excluded, because no one is excluded.  Seeing and entering the kingdom of God that is near is an awakening to the reality of God’s abounding and steadfast love so profound that every person and all of creation are embraced by it.  It is an awakening that impels one to proclaim the good news, inviting others to see for themselves what has always been there, to enter into it, and to  join in sharing the good news with yet others.  It’s a process.  It takes time, effort, and patience.  It’s not magic.  It’s a mystery.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Racism, Passion, Loving Others: Lenten Discipline Part II

I ran across an acquaintance who is passionate about racism, investing as much effort as possible in anti-racism efforts.  It's the kind of passion expressed with righteous indignation directed at those he assumes are unaware of how pervasive the problem is.  It is, says he, that very unawareness that allows racism to be so deeply embedded in the American psyche.  He heaps contempt on those who should be aware but aren't.  Self deluded closet racists, they are.  Who are the unaware ?  Right wingers to be sure.  White men are on the list of usual suspects because they're white men.  More important are those who do not share the same passion expressed with the same indignation.  They are guilty of indefensible ignorance in the face of a grossly blatant injustice.  They are the ones who allow the perpetuation of racism.  I imagine that gatherings of like minded people are contests to see who can be the most angrily indignant in competition for the evening's blue ribbon.  It's a funny scene to imagine, but I doubt she would see any humor in it because it is, she would say, not a laughing matter.  No, racism isn't, but the image of a room full of righteously indignant people trying to outdo each other is.

It is a fatal flaw to equate one's passion for anything as the standard against which all others can be judged, even for something as important as racism.  Using passionate indignation as a weapon to thrust at others who don't share it, or don't express it in the same way, is guaranteed to be met defensively.  It's automatic.  It's what we do.  We defend ourselves when attacked.  There are many issues that generate strong passions, but only a few generate passionate indignation, and they generally revolve around questions of injustice, oppression, and immorality.  Maybe it's because they're so intimately connected to life itself.  Because they are so important, there is nothing to be gained by antagonizing the very people one wants to convince of the rightness of a cause.  To be clear about it, there may be many whom one does not care to convince for one reason or another.  But there are those about whom one cares very much.  Convincing them is unlikely while beating them about the head and shoulders with accusatory righteous indignation.  A few weeks ago I wrote about a right wing vacation condo neighbor who asserted the truth of his opinions by bellowing them louder than anyone else in the room, pugnaciously demanding agreement with him.  There isn't much difference between his tactic and that of my anti-racist acquaintance.  Neither is likely to have credence with anyone not already in their camp.

It shouldn't be hard for either one of them to say, "This is important to me, and it should be to you also.  Let me tell you why."  Doing that requires an assumption about the essential dignity of the other that is worthy of respect, even in the face of disagreement.  Easy advice to give, but hard to put into practice, especially when passion can override awareness of one's own prejudices.  It brings me to my own Lenten discipline: make progress loving people I don't like.  Loving requires that I respect the dignity of every human being, including the people I don't like.  Respecting their dignity does not require agreeing with what they believe or do, but it does require trying to understand it without prejudice.

Is there an example of how that might work in practice?  Not long ago we remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and many did it by rereading "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  In it, King addressed the clergy of Birmingham, whom I doubt that he liked very much, with stern words that nonetheless respected their dignity as persons, community leaders, and ministers of God's word.  In many ways it was a love letter demonstrating that he had heard and understood what they believed, and was now calling them to consider a new understanding of a better way.  I wonder if my passionate anti-racism acquaintance would find greater success following King's example?  I wonder if I could become better at loving those I don't like if I did the same?  I wonder if my vacation neighbor, the bellicose right winger, might have something useful to contribute to the conversation if he would stop bellowing?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Advice to Center-Right, Center-Left Politicians

Political centrists have had a hard time of it lately.  Wish-washy, they are said to be. Don't stand for anything.  That's wrong.  It's at the center where those who are center-right and center-left work things out to move the nation toward social and economic progress.   Friends on the far right think centrists are closet liberals who can't be trusted.  Well misinformed by years of propaganda from right wing talk radio and television, it's hard to know where to begin a useful conversation.  Others, who usually vote for centrist candidates, have become discouraged.  Is there any way to get them back?  Let's consider a few options.

Democrats made a mistake by focusing on opposition to Trump to the exclusion of issues framed in language familiar and attractive to a broad range on the political spectrum.  As many commentators have already said, it cost them the presidential election.  The same was true in our local U.S. House campaign where the defeat the incumbent message was not balanced with an even stronger message about what her opponent would do to fight for the district.   Negative campaigns have become commonplace, but they don't work well with voters who believe the system is rigged against them, unless offset by a stronger message affirming what the candidate can do for the voters.  Libertarians and right wing conservatives have managed to do that for a vocal group of voters.  Centrists have been held in check by those favoring a right wing political agenda that would do serious damage to the republic and the welfare of its people, but it promised jobs and security in an insecure world, which was enough.  The current resistance movement may fall into the same trap, relying on opposition without offering a salable alternative.  When a significant portion of the electorate is convinced that the system is rigged against them, it's unlikely they will be persuaded by hammering on the opposition's negative attributes while ignoring issues related to the their visceral angst.  To put it another way, in politics, proving a negative works only when one has something to offer in exchange that has been made understandable to the voters least likely to understand.

In very rough terms, there are two categories of potential voters who believe the system is rigged against them: tea party libertarians, and historically marginalized populations.  Tea party libertarians, who have seen their place in the hierarchy of society eroded, have had the greater influence in recent elections.  They blame their conditions in life on a government they don't trust.  Dismantling it, they imagine, will restore them to their rightful place.  Caricatured as the less educated, angry, white working class, they are far more complex than that, but the caricature is not without some truth.  Their small government, give me my liberties mantra is a robust shield not easily penetrated because they are convinced that big government is, by definition, responsible for shoving them to the margins of society.  It is big government that has taken their rights and liberties, giving them to (undeserving?) others.  To set things right, dismantle big government.  But what is big government?  It's any government beyond the village, and they aren't too sure about the village.  They are not a large group, but they have electoral muscle and know how to use it.  Getting their vote, if it is to be got at all, requires a message that presses the case for economic and social justice for them without excluding others.  Moreover, it's a message that must be delivered without waving the flag of intellectual condescension, something centrists are not adept at doing.

The second category includes a broad, diverse population of those whose subordinate place in the social hierarchy has been systematically enforced for generations.  While decades of civil rights laws have made a difference, the effects of centuries of oppression are not easily erased, especially in the face of well entrenched prejudice that thrives in spite of the law.  If those in the first category are vaguely, uncomfortably aware that the system was once rigged in their favor, those in second category fully understand it has always been rigged against them.  Snail like progress has helped some, but not all.  While they don't believe government is the enemy, it has not been a reliable friend, especially at state and local levels.  They are tired of pandering candidates who promise much and deliver little.  Enough of them have become discouraged about elections to sit them out, swinging the outcome in some places.  They could vote, but why bother?  It's not apathy, it's electoral exhaustion compounded by state and local efforts to make voting as difficult as possible for them.

Those represented in these two groups are important because their fears, anxieties, and disappointments are a veneer covering legitimate issues.  Centrists from left to right must address them if the nation is to move forward with success in the great experiment of representative democracy binding semi-independent states together as one nation under a constitutionally defined federal government.  Appealing to those in the first category for their votes, while appealing to the second to vote, has to speak to the issues that dominate their competing worlds.

Addressing those in the first category has to start with the solution sold to them: dismantle the federal government, leaving a core military and law enforcement function to be used only to defend against threats to their personal liberties, and laissez-faire capitalism will usher in an age of thriving small businesses with robust heavy industries competing fairly to produce the best for the lowest cost.  Good jobs like the old ones will come back, and the country will be solidly grounded in the old social values.  It's a vision with glitches many, obvious, and ignored.  Rather than naming them in supercilious self righteousness, center-right and center-left candidates must be unapologetic about the need for a big federal government.  It's a big complicated nation in a big complicated, interdependent world of nations.  It takes a big government to manage it.  A progressive agenda that meets national problems with national solutions is not socialism, it's common sense.

It's not the size of government per se that is bad, it's the impenetrable maze of bureaucratic opaqueness that is so frustrating.  For that reason legislators and executives must be fearless opponents of bloated government bureaucracies that are unresponsive to local conditions, needs, and values.  They must stop micro-managing through legislation, and encourage political decisions to be made at the lowest possible level within national standards of justice and equity for all persons.  Center right and center left legislators and executives must also be courageous protectors of human rights, liberties, safety, and ecological well being that is so easily challenged by interests more opportunistic than malignant.  There will be, of course, the usual outcry of federal overreach that must be fearlessly met face-to-face through listening sessions during which listening really happens.  Trust in government is not easily gained when one has been spoon fed years of anti-government propaganda, particularly when it heartens back to Reagan's oft cited quip that government is the problem, not the solution.

Those in the second category never bought that line.  Government is OK, politicians are the problem, and that  may make them harder to reach. They've been lied to so often, let down so often, and suffered so long under the scorn of public derision for benefitting from undeserved, unearned government programs and preferences.  Listen, promise only what can be delivered, do the work, report back.  It's a simple formula but political egos have a hard time resisting the temptation to tweak, manipulate, and preen for self aggrandizement.  I'm not hopeful most politicians can do it, but try they  must.