Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Politics & Pulpit II

I had a sidewalk conversation with a friend during the Veterans’ Day Parade.  He’s a parishioner in the church from which I retired ten years ago, and we stay in touch.  He was surprised, he said, to discover that I have political views, views that are certainly not like his own conservative ones.   But he was grateful that my sermons weren’t political.  A sidewalk conversation at the end of a parade is a start, but leaves a lot more to be said.  Anyway,, I thanked him for noting that my preaching never seemed to be politically partisan.  That’s as it should be.  On the other hand, preaching that is faithful to the gospel is almost always political in some way, so I sent him a letter that said something like this.

Politics is the process through which we make decisions about how to live together in community, and God has a lot to say about that.  To follow Jesus is to enter into the political process advocating for equity and fairness with a bias for the poor and oppressed, and for responsible stewardship of the resources God has put into our hands.  TheTen Commandments, Two Great Commandments, New Commandment, and the Sermon on the Mount leave no doubt about what following God in Christ Jesus means when we contribute our voices to be heard among others in the political debate.  

The problem comes, it seems to me, when it’s assumed that to follow Jesus means to be liberal, and to be conservative means selfishly narrow-minded.   Or to be conservative means adhering to the higher (biblical?) social standards, and being liberal means to be so morally loose there are no standards.   Or that liberals only want to spend other peoples’ hard earned money, while conservatives only want a small government that doesn’t do much.  We have drifted into that kind of bifurcation, and it’s not healthy.   How is it that to be liberal means being a far left socialist, and to be conservative means being a far right tea partier?  Whatever happened to center-right and center-left?

Do followers of Jesus have to choose one side or the other?  No!  They don’t choose to be liberal or conservative, they choose to follow Jesus, and there can be conservative and liberal ways to do that, but each is commanded to respect the other.  They are to be willing to work with each other for the common good.  It’s a commandment, not a suggestion. 

For me, with a thirty year career working on behalf of business interests, there are some criteria to be met when proposals are made.  They begin with the assumption that government is not the enemy, not the problem.  I like government.  Big government, just because it’s big, isn’t bad and doesn’t bother me.  Small government, just because it’s small, doesn’t make it good.  Irresponsible government does bother me.  Government is the necessary means through which community is formed, and decisions made about what kind of community it is to become.  When a proposal is made, I want to know: 1) Do we need it?; 2) Will it work?; 3) Can we pay for it?.  They aren’t easy questions to answer.  They demand verifiable data.  They understand taxes to be investments in our collective future, not robbery of my private money.  They place a premium on the idea of responsible stewardship.  They’re debatable. 

There is one other value important to me.  As someone who has prospered, and is comfortable with what’s in the bank, I’m aware that in spite of hard work and well planned investments, I can’t claim much credit for it.  It’s mostly dumb luck, including the luck of being born into the right family at the right time in the right place.  What I own, I own in trust for whoever owns it next.  What I consume, I consume with respect for whence it came, and for those who worked hard to make it available.  Am I a good steward of what has been put into my hands?  I’m tolerably comfortable with it.  There’s always room for improvement, but I’m not going to get into a snit over it. 

I invited him to take a look at Country Parson.  What I think is out there for the world to see.  I imagine he will, but probably not ver often.  Once in a while will do.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Rational Philosopher Talks About Jesus

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about how Episcopalians make talking about Jesus too hard.  Say evangelism to Episcopalians, and they’ll dive under the nearest pew.  I argued that it isn’t that hard, quit making it so complicated.  It doesn’t require bible thumping testimony, just an opportunity for ordinary conversation.  So I was interested when the Whitman College philosophy department announced a lecture on the question, ‘Is belief in God irrational?’, to be delivered by a visiting professor I’d never heard of.  If a philosopher was going to stand before a small audience and talk about God, I wanted to see how she did it.

Whitman is in the ranks of elite liberal arts colleges, and one of the jewels in our local academic crown that includes Walla Walla University and Walla Walla Community College.  It has a reputation for being liberal, secular, and atheist.  But my former parish is well stocked with Whitman faculty, as are a couple of other congregations in town, and two students I mentored in years gone by have gone on to become Episcopal priests, so the popular image of the place has its weaknesses.  

Still, it’s a very secular campus, and philosophy departments are seldom comfortable nests for those strong in a faith tradition.  Don’t they belong over in the religious studies department?  Philosophy is for critical thinkers, not naive theologians.  It was a little surprising that Whitman’s philosophy department arranged for visiting philosophy professor Meghan Sullivan to give the lecture.  It turned out to be a well constructed, funny exposition on how she came to be a Christian, and how she answers questions about the rationality of it.  Raised in a non-religious family that wasn’t interested enough in religion to claim atheism, she went to college to become a lawyer.  She ended up becoming a philosopher with a deep interest in rationality and the nature of time, but she also ended up becoming a Christian.

Now a professor holding the John A. O’Brien Collegiate Chair at Notre Dame, she teaches in a broad range of philosophical areas with an emphasis on rationality and time, as well as the occasional course on religion.  When it comes to her faith, she’s comfortable talking with whoever might be interested about how she came to it within the context of a highly disciplined approach to philosophy.  Which brings me to her lecture.  The department reserved the small Kimball Theater in the old music building.  It’s normally used for recitals, and lectures to which fewer than a hundred are likely to attend.  At the appointed time of 7:00 p.m., it was packed with over 200, mostly students.  All the seats were taken.  Many sat in the aisles or leaned against walls, while others stood in the foyer listening as best they could.  I doubt anyone anticipated such a turnout.

She stood there without notes, cracked jokes, talked about her life, how she entered into the Christian faith rather gently over time, with no evangelical moment of decision, and her love of what some theologians call ‘classical Christianity.’  She explained how she answers typical objections from skeptical students and fellow faculty who find a rational philosopher claiming to be Christian an irreconcilable anomaly.  There was no altar call, no condemnation of non-believers, and no assertion that her Catholicism is the true and only Church.  It was just her own story told with humor.  And the audience ate it up.  What I imagine, and may never know, is that she opened doors to kids who didn’t believe that intellectuals could be faithful to a religious tradition, and that Christianity exists in forms other than evangelical fundamentalism or slick prosperity preaching .  Who knew?  

For me, she was an example of how an ordinary lay person can talk easily and comfortably about her faith without sounding like a nut.  She was invited to speak about it in a venue to which others had been invited.  It wasn’t door knocking witnessing, or street corner bible thumping.  She didn’t highjack an intimate conversation about other things.  She didn’t demand a decision for Christ, and she didn’t threaten eternal hell for those who refuse.   She simply made it clear that this is who she is, and if invited, she will speak about it.   

That’s something we can all do.  There are more times than we might think when an invitation to speak has been made, when the venue is right, and when the listeners are willing.  The question is, do we have a story to tell?  We do.  Each of us does.  If we can talk about our golf game, last vacation, children, or any of the dozens of other stories we have at the ready, we can talk about Jesus too.  It might be to an audience of one or two, but that’s all it takes.  

Our various church leaders keep telling us there is a hunger out there that defies assumptions about the decline of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  The anecdotal evidence that they’re right is in a small lecture hall packed with two hundred students: not a cell phone, iPad, or laptop to be seen.  All of them from a school where religion is said to be unimportant,  irrelevant, and distasteful. 

That’s all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Energized against energized Trumpians: where religion & politics meet

Democrats, progressives, liberals, whatever, are energized anew in their opposition to Trumpism, but they’re up against others energized by Trump’s election.  For that matter, so are traditional center-right Republicans who find themselves marked by Trumpians as establishment elites.  The Trumpian way of thinking is not new.  It’s always been there, but until recently lacked the means to take center stage.  It has taken center stage, and overcoming its momentum requires understanding it better.   What provided its momentum was the confluence of three little creeks to form a sizable river. 

First was the emergence of the tea party, engineered and financed by right wing money, but swiftly morphing into a genuine grass roots movement.  Tea partiers were outraged by a black president, and convinced that the federal government was the enemy of American liberties.  If nothing else, they got plenty of cable news airtime, and the heightened visibility that goes with it.  Crude and ignorant as the movement is, it harmonized with libertarian ideology to form a potent political force.  

Second was the advent of social media providing a multitude of platforms through which right wingers could network with each other, while increasing their outreach to new audiences.  Grass roots movements of every stripe excel at networking, and the right wingers perfected it.  That the Russians also played in the same sandbox was irrelevant to them, they didn’t care.  

Third was the election of Trump, the ultimate triumph surpassing even their small victory with the congressional freedom caucus.  The caucus could only bring government to a standstill in a dead end alley.  Trump could actually get things done.  What things?  Well that’s a little vague, but if it smells like high paying factory jobs, tax cuts,1950s social conventions, and anything promising freedom from federal government oversight, they’re for it.  That most of what they want would diminish the nation, making it a second rate player on the world stage, is rejected as ‘fake news’. 

Living as I do in the intermountain West, I’m burdened with a member of congress whose record can be summed up as ten years of doing almost nothing, eight years of opposing anything and everything with an Obama label, all topped by two years of stalwart support for everything Trumpian.  Oddly, as the election year approaches, she’s suddenly taken an interest in the district’s needs.  Favoring the repeal of the ACA, and passage of the house tax package, she boldly claims to be for the little guy, farmers and ranchers, children, and God.  Her supporters, little guys all, believe her.  The mindset that allows her to keep on winning can be described through observations on several recent conversations.

One person got on his high horse about “typical liberals” accusing “all conservatives” of being sexist racists.  I guess someone said something that got him going, but I didn’t hear it.  The point he made with such vehemence was addressed by David Brooks in an October 3 column about tribalism, in which one’s tribe is understood to be under attack, and everyone not a member of the tribe is an enemy or dangerous alien.  A significant number of voters in our district have been sold on the idea that their tribe, the tribe of real (white) Americans, is under attack on all sides by many others, especially liberals, all of whom are elite socialist statists.  I have no idea what that means, but they apparently do.  And why wouldn’t they believe it?  For almost two decades they’ve been fed a steady diet of talk radio and Fox propaganda that tells them so.  To be fair, I have a couple of uber-liberal friends who are just as tribal, flaunting their social righteousness over right wingers’ hill billy ignorance.  Democrats have to resist their own tendency toward tribalism, and speak to the needs and interests of the district’s communities.

Another responded to the latest round of mass killings by saying it’s not about guns.  It’s about what he saw on an internet meme: hearts without God; homes without discipline; schools without prayer; courts without justice.  That the data show a clear correlation between guns and the number of killings is irrelevant.  Anything that even sounds like regulation of guns is considered a threat to the second amendment, which has somehow become the pivot around which the entire constitution revolves.  Guns are needed to protect good people from bad people who don’t go to church, are not from heterosexual two parent families, were raised without old time social values, and didn’t pray in school.  Courts without justice?  Your guess is as good as mine, and my guess is more arrests with more guilty verdicts, and longer prison sentences, for perps who don’t look like us.  We may think we’ve got past that, but as revealed the other day in congressional testimony, the administration thinks black extremists need to be investigated as threats to our safety, but white supremacists and various neo-nazis can be ignored.  

Right wing tribalism is cloaked with religion that likes God, but is not fond of what God likes.  Democrats must not be reluctant to connect the good they want for society with the good that is at the core of Judeo-Christian faith traditions. 

Not yet finished with religious beliefs as a component of right wing politics, all this violence and social discord is the work of the devil, said another correspondent.  The evil one has been let loose on us as punishment for our sins, and liberals are on his side.  It was not too many years ago that a popular local pastor expounded on how the devil had taken over our valley, with only a small remnant of the faithful standing in the breach.  It’s a powerful image, one endorsed by the history of ancient Israel as recorded in the bible.  If America is the new promised land, then it has fallen away just as the Israelites did in their promised land.  It’s not the fault of the faithful remnant.  It’s the devil’s fault, and his followers too.  Who are the faithful remnant?  Those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior and adhered to the social values of the 1950s (washed clean of any stains), fully authenticated with well a thumped biblical seal.  My denomination was not included in the remnant, by the way.  

The strength of these beliefs cannot be ignored.  They’re at the core of Christian fundamentalism, and conservative evangelicalism.  It finds common ground with secular tea partiers and libertarians.  They’re taught with such fervor and frequency that they become part of the fabric of life for the faithful.  They’re firmly held in partnership with another etched in stone: the personal responsibility of rugged individualism.  It works.  It’s not our fault because we are the faithful remnant, responsible individualists but others aren’t.  It’s their fault.  They should take more individual responsibility, and, by the way, keep the government out of it.  It’s unlikely that many of them can be convinced to vote for a Democrat, or even a moderate Republican.  

In spite of their bold voices and strident demands, I think the greater number of potential voters are tired of their noise making and suspicious of their claims.  If that’s true, Democrats (with friendly Republican help) must find a way to solicit the votes of those who have given up on conservative evangelical religious talk, and had it with right wing excesses, but don’t want to get in an argument with them.  I imagine they’re disillusioned with politics in general.  It won’t be easy, but there are avenues of access.  

Some of them are pragmatically minded, wanting workable federal action on jobs, immigration, environmental protection, consumer protection, genuine tax reform, rebuilding infrastructure, etc.  In our area, working hard on international market access for agriculture is important.  Nothing pie-in -the-sky, just plain workable ideas.  Anything over promised will be rejected out of hand.  Others are adamant about the need for social justice: reform and expansion of the ACA, renewal of DACA, responsible gun regulation, pro-choice, and the like.  Getting them to cooperate with each other will take some effort.  Both want more jobs that pay higher wages, and are deeply concerned about affordable housing and quality K-12 education.  They want a representative who understands all of that, and will speak for them in D.C.  

Yet others need to be disabused of long standing mythologies about Democrats.  A recent editorial cartoon featured a half dozen donkeys urging more spending, and a final one suddenly concerned about the deficit.  That it’s been Democratic leadership in the forefront of responsible spending and deficit reduction is not well known.  Equally unknown are the relationships between discretionary and total spending, deficit and debt, trade deficits and economic growth, etc.  Democrats need to make simple, but accurate, economic models a part of their campaign platforms.

Finally, NEVER say anything that will earn Pinocchios from fact checkers.  

Can it be done?  Perhaps.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Religious Patriotism and the Love of Christ

The United States remains one of the most religious nations in the Western world.  The greater number of Americans claim to be Christian, at least nominally.  Religious though we may still be, we have also become a militarized nation, and the gods of war, masquerading as religious patriots, have taken their place in the hearts and minds of many who claim the name of Jesus.  

At war for over two decades, federal defense budgets account for about 54% of federal discretionary spending, or 16% of all spending when Social Security, Medicare, etc. are added in (2014  figures).  According to the Aerospace Industries Association, defense industries provide about 5.1 million jobs, and contribute about $63 billion in tax revenue to governments at all levels (2015 figures).   It’s hard to miss the obvious.  Ignoring the cost of lives lost and damaged, military conflict is good for business and a few local economies.  Cultivating military patriotism as the mark of a true American is one way to keep it going.  After all, what other kind of patriotism could there be?

I thought about that when Veterans Day elicited a string of posts from friends and family honoring those who have served in the military, and another string from veterans recalling their time of service.  Honor, in the form of grateful thanksgiving, is most certainly due to those drafted into military service.  Following the end of WWII and Korea, they were sent into conflicts having little to do with defending American freedom.  The nation owes them honor and apologies for what was forced upon them under false pretense.  Honor is also due to those who, following the end of the draft, volunteered because it was the patriotic thing to do, the right thing to do, the romantic thing to do, and, for a few, the only thing to do.  For more than two decades they have loyally served their country in never ending conflicts where the political goals are uncertain, always just out of reach, with the vaguest connection to American national security.  To them we owe more than a parade and a string of Facebook posts.  We owe extravagant repatriation with every resource needed to reenter lives of wholeness in the civilian world.  To our shame, what we owe and what we provide are not easily reconciled.

Military service is an honorable calling, but it’s not the ultimate sign of patriotism.  Honorable as it is, the military is a blunt weapon in the hands of political leadership too willing to use it, not in defense of the nation, but in defense of egotistical pride, domestic political advantage, global realpolitik maneuvering, and sadly, jobs and profits generated by the arms industry.  It’s too easy for lives of recruits to become expendable abstractions, just the cost of doing business in a violent world.  The dead are buried with military honors, and the assurance that they died to protect our freedom, in hopes that it will be enough to keep deeper questions from being asked.  Those who return alive, but with wounded souls, are given a Laurel and Hardy handshake with promises of rewards never quite funded, although things seem to be improving.  As for the lives of ‘enemies’, they’re irrelevant, not worth thinking about.  Destruction of civilian lives?  Collateral damage, the cost of war, nothing more, can I freshen your drink?   

A strong military has been a national priority since the end of WWII.  That’s true of every administration, both sides of the aisle, and of public opinion.   What seems to have changed is an entrenched undercurrent of religiously themed militarized patriotism, emerging through Trumpian tea party fueled mythologies, to the divine status of gods.  Too many Christians wrap those gods in the flag, worshiping both in unquestioning confidence that Jesus approves.  

It is patriotism swathed in religious garb that pays no attention to Jesus’ commands to love God, love neighbor, love others as Christ has loved us.  It pays scant attention to the constitutional rule of law, rather than the military, as the guarantor of our liberties.  It is patriotism threatened by the extension of constitutional liberties to minorities, and exacerbated by changing demographics challenging white male hegemony.  It’s a dangerous place teetering on the edge of authoritarianism endorsed by what Hannah Arendt calls ‘the mob’, which I take to mean populism that belittles scientific thought, higher education, and the establishment (whatever that is).  But they keep the name of Jesus close at hand.

Dorothy Day, writing many decades ago, observed that Christians cannot give ultimate loyalty to political ideals of any kind.  It could not have been easy for her.  She was an ardent socialist who worked hard to make her politics the servant of her faith, and not the other way round.  The antidote for that temptation, she said, was love.  She believed it may even be the antidote for those who don’t believe in God.  As she wrote in her small book The Reckless Way of Love: notes on following Jesus:  

There is a character in The Plague by Albert Camus who says that he is tired of hearing about men dying for an idea. He would like to hear about a man dying for love for a change.  He goes on to say that men have forgotten how to love, that all they seem to be thinking of these days is learning how to kill.  Man, he says, seems to have lost the capacity for love.

What is God but love?  What is religion without love?  We read of the saints dying for love, and we wonder what they mean.  There was a silly verse I used to hear long ago: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”  It comes from As You Like It.  And nowadays in this time of war and preparing for war, we would agree, except for the saints.  Yes, they have died for love of God.  But Camus’s character would say, “I mean for love of man.”  Our Lord did that, but most people no longer believe in him.  It is hard to talk to people about God if they do not believe in him.  So one can talk and write of love.  People want to believe in that even when they are all but convinced that it is an illusion.

I agree with Day, and believe it’s the antidote for those who have made a god out of militarized, nationalistic patriotism.  The love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus leaves no room for any other god.  There is no room for Ares and Mars garbed in American flags, impersonating patriotism, demanding a place on the holy altar next to the cross.   Antidote though it may be, smashing idols with reformation fervor is not likely to work.  They’re embedded deep enough to have become a natural part of the scenery of generic American Christianity.  What may work is constant, energetic proclamation of the gospel that simply leaves no room for them.  Add to that secular teaching about the philosophy and history of our constitutional republic, with an emphasis on the subordinate servant role of the military, and we may make progress.  

One final note.  There are people out there who will not listen, and won’t change their minds.  Maybe it’s time to quit knocking on their doors, and get on with those who will.  To keep hammering away on the former is to ignore the latter, possibly losing both.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Climate Change and Human Culpability

I was dismayed by two recent letters in The Christian Century denigrating the work of authors of articles on climate change, asserting that life times of disciplined scientific research into human effects on climate are nothing more than hunches.  Similar letters in our local paper are not  surprising, but readers of The Christian Century tend to have well honed critical thinking skills,  and are unlikely to label verifiable scientific research as mere hunches.  

There are some who are consistent in their certainty that the climate is not changing, or perhaps it is changing, but within the context of normal climactic cycles extending over eons.  They are equally consistent in asserting that humans have nothing to do with it.  I don’t get it.  Why is it so important for them to deny human culpability in this one area?  They’re certainly willing to blame fallen humanity for most everything else. 

To be sure, there is something to be said for those willing to stand defiantly alone in an unfriendly crowd.  Great leaps forward in humanity’s ascent have come from courage  like that.  But not always.  Sometimes they’ve been the last ones insisting that Copernicus was wrong, cars would never replace horses, Malthus was right, etc.  It’s a long list.  I suspect those who deny human impact on changes in earth’s climate are among them.  

What’s more troubling is their apparent indifference to the suffering and damage already caused by a changing climate, and their dismissal of actions that can help prevent more suffering and damage, for fear they will hurt the economy.  If economic prosperity is that important to them, how are they not able to see that the future of economic growth is precisely in the other direction, not just here but all over the globe?  Energy production and distribution systems moving away from fossil fuels are changing almost as fast as the climate, and with them the possibility of doing something useful to mitigate climate change suffering and damage.  That should be celebrated and encouraged, not ridiculed.  Even now there are more domestic jobs in solar and wind than there are in either coal or petroleum.  Good paying jobs with a real future, isn’t that what we want?

Sadly, from time to time we need to be reminded that this island home of ours, careening through space in the company of its life giving sun, enveloped by its life sustaining environment, is the only one we have.  At no other time in earth’s long, long history has it been populated by enough people with enough technology to do it great harm, or to care for it as responsible stewards.  That’s something new, arriving in the last two hundred years of its four and a half billion years of existence.  Suddenly, we have before us the possibility that we humans can so abuse our home that it will become uninhabitable – for humans.  With or without us, it will go on.  Which it will be is up to us.  

I encourage climate change skeptics to employ their gifts of skeptical reasoning in more constructive ways that may contribute to the well being of us all, and even more, the well being of those yet to be born.  In the remote case you are like a guy I knew years ago who believed the end times were imminent, so environmental protection was pointless – get over it.  That’s the logic of someone who would trash their home the day before they moved to a better place.  It’s not a Jesus way of thinking or acting.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sheer Silence and God's Presence

Alone in the wilderness, Elijah sought a word from God, but it was not to be found in hurricane winds, earthquakes, or fire.  Indeed it was not to be found at all; it came to him in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19).  Jesus, it is written, went as often as he could to a lonely place, there, away from all distractions, to commune with the God the Father.

Images like these have inspired generations of spiritual seekers to pursue lonely places of silence in search of God’s presence.  It’s a very romantic notion, and not without value.  Entering lonely places of silence with intentionality opens the way of expectation that God’s presence may be experienced.  It’s also possible that the awesome wonders of nature revealed in lonely places can be mistaken for God’s presence.  Elijah certainly did not find God in them, but only in the silence - of what?  More than the silence of the world about him, he needed to experience the silence of his own mind and body, giving up his anxieties, worries, expectations, wants and needs, and in that silence he was finally prepared to hear the voice of God that had always been present. 

It’s that always present part that’s so hard to learn.  I’m not sure when it happened for me, but there came a time when I realized that God was as present to me in the midst of my daily work in New York City as on the quiet upcountry slopes of island mountains.  The sheer silence of a lonely place might helpful and relaxing, but not necessary.  The sheer silence needed to hear God’s voice can be present anywhere, at anytime because it exists in the spaces between sounds.  They are spaces of a mystical nature.  Once recognized, they can expand in the midst of competing sounds to become the sheer silence in which God’s presence is made known.

We don’t live in the NYC area anymore.  We live out West in a broad valley on the edge of the Palouse, up against the Blue Mountains, with the high desert of the intermountain plateau around us.  The Snake River, with all it’s canyons, borders us on the north, and the magnificent Columbia River Gorge begins just to our west.  What better place could there be to find lonely silence in which God’s presence could be felt.  There is no better place, but God is not more present here than on Fifth Avenue, in the local state prison, or amidst the small city hubbub of our Main Street.  Learning how to recognize and live into it, that’s the trick.

It’s been a long time since I’ve given much thought to that, but a recent edition of The Christian Century advertised an essay contest on the subject of silence, it piqued my interest, and I wrote a short essay for submission.  Winners will be published sometime in February or March, and there’s probably a small print rule about not publishing submissions anywhere else before then, but what the heck.  Here’s a version of mine; keep it to yourself. 

There’s a romantic idea that entering a place of silence will open doors to deeper communication with one’s self, the universe, and possibly the divine.  It may be, but silence is not easily understood, and many find it uncomfortable.

Silence is not the absence of sound.  It’s the quiet spaces between sounds, allowing us to hear each of them more clearly.  I have, and maybe you have too, experienced lonely places where the quiet spaces between sounds have been profound.  For me it’s been the high desert and mountain slopes.  It’s said that God’s voice can be heard in those quiet spaces, but they’re few and infrequent.  We don’t spend our time in those places, but in the ordinary ebb and flow of every day life where it’s not self evident that quiet spaces between sounds are important.  Maybe they don’t even exist.  We are not born to value them, at least not in the age in which we live.  We are born into a world of sound with little room for quiet spaces between them.  Learning to recognize and appreciate silence, can be an uncomfortable, disorienting process.

Consider the years of childhood and adolescence.  Silence is alien.  Quiet spaces between sounds are filled as quickly as possible.  If not with talk, then music, video games, anything that makes a noise.  The unheard sounds of texting fill in whatever is left.  The young live in a world of sounds they and others create.  Silence is either an accident or punishment.  

Would it help to experience the comparative silence of nature?  Yes, but to sit in a silence filled only with the sounds of creation, that’s not normal.  Our diocesan camp, Camp Cross on Lake Coeur d’Alene, is a rustic camp, one of the few left.  Talk about being cut off, campers arrive by boat.  Leaving noise making things behind is hard.  Life without tablets, smart phones and earbuds is unthinkable.  The quiet spaces between the sounds of nature are strange, even a bit frightening.  Counselors have been through it themselves, and know how to help them learn to live into the sounds of silence, with the possibility that God might be present in them.  Does it work?  Yes, and Camp Cross alums are passionate about how important the experience has been for them.  Wonderful as that may be, attendance is declining, has been for years.  Camps themed for sports, technology, academics, and even religion are where the money is.  The busier with less time for silence and reflection, the more popular.  

I didn’t grow up that way.  Without a Camp Cross, my exposure to the silence between sounds came in a different way.  We had only the rudiments of high tech noise making, but such as they were, we made the most of them, and were adept at keeping silence at bay.  Introduction to it came with summer visits to grandma in rural Kansas.  Grandma’s house was quiet.  On hot Kansas days, the tick-tock of a clock, the quiet whir of a fan, and subtle sounds floating through screened windows could be heard, one at a time.  Under their influence time seemed to slow, almost stopping.  In my memory, grandma’s house was a place of comforting silence, a silence in which each small sound could be heard.  It was confusing.  A little was enough, nothing a few raucous cousins couldn’t fix.  That was a long time ago.  Funny how the silence of grandma’s house is a stronger memory than noisy time with raucous cousins.  At the time, it was the other way round.

Let’s face it, youthful ears are not geared for silence.  They are hungry for more knowledge of the world about them, and time for quiet reflection isn’t a priority.  It’s not even a passing interest.  Youthful ears hear well, but listen poorly.  They’ve not yet learned to converse with silence.  As they mature, some will learn.  Many will not.  For some, silence will always be a void to be filled in any way possible.  For some, silence will be filled with terror, guilt and regret.  For some, silence will be filled with comforting memories.  For some, silence will become an invitation to conversation.

Into that milieu we are told God comes with a voice heard in sheer silence, the silence between the sounds.  Rustic lake side camps and quiet grandma houses may be the best places to begin, but they’re not the only ones, and they can be misleading if we believe silence can’t be experienced elsewhere.  Lapping water and forest breezes can be mistaken for God’s voice, if we’re not careful.  High deserts and mountain slopes may come our way from time to time, but we can’t stay there.  

When we have learned to recognize and value silence in the spaces between sounds, the cacophony of everyday life can also become a place accommodating them, and in them God’s voice may be heard, if we let it.  It will always be a voice inviting us into conversation, into a deeper intimacy with God where any question, every doubt, and all possibilities are welcome.  It requires intentionality.  Learning and developing it may be helped by rustic camps and desert retreats, but it can be practiced in any place at any time, if we are willing to do it.  The silence of the spaces between the sounds is always an open door through which communion with God is possible.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Unifying American Myth: Is it possible?

David Brooks wrote an interesting column in the NYT a few days ago.  He doesn’t believe the constant flow of unfavorable news about the Trump administration will have much effect on the loyalty of his base.  Facts aside, Trump knows how to appeal to the myth of who they want to be (again), and they love it.  No longer to be looked down on by the educated, liberal elite who are “clueless idiots full of drivel,” Trump affirms for them that they, the regular (white) people, are the true source of American “virtue, wisdom and toughness.”  It’s a powerful myth even if one that never worked, not even for those who want to believe in it, and it’s far from a unifying myth for all Americans.  Unifying myths are rare, but we've had  a few that helped the nation surge ahead as one, or at least offering the illusion of being unified.  The most powerful of them worked for sixty years or so, but they work no longer.  Do we need a new one, if such a thing is even possible?  Is it?

The nation got along without a dominant unifying myth for over a century.  During that time it played with dozens of competing myths about what it means to be American, and fought a vicious civil war in the process.  Unity of identity has not been a dominant feature of the American character. 

Excluding revolutionary America, the idea of a nationally unifying myth is fairly recent.  The Spanish American War tried but sputtered out.  WWI rallied America to action, but never quite unified it.  The Great Depression was a shared experience, but not a unifying one.  WWII unified Americans as they had never been before.  We were the arsenal of freedom, fighting not only for America, but for the whole world of free peoples.  Virtue, courage and victory led into a second unifying myth in the post war years of a culturally homogenized (white) middle class nuclear family living in a modest three bedroom house as the standard around which American unity revolved.  Dad worked, mom raised children.  Ideal neighborhoods had parks, a few shops, local schools and several churches.  Downtown was not too far away, the very center of community life.  If not every neighborhood or downtown lived up to the ideal, it remained the ideal.  Strive as you are able to be more like it.  Each year was believed to provide a better opportunity for the prepared man than had the previous.  Communists were held at bay.  American capitalism dominated other world economies.  We began to believe that America was what it had been divinely destined to become, and that it always would be.  Those not participating, or denied the right to participate, were told that no matter what obstacles lay in their way, living into the myth was the only true path to achieving the American dream.  

That long sixty year episode of  two successive unifying myths gave us the expectation that we should be unified in our understanding of what it means to be American.  It ended not with a whimper, but in a series of loud bangs, undermined from many sides.  Civil Rights, Vietnam, Women’s Rights, Global Economic Recovery, 9/11, and worst of all, Obama, that uppity black man from crime ridden Chicago by way of Hawaii with irregular parentage and an Islamic sounding name who dared to be president not once but twice.  Trump, taking advantage of the anti-Obama tea party movement, promised to make things right again, and that promise counted for everything.  He was lying, but his snake oil sold well in spite of all the fact checkers, so why not keep on selling it?  Like many hucksters, I think he half believed in his own product.

If the old unifying myth has crumbled, and Trump’s tea party inspired re-creation is a duct-taped cardboard mockery of a workable myth, what are the possibilities that a new unifying American myth can be constructed on the foundation of our highest ideals?  Just a guess, but I suspect they’re limited.  The idea of a single unifying myth requires the full integration of all persons into a shared understanding of what the American dream should be, which cannot be centered on the white middle class.  Not everyone wants to be fully integrated into something that demands they give up too much of their ethnic, racial, or cultural heritage.  We tried that, and it made for complicated issues of social injustice.  What may work is a mosaic of interconnected myths that together form an integrated pattern depicting an America image in which diverse elements are mutually honored, none dishonored, and all have equitable access to the good life, whatever that may be.  Hawaii, sans tourists, may come closest to achieving that new kind of multivalent unifying myth, achieved imperfectly, and not without difficulty and conflict.  Societal perfection is not yet ours to have, but we can move in that direction. 

Can it be done?  Maybe.  It would require the so called white population, especially males, to surrender the systemic preferences they’ve enjoyed for several centuries.  It won’t be easy.  Most deny they ever had preferences.  It's hard to give up something you believe you never had.  White women who’ve fought the feminist fight must give up the idea that they own it, and are naturally gifted to lead it.  Black activists have to give up the idea that honestly facing America’s racist history requires personal mea culpas from every white person.  The story of American Indians must be told from in their voice.  The entire nation must be well informed about the way every indigenous and minority group has been treated, not to generate guilt, but to acknowledge the reality of it, and then get on with life, intentionally addressing remaining imbalances in mutually acceptable ways.  Doing that without denigrating the magnificent achievements embedded in our history won’t be easy.

Writing as a privileged white male who has enjoyed and made the most of it, I’m reminded of the first time I gave any serious thinking to giving up some of it.  It was in the late 60s and early 70s when women entering the professional workplace challenged the right of men to all the good jobs.  Men had to support families, it was said, while women were in it just for themselves.  Besides, it’s hard enough to compete for positions against a crowed field of qualified men; if the field is doubled with women, my chances of success will be cut in half.  Who wants that?  Like anyone with an edge in the marketplace, if you’ve got an edge you want to keep it.  As it turned out, two things happened.  The added competition improved everything.  Women had a hard time of it, given the amount of self-serving, self-justified obstacles put in their way.  It’s a dynamic destined to be repeated many times, in many ways, by every group inching their way toward whatever they think the American Dream is.  

As attractive an idea as a new unifying myth might be, human selfishness prefers to make it all about me and my people.  The tea party movement may be a burlesque like example, but its success at messing things up should not be taken lightly.  Something like it can come from any quarter.

What can ease the way?  Multilingual education starting as early as possible, and never stopped.   American history that teaches the whole story, but without imposing guilt for historical events on current generations.  They have enough of their own to carry, thank you.  Community celebrations of every sort of ethnic and cultural heritage to which all are invited, and none excluded.  Sex.  There’s nothing like intercultural, interracial families to break down barriers.  Their creation is generally initiated through sexual attraction dressed in romance.  Legal reform.  The statue books are filled with laws, subtle and not so subtle, that imposed obstacles on various groups we no longer publicly suppress, but once did.   Congressional redistricting.  Enough said about that.  You may have ideas to add.  Go for it.  In any case, it’s possible, I think desirable, but not easy.  We shall see what happens. 

Nantucket Notes

Every town is made up of overlapping communities engaging with each other out of economic necessity, and the obvious fact of their physical proximity, but without including each other any more than is needed.  Huge cities and small towns are divided into neighborhoods named geographically on the maps, but by the sort of people who live in them in the local jargon.  Serious issues of social justice abound, but occasionally there's some degree of entertainment in observing, and thinking about the stories that could be told about what is observed.   

Our visits to Nantucket are like that.  Each year we spend a few weeks on the island.  It’s a place where the overlapping communities are more starkly obvious, easier to describe.  It has a year round population of about 11,000.  Summer crowds boost it to 50,000, and there are several thousand seasonal property owners who come and go. 

Mid summer high season brings tens of thousands of visitors onto a very small island.  Some are day trippers, others stay a few days, a week, or maybe two.  They're the cash cows that keep the economy humming, and they tend toward four types: very wealthy; ordinary wealthy; wannabe wealthy; and gawkers who enjoy watching them.  Obviously there’s something to draw them, and its here in abundance: beaches, trails, bike paths, history, quaint downtown, art, museums, farms, great food.

In their midst are off island property owners who visit seasonally, most renting their houses to tourists during the high season.  Many are interested and invested in the well being of the island, involved in local affairs as they are abl.  Others are just investors.  

Permanent residents tend to be reasonably prosperous, but not wealthy,  Some live on island from April through December, but get out during winter while they can, where they can.  Others stay.  Those who stay consider themselves the truest of real Nantucketers.  The more generations they can claim as islanders, the more real their claimed status as the truest of the true.  

Underneath is a layer of year round professional workers who are needed, but not likely to stay for more than a few years: doctors, nurses, teachers, clergy, etc.  They neither belong nor not belong, always welcomed, but not always included more than politeness demands.  Under them are year round private and public workers holding up the infrastructure: police, fire, public works, plumbers, electricians, contractors, realtors, property management, and so on.  Some claim generations of island ancestors.  Seasonal workers staffing restaurants and shops are recruited from all over, with a heavy emphasis on Eastern Europe and the Caribbean.  Construction workers appear to be mostly Caribbean working for locally owned outfits.  Theirs is not an easy life.  Housing and life in general are very expensive.  Affordable and workforce housing are in short supply.  Rooms of dubious quality and overcrowded apartments are the rule.  Finally, and surprising to many, the resident black population dates to colonial times with the right to claim admission to any of the other communities while maintaining their own. 

Where do we fit in?  I suppose we’re among the gawkers, although we try to be as inconspicuous as possible.  We really do enjoy it, especially in our normal seasons of spring and fall when everything is open, but the summer crowds have not yet arrived or already left.  We spend wonderful days with our oldest daughter and husband, who own a house here.  There’s nothing like an island out in the North Atlantic, thirty miles off shore, with all the weather that brings. Granddaughters, now grown, are sometimes on island.  We walk everywhere, ride bikes, enjoy fine meals, and my wife, an artist, has spent several months over a couple of years as an artist in residence, giving her the credibility to be featured in a local gallery (Robert Foster Fine Arts, look it up).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Episcopalians Make It Too Difficult

This column is aimed at Episcopalians, but I suspect changing a word here or there might make it about most other mainline and Catholic Churches as well.   It begins with a question.  How much Jesus are Christians supposed to take with them into the market place?  Episcopalians are a little nervous about that, even when motivated by Christ to do good.  They make it too difficult to talk about religion, much less Jesus.  It’s not that hard.

The congregation from which I retired had, and still has, a long established practice of social outreach through generous gifts and parishioner engagement in the life of the community.  For years I sat contented that this was good.  It’s what doing God’s work looks like.  On the other side of the table sat Jack Ellis.  Jack, now deceased, was a professor of social work, and the chair of the outreach committee.  He wanted to know where Jesus was in all that we did?  How was Jesus made known?  How were others to make a connection between our faith and what we did?  If they couldn’t make the connection, how were we different from any other group doing good works?  It took me a long time to understand what he was talking about.   

Maybe it was because the town’s conservative evangelical churches had other ideas about how Jesus was to be made known.  It was to save souls, with a string attached to every deed and every gift.  Crudely put, it went something like this: Jesus loves you, but if you don’t accept him as your personal savior, you’re going to hell.  Accepting Jesus came with conditions imprinted on a long menu of social issues: homosexuals are bad; poverty is the poor’s own fault; Jesus will cure your bad habits; women are subordinate to men; if things aren’t going your way, your faith isn’t strong enough; Satan has seduced the nation with secular humanism.  All of it delivered with a toothy smile.  It wasn’t disingenuous, they believed it all, and delivered it with bible thumping enthusiasm, giving them ownership of the Christian brand, according to popular opinion.  And why not?  Weren’t all the mainline churches in decline?  Either they had abandoned God, or God had abandoned them.

Not wanting to have our Christian faith painted with that brush, we were content to be St. Whosit Church that could be counted on, along with Rotary and the Lions, to do good things for those in need.  Members, faithful followers of Jesus, were committed to civic involvement, serving on boards, volunteering at social agencies, belonging to Rotary and Lions, all of it inspired by their faith, but without eagerness to bring the name of Jesus into it.  

I was wrong. Jack was right.  But what’s the right way to help others understand the connection between our shared faith as followers of Jesus and way we live into it through what we do in the community?  It turns out that there are quite a few ways, all of them simple, and all Episcopalian friendly.

One is to honestly admit that not everyone knows who we are.  The general public has no idea about what we believe or how we worship.  Most couldn’t find us on a city map.  They can’t pronounce Episcopalian, much less spell it.  A local church leader once told me that everyone in town knew his church so there was no need to elaborate.  I tested it by stopping at a few gas stations and stores to ask if they knew where St. Whosit was and what kind of church it might be.  Most had no idea, never heard of it.  Those who had were unsure if it was Christian, or maybe something else, Catholic possibly.  It takes little effort to send a gift or crew of volunteers along with a letter or pamphlet explaining that the work they’re doing, the gift they’re giving, is in the name of Jesus Christ, and a little about what that means.  

Hosting free meals in the parish hall?  It’s become a popular thing to do, and much needed.  How hard is it to put tent cards at every table saying it’s a gift from Jesus, a few prayer cards to take away, and a warm invitation to spend some time in the church.  How about offering an early evening lunch group bible study? Who knows what might happen?

Be alert to opportunities.  Sooner or later someone will ask you whether you believe in God, what you believe about God.  It happens more often than you think, but most of us aren’t paying attention.  It can happen anywhere at anytime.  This afternoon my wife and I took a stroll up and down the main drag on Nantucket, where we’re visiting for a few days.  I was sitting on a sidewalk bench soaking up the sun when John from New Jersey sat down nearby.  We said hello.  John’s 86, just hanging around waiting on his family as they stopped in the shops.  He asked what I would think about being 20 again.  Not on my bucket list, that’s for sure, but he wondered about having another sixty years ahead of him instead of just staring at the end of things.  Depends on your theology, I said, some of us don’t believe it’s the end, and the conversation took off.  No, I never told him I was a priest, but I did say he might want to look into the Episcopal Church because it’s open to questions and doubt.  And, by the way, Nantucket’s St. Paul’s Church is right around the corner.  I’ll be there at 10, you come too.  Will he?  Probably not.  That’s not the point. 

Look behind the veil.  Questions or statements about evolution, global warming, fundamentalism, atheism, and the good old days, are often invitations to a conversation about God from people who are curious about Christianity and don’t want to be thumped on the head by a bible.  Or maybe from people whose experience with conservative evangelicalism has them wondering if there is another way of knowing Jesus.   

Share your weekend.  Who hasn’t had someone ask what they did over the weekend?  Why not throw in church?  It won’t hurt.  Interesting things can happen.  

Got a suit coat of some kind?  Put an Episcopal Church or diocesan lapel pin on it.  Now and then someone will ask about it.  After all, it’s not the usual Rotary or American flag pin.  Nothing complicated about it, just cocktail conversation, but it’s cocktail conversation about Jesus without pounding a bible or threatening hell. 

Episcopalians make it too difficult.  It’s not that hard.