Sunday, April 30, 2017

Life would be better without all those damn regulations

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes the the popular God Squad column featured in many papers.  He recently addressed a  reader's question about fear of punishment as a motivation to do good.  Doing good, or doing right, should be done because it is good or right, not out of fear of punishment, said the reader, so why do religions rely on fear of punishment to motivate good behavior?  Gellman said is was something like the police using radar to enforce speed limits.  Let's face it, some people drive safely mainly to avoid getting tickets.  Doing good, doing right, should be done because they are good and right, but some people need a little added inducement.  

It reminded me of a conversation I overheard at the airport last week, which, in turn, reminded me of dozens of other coffee conversations over the years.  Waiting at the gate to board, two men were sitting near me talking about what they do for a living. One was a lab tech for a food processing company, and he described the many tests he conducted to assure that his company's products met standards of quality.  Between the two of them, it suddenly got twisted to a complaint fest about government regulations that required all these tests, which led to the usual round of moaning and groaning  government bashing.

I wondered to myself, if the government did not require those tests with their associated paper work, what would you do that is different from what you do now?  What role would food safety  and quality play for you and your company if the government did not regulate it?  Maybe you would do nothing different because you and your company are the kind who do what is good and right because it is good and right.  What about others?  Could they be relied on to do the same?  Or might they be like those who have little regard for red lights and speed limits?  Might there be some who would treat food safety and quality with the same seriousness as driving drunk, or drinking while driving?  What's Wong with a little roadie in the cup holder to make the trip more enjoyable?  

The two airport guys reminded me of my friend Keith, a young wheat farmer.  His wheat, like most of the wheat grown around here, is destined for export, mostly to Asia.  He's a libertarian twice over who detests the federal government meddling in the affairs of its citizens.   Regulations are the bane of his existence.  What would he do differently if there were no regulations about pesticides and fertilizers?  Maybe nothing.  He's an honest man whose integrity is unimpeachable.  Could he rely on others to do the same?  Could he rely on Monsanto to be honest about it's seeds and farm chemicals?  You decide.  What would his business be like if there was no federally underwritten crop insurance?  No federally underwritten marketing program?  No federal involvement in trade agreements?  Wheat farms around here lost money last year.  They may lose more this year.  It all depends on international market conditions.  It's not a business for the faint hearted.  Would they be better off going it alone without government help?  That would mean no co-ops, no water or electricity from Columbia and Snake River dams, no county extension services.  

Dreaded regulations have several reasons for existing.  One is to protect us from unnecessary danger and health risks.  Another is to protect us from predatory commercial practices.  Yet others protect the environment from us.  There are more.  They all intersect.  Are some unnecessary?  Are some too complicated, redundant?  Are some inappropriate for our area, even if they are needed in others?  Have federal bureaucrats forgotten that they are in the business of customer service?  Maybe they never knew.  It's all true, at least in part, but regulations are not bad per se, and they certainly are not indifferent commodities.  The president's plan to cut two for every one added treats them that way.  Does that make any sense?   

Friday, April 28, 2017

OK, St. Anthony, I need some help

I would like to write a brilliant article on a subject I know well enough to tackle the job.  Instead, I’m obsessed with finding my car keys.  They were in my jacket pocket.  I know that because that’s where I found them when we retrieved the car from the airport parking lot and drove home.  So far so good.  They were in the ignition, safe and sound.  then what?  

It was the usual back and forth brining in luggage, hanging up jackets, unpacking, putting tings away, tossing a few items in the laundry basket, setting others aside for dry cleaning, having a bite to eat, and, eventually, going to bed.  Not a complicated picture.  So what is my usual key practice?  I get out of the car, put them in my right pocket, go into the house, dump my cap, wallet, and keys in a lump on the kitchen counter, and get about my business.  Are they on the  counter, with my wallet or near the cap?  No.  

People who know me too well, know that when I get distracted by some other task, I sometimes lay things down in unusual but plain sight places.  It’s a dog and squirrel thing.  Are the keys in any of the usual, unusual places?  No.  Check the luggage.  Check my wife’s purse.  Check pockets of all jackets and pants.  Check laundry basket.  Check dry cleaning basket.  Check junk mail in the recycle bin.  Conduct CSI worthy exam of car.  Do same to other car we did not drive.  Begin searching freezer, bathroom drawers, under chair cushions, behind things.  The house is not that big.  Where could they be?  Maybe I should have bought one of those disc things.  You know, the one’s advertised as “never lose your car keys again.”   The keys to the church, house, and fire station are on that ring.  I’d like to find it.

It is said that St. Anthony is the one to turn to.   Apparently he has quite a reputation as a finder of lost items.  Considering of how lost our current president is, I’m hoping Tony is working overtime helping him find his way, for all of our sakes.  I hate to bother him with the trivial problem of my keys.   Wouldn’t want him to be distracted and misplace 45.  Who knows what could happen if he was left to his own devices.  

With that happy thought, it’s time to get back to the search. 




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.