Saturday, April 21, 2018

Psychographics and Real Politics

Trump’s most ardent followers will dump him the moment they realize it was a bad bet in the first place, but when will they realize it?  If the history of other wannabe dictators is an indicator, not until defeat is obvious and imminent.  In the ardency of their loyalty, they have adopted for themselves belief in, and commitment to, the fictitious world he made credible.  It’s a world they were already certain existed: a violent world where their personal safety was at risk, a world destroying long held social values, of uncontrolled invasion by unwanted aliens, of an economy intentionally organized to keep them down.  A world in which they get no respect from mythical elites.  It’s a world that had for years been sold to them by talk radio and FOX news, confirmed by the election of a black president, and now authenticated by a new president who, by his office and in his words, has made it real – for them.  

It’s a world they had always lived in but kept private, or shared with only a few others over a beer or backyard BBQ.  Talk radio, FOX and Trump didn’t create it.  They provided the platform and agency for it to be proclaimed publicly, and as a means for the acquisition of money and power for themselves.  The fiction of their imaginary world won’t collapse through informed argument, but only through overwhelming electoral defeat.  But what then?

Those same ardent supporters will no doubt look around for another  right wing fascist oriented fiction into which they can live, aided by the manipulators who are savvy enough to spot a new opportunity to make money and acquire power.  What’s reassuring is that throughout modern history these kinds of movements have not been able to completely squash the human desire for truth, freedom, integrity, and what we broadly call human rights.  The challenge that gives Trumpism type movements their temporary advantage is majority complacency.  In our country, it means low voter turnout, except for extremists.  It also means appalling ignorance of basic civics: American history, government, legislative processes, etc.

I have no idea why a predictable percentage of the American population lives in a world where authoritarian rulers are looked for and followed, in spite of the obvious fictions they proclaim.  In the early 1980s, when psychographics were emerging as tools for understanding group behavior, there were several studies suggesting that around 10% of the population could be relied on to favor authoritarian leaders and leadership, and that around 60% could be relied upon to be complacently malleable.  By now, new research and better data have no doubt resulted in a more sophisticated understanding of how that works.  Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Google, Amazon and others certainly think so.


The point is that trying to change world views of the 10% is probably unproductive, although it would be helpful to know who they are, and offer reassurance that their fears and anxieties will be acknowledged.  Productive change has to be aimed at the 60% who are complacently malleable.  First, by knocking the complacency out of them, at least for a while.  Second, by providing an abundance of easily understood, verifiable information that speaks directly to their conditions in life.  It’s exactly what Cambridge Analytica offered to do for right wing causes, using every despicable tactic they could dream up.  The same thing can be done with integrity and transparency by moderates and progressives, should they choose to do so.  If they do, do it in plain, public sight.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The City as Art Gallery: Lessons from Kelowna

Not long ago my wife and I viewed artist Dylan Ranney’s installation, “The Artist’s Garden” at the Kelowna (B.C.) Art Gallery.  His statement about the work explained that he considered the city itself to be a gallery depicting itself as art revealing the values of the community to itself and to visitors.  Kelowna is a city dependent on tourism, so understanding the gallery metaphor, and taking it seriously is important to their economic well being.

But what a great metaphor for any city.  Building designs, transportation systems, and neighborhood appearances are artistic statements that reveal the values of the community, and open doors to partial understandings of how they are lived into.  Demographic and economic data have their place, but the community itself paints revealing pictures of who it really is.  The gallery that is the town itself has much to say that economic developers and chambers of commerce never mention, perhaps have never noticed, and frequently prefer visitors to overlook.

American cities are not without awareness of art and architecture as symbols of public pride, but they tend to concentrate that awareness in intentional gathering places downtown and in public parks.  The gallery that is the city has other rooms that display other art.  They too must be visited with open eyes and minds.  Some of it is unattractive, dysfunctional, representing values lived, but not always with pride.  Those rooms are neighborhoods, industrial areas, commercial corners, strip malls, and back alleys that display wealth and poverty, inclusiveness and exclusiveness, social values and economic hierarchies.  City entrances, exits, and industrial areas have much to say about how the city makes its living, and what value appearance has for how it presents itself.  What gets displayed in shop windows says something about cultural and social values of potential customers, whether locals or visitors.  

Perfection is not the goal.  Awareness is the goal.  To be made aware of who we really are revealed in the art displayed in the gallery that is the city contributes to better community decisions.  The other day I saw a video of a machine in the Baltimore harbor that is used to scoop up tons of trash littering the waterway.  They’re very proud of it.  Good for them.  On a recent trip to Australia I learned that their port cities also had trash problems, not only in the water, but all over.  That was a few decades ago.  The cleanup began with campaigns to change public behavior.  Today there’s no need for a Baltimore type machine because there is no trash in the harbor, nor on the streets, nor in old industrial areas.  They became aware of the art they were displaying and decided to make the changes needed to take it down and put up something else.


If community leaders could be made more aware of the city as an art gallery displaying itself to itself as well as to visitors, I believe they would make better decisions.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Need for a New Populism

Populism has gained the attention of the voting public, even if it’s poorly understood.  Trump’s campaign rhetoric pulls out every propaganda cliché associated with populist appeals, and it has worked to capture the loyalty of what is loosely referred to as the tea party movement and fellow travelers.  At the core of its many manifestations, populism lifts up the interests of alienated members of society through political organization to attack whatever is believed to prevent them from enjoying the benefits of social and economic success.  The political face of populism has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, usually forcing the nation to recognize serious problems of equity and justice, and influencing changes in public policy.  Populist movements have often been able to elect small cadres of representatives to congress where they become thorns in the side of congressional leadership, but they’ve never been more than a vocal minority.  Not since Andrew Jackson has a president openly identified with them.  Populist leaders, subsumed under Trump’s more fascist version (Trumpism), have veered in a different direction from its predecessors.  They've become the foundation for a real and present danger to our democracy, oddly destructive of working class issues they claim to defend.  Nevertheless, the alienation to which they give voice is real, and moderate and progressive political forces need to recognize and respond to it in pragmatic, understandable ways.

Trump’s response is an imaginary restoration of a steel and coal fueled industrial economy, unencumbered by regulation, that once existed in the make believe world of nostalgia, even if it means hurting other, more important, sectors of the economy from high tech to agriculture.  He threatens easily fought and won trade wars to protect dying industries of marginal importance to the economic future of the country.  For those of us in more rural areas, he's invited trading partner retaliation aimed at the heart of agricultural America.  Vague promises to protect farmers with federal welfare dollars have all the credulity of a Trump wedding vow.  His education secretary is intent on undermining public education, the very source of hope for the future of ordinary people.  His EPA administrator is trying to dismantle regulations protecting the most vulnerable elements of the environment, endangering the most vulnerable members of society.  His treasury secretary wants to return banking to robber baron status, and his HUD secretary has no idea what’s going on.  "Making America Great Again" has become a recipe for making America a second rate floundering has been of a once great country wondering why other nations no longer take it seriously as a world leader.

Curiously, Trump managed to tag his preposterous ideas (no one could call them an agenda) to a legitimate concern: the growing alienation of large sectors of the population epitomized by, but not limited to, the white working class who live in towns and cities across the heartland: a mythical place somewhere west of the Appalachians and east of the Cascades.  It may not be a place, but it is a presence in the minds of people who feel alienated from economic well being and denigrated by educated elites.  They can be anywhere, even in liberal cities on the coasts.  

It’s not simply a matter of decades of growing economic inequality, or the fears of working class whites that they’re soon to become just one more minority among a nation of minorities.  People of color have long endured what working class whites fear is happening to them, and one cannot avoid the truth that tea party Trumpism caters to white anxieties with little regard for for the historical record of systemic racism affecting others.  It can be tempting to react to that by working harder to tackle the problem of racism, but as important as that is, meeting Trumpism head on requires a different strategy.

A moderate/progressive alternative to Trumpism must focus on the reality that the value of labor is no longer respected by corporate and economic policy leaders; therefore they no longer recognize the dignity of laborers as persons worthy of respect.  People of color have known that for a long time, but it’s a new thing for whites.  Moreover, white collar labor, well into middle management, is also sliding into that pit.  

Progressives and moderates must find ways to restore the value of labor and dignity of laborers.  But first, how did we get to such a place?

The nation was lulled into complacency by thirty years of American economic hegemony following WWII that gave us undisputed world economic leadership, and created an expectation that each generation (of white men) would be better off than the one before it, and that any (white male) person could pull himself into the middle class through honest hard work.  It was an era unique in American history.  It wasn’t always that way, and we are slipping back to a modern version of former prevailing conditions closer to the historic norm.

During the industrial revolution, and for decades after, human labor was a mere commodity.  No one laborer was worth much.  The supply was abundant, so treating humans as easily replaceable parts to the machine was the norm.  The Homestead Acts opened millions of newly "liberated" land to anyone who could prove up an operating farm.  It gave opportunity to many, but it was also a way to turn surplus people clogging up the machinery of business into potential customers and suppliers.  For good or for ill, people were still replaceable parts, in the factory or on the farm.  

It wasn’t only greedy robber barons who had that view.  Consider the “scientific management” of Taylorism, the work of Fredrick W. Taylor (1856-1915) who, more or less, invented industrial engineering to maximize production efficiency by treating labor as one more cog in an impersonal machine.  Yes, workers were expected to know what they were doing and work hard, but working efficiently was better yet, and efficiency ruled.  Never mind social and emotional needs; time and motion studies would reveal the most efficient way to get the most out of labor by treating them as just another part of the machinery.  If psychology was an applicable tool, B.F. Skinner could explain how to use it to engineer the right kind of obediently efficient worker.

Liberal thinkers, the social gospel, the growing power of unions were forces that demanded more respect for the dignity of human labor, but it took a couple of world wars for them to get enough leverage to bring real social and economic opportunity to the working class.  It didn’t mean giving up on efficiency, for which we are grateful, since technological advancements have brought us the good things we enjoy today.  In the post WWII era, labor was highly valued, even if only as the enemy of management.  But in time big unions overplayed their hands, new technologies reduced the need for workers,  and right to work laws contributed to the decline of union membership and power.  Combined with parallel declines in the importance and number of small family farms, and the small towns they supported, the social value and dignity of labor as a whole declined.  In recent years it has been a decline extending far into white collar jobs that used to be a way out of the blue collar working class.

How might we go about restoring value to labor and dignity to laborers?  It won’t be easy.  As one who long championed right to work laws, I now believe they need to go.  There is a role for unions – that don’t overplay their hands.  As one union buff has put it, if you think being forced to pay union dues is unfair, how do you feel about being forced to take whatever management dictates?  As reports begin to surface, it appears that the loudly touted tax reform bill has not resulted in higher pay for workers, but in stock buybacks, small one time bonuses for the masses, a few scholarship programs in lieu of higher pay, and more cash in the pockets of top management.  Unions can be an effective counteracting force, but not when right to work laws emasculate them.

Restoring a high marginal rate on the top income brackets would eliminate the incentive to pay super salaries in the tens of millions.  Combined with other changes, a high marginal rate could stimulate higher wages at lower levels, and it would certainly reverse the current trend toward increasing income inequality.   

Generous funding for public education from preschool through at least two years of community college is essential.  Longer school years, teaching to educate not to test, placing equal value on liberal arts and technology, highly valuing vocational education, and making civics, including history, a requirement, are steps requiring federal leadership and broad state support.  We need to be educating a nation, not a town or neighborhood.  If private schools have a role, they have to engage cooperatively with national expectations, not as an excuse for sectarian indoctrination.  Otherwise, they could exist as auxiliaries to public education, but not as replacements. 


That’s a start.  You might have some ideas of your own.  My more conservative friends, of course, are likely to begin singing verses of “Anything but Socialism,” to which I say, learn another song.  We need policies to lead our democratic constitutional republic through the 21st century (not the 19th) toward greater fulfillment of the American Dream we have all cherished.    

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dave and his Jaguar: Idols with nothing to offer

I’ve been thinking about Dave and his Jaguar.  Dave grew up in a disordered home, and lived a disordered life.  Drugs, life on the streets, a few crimes, and time in prison brought him at last to sobriety, at least as sober as he could keep it.  In Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Hand,” home was said to be the place where when you went there they had to take you in.  Dave came to his sister’s house, the only place where he knew he would be taken in.  He did not come well.  His kidneys were failing.  He had to be clean long enough to get on a transplant list, and hope his turn would come up before it was too late.  It was already too late, but he hung in there for a good four or five years.  

I got to know him well.  We talked a lot about life, his life, his hopes, and his desire to live with dignity as a normal person in a normal middle class way, accepted as one of them by other normal middle class people.  He was never quite able to pull it off.  Bits of the streetwise con artist bubbled to the surface as he worked to fit in.  Nevertheless, he tried, and he had a clear idea of the middle class symbols he needed to create the right image.  He needed a cool but dignified car.  He needed a boat and trailer.  He needed the clothes that looked normal in our community.  

Clothes were easy. Goodwill is a popular place to shop for the best in gently used, up to date clothing, some of highest quality.  The boat wasn’t too hard either.  The old seventeen foot aluminum runabout may have needed a little paint.  It leaked but could be patched. The old outboard could be made to run.  The trailer it sat on was OK for short distances.  Dave loved to fish. What could be better?  The right car, that’s what. 

One day he showed up in a twenty year old Jaguar sedan.  Classic lines, paint still in good condition, and it ran, more or less.  It was the perfect car.  Maybe it was old, but classic designs like that never go out of style.  The name Jaguar alone spelled class, dignity, and having made it status.  With these symbols parked at his sister’s house, how could he not be accepted as a normal middle class person?  He had a lot to say about that.  With symbols like these in hand, maybe it wouldn’t matter that he had no career, no work experience in which to take pride, a less than admirable record, no savings, and little income.  He had the clothes, boat and car that he knew were the marks of middle class success.  The facade never convinced anyone.  But he was happy to pretend they did during the few years left to him.

Thinking about Dave reminded me of Ralph (my all purpose pseudonym), a young man whom I knew many years ago.  He came from a family of local prominence, but struggled to make it through college with gentlemen’s Cs.  His dad was in P.R., so Ralph knew what the symbols of success looked like.  The right clothes, the right car, and even a boat.  In his case, it also included the right briefcase.  Get the symbols, and don’t worry too much about the rest.  With the right name and a few connections, Ralph got jobs that had sufficient cachet, which he managed to hold onto by virtue of the same connections.  With a few credit cards, he got the clothes, boat, and car too.  It was an old Thunderbird that leaked oil, only one window could be rolled down, but it was a Thunderbird.  Most important, he got the briefcase.   Sooner or later symbols have to give way to reality, and for him reality was too much to bear.  He died too young.

I’ve counseled a few young man (no women) who were obsessed with getting the right symbols of success, and envious of others who had more of them.  That authentic success comes from competency in one’s field of endeavor, and the integrity of one’s relationships, was not easy to sell.  Others may not have been obsessed in the same way, but they were in debt over their heads with things they didn’t need, but wanted to have because “everyone else” had them.  They were burdened by debt, and it was not an easy burden to bear.

Why?  Is it the power of advertising?  You know the ads where drinking the right beer is sure to lead to a great party on a tropical beach, and who could resist owning the car that delivers you, and a beautiful date, to  an exclusive event?  If family values are more your thing, a different right car will deliver the right spouse, adorable children, a happy dog, and trouble free road trip vacations.  Depending, of course, on using the right toothpaste, deodorant, and laundry detergent.  I would like to think we know it’s all make believe, but maybe we don’t.  I also wonder if there’s a more subtle self reinforcing cultural thing going on.  

Ralph, whom I knew so many years ago, believed that all successful executives carried the right briefcase, so if he got one, he too would be seen as a successful executive as he walked down the street.  To be seen for what he wanted to be was everything.  The quality of his work was never a part of the equation.  Dave hoped his car and boat would give him a respected place in society.  It didn’t.  It seems that for many in our small city, the right 4x4 pickup has replaced the right briefcase and car.  How different is that from high school when wearing the right sneakers was the symbol of record?  Without them, all was lost.  Oh the shame of it.  My sociologist friends no doubt have shelves of research explaining it all.  As for me, I wonder how what they explain might be made useful to teachers, pastors and counselors as ammunition to fight back. 


There’s nothing wrong with having fine clothing, owning a cool car, truck or boat, or even an expensive briefcase.  If you can afford it, go for it.  It’s wrong for them to become idols worshiped, held in esteem for the worthiness they bestow on their owners.  What does the psalmist say?  “They have mouths, but don’t speak; eyes, but can’t see; ears, but can’t hear; and there’s no breath in them (Ps. 135).  They can’t deliver, so don’t ask them to do what they can’t do.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Retirement: What’s it all about?

Retirement has taken on new dimensions.  Eligibility for full Social Security benefits is inching upward.  Defined benefit pension plans are history.  Many retirement age boomers are discovering they have to keep working to cover expenses.  Dreams of the easy life are put on hold.  Younger generations are being warned, but data suggest they’re not listening.  Saving rates are low; debt burdens are high; low and middle incomes still lag behind overall economic growth.  

On the other hand, retirement is financially possible for many others, but recent articles have observed that the easy life doesn’t work for everyone.  Psychologists and sociologists have long known that work is its own reward for most of us.  Effort, accomplishment, ego compensation, with something good coming out of it, make work a better choice than non-stop leisure.  A little added money is a nice bonus. 

We make jokes about the drudgery of work, the bit and bridle of long days and tyrannical bosses.  Jokes though they may be, humor always carries a portion of truth, so one of the benefits of retirement is to redefine work in more favorable terms.  For the fortunate, it means working at what one finds rewarding in itself, and under conditions that one sets according to personal needs and desires.  There is a lot of freedom in that.  Some friends have continued paid employment in their fields of professional expertise, but others have chosen to clerk at local stores,  drive tractors or school buses, remodel old houses, play lounge pianos, and whatever else gives them pleasure, or has been something they’ve always wanted to do.  It also means reserving time for leisure, with more freedom to decide on how much and when. 

Through a bit of planning, a lot of dumb luck, and God’s grace, my wife and I retired with adequate resources for daily needs at the old normal of 65.  It didn’t mean work stopped.  It allowed us to redefine what work meant.  I continued serving as priest and pastor for a small rural congregation, went deeper into first responder chaplaincy, and served on a variety of boards and commissions.  I even reached back into my earlier career to do some teaching on management and leadership.  Writing became a passion rather than a task.  My wife’s path took her from being a gifted amateur artist to a highly respected professional, while she too served on a number of local boards.  At the same time, we reset our clocks to run on a less structured schedule so we could travel where we wanted, as we wanted, when we wanted.

There does come a time to slow down.  It differs from person to person, but one’s body and mind let you know.  Now in my mid seventies, I’m not so much slowing as changing how my time is invested.  I’m down to two boards.  Chaplaincy has eased back to occasional counseling sessions.  On most days I get up when I feel like it.  We travel as much as we desire, filling each trip with as many adventures as we can handle.  Writing has become more important.  Socializing with friends in quiet conversation over a drink or meal has become more important.  Supporting community events and organizations through gifts, without having to attend every dinner and auction, has become more important.  Keeping up an exercise routine has become more important. 


Retirement for folks like us used to mean one of two things:  golf or fishing everyday; or sitting around in the old age home being treated like an inmate.  It was never true, but it was the stereotype.  Sally Bowles wanted to go like Elsie from Chelsea who died of too much, too fast, too hard.  My goal is to follow my friend Ernie (who’s not from anyplace that rhymes).  He finally retired from retirement at 90, but remains engaged in the life of the community for the good of the community.  We shall see.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Easter

I didn’t want to leave this series of brief columns hanging on Good Friday.  So, Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!  Easter has arrived at last, and isn’t it good to get our Alleluias back.

Christians celebrate Easter in such a variety of ways that’s it’s hard to know exactly how each understands it.  For me, Lent and Holy Week are important prefaces to the joy of Easter.  It’s hard to imagine how it can be celebrated without them.  Yet, in other traditions Easter pops out of thin air, set apart from other Sundays as special, but disappearing quickly within a week or two.  I don’t know how to understand that.  Does it really matter?  Probably not, except to me.

The other day I saw a meme (who came up with that horrible word?), anyway, I saw a meme that said if you wanted a truly authentic Easter service, it should be held at sunrise with only women allowed to attend.  It’s a good point.  The gospel records agree that it was women, and only women, who were the first witnesses and bearers to others of the good news.  Maybe men should not be allowed to say anything on Easter Sunday until two or three women in the congregation have announced the Resurrection.  

This year marks an unusual confluence of Passover and Easter, at least in Western Christian tradition, which has resulted in news articles about how they are alike but different.  It always seems a bit of a stretch to me, although both celebrate deliverance and new life.  One remembers what it means to be slaves, wanderers, aliens in strange lands, yet delivered from bondage to freedom by God’s power and grace.  The other remembers what it means that in death life is not ended but changed, and that God’s power to deliver extends not only to Jews, but to all humanity.  The binding link between them for Christians is the Holy Eucharist, but there’s a large chunk of the Church that rarely celebrates Communion, so I don’t know that the link means much to them.   

Some congregations try to hold ersatz seders as an illustration.  Can it work without being faithfully embedded in thousands of years of Jewish history and practice?  I doubt it.  Having been a guest at several family seders, I have witnessed the depth of connectedness with those ancient Hebrews, and every generation between.  It’s something Christians gathering in a church hall for a dinner that’s not a part of their heritage cannot apprehend, especially when they don’t understand their own traditions very well. Add that to knowing little of the anti-Jewish fervor the Church tolerated for centuries, sometimes inciting to fever pitch.

Having said that, I sometimes laid out a model seder table on Maundy Thursday, and spent time explaining what a seder is, means, and how it may have been understood by the disciples, but without pretending to equate it with the meal we were about to share.  I tried that with the youth group once, and it did not go well.  They just didn’t get it, nor should they have. 


Passover and Easter.  They each celebrate deliverance. What God has done, God continues to do still.  For us, Easter is now.  It is always now.  Resurrection is ours anew with each new day.  Because Christ is risen, we can rise.  New life awaits, and  Alleluias abound!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Friday not explained in a few short words

Good Friday, it’s complicated.  I’ll keep this short.  No matter what you’ve heard from whoever you heard it, Jesus’s crucifixion is not the work of an angry God punishing him for the sins of humanity.  Called the substitutionary doctrine of atonement, and popular in several denominations, it’s not true.  Never was.

Jesus’s crucifixion was the natural and quite predictable outcome of his three years of public ministry that undermined the authority of religious leaders, and subordinated Caesar to the greater authority of God alone.  Moreover, he had the effrontery to claim he was the Son of God, not like the emperors who claimed divinity, but the actual manifestation of God in human flesh.  To show him, and everybody else, that he was really a nobody, they crucified him as a criminal among criminals.


If what he said was true, that he was the source of life, had the power to forgive sins and give life, even to the dead, how could he be dead like this?  What could it mean?  Good Friday never answers that question.  It leaves it hanging.  That’s one reason liturgical traditions begin a three day service on Thursday night that does not end until Sunday morning.  Called the Triduum, these three holy days recall one event that begins with death and ends with life.  In it, the ultimate authority of God as we know God in Christ Jesus is sealed forever. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Scene from a Godfather Movie - Thursday in Holy Week

Thursday in Holy Week has taken an odd turn, but then Holy Week is a little odd all they way through.  The reading from Mark recalls what we have come to know as “The Last Supper.”

It’s a scene begging for a place in the Godfather movies.  In it, Jesus invited his twelve closest associates to dinner in a private room.  He knew ahead of time that one of them was a rat who would turn him over to the authorities that very night.  And he knew the other eleven would turn tail and run for their own lives.  His most trusted lieutenant would even deny he ever heard of Jesus when he gets interrogated, not by the cops, but by a girl, a maid minding the rear entrance to the palace.  If Francis Ford Coppola filmed it, there would be tommy guns blazing away.

He didn’t.  There weren’t.  Surrounded by untrustworthy friends, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying it was his body given for them.  He might have added something like, “You’re going to need some of me in you to get through this, so eat.”  Whether he said that or not, his friends had to wonder.  It’s not something that could have made much sense to them.  At the advent of their betrayal, he gave bread as his body for them.  That’s worth some thoughtful reflection.

Then he took the cup of wine (I like to think it was Elijah’s cup, but that’s a story for another time).  Anyway, he took the cup of wine, blessed it, gave it to them for each to take a sip, and said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant which is poured out for many.”  If the broken bread was a mystery, the cup wasn’t.  Every one of them knew the prophecy in Jeremiah that promised a new covenant between God and creation, and every one of them knew the old covenant had been initiated by the deliverance of the Hebrews from death by the sign of lambs’ blood painted on their doors.  Midway through their journey to the promised land, it was sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals splattered over the altar and the people (Exodus 24).  Nothing was more holy than life giving blood coursing through all creatures, and nothing could seal a covenant with greater authority.  

The cup of wine, now declared to be Jesus’ own blood, the holy blood of Christ himself, announced the new covenant, and they knew it, as much as anyone could at the moment of its happening.  Curiously, it was a covenant for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of new life delivered from death.  In this case, not only sins of the past, but also sins about to be committed.  Whether they knew it or not, it was the holy food and drink of new life yet to be encountered.  

Most of us know what happened next, but sometimes we have to be reminded that the disciples didn’t know, couldn’t know.  Most of us go through our days with intentions about the near future, comfortable that probability is on our side.  The disciples didn’t have even that.  What might lay ahead was a total blank, every moment an unexpected one, dangerous, scary.  They may not have fully understood the meaning of the bread and wine, but through it God was in them and for them, and they needed it.

What about that rat Judas?  My friend Fr. Ernie says he thinks when Judas faces Jesus for judgement, Jesus will say, “Judas, I’m sorry you were the one who had to play that part.  Come, take your rightful place with the others.”  I doubt there is much rock solid theology behind that, but Fr. Ernie is not often wrong in matters of confession, compassion and forgiveness.  

Thursday in Holy Week remembers, in the words of Winston Churchill,  not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.  So eat up.  Drink up.  You’ll need it for the journey ahead.



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Evil Tenants, Cornerstones & the Sin of the Church

The liturgical police gave me a summons for incorrect use of the lectionary.  Yesterday’s post was based on a passage from Mark that was used last week, not this week.  Sorry about that.  To get back on track, Wednesday’s gospel reading from Mark records an odd parable Jesus told about a farmer who leased out his land to tenants who refused to pay their rent.  He sent several agents to collect, each of whom they beat up or killed.  Finally he sent his son.  The tenants seized and killed him, figuring, according to the parable, that they would now be the undisputed owners.  

That was the end of the parable.  Then Jesus asked his listeners what they thought the owner would do next.  Send troops, kill the tenants, and lease it out to more honorable people, they said.  Jesus ended the encounter by citing Psalm 118 about the rejected cornerstone, a stone that was God’s own marvelous work, a living stone who would live, not die, no matter what humans tried to do.   The meaning of the parable was not lost on religious and political leaders.  It gave them one more reason to get rid of this trouble maker before he could do real damage.  Who did he think he was, Son of God?

To the shame of the Christian Church, it was this parable, together with other scripture passages used in Holy Week, that appeared to authorize Christians to round up a bunch of local Jews to beat and kill on the grounds that they were the evil tenants, while Christians were the new tenants, the righteous avengers of God, the aggrieved owner, whose son they killed.  It all happened a long time ago in the Dark Ages, the work of ignorant people, and we’re not like that anymore.  Except we are.  The holocaust of WWII didn’t pop out of nowhere.  It was the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish laws and pogroms that permeated the whole of European Christian culture.  We have not yet learned our lesson.  The resurgence of anti-Jewish fervor is obvious in every place where ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, and neo-Nazi movements gain traction.  And they gain traction where common, ordinary, everyday anti-Jewish prejudice is tolerated without objection, perhaps even with a chuckle.  

It may be that the secularized West is no longer dominated by church going Christians, but the Holy Week sentiment lingers, aided by radical voices with access to radio, t.v. and social media; abetted by disinterested church going Christians who turn the other way.  


If Holy Week is a time for deep examination of self and Church, this lesson, and the history that emanates from it requires truth be told, confession be made, and repentance of life begun again. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Swim like a salty rock on Tuesday in Holy Week

Tuesday's gospel from Mark's 9th chapter records Jesus's instructions to his dimwitted disciples who had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Holy Week continues to make trouble by warning whoever is listening that putting stumbling blocks in the path to believing is not a good idea.  You might as well try swimming with a heavy rock tied around your neck, an amputated foot and hand, and one eye poked out.  On top of that, you’re expected to have salt.  What the heck does that mean?  

Let’s take salt first.  Louis L’Amour, in his many Western novels, explained salt as the intestinal fortitude needed to get through whatever lay ahead regardless of obstacles, danger or personal fear.  The morally righteous must have salt, but so can the immorally unrighteous.  So by itself, salt is neither good nor bad, it is simply necessary.  To not have salt is to fail.  

How much salt do you need?  I have no idea.  We each seem to have different measures of salty courage.  Moreover, the quantity seems to change from event to event.  Some we can handle.  Some we can’t.  Some we once could, but no longer can.  What scripture teaches us is that those with more salt are to help carry the burden of those with less.  When conditions change, the roles may reverse.  It isn’t up to a hero, it’s up to the community working together.

So much for salt.  What about putting obstacles in the way of those who would believe?  We all do it.  Our varying theologies and liturgical practices are fences that, however permeable we think they are, can be seen as impenetrable obstacles by those outside.  It’s one reason why I like the Ionian invitation to Holy Communion, now used in many congregations.  The version I have goes like this:
This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
It is to be made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed.
Come, not because I invite you: it is Jesus, and it is Jesus’s will that you who want him should meet him here.

It neatly sidesteps controversies over baptism and the real presence of Christ by extending the invitation from Christ himself, just as he did for the five thousand, for tax collectors and prostitutes, and for his own disciples at the Last Supper when even Judas was fed.  Yet it sets standards: a desire to have faith (I believe, help my unbelief), a little effort effort (stand up, take your mat and walk), and a desire to be fed by God’s presence in the bread and wine. 

Nevertheless, obstacles abound.  The damage done to children and women through physical and sexual abuse to which the church turned a blind eye has been given wide publicity.  It has destroyed the nascent faith of many.  But there’s more.  I can’t count the number of would be believers who’ve told me their stories of being chased or run out of the church by damning theology, watery theology, preachers who use guilt like a bludgeon, and preachers who have nothing useful to say.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.   

As for me, when I come across Psalm 69 in Morning Prayer (Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts...), it causes me to pause and consider how my words and actions don’t always present the way of discipleship as they should.  I have caused offense.  I have not loved people I don’t like.  I have demeaned religious practices with which I disagree.  In other words, I’ve been adept at strewing little obstacles in the pathway of faith, almost always without thinking about what I was doing.  That’s me.  I’m sure you’re much better.  God’s not going to shove me off a dock in a bucket of concrete, but the warning gets my attention, reminding me to pay attention to what I say and do.

Maybe Wednesday will be easier.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Houses of Prayer & Figs out of Season

Houses of prayer and fig trees out of season.  

Holy Week is upon us.  I’m not sure when Holy Week became important to me.  It certainly wasn’t during my youth, nor in the first few decades of my adult life.  Maybe it was in my early forties.  Maybe it started with a changed attitude about Lent.  There was a year when I was in a business meeting on Ash Wednesday and it seemed more important to go to church than lunch.  Maybe a year our two later I quit scheduling travel and avoided unnecessary events during Holy Week.  I even left work early to get home in time for church. Maybe I’m remembering wrong.  Anyway one thing led to another, and here I am, a late vocation priest, retired at that.  Who knew such a thing could happen?

Holy Week has come to be a mixed blessing and curse of ordinary time doing ordinary things combined with daily worship, time for contemplative prayer, and reflections on troubling scripture readings leading toward the cross.  In other words, it’s a week of clashing gears, cognitive dissonance, routines out of place, the normal in hiding.

Consider Monday’s gospel reading.  On his way to the temple, Jesus demanded of a fig tree what it could not produce: figs out of season.  In the temple he proclaimed that this house of prayer for all peoples had been turned into a market place for shops catering to the needs of worshipers through business practices of theft and deception.  You know what happened.  He drove them out.  What a mess.  That’s no way to make friends or converts.  Leaving, he and the disciples passed the now dead fig tree, which led Jesus to say something about the power of prayer.  

Monday in Holy Week might be a good day to reflect on how well our churches live up to their obligation to be houses of prayer for all peoples.  It gets complicated.  More than once I’ve struggled with making the church I served open to people who came to worship, but with expectations that we would become something other than Anglicans worshiping in the way of the Episcopal Church.  Some mega churches and religious media personalities appear to have followed in the footsteps of the thieves and deceivers of gospel notoriety.  Some churches are open to everybody, but as houses of entertainment instead of prayer.  Others are clearly not open to all peoples, but only those stamped with a seal of approval.  The universal objection to observations like these is, yes but.  Yes, but you don’t understand our special needs and intentions.  Yes but, which I have used frequently myself, should always be suspect.  It’s often sleight of hand for avoiding Jesus’ stern eye.  If Lent is a time for disciplined self examination, then Monday in Holy Week is the perfect  time for congregational leaders to engage in church self examination.  

And then there’s the poor innocent fig tree, cursed and killed for no good reason.  How is that an object lesson about prayer?  Think about it.  We’re quick to send thoughts and prayers to victims of violence.  Saying “God bless you” to sneezers is still popular.  When someone asks for our prayers, we almost always say we will.  We clergy offer God’s blessing at every worship service, and on everything from wheat, to boats, to birthdays.  What do we think these blessings and prayers do?  Have they any power?  Jesus says they do, more power than we can imagine.  Not the Hogwarts spells kind, but something far more mysterious and powerful over which we have little control. 

If blessings and prayers for others have such power, what about curses?  Cue the fig tree.  If “God bless you” has power, what might be said about “God damn you/it?”  Is it just a figure of speech?  Pay no attention?  I don’t think so, but let’s lay it aside for the moment and consider the other damning things we (including me) are prone to say when we share damaging gossip, lie and mislead, express dislike of another in threatening, violent ways, or just pick away at the minor faults of one another?  However much we might hate to admit it, they’re all forms of cursing, and they have real power.  What does scripture say,”bless don’t curse,” “let no evil speech come out of your mouth.”  That poor little fig tree is a powerful object lesson.  Pay attention.   Which brings me back to “God damn you/it.”  The word God may be just a place holder for the Holy Name, but it’s to be held holy and honored for the place it holds.  Isn’t that in the Ten Commandments somewhere?  I think so.  To invoke God’s name to damn anything, even excused as a harmless figure of speech, is to curse with the same mysterious and uncontrollable power as a blessing.  It’s to kill an innocent fig tree, and it’s likely to rebound with punishing force on the one who utters it.  Jesus was putting great power into the hands of his disciples.  I think he was warning them to be careful about how they used it.  Some of that power is in our hands too.


Monday in Holy Week.  It’s not an easy day.  It demands self examination I’d rather not do.  Maybe Tuesday will be easier.  Nope, just looked ahead.  

Friday, March 23, 2018

Sometimes there is no room. Nor should there be.

Along with many other religious leaders, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church signed a pledge to work for social justice in a variety of areas consistent with the Church’s understanding of the gospel.  Called the “Campaign to Reclaim Jesus in U.S. Culture,” it rejects as contrary to Jesus’ teaching the resurgence of white nationalism, racism and misogyny in all of its forms.  It rejects political language and policies that debase and abandon the most vulnerable.  It rejects the pervasive lying that has become normal in public discourse.  It rejects movement toward authoritarian rule, and it rejects “America First” as the theological heresy.  It calls for following Jesus first in all the ways that the gospel proclaims. 

The electronic news release about it invited comments, and the first two decried that there was now no place for conservatives in the Episcopal Church.  The majority that followed were enthusiastically supportive, but a significant number complained, in increasingly strident tones, that dragging the Episcopal Church into politics was wrong, especially because it left no place for conservatives.

In related news, articles about the March for Life events held across the country on Saturday, March 24 have generated letters to the editor, and columns from some commentators, complaining that conservative minded students have been left out, their voices muted, and that’s not right.

Indeed, there may be no place in the Church for voices that are willing to tolerate racism, misogyny, policies that hurt the most vulnerable, habitual lying by public leaders, authoritarian rule, and nationalism that displaces discipleship.  Satisfied with liturgy, music and preaching that remains sufficiently aloof from real life struggles for society to become more just, they’ve effectively muffled many, perhaps most, Episcopal clergy from making Christ’s voice heard in the public arena.  It has allowed other voices claiming Christ’s authority to form powerful political movements promoting stands on issues that sometimes appear antithetical to all that Jesus taught.  And if not antithetical, then leaving no room for other views, faithfully held, and firmly grounded in scripture.  

Indeed, there may be no room for conservative minded students to join in the March for Life events, if conservative minded means advocacy of unrestricted gun rights, or a desire to highjack the Marches with some other agenda.  

Voices that claim to represent conservatism, something about which  I have strong doubts, have long complained that they were the forgotten ones, the downtrodden ones, the left behind ones.  Nothing proved it to them more than the decline in well paid factory jobs for marginally educated persons, and the enormous turnout for Obama in his two elections.  Yet backed by the earlier Moral Majority, then the tea partiers, NRA, talk radio, propagandizing t.v., and finally the election of a morally corrupt president backed by self proclaimed Christian evangelicals, they have been heard loud and clear for their endorsement of positions and policies threatening democracy, social justice, and economic well being for all.  

No, there is no room for those voices in the Campaign to Reclaim Jesus in U.S. Culture, nor in the Marches for Life.

There are rooms for them, and they are free to make use of them, as they have already done with great effect.  They are even free to claim they speak for Jesus, and the right to own carry all the guns they want.  They are free to condemn homosexuality.  They are free to demand that their religious freedom allows them to discriminate in public business.  They are free to demand that the coercive power of the state be used to ban all abortions.  They are free to demand that the coercive power of the state be banned from interfering in their private and public lives.  They are free to claim they are conservatives.

They are not free to inject that into rooms where other voices are being raised.  


And before the most frequent objection is made: it is wrong for protesters to boo down and drown out invited speakers they don’t like.  Listen first, then boo; listen in stony silence with no response; don’t go at all; demonstrate outside without blocking others from attending.  But never shut down an invited speaker no matter how repulsive the message may be.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wounded Knee and the 2nd Amendment

This article began as a FB post that generated more response than anticipated.  While the comments represented widely divergent views, they  were mostly respectful of each other, which is quite a change from most streams of commentary on FB.  In any case, let us begin again.

A well meaning friend reposted a piece on FB that used the Wounded Knee Massacre as an object lesson for why the 2nd amendment right to bear arms is so important.  The point being that a well armed citizenry is needed and could withstand the assault of a tyrannical government’s army.  

I doubt he had any idea how offensive that was in the context of American Indian history.  It was toward the end of the so called Indian Wars.  Their lands seized, their buffalo gone, and their treaties violated with impunity, the December 29, 1890 slaughter was orchestrated against a forced encampment of a small group of Lakota Indians who didn’t want to stay on the reservation.  Fifty-eight rifles were said to have been recovered from among the 150 or so killed: old men, women, children, a few warriors.  It was an act of terror fully endorsed by the white residents of the region, many of whom believed it was either kill or be killed.  

If there is an object lesson in that, it is that white men cannot be trusted by those who are neither white nor citizens.  And that brings us to the 2nd amendment.  Using 18th century reasoning to dictate answers to 21st century questions doesn’t work.  It can inform, but not dictate.  As it is, the founders, working from various, sometimes conflicting points of view, desired to assure the constitutional legitimacy of well regulated citizen militias.  An individual’s right to own a gun was not something that crossed their minds.  Why would it?  A musket was an everyday tool to hunt for food, and for frontier protection.  The right to own one was never a question anyone asked.  

Our founding fathers were interested in well regulated  state militias to take the place of a standing army.  Standing armies were expensive, and the British army of recent occupation led them to suspect they could not be trusted to back the nascent republic.  As it turned out, some of the not so well regulated militias couldn’t be trusted either.  You may remember Shay’s rebellion during the Articles of Confederation era, and the Whiskey rebellion in the early 1790s.  

The founders had different expectations for what well regulated militias could do.  Some expected them to protect slave owners, putting down any slave uprising.  The Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 had not yet begun, but they were not unaware the rising tensions and the possibility of it happening in the U.S.  There had been colonial slave uprisings, and their fears were justified by several others in the 1800s.  Others expected militias to forcefully “pacify” Indians displaced by westward white settlement.  Pacify would not have been a word back then, but it fits.  Still others intended them to protect the interests of land and business owners.    They didn’t want another Shay to organize another rebellion.  For good or ill, it was all about well regulated militias. 

Is that still true?

A local friend, an attorney and advocate of unrestricted gun rights, noted that the question was settled by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heller decision of 2008.  It doesn’t matter what the founders thought or wanted, the Heller decision established the right of individuals to be armed for “traditional lawful purposes,” including self defense.  Justice Scalia wrote for the majority, while Justice Stevens wrote for the dissent.  Dissent or no, the right for individuals to bear arms is now the law of the land.  Who am I to argue?  I’m no lawyer.

But I do know it’s the law of the land until it isn’t.  Most students of history have heard of the 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson case.  In it the Supreme Court held that segregation was legal as long as accommodations were “separate but equal.”  Plessy was never overturned by the court.  It just died an ignominious death as other decisions, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s, remanded it to the court of lousy decisions for reconsideration by high school history classes.

My hope and expectation is that the Heller decision will meet the same fate, but in less time than the seventy years it took Plessy to die.