Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Response to Trump emails

I’m on a couple of Trump email lists.  It helps me keep tabs on which bottle of elixir he’s selling today.  There’s been quite a stream from his office over that last couple of days aimed at building opposition to the Schumer Shutdown.  His appeal is based on three points: sick children (CHiP) are being held hostage; military pay is being held hostage; all to protect illegal aliens.  Putting illegal aliens ahead of children, soldiers, and real Americans is wrong.  So writes Trump.  

The illegal aliens he has in mind are the “Dreamers,” people brought here as young children, for whom this is the only country they know, and who have proved themselves to be responsible contributors to the well being of society.  Moreover, it’s his own party’s leadership that refused multiple opportunities to reauthorize the CHiP program, and to continue military pay during the shutdown.  The level of malevolent insincerity coming from him is staggering.

But, and it’s a huge but, manny of my Trump supporting friends buy it without question.  Some have no idea what or who the Dreamers are, in spite of all the publicity.  Moreover, they firmly believe those illegal aliens don’t pay taxes, are on welfare, and are the primary source of violent crime.  They don’t really know that CHiP is, even if they use it, and are horrified that sick children would be held hostage by unpatriotic Democrats.  As for the military, how could the Democrats be so callous.  Trump says so, they believe it, discussion over.

It works, but is it all from Trump?  I’m not sure he’s got the smarts to pull it off as well as it appears to be going.  It seems more likely to be engineered by freedom caucus - tea party Republicans, financed by oligarchs, who recognize their golden opportunity to dismantle the social safety net, reduce the federal government to minimal size, establish a laissez faire business environment, and assure white male supremacy over decision making.  It’s what his base wants, and, without an ideology of his own, Trump will pander to his base.  Curiously, the core of his base seems blind to the path toward demagoguery laid down by their own agenda, nor are they aware, or care, that it would lead to the end of a United States of America.  Somehow, to them, it would get the government off their backs, freeing them to be what?  Free?  I guess. 

Aiding them are more affluent citizens and business owners, fully recognizing the incompetency of the administration, but doing quite well financially, who don’t want to rock the boat as long as they’re making money.  They’re willing to look the other way.  A recent WSJ editorial more or less admitted as much.  

What’s needed is responsible leadership for a responsible center-right Republican Party willing to ignore freedom caucus tea partiers, and not easily bought off by super pacs.  Obviously that’s not going to be either of the current leaders, so our national political hopes are in the midterms.  If the energy of yesterday’s Women’s Marches can be sustained through November to build voter turnout turning red places blue, there is a chance that a Democratic resurgence will cause Republican reform, and that would be good for us all.  


It would also knock the salivating plutocratic oligarchs back to 1939, hopefully leaving them there for the rest of eternity. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

We’re not Kmart. The Church is Not Dying.

One theme keeps driving online conversations among Episcopalians: How can we grow the church in the face of decades long decline?  It doesn’t matter what the original subject was, only moments are required to turn it toward church growth.  It’s a common marketing question just like ones asked at Kmart, Macy’s, J.C. Penny, McDonald’s, and even Amazon.  It’s the same question asked in every consumer products company about every consumer product.  Maybe that’s why it so easily becomes our question too.  Its pervasiveness in American culture makes it appear as the natural, normal, necessary question every organization must ask about everything they do.  The consultants say so.  

Maybe so, but not for the church.  At least not for the Episcopal Church.  We’re not selling a consumer product.  My nonreligious buddy disagrees.  You are too, he says, you’re trying to sell me a religious product with “wait, that’s not all” promises, and I’m not buying.  It that’s what we’re about, he’d be right, but we are in (or should be) the business of proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God as revealed in Christ Jesus.  The right question is, How can we better proclaim the gospel?  It isn’t our church.  It’s God’s church.  We don’t have to save it.  Last I heard, God was not in need of a marketing consultant.  What we need is to faithfully proclaim the gospel by word, sacrament, and and hard work of living into what we proclaim.

That thought seldom gets any lasting traction.  Spinning tires?  Yes.  Traction?  No.  Our popular presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has been asking and preaching about it, calling us to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.  His eloquent, down home enthusiasm is something to behold.  If Episcopalians had altar calls, each sermon would end with crowds rushing forward shouting Amen.  But heading into next day meetings of local parishes and national committees, the conversation rebounds to, How can we grow the church?, as soon as everyone takes off their coats.  

I’m not worried about the church writ large, or the Episcopal Church in particular.  It’s not dying.  It’s not going to die.  Not if the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus means what we say it means.  We are called to bear the light of Christ wherever we are and in whatever we’re doing, no matter the odds of success.  Size is unimportant.  Following Christ, proclaiming Christ is.  We Episcopalians have our own way of doing it that bring unique and special gifts to the table, on which also lay the special gifts of other denominations.  

What needs to die is not the church but our reflexive compulsion to focus on consumer product marketing.  Forget about growing the church.  Focus on proclaiming the gospel and preparing others to do likewise.  Our incarnational theology is rooted in learning how to love others as Jesus has loved us by examining closely what he did and said as recorded in the gospels.  We probe the Hebrew Scriptures to discern the path that led to Jesus.  We challenge the epistles to guide us in ways that speak to our own time and place.  We seek wisdom from the successes and errors of those who preceded us.  We listen with open hearts to what God is saying now.  Without fear or doubt we proclaim that the risen Christ is with us and in us in the Holy Eucharist.  

That is some substantial stuff.  Stick with it.  Preach it.  Teach it.  Live into it as best you can, don’t worry about church growth.  


Having said all of that, and meaning every word of it, marketing techniques, well planned and executed, have a role, but it’s not to fill the pews. It’s to better proclaim the gospel and prepare others to do likewise.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fire & Fury: perfect salve for the flu

Normally I would have written two or three articles for publication on Country Parson by this time in the month.  As it is, I have the upper respiratory thing that is sweeping the nation.  Whether the flu or something else may never be known.  It started with the kind of cough that comes with a little dust stuck down there.  From there it morphed into non-stop coughing.  Giving up on self medication, I finally went to the walk in clinic to find it over full with coughing people, many wearing masks.  A quick check around town let me know the same was true at every urgent care facility and the e.r.   Maybe that’s true for your town too.  

Anyway, and to my complete surprise (that’s no cliche), I got a same day appointment to see my doc’s partner.  Who knew that was even possible?  So the good news, no curable infection, it’s just that thing going around.  Reminds me of many years ago in my early adult life.  I had something similar and went to see my doctor.  That was in the old days when you could do that sort of thing.  He was out sick (do tell) but his elderly country doc father was filling in.  “Well son, I don’t rightly know what you have, but you sure do have it.”  It’s pretty much the same diagnosis I got a few days ago.

So here I am on codeine cough medicine, drinking gallons of water, exiled to the guest bedroom, under the iron fisted supervision of my otherwise loving wife, whose instructions have been dictated by the gaggle of women she hangs out with, most of whom are retired nurses and doctors wives.  

I’m keeping up on the news, but through that narcotic fog where the worst of it seems vaguely interesting, unrelated to my own reality.  Games of solitaire have become mental challenges.  Even the Monday crossword seems out of reach.  It’s made reading Wolf’s Fire and Fury, a perfect fit for the brief time between naps.  The excerpts broadcast in the news and used for late night comedy scripts don’t do it justice.  His style is to plod through events and days, in mind numbing detail, about the adventures of a clueless president surrounded by bumbling staff, and advised by billionaire buddies who, it is revealed, may be rich but aren’t that smart.  They just think they are.  It does confirm what my years in and out of public policy matters led me to suspect: people who live within the circles of the very powerful and very rich function in them much like we all experienced in high school anxiety riddled jostling over popularity.  Believe me, say I in true Trumpian fashion, if a book can numb my codeine addled mind, it’s mind numbing.  Think of it as a real life version of Gilligan’s Island, but with the skipper and gang playing the role of U.S. president and his advisors.

On Colbert’s show, Wolf said he was surprised at how well it’s selling considering that it doesn’t say anything we don’t already know.  He’s right.  Even my very conservative friends, who have been asking just to give Trump a chance, have become suspiciously quiet, turning conversations to football, basketball, mudslides, anything but Trump.  

In a few days, assuming I’m well again, we’re off to foreign lands for a few weeks.  In blissful semi-ignorance we can pretend that all is well, and hope that Julian of Norwich was right when she said God had promised it would be so.  Perhaps Trump’s bumbling will not have done too much damage in the meantime.  Perhaps Republican leadership will at last dump the Freedom Caucus, and get on with governing.  Perhaps, ah perhaps, the midterms will change control of congress, and Ms. Pelosi will gracefully choose to take a back bench.  Oh, the day dreams one has.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Epiphany Lights in Dark Places

Have you ever had an epiphany?  That moment when something became so clear and present that you exclaimed, “Wow!  Now I get it!”  On January 6, long after others have put away their Christmas decorations, Western Christians complete their celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas with the Feast of the Epiphany.  Eastern Orthodox Christians, who use a different calendar, begin their Christmas celebrations on January 7 this year (the date moves around from year to year), so they have to wait for their Epiphany. 

Anyway, one might ask what is Epiphany?  Like many churchy words, it’s from the Greek and means ‘to be made clearly visible, or present.’  It remembers the wise men, magi, who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem months after his birth.  They were foreign gentiles, not Jews.  Their arrival was a big surprises to everyone, especially Herod, king of the Jews.  He was not happy to hear from these strangers about the birth of a new king.  Nevertheless, God led them to the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were.  Their visit made it obvious that God’s word made flesh in Jesus was to be made known to all the earth.  In spite of the song, they weren’t kings, and no one knows how many there were.  It’s only recorded that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Gold, a gift fit for a king.  Frankincense, incense to lift prayers to God.  Myrrh, spice to anoint the dead.  Each foreshadowed an important element in Jesus’ life.  

No one is entirely certain how celebrating Epiphany got started on January 6, but it was first celebrated by Egyptian Christians about 200 years after the time of Jesus.  It not only remembered the visit of the wise men, but also celebrated the start of Jesus’ adult ministry when God’s voice declared him to be Son of God after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  A little too complicated?  Don’t worry about it. 

As the Christmas season draws to a close, Epiphany declares that the power of God’s redeeming love is not just for some people, but for all people in every place.   Christians don’t own it.  They’re simply called to be bearers of it for the benefit of others.  It’s a remarkable change of direction.  Prior to Jesus, God’s revelation through prophets and sages was understood to be selective and exclusive, with God’s favor limited to certain people, and denied to all others.  Epiphany declares that God’s favor is extended to every person who ever lived, or ever will live, and to the whole of creation, without limit.  That’s not an easy thing to grasp.  We humans tend to close our circles, and are not good at sharing, so it’s a work in progress for us to understand God’s unlimited love.  We’re only a few thousand years into it, and have a long way to go.  We’re slow learners.  

In the meantime, Epiphany is supposed to remind Christians that, although following Jesus may take them through darkness and danger, there is nothing that can take life and light away from them.  Moreover, they’re obligated to bring that light and life as a gift to others, and receive it as a gift from others as they go along the way.  As each is able, they are instructed to be agents of God’s healing, reconciling love, and to participate in manifesting God’s favor through their words and actions.

Epiphany lives out the well know passage from the 23rd psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  Your rod and staff comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”  Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” puts it this way “[L]et goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”




Politics and the Path to Abundant Life (but not safety)

The majority of my recent articles have been political, and sometimes I wonder if all my years working in areas of public policy might too easily push aside the more important work of proclaiming the gospel.  Then along comes Epiphany, and it occurs to me that it’s a very political event.  The entire scene is set in the political environment of the closing years of Herod’s reign.  The political maneuvering that enabled Augustus and Tiberius to rule over an empire at (relative) peace set the stage for the Christ to be born and the gospel to be spread throughout the empire.  Politics and religion are never far apart.  Jesus waded confidently into politics with a message that challenged every political assumption of the day, every day that followed, our own day, and every day yet to come.

It isn’t that Jesus has something to say exclusively to 21st century American politics.  God is not a Democrat or a Republican, nor is God conservative or liberal.  God has something to say to those who participate in the political arena wherever they live under every form of government. 

For a start, how many times must it be said that God is not one player among many among whom we must pick and choose.  God is God, and no one else is.  Pay attention when God is speaking.  If what God says appears to conflict with your political views, change your views.  What does God want for us?  Life in abundance.  That’s it.  Sounds simple, but in such a complicated world, how are we to get life in abundance?  Are there any reliable guidelines?  Yes, there are.

  • One’s past doesn’t have to dictate one’s future. 
  • The most seductive temptations to evil are cloaked with the appearance of good
  • Be an agent of blessing to those who live in poverty of both goods and spirit
  • Be a source of comfort to those who mourn
  • Understand humility and be humble
  • Hunger for justice
  • Let mercy trump justice
  • Be a peacemaker
  • Be courageous 
  • Stop killing each other
  • Don’t belittle others
  • Let honesty and integrity govern all that you do
  • Let generosity overflow without expectation of return
  • Don’t let anxiety about tomorrow overwhelm what needs to be done today
  • Follow where Jesus has led, and not some other path
  • Break down barriers that separate people
  • Break down barriers that prevent others from enjoying abundant life
  • Oppose policies that exploit and oppress others
  • Heal the sick
  • Understand what forgiveness is: accept it, give it
  • Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless
  • When you mess up, get up, reorient yourself in the right direction, and move on
  • Blessing has power, so does cursing: bless, don’t curse
  • Don’t be so quick to judge others
  • Live as a responsible resident of your country, but give ultimate loyalty only to God

There’s a lot of fuel for politics in that.  After all, politics is the process by which we decide how to live together in community, and Jesus has much to say about it.  Christians have an obligation to enter into the political fray, encouraging decisions to move in a Godlike direction that has been made clear by God’s own self revelation.  

I’ve heard well meaning Christians say that’s all well and good, but it’s naive and impractical for surviving and prospering in daily life.  It’s OK to hear it in church, but doesn’t work in the real world.  Look, either you want to know the path to abundant life, or you don’t.   God in Christ Jesus has said what it is.  It’s not up for debate.  It’s neither naive nor impractical, it is the only way.  The problem isn’t naïveté, it’s difficulty.  The way of following Jesus isn’t easy.  It takes work.  It leads to abundant life, but not safety.

Be careful not to use Jesus’ words as crude weapons to defend your own prejudices, agendas, and desires.  Proclaiming ownership of one’s faith, and using it to smite others about the head and shoulders is to fall into the traps set by Satan when it is said he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.  Jesus shoved him away, but many of us don’t.  We go for it hook, line and sinker, deluded into thinking God’s on our side.  Repent.  The whole point of the Christian doctrine of repentance is to admit that we are not good at getting it right, but having erred we can try again in a new directions with renewed intention and better focus. 

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



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Taking Back Lost Ground

Joshua Zeitz wrote a December 31, 2017 article in Politico Magazine asking whether the white working class really votes against its own interests.  It’s on line.  Read it.  Citing multiple studies and sources, his answer was no.  It sounds counter intuitive because they’ve obviously voted against their economic interests, but there are other kinds of interests important to them, and they have voted accordingly.  Their history is one of voting for social and psychological pay in the form of maintaining their advantage over non-whites, especially blacks.  

Overt racism plays a part, but a more subliminal form plays a  much larger role, with no conscious racism intended.  What is intended, if left unsaid, is preservation of two hundred years of systemic white advantage that is what it should be because it is what has always been.  Zeitz dramatically rehearsed that history from the time that Indians didn’t count at all; slaves counted as 3/5ths of a person without the right of citizenship, or even freedom; women were counted in full, but as male property without the right to vote; and full citizenship was understood to adhere to free white men over the age of majority.  That was then, and it established a pattern extending into our own day.  My high school years were in the late ‘50s, and I recall the oft use phrase “free, white, and twenty-one” to claim one’s place in a town known for its progressivism.  Federal agencies required redlining to separate neighborhoods in which mortgages wold be insured from those where they weren’t: whites OK, blacks not OK.  Expressways, freeways, and utilities were designed and constructed to protect “valuable” real estate, which meant they destroyed or walled off the “wrong side of the tracks.”  It made a certain kind of economic sense, but it enforced segregation and denial of opportunity as effectively as any Jim Crow law. 

It was an established pattern that extended into and through the passage and enforcement of federal and state civil rights laws, all that followed, and, in more subtle ways, right into the 21st century.  What Trump blatantly appealed to was  fear that systemic advantages were being stripped away from hard working white men (and their women) to make way for undeserving, lazy, illegal, criminally  minded others who aren’t white.  How fair is that?  Did he have their votes?  You bet!  He even promised them greater economic prosperity: a bonus.  Will they recognize the economic flimflam pulled on them?  They’re not dumb, but, says Zeitz, they’ll likely forgive him because he has delivered on what they most wanted – preservation of their systemic advantage, even if it’s increasingly illusory, held together by tweets and pep rally rants. 

In the meantime, the nation continues its slide toward plutocratic oligarchy.

To date, progressives have continued to harp on the impact of economic policy on working class Americans, hoping they will wake up, return to the Democratic fold, and help restore responsible democratic government to the nation.  That drum can be beat loud and long, but it’s not likely to be heard by the ones who need to hear it because, at some level, they know progressives, liberals, Democrats, are not interested in preserving the privilege they deny exists.  They need no more proof than eight years of a black president who was loved by urban liberals, and had a black attorney general as his enforcer.  Who trailed behind him?  A socialist Jew, a scheming woman, and on the side lines, an uppity female ex economics professor who lectured everybody from her seat in the senate.

The economic drum won’t do.  Progressives need to add more instruments to the band.  Quit talking about energizing the black and Hispanic vote, and really bend to the task of doing it.  Direct the economic argument to suburban and upper middle class persons regardless of race.  Frame the highest standards of American justice free of systemic white advantages not as taking from one to give to another, but as moral obligation that cannot be negotiated away (the psychology of certainty).  

It won’t be easy.  The honest Trump stands in the way.  What?  In some bizarre way, Trump is an honest snake oil salesman.  Disgustingly immoral though he may be, in his self confident ignorance, pugnacious habits, and predictable reactions, he really believes in what he’s selling.  Blundering ahead with executive orders on whatever enters his field of vision on any given day, he also believes he is in charge.   After all, he’s the president, and no one else is.  He’s got some real constitutional power on his side.  Working class white voters like that.  True blue racists love it.  He’s doing what he said he would, and that’s OK.

Trump is important, and not to be dismissed.  He’s aided and abetted by sycophantic members of congress hoping to gain power and influence, and that adds up a serious force to reckoned with.   But on another stage not far away is a more sinister force, a collection of Koch like plutocrats, would be plutocrats, corporate elites, and their sophisticated political allies.  They know what they’re doing and have the money to do it.  They’re far more dangerous to our future as a democratic nation dedicated to opportunity for all.  Doing what they can to play the Trump administration like so many fish hooked by their bait, they feel confident about having front loaded congressional campaigns with enough money to keep legislators under control.  They care nothing for Trump’s working class base.  The middle class is but malleable market fodder to them.  The pretentious upper middle class and lesser wealthy are merely ambient elements of the economic atmosphere.  They are poised and skilled to do what is needed to free their hands to do business any way they like, with the federal government as their protective shield.  


Against this cast of characters, progressives have to be more pragmatically enlightened, out-trumping Trump with his base, educating the middle class, calling politicians to be publicly accountable, and engineering full public disclosure of plutocratic activities.  Then they have to deliver. 



Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy Political New Year

My time waster is a couple of versions of solitaire played on my mobile phone.  A little score card pops up when I win a game.  With congratulations for a job well done, it tells me how many moves were made and what my wining percentage is, as if I had accomplished something.  Whatever modicum of skill is involved, it’s minuscule: solitaire is as much a game of random chance as any could be, so I can take no credit or pride in a certain percentage of wins.  They all fall within a predictable range of 10 to 15%.  Chance plays a huge part in the outcome within the structure (system) of the game – that’s it.  Nothing more need be said. 

So why say more?  Because we have a habit of holding people accountable for success or failure In systems that accommodate a consistent range of winning and losing, and over which they have little control.  That habit leads us to reward and punish individuals for performance that may have little to do with their abilities or effort.  Chance plays its part, but it’s not that one’s working life is nothing but a game of solitaire.  It’s much more complicated than that.  An individual’s knowledge, skills, and work ethic count for a lot. So does her or his accident of birth, color of skin, systemic advantages or disadvantages, and so forth.  In the end it is the system within which one lives and works, however it is understood, that exercises the greatest control over broad measures of quality and quantity of output.  I’m a lousy mathematician and even worse statistician, but this, at least, I learned from taking classes from W. Edwards Deming. 

Which brings me to year end evaluations of Donald J. Trump’s first year in office, and hopes for his performance in the year to come.  From my perspective, the guy is dangerously ignorant, bigoted, cruel, incompetent, and whatever other adjective can be tossed in the pot.  Nevertheless, chance, and the systems in which he is forced to work, dictate that even he will do the right thing, or make the right decision, some of the time, just as chance and the rules of the game dictate that he’ll win about 10% of mindless games of solitaire.  Giving him credit for a job well done, acclaiming success at last, and declaring a more mature, presidential Trump has arrived, ascribes talent and judgment to something produced by chance and the systems at work.  

I hate to think of three more years relying on a “run of luck” for good decisions, but there is some hope for improvement in the systems in which he is forced to work.  Several major news articles have commented on congress reasserting its prerogatives as an equal branch of constitutional power and authority.  The upcoming midterms could move legislators farther in that direction.  Black and Hispanic voters are beginning to realize they can’t sit it out to watch an entertaining white on white slugfest. There’s too much at stake.  The supreme court, loaded to the right with doctrinaire justices as it is, cannot disregard long established precedents and the gravitas of knowing that every decision it makes establishes precedents for the future.  The coup like troika of Kelly, McMasters, and Mattis appears to be holding its own against forces of chaos favored by Trump.  

That’s faint hope.  I remain disappointed by respected commentators who happily applaud Trump for his random successes.  Maybe they think giving him an occasional round of applause for doing the right thing will edge him toward doing more of it to get more applause.  It’s what he wants more than anything.  It’s called tweaking the system.  Can it work?  Maybe; If crowds at his campaign style pep rallies decline far enough, and Fox ratings fall far enough.  How likely is that?

However it turns out, Trump is Trump, and unlikely to change very much.  


Happy Political New Year