29 November 2008
“Maximum subjective richness.”
William James is my favorite thinker not only because he presaged many of the ideas of the 20th century, but he was also a splendid writer. The phrase above, in an essay that changed my theological life, contains in three words what spirituality is supposed to accomplish.
“Maximum subjective richness.”
And it worked. My mind is a hothouse of thoughts, notions, feelings, memories, insights. What goes on between my ears is mostly far more interesting than what happens out in the world. Sound arrogant? Well, remember it is how I see it from my own limited vantage, but more than one poet – Blake and Dickinson and Millay come easily to mind – realized the mind is not bound by gravity or time or even reality.
“Maximum subjective richness.”
One reason I love early morning is that I can linger in the liminal world (Gary Wills’ notion) between dream and reality. Hardly a morning comes where I do not arouse with a dream still in mind, and if I resist getting out of bed for a bit I can hold on to it awake.
“Maximum subjective richness.”
A key reason I love to walk to work instead of drive is that this allows me to be in the world and also to think about it. Unlike driving where you need and should attend to traveling, walking can be second nature. This allows me to notice things. I travel the same path most every day, but there is always something I did not see or hear or smell before. As I go along, these play upon my thoughts, begetting little freshets of understanding. Some may turn into full blown ideas, but mostly they are simple little things.
“Maximum subjective richness.”
But as lovely as this is, there is a downside. Insularity for one. All this richness means I rarely need more stimulation. I find myself shutting things out just to keep the noise down and the dust from getting too thick. It’s a jungle in there, and who needs more of that?
Self absorption is the other. James rejected philosophies that were purely interior. A real philosophy had practical, living, outcomes; hence the term pragmatism. For the last year or two or three I have been struggling to put all this spiritual wealth to work in my life. Like a blacksmith, I have to heat it and work it, hammering my rich thoughts against the anvil of morality. “What should I do with this?” is my constant question.
This is not quiet, serene, or tidy work, sadly. Not for me, nor for my church.
But I have lost weight!
26 November 2008
Then, to find the eyes and ears and limbs still do pretty much what we want them to, although with age they begin to protest. I expect a petition for relief from my ankles any day now.
Here in the northland, at about the same latitude as Concord NH, daylight is already sparse. I walk to the gym in the dark, but if there are no clouds the eastern sky has begun to turn blue as I finish the mile and a quarter walk. Only paintings come close to the palpable beauty of that blue as it rises over the horizon.
My radiators rattle, but now that my skin is thinner along with the rest of me, that tattoo of warmth has its own pleasure when I come back from the gym as well. Few things are as satisfying as morning light and the possibility a day holds.
Tasks and chores will eat away that potential, as well as my capacity to goof off. But on wintry days the feel of the hot shower is lovely, even as the shiver when it stops is not. My walk to work will remind me of the poor who gather in the park, office workers who huddle in the cold on smoke break, the traffic that comes from being close to a hospital, the filaments of the world that thread us together like the pipes and wires and other sinews of the city.
It all really is amazing. And it deserves rapturous appreciation. But if we did that, nothing would get done. I could stand slack jawed in front of my wife and sons. Their existence is dumbfounding. Their tolerance of me unbelievable. I cannot say enough about the good people with whom I work, ‘my staff’ but who are really my partners in labor. No church I have served has ever had so good a complement as these people. And if the lovely anonymous soul who commented on my past post is typical of members (and from experience this is a good bet) the people who come and listen each week not only endure my flaws but wring some good from my stumbles despite me. How can I begin to say anything worthy of that?
But as much as all of them deserve all the praise I can utter, they need not my drooling worship. They need much more. So this short paean is actually to say that gratitude, while essential is insufficient. My sons need my maturity, my wife my loyalty, my staff my sanity, my people my spirituality.
And I need them, not for their praise or even their devotion, but for their mere being – a fact as miraculous and ordinary as dawn itself.
23 November 2008
... I just wanted to note that I am feeling extra incompetent today. This is a perfectly foolish feeling, objectively. My grown up brain knows this is all in my head, but my infant brain, the psychic equialent of the lizard brain underneath all the folded gray stuff, stumbled on the pulpit steps today. What looked so good and sure on paper unraveled in the delivery. Years ago I would have gotten scared and truly stumbled. But now I am more adept and do not actually fall down as much.
The problem is that this whole preaching thing is useless when it comes to telling the real truth. This morning what was in me could not be said because it was inexpressible. I thought it was expressible. It sure looked that way when I read it this morning.
Then, as the words became sounds, the hollowness of them was unmistakable. The argument felt thin and cardboard flat, and all I could do was tell them I could not find the right words.
One of my readings was from Job, the conclusion where Job falls on his knees and apologizes for his arrogance in demanding an explanation from God. "I melt away to nothing" is the sense of the text. That's how I felt.
At the end of the day, pondering that story, I wonder if that's not more honest than the typical sermon with its pretense at wisdom. Perhaps I should be willing to feel like this more often.
22 November 2008
Our weather turned hard last week, and we are about 10 degrees F lower than normal for this month. That’s part of it for sure, but not so many years ago even this cold (about freezing point give or take) was merely chilly. Now, I shiver.
From what I can tell, three things are making me more cold averse.
No question that 3 is the most significant. Isn’t that why all those retired folks head to Florida (no it’s not a law, but that was a good joke) and Arizona and the like?
1 - I have less body fat. That’s good, but the insulating value is also less.
2 - I have Reynauld’s syndrome, which makes my fingers and toes respond to the cold by going numb. The toes just started this year, and so my feet feel cold more now.
3 - I am older.
At the risk of offending my friends in Florida, I don’t get it. Once you’re warm, that’s about all there is. Ok, there are the palmetto bugs and hurricanes and Disney world. So call me venal.
Arizona has scenery in spades, but there’s the desert thing – like the summer heat. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I think 100 degrees F is as unpleasant as 20 degrees.
But the real disincentive for me is that there are all those old people. Nothing wrong with being old, it sure beats the alternative as they say, but a world of old people is as off putting as a world of teenagers.
Retirement is still a decade away, and in this economy perhaps a little further than that, but the way we have warehoused old folks so that we have geezer ghettos called retirement or adult communities makes me shiver almost as much as the cold.
Can you tell the daylight is dwindling? My scrooge is awakening to the gathering gloom. Sorry about that. I’ll just feed the fire and eat my gruel. I wonder what I could get for those bed curtains….?
15 November 2008
Wall Street couldn’t get enough subprime mortgages, and essentially choked on them. They ate themselves to death like Tribbles (see a Star Trek website for an explanation if you need it). Here in Michigan we did the same thing with automobiles, gorging on their lucre long after we should have put up some in jars for a rainy day like the one we’re having now.
Everyone wants to cash in, be it tulips in Holland, gold in California, dot coms, hedge funds or Texas Hold’em. The lure of striking it rich drives most of to act like cattle, so we stampede from one thing to the other and then wonder why there’s not enough grass to eat.
Green is the next fad. If we are lucky, that is. But it will be a fad. I sincerely doubt we can cure people of the romance of striking it rich, but wouldn’t we be just as happy if we enjoyed what the woman who was a school nurse and whose memorial I am doing today said some years ago – “Each person [should find] out what they’re best at, and then do it. I get more than I give.”
We think we want money. What we want is purpose. Rev. Warren is not wrong about that. But in my opinion his is just a different form of currency. “Get rich – be happy,” turns into “Get Christian – be happy.”
Now if only someone would say that you don’t need to be rich or Christian or even happy to have a purpose filled life.
I’m working on it. Believe me, I’m working on it.
12 November 2008
Here's the deal, as Perot used to say (anyone remember him? anyone care?) There is so much stuff literally stuffing my brain about using blogs and facebook that I cannot figure it out. Make that, I cannot take the time to figure it out.
Yes, I got the slide show thing going. That wasted an evening as I figured out how to upload pictures to Google Album and so on. Twice I have tried to add a feed from my blog to the facebook page, as it seems these are synergistic. But each time it has bombed out.
Can anyone really sort out deli.cio.us, digg, yelp, stumble, scramble, hulu, and widgets and gadgets and posts and feeds? This blog is hopelessly out of date, technically (technology is the study of technique, as I was tought long ago, when we wrote on slate boards atr school and on shovels with coal at night, which was an improvement over those wax tablets for sure) and I never hope to keep up. But at least show me around so I don't wander into traffic and get pasted for just posting.
Make it short, though. Kind of a laminated card like those folding maps tourists buy.
11 November 2008
Next comes the school stuff – my seminary where I have made a major five year commitment of which this year is the third, my college, my wife’s college, and a little something for the catholic high school my son attends.
Then come the causes – Nature Conservancy (my dad was a fan), Interfaith Alliance (a dear friend is a founder), ACLU (parents were long time supporters), Planned Parenthood (being a product of their work when PP really meant ‘planned parenthood’), and the local homeless drop-in center.
Then come the organizations we patronize - Smithsonian (my sister for works for them), our local Symphony (We are subscribers and I know several players), the local opera company (small but, like our fair city, better than a place this size ordinarily has), two local museums.
There are a few more I am sure. My memory has never been good on these details.
These are tough times, I think, and yet I can’t see how to leave any of them out. In fact, I am tempted to give more. Repairing my old suit, resoling my old shoes, eating in more and driving less are not too hard for me personally, compared to what I know about the margins of existence for most NPOs.
Next year we send our youngest to college. By the time he gets out we shall be sixty. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to grow the fabled nest egg. Yet somehow this way makes sense.
(Notice I changed the check boxes below. You seemed to respond. Cool)
09 November 2008
Speaking of which, again, there are all sorts of analyses out there of course. The only thing more fun than the game is the post-game right? At my age, meaning after plenty of times I was way wrong, pretending to know why and wherefore is just that, pretense. One good thing is certain, a whole lot of people are now more invested in what the country is about.
When I was involved, too briefly, with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing group, getting people to care was the first hurdle. We had to overcome the cynicism poor and powerless people had and which was part of keeping them poor and powerless.
Did you see the phrase "community organizing?" Has it occurred to anyone that the skills and techniques the president-elect got 'back in the day' were exactly what he used to rally a whole country. We've been organized! Holy s&%t!
Of the sad things in my life was realizing I have no gift for organizing people. Fortunately, as a religious liberal, being organized is against my religion so it is not a sin. But if the movement is to thrive it has got to get organized, and I am so annoyed that I cannot help that happen. Maybe if we sent all our clergy to the IAF Ten Day Training we might stand a chance. I just hope there's still room for a few solitary misanthropic seers like me.
08 November 2008
(note: I have corrected misspellings twice already, due to my first episode of Reynaud's syndrome today. It makes my fingers tingle, the same ones I use to to type, which even when I have my feeling intact I do but poorly.)
If you hate the idea of having check off boxes, check ‘weird’ and I will get rid of them. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere, it can change daily.
Yesterday the sun was bright as I passed beside some ginko trees that had been denuded of their yellow leaves very recently. Lying on the ground they looked very like flower petals, curled and cupped and soft. In the late afternoon light they were brilliant even as I stepped on them.
Today has been cold and gray and rainy. I doubt the ginko leaves are what they were yesterday.
07 November 2008
Before I forget, and head back into the quirky world of my own demented psyche, some thoughts on the election.
- Symbolism won. Every now and then we elect a president because of his (still only ‘his’ lamentably) symbolic power. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy all represented what the nation wanted to be. Obama won in part because we saw the American future in him as much as a competent and capable leader. Generally, we elect symbols when we need to choose the future more than preserve the present or past. It will be rare.
- His being black is part of that symbolism of course. Someone in his distinct position as a biracial person, not belonging to either white or black cultures entirely, was always in a better position to do this. Just as Nixon being Republican could more likely open the door to China than Johnson. “The stone rejected by the builder,” says a psalm, “becomes the headstone of the corner.” Paradox is part of genuine symbolism. Obama was a paradoxical candidate.
- Speaking of paradox, he exploited the system even as he rejected it. His campaign was acutely aware of electoral realities, and leveraged that knowledge even as he criticized the system that created them and maintained them. Call it shrewd or Machiavellian, or even hypocritical, it makes perfect sense as well.
- Look out for a paradoxical president, someone whose actions are not perfectly consistent or predictable, the very antithesis of our current president. His challenge will be to create a vision and persona in which contrary and conflicting actions can be seen as part of a larger plan or vision.
In other words, he needs to be as creative as Jefferson, as shrewd as Lincoln, as sure as Wilson, as confident as FDR and as genuine as Ford. Mighty tall order, which is what symbolic people have to shoulder. It’s going to be an interesting four years, for sure.
06 November 2008
Sometime soon I will opine of course, but the many things stirred up by this campaign and its outcome will take a long time to sift out.
Second, I am in awe of Facebook. Thanks to a reader, a follower of mine (which means someone over there on the left) I have a facebook page. On Monday afternoon, before visiting the Jewish Museum of NY to see it Dead Sea Scroll exhibit, I had a thought. With much helkp my my assisant, we posted the sermon on the blog and then sent word out that it was there on Facebook.
Ordinarily I get maybe 30 visits a day. If you click on the "check my stats" link over there (not now after you finish) you will see that 357 people came by that day.
After 3 p.m.
If you were one of them, meaning someone who has never dropped by before, tell me (and all of us reading this) what made you drop by and how you found out? I am really intrigued.
Now tell me what it would take to do it again. Obviously, something cool is happeneing via Facebook but I need to know more. Tell me.
03 November 2008
From Isaiah 55
This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
“Why should men love the church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of life and death, and all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard and hard where they like to be soft. She tells them of Evil and Sin and other unpleasant tasks.” - T. S. Eliot
Governor Sarah Palin, during the debate with Joseph Biden:
“You said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that’s not patriotic.”
From Tom Friedman, commenting on the above:
I grew up in a very middle-class family in a very middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, and my parents taught me that paying taxes, while certainly no fun, was how we paid for the police and the Army, our public universities and local schools, scientific research and Medicare for the elderly. No one said it better than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”
Each week I stand in judgment. If I am fortunate something I say will shed some fresh light on a corner of your mind. If I fail, maybe something will give you comfort. But in utmost honesty, both of these are vain if they are just words. No eloquence or logic can replace what Emerson declared 170 years ago, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.” I pray each week that I find the courage to do that.
Election Day is finally here, to all our reliefs. Preachers need to beware of speaking unwisely, but neither should they decline to speak what wisdom they have. Honestly, though, I am struggling. Not with candidates and parties but something more.
Should we love our country? It is assumed that we should. Bumper stickers say, “Proud to Be An American,” and “God Bless America.” But in contemplating this sermon I have found myself questioning whether I do, or even should, love my country.
This is not due to some disgust with our political process. I know enough history to remember that candidate Thomas Jefferson was called an infidel, Grover Cleveland a fornicator, and that both were accurate. I know that candidates have wrapped themselves in all manner of false virtue – the flag, the bloody shirt of battle, a republican cloth coat. What seems excessive today is all too typical, sadly.
Nor is my mood due to current policies, though a war begotten of lies and an economy on the skids and a constitution that has all but vanished amply warrant gloom. These too have their precedents in history unfortunately, and my sense of America is larger than t the last decade.
My doubt springs from something deeper, a question of character. A sociologist like Robert Bellah, or an historian like David McCollough would now unfold a piercing disquisition on those things. They would do far better than I could, but a sermon is not a lecture. All I have is my own soul, roasting in the fire of scrutiny, and my hope that in giving it to you, your own will feel a similar heat, which is what a sermon is supposed to do.
During another election season, the last time the Republican candidate was from Arizona in fact, I pestered my parents to let me join the Boy Scouts. Some other time I may detail the ups and downs of that experience. What matters today is that something in that world, something I sensed and later found, spoke to a deep place in me and still does. In many ways, despite all the teasing I got then and get even now, I am a boy scout.
At the center of boy scoutness is the scout oath. You who were part of it with me still know it today as sure as your boyhood telephone number. “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country...” it begins. Despite growing up in the 1960s and in a Unitarian Church, despite parents who taught me to love jazz and Lenny Bruce, despite my own youthful drug use and my desperate unfulfilled sexual longing – things clearly at odds with the clean cut halo of boy scouting – I believed in the oath and the scout law. I believed there was something to the idea of honor and duty.
To say there was some cognitive dissonance in those years is to state the obvious. Not just my own, but could see the same struggle in boy scouting itself. In my day it was favoritism despite the promise of fairness. For example, the scoutmaster’s son became the boy leader. I was the same rank and age and experience but was never asked to serve in leadership. So much for fairness.
Scouting taught me that institutions formed on ideals are ever falling short of them. At first this is shocking, then it is infuriating, and finally discouraging. I left scouting when the summer camp where I was employed hired a non scout and recent marine to be my supervisor barely a week before camp. I was fat and slow and he ridiculed me publicly. Not very “friendly, courteous or kind,” as the scout law requires, but he wanted me gone and being the grown up, I went. So much for it being about “Boy” Scouting.
Yet I saw the same failures in high school, where athletics always counted more than academics and success was always about who was popular; also in my liberal church, where religious freedom and tolerance did not actually extend much beyond the humanist majority. Every young person faces this crisis, of course. It is what they do with it that matters. I ceased to be a scout in person but not in spirit. And despite the failure of liberal religion to be liberal, I believed the ideals were still worthy of my loyalty and made it my life’s work.
Turning back to the beginning, I do not love my country if love means “in love,” starry eyed and smitten. Scouting and school and church taught me the folly of loving those things like that. But I believe in America the way I believe in the scout oath and the hope of liberal religion.
I believe in what America stands for. As great as the purple mountains and amber waves and all the majesties I have seen, it is the words of the Declaration that make my throat clench, the Gettysburg Address that renews my faith, and Emma Lazarus and Dr. King and Woody Guthrie who redeem my hope. I love what America says it could be, and therefore what I could be, which is something more than I already am.
To hold yourself, or your country, or your church, to a higher standard is what honor and duty are about. Every day I judge myself, asking if I have done as much as I should as well as I could, for what I believe in. Every day I fail. But over time, over the years, slowly, I have become better. On the one hand I am never good enough and never will be. On the other hand I have become better than I was or would have been had I not believed I was honor bound to do my duty.
America has done the same thing. America is an oath, a promise; a promise to become a nation of “liberty and justice for all.” That promise is its identity, as Hannah Arendt said. America is not there yet. Every day is a day of judgment and every day the nation falls short. Over time, though, the nation has gotten closer. It took a century, but the blight of slavery came to an end. It took another century, but the principle of equal justice is now established.
Progress? Yes. But it was not automatic. Dithering about slavery led to a brutal civil war. Equal justice required struggle to enfranchise women, and remove segregation, and end voter intimidation and protect worker rights. We have yet to treat all citizens equitably, notably LGBT folk and immigrants and the poor. Just as I cannot assume I will get better without trying to do my duty, so we cannot blithely assume America will get better without trying to do its duty.
Today, when I look out on my country, what I see, though, is a culture that denies we have any duty at all. “It’s a free country,” right? Freedom is what America is about, we are taught and told. Logically, then, anything that constrains freedom must be anti-American. Fundamentalist Christians complain that teaching evolution and prohibiting prayer in schools encroaches on their freedom of religious expression, for example. Corporations claim regulations restrains free enterprise. Only two things are required of us as citizens by law. One is to obey the law. The other is to pay taxes. Judging by the governor of Alaska, that is too much. Judging by the way people drive, obeying the law is disposable. America has become the cowboy republic, where true-blue Americans show the patriotism by looking out for number one, where citizens owe nothing to anyone, except themselves.
This year I am asking what it means for religious liberals to live faithful lives. We have looked at work, relationships with others, and now turn to the groups to which we belong. Needless to say, I am talking about citizenship today, the Sunday before Election Day. Also obvious is that the very concept of living faithful lives means living by promises we make. We are the promises we make. No law or government can make any one of us do our duty. It has to be a promise you make on your own, something you do to be faithful to yourself as much as your country.
That, friends, is the key to how you should vote come Tuesday. Which candidate, which party, will keep the promise of America best? Not perfectly, as that cannot be done. Equally important, which candidate or party will prompt you to keep your promise? If you vote for your personal preference, such as lower taxes, or for your particular cause such as reproductive rights, no matter how you clothe it in arguments you will not do your duty, either to God or your country. Your duty, my duty, our duty is to call our nation and ourselves to account, to demand that it and we fulfill the promise to be a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people, a nation that pays the promissory notes of justice delayed, that lifts the lamp of hope beside the golden door, that says it will be a place of ‘liberty and justice for all.’
Every day we stand in judgment, measured by the distance between our personal promises and personal our deeds. Every day our nation stands in judgment, measured by that same distance. The nation can do its duty only if you do yours. So the question is not whether you will vote, or for whom or what, on Tuesday; but what will you do on Wednesday? Raise you hand. Say, “On my honor I will do my duty…” and mean it.
02 November 2008
Like my older son who lives on the west coast for now, and calls every week even though we never asked him to, and told me this evening about how he believes America totally misunderstands the political terms ‘left’ and ‘right,’ as these are European terms that have completely different origins than our versions of liberal and conservative. How astute and insightful that is. Never occurred to me.
And he is realizing how organizations, even noble not for profits like the one he works for right now, being staffed with humans, have as many flaws and foibles as the people who work for then. It took me twenty years to stop hitting myself over the head with that hammer.
And my younger son, rabid with electoral madness and spending every available hour at Obama headquarters, was wondering why we don’t make election day a holiday so everyone can get to the polls. I didn’t tell him other countries already do that, because he should find out how smart he is by accident which is the best way.
He’s right. Election Day should be a national holiday. Not only would it smooth out waiting to vote, it would signify that the act of choosing our government takes precedence over making a buck. Except that it might violate the first amendment I would also make it campaign free. For one day, the people and they alone should speak.