28 June 2008

O, What A Tangled Web

Watch House?

You know, the misanthropic medical genius who diagnoses weird diseases on Fox? It's the only program on that network I watch, and only then because my misanthropic son recommended it.

Well, the poor folks who come to him are put through tests verging on torture. You have to be pretty sick and really desperate to need him and to put up with that battery, which word I use in both meanings - assortment and as in "assault and."

Anyway, this convention I am attending usually gives me the feeling of being assaulted. As I wended my way here I told myself I would ask why; that is, reflect on my mixture of feelings that make me want to go and at the same time want to flee. I would give myself the Gregory House treatment.

You saw a piece of that in my last post. That happened on Wednesday and I wrote about it on Thursday.

On Friday I had another moment, equally unpleasant, disturbing and instructive.

I was at my seminary alumni/ae dinner. Gosh it is good to see the people, and so touching to see us mellow as we age from young turks into old coots. Sentiment is a powerful opiate, easing the pain of age and folly, gently fogging our wincing hearts when we contemplate plans unfulfilled and goals unmet. We all need it as the analgesic for the moral and professional arthritis that comes upon us all.

Anyway, that's not what snagged me.

At the end of the evening the school thanked those grads who have been especially supportive financially. Having helped host a fund raising event the night before because we (my spouse and I) are among those who give generously - our names were so listed in the program that evening - we were surprised when our names were not mentioned last night. So was the colleague next to me by the way.

Now, the mechanisms of this are not what matters. What I am writing about is how irrationally angry I felt about it. It took real effort not to become visibly irate. There was no reason for me to speak to the organizer then and there, but I could not stop myself. Even as I couched it in a question not an accusation she could sense my displeasure.

I fumed as we walked home, and thanks to the tender offices of my dear spouse, teased out part of why I was so exercised by this small act.

Abandonment. There is a trail of moments throughout my life when I felt left out, overlooked, forgotten, ignored, invisible, and otherwise abandoned. No question this goes back to my very earliest memory which is when I was sitting in the back seat of the family car as we brought my baby brother home. I was alone in the back seat and they, the three of them, were up front.

Like ducklings who believe that the first creature they meet is their mother, this ancient experience got laid down very early and became part of who I am. And as I said last time, fixing it would be as painful as enduring it, for what I am now includes it.

Truly, I need to get better control of the infantile outrage I feel when these things happen, but something tells me this wound will never heal completely. The best I can do is find ways to cope with it. Damn if being a grownup really sucks sometimes.

26 June 2008

Once More To The Couch

I’m confused.

That’s not unusual of course, more normal than not. My moments of clarity are rare.

A friend and colleague delivered a very telling essay yesterday, strong in both insight and challenge.

The insight was that many people in churches, especially the kind I serve, are hobbled by a deep sense of shame. She, my colleague, deftly distinguished guilt I (the usual thing we associate with religion) from shame as saying that guilt comes from what you do and shame comes from what you are.

Shame is the deeper and more destructive of the two. I know this from experience.

She then went on to observe that shame ironically produces more shame, in that those who carry it then go on to give it, in which those who feel ashamed do not overcome it so much as try to bring everyone else in on it. Shamed people feel worthless, as it were, and so should everyone else. It’s a kind of existential nihilism that religious liberals see in the sometimes aggressive hostility to religiosity some of our folks display. They say they are only being honest, but in fact they are also relishing their power to shame others for their foolish beliefs.

I am not speculating here. Years ago I learned about Erik Erikson, and his revised Freudian scheme that said each stage in life was a series challenges. One was what he called “autonomy versus shame and doubt.” It emerges when we are toddlers and trying to master our bodies, especially our bowels. The admission price to belong to society as an autonomous individual is the ability to control our bowels.

Notice, though, the word “doubt.” Shame and doubt go together. To feel ashamed is to be in severe doubt of your own powers and autonomy. Those who live in a state of constant self doubt cannot but come to doubt everything else.

Lest you think those reared within liberal religion are spared all this I can assure you the shame and self doubt are equal opportunity afflictions. My sense of self doubt is profound, and as much as I have plumbed its depth and breadth (which includes therapy and study and recollections all the way back to my toddler days) it is now woven through my entire identity.

That’s why I am confused. She seemed to say we need to overcome our shame to thrive and I am not sure it can be done. As I told a colleague and counselor I consulted a few years back, I am not sure I even want to do it now. Much as a someone disabled from birth creates an identity that includes that disability, so my identity includes my shame and doubt. I have labored long and hard to accept my flawed and strugglesome self. To give that up would be a second shame and second rejection.

I suspect that we are all disabled spirits, some more and some less and a rare few with no scars. No question I feel an infantile resentment for those who are more at home in their skins and feel genuine schadenfreude when they trip a bit. But in my larger moments, when I know we are all walking wounded and that the real miracle is that we continue to hope and wish and wonder despite all the scoldings and contempts we have borne, then I take heart.

Would that I had more of those moments. They are too rare. As the unnamed man of scripture said so long ago, “Lord I believe! Help thou my unbelief.”

24 June 2008

Between the Devil And the Deep Blue Sea

Lies Fort Lauderdale.

Maybe that's why it is so hot!

There’s a lovely little teapot tempest here because of the convention center where my conference is being held. It happens to be within the ‘perimeter’ of the Port of Fort Lauderdale and that means (in these hyper security conscious times) that we can be asked to show photo ID to enter, a condition not present when the convention was booked a few years ago.

A few of my co-religionists are in a state of dread and dudgeon about it, not without reason, but to my mind somewhat more pompously than righteously. What it means is that some have conscientiously refused to attend, and my minister’s association is meeting far away to remove the inferable taint of collusion.

How much should one do in response to injustice? Morally, anything less than everything is questionable. Realistically, almost nothing makes a difference. The fence that protects the convention center is a federal act, unbidden by the people here. Withdrawing the convention would not harm the federal authorities at all. They would not care if they even noticed. It would deprive the businesses here of business. As it is, attendance is markedly lower, though that may reflect some reluctance to go to south Florida in the summer. How often do our attempts to flog the wicked end up raising welts only on bystanders?

The key speaker this morning led us through an analysis of the two stories we inherit from the Bible – liberation from Egypt and purity in the temple. He tells us that the latter is what we live by, creating our society based on wealth, power, and privilege. The other is about faithfulness, justice and righteousness. Why do we choose the former and not the latter?

I do not know, but he also said protesting and militating are not the answer. That, ironically, is part of the system. To choose the other narrative is to choose not to take part in some way. I think he’s right. I also think it is deeply difficult to know exactly how. But since when was the spiritual life easy?

22 June 2008

Grade It Incomplete

In the Tampa Bay area now, pausing to see friends and preach in a colleague’s church. Could not help but wonder if the car from Alaska going past me on the road might be on its way to Key West.

Journeys of the body are journeys of the mind, which is why we take them and why we read about them. I’ve already enjoyed a conversation with a reader about my deep pockets of outrage provoked by that frustrated evening in Louisville. Those infantile moments happen during regular life, of course, but I do not take time to notice their complexity and depth. I think you have to be out of your ‘element’ to see what is always there but obscured by familiarity.

Like that car from Alaska. I know that Alaska is the northwestern corner of the country and it was now in the southeastern corner. If I were at the wheel I would have a strong desire to go as far as I could, feeling a deep urge to complete touch the virtual corners of the country. Why is that?

A few years ago, on a different trip, I realized we were finishing all of Interstate 70. That pleased me. When I returned from my trip up the California highway 1 this past February I instantly planned how I could go back and finish it next year.

Looking back, I could see this in other ways. When I was first enamored of classical music I subscribed to a complete Beethoven recordings collection only half of which I ever heard, but the idea of having only some of the volumes seemed to me as ridiculous as a dictionary with only half the letters. Likewise, I have a complete collection of Bible Commentaries which I have only recently begun to read.

In short, I have a completeness fetish. Not about tasks so much as objects. When it comes to tasks I can be completely ragged and forgetful. That inconsistency is what intrigues me. How can I be so tidy in one place and so messy in another?

Well, I gotta clean up and go preach. That question will have to wait until I get behind the wheel again. Along with a lot more. For example, what does is say that my only incomplete course in college was my introduction to Religious Studies?

19 June 2008

Brain Stains

Well, at least I have a good excuse this time. Traveling.

At the moment I am in a hotel near Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta. No, I am not between flights. Nor am I in Atlanta per se. As odd as it sounds, I am driving to Fort Lauderdale for a conference.

Long story, but one step along the way is spending the night here. And I thought, as long as there is wussy but free wifi I should post something. And hey, it has been a week.

Long distance driving allows a fellow to dwell on some things.

Like how people moan and groan about the cost of gas but still drive like crazy. I figured out that just going 65 instead of 70 improve my mileage by 10% but adds less than 10% to my time on the road. So I did it. You would have thought I was a rock in the road as cars and trucks zoomed by. But I suspect many of these folks are waxing irate at the cost of gasoline. Some of them also supersize their value meals, including a giant diet coke.

But what made me think the hardest today was about my apparently primal my sense of personal outrage about certain things.

Last night I wanted something that was not fast food for dinner, perhaps a glass of wine as well. The desk clerk in Louisville directed me up the road a few miles to a strip with ‘casual dining places’ nothing remarkable, all chains, but nothing on a plastic tray or ordered from a counter.


Every one of the places was jammed full. Parking lots were full, people lolled about outside. I was forced to think the hideous thought of Arby’s, which in this case included a grimy interior marked with water damage. I was livid, almost psychopathic with frustration, growling through gritted teeth about how after eight hours drive there should be at least someplace on a Wednesday night I could go without having to scour the whole metro area. My sense of being deprived of a just thing was almost infantile in its intensity and righteousness.

Something else it going on here, meaning something more what happened last night. In the car today I caught echoes of childhood injustices, abandonment, losses and shames, that all came out like the wriggly snakes from Pandora’s box. Through utterly mundane doors our transcendently powerful demons come through. And what a mess they make.

12 June 2008

Why Clinton Did Not Win, Part 2

Dueling oppressions. My ‘ism’ is more important that yours is how this works.

It is at least as old as Anthony and Douglass, Susan and Frederick, when the women’s movement that started before the Civil War willingly turned its efforts to support abolition of slavery with the hope and reasonable belief that once that scourge was removed, the blight of women’s lack of rights would be ripe for repairing. But it did not happen. Black men got to vote more often than white women.

Until 1920, when the 19th amendment secured women the franchise. Then the relationship changed insofar as the enfranchisement of women was far more effective than the enfranchisement of African-Americans until the 1960s.

Which is worse? Which is more wicked, or more important, or more deserving of remedy? False question. All oppressions are not alike, though their burdens are experienced alike.

Racism is our national sin. Sexism is the human sin. The difference is crucial. Our nation exists virtually because of slavery. The irony of a nation conceived in liberty but built on slavery is the psychodrama behind the Civil War, revealed by Lincoln, and systematically denied for a century after that, makes it clear that race is our national shame. I do not know if electing a black president will bring an end to racism. Actually, I do. It won’t. But it signals our willingness as a nation to face it.

That’s why Obama prevailed. He represents our collective sense of duty to return to the task undertaken a hundred and fifty years ago. But I must say that the same failure back then is before us now. Even if we finally take serious steps to remedy racism as a national blight, we will not, as a nation, then take up the deeper challenge of sexism.

Why? Because that is a challenge humanity itself must address, not a nation. Sexism is in every culture, and at the personal level even more than the national. National politics is not a solution to a universal problem.


Ultimately, sexism will be dealt with at the highest (or lowest) common denominator, spirituality. Religion must face the profound depths of its misogyny, including its surrogates of homophobia and heterosexism. The meaning of being human is at stake here, and meaning is the religion business par excellence.

08 June 2008

Before We Roll Up The Rug Entirely...

... Let me point to the dirt swept underneath during the primary season. Now that it’s over, I can speak to the conclusion of the Democratic Nominating Process. Although to call it that is a bit more dignified that it is.

First, my bias. I am an historian by nature. Those who know me know this as well. I have a brain stuffed with information; not by choice, it just gets in there. And as all knowledge is something from the past, though it be only yesterday, that makes it all history.

I know, for example, that the primary and caucus process is the child of the Progressive Era a century ago, which was a powerful movement to wrest control of the nominating process from party bosses in the fabled smoke filled rooms. Give the people a voice by holding primary elections or caucuses. These did not remove party hacks and insider dealing, but it severely hobbled them. The Democratic Party took this to heart half a century later, responding to criticism by minority groups (women, people of color) by going to proportional winnings instead of winner take all. That means those coming in second or third get a proportion of delegates not none.

That’s why it took until June to find a candidate. If the Democratic Party had a winner take all system like the Republicans, Senator Clinton would be the nominee. That the very system designed to empower less-represented people undid a candidate from a less-represented group is part of why she did not win. And again, it is history that reveals why.

I contend that the unspoken issue was dynasty. Senator Clinton got to be Senator Clinton by virtue of being connected to president Clinton. America has had many political families: Kennedys of course with a president and two senators, but also Harrisons (grandfather and grandson elected presidents), Adamses (father and son presidents), and Bushes. But never has it had two families spanning so many years so long (Bush, Clinton Bush, 1989-2009).

The prospect of four to eight more years of Clintons I think felt uneasy to some people. To me this was explicit but I think for most it was inchoate and unexpressed. It came out in sexism, and sexism was very much in the room, as it were. And the tug of war between racism and sexism will wait for my next post, but my point now is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the assumption that, in a democracy, there are somehow only two families that have enough heft and power to make it to the Oval Office in 20-28 years.

That irony, even contradiction, is the unacknowledged factor in why the less experienced leader edged past the more sensible choice in the long run. Like I said, racism and sexism were also a part of it, but as everyone has said that, this other fact is what need to be recognized first.

06 June 2008

Take Me Out Of The Ballgame

I am sore.

We have a softball team, the church that is. I cannot speak with perfect knowledge but this may be our first team. And I am on the team. Mostly symbolically, of course, but this week I went out to root them on and got put into the game.

A little background now. We are in a league, playing other organizations. It is coed and low key and not the stuff of Kevin Costner or Dennis Quaid by a long shot. But I have not played for a decade, and even then not extensively. My glove and bat days are boyhood memories. The last time I played worth a lick was in 1978 when I was a student minister in Massachusetts and I truly saved the day with a long shot late in the game between the ‘saints’ and ‘sinners.’

But that was thirty years ago, and yesterday morning, after my brief stint on the field, where I did manage two hits at three at bats, I felt really sore. Today is no better.

Of course, I am 55. Only the umpires were even close to my age on the field. Even during the game I realized my agility was not what I remembered. As the ball came toward me in the outfield its shape and speed were perceptibly less acute. Running toward first, even eventually around the bases to score a run, I felt more like the Scarecrow than the Lion, and for the last two days have felt more like the Tin Man (oil can… oil can…)

Just last month I had my physical and told the doctor that I was more stiff and sore than I liked around my hips and glutes. He checked me for arthritis and pronounced me merely old, saying that ligaments and tendons age and as they do they get shorter and less pliable. And yet, there are men who run and jump and do better than I. There must be a way, but I resist, knowing that it means I am older. Just like having to wear my glasses more, and probably needing two pair soon.

The good news is that I had no pains in my shoulders or arms, a testimony to my years of exercise there, nor in my feet or knees. Those are common injury points for us decaying types. And if I were to play more often chances are I would adapt and even improve. But gone are the days when I could play without stint and savor the joy of bodily life, when simply to move was a poetry of sensation and the forces of life coursed through me like electricity and every breath was a draught of aliveness.

I still have those moments, but more rarely. No wonder old men love to watch baseball. We see some kid snag a fly in the air and our muscles remember what it felt like: the leap, the grab, the smack of the ball into the mitt, the sting of the hands. Or the wild crack of the bat and the sleek run toward first and beyond, a ballet of explosive energy our thighs remember, and our shoulders as we slide into second just under the tag. Oh, the unutterable pleasure of that flesh symphony.

Like the fire horse that cannot resist when the bell is rung, few men do not feel a twitch of longing somewhere when the umpire says ‘batter up.’ I guess I’ll be back next week. After all, we came so close, losing only 18-12.