30 May 2009

Yet Another Week

Meaning lots of stuff to do. Lots of this week has been helping my younger son with his Eagle Scout Project, which entails repairing a campsite in the area. But we also went to another graduate open house for a friend of his and the annual picnic for his rowing team. My spouse prepared one last festive lunch for the faculty at his high school. I appeared on what seems to be my weekly radio show with a colleague, conducted a memorial service later that day, and finally a wedding rehearsal. The wedding was today, along with a sold-out performance of our new local gay men’s chorus – something my clergy colleague helped to organize and take part in.

My obviously failing memory recalls that late spring brought a lovely slow down of things, but clearly that is not the case. The to-do list gets longer and longer. And it will never end. A friend told me many years ago, “No one ever died with an empty in-box.”

“Seek simplicity and suspect it,” Alfred North Whitehead said, I believe. That’s hard. In fact, it sounds very like Simone Weil’s definition of genius – to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time. That Whitehead fellow was rather bright after all.

This morning, owing to said Eagle Scout Project, I walked to synagogue services. Not being New York, it was a sizable walk. An hour each way. Little one can do while walking except think. I considered simplicity, and how it is not easy to find and when found not easy to do. In fact, the simpler something is, the harder it is. Ten commandments are not many, but has anyone ever succeeded at all of them? The Golden Rule is one simple thing, as is Kant’s Categorical Imperative. But no one would say they are easy.

So I suppose a busy life may be the consequence of seeking simplicity. Paradoxical, I suppose. Simone would approve. Alfred would be skeptical.

26 May 2009

Great Potential

Maybe it was all the graduation stuff that reminded me of when I was young and everyone was saying how much potential we all had. It started in grade school, with teachers writing little notes in my report cards about how I did not work ‘up to my potential,’ which sounded both encouraging and condemning.

I had potential. Cool. What sort of potential though? And how much exactly? No one seemed to know, but no matter what I did it was not enough. ‘

Honestly, I was not a driven student. I did not arrive home each day eager for my homework, nor did I scamper to class each morning eager to go to class. In History and English and Music class I did well without even trying. In Science, Math, and French the hours were a torture. We’ll not talk about Phys. Ed.

Still people told me that I was not working ‘up to my potential,’ which obviously meant I was lazy. So I finished high school with a clear sense that I was innately lazy and unmotivated.

Nearly forty years later I still fear that potential has gone unmet, my laziness mitigated but not conquered. This I conclude from reading the local paper highlighted stellar graduates with 4.5 GPAs (extra credit and all) and hours of service and other accomplishments. My beloved Times tells me of hyperachievers like the author Bill Collins whose personal power of focus is laserlike and pure, and the Rev. A. R. Bernard in my former town of Brooklyn who has built a church of 30,000 from 100 back in 1980.

Was that my potential? Have I wasted my chance for excellence? Something deeply planted in the brain says I have failed in some way, though nothing among the facts of my life would support it. How odd, this mind we have. It gives us the dreams and hopes that make life worth living, and then prevents most of us from fulfilling those same dreams and hopes.

Of course, writing this post is just another way to waste time isn’t it?

25 May 2009

So Sue Me

This was the week.

Last Sunday I wrote my last post in the early morning, led worship at my church, and tore off to Chicago to attend my seminary commencement because a friend was getting an honorary, a parishioner of two churches was getting his M. Div. and it was the 30th anniversary of my own graduation.

Two days later was my son’s high school graduation, which because it is a Catholic High included local clergy whose young people were graduating from their parishes. They extend the invitation to non Catholic clergy as well, so I was there both as father and as minister, invited to shake his hand on the platform and formally ‘confer’ his diploma.

In the middle of all this I planned a memorial service, attended my own monthly governing board meeting, conducted another for the community organization I chair, was back on the radio ‘arguing’ with atheists, and drove to Detroit and back Saturday for the same son’s last regatta as a crew member. (He finally - truly finally as this was the last race of the last event of his last year - got a medal as a crew member, placing second. The results were ninety minutes late because of a timing dispute but “all’s well…” as they say.)

So if I did not get around to writing a post for eight days you might understand. If not, sue me. Was it John Lennon who observed that life is what happens to you while you are making other plans?

I had a whole lot of life this week. Good stuff, tough stuff. It all came round at Sunday’s service, lightly attended because of great weather and a holiday weekend. The comparative intimacy of that service, no more than 200, gave it a more tender tone. My clergy colleague was away, the choir was off, and our service participant brought her 4 year old into the pulpit to do her greeting. I read from James Joyce and spoke of our inherently imperfect memories and how the dead fade from those imperfect memories and how we shall join them in time. But we should not grieve too much, as even our scattered dust will be the soil of some future trees (literal and figurative) much as the letters of words and notes of songs can be scattered and gathered again into new words and new songs. Our particular lives may vanish but our living does not.

In the afternoon we attended a graduation party for a friend of my son - ate yet another piece of rich cake and then came home and dug in the yard as the sun lingered in the evening sky. Weeds went upon the new compost heap, and I admired the sunflower seedlings urging their way upward.

It was a good week overall. I do not know if I could survive another like it very soon.

17 May 2009

Waist Deep... Again

This week my younger son graduates from high school. It began a week ago with the Senior Prom and ends on Tuesday with the actual ceremony. Between the two was an assembly where awards and recognitions were handed out. Not only did my son get recognized for his many hours of service (over 250 this past year) but my wife was also recognized for her service to the school as a devoted parent.

Why tell you this? My son attends a Catholic High School. The reasons are many, but one was that it was both diverse and demanding. Another was that we believed learning to live as a minority in a majority is important. While we are of the privileged when it comes to race and class and sexuality, we (my family and I) are in the minority around religion.

Why mention this now? Because the news is full of the controversy around the president going to Notre Dame University and those who think this is a slap at Catholic Social Teaching, the phrase my son learned in four years of religion classes. That, and the news that for the first time in a generation a majority of Americans call themselves ‘pro-life.’

Other can and will handicap the politics of abortion. What I want to note is the blurry line both parties cross that makes this such a tortuous issue.

For those who oppose abortion because it is a form of murder, the line gets crossed when religious doctrine becomes the basis for law. Unless I am mistaken, no law in our country can rest on being Biblical or Christian as its reason for existing. Yes, the Ten Commandments say murder and theft and adultery wrong. But we consider them illegal not be cause they are Biblical but because every other culture says the same thing. The Bible also says one must keep the Sabbath, but clearly this one is not reinforced by law because those whose religion does not keep a Sabbath should be not forced to observe someone else’s religion.

Abortion cannot become a crime just because it is also a sin, any more than we can make eating pork a crime because Muslims and Jews consider it a sin. We may only outlaw abortion on the basis of non religious reasons. And this neither science nor reason can objectively define.

When does a person become a person? Birth is the oldest test, as we issue birth certificates as legal documents. We only give legal names and personhood to someone who has been born. That’s brute fact. But for some time we have done Cesarean sections and otherwise intervened in ‘nature’ producing children before they would have been born conventionally. They are no less alive and no less human.

However, as we have delivered living babies earlier and earlier in pregnancy and science has allowed us to perceive more precisely the activities of gestating babies within weeks of conception, the clarity that humanity begins at birth has been erased. When factual clarity vanishes, the emotional need for clarity does not diminish. It actually rises. One could say that the success of modern obstetric medicine has created the abortion problem.

So, ironically science has not clarified the issue but created it. Abortion opponents then are confounded when the try to use science to make their point. In the end the reinforce the confusion about when life begins and then use that to justify resorting to an arbitrary point, conception, which sounds objective but ultimately is as arbitrary as birth itself. If conception is the legal point when we become human, then we should ban IUDs and the Morning After pill. But should also issue free condoms and Birth Control Pills as these prevent conception at all. Of course, that would approve of sexual activity for something other than procreation, which is strictly against Catholic Social Teaching. Others share this notion less explicitly, but let’s all admit that abortion is deeply tied to religious values about sexuality overall. Its moral tidiness in politics is something artificial and ultimately deceptive.

See how complicated and messy this is when we cannot use religion as a basis for law? But false simplicity is also the pro-choice mistake. They argue that it is just a medical decision, not one of moral (which is to say social) consequence. And because it is just a medical decision, only the patient has a right to make it. But if a pregnancy is not ended, another person will be born, and that makes the choice to get or stay pregnant consequential socially and morally.

Thomas Aquinas wryly observed over five hundred years ago that not all crimes are sins, and not all sins are crimes. I am prepared to accept that ending a pregnancy is a sin up to a point, and a crime beyond that point. What I mean is that for those to whom humanity exists on religious principles from conception, they should not terminate at all. As the bumper sticker says, “Don’t Like abortion? Don’t have one.” But when ending a pregnancy means a viable human being will perish, the state has a reasonable right to prevent it by law.

In other words, the way things are now is as good as they can be, legally. They can be better socially and morally, but not by making better laws. We need to be better people. Better parenting, better education about sexuality, better support for families including single parents and extended families, and more responsible choices by men as well as women, will make abortion what a Surgeon General said, ‘safe, legal and rare.’

No easy answers, but when were moral questions easy? This seems to be lost to both sides of this argument. We all need to grow up and face this unpleasant but indisputable fact.

11 May 2009

Cool, and Weird

I had a moment yesterday to read Maureen Dowd’s Sunday column in the NYTimes. She talked about newspapers and stuff, sorta like I did last week.

So I commented, as one can do now on their website. Was the first in fact. Thanked her for raising the issue and asked why she did not address solutions. I mentioned my own idea, briefly, and posted a link to the last post I made here.

It must have worked, as 120 folks checked it out yesterday, almost 5 times the usual number. But when I went back to see if my comment elicited other comments (as sometimes happens) my comment was gone. Not there, not listed, vanished.

What did I do wrong?

Or, what did I do right?

The fate of the news is a real issue. Not only did I write on it last week, having seen it on CNN, but clearly others are thinking about it too. But apparently, the policy of the NYTimes is to limit the virality of the conversation, at least that which passes through their portals. Which has the paradoxical effect of silencing part of the conversation.

Even on the radio show where I have been a guest these two past weeks (that’s WPRR in Grand Rapids, Public Reality Radio, Fridays at 10 am) and commented on the crisis of failing newspapers, there was no response from our vast listening public. I know it is not entertaining or exciting, but democracy is a tedious and slow grinding machine. Like the man said, there are two things you never want to watch being made – law and sausage. But unless someone does watch, we all become sausage.

05 May 2009

Fit To Print?

(Sorry, this is really long, but I didn't have time to write a short post.)

I watch very little TV. Nothing noble about this, there is simply not all that much I find interesting. But one place I do see it is at the gym, where every treadmill and elliptical is equipped with a screen. And this morning, as I was trudging along at 5 mph on a 3.5% incline, I watched a cable news conversation about the near and still possible demise of the Boston Globe.

That brought back memories from the 1980s when I lived in Mass. and subscribed to the paper for some of those years. It was a very good paper then, intellectually hefty, with real news and real writing. After I left it was absorbed by a syndicate, the NYTimes in fact, which was part of a general trend in newspapers back then.

Anyway, what got my attention was that the folks on TV were saying that the web and the economy are making the Globe (along with other papers including our near neighbor the Detroit Free Press) financially untenable. Now, in a pure free market world this would be sad but acceptable, as companies come and go like restaurants in Manhattan. But unlike restaurants, newspapers have a vital social and political function as well as an economic function.

So the conversation on TV revolved around the industry as a whole and how a city without a newspaper has no ‘tribune’, no institution that keeps its eye on those in power and calls them to account on behalf of the populus. Who will ferret out the sweet heart deals, the sold votes, the cheating and deception that tempt every politician? Cable news won’t. (This coming from a cable news station by the way, so I thank them for their honesty.) Google won’t. Comcast and Wikipedia won’t.

But how can newspapers, which are the only thing that have or can perform this function, going to survive in this new electronic information economy?

I am no economist, but it seems to me that newspapers are sort of like electric companies or health insurance companies. They provide an essential service that thus cannot be allowed to fold up entirely. So we should protect them from purely economic failure through the law, but then make sure this protection (which sometimes amounts to a virtual monopoly) does not give them unfettered power to raise prices or defraud.

I guess I propose creating a new sort of corporation, a 'news corporation' say, that would stand halfway between a pure profit making enterprise and a pure non profit.

As I walked home from the gym I thought, again being no economist but a thinker of sorts, that a news corporation might be allowed to make only as much profit as current T bills plus 1%. Anything up to that would be tax exempt, say, but if they made more, the profit would be doubly taxed at the for profit rate, to discourage corporate cheating.

Stockholders would likewise earn tax exempt interest up to that rate, meaning the price per share if it rose, but were it to rise above that the capital gains would be higher than for profits. A ‘limited profit’ corporation, which is what utilities used to be. Boring, but reliable.

Now (my walk is long so I can think at length) let’s make it better yet by allowing stock holders to claim as a charitable deduction any dividends they earn but return to the corporation in a given year, encouraging them to reinvest instead of taking dividends or selling the stock. The whole idea is to attract investors who more likely will keep the stock rather than selling it. Either the tax free earnings or the tax deductible reinvestment would make it useful to individuals and companies and pension plans, depending on their needs.

Finally, like old fashioned utilities, they would be licensed or chartered in states to serve communities in that state. There could be no national limited profit news corporations. The whole idea is to make local news possible.

I know this does not address the other factor, the explosion of national information services like cable and satellite and web based sources. But none of these can provide the essential local coverage and attention cities and counties and states need to assure the honesty democracy requires.

For two centuries we protected the press from the power of government. Now it is time to protect the press from the power of the market. Without real news, impartial news, local accessible and reliable news, we cannot survive as a free people. Something must be done, something more than praying to the gods of the free market.

03 May 2009

Reading The Polls

According to two of you (those who checked off the 'thumbs down' option) my last post was lousy.

Was it my cheeky attitude, smarmy tone, rank self promotion?

I think one of the worst parts of religion is its tendency toward sanctimony. Whether it is a 'holier-than-thou' sense of superiority, a constant ethereal tone that reeks of spirituality, or a relentless smiling optimism, the result is a cardboard flatness that I find essentially dishonest.

People are venal, petty, insecure, frightened, immature, and other 'unpleasant' things. Pretending those things aren't there, or that they are not welcome in religious things is what makes religion so two dimensional.

And it's not authentic either. One of the things I like about the books of psalms, for example, is that the writer can be whiny and angry as well as wise and hopeful. But modern religion has turned into a human improvement project, and its rhetoric into a cheerleading operation.

Much as modern education now considers building self esteem as necessary as learning arithmetic and grammar, so modern success driven religion believes cultivating peace of mind and positive personal thoughts to be as important as knowing true from false and right from wrong.

I think religion should be about reality, all of it, light and dark and nice and nasty, and how we can live rightly in this messy world. Maybe I am unduly crass or in some bizarre way wildly optimistic, but such attitudes are associated with religious people over the years. See Ecclesiastes for a truly cynical book. And Isaiah alternately scourges and sanctifies Israel.

I'll let you know when I do my next radio show. The host promises it will be soon. This may be my medium, I think. My face would crack a lens on TV and my readership here is hardly growing by leaps and bounds.

Of course, if you have any advice you know how to reach me. Do let me know.

01 May 2009

A Star Is Born?

Well, perhaps a spark. A clergy friend invited me to be his opening act for a local, low watt, lefty radio show here in greater GR this morning. Two hours of left wing religion chat.

It was supposed to be a call in thing, but nobody called. Provoking one of those riddles about trees falling in forests and such, I suppose.

I guess the signal was very weak, or the spirit for those who told themselves they would listen and call.

Whatever. It was fun. I never lack for things to yammer about. The best part was that my host chose an old disco tune, "A Fifth of Beethoven," to be the theme music. So I constantly made cracks about dicso balls, mojitos, and being Studio 666. We got down.

But being over fifty, we found it hard to get up. (rim shot) But seriously folks, help him out next week. I won't be there, but he will. It's WPRR, 1680AM.

If you do call, ask for me, OK? Say, "Where's Fred at?" Build some viral mojo, friends, and get your pastor back on the air. This could be the start of something big.

(or not.)