31 January 2009

Mit Schlag

Ok, I was away for a few days. Was guest preaching in Fairfield County CT last Sunday morning and in Westchester County NY in the afternoon. Here’s the fun fact about that trip. I drove.

Why not fly? Weather worries. Flying freezes your options, but driving, however longer, is flexible. As my duty could not be postponed by a day, flexibility was important. I was lucky on the outbound side, but got delayed by a day coming home.

To be honest, I like the long drives. Concentrates the mind wonderfully, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, as there is only one thing you can do – drive. In the office there are always multiple issues and projects and tasks. My brain is always loud with several voices each demanding my time and effort – worship, program management, pastoral care, lay leadership support, community relations, blog posts, and so on. This blog mirrors that cacophony, veering from religion to politics, to philosophy, to daily lunacy and what all. That may be why this blog is less popular. That, and that my posts are long. Who wants to read this much anymore? I understand the best are about something, and rarely more than two grafs. This one is not at all like that and so what you get may seem sublime one day and stupid the next. I like to think it's more like reality than others. Perhaps I am deluded.

Anyway, in the car there is the road, the wheel, the miles to go, and that’s about it. What a luxury. I am back at home now, and a long line of lobbyists has formed in my head, foremost of which is tomorrow’ service. Writing this was a warm up, if you will. Ironic to call it warm up as the weather is determined to be cold forever here. So to the sermon, which I wrote by hand in a favorite restaurant in Brooklyn – an Austrian style “beisl” scant blocks from my hosts that reminds me of Salzburg and Vienna.

Someday I shall return and sit again in the Café Drei Beisl in the Michaelplatz, read newspapers from Frankfurt and Paris and nurse a café mélange for an hour or more. Not today, though.

22 January 2009

Crossing Jordan?

Everyone else has commented on the inauguration. I’ll leave the political analysis for them.

I am still trying to believe this really happened, sort of like Israelites looking back across the Red Sea and asking, “Did that really happen?”

Of course, the whole Exodus story is twined around America. This past Sunday I quoted from MLK’s famous last speech, the one I hold most dear, even above the Lincoln Memorial oration. He said he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. I read the whole speech which is very long and winds toward that climax very slowly. Only now, so many years later, did the fuller meaning of that reference become evident to me.

It refers to Moses, to the end of the Exodus story which is the end of his life. God takes Moses up to the mountaintop to see the land he will not enter. God has decreed that because Moses disobeyed at Meribah he may not cross into the Promised Land. Though the people will go forward, he will not.

Those in Memphis knew the story intimately, and so King’s reference, likening himself to Moses, was not grandiose but humbling. He knew he would not enter the Promised Land because he had disobeyed.

We will never know exactly what sin King held himself accountable for. But all leaders are human and fallible, and so they cannot ever be as strong and as good as they must be. They all fail because they are all imperfect because they are all human.

I thought of that this week, as the man some think is our Joshua took the place of leadership. No matter how good and how strong and how noble he is, he is not good enough or strong enough or noble enough. He will fail because he is human.

But the people will still go forward.

17 January 2009

Eureka Hallelujah

Long ago in a galaxy far away called graduate school, I wrote a thesis. A long thesis. One of the books I had to read was a very short one with a very long title. “The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge,” by Ninian Smart. Little did I know it would explain my ignorance of Leonard Cohen, or actually a song of his I knew but did not know he wrote.

I’ll bet almost all of you not only know the song, “Hallelujah,” but that he wrote it. I knew it, chiefly as a moving backdrop to several TV drama moments. It was interesting enough for me to wonder about it. But if you google, “hallelujah,” you’ll get lots of things that aren’t that song. Not knowing who sang it, who wrote it, or even quite what the words were as I do not have a copy and was never close to a pen and pencil when it came on, I had no way to find out about it.

Then, thanks to the almighty power of the NYTimes, and my astute choice to subscribe to it, and my scanning the arts pages last week, I saw that Leonard Cohen (whom I knew about but not much about) was making his first appearance in the US in seventeen years. The headline for the small squib was “Hallelujahs heard in New York.” I took a chance the title was significant and after a few clicks presto, Youtube filled up with versions of it.

How is this about the sociology of knowledge? Well, the theory is that knowledge flows unevenly, along curvy paths, gets caught in eddies, and otherwise meanders. We make connections between facts the same way as when you find someone who had the same teacher you did, or run into an old friend thousands of miles from where you expect them. (These both happened to me) We can know part of something and not all and not know we know only part of it.

I guess what I am trying to say is that even when we know stuff, we don’t know as much as we think and the more we learn the more we should realize there is always more out of our sight. Learning makes a soul more humble if you do it right.

To prove it, I know something about that some of you don't. Yes it was written by Leonard Cohen, but do you know he stole the story from someone else? Two points for the first person who tells me.

10 January 2009

Hot And Cold Running Government

I thought computers were fast. Mine makes me wait until the great idea has vanished from view. That and being such a lousy typist that correcting the mistakes also interrupts the flow.

Anyway, I am finding sermon writing this week really hard. The idea I had is both elusive and boring, even though it seemed cool a month ago when the newsletter went to press. Instead I am fretting over the economy, and the Gaza conflict, and the weather, and any number of outside things we have thrown at us by the ubiquitous media.

Let me get one or two off my chest now, and maybe that will help me get my brain where it ought to be.

The Economy – two points:

Politics is about taking turns. The people decided it was time for the Democrats to take a turn leading. Whether they will do right is unknown, but for the last ten plus years the Republicans have held the tiller. Now that we are floating perilously close to a water fall to hear the Republicans say tax cuts are the way to go is like hearing ‘full steam ahead.’ When facing a waterfall, turn around.

Socialism is fine, for a while. Some times we need more capitalism, some more socialism, because the bottom line measure is ‘liberty and justice for all,’ not wealth or power. Right now a measure of socialism – government powered endeavor – is what we need because private endeavor is too scared. When the ship of state is on smoother waters the balance can shift and ought to.

So it seems obvious to me at least that we need to shift to a more assertive government economic role for now, but be ready to shift away from that when it is not longer needed. It’s a bit like civil unrest when the National Guard has to be called out, or a national disaster when the feds come in be cause they have more resources than local government. When things settle down, the National Guard Leaves and the agencies pack up. The big question is how long is that?

Inflation is one measure. We are going to pump vast amounts of money into the economy. When inflation starts kicking in, and it will, then the feds will have to turn down their work and let the cooling forces of private competition take more effect.

Does anyone like me remember steam engines? On the top of the boiler was a device called a ‘governor,’ which through the ingenious use of physics kept the boiler from getting too hot or too cold. That’s what government does – adds and subtracts law or money – to keep the nation from being too hot or too cold. Right now, markets are frozen. Time to add the heat and lots of it.

At some point in the future, we hope sooner than later, the temperature will rise enough to need cooling off. The Democratic turn will be over and we will need Republican restraint. It will come, but not right now.

btw, I did get a decent night's sleep.

07 January 2009

Winter Fog

I could not sleep last night. No reason I can think of, just unable to "settle my brain for a long winter's nap," as the poem says. Now it is nearing 6 a.m. and life will resume. I feel sleepier right now than I have all night.

Now insomnia is a lifelong demon of mine. It has been rather tame these last years, meaning rare and easily subdued. But it remains a tender space in my psyche such that I have assembled various rituals and nostrums that embarrass me to admit. After all, to be unable to go to sleep seems to me as stupid as being unable to breathe. It is as if I was essentially incompetent at one of the most simple tasks any human can do. Indeed, since babies do it constantly, that makes me less mature than an infant.

You fellow insomniacs know what I mean. The rest of you will just find this pathetic and silly. But the fundamental experience of insomnia is loneliness. Few understand the weird world we inhabit at night, being asleep of course but also because it is a strange mental space where reality and dreams come very close and neurosis has a field day. And since all we want is to sleep, it's not like we go out and hang around with each other in the wee smalls.

The hardest part, though, is not the inability to sleep but the foggy wakefulness that we drag around during the day. I'll do all right this morning, but by mid afternoon serious mental effort will be like pulling taffy. Sleep deprivation also makes one a little testy, at least it does me, and throws a pall of depression over the day itself.

I am yawning now. But the alarm just went off upstairs so it is time to get to it. Experience teaches me that staying with my usual pattern is best in the long run. So with eyes drooping and moods sinking I am off to the gym in a short while.

Heck, at least I was smart enough to get up around 4 and get some work done. But I sure do miss my dreams.

05 January 2009

Deis Irae Deis Illa…

Days of reckoning, that’s what January is about. We reckon the year, notably. But because of that we also do lots of financial stuff, quarterly taxes being the one I face.

Must file a FAFSA this year, so I must also reckon my mortgage and retirement and other assets to qualify for financial aid for my son’s college next year. Seven years ago prices were lower, especially in Canada where our elder son chose to attend. So we not only could not but did not need to file the dreaded form. Oh, for the good old days…

The postponed chores set aside December 1st are now overdue, at least morally. My task list is considerable and cutting me no slack, though the weather is in no sense inspiring. Unless I mean that literally, as in the sucking sound you make when cold air hits your face.

A friend long ago told me something I take odd comfort in. “No one ever died with an empty in-box.” Our work is never done. That may sound dismaying but I find it comforting. No matter how hard I shovel, the ocean will not get smaller. Didn’t Dickens’ Marley describe his business as a mere drop in the ocean of humanity? We may retire from gainful employment and take pride in children well reared, but our tasks as spouse, citizen, neighbor, human, never cease.

"Service is the rent way pay for the space we occupy," to paraphrase Shirley Chisholm. So cheer up. All those tasks and chores you have to do, they are proof the world needs you. On a cold dark morning that may be all the encouragement you get, so make good use of it.

01 January 2009

Got Milk?

Wife and I go to one movie a year (a long story and not all that interesting) and New Year's Eve is when we do it. We are partial to movies with something to say, not just entertainment.

Our first, over fifteen years ago now, was "A River Runs Through It." We rememebred the book, and the movie was almost as good. See it, and enjoy Brad Pitt when he was just a pretty face.

Some years later we saw "Mrs. Parker's Vicious Circle" soon after moving to New York. That was also timely. Reminded us that all those Algonquin wags and sages were kids, barely thirty. What wits, what wags, what livers!

This year we saw "Milk," which, being about Harvey Milk and his work to defeat Proposition 6 in the late 1970s seemed appropos following the struggle over California Proposition 8.

See it. Please. If you live near me, it is not likely to stay around a long time. There was even some rumor it would not be shown because of its subject.

Yes, there are men kissing romantically. And no, it is not yucky or gross but actually very touching. And the story itself, surely polished for publication, nonetheless reminded me of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go, toward being a land of 'liberty and justice for all.'

I am not Harvey Milk. But I do want to recruit you. See the movie. Then tell me how anything less than equality even resembles justice.