30 May 2010

Got Demons?

What bedevils you? We all have them, the demons who frighten or tempt us. Either way, we spend lots of time and effort running from or running to these demons. That's how we know it is a true demon, not just a sin, because it is both frightening and alluring.

Mine (and we all have several) is success. I both crave it and fear it. And because I serve a large church you would think I have succeeded.

Nope. I didn't grow it, you see, and for some time now it has been shrinking - years in fact

Now, I know there are many reasons things happen, some of them unknown and some uncontrollable, but when you are the leader responsibility falls on you more than any one person. Sort of like oil spills.

So my apparent success is diluted by circumstance. I have not actually succeeded, you see. But what would success be?

More people in church? More money in the budget? More fame? I suppose, but that's where the fear kicks in. I know that there is no spot where one can say, I have succeeded. What would it take to feel successful? 500 in church? 1000? 2000? $2 million budget, $4 millon? Book deals? TV shows? Invitations to the White House?

And even if that were to feel like success, what would pursuing that path cost me in health, relationships, integrity? And how could it be truly success when we clergy are called to follow in the footsteps of prophets who went barefoot, endured scorn, and even met death?

It's complicated, which is what demons do. They complicate what we all know is simple and good with ambitions and anxieties that distort what we know really matters. As I get older the power they have is less. Maybe I am going deaf inwardly as well.

But those siren songs still get through from time to time. On a lightly attended Sunday like today I feel a bit of dread. How can I do better? Can I do better? It is easy to worry.

Then I pause, listen to myself, and say, "God plus one is a majority," as Thoreau put it, I believe. If I show up in good faith, do what I can with honesty, it will be enough. The rest is not up to me.

Gotta hit the hay.

26 May 2010

The Three Faces of Rush... Not

“Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”

No, it is not Churchill, though I have seen it attributed to him. But I suppose it was because he was a liberal prior to being a conservative. It fit, as it were.

Why mention this? Because many a soul did this, and we generally think that means they changed. As I grow older I see something else: that one becomes more complex. Likewise, liberal and conservative are more complex than I once thought. This notion came to me while reading David Brook’s latest column in the NYTimes.

I agreed with most of it, as I do with most of his writing. Brooks is a conservative. So that must make me conservative, right?

Not if conservative or liberal are not simple things. As I get older I sense my liberalism getting more complex and my conservatism (yes we all have both in us). For the purposes of a blog post I will limit my thoughts to conservatism, and posit that there are three kinds of conservatism, and they are not what you might first think.

1. Ideological conservatism. This is what we hear about all the time, usually expressed as social or economic theories that apply to government and its role. Ideological conservatism is a platform of policies and principles. To be one is to espouse them and promote them.
2. Philosophical conservatism. This is the Scottish Enlightenment in Brooks column, dominated by David Hume, which was is not about policies but about a scrupulously empirical approach to human nature.
3. Temperamental Conservatism. This is a psychic and moral state, that appears as modesty and manners, in those to whom respect and virtue are standards of personal and social value.

I have always been a temperamental conservative, as my belief in things like the ‘boy scout law’ attests. Virtue and honor matter.

Over time I have become more philosophically conservative, meaning skeptical of human claims to knowledge and aware of the failures of even noble causes with good intentions.

But I am even more hostile to ideological conservatism than I ever was. The moral hubris of it offends my temperamental conservatism. The intellectual arrogance of it offends my philosophical conservatism.

In other words, ideological conservatism is not truly conservative. It is merely ideological, which is why it is more like Lenin than Burke, more like Robespierre than Voltaire. Lacking intellectual rigor and moral fiber, it is ultimately a political thug; a bully for whom power is all that counts, and getting it all that matters.

It is Joseph McCarthy all over again, and everyone knows it. But where is Edward R. Murrow?

16 May 2010

Feeling Like Jesus

I know; that title sounds arrogant. What I mean are the times when Jesus was reminded of how far the world was from his vision of it, and how much it would take to cross that wilderness. Look up the passages, they are there.

I am feeling the distance keenly these days. Part of it became clear in the Saturday NYTimes column by Charles Blow. We who claim to be liberals may be more right about the future than conservatives, but conservatives are more right about the present than liberals. That's why, as I have often remembered and perhaps quoted a colleague of mine, I am a short term pessimist and a long term optimist. Doesn't that sound like Jesus?

I mention this because some fire breathing religious liberal friends and colleagues are heading off to Arizona in two weeks to protest the ugly law they just passed. It is truly awful, mean spirited, and reactionary. But if Blow is right, liberals do themselves no favors by being as reactive to that law as the law itself was reactionary. It will only further polarize the situation.

Far harder, and yet more useful, would be to listen to what the law is saying about a significant portion of the country that is underneath the knee jerk conservatism that is abroad in the land.

- People feel insecure. Recession, terrorism, unemployment, global warming, and a dozen more issues stir the emotional pot so that there is no clarity about what to do next. When people do not know what to do, they pull into their shells. In Arizona, the border is the edge of the shell. This is something they can do, or think they can do, about their sense of insecurity.

- People feel betrayed. Government is supposed to protect us. But we feel more vulnerable than ever. Fanatics lurk within and without, the economy enriches a few and pick slips the many, health care is a maze we loathe being replaced by a maze we do not know. Clearly, the state has failed in the most basic of duties.

Argue with me about how wrong they are to feel this way, but lecturing either them or me will not change people. It simply looks arrogant, even contemptuous. Telling people they are wrong only makes them more defensive and less likely to change.

What will help? Listening. Not to the pundits and public ranters. To the people around you. Pay attention. Millions feel unnoticed and unrespected. Going to Arizona to protest may make my friends feel good. Being right will be invigorating, and they will have an impact, I am sure. But part of that impact will be that most Arizonans and a few others will see it as a number of arrogant outsiders coming to criticize Arizona without really understanding them.

I am quite at a loss about what will make a real difference. My desire to pull into my shell is as real as that of the resurgent conservatives. But in my case, it is personal. Just stand back and wait for the storm to pass, I think. Though that, exactly, is what Charles Blow warned me not to do.

It is time to preach the liberal vision of the future, not preserve the liberal memory of the past. That's what people want - a future everyone can believe in.

Isn't it ironic, now that I think about it, that what we have now is a battle of two ideologies both trying to preserve their own vision of the past. And what's most ironic is that the liberal vision of the future has been written down, and memorized by school chidren for generations. I remember it. Do you?

15 May 2010

On Becoming A Statistic

Something new happened to us yesterday. We became a statistic. A crime statistic.

Upon returning from a morning of work and chores we noticed our back door was open. Remembering that we locked it on leaving I walked very gingerly into the house, and noticed that the door was damaged and several laptop computers were missing.

We called the police of course, and did a more thorough look around. Oddly, one computer was not taken. Nothing else was much disturbed, although a backpack and shoulder bag had been emptied out to carry the laptops.

The police came and took down the information. I called a friend to ask how to repair my back door. In the course of the next three hours the door was fixed, the house was dusted for prints and - this is the wild part - most of the loot was recovered. How that happened is too long for a post, but suffice it to say that such things are very rare. That bit of luck on the part of the police may also lead them to a conviction in what would otherwise be an unsolved crime.

What makes me write about it is that I see in my personal experience a mirror of the national experience since 2001.

While we were not cavalier about security, we truly did not expect a violent act. A bicycle was stolen from our garage two years ago, but actually having the door broken down was never a serious worry. Now that is has happened we are wondering how to prevent it from happening again, and whether the miscreant will do it to us again.

That's pretty much the way the country felt after September 11, although written quite large. But the sense of unexpected violence, and the aftershocks of vulnerability and uncertainty, are the same.

The day after our crime we are wondering whether we can leave the house untended , even as we know we have to. And what should we do in the future? More locks? Alarm systems? Again, questions the country was and still is asking.

I take some comfort in the likelihood that the felon will be apprehended, and go to jail for a longish time, which is not true for the country yet. But what about known associates and all those ominous things? That surely is part of the national anxiety.

What I am trying to say is that perhaps we should, as a nation, look back over the last ten years as an experience of being a crime victim. However different the specific acts, and the scale, the psychic response is strikingly similar. And is there something we could learn, as a nation, from how people have responded to being violated?

Sounds like I am suggesting group therapy or something. Not really. Just wondering if we would benefit by looking at 9/11 as a criminal act as well as a political act. From what I can tell, outrage and retaliation have not brought us more security. The world is more precarious now than ten years ago, and I cannot help but wonder if our swift and violent retaliations have added fuel rather than reduced it.

Yes, I want the criminal to be imprisoned, if only for my sake. I will probably add more locks to my doors. No doubt I will be on edge for some time. But I am not yet putting a fence around my house or demanding checkpoints on my block, or even more police on my street, or arming myself or setting out to catch the person. When I think hard, I know such things will imprison me as much as much as protect me, reinforce my fear and outrage soothe them, and ultimately cost me more than some laptops and a door and some naivete about how safe anyone really is.

Careful thought tells me I am no less safe than I was last week, and no less free either. Crime and violence force us to face a clearer picture of what is really true about our lives. That is the hard part, I think. And not just for me.

12 May 2010

Yes, It's Bizarre

But I have bizarre ideas. Always have.

Like licensing gun users not guns. I'll explain that sometime.

Or going on the cocaine standard, like we used to be on the gold standard. Ask me about that, too.

Today, it's education and the bizarre idea of the day is....

Pay students to go to school.

I know; they should do it because its good for them and all. It sends all the wrong messages. It teaches kids only to work for money. Yadda yadda.


Kids are not noble. They may be good, but their moral reasoning is not mature. Doing something because it's good for you is asking a child to be a saint. Met any five year old saints lately? I didn't think so.

Research tells us that doing something for a higher cause does not kick in until the early twenties. Why expect 6 year olds to be more sophisticated than young adults?

Paying cheapens the purpose? We pay teachers? We pay soldiers? They are doing it for both love and money, so why not kids?

Think about it. What if we paid kids, say, $200 a year from first through 4th grade. They would have to pass to get it. And if you miss too many days you would get docked just like a worker.

Give them a raise and pay them $500 from fifth through eighth grade. That's how you keep good workers, right, with promotions and raises. And then raise it again to $750 from 9th through 12th grade.

By the end of high school they would have $3100, which is not much, but let's say that when you graduated the government would double it and they could use it to go to college or tech school. Kids would literally work their way to college.

Money is the measure of time and labor in our society. We say education is supposed to prepare our kids to work in the new global economy. What would build work habits better than actually working?

Yes it would cost money. But what is the 'cost' of the tuition tax credit now? Why not educate our kids about the value of work by valuing their work from the get go? I could go on, but instead, tell me what you think?

09 May 2010

Wait One Minute

Before you take mom out for supper. Not that she doesn't deserve it. But pause to think about food itself.

In the last few years food has become news. Thanks mostly to Michael Pollan, whose book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" has even become the stuff of women's book clubs, we are in the midst of a conversation about food itself.

Of course he was the one to catch the curl of a wave that had been building for a while. Frankenfood and e. coli outbreaks are old now. "Law and Order" included a character (demented but brilliant) who championed being a locavore over two years ago. Cable TV has a whole series on Canadians trying to live on the "100 Mile Diet." If industrial food is bad, the industry of damning industrial food is growing like a weed.

All I ask is that when you go out to a restaurant today, marveling at the generous portions and the reasonable prices, think about all the moms who got it to your table, starting with the women in fields and ending with the woman carrying the tray to your table. Be grateful for all the moms who feed you. (That includes mom nature, don't forget.)

And starting tomorrow, ask how you might eat in a way that bends a few less backs of women around the world. You don't have to change everything, but most of us can do something. And a lot of small somethings add up.

02 May 2010

Thinking Parabolically

There must be a connection between 'parable' and parabola. If not, there ought to be. To me they both curve around a hidden center. They reveal indirectly the thing that is weighty.

I have been seeking parable, parabolas, of the spiritual meaning of aging because I am concluding a long sequence opn spirituality through the life cycle. As this is the stage of life I have not yet seen, there is an ignorance I cannot erase. To remedy that I seek out examples of what it could be.

Great names comes to mind like Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter (who with others are part of something called the elders. check them out at http://www.theelders.org/) And there are folks like Monet and Matisse and Martha Graham and Maya Angelou. But we cannot all be former presidents and artists and the like. What could most people use to imagine age in a new, empowered, meaningful, but also realistic way?

Then I thought of the power of parables. Find something indirect, symbolic, even non human. And came to me. Trees.

The best ones are the oldest ones. They combine individuality with society, rootedness with flexibility, and more. In fact, I came to this insight from a great poem found fortuitously in my preparations this week. It's by Howard Nemerov.


To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable,
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather then exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.