08 December 2012

Before Dawn...

It seems I am rising earlier as I get older.  And here between the Great Lakes sunrise almost comes at around 8 am in winter.  My first hours are dark ones.  The weather folks are promising precip today, and sure enough, I hear the sound of wet tires on the street outside.  A perfect recipe for the onset of SAD, which I seem to enjoy more and more with age. 

All this means I must attend to my spirit more consciously in winter, or the hormones and latitude will drag me down.  Of course the Dark Night of the Soul is a legitimate spiritual location, but as my mood affects not only me but those around me, a gloomy persona has repercussions.  Unlike Melville's Ishmael, I cannot go to sea when the urge to knock hats gets irrepressible. 

One thing that gives me a fragment of equanimity is my back yard.  Right now it is an assortment of greens.  The little lawn, the ivy, the vinca, a patch of juniper-like shrubbery, the stubble of hostas, all vary in shade and texture.  Only some outlandish parsley is bright green, the others are all darker and duller - the color of dollar bills and old pants and unpeeled avocados. Some are matte, some satin, some glossy, so that the overall impression is of an inadvertent Japanese Garden, with its emphasis on slight variations of shape and form and hue. 

This pleased me - not only the scene but that my gardening indolence and the seasons created something quite aesthetically coherent by accident.  I like accidental beauty, unplanned elegance.  Such moments tell me there is something unifying present in the welter of existence.  Logic and experience tell me not to take it too far - as William Paley did with his 'watch in the desert.'  Like the background noise of the Big Bang, it is enough for me to sense there is something present. 

The day will be long and worthwhile.  Few moments for noticing.  Thought it would be good to do it while I could. 


22 November 2012

Full of Grace...

Long long ago, when I was a boy, radio alarm clock would go off on Sunday mornings and instead of news or music there would be a broadcast of the rosary.  Yep, in those days one could have a successful radio program consisting of repeated prayers to Mary. To this day I can recite the basic elements in my sleep, having heard them in my sleep over and over again.  "Hail Mary, full of grace..." 

Being Thanksgiving I should now speak of the many graces/gifts I have received.  But instead I am wondering why I write this blog so little now.  Why do this at all, in a world saturated with words?  Are not we over blessed with thoughts and musings and ironic quips. 

One industry site says there are 164 million blogs read by 123 million people.  That's right, less than one reader per blog.  Twitter has over 500 million accounts.  Facebook about 1 billion.  Maybe one can have too much of a good thing... presuming it is good in the first place.

So tell me, is this worth it?  Not just this blog but any blog.  What gives this or any feed value?  As more and more stuff demands my attention, what I do notice gets less and less attention, because - after all - my time is not expanding at all.  In fact, it gets less and less each day.  Mortality is making me decide what it worth spending my ever diminishing supply. 

Then I remember Whitman...

"I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever."

Maybe the point is to write and let it fall, 'epistle to be left in the earth' addressed to no one from no one, the equivalent of one hand clapping. 




07 November 2012

Breathing Deeper

...Not until it was over did I realize how tense I was...

...Today, for the first time in weeks, I am free of dread that was the emotional equivalent of a muscle spasm that can act up without warning.  Not always there consciously, but affecting how I lived and moved...

... I told myself that even if my folks got elected it would not be salvation nor if the other folks win would it mean damnation.  And I was right, but I did not really believe it because the knot would not relax.  I could not take a deep breath...

... Today it became clear that, despite ignoring the commercials and pundits and debates and arguments and Facebook posts, the election infected me...

... Perhaps I had a milder case compared to others.  Before it was over I actually thought I was not affected.  Now I know better...

... We were all infected. Our spiritual lungs were clogged.  I could not breathe and neither could you or anyone else. 

... Today mine are better but others are worse.

... Modern politics is a disease.  It will kill us if we keep doing it this way...







28 October 2012

We"re Off To See The Wizard...

Blog Friends,

I rarely post 'work product' as lawyers call it.  That's because all my sermons are for my church - the people and the community there.  But because I can link this page to my church FB page and want to get the text out and around, this was the best way to do it.  Do read.  It may have value those beyond Fountain Street Church.  You tell me.

"We’re Off to See the Wizard"    28 October 2012
Readings

"The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick," said the Witch, "so you cannot miss it. When you get to Oz do not be afraid of him, but tell your story and ask him to help you".

“The Scarecrow was now the ruler of the Emerald City, and although he was not a Wizard the people were proud of him. "For," they said, "there is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man." And, so far as they knew, they were quite right.
"My people have been wearing green glasses on their eyes for so long that most of them think this really is an Emerald City."

"Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit."
“As a matter of fact, we are none of us above criticism; so let us bear with each other's faults.”  ― L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

----
Cut the rose bushes back yesterday, and asparagus.  Very calming.  I needed that because it was a full week – lots of things to do and just as much this coming week.  People talk about balance, but I think it is actually poise we want – which is not stillness but readiness.  “I Wanna be Ready” says an old spiritual.  Isn’t that every prayer, every hope?  “I Wanna Be Ready” this morning.  May these words…
This getup is how I finished my long walk across England – hiking boots, khaki pants, t shirt, fleece, raincoat, backpack and walking stick – this very stuff with one important exception.  If you recall, I spent many hours walking through very wet, very muddy, very well fertilized fields.  That meant my feet and socks and pant legs got very wet and dirty every day.  Every night, therefore, I rinsed out my socks and the bottom of my pants and hung them over a radiator to dry.  My last day took me from the city of Carlisle to the coastal town of Bowness-On-Solway, the bay that leads to the Irish Sea.  Like my first day, it was a largely flat walk.  And truth to tell, having heard of dreadful mud and muck from those coming the other direction, I cheated a bit and walked roads more than fields.
The first ten miles were misty, but forecasts predicted severe rains.  I paused at the village of Burgh-by- Sands where a funeral was underway in St. Michael’s church.  The church is built with stone from Hadrian’s Wall, the last remnants of the wall I would see.  A plaque to Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, told me that he lay in the church after dying in a nearby field preparing for another battle.  I decided to find this monument, and walked about a kilometer north, past a genuine thatched cottage and a barn from which the strong wind had torn the roof.  The monument, a modest stone pillar, appeared on the horizon, surrounded by sheep.  So did the road to it, which was inundated.  I turned back. 
Eight miles to go, I started across a long flat tidal basin that is often flooded when the tide comes in.  It was low for me.  One village and then another; four miles to go and it was only lunchtime.  Two hikers going the opposite way were sitting down for lunch.  I kept walking, sensing the rain on the way.
It came.  A squall, a gale, a storm, a deluge, came upon me after the second village.  Being flat there was no break against the northeast wind.  Rain flung itself at me, soaking my pants until they clung to my legs.  Looking down I saw little puffs of foam at the knee.  Residual soap suds churned up by the agitation of the storm.  The rain filled my socks and shoes.  I closed the hood against the wind, peering out the narrowed front.  A local bus sped by and threw an extra helping of water on me. 
I reached Bowness.  A little sign directed me to the official end point – a gazebo near the beach.  Tiny, a sea bleached shell of a place with a well soaked map on the wall, I stood there alone and dripping at the end of my journey.  A pair of fuzzy photos are all I have to prove it, and then I squished my way down the road to my lodging.  In the morning I left the pants in the trash, a sacrificial gift to the roman gods perhaps.
This month I have braided four stories together – my own pilgrim walk across England, the journey of liberal religion in general, our particular church to liberal religion, and the fable of Oz.  Those who know of Oz, know that the end there is anticlimactic, too.  Both the book and the movie reveal a wizard who was far less than magical, something of a sham.  In the movie, the real person is hidden behind a curtain and is mistakenly revealed. 
Liberal religion is all about pulling back curtains.  In the 18th century, the curtain of scholarship revealed a Bible that was not uniform or consistent.  In the 19th century history and science revealed a world was older and more complicated than the Bible said.  This church followed that path, eagerly I should add, confident that knowledge could only do good for religion.  While the jury is out on that assumption, we remain convinced that truth is better than falsehood even if the truth reveals a man instead of a wizard.
The word revelation, so important to religion, is really quite simple.  It means to ‘remove the veil’ or curtain.  Christianity calls the Bible a revelation, because it reveals knowledge that is otherwise hidden from view.  When it turned out that the Bible was itself a curtain, science became the revelation, an irony that religious liberals feel all the time and which many devout utterly deny.  We all say we want the truth, but what we really want is to have our own idea of the truth confirmed. 

Real revelation, something that takes the curtain down, is terrifying.  The fear of the fundamentalist is real and profound for if their souls stand upon sand they will fall and drown.  I understand this fear quite literally.  Years ago, by the sea, with my young son in arms, we stood in wait deep water and let the waters splash over us.  The waves were warm and fun.  Then a large wave came and it knocked me over.  My feet lost their grip, we went under water, my son’s legs let go of my waist and one hand only held as the water tried to tear us apart.  I truly knew that if he let go he might die.  Four or five terrible seconds passed.  I planted my knees in the sand between waves and pulled my son back.  Snot ran from our noses, and the lifeguard just 20 feet away was on his feet.  I know fear. 
True revelation can drown your faith.  Some never go to that shore again, knowing how unreliable the sands can be and how dangerous the waters are.  But we need the shore –the places where knowledge and faith meet.  This is where life arises, as it did billions of years ago when somehow the life of sea crept onto the land.  Every church is a shore place, standing at the confluence of knowledge and belief.  What makes us different is that we know we stand on sand not rock.  That’s why we are willing to adapt, to move, to change as the shore itself changes. 
Now I am going to apply this idea in practical terms.  Our church faces changes because the shores of life are changing.  Among them is a decline in regular church attendance and membership.  Another is the rise of non-religious behavior and identity.  Two generations ago average attendance used to be around 40% of the population.  Today it is somewhere around 24%.  Two generations ago the number of non-religious people was well below ten percent, now it is nearly 20-%.  Not only are fewer people attending church, a smaller portion connect to a church at all.  The American culture of church – belonging and going – is no longer strong.  No wonder churches are trying so hard to grow; the tail wind that drove people to church has stopped.  Us included. 
Now, we could have made growth our number one goal, but as some members observed, growth for itself rarely succeeds.  It must be for a larger end or purpose.  That’s when the new strategic goals became obvious.  - We educate people differently than other churches.  This is a gift we have.  Let’s do it more and better.  - We believe in and practice in spiritual diversity.  Let’s do racial and human diversity as well.  - Our faith is one made of deeds not creeds.  Let’s live that in the wider world.  If we do these things, we will succeed no matter how much or little we grow in numbers or members or dollars.  Our faith and values will call those who share our vision to join us. 
How? 
To take our gift for education to the next level, we need our new education minister to be devoted to that work.  Our previous clergyperson, Matthew Cockrum, was divided between education and pastoral care.  The next one will be all about education.  That means increasing pastoral care staffing.  We will do that this year, if we have your financial support. 

In addition, we want to improve our audio and visual capacity in the church so that classes of all kinds can use modern technology, so people all over the church house can be part of worship. This includes making our entire facility wifi enabled.  If we get your financial support.

Our outreach ministry is as important as our education ministry, and with worship form the three central ministries of liberal religion – education to free the mind, worship to grow the soul, and outreach to change the world.  It deserves the same sort of skill and leadership we have in worship and education.  In the last three years we have seen dramatic increase in our service and community ministries because we have staffed it.  We want to increase staff support for social action and community outreach. 
Delving the challenge of diversity is a spiritual challenge more than a programmatic one.  Ancient attitudes about race and class and gender and sexuality dwell in every heart.  This year’s budget calls for leadership training in diversity issues, and will extend to others over the following years.  We have to prepare our souls for what is a long and wet walk.  But the church that is engaged with this work will be ready for an ever more diverse world.  By 2053 there will be no racial majority in the USA.  But we have communities from every corner of the globe here now.  LGBT folk are central to our civic renewal.  If we do not learn now we will not be ready then.  Our budgets for the next three years include money to train leaders, educate members, and cultivate partnerships. 
But my own hope and dream is even larger - that by 2019, our 150th anniversary, everyone in greater GR will have a connection to FSC.  That sounds grandiose but consider how close we already are:
When Occupy Grand Rapids needed a home for the winter, we gave them our porch.  We had Thanksgiving together last year, and they have held meetings and shown movies and hosted free markets here.  When Laughfest comes to town they come here.  I directed Sinbad’s limo myself, when it got lost.  They did not know it was me.  The Community College, the Library, the Hauenstein Center host events here.  The Black Students Union across the street brought Louis Farrakhan here.  Art Prize and the ACLU brought thousands here.  Black Pentecostals have held a convention here, and I haven’t even begun to list our own speakers and musicians who have been here. 
Look even deeper, though.  Smokers lounge on our corner between classes, homeless men come for a cup of coffee, art students come to draw and paint and photograph, members drop in to check their email, volunteers come every day, a crew of developmentally disabled young adults come every week to set up for Character School, AA comes every weekday at lunch.  Yes, worship is the most notable connection, but when a young man from town was killed in Brooklyn this summer his parents asked to hold his memorial here because they had no church and this place is where he graduated from school.  At least once a month someone comes in who wants to see where they were married, or their parents were.  Thousands have a connection to FSC.  We are the church everyone knows by heart. 
But FSC is not just the place.  Our members serve food at God’s Kitchen, clean trash from river banks, kayak down those same rivers, run bingo games for residents of Dwelling Place, partner with Methodists to host homeless families, tutor at Campus School, stand up for marital justice on Rosa Parks Circle, sing with the GR Women’s Chorus (which rehearses here btw) and the multigenerational In Harmony Choir.  We have broken bread with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  Children in Nepal and El Salvador and GRCC go to school because of us.  Women get health care, little boys play football, and those on the brink of eviction get a reprieve because of FSC.  I could go on, but it all illustrates my point.  We are the church everyone knows by heart.
My dream goes further.  Imagine a web presence that is equal to the building in appeal and access.  Imagine an internet radio station - they exist - broadcasting not just worship and music but also classes for adults and kids.  Imagine a website that allows people anywhere to connect to us, wherever they live.  Our future church will be virtual as much as actual.  Already we have 550 Facebook friends, half of whom do not belong or attend but look to us for daily inspiration or information.  Imagine small groups of people in place like Saugatuck, Big Rapids, Benton Harbor, Holland, Jackson, with no liberal religious community, being able to worship with us where they are.  With a robust interactive web presence we can create a new liberal church.  Here’s the best part.  Doing that is almost cheap.  It requires equipment, yes, but mostly staff support devoted to ministering in the virtual world.  With your financial support, that can happen.
That’s the road ahead– build upon our education history, expand our social ministry, and enter the world of diversity.  Our budget for 2013 takes the first step with staffing pastoral care and social ministry and outreach, with electronic improvements and diversity learning.  It’s not a yellow brick road because we are not heading to Oz to find a wizard to solve our problems. 
The characters in the story thought they needed a wizard to get a brain or a heart or the nerve, but when the wizard was revealed to be but a man they were revealed to themselves to have what they thought they lacked.  I went to England to test my own brain and heart and nerve.  My last day and moment was anything but glorious, in a little abandoned hut with my foamy knees and drenched shoes.  But I had done it, walked 85 miles through mud and rain and wind and manure, maybe banished a few flying monkeys as well as seen some emerald fields of not a city.  I came back surer of who I was. 
Friends, dear comrades on the pilgrim path - we have the wisdom, the faith, and the courage to do great things - if we choose to get up and do them.  No need for wizards to save us, no need to wait for others to join us, nor to hope for better weather, nor to worry we haven’t enough provisions.  I don’t know if heaven or Oz is out there.  I do know that where we are is not the end of our journey.  Let’s go. 
 

21 October 2012

Are You There? It's Me...

... Hat in hand for being a delinquent writer. 

Part of that was intentional.  I was away, in England, for 18 days in September.  A long imagined and finally fulfilled adventure of the mind and body took me from Tynemouth to Bowness-on-Solway along the path of Hadrian's Wall.  Worth a long report, and pictures.  Lots of pictures.

Then there was all the stuff waiting for me to do when I got back.  No matter how well planned, the work we leave patiently piles up in our absence.  It takes almost as much time to catch up as the time you were away. 

But another part, unintended but very important, is the shift in mind and spirit that came from my long walk. 

One thing being alone on the trail did for me was pull me back toward the primal.  My days were pared down to walking from here to there.  The hours were divided between changes of socks and pauses to hydrate or eat.  The moments were measured in footsteps.  By the second day the ancient rhythm was all I knew and it felt good.  Very good.   

Another thing was recovering a sense of scale.  To spend a week just crossing the land and watching the sky was humbling.  Sometimes the land was difficult, sometimes the sky.  I met forces to which I had to submit - rain, wind, mud, manure, stones, hills, darkness.  And yet I never felt humiliated or defeated. 

I recovered the nourishment of human solitude, which is not being alone.  Without anyone alongside, my ears heard only what the nature offered, like birds and wind and trees.  Without other people, my eyes lit on insects and flowers.  Without human company, I paid attention to the cows and sheep and birds that were my constant companions.

Lastly, I lost my trust in words.  Once, I hoped for a quasi-literary ministry, with pungent and poignant turns of phrase that would endear me to future colleagues who would esteem my wisdom.  No more.  The world does not need my words.  It needs just me. 

This morning my sermon was a stumbling  series of words, deeply felt but poorly said.  Yet the people heard what I was trying to say, despite my words not because of them.  And they cheered.  Yes, applause rose, even a few people stood. 

My words were not that good.  My heart was, though.  They heard that. 

07 October 2012

Dropping Off The Planet...

It must have seemed I had vanished altogether, but in fact I was on retreat.  You will hear more, but maybe this picture will give you an idea....  Stay in touch...

12 September 2012

Cassandra is Not a Girl Name...

You know the story, right?  She had the gift of prophecy and the curse of being ignored.  Well, I have that problem sometimes.  Especially when it comes to politics.  Here is a link to the president's speech at the DNC a few days ago. 

Now here is an imagined speech for a future president that wrote back in 2008. 

I Will Faithfully Execute        January 20, 2008
Exactly one year from now (it will be a Tuesday) the new president will take office.  In a grand ceremony at just this hour, a new president will take the oath and deliver an address that will proclaim the vision that person has for the next four years.  Despite a year of campaigning already, debates and interviews and analysis of those debates and interviews, we have no idea who that person is and therefore no idea what will be said a year from today. 
Let me correct that.  We have some idea.  One or another of the major parties will win.  Those within those parties differ but more about how than what.  And between the parties what they differ about is not unknown.  Whoever wins will couch their language in grand phrases, but it will be a party platform of some kind.  And if you are like me, that fact will cast a pall of resignation over your hopes.  As someone said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.  And government prose is about as appalling as it gets.  Face it, there are too many from both sides with a stake in the status quo to go much beyond a slight turn or a modest change in speed. 
The president we want will not be standing there, and the speech we want will not be heard.  But does that mean the speech need go unspoken at all?  We have a sense that what matters most to the nation is not this program or that policy, but something deeper; something that, if we could grasp it, would point with compass like simplicity toward the pole star of our national soul.  In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, because if we do not tell them what matters, they will not know. 
This, then, is the speech I want to hear next January, in the words of a new president, in the language of that occasion.  It is my attempt to say what lies at the heart of this nation, behind parties and platforms and programs and policies.  They are my hopes, and perhaps also yours.  
“Every four years the American people exert their national power, and give to one person the impossible task of guiding their nation through the future’s uncharted seas.  I say ‘impossible’ because no nation can be led by one person.  And truthfully, it is not.  A president presides and does not rule.  Congress, whose very name means deliberation, is likewise selected by the people, and shares with the executive in the task of leadership.  The Supreme Court, reminds us that elected power is momentary and that we who enjoy it will be judged not just be those who elected us but by history and posterity.  The president, therefore, is not alone in duty or in power or in wisdom.  And it would be greatest folly to preside by diminishing the blessings of these estates; as so doing would weaken both president and nation. 
 “Thus the first and foremost measure of a president should be the strengthening of every gift our constitution supplies.  This, more than any platform, is what it means to be president.  Should an incumbent accomplish everything promised in seeking election and subvert the Constitution, that president has failed. 
“But the converse it not true.  Merely to preserve, protect, and defend will not do.  Our Constitution has grown and changed with time.  Slavery, too long countenanced, was ended.  Women, long denied full citizenship, were enfranchised.  As time revealed new wisdom about the exercise of freedom, we changed our Constitution, and will again.  The president must preserve not just the letter but the spirit that gives it life, protect not only the law but the people it serves, defend not only the institutions of government but their purpose.
“These things do not reside in the effective clauses but in that part of our Constitution which in majestic simplicity says why we exist – the Preamble.  This, which is nothing less than our national purpose, is what is entrusted to the president, to remind the nation of itself, for leadership is invoking what the greatest occupant of this office called ‘the better angels of our nature.’  Let me now recall those angels, those guardians of the national soul:
“We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, do ordain and establish this Constitution.’
“A president’s first duty is to the people, all of them; not only to their personal well being regardless of party or power or any accident of birth; but to their sovereignty as the grantors of national power itself.  The president does this by ensuring the comprehensive pursuit of those other phrases, but it is essential to note that it is for the benefit of the people that these are done, not for the benefit of the states, the congress, the courts, or the many interests who crowd the corridors of power. 
“When this nation was born, the union meant the several states.  Today, those states are less sovereign than before, and wisely so.  A ‘more perfect union’ has come to mean that no citizen should suffer loss of freedom or dignity by crossing a state line.  The president is today obliged to preserve, protect, and defend the citizens as moral equals to the powers and principalities that daily would reduce them to the servitudes of a new century.  Neither government nor business, neither citizen nor criminal, can claim exception in this regard.  
 “Today, the private sector says it should be free of undue regulation that stifles innovation and enterprise, else it will die.  And so it should, but not if that liberty threatens the life and liberty of citizens whom it employs, to whom it sells and in the midst of whom it lives.  Likewise, government itself cannot justify denying the people their liberties in the name of protecting the same. 
“That is why the next phrase is “establish justice,” for what is justice if not the sure and equal application of the law, equally, to all under its judgment.  None shall be advantaged and none disadvantaged under the eye or watch of the president.  If corporations are persons in the legal sense, they stand but equal to, not taller than, their fellow citizens.  Though the realities of politics make temptation very real, the president cannot serve the people and the moneyed interests any more than the fabled man can serve two masters, God and Mammon.  The central test of this or any presidency will be that it is the paragon of this principle and may not enforce upon others what it will not obey itself.  The presidency is not for sale, either for a price or a partisan principle, even the appearance of such mocks and perverts justice. 
“Without doubt there will be times when the laws themselves are contrary to the spirit they represent.  Great Americans have given of their lives, sometimes their whole lives, to destroy laws made in defiance of the great commission of the preamble.  The president will from time to time have to protest such laws as they will arise again.  But as the custodian of the great commission, the president must live up to its charge while exercising it, for violating it is rank betrayal.
“In the exercise of justice we have the basis for “domestic tranquility.”  But the fullness of tranquility is peace between people and communities.  While the law may and must address struggles, it must not itself become a struggle.  That great jurist, Louis Brandeis, observed that among the liberties acknowledged by the Constitution is the right to be let alone.  Does not the ancient prophet hold out hope that each should “dwell beneath a vine and fig tree and live and peace be unafraid?”  This is domestic tranquility, and the president should guard against the encroachments of law and the state as vigorously as provide for their exercise.  To the president goes the authority to say ‘veto,’ I forbid, which is literally true in the case of federal law, but in principle as well.  The nation expects the president to oppose laws that diminish, disenfranchise, and disadvantage any citizen or groups of citizens for the advantage or the convenience of others. 
“Today, for example, we have fervent citizens who believe the Constitution to favor a particular religion, though there is no doubt that such favor was never intended.  Some would enact laws or amendments that define families by favoring some and punishing others. These modern miscegenation laws have no place in our constitution and no president can support them without betraying the oath.  It is clear that the right to be let alone serves to prevent the state from intruding on the most important liberties, namely what we shall believe and how we shall live by those beliefs.  Only when such beliefs and actions threaten the essential liberty of others should the law enter in.  The president, beholden to no faction, alone can stand against them. 
“To ‘provide for the common defense’ is the gravest of duties for it entails the use of force and is given primarily to the president.  But the causes for which we must regrettably suffer wars are not for the president to decide, but for Congress, as the greatest assent is required to undertake the most terrible of enterprises.  Thus no president should, without the gravest penalty, enter into wars without the people’s consent through Congress, and the cause for that war must be that which the Congress decides, and which it alone can determine is met or not. 
“Today, we have heard it said that the world is too fast and complex to wait for Congress.  Presidents must act, and swiftly.  In defending against invasion and to repel attack, this is true, but only to that end and not beyond.  War is always entangling, never sure, and even the best executive may step unwisely in haste or passion.  The president may lay the case before Congress and the nation, but the people themselves must bear its costs and thus should determine whether to begin and when to end.  A wise president will not ask for wars that cannot be defined, defended, or completed.
“Thankfully, this grim command is not the last of the angels that guard our nation.  The last two are those which ring of hope.  To ‘promote the general welfare’ is a mandate to do good for those we serve.  If insuring domestic tranquility is found chiefly by restraining government from intrusion, to promote the general welfare commands action that perfects the union of citizens. 
“Today the vast difference between wealth and poverty strains the union of the people.  A democracy, which insists that every citizen is an equal stakeholder in the nation, is at risk when millions of citizens have so little that they must choose between food and home, while at the same time a very few citizens are so prosperous that their own private means could supply all that they lack.  A nation struggles for common cause when its owners are unable to secure reliable health care without becoming poor.  The country cannot be united when its children are fed knowledge so unequally that millions are starving while some are fat with privilege.  Howbeit elected by those with power and wealth, the president is obliged to advocate for the poor and powerless for their well being is the test of our general welfare.
“Finally, and most happily, the Preamble says we exist to ‘secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.’  Not only liberty, but the blessings thereof.  Not just for we who are here now but for those who shall follow.  The Constitution does not provide clear guidance about what this means, but surely it demands that whatever we do here takes due measure of the gifts we have received from our ancestors and the legacy we will bestow on our descendants. 
“Today, we face the daunting challenge of preserving our blessings without eroding those in the future.  Diminishing energy supplies, climate change, the global economy, and more forces are pressing down upon us.  Can we preserve our land, literally and figuratively in response?  Certainly, we must.  As all parents wish their children to exceed them, America wishes its future to be better than its past.  But what is it we wish them to have?  Power?  Prestige?  Might? 
Liberty and its blessings, are not measured in dollars or acres or quantities of goods.  Of course we want our descendants to prosper materially, but this is not our purpose as a nation.  Liberty and justice for all is our cause, and the ultimate measure of our government.  Like the impossible task of the presidency, this is our national task.  However many strides we have taken nigh onto two hundred and fifty years, twice as many lie ahead.  Ours is not to complete the task of America, even as it was not ours to begin.  But if we can advance a few steps toward that hope we shall have done our duty.
“Fellow Citizens of a nation conceived in liberty and equality, tested and tried by struggles and wars, liberty and justice for all is what America is about.  Presidents come and go.  Leaders rise and fall.  Parties battle, politicians wrangle, privilege and power persist, but none of them can obliterate the hope of liberty and justice for all if the people believe in it. 
“Therefore, I ask you to take this same oath today, to solemnly swear that you too will faithfully execute the office of citizen and will to the best of your abilities preserve, protect and defend the Constitution; that you will help to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity; that you will join in the impossible task of America, which is liberty and justice for all. 
“If you will not, I cannot succeed.  If you will, I cannot fail.”

This is the speech I am waiting for.  You will have to wait for more posts as well, since I am on the move for the next three weeks.  Try to bear up...
 

25 August 2012

Markets Cannot Dream

Speaking of dreams, today we lost one.  Neil Armstrong, who gave world ‘giant leap’ with his 1st footprint on the moon, dies - The Washington Post

As a teenager when they landed, it was the one big thing we all dreamed. Divided by war and race and generational tensions, there was precious little that made us all hopeful then.

Kinda like today.  But what do we have to dream about that is larger than we are.  if as William James said, “the secret to a meaningful life is to spend it on something larger than your own,” then a nation has to dream about something bigger than itself.  Right now, we focus on things smaller than we are, guns and gays and taxes and sex. Our leaders are absorbed in tinkering with things picayune, pecuniary, penitential and petty.  And as we all know, if dreams are the things we become like - even in failure - then small dreams makes us less not more.

Markets do not dream.  To become something great requires outrageous dreams that defy common sense and good business.  Going to the moon was just that.

Was it foolish? Undoubtedly.  Was it wasteful? Immeasurably. 

Was it useless? Essential! 

And today, the one link to that last wild dream is gone. 

24 August 2012

Let's Get Small!

Wasn't that a Steve Martin line?  But it turns out to be true.  Since winter I have dropped about 5 or 6 pounds.  With a major pilgrimage/hike planned for next month, it could go even lower.  For a guy who weighed 240 at 17 and now weighs just over 180, getting small is fine.

But I am getting smaller in other ways, not so welcome ways. 

- Twenty years ago I could squat 390 pounds.  Last December I was leg pressing (something not as difficult as squatting) that same weight when a twinge in my inner right thigh told me something wasn't right.  I am still twinging most of a year later, and pressing only 100 pounds.  My dream of bodybuilding glory is clearly over.

- A manuscript I took three years to write - and failed to intrigue the publishers I queried - deserves a re-write.  But now, a year after trying, I am not sure it is worth that effort.  I am not even sure I want to read it again.  And the one I am working on now that seemed promising a few days ago, well, I recorded some portions of it for pod casting and realized when I was done that it too needs major work and I wonder if it is even worth it.  My hope to be a respected author may be extravagant.

- Once, I hoped to make a mark by building a new church building for the burgeoning congregation I led.  In my thirty plus years years of clergy life I have built nothing either physical or organizational.  Fantasies of clergy fame and honor are failing fast.

If our dreams are what we imagine about ourselves, then no wonder I feel smaller.  But must I feel bad?  If losing weight feels good, and seeing my children grow up and move out (yielding a smaller household) feels good, then must the falling away of dreams feel bad? 

Dreams are not made of stone.  They can change, as I have changed, and even get smaller and still be dreams worth dreaming.  I am working on composing something.  When I was in college that was my dream, to be a symphonic composer.  Gave up on that one early when I realized what kind of talent that required, but recently some words I love started to feel musical. Is this a new dream?  Not sure.  I am going to hike Hadrian's Wall next month, a fantasy of mine for years.  Not fame or fortune, but something hoped for.

I am feeling a little sadness right now not because the new dreams are small but because they have not yet formed though the old ones are clearly vanishing.  One might say that this is when one's faith is tested, because at the moment there is no-thing I have faith in.  It is hope without a particular outcome.  Talk about small.  But as I too am shrinking, this is probably OK. 

16 August 2012

More Guns

Got two cool comments on my gun tax plan.  The one that was intriguing, from KA, suggested that because guns are durable, the tax would not reduce the number of guns very quickly if at all.  Quite so.  Good insight.  But my tough was less geared toward reducing guns than in closing the 'feedback loop.'  Just as the cost of cigarettes now reflects the long term affect of smoking, and has effectively reduced the rate of smoking among young people especially, so a sales tax on guns at the point of sale might reduce impulse buying.

For me, the connection between a right and the responsibility to use that right wisely is what is missing.  Free speech is good, but some speech is destructive, whether it be Westboro Baptist funeral stalking or anonymous corporate political advertising.  Make the consequences of using rights as visible as the rights themselves, is all I am saying.

Now, let's add another thought.  If gun ownership is a right along with other rights, then should our rights be equally accessible?  That is, should some rights be harder to exercise than others?  The Young Turks have asked this question.  Here is the video link:

http://current.com/shows/the-young-turks/videos/in-some-us-states-its-easier-to-qualify-to-own-a-gun-than-vote-in-a-national-election

What if some bold politician (Politicians like being bold, you see.  Courageous and honest not so much) introduced legislation requiring that the limits on voting and gun ownership be the same?  If free access to guns is a rights then why not voting?  And if voting fraud is a problem, then why not gun ownership fraud (such as felons)?  

I find this a fun thought experiment because it makes us ponder whether some rights are more valuable or risky than others?  What do you think?  If the rules were the same we would either have more guns and more voters, or fewer guns and fewer voters.  

This makes my head hurt.  Good.

10 August 2012

A Man, A Plan, A Tax–Genius!

So I’m reading Guns, Butter and Then Some - NYTimes.com and for some reason my mind wanders to a long dormant fact:

Cigarettes cost way more than they used to.  One reason I quit back in 1982 was that the price went above $1 a pack.  Today they are often $4 or more.  And the result of raisin those taxes has been to reduce the percentage of people who smoke.  It has become financially challenging. 

One reason states and the feds raised the taxes was to address the costs of tobacco use.  They use the money (ostensibly) to educate against smoking, especially directed and children and youth, and to compensate the state for the societal costs of smoking.

Then I wondered, what would happen if we were to tax guns.  And what if that tax was based on the cost of gun violence overall?  Let’s take a look.  Here is a chart (from the National Shooting Sports Foundation:

Note that in 2011 10.8 millions guns were purchased in the US. But let’s use 2002, 7 million, because it is closer to the next data point, the health cost of guns.  According to JAMA, in a 1999 article reporting on 1994 data, the medical cost of gun violence in 1994 was $2.3 billion. Leaving aside collateral costs because they are harder to quantify, these two figures tell me that each gun bought costs ad additional $328.50.

What if every gun were to be taxed an equal share of the medical cost of gun violence the previous year?  That money would be set aside just to pay that, btw, because even if you are shot by a criminal you pay the hospital bill (or mortician). 

Not only would that tax made guns more expensive, discouraging both impulse purchases and hoarding, it would make those who buy the guns pay for the cost of misusing them.

But wait, says the NRA, why should law abiding gun owners pay for bad apples?  For the same reason that good drivers pay insurance premiums based on how badly a few drive.  Owning a gun or a car has consequences, as bearing your share of those consequences is part of being a grown up.

I think this is an inspired idea.  Tax guns, not to control them but to make the cost of misusing them the price gun owners and users bear instead of those wounded and killed and then presented with the bill as well.  If you’re hurt by a gun, the gun owners of America will make it right. 

21 July 2012

Bleeding Hearts

In Mexico City, adjacent to the Zocalo (the immense square in the center of town) is an archeological dig turned museum that is called the Templo Major.  Here there is the partially and beautifully exposed remains of an Aztec pyramid that was part of the ritual complex of that society.  At the top, under a canopy to keep it from decay by rain and sun, is the stone upon which thousands were sacrificed – their beating hearts cut from their chests to thank the gods who were the sun and rain upon whom depended.

Horrific to our sensibilities, the practice was ancient when Cortez arrived, embedded within a culture that connected life and death, blood and water, sun and life, in ways that made living sacrifice a privilege people sought.  We recoil from it, grateful that we no longer entertain the barbaric notion that human lives must be sacrificed to appease the gods.

Then I read this column by Monica Hesse “Aurora’s horror is a sadly familiar exercise in America - The Washington Post

How different are we?  Mass murder has become a ritual in our society.  It may not be a function of the state in the way Aztecs did, but our dogmatic belief that guns are sacred to freedom means we willingly sacrifice people to preserve that right.  How far removed is this from the belief that beating human hearts must be given back to the gods?

Hesse’s article limns out the ritual we now go through, largely via the media. By the end we will have wept, mourned, and done our part in the ritual sacrifice that our love of guns requires.  Then we can go back to our lives, knowing that the periodic bloodletting required of our gun gods has been done, but knowing also that it will be necessary again.

We are heathens about guns, worshipping them as devoutly as any Aztec god, and blind to the waste of life that exacts.  Posterity will look back and gag at our barbarism as we do those historic feathered butchers.  How could they believe such nonsense, our descendants will ask, as we do now?  And America may well be the lesson the future studies to avoid the fate of knavish states paralyzed by beliefs that became their undoing. 

We are better than this.  We know it.  We should be ashamed that we have not the courage to serve the better angels of our nature and cavil to the demons instead.

15 July 2012

Since I am not a candidate, I can say…

Free Enterprise is not evil.  Let he hasten to say that it is not noble either. That’s what Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute says in this morning’s “Five Myths” segment - Five myths about free enterprise - The Washington Post.

Those on the left make free enterprise out to be so bad, which, even if true, doesn’t matter. 

Because people will always want to make money.  They did in medieval times, they did in Soviet Russia, they have done it everywhere, especially America.  De Toqueville thrills to the pecuniary instinct in his famous book.  It’s old, it’s pervasive, and it’s 100% American.

Like the theory of sin, original or otherwise, the debate over free enterprise had focused on the wrong question.  It is not whether it is good or bad, but how it should be governed.

To those who find it innately good, a sort of economic prelapsarianism, any government of economic activity weakens its power and thus its goodness.  Similarly, for those who think free enterprise is proof of the T in TULIP, government is essential to hobble its satanic power.

Political Manichaeism is the order of the day, of course.  But I know that in the titanic battle between ideas it is ordinary lives that pay.  So my interest is in smearing the boundaries ideologues create and defend.  Hence this essay.

People will always want to make money, I said at the beginning.  The only question is to what extent (if at all) it should be governed.  As most of those who read this are on the left side, making the case for governing free enterprise is not my purpose.  Giving you non ideological reasons to explain it to a free marketer is.

1. Human beings are imperfect, and everything they do is imperfect.  Even when they make money. 

When free marketers extol the perfection of markets (and the imperfection of government) remind them that human beings run both. And even kids know you need to have clear rules before starting to play or the game won’t last very long. 

2. Laws are better at making us less bad than making us more good.

Ironically, laws that punish are better than laws that reward.  It makes sense when you realize the number of good outcomes is far more than the number of bad ones.  Make what is wrong the focus of the laws, and then give them consequences, costly ones.  Robbery is a form of economic activity, but it is costly to society, so we ban it and make doing it costly.  Any economic activity that we conclude does more harm to society than good needs regulation.  Robbery is only one, and every change in society brings new ways.  It takes an internet to create phishing.

3. Laws are nothing but rules of the game, which people follow only if they are understood to be fair, impartial and universal. 

No child joins a game whose rules are rigged. Democracy us the only way we know to create rules.  It is not automatic that they will, but every other system is worse (as Churchill observed). Those laws will themselves be imperfect, because people are, but they will be broadly imperfect, which is fair and impartial and imperfect. And annoying.

4.  When people find a way around the rules, and they always will, build better rules not necessarily more. 

This is hard, because government and business grow in the shape of the garden we create with rules.  Major changes threaten both public and private establishments.  That’ why slavery did not end until there was a war, and industrial excess until the Great Depression.  Sadly, the system has to be on the verge of collapse before transformation actually takes place, and often at a very costly price.

Start with these (I think) common sense notions, and it is clear that the idea of a completely free market is folish, just as is a perfectly governed one. Let’s focus on deciding what harm must be prevented and redressed, make it very costly to do it, and ensure it is enforced.  That would be a good start.

But right now, we are unclear on all three.  And we wonder why things are a mess.

07 July 2012

It's That Simple

So in today's NY Times you can find this little gossipy nugget.

The Republicans’ $3 Million Weekend in the Hamptons

For those who lament that 'we have the best government money can buy' this is but the latest evidence. 

Of course the ultimate proof will come in November.  Complain about "Citizens United" all day, the truly best way to end the influence of money in politics is to elect the ones who did not spend the most money.  If spending a lot buys you nothing, why spend it next time? 

Yep, the salvation of democracy is not the Supreme Court, or the Constitution, but the thing that made them both -  We The People.

I know that sounds naive and simplistic.  It also happens to be true.  To paraphrase a popular and misquoted aphorism, "Te only necessary for the triumph of money over the people is for people to do what the money tells them to do."

Time to go to bed. 

24 June 2012

All Thumbs

Well, I am on the road and reduced to using my iPad, which while being better than a smart phone for typing us still not a full sized keyboard. Add in my four finger typing style, big fingers, and you get a very slow and imprecise typist.


But I am not actually writing about typing. I am writing about change. Real change, the sort than changes the game not just the score, takes a very long time. I can also be imprecise. This morning I saw an old news report from 1973 on Gay Liberation. Forty years have passed, and the struggle is not won. Yes, progress has happened, but every step forward has been resisted, and in some ways the more progress gay folk make the more intense the resistance from some. We could say the same about race, which is far better than it was a century ago but still is a major force in our society.


And if it is taking an excuciatingly long time it is because these are game change movements. They make the whole show different, for everyone, and that means those who prefer the game as it is must redouble their resistance because such changes seem to them not game changers but game enders.


What is hard for those working for change is to see that change always takes a very long time because everyone is involved. Those who do not want change have to resist. We all would, and have, and will. Seeing the resistance of others is part of the process of change, it is hard, and seeing it as inevitable is essential. Those who seek change should expect resistance, honor it, and yet continue.


It's a bit like childbirth. It takes a long time, involves pain and uncertainty, and no baby ever cooperated with the process. But the result is good for everyone in the end. Mothers know that, even if babies don't.

17 June 2012

No, I am Not Being a Prude

Sometimes I utter a foul oath in frustration or anger, and someone who hears me waves a rhetorical finger, saying, "Aren't you a man of God?" or some such thing.  Leaving aside the option of saying ww are all 'children of God' and the odd assumption (given the endless parade of pastoral perverts) that clergy are natrually more prudish, I do think it is best for public people (clergy being only one form) not to employ coarse language in public.  Here's why:

A term that generally means jerk, but actually refers to a female sanitary device (I hate to be more explicit) has become a favorite among left leaning critics of the political order.  I ran into this morning in a piece about a Tulsa employer who is overtly rejecting non evangelicals as employees, which is an illegal form of discrimination.  He writes,

"The idea that they can act with impunity toward the law by trumping the civil rights of others is typical of these Fundamentalists. Fortunately, for Mr. Wolfe, these particular douchebags acted in a way that ended up with them getting caught."


My problem is with the highlighted word, not the story itself.  And not because it is coarse, but because it is misogynistic. 

This week our esteemed speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives silenced a duly elected member for using the word 'vagina' on the floor.  She was literally ruled out of order and prohibited from speaking on the floor for a whole 24 hours because of her indecorous language.  Fortunately, there is a lovely uproar about  this.  Read the story here.

But how good are those on the left if they use the above term as an epithet?  I have heard it bandied about on "The Daily Show" and seen it in commentary on various news sites.  And that's only because other terms are still too coarse to be used in public discourse, two of the worst of which are also female centered words. 

Folks, it is time to listen to the lady and show a little RESPECT.  If the worst words we have to utter have something about women in them, we need better words...

11 June 2012

They Wanted To Pump Us Up

I am either quite the dolt or just a complete outlier, because today's story in the NYTimes about the drop in people's net value back to the 1990s is not news to me at all.

Long ago, when I worked out a real body building gym (because it was close to work not because I was a body builder myself), it was hard to avoid learning about steroid use.  Many pros used them to enhance their results and the magazines showed the result - men and women with startlingly huge physiques, well beyond what had been seen in the years before.  But the price they paid was also the stuff of gym talk - liver problems, shrunken testes, enlarged internal organs, and more. When they stopped using, they lost their massive size and strength, even if their health overall was better than when they felt and looked strong.  

I believe the era from 1998 to 2008 (roughly) was a time of national financial steroid use.  Cheap money and easy rules pumped up the economy rapidly, making us feel big and strong.  But in actuality we were getting sicker not healthier.  When the supply finally ran out in 2008, we went into withdrawal and our steroid fed economic muscles shrank and shriveled.  

What seems like a loss, the big beefy prosperity of cheap borrowed money that artificially pumped up housing prices and made us feel strong, was not real.  What we are now is where we would have been in 1999, if we had not given in to the promises of easy wealth and gain.  Like the body builder or athlete who returns to normal size.  

The real shame is that we spent most of 15 years on an economic steroid binge and forgot what reality looked like.  And like the body builder who had to quit when the supply ran out, we may only be this way until the next supply of false prosperity comes along.  After all, isn't looking big and powerful really what matters?


09 June 2012

I Told You So…

Sometime ago, a couple of years at least, I used this auspicious banner to suggest that lawyers ought to donate a portion of their professional time to public legal service (pro bono as they like to say, showing off their knowledge of Latin – meaning an assortment of phrases unique to legal jargon but don’t expect them to translate the Aeniad). 

It turns out that the chief judge of New York State said something very like that on May 1, as referenced in this article - Better Pro Bono Plan - NY Times.com

Now, far be it for me to boast, but it also turns out a new book by the former president of Dartmouth College (!) argues, as have I for years, for a national service program. 

Do the math, ok?  I anticipated both the chief judge of New York and an Ivy League College president. Of course, I could also say I guessed the winner of every presidential election since 1968 (often to my dismay) a month in advance but there is no objective evidence for that.  So look back in the growing record and see what’s coming.  And when it happens, tell them you read it here first.

01 June 2012

…But Whose Economy?

 

We all remember when the Clinton campaign said “It’s the economy, stupid” reminding themselves that this was most powerful force in the election.  Now, both parties work with that dictum, only that it is has been modified to read, “It’s (what I tell them) the economy (is, because they’re) stupid. 

Today we started with: the “Worst U.S. Job Data in a Year Signals Stalling Recovery - NYTimes.com”  And by noon the Speaker of the House was on the air saying,

Republicans have a Plan for America’s Job Creators designed to remove the government barriers holding back economic growth and hurting job creation

That plan is as curious as it is simple, according to Paul Krugman (who I know is disreputable in Republican circles.  But since I linked you to their thoughts, it seemed only fair to offer another vantage.) 

Now, here is my key thought today:

Those who are battling with each other over this issue do not have differing view of the economy, but see different economies

We are watching a kind of religious crusade, yes I mean that very word, where one side believes the other is wholly, entirely, and completely wrong.  Mind you, I do not believe it is a symmetrical zeal.  One is far more intense than the other.  You figure out which…

And in such conflicts, collateral damage is irrelevant.  Zeal allows one side literally to scorch the earth to win.  If actual people (innocent civilians we used to call them) suffer that is the price that must be paid to insure the righteous prevail.

This leads me to wonder, cynically, if one reason the economy is sputtering now is that some economic movers and shakers are willing to let the economy suffer until the election in order to shape the outcome.  So much wealth and power reside in so few, and they have so much as stake because they are so powerful and few, that it actually makes rational if despicable sense for them to keep the economy as weak as possible for now. 

If the result is a stronger conservative government, they win.  If the result is a weaker conservative government they can let the economy sink even further.  In either case, they have nothing to lose.

I hope I am wrong, but that I can even think it tells me how odd our nation is right now.  Who ever thought “American Exceptionalism” might mean something like this?

29 May 2012

My Kind of Army

Here she comes, her Most Britannic Majesty,  Elizabeth II, Dei Gratia Britannia rum Regnorumque Suorum Ceterorum Regina, Consortionis Populorum Princeps, Fidei Defensor, and so on.  She formally celebrates 60 years of being queen regnant ( as opposed to queen consort) putting her but three years shy of the longest reigning British monarch, Victoria.  Read about her: Queen Elizabeth II marks diamond jubilee - The Washington Post
I confess to a touch of Anglophilia, nourished at first by a recording of the Cold Stream Guards I owned as a boy. As a youngster in Washington DC pageantry was easy to find, and quite charming to a child – with all those shiny bits. I remember quite clearly going to Arlington Cemetery one Memorial Day and seeing both the silent sentinels before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and seeing President Eisenhower deliver remarks. Impressive and stirring. I missed that sort of excitement when we moved to Baltimore. That record of the British Band reminded me of the ruffles and flourishes years before. No doubt I was attracted to the Boy Scouts by the snappy uniform as much as the knots and trees.
I got a taste of my boyhood delight years later when my wife and I visited Ottawa Canada, the National Capital, where during summers the Governor’s Own, a ceremonial regiment, perform their own ‘changing of the guard’ based on that in London. We went back a few times over the years, as Ottawa is a great city. With our sons in tow back in 1990- something we waited for the show and our youngest, a blue eyed blond haired charmer, was selected to be part of the ‘intro show’ conducted by the National Capital people. He and a francophone kid were coached to ask questions about the ceremony, which he did quite well thanks to dad’s teaching beforehand. We even got a front row seat.
Then in 2001 I took the same son into London in late May to see if we could glimpse the parade going to ‘Troop the Color’ at one of the formal rehearsals that marks the Queen’s official birthday. Once again his appealing face got attention and a police officer handed us tickets to the grandstand and we saw the whole show.
I am faintly embarrassed by my fondness for military pageantry, but I am wise enough now to prefer the British form.  They do it best, hands down, with a wonderful combination or clueless arrogance, effeminate machismo, and Victorian frumpiness that makes it perfect.  But why describe it.  Watch it yourself, and when you’re done you’ll find yourself stiffening your upper lip, and thinking “There’ll Always be an England.”

20 May 2012

A Minister’s Wedding Vow

After performing weddings for 35 years I have had a conversion.  Clergy should not sign licenses. 

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I believe we should perform weddings, mind you, but we should not have the authority to make it legal as well as religious. 

What prompts me to say this right now is a report on our local TV station about the proliferation of online clergy.  They ran a story this evening: Do ministers need a license to wed? | WOOD TV8.  Do read and watch, but my conventional clergy colleagues are in high dudgeon about the fly-by-nighters horning in on the biz by these ordination mills.  They don’t have the training and expertise, you see? 

But strictly speaking, there is nothing we learn that trains us to be legal agents of the state.  It ultimately comes down to being a notary, someone authorized to witness oaths and promises that become legally binding.  The sexton of my last church was a notary.  He had a bunch of cool seals and ribbons.  I didn’t have that.

It is simpler to have a one stop shop, I know.  But in many countries civil authorities do most of the weddings, and in some the clergy are expressly forbidden the authority to make a couple ‘legal.’  In fact, the United States and other former British holdings are among the minority that give parity to religious authorities.  Several historically Christian nations such as Mexico and France and Germany are among the most secular when it comes to marriage. That does not mean there are no religious weddings, only that the religious ceremony is not legally valid.  And yet, somehow, people in all these nations (secular and religious, Christian and Muslim) get married no less than we do, despite having to do two ceremonies. 

The reason we allow clergy to sign licenses is because in British holdings, Anglican clergy could and that authority was extended to others over time.  In short, it is a vestige of established religion.  We may not prefer one religion over another, but we privilege religion when it comes to marriage. This privilege does not extend to birth, though baptismal records were once considered legal.  This privilege does not extend to death, which does not allow clergy to declare people dead as it once did.  Why do we keep it when it comes to marriage?

If clergy and religions did not have legal standing when it came to marriage, would we have such a protracted battle about ‘gay marriage?’  If clergy and religions were not acting as agents of the state at all might we have a clearer consensus about issues of ‘church and state?’

It was fun to sign my first licenses, a sort of acknowledgement of my status in society,  But the excitement is long gone,  And now that the same honor is available to Dudeists and Universal Lifeists in a matter of minutes, that tiny honor is completely gone.  And why should we depend in any way on our legal status to dignify our religious status in the first place? 

I say it is time for clergy to renounce their authority to legalize marriages.  It is not necessary, not healthy, and occasionally in conflict with our primary sacred duties.  It’s been fun, but justice trumps ego every time.  So let’s resign our worldly power, colleagues. We lose nothing and gain both honor and integrity.