Feel the Beat from the Tambourine

I have decided that over the next several blog posts I am going to write something of a spiritual autobiography.  I do this with no delusions that it will be Augustine’s Confessions Part II (Electric Boogaloo).  It will simply be my attempt to explain how I came to be where I am and what came before. The only reason I do this is because I was asked the other day how it was that I went from being an atheist to being a Christian and the best I could say at that moment was that I found atheism to be rather boring, which it is but you could say that of a whole host of things – the pasta section at the grocery store, the Salt Lake City Airport and most musical groups from Scandinavia.  And so I guess what follows will be my attempt to articulate my faith in terms more profound than what a thirteen year old says when they have been in the car too long.

            Also before going on I should clarify that I am not attempting to write an apology, that is a justification for the Christian faith.  This is not meant to be targeted at the unbeliever.  The main reason for this is my somewhat skeptical view of the viability of arguing or persuading someone into the faith.  This skepticism comes partly from a rather subjective criteria about the number of people I have seen who have come to the faith through argument, which is to say none.  In other words I have never heard the conversion story in which someone said they did not believe until their friend argued with them for hours on end at which point they were baptized and started exclusively listening exclusively to those Christian stations that are at the lower end of the FM dial.  Just to add a little more anecdotal fuel to this fire, the other day I was talking with someone who was a non-Christian.  They repeatedly told me that no Christian writings existed until more than fifty years after the crucifixion.  I told him that this was not quite true that 1stThessalonians was probably written less than 20 years after the crucifixion.  I then asked what it mattered and if next week we found a Christian document that was written twenty minutes after the crucifixion would it change anything. He said that it did not really matter and that it would not change his mind.  People tend to not be Christian for a whole host of reasons and those reasons can be somewhat fluid.  This is not to pick on non-Christians, because I think we all do this in any number of beliefs.  If I asked you why you loved your spouse, one day you might tell me its because of their compassionate nature while another day it might be because of how they are with the kids.  Which sort of gets me to my second point.  

            The other reason I am not a big proponent of arguments for the Faith has to do with my skepticism about logic and reason being the best ways to convey the Faith.  This is not to say that I am against reason and logic, it is simply that as I have grown older I have come to realize that much of our life is not governed by logic and reason and this is not necessarily bad.  A whole host of horrible and repugnant actions might actually be logical – killing off old people or the mentally ill just for a few quick examples.  I will develop this theme more as we go on, but for the time being just want to establish that what follows is not geared towards persuasion and will not be something of an airtight argument for the faith once delivered.  Additionally there will not be a tremendous amount of time spent on fleshing out what is the faith once delivered.  This is not meant to be a theological text which defends or celebrates one position over the other.  For clarity in what I mean by the faith it is probably simplest to say that it is the faith as expressed in the Nicene Creed.  

             And finally what follows is personal, it is not prescriptive.  I am not suggesting that my path is the right one or wrong one, but simply stating how things happened and how I cam to be where I am.  Hopefully you will find some admirable parts but certainly there will be some things that are not great.  Which, not to excuse myself, but is rather a fairly good summary of humanity in general – we are good except when we aren’t.    

St. Columba, Marie Kondo and Nitrogen Based Fertilizers

When I was in college I became very pleased about the fact that I was Scottish.  Much of this was probably just a reaction to being amongst a lot of Irish Catholics and my innate desire to be difficult.  And so it is probably fortunate that in my Scottish pride period I was unaware of St. Columba, the saint whom we remembered a few days back, because he was the Irish saint who brought Christianity to Scotland.  Which on some level makes the Scots beholden to the Irish, something we never want to be.  It’s like the t-shirt I once saw which said, “Everyone is a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day except the Scottish, we’re still Scottish.”  But as much as it grieves me I do have to give an Irishman some credit or “shout out” as the young kids say.

            St. Columba was born on December 7, 521 (1420 years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, so that wasn’t his fault).  He was born in the northern part of Ireland at a place called Gartan.  He was a pretty big deal even in his time, so unlike many of the older saints we know a fair amount about his life, although some of it may be more legend than fact.  With that in mind let me give you my favorite version of his story, which may contain a few of those unsubstantiated facts.  It goes like this: Sometime around his 40th birthday in 562 or 563 Columba, an Irish Abbot, started a war in Ireland, which made a lot of people upset with him.  So in a fit of pique he decided to leave Ireland and then traveled by boat until he could no longer see Ireland, which put him on the island of Iona.  It was from here that he would go into Scotland to start converting the native Picts to Christianity.  And while in Scotland he also killed the Loch Ness Monster.  Well the outline of that story is definitely true.  Columba did leave Ireland and sail to Iona where he set up a missionary outpost.  He converted many of the Picts, who worshiped pagan gods at the time.  One of his great successes was the conversion of the Pictish king, Bride son of Meilochon.  And for the 1500 years or so since he did his work Scotland has been Christian.  But here is a bit of sad news about Scotland.  A 2011 survey found that only 54% of the population identified as Christian – which is still a majority but a rather small one (or wee one if you want to be all Scottish about it).  And I am guessing that that percentage has shrunk in the intervening years.  We should of course celebrate Columba but also ponder how it is that Christianity was able to conquer paganism, endure through the middle ages and Black Death but is in retreat to the current culture.  And we should also ponder what is the solution?  Do we need to once again launch missionaries to re-conquer lands lost to the rising tide of secularism?  And if we did would those people even care, or would they be too busy binge watching Marie Kondo on Netflix to even notice?

            I was listening to a discussion the other day about the role of technology versus ideas in terms of changing culture.  The person I was listening to argued that we tend to look at things like what kids learn in school or what is on television as the items which steer a culture and it is true to a certain extent.  But he said, for example, the automobile had more influence on teenage promiscuity than any philosophy espoused by Hugh Hefner or Alfred Kinsey.  I bring this up not to say we should not be espousing proper and ethical ways to live but merely to point out that we may not exactly be sure what we are countering.  In the time of Columba the equation was fairly straightforward.  You had pagan people who worshiped pagan gods.  To change this you had to convince them that the gods they were worshiping were not real gods and you then introduced them to the one true God as found in Jesus Christ.  All that you were really doing was moving the direction of their worship to something else.  But what are we exactly countering today?  Are we countering a society that rejects God as a myth?  Well there is certainly some of this.  There is obviously the professional atheist class like Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher.  But a lot of people who don’t believe do not have the evangelistic fervor of these two; they just kind of don’t care.  There are others who are not necessarily opposed to religion and belief and would even say that they are Christian but just can’t really be bothered.  These are the types who insist on getting their children baptized and then don’t appear in church again until the baptized kid gets married.  There are also those who don’t even really think about it.  And so in all of this how can we be like Columba?  How can we show a world that does not even know that it needs God, that there is more to this life?  I wish I had an easy solution, but I think it is going to take time to figure out.

            I was listening to historian Rachel Laudan discuss food the other day and how this is really the first time in human history that much of the world has too much food.  So as a result we as humanity have not really figured out what to do with this abundance, resulting in such things as the obesity epidemic.  You have a species that for most of history has dealt with scarcity now trying to adapt to plenty and no one quite knows what to do.  I wonder if that same sort of phenomenon is going on in our world, that is the world of religion. 

There is an old argument, generally put forth by atheists that essentially posits that what belief in something higher was only there to explain the things that we cannot explain or control.  And as we have come to understand more and more, especially in the last two hundred years or so, the need for God to explain the unexplainable has disappeared.  For example, you used to pray for a good harvest, but with innovations in seed quality and fertilizers good harvests are more guaranteed.  But I would argue that like with food people have not figured out where they need God when all of their physical needs are seemingly satisfied. Fat, dumb and happy has blotted out the longing for God in some.  But I think much like creating a new relationship with food much of our society will need to find new relationship with God; understanding God not just as someone to help you on a math test, but rather to fill in all of the broken areas of our world.  You do not have to look far to see all of the problems in our society.  You also don’t have to look far to see all of the bad ways that people are trying to fix those problems.  I mean, the heroin epidemic is happening among rich kids in the suburbs.  We live in a hurting society that has tried everything except God to heal itself and we need to model and invite people into a relationship with God.  For as another great saint said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

The coming years are going to require new ways of explaining God to a people who think that they understand Him.  Great saints like Columba figured out ways to evangelize in their contexts and we will need to do the same. 

If You've a Date in Constantinople

Now and then I will randomly come across something of which I knew nothing about or at least had forgotten about.  For example, the other day I picked up a book off our shelves and stared reading a summary of Boethius’ work known as The Consolation of Philosophy.  Boethius lived from around 477 to 524 in the area Roman Empire and what was left of it in the west.  He came from an important family and was a philosopher and worked as a sort of high-level bureaucrat.  One of the things that he worked on was improving the relationship between the two big churches of the day, the one based in Rome and the other based in Constantinople.  Somewhere in this process Boethius was accused of treason and was sentenced to death.  It was while waiting in prison that he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy

The book is basically a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy.  They talk about a number of things but the one that struck me was a conversation about luck.  The quick version is that Lady Philosophy says that how well or how poorly you do in life can often come down to chance – you may be up one day and down the next.  Now certainly we can have debates on this, the person whose favorite activity is to randomly run across the freeway, may be inviting a little more bad luck on themselves.  But I do think there is something of chance in life.  You do not get to pick your parents, your amount of intelligence or where you are born.  Things that can all greatly influence how your life will turn out.  Just think of the differences between being born in South Korea versus being born in North Korea, but back to Boethius. 

The conversation continues and Lady Philosophy makes the point that because circumstances can be so fickle they are not good things on which to base your happiness.  She says instead that you must base your happiness on something more solid, something that will be the same tomorrow as it is today (which should sound a lot like God).  Interestingly in this book Boethius does not mention God in a way that points directly to God as Christians understand God, even though he was a Christian.  That is not to say that the God he points to is a God who is un-Christian, but is probably more comparable to God as described by Plato, a God of pure goodness.  And so the argument is basically that we must not base our happiness on things temporal but things eternal. 

And the thing is most of us know this.  Most of us know that the things of this world are not stable – “The grass withers and the flowers fade” as Isaiah tells us.  But we continue to put our trust in those things that are ephemeral.  We believe that if we could just have a little more money, or a few weeks vacation then we would be happy.  But when those things come they do not provide lasting happiness.  I read about a study, which looked at people who had won the lottery and they found something very interesting.  Six months after a person had won the lottery they were less happy than the day before they won the lottery.  How many people have you known or you may be one of those people who have thought that if you could just win the lottery than all would be taken care of.  That our lives would be perfect.  But because money is ultimately not transcendent it will ultimately disappoint.  So today I would say let’s remember what Boethius and Lady Philosophy remind us of, that happiness needs to come from some place deeper. 

All the King's Horses

At the end of William Butler Yeats poem Among School Children he asks the question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”  The question ponders whether there is a difference between what we do and what we are.  In dancing it seems these two cannot be separated for there is no dance without the dancer and no dancer without the dance.  And so to rephrase it for the Christian, can we be Christian without doing Christian things?

On some level this is the old debate between faith and works.  Can we be faithful Christians without doing Christian works or put in reverse can we do Christian works without being Christian?   We seem to live in a world that approves of many Christian sentiments, showing mercy for the poor, loving one another and so on but is not so enamored with actually being Christian.  In fact, many see Christianity as an impediment to living out a moral life.  Christians in many circles are seen as bigoted and hateful.  With the implication being that we must separate the Christian from Christian actions. 

And while I am the first to admit that we Christians have been pretty bad advertisements for Christianity, I don’t think that we can separate belief from action.  Is it nice that people want to do good and moral things?  Yes certainly it is, but I am skeptical that it can be maintained, when it is not infused with the power of God.  When you pull behavior out of the context of God it becomes about a decision that we make.  We decide that actions are right, but what happens when we change our mind?  We are fairly fickle creatures who can be like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Caroll’s, Through the Looking Glass when he said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."  But, of course, such an understanding makes for a very confusing and disjointed world.

I am not saying that non Christians cannot act in God’s will or that Christians always do act in accordance with God’s will, but simply that they have their fullest expression when they are united.  And my larger point today is not to look at those who are not Christian, but to those who are and ask that we be more like Yeats’ dancer and dance, that when people see us they see Christians in thought, word and deed. 

I was told there would be no math

John answered, “Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.”  But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)

Sometimes I take odd comfort in snippets like this from the Gospel because I realize that I am not the first to try and thwart God’s will because it does not fit in with how I think things should work.  I thought about this because this morning I was reading a secular article about the need to be grateful.  And sadly I have to say that my first reaction was to think, “Oh now you realize what we Christian’s have been saying all along.”  But here is the thing, outside of the rather obvious fact that Christian’s do not frequently model a life of gratitude, I lament that sometimes we act like the Pharisees castigating Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.  We act like life is a sporting event believing that when something good happens to the other team it is bad for us.

But let’s return to this article on gratitude.  Yes maybe the author was late to the party and maybe he is not even sure why he is at the party in the first place, but just like Jesus tells us that he who is not against is for us.  In one of C.S. Lewis’s books (I think it is Mere Christianity) he has an interesting discussion about those from other religions or faith backgrounds as the young kids say today.  The tendency among certain Christians is to think that non-Christians are wrong.  Other Christians make an opposite error and say that non-Christians are really the same as us but simply use a different vocabulary or way of looking at the world.  But there is a third way to think about those whose beliefs are different from our own.  Lewis explains it in terms of math.  He says that if 2+2=4 then to say 2+2=5 is wrong, but it is not as wrong as saying 2+2=73,248 or that it equals purple.  There are degrees of being wrong and even those who are “wrong” may be much right or very close to being right on many things.

Now please do not think that I am suggesting that it does not really matter what you believe.  Rather what I am suggesting is the same thing that Jesus does; celebrate when people stumble onto some truth whether or not they come from the appropriate background or that they have correct beliefs top to bottom.  If there are secular articles being written about being grateful this is good news.  In fact if you want to be a little devious about it we could argue that someone with a grateful heart is someone who will be more likely to endorse the Gospel message.  But even without being devious, grateful people are much more enjoyable to be around.  The more Christ like behaviors that people engage in the better, be it casting out demons or being thankful for what they have. 

Our prayer should be to keep ourselves from thwarting God’s will. 

Yelling at the TV

            At a previous parish I had a woman who spent most of her life in a tizzy – worried about this thing or that which, in her mind, threatened to tear the very fabric of the universe.  At least in her telling it did.  Anyway one day she came into my office exercised about whatever was the crisis de jour – it may have involved light bulbs but my memory is a little fuzzy.  Finally, after listening to her go on and on I said, “Alice, you are going to have to realize that there are a lot of things about which I have no opinion.”  I do not bring this up to show the Zen like state with which I navigate this terrestrial ball, because there are any number of small insignificant things about which I can overreact to.  I instead bring this up as more of an ideal because I think we live in a day and age where people have too many opinions about way too many things with the ultimate result being that we live in times of almost constant agitation. 

            There was an article in the Wall Street Journal this past week about the rise of the picky eater.  That is kids who refuse to eat vast swaths of the food chain.  An interesting thing that it pointed out is that picky eating as “a thing” is a relatively new phenomenon.  In doing some research the author noted that one of the first mentions was in 1930 in an address to the American Pediatric Society.  This address noted that picky eaters were only found in well-off homes and not from places like orphanages, where they ate anything set in front of them.  This bit of data would seem to suggest that as food got more plentiful and choices increased so did the instinct to reject food.  I wonder in our day of mass communication if perhaps something similar has happened.  That is children when given more variety of foods to consume become more opinionated about their food.  Are we who are given so many varieties about information to consume, choosing to have very strong opinions on things that previously may have passed unnoticed?  In other words if someone were a jerk in Ho-Ho-Cus, New Jersey 150 years ago odds are I probably would not hear about, whereas today it might make the front page of the New York Times or at least be plastered all over social media.  This forces me to have an opinion which most likely will be at odds with someone else’s opinion.

            I was at the gym the other day and watching one of those home shows where a young couple is seeking to find their dream home.  I have to say that I was slightly shocked by just how many opinions this young couple had on the type of house that they had to have, down to the types and location of the toilet.  But the funny things was at the end of the program they ended up getting a house that lacked many of the things that were so important at the beginning.  But the house they chose was very aesthetically pleasing.  What does this say about opinions and reality?  We say we want something, will demand it and then find we are happier with something that differs from our stated opinion?  Does this mean that our judgments of the world may not only be less important than we thought but may not in fact reflect how we actually feel or want to live?

            It seems that the more opinions we have the more miserable we can be, because something is always going to be wrong.  Christianity while not necessarily opposing free will and free choice concedes that God is the only one who is capable of always having the right opinion about everything.  That is why much has been written about submitting our will to God’s perfect will.  And while this may seem like losing our freedom it may free us from the slavery of our own ill informed opinions, the ones that constantly tell us that something is not right, and instead allows for us to live within God’s peace and God’s perfect will.  It is quite counter-cultural to take an information sabbatical but it might make us and the world a better place. 

            When I was in college a friend of mine was a very passionate sports fan and would often spend times in front of the TV yelling very specific instructions to those playing whatever game.  A friend of mine one day said, “You do realize that nothing you say here has any effect on what they do there.”  It seems our society is trapped in a permanent state of yelling at the television believing that we are somehow changing things for the better when in truth we are just making this world a more disagreeable place.       

Black Holes and Finance

I am currently reading a book called Einstein’s Monsters by the astronomer Chris Impey.  The book is ostensibly about black holes but the author deliberately chose not to have that be his title (although it is in the subtitle) because of the baggage that the term carries in our day and age, where people use black hole to define something with the characteristic of a bottomless pit.  Anyway this hesitancy about using a correct term got me to thinking not about black holes but words that carry baggage and convey things that we may not really wish to convey. 

When I was in high school and early college my religious views ranged somewhere between solipsism and a sort of narcissistic home brewed religion.  I had of course been raised in a Christian household but turned on that.  In order to maintain my views I had a strong need to define Christianity in a way to make it easily refutable.  To do this I often watched late night evangelists; the guys in shiny suits who promised for a donation of $50 to send you a handkerchief that they had prayed over.  It was a pretty easy Christianity to dismiss, full of hucksterism and shallowness.  To keep my comfortable and smug worldview I needed to define any competition in very unthreatening ways.  It worked for a while but eventually I found myself embracing Christianity and being ordained. 

There is an old mantra in finance, which says I will loan you any amount of money you want as long as I get to define the terms.  The idea being that by defining terms we can make the act of giving away money advantageous for us – it is the basic principle of credit card companies.  I bring all of this up to the question of how do we define terms about others and how do they define terms about us?  Meaning do we relate to people as they actually are or do we relate to them in ways that are convenient for us?  I would argue that we deal more and more with people in ways that we want to define them rather than as they actually are.  Like the famous statement wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

With the rise of the Internet it has probably become easier to define who others are largely because we can always find a person or group who look at the world in the same way that we do.  As a result we can have our self-defined terms reinforced and begin to believe that there are no other opinions about which to be concerned.  And this is really too bad, this sort of self-selection that technology has allowed to happen. 

I had an uncle who was retired Air Force and staunchly right wing.  When he was older he moved into a retirement home and one of his best friends was a retired college professor who was staunchly left wing.  They, of course, debated and made fun of each other but they also liked and respected each other.  They realized that underneath their opinions there was something deeper, something that they really enjoyed.

When we define others we can miss the more important things.  If we define someone by their views on how healthcare is distributed how much in taxes should be collected we can miss that like us, they are also created in the image of God.  May we as Christians look first to the image of God and all things that unite and not the things that separate, be they real or imagined. 

Democritus and Heraclitus

            Something with which I struggle mightily is negativity.  I used to be very proud of my cynicism, it was very much part of who I was as a person.  In some senses I believed that it made me deep or mysterious or some such thing.  I never wanted to be a sort of brooding upper middle class kid clad in all black listening to industrial music, I just wanted to do the deeply Scottish thing of being reasonably unimpressed with most everything that I encountered.   Most of my friends would probably tell you that this made me a real pain, but it is who I was and is still certainly part of me.  But since we always find our own annoying habits endearing I want to spend a moment contemplating what role skepticism or even cynicism play for the Christian.  Is it taboo or can it be helpful? 

This may not surprise you but in my opinion there certainly seems to be room for cynicism and not just because I like it but because the Bible’s narrative of humanity seems to be if not cynical at least a little skeptical about humanity’s abilities.  By the third chapter of Genesis we learn that we are fallen sinners who have nothing in us that can save us.  That is not a message that you would get from your average Disney Princess movie and certainly there does not seem to be a lot of material there by which to usher in the age of Aquarius.  Yet at the same time hope is one of the great virtues found in the Christian.  And so it would seem that the sweet spot for humanity would be to have a realistic view of ourselves while at the same time hoping for something better.

            In the Gospel of Matthew before the crucifixion there is a sort of odd verse spoken by Jesus where he states, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  This line can be somewhat confusing if we take it to mean that Jesus was not really all that enthused about dying for our sins (but really who could blame him).  But there is another way of interpreting the cup.  If we take the cup to be what humanity is about to do to Jesus then Jesus could be asking God if just for once humanity would take a better path; if they stopped acting in the way that they have since Adam and Eve first sewed fig leaves together.  Jesus was hoping that humanity could change and not need a Saviour.  There it is both a resignation to human nature and the hope for a change for the better.  And that seems to be the place we need to be.

            There is an Arabic saying which is sometimes ascribed to Mohamed which says, “Trust in God, but tie your camel.”  This seems to be the balance that we need to strike.  We need to see that God has called us to something greater and more beautiful and more wonderful, but we also need to have realistic expectations of how the world works. 

            It seems there are two opposite mistakes that we can make in this world.  We can think too highly of humanity believing it to be capable of things that for which it has never shown and sadly when taken to an extreme we see the tragic effects of this in places like Jonestown or Pol Pot’s Cambodia where the ultimate realization that the crooked timber of humanity is disappointing created the belief that it must be eliminated.  The other side descends into such cynicism that we see those truly good things which come from God as being some how malicious and wicked.  This is what Jesus referenced in Mark’s Gospel when he said, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  The unforgivable sin is attributing the works of God to Satan. 

            The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said when describing two early Greek philosophers, “Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding the condition of man vain and ridiculous, never went out in public but with a mocking and laughing face; whereas Heraclitus, having pity and compassion on this same condition of ours, wore a face perpetually sad, and eyes filled with tears.”  There may be days where we laugh at the condition of humanity and other days when we cry about it, but we never must lose sight of the fact that God can work through us to do wonderful things. 

Outrage, Elections and Apollo 12

            In the years before I went off to seminary, I had a job that allowed me a lot of free time.  Partly this was because my boss was incredibly disorganized, so you either had nothing to do or everything to do.  So in these frequent times in which there was nothing to do I mainly looked at stuff on the Internet.  Generally speaking my Internet use was not benign in nature instead I interacted like an outrage junkie in search of my next hit.  What I mean by this is that I largely went searching for things that would make me mad and allow for me to get upset.  Some of the outrage was about the Episcopal Church (at that time I was in the Diocese of the San Joaquin where anger at the Episcopal Church was an integral part of our spirituality) but I did not stop there.  I was outraged by letters to the editor, the religion section of The Fresno Beeand people who did not think that the Steelers were awesome.  Mainly though, I was outraged at politics – some at the State level (I mean Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor) but my usual focus was on the national level. I kept myself in a self-inflicted tizzy for much of the time.  And then I went off to seminary and it all stopped.  I would be lying if I said my outrage abated because I had a David like experience where a Nathaniel doppelganger told me that I was that man.  My outrage abated largely because I did not have the free time to search for things about which to be outraged.  It was sort of like going into rehab, the thing that caused the problem was largely removed.  It was a while before I even noticed that it had happened and then I noticed something else. My life did not change.  The grocery stores still had food, my dentist still told me that I should really floss and I still did not find soccer to be very interesting.  There was no real connection between my outrage at this or that person, event or philosophy and how I lived my day to day life.  And this was the beginning of something of a very obvious revelation for me. The people or things I encounter on a day to day basis not only continued to function without my outrage but they also were the things that have the most influence on me and I on them.  

            I bring this up today because we have just finished an election cycle that many have touted as the most important in a generation.  I do not have an electrified election cycle importance measurer so I cannot attest to the validity of such claims, but I do have to say that my life looked no different the Tuesday of election day as it did on the following Wednesday.  My local community was just the same.  Those who wanted us to get worked up for the election promised that if the wrong party were elected we would be either journeying down the path of a Maoist Great Leap Forward or preparing for Kristallnacht II (this time with twice the Kristall).  But none of that happened.  The federal government will continue to spend money that it does not have and everyone will continue to be mad at the other side (even those whose side won).  

            But here is the thing that I would ask us to think about which has to do with where our energies can be of most use.  As I said at the beginning I used to spend tremendous amounts of time and energy being upset with people who most likely did not know that I existed.  What if I had spent that time and energy doing something that might actually make a difference to myself and others.  What if I had visited my grandmother, volunteered at a shelter or weeded my garden.  Certainly none of these things sound as grandiose as saving the country from eminent destruction, but they are things that I can actually do and things that will make a very small difference.  

            I remember years ago hearing one of the Apollo astronauts speak (I cannot remember who it was, maybe Pete Conrad). In talking he recounted an incident he had had as he was preparing to go to the moon.  He was finishing up doing something on the Apollo rocket and he ran into an engineer who had designed one small part, I believe it was a switch. The man asked him how that switch was working.  Conrad (if that is who it was) responded that it worked great.  Afterward he said that he remembered thinking that this whole Apollo project was not going to fail because of the hard work that everyone put into even the smallest piece of the lunar rocket.  Think about it the Apollo 12 rocket weighed 101,127 pounds and was 363 feet tall, a switch pales in comparison to the sum of the whole.  But it was thousands of people making thousands of tiny things that gave us the whole.  The Apollo project worked because everyone did their part.  I think that is what we need to get back to, doing our small seemingly insignificant part. We have tried where all we do is worry and cajole about the big things and I don’t think it has worked all that well.  Maybe it is time to get back to the small things that we can do something about - the things that in total make the larger much better.  It may be counter intuitive but the more we focus on the small, the better we will make that which is large.  

Reactions (good and bad)

            One of my favorite lines from The Sound of Musichappens after Captain von Trapp has listed off to Maria all of the governesses that they have had for his children. Maria after hearing the number asks the reasonable question of what is wrong with the children.  The Captain replies, “Nothing is wrong with the children, only the governesses.”  It touches on the age-old theme of locating all of our problems outside of ourselves. The Captain’s children are fine; it’s all the governesses’ problem.  The originator of this line of reasoning is of course Adam in the Book of Genesis. If you recall, when God asks him if he has eaten from the tree of which he was commanded not to eat, he replies, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”  Adam’s problems were not of his doing; they originated from somewhere else.  In fact, Adam is bold enough to make it all God’s fault.

            I thought about all of this today after reading a rather moving article in the Wall Street Journal by Lou Weiss, a Pittsburgh carpet salesman and a Jew, who knew five of the eleven individuals who were murdered in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  In it he stated something so refreshing and opposite of how our world seems to work these days saying, “The best way to honor the people who were murdered would be to emulate their decency and goodness.”  When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes we are so used to using the events as a way to get mad at some group we do not like. We rail that this would not have happened if others were more like us and agreed with all of our views.  But I have to say that Mr. Weiss seems the wiser and more grace filled one, for it seems far better to take the tragic events as a way for us to be better.  We cannot fix the past, but we can make today better.

            Lashing out at others is quite easy and generally asks nothing difficult from us – they are wrong we are right.  But emulating decency and goodness takes some effort and some self-reflection.  Yes, there are certainly evil and bad things in this world, but the evil that we have the best chance of fixing is that which exists within us.

            I realize some people will object to my notion that we all have evil in us, but I absolutely do mean it.  Just because we have not gone on a shooting rampage does not make us pure and clean.  Just because we can find someone who acts worse than we do does not mean that all of our actions are pure and noble.  

            We have been trying Adam’s method for a very long time, where our reaction to anything wrong with ourselves or the world in general is to point to another person or group whom we think has sinned even more.  That is we like to create cosmic scales of justice wherein our sins are light as a feather when compared to the heinousness of others.  But what if we tried a different tact?  What if we did not take evil actions as a way to justify ourselves or point our anger at our perceived enemies, but rather took it as an opportunity to look into ourselves and ask how can we get better, how can we grow more into the image of God?   How can we emulate decency and goodness?

            I am not capable of fixing all of the problems in the world, but I am, with God’s help, able to gradually change myself to be more Christ-like.  

Putin and Such

            Now and then I come across items or subcultures that I did not know existed and, after discovering them, kind of wished that it had stayed that way.  The most recent of these discoveries is that Vladimir Putin puts out a yearly calendar, which naturally enough gives you twelve months of pictures of the Russian potentate.  In the 2019 edition, one picture is of him petting a leopard while in another he is working out.  There is also a subgenre in this collection of photos of him shirtless – in one he is holding a fish and in another he is taking a dip in a frozen lake under the watchful eye of three Orthodox priests, who incidentally are holding icons.  For a moment it made me ponder what I would do if there were a demand for a 12 months of Phil calendar.  And all I really concluded was that it would definitely feature marmots.  But here is the point I really want to make and it is one about humanity in general and that has to do with the inverse relationship between our perceptions of us being awesome and the reality of that awesomeness.  I am not privy to the inner workings of Vladimir Putin’s brain but I assume at some point when he was posing shirtless with a fish he thought, “Look on my Siberian Sturgeon, ye Mighty, and despair!” or some such sentiment. But for any of you that have had the unfortunate experience of seeing the photo I am guessing that this was not the first thought that entered your head.   Mine was, “For the love of God put a shirt on, maybe two just to be safe.”

            And while making fun of Vladimir Putin is something God encourages us to do (I am kidding so please don’t write me letters) I think many of our problems and indeed the world’s problems happen when we are doing things that seem really great at the time.  There was a very minor singer years ago, who may still be around for all I know, but in one of her songs she stated something to the effect that she had never done anything that she did not think was right at the time. Now when I was eighteen, I found this lyric deep and exciting and I wholeheartedly agreed with them, using the refrain to inflate my own view of myself.   I was a moral giant because I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.  But as I grew older I realized that this was not really a brilliant insight and was in fact something that Ted Bundy or Pol Pot could have just of easily have said. Most of the stupid things that I have done in my life I did think were pretty sweet at the time.  Some of these things were harmless enough like fashion choices I made in the 70’s involving satin but others caused real damage to individuals.  The question that we all need to work on discerning is when are we doing things that are glorifying to God and enhancing of humanity and when are we just being idiots. Or as David St. Hubbins reminds us - it's such a fine line between stupid and clever.  

            And this is a rather obvious point, but one I think we all need reminding is that while our conscience has the imprint of God upon it; it is also subject to corruptibility and self-justification. Stalin’s ruthless secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, once bragged that he could prove criminal conduct on anyone stating, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”  While I am not comparing anyone to that standard I think in many ways when we want something we are susceptible to coming up with the justification for our behaviors afterwards.  We do what we feel like and then shoehorn in some moral justification after the fact.  Because of this we need an outside set of criteria.  We often need a group of trusted friends or spiritual guides who help cut through the cesspool of our self-justification.  In many ways this is harder in our day and age because of the Internet.  In an Internet infused world it is pretty easy to find an online community that agrees with whatever we do.  And so all I really want to remind people of today is that when left to our own devices or when surrounded by a bunch of sycophants it is rather easy to put out our own cringe inducing versions of 365 days of Putin (figuratively and not literally). But we are obviously called to something higher, something eternal and not fleeting; something that ultimately is beautiful, wonderful and pure.  

Welcome

            Across the years a number of people have suggested that I write a blog.  Having said this I don’t want anyone to think that there has been a groundswell, by “a number” I mean 15, maybe 20 if I were using a very liberal interpretation of the term “suggested.”  However, in my defense, this is more people than have suggested that I take up dowsing (finding water with a divining stick) or design a city of the future (like Brasilia and we all know how that turned out).  So with such tepid encouragement I have decided to launch into the heavily chummed waters of the blogosphere (or whatever it is that the young kids are calling it these days).  

            Since this is already a bit on the self-indulgent side I might as well continue on my solipsistic path and explain what the theme or telos of this blog is going to be.  And put rather succinctly the answer to that is that I do not know.  What that means is that it will be about things that I find of interest, which I hope are of interest to other people.  With that said I do want to be careful and not have it be one of those blogs whose main theme is about how stupid everyone else is, which seems to be the theme of not just blogs but so much of our interactions these days - like the episode of the Simpsons where the morning DJ’s are threatened to be replaced by the automated DJ 3000 which replicated the standard morning DJ repertoire by saying things like, “Looks like those clowns in congress did it again.” My hope is to try and elevate our conversation a bit and to at bear minimum portray those with whom I disagree with respect.  And to be quite confessional this is not something that comes naturally to me, but something I think is quite necessary.  

            When I was in seminary I had a professor who would assign us the task of going out to a church (not of our own denomination) and write a critique of what we experienced.  The nastier the critique was the better grade you got.  I remember thinking that while this all came quite natural to me it was not something that needed to be reinforced in my being, after all I had spent four years in a fraternity.  And so my hope for this blog is basically to be like the stated goal of the Fat Albert cartoon series (before the recent Bill Cosby unpleasantness) and that is my hope is to “[Come] at you with music and fun, and if you're not careful, you might learn something before it's done.”

            And so with all of that rambling out of the way I want to take a moment and discuss noise and why a fear of adding to the noise is one of the things that kept me from doing this for such a long time.  My favorite example of what I mean by noise comes from the gas station.  Many of us are old enough to remember a time when the powers that be entrusted us to pump our gas without music being piped in. When I was 16, despite my youth and naïveté, I could still successfully fill up my gas tank without the soothing intonations of adult contemporary star James Taylor (or some such person).  Now if this were not enough the more updated gas stations actually have televisions in the gas pump that sometimes have exclusively produced content (that is what I believe you are supposed to call it). Which I guess means there are people whose job it is to find out what sort of television content will make us more likely to fill your tank all the way or perhaps go inside for a bag of Funyuns. My point in all of this is to reflect on the question of why we have so much noise and why are we so terrified of silence?

            Certainly we could blame the companies, but companies tend to do things because they believe they are responding to an unfulfilled desire in the market.  Generally speaking when I am not at a gas station or some other such institution that provides unrequested entertainment I see people looking at their phones, which as best I know is a completely voluntary activity. So again what are we worried about? Why do we find being alone with our thoughts something that cannot be allowed?  Has a society built on consumerism made us believe that even our thoughts can be outsourced? I realize that I have already brought up the Simpsons and I should have a limit, but it reminds of the time that Homer was in the hospital and saw the guy on a respirator and concluded that breathing was for suckers.  Are we in danger of outsourcing our thoughts by never allowing enough time and quiet for them to actually exist?  All of that said I want to be quite careful about adding to the noise, that is things that distract us from having any actual moments for reflection.

                        This may come off a little weasely but I do not fully know the answer to this.  It is true that at no time in history have we purposefully and had so much distraction thrust upon us and do we know the consequences of so much distraction?  So with that I look forward to go blogging with you and hope to make this worthy of your time.