Spiritual Pilgrimage or Egoistic Luxury Vacation?

In a few weeks we will depart on something like a pilgrimage for a 31 day cruise into the Pacific along the routes traveled by Polynesian canoes over a thousand years ago.  I have no idea what will have inspired the other passengers, but as for me there is something compelling about the Pacific in ways that I do not fully understand.  What makes a pilgrimage different from a more ordinary vacation trip? It goes with the intent of encountering new and deeper spiritual truths in the unforeseen and unexperienced presence of God’s grace. 
I am fascinated with what little I know of the history and culture of Oceania.  For instance, European explorers were well into the eighteenth century before they could accurately chart their way into unknown latitudes and longitudes.  On the other hand, Polynesians were not just explorers but travelers for whom multiple round trips between island groups as much as two thousand miles apart were a regular occurrence.   Their systems of governance were as complex and sophisticated as anything in late medieval Europe.  Theirs was an oral literacy, a very detailed and complicated literacy, and, thanks largely to nineteenth century missionaries, much of it has been preserved as written history.  In spite of two centuries of European efforts to suppress local cultures in the name of Christ and good taste, there has been a resurgence of Polynesian pride, language, mythology and tradition residing in the context of modern society at a reasonable level of creative tension.
We will, in twenty-first century luxury, poke a bit more into all of that, with intermissions for bird watching, snorkeling, hiking, and time as well for reflection on the likes of Cook, Vancouver, Nimitz and Yamamoto.  Yet I’d like to know more, so, God willing, this winter we will cruise up the coast of Asia from Singapore to Shanghai with more questions to ask and experiences to treasure.  In the end, these two trips are pilgrimages in which the beginning is known but not the end, and the reasons for taking them uncertain.  I imagine that purists will criticize us on the grounds that we will but superficially taste very small portions as we go along.  Just two more American tourists whose only value is the dollar they leave behind for a trinket or two.  There can be a lot of truth to that, but we have also learned that informed looking and listening can reveal a lot in a short time.  Moreover, at our age we are looking and listening to taste as much as we can of God’s creation, and are humbly grateful to be able to do so.
These two trips will be very different from other trips of pilgrimage we have taken.  A vacation trip in southern England some years ago turned out to be an unexpected pilgrimage into a profound encounter with our Anglican roots.  Other trips to Israel and parts of the eastern Mediterranean were more deliberate pilgrimages with planned beginnings and expected ends.  As with the nature of pilgrimages, our expected ends were not always fulfilled but what came in their places far exceeded them in the most wonderful ways.  These pilgrimages will be different: planned but with few expectations about what we might encounter and a sense of eagerness for the mysteries that lie ahead.

Life in Uzbeckistan

I have refrained from commenting on Glenn Beck for two reasons.  First, everyone else has already said most everything there is to say about him.  Second, I dislike giving him any more publicity that he already has.  But this last act of demagoguery got to me.  
Under the veneer of honoring veterans, restoring America’s traditional values and bringing us back to God, lies his recorded history of race baiting, paranoid, fear driven and frequently ignorant political propagandizing that, in the name of American democracy, points in the direction of autocracy, oligarchy, and white supremacy, under the banner of a bastardized version of Christianity with little regard for the constitutional rights of others.  
We’ve seen this before, much of it in the 1930s and some in the red scare tactics of the early 1950s.  The nation often appeared to be teetering on the brink, not of a more limited democratic government, but of a stronger autocratic government able to overcome those whom some believed cannot be trusted to govern themselves through representative democracy (see Jefferson’s first inaugural).  It never happened, but is was always scary. 
What troubles me about Beck is the tens of thousands who have bought into his fear mongering; who honestly believe that the country is going down the tubes unless they do something about it.  And, in an obscene turnabout, that which they want to do, in the name of freedom, would accomplish the opposite, and they don’t know it.  For instance, many of them are proud to call themselves libertarians, and libertarianism, as a counterweight to poorly thought out government programs and a reminder of the importance of individual rights, is a good thing.  On the other hand, libertarianism as a guiding principle of government leads directly to oligarchical rule.  Many favor a return to traditional American values that they see in the sentimental light of a Rockwell painting.  But those traditional values carried with them the subjugation of women, the racial superiority of whites, jingoistic nationalism, an emotionally strong but theologically weak patriotic civil religion using the name of Christ, and the power of the people kept out of the hands of the wrong people and in the hands of the right people.
What frightens them most, oddly enough, is that that is exactly what they believe is happening now, and they need to stop it.  They see that power they never had is slipping from their hands into the hands of people who do not look like them, and whom they believe cannot be trusted with power.  They see the orderly, predictable lives that existed only in their imaginations melting away.  They see the freedom of mythical rugged individualism that was theirs to be shared in communities of their own choosing threatened by similar freedoms assumed by others and forced upon them through communities not of their own choosing.  They live in a world of scarcity.  If someone else gets something, anything, it means deprivation for them.  They live in fear of loss in a world of scarcity in which the hard rules of competition for survival mean that some must win and some must lose.  To be a winner one must work hard to assure that the other loses.
How very sad is that?

It’s Back to School Time. Get Out Your Credit Card and Spend.

NPR’s Sunday morning marketplace show featured a piece on back to school consumer spending.  It’s down, in case you missed it.  What captured my attention was the expressed hope that consumers will soon return to their former spending patterns.  I certainly hope not. 
The bubble burst for lots of reasons, and one of them was the profligate way we spent by racking up credit card debt for what marketing gurus told us were the essentials that one MUST HAVE for back to school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, winter or spring break, and summer, not to mention the odds and ends of Easter, Fourth of July, Presidents‘ Day, etc.  Nothing from last year would do.  Nothing that failed to meet the test of ‘cool’ or ‘in’ or was not endorsed by the right celebrity would do.  Nothing that reeked of inexpensive or utilitarian would do.  
Those who could (or pretended to be able to) afford it bought the real thing from the right store with the right logo at an ego boosting high price.  Those who knew they couldn’t bought the glitzy knock off designed to fall apart about the time the next season started.  Some of the real things may have been just as cheaply made with the manufacturers wondering if the suckers would ever notice.    
The truly hopeful signs on this morning’s show included the observation that parents were buying things such as basic shoes, basic clothing and the necessary supplies for school based on perceived value for the dollar.  They appear to paying a little more for better quality but not a lot more for marketing hype.  If that trend continues into the many marketing seasons to follow for a few years, it will change our economy at a very fundamental level.
Some businesses built on little more than a name and some advertising will be gone.  Some businesses will have to pare back their offerings to only a couple of products that are currently offered as many that differ only by packaging.  More medium size regional agribusiness operations will replace enormous factory farms, and they will be obligated to demonstrate the quality of their products.  Big box stores will continue to do well, but their expansion will be slowed, and they also will have to demonstrate greater value for the dollar rather than just cheap prices.  That will lead to a resurgence of local operations that can successfully coexist.  It will mean higher prices for goods that last longer and perform better but not inflation.  It will mean more modest profits for the largest firms, but profits nonetheless.  It will mean increased satisfactory economic survival for small businesses.
That America would be healthier, more stable place, with more modest expectations for what a consumer driven economy can generate, and higher expectations for how we can be competitive in a global marketplace.  How likely is it?  Not very, if the marketing experts have their way.  They are not interested in health, modesty or stability.   They are not concerned about a bubble built on credit and debt.  Those who engineered the last bubble and made out like bandits figure they can do it again.  Those who lost their shirts figure they can outsmart it the next time.  Both are supremely confident in their ability to inspire foolish consumer spending through their marketing knowhow.  They may well be right. 

I Don’t Know

I don’t know.  That used to be an honorable answer to a question.  To hear someone admit that they didn’t know, rather than making up something, or offering an unsubstantiated opinion, was refreshing.  I’ve said it myself, not often to be sure, but I have said it.  
How did such a simple declarative sentence of professed ignorance get turned into an accusative declaration of implied threat or wrong doing.  The easiest way to pull it off is to preface it with a rhetorical question: “Is the president a secret Muslim?  I don’t know.”  “Is building a mosque near Ground Zero a good idea?  I don’t know.”  “Is reforming health care right for the nation?  I don’t know.”
As soon as you hear anyone preface “I don’t know” with a rhetorical question, run for safety to the nearest place of reason and sanity, if you can find one.  They are becoming quite rare.  There are only one or two within thirty miles of DC, and they’re kept secret.  There are none in the vicinity of Tea Party affiliated candidates.  Those in the vicinity of other candidates are very hard to find.  I know of a couple of bars that show promise.  The key is their ability to make a terrific Grey Goose martini well shaken; not everyone can.  I also know a coffee shop in an old shack out by the airport, but I’ll say no more about that.  Too many reasonably sane people jammed in there as it is. 

The Case of the Little Girl and the Two Gods

I have a very dear friend in her eighties who lives with two gods, both of whom keep her in a constant state of anxiety.  God number one is the biblical god of her childhood that was driven deep into her soul.  This god is known to her mostly as an accusing judge from whom no escape is possible except by the grace of Jesus Christ, which may come to some if their faith is right, but that is a huge question.  God number two is the devil.  Not the biblical devil, but the devil of long standing myth.  Exactly what the devil does is a mystery, but it’s clear that he has a lot of power and is control of more that happens on earth and in life than most people believe.   These two gods are ever present in her life and keep her in a constant state of near jeopardy.  
One certain characteristic of god number one is that he has a particular plan for every life, and nothing of any significance happens, whether for good or ill, that this god has not caused or allowed, and always for a reason.  To the extent that persons have free will, it is limited pretty much to using one’s powers of reason to discover god’s life plan and follow it, and to seek to understand why god caused or allowed to happen bad things and learn from that about amendment of life.  Failure to do that is a sign, if not a promise, that one is damned.  
Good things do not need much examination in part because her theology is combined with a solid individualistic work ethic that ascribes material well being to hard work and perseverance.  Poverty, on the other hand, is the product of laziness and lack of discipline, or a sign of god’s disfavor.   The obvious conflicts between her theology and work ethic do not trouble her, but they do add to the confusion she expresses whenever we talk about God, especially as revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus.  
The devil, ever lurking to ensnare, and probably in control of huge sectors of the world, is the anti-god in whom there is no hope at all.  His exact nature is unclear, but it is clear to her that we live as little more than pawns in the midst of a battle between these two gods.
Over the years she has listened to my sermons, attended some of my classes, and we have spent hours in conversation exploring these matters.  The God of our tradition, the God whom I know and love through Christ Jesus, the God whom I see revealed in scripture and in life, that God, remains just barely out of reach to her.  The peace of God that passes all understanding bypasses her.  The love of God that is abounding, steadfast and slow to anger is intellectually present but cannot find a place in her already occupied soul.  
What I want to know is who was it that, seventy or eighty years ago, stuffed her little heart so full of judgment and damnation, an accusing god and a threatening devil, that subjects her still to fear and anxiety about God and her own salvation?  I think Jeremiah has something to say to that person in words that some of us will hear on Sunday:
“What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?  …The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’…[but] prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”

A Garden With Weeds

Neighbors frequently comment about how beautiful our front yard looks with all its greenery, flowering pots and window boxes.  Those who come into our backyard ooh and aah over it.  It encircles the back side of the house with bushes, trees and flowering plants.  A small box garden is lush with herbs and tomatoes.  The grass is green and thick, except in the dogs’ favorite spot.  Dozens of birds fill the yard as they feed at the feeders and bathe and drink from the bird bath.  We love it.  But look a little closer.
A good deal of it adheres to my gardening philosophy: if it’s green and not prickly, it’s not a weed.  There are exceptions to the rule, many of them, but all the exceptions are purely subjective according to the mood of the day.  Volunteer seeding of flowers, known and unknown, come up each spring.  Something very weedlike, but with beautiful purple blossoms, flourishes among the roses and plants with exotic names.  The lawn is alive with yellow dandelions in early and late summer, grass that others treat with Roundup is abundant but not overwhelming.  We do overseed and fertilize with fish meal twice a year.  Our box garden is rich with herbs and tomatoes because I can’t seem to get anything else to grow.  Wonderful things are sprouting up under the bird feeders and I’m waiting to find out what they are.  
It seems to me that my garden is a great metaphor for the church, or at least what I think it should be like.  Except for the purely subjective exceptions part.  Clergy in our tradition have the canonical authority to exclude persons from Communion for just cause, but it is seldom used and for good reason. We are not competent judges when it comes to excommunication.  However, I do make some changes that may speak to life in the congregation.
For instance, we recently removed an old locust tree before it became a hazard to us and our neighbors.  Other trees were trimmed to get rid of dead limbs and strategically thinned to better withstand the winds around here.  Now and then we replant things to put them in a place where they might flourish better.  Things like that.  Congregations sometimes need to do the same thing if they are to remain healthy.
A garden rich with the abundance of things that grow, some exotic, some common, some unknown, some planted where we intended, some growing where they want.  The garden does need tending.  It needs water, nourishment and trimming.  But if they’re not prickly, they’re not weeds, or perhaps in the congregation one might say that if they are not toxic they are not weeds.

Not All Opinions Deserve Equal Respect

Earlier today a friend posted on Facebook her opinion that a mosque near Ground Zero was not a good idea.  Fair enough; she offered her opinion without guile or prejudice.  But it was followed by a number of comments from others equating Islam with terrorism, making tasteless jokes about “Osama/Obama,” indicating a lack of basic knowledge about Islam, sadly indicating a lack of basic knowledge about Christian history, and an unawareness of the existence of churches, synagogues and (I am told) one basement mosque that are already in the neighborhood.   Everyone has a right to his or her opinion.  That may be the only true right any of us has, but not all opinions are equal. Those based on solid, verifiable information deserve the greater respect, especially when dealing with issues that touch raw nerves. If one goal of terrorism is to generate fear and incite hatred then they may have won this round. 

Plots, Contraptions and Needful Things

Every now and then I pick up a Clive Cussler novel partly to see what sort of highly improbable Rube Goldberg plot he has come up with this time.   His stories are filled with tidbits of historical and current events combined with the elaborate conspiracies, Star Wars gadgets, Indiana Jones cliff hangers and Louis L’Amour heroic individualism, all of which are combined with events that seem to take place beyond the awareness of the public even when they involve something as obvious as Godzilla tromping through Tokyo or King Kong tumbling from the Empire State Building. 
How ridiculous can one get?  And yet, exaggerated as his plots may be, they are not unlike the way so many of us behave as we lay down the plans for our lives and attempt to manipulate the lives of others.  We make simple things unnecessarily complicated.  We posit simple minded solutions to complex issues.  We love conspiracies even if only as neighborhood gossip.  We too often act as if the consequences of our behavior will have little effect on or be known to others around us.  We concoct improbable rationales for irrational decisions.  And we wonder why life is so complicated.  Maybe that’s what makes Clive such a successful writer for our times.  His stories represent something like a stamp of approval for the adolescent fantasies we often try to live out as adults. 
Life does get complicated, but, as Jesus reminded Martha, we can be worried and distracted by too many things; only a few things are needful.  We cannot avoid the ‘too many things.’  They are out there all the time.  It’s the being worried and distracted in too many ways by too many things that we need to avoid.  It’s the few things that are needful that we are to keep as the focus of our lives.  
The too many things about which we become too worried and too distracted are what cause us to create our own Rube Goldberg contraptions and Clive Cussler plots.  Goldberg’s contraptions always worked but inefficiently and for no useful purpose.  Our contraptions are equally inefficient, their useful purposes exists mostly in our imaginations, and they rarely work.  Cussler’s plots always end with the heroes winning and the villains losing, but our plots can’t keep heroes and villains straight and seldom result in an acceptable resolution of anything.  
What are the few needful things we are to keep in focus so that our lives might be a little less complicated, a little less filled with anxiety and a little more filled with blessings?  Love God, love our neighbor, love one another a Christ loved us.  That’s it.
I wonder why that simple, but difficult to live, solution is so often met with rolled eyes and rejection as just more sentimental religious claptrap that gets in the way of real life and real problems.  Maybe the writers of Psalms 14 and 53 wondered the same thing.  I wonder what you wonder?  Post a comment and let me know.  In the meantime I must get on with planning my contraptions and plots.  

Judges, Micah and Campfire Stories

Those of us who use the two year Daily Office lectionary are in the midst of Judges, the bible’s version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales populated by every sort of villain and hero with literary morals buried in unexpected places.  I’ve often wondered what caused this collection of stories to come to us in the form that we now have them, and whether they were used by the teachers as entertaining object lessons within a deeper catechism of the faith.  
This morning, for instance, we were introduced to Micah and a young “Levite” from Bethlehem.  It’s an odd story right from the start.  Micah stole an enormous fortune in silver from his mother and then gave it back.  His mom, grateful to him for returning what he stole, celebrated by having some of the silver cast into an idol that was installed in a classy little household shrine.  Micah was at least old enough to have a son whom he installed as an ersatz priest for this no mix, no fuss, instant religion.  That’s Micah.
Then along came the young “Levite” from Bethlehem who had been previously introduced as being of the family of Judah.  Now one can either be of the tribe of Judah or the tribe of Levi, but it has to be one or the other.  So it appears that our young “Levite” was masquerading as a legitimate levitical priest, possibly because he truly desired to be one.  In any case, the story will go on for a few more days in which the plot will be enriched by duplicity upon duplicity climaxed by the story of the tribe of Dan, whose ethical behavior makes Pancho Villa’s gang look like a band of angels.
What we get out of the book of Judges is the story. What we don’t get is the extended moral teaching that must have followed from it.  That is left to our imagination.  Suppose you were telling this story, with appropriate eerie embellishments, sitting around the bonfire at church camp.  How would you finish it as a moral lesson that would bring the campers back to a greater, more profound awareness of their own lives in relationship with God?  Would it include anything at all about the presumed prehistory of these people that included Moses, Joshua and Deuteronomy?  Would there be a place for Jesus and the Resurrection?  Does it relate in any intelligible way to our own day and time as experienced by campers around a bonfire?  How about to business executives around a conference table?

Some Thoughts on The Public Interest

First a disclaimer.  Last night I wrote a brilliant post on the question of public interest.  My complex argument was bullet proof, the logic impeccable; it was an intellectual masterpiece.  Then I did something to erase the whole thing.  What follows is a mere shadow of what was lost, and humankind will ever be the lesser for it. 
I closed a recent post with the following paragraph:

The point is that individual greed can always be counted on to undermine the public interest if given the chance.  Therefore, the question should not be about limited government, but about effective government, regardless of size, that is capable of striking  the right balance for current and anticipated conditions that both optimizes individual and corporate freedom to act while protecting the public interest.  That, of course, brings us to the next question: What is the public interest?  We will take that up anon, but a quick review of previous posts will point in the right direction.

What is the public interest?  It seems to me that the public interest has to do with the structures, systems and values that define our communities, states, regions and nation.   Each of them is a debatable matter, and debate is essential for us to come to provisional agreements about what is in the public interest for the times and conditions that are present or anticipated soon.  Our foundational documents provide both the basic structures for doing that and the ideals that point in the right direction.  
Those ideals combine a passion for individual rights with limitations to prevent the systemic privileging or oppression of one segment of society over another.  Moreover, our understanding of what constitutes unwarranted privilege or oppression has changed over the years.  The standards of the 18th century cannot do for the 21st.  
My own understanding of the public interest draws a little on John Rawls (1921-2002), and heavily on the work of W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993), a statistician who turned his attention to understanding economic systems in the work place.  One of his principles was that unless a system is structured to give the workers what they need to be successful, it is pointless to hold them accountable for performance.  Transferring that to the realm of the public interest suggests that a society that creates or tolerates conditions that militate against the potential for success in the lives of ordinary citizens cannot then hold those citizens accountable for their failure to do better.  
What conditions are needed for the average citizen to enjoy the potential for success?  I suggest that they include the best in educational opportunity; freedom from oppression, bigotry and prejudice; fair and equitable taxes; fair and equitable courts; fair and equitable access to governmental decision making; public policies that reflect the ideals of stewardship of all resources; fair and equitable access to those resources, and the like.  In other words, the public interest is about the health of the community and the health of the relationships that exist within it.  It is about building up and preserving community.  Perhaps not surprisingly, public policies that strengthen and protect the public interest also promote a robust ethic of individual accountability – a very American value.

Political agendas that emphasize the aggrandizement of power and wealth for those who are already powerful and wealthy are not in the public interest.  Political agendas that emphasize the rights of some individuals to exclude, oppress or otherwise limit the freedom of other individuals are not in the public interest.  Political agendas that absorb national resources for purposes that provide little or no benefit to the building up of the community are not in the public interest.  
Obviously the question of public policy deserves more than a short post, especially a reconstructed one, but it may serve to encourage some thinking and conversation.