Our Tuesday morning clergy group had the usual Ascension Sunday conversation about whether Jesus’ rising on or through the clouds as he ascended to heaven above is to be taken literally. Did it really happen that way, or is it the memory of things hoped for, perhaps experienced emotionally rather than physically? The story was real enough for me as a small Sunday school child that I had hopes of landing on a cloud in a plane. I was amazed and terribly disappointed when it didn’t happen. So much for Jesus riding a cloud elevator up to heaven.
Some weeks ago I was asked to give the keynote address at the annual convention of a statewide organization. The subject seemed a bit vague, something about life, or maybe leadership, the man said. About how long? “Oh, as long as you want, we have all morning.” You know as well as I do that getting something good out of this was going to be difficult, but it was an exceptional honor and so I agreed.
I decided to resurrect some old notes used in leadership classes years ago, and that were based on a fascinating lecture I had attended by one of the Drs. Menninger some forty years ago. The subject was developing the habits of emotional maturity as keys to enjoying the fullness of life. I worked up a draft, had it approved by my editor in chief (wife), reworked it a couple of times, and felt comfortable with it.
Yesterday was the day. The presider, hurried by many last minute details, collared me to ask what it was I was going to do again – an invocation or benediction or whatever they call it? Not a good sign. How would I like to be introduced? Did I have anything written down? I gave him a one paragraph intro. “I don’t like to read things out loud,” he said, “I’ll just wing it.” Another dark omen.
So there I was staring out at four hundred disinterested faces who had no idea who I was, or why I was asked to speak, or even if a speech was on the agenda. I’ve been a teacher, preacher and public speaker for most of my adult life, but I confess that my usual savoir faire was hiding somewhere. I plodded on, got politely warm applause, and made my escape. Another humbling, not humiliating, but humbling experience. For what it’s worth, here is a short version of what I had to say.
Before you start looking for the exit, I promise, no altar call or anything like it. What I do want you to consider is the fullness of life that we are all called to enjoy, that some of us run away from, that some of us find, and that most of us struggle with, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. In other words, you’re no good to others if you are not good to yourself, and you’re not good to yourself if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you and in you to take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Entering into the fullness of life requires the cultivation of the ability to honestly deal with reality without getting bent all out of shape about it. Too many of us live in half worlds of self deception, pretending that the world is something other than what it really is. Too many of us live fearful lives, constantly afraid of what other people think about us or do to us. A full life requires us to be honest about who we are and where we are, and not waste emotional energy worrying about what others think because others are too busy thinking about themselves to give us much notice anyway.
Honesty about reality, about who we really are, and what the world really is, requires the ability to deal with change easily, to be adaptable to changing conditions and issues. Nothing in life has ever stood still, but change seemed to come at a more leisurely pace not too many years ago. My dad was able to build an entire career on the engineering education he received in college in the late 1930s. You know that your technical knowledge is obsolete almost before you leave the classroom. The same is true for almost everything else in life. The pace of change is close to the speed of light. You must be flexible, adaptable and willing at all times to learn new things. What gives stability to and makes sense out of all this change is to be firmly grounded in honestly knowing yourself and the core values that guide your life decisions.
Let’s face it, you’ve got responsibilities to your self, your family, your employer, your community and to the particular clients you encounter each day. It’s one hell of a balancing act, and it requires flexibility. A person with a rigid, black and white personality who can only see right or wrong, good or bad, does not possess the tools needed to handle it. That rigid black and white way of thinking and acting may look strong, but it’s brittle and is easily broken. One must develop the discipline of flexibility, and it is a discipline.
The key to developing that discipline is learning how to be free from symptoms of unwarranted apprehension or anxiety. My boss once reminded his audience that no amount of worrying could add a single hour to your span of life or change the color of your hair. He warned that we spend too much time worrying about things we can’t do anything about or that never happened. We fail to spend enough time delighting in the good things of life that surround us on every side. That’s not to say that we don’t have things to worry about or be anxious about, we do. Each day brings it’s own, so deal with them as they come, and don’t invent more than there are.
Avoiding unnecessary worry is not the same thing as being unprepared. You plan and train all the time for unlikely events that may seldom or never happen. Sitting around chewing nails worrying about an earthquake won’t gain anything. Planning and training for it will, and it will also take away the need to worry about it. The same is true for everything else in life. Good planning and training disarms the bogeyman of anxious worry.
The antidote is the habit of generosity. There are many ways to be generous. Some of us are able to give away substantial amounts of money. Some of us are able to give away even greater amounts of love and care for our fellow human beings. Some of us are able to give away our time and talents to help where help is needed. It’s that same attitude of generosity that you must take into the outside world beyond the world of work. It is not easy to be generous in a hostile environment, and right now you live and work in a hostile political environment in which it is popular for you to be demeaned by public leaders. I can’t think of a more important role for you than to demonstrate the virtue of generosity in the community and to the community by doing for the neediest in our neighborhoods what you do for your own. It’s not a new idea. I know a fellow by the name of Paul who, quite a few years ago, wrote words of similar advice:
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I think Paul may have gone a little overboard using language like enemies and burning coals, but then he was never known for his diplomatic skills.
The fact is that we have to interact and get along with all kinds of people that we don’t agree with, don’t like and don’t always trust. Setting up all kinds of blustery defenses against them only leads backward to anxious fear, worry about scarcity, and rigidity in beliefs.
Going forward into the fullness of life requires the courage to find ways to relate to those people in mutually acceptable ways. That does not mean finding common ground, although we never want to rule that out. Too often the idea of common ground, finding few the things we can agree on, creates a very small playing field surrounded by the weapons we are unwilling to surrender. It doesn’t leave much to work with.
Finding ways to relate to others in mutually acceptable ways is different. It means learning to respect one another in the midst of differences. Often that means having the courage and patience to listen to the other’s story. What is it that defines their life, their beliefs and their attitudes. Knowing the other’s story opens the door to the possibility of mutually acceptable relationships without manufacturing some phony area of pretend agreement. The courage and patience to listen to one another’s stories is also a critical tool for improving marriages, surviving teenage children, and getting through a day at work with the person you least want to work with.
It’s all about living into the fullness of life in the midst of the changes and chances that life brings. Why would anyone want less than that? Why would anyone want to live with the symptoms of unwarranted anxiety when there is so much fullness of life to enjoy? Why would anyone want to live with unproductive, toxic anger generated by fear and anxiety when the fullness of life is available? LIfe is an adventure. It deserves to be lived to the fullest in childlike excitement and curiosity about what lies ahead.
The local state public affairs channel featured an interview with two legislative leaders discussing the recently passed budget that contains drastic cuts in social services and education while retaining tax breaks for businesses. Contrary to network interview shows, the interviewer and two legislators conversed in rational, respectful words of ordinary volume with very few interruptions of each other.
One of the legislators argued the standard conservative line that only private enterprise creates jobs and wealth; government is an obstacle to both and must be restrained as much as possible. It’s a shame that social services and education had to be cut, but the budget had to be balanced, and the stage set for economic growth.
It makes sense if you don’t think about it too much. The argument sets up private enterprise and government as opposites, or, perhaps, opponents in a win-lose game. While that resonates with some people, it’s patently false. Private enterprise and government exist in a symbiotic relationship. Establishing the proper balance between the two is the work of political negotiation in which the reality of that symbiotic relationship is acknowledged and understood.
There are three basic sets of jobs that contribute to the economic prosperity of the state. One set includes jobs connected to the production of goods and services that are sold to others elsewhere in the world. These exports bring new money into the region adding to our wealth. The second set includes jobs connected to providing goods and services to others in the region. The efficiency of these jobs is measured in part by how many times a dollar brought in from exports can be spent before it disappears. The third set includes jobs connected to the creation and maintenance of the infrastructure that make the others possible. Some of the jobs exist in the private sector and some exist in the public sector, but all contribute to the economic wellbeing of the state.
Job and wealth creation require a physical and regulatory infrastructure that only government can provide. Taxes levied to provide that infrastructure are not a drain on the private sector, but an investment in it. Among the most important parts of that infrastructure are the health, safety and education of the people. Unregulated private enterprise has proved itself incapable of managing for either the public good or the long term good of its employees. Clearly government has at least two roles. One is to craft the environment in which private enterprise can flourish. The other is to assure that that environment provides for and protects the well being of its people.
It’s a tough balancing act. Regulate but not over regulate. Tax but not over tax, and tax fairly.
I think that in Washington State we have gone too far in piling the tax burden on those least able to carry it while letting some corporate interests and the very wealthy off the hook. We have gone too far in cutting social services while failing to give serious consideration to tax increases.
We have failed to recognize that government is indeed a generator of jobs and economic growth.
Andy the ten year old Shelty, very large for his breed, is dying. He’s got a rapidly growing tumor in his butt. The vet says it’s inoperable. He came into our lives as a very young puppy and was raised under the authority of Catmandu. That may be one reason why he had a hard time adjusting to other dogs. It may also explain some of his odd mannerisms, such as batting balls in a clumsy imitation of a cat. Mandu died at the ripe old age of 22. Andy’s ball batting turned into a respectable game of doggie soccer to which was added a vigorous round of backyard Frisbee.
Other dogs, or an other dog, came into his life a few years ago in the form of six month old Riley, an all boy West Highland Terrier who did everything he could to tempt Andy into playing like a dog. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time Andy remained aristocratically aloof, which did nothing to abate Riley’s adoration of him. On those occasions when Andy was taken somewhere alone, Riley would sit by the door and howl for an hour or more before finally lying down, not to move until the big guy returned.
Things are changing now, and fast. Andy is no longer confident that his rear legs will follow the ones in front, or that they will stand when the rest of him is trying to. Riley no longer tries to bait him into play. I’m his new target. Frisbee is still Andy’s favored game as long as he can stand no farther than three feet away. That way he can catch it and give it back without having to move.
I don’t know how long he will last. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a few months. No longer. He’s not in pain as far as I can tell. Yesterday he could still climb the stairs to Dianna’s studio, although it took him several minutes to make it. Coming back down was something like a moderately controlled fall. I’m not sure he can do it today. He seems content to lie down and be petted. We’ve tried to arrange rugs on our hardwood floors to give him more traction on his regular route from the bedroom to the back door. It’s a trek he prefers not to make unless absolutely necessary.
I wonder if Riley will howl his inconsolable howl when Andy is gone. Maybe I will too.
Pentecost Sunday. The overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit to lift up drooping hands and strengthen weak knees to go out in the public square and proclaim the good news of God in Christ in ordinary everyday language. That was then. What about now?
This morning I was asked why Episcopalians seem to be so scared of the dreaded ‘E’ word. For one thing, I don’t think it’s an Episcopalian illness but one that affects all mainline churches, including the Catholics. We got used to the idea that everyone in America was either Protestant or Catholic with a few Jews tossed in. As for Protestants, the primary question was what flavor one liked best without much thought given to dogma. If youngsters left the church shortly after confirmation, so what? They would be back when married with children of their own. That was never true, but it’s taken two or three generations for it to sink in. In the meantime, why would one even think about neighborhood evangelizing? Missionaries to the heathen, yes, by all means, and what a treat to hear their stories of far off exotic places! But me in my own community? Not a chance! That’s for those odd ball doorbell ringers, and we certainly Do Not want to be confused with one of them.
That’s one part of the problem. The second is more serious. Our faithful members don’t know the story well enough to tell it in plain, ordinary, everyday language. I filled in for a friend at another rural church this morning. One long time member leaned over to my wife just before the service began to ask what Pentecost was. She knew it meant wearing something red, but what else? She remembered learning something about it in Sunday School, but that was fifty years ago. Our wonderful people, the faithful ones who show up every Sunday (Saturday if you’re SDA), not only do not know the story well enough to tell it, they do not know why their particular Church worships the way it does and teaches what it teaches. Most important, they don’t know their own story well enough to tell it.
I’m not sure what to do about that. How do you inspire in an aging congregation the love of life long learning about God as we Christians have come to know and understand God? Maybe one way is to challenge the assumption that they don’t want to learn and are unwilling to try. I don’t buy that. I believe that new and youthful life in Christian discipleship is not just possible but would be highly desired and sought after if presented in the right way. Why let a few grumpy old men and women stand in the way? Ignore them and get on with teaching the story so that it can be told.
Our valley, like most others areas, has a growing gang problem. Compared to other places ours is minor, an irritant to the community rather than a serious danger. Gang members seem more interested in preying on each other than anyone else. They are minor traffickers in drugs, and, I suspect, moving into loan sharking in the wake of departing unprofitable payday loan operations. That’s just a guess, but if I was a gang leader it would look like easy money to me and a racket mostly out of sight of the good citizens of the town.
I’ve only had prolonged conversations with one gang member, and he seems not simply unaware but ignorant of the parasitic nature of the beast. I think that’s partly because he is also ignorant of what makes a community healthy. The ordinary lessons of high school civics did not take root. Like any parasite, gangs need a host on which to feed. It can give nothing of value to the host. It can only suck the life out of it until both it and the host are dead. The host does not need to be all that healthy, although it needs to exist in an environment where health is possible. Parasites such as gangs seem to thrive best on hosts that are marginalized elements of the greater community. More sophisticated gangs try to sell the idea to themselves and others that they are able to live in a symbiotic relationship with the community of the marginalized. It’s a cruel charade, but it can be persuasive for some.
Where the greater community is most closely linked to our local gangs is through drugs. Local drug users, especially teens and young adults, seem oblivious to the connection between their drug use, their local sources and the violence that is snuffing out lives throughout Mexico, and, increasingly, farther south. I wonder if it would help if there was something like a Surgeon General’s warning on each packet of marijuana or cocaine? “WARNING, you paid for two assassinations, five rapes and three persons tortured when you bought this packet.” I suppose it’s a naive idea, but the naivete of several young people I know who have used “recreational” drugs is overwhelming.
We’ve tried preaching and teaching against drug use from the health angle (“This is your brain on drugs”). It was ignored or sneeringly laughed off. I wonder if making it clear that drug use makes one an accomplice to murder, rape and torture would make a difference? Maybe. But I’ll suggest yet another possibility, and it goes back to the question of high school civics. If young people and adults alike do not understand what makes for a healthy community, how are they to be held accountable for creating and sustaining one? Schools, churches and local governments are the only sources I know of where that can be taught. But what good would even the best teaching do if all one ever witnesses of politics is the carnage of extremist political rhetoric punctuated by blatant hypocrisy and scandal?
You can see where this train of thought is going. What began with some observations about local gang activity has ended up in the lap of national political commentators and leaders. Moreover, I will be bold enough to assert that it is not a balanced problem – the left is as bad as the right and they should both clean up their acts. No, whatever the faults on the so called left may be, and they are legion, they do not compare to the outrage being perpetrated on the public from the so called right.
What’s the answer? I think you know, at least if you are willing to think about it a little. What’s the outlook? Not all that promising from where I sit.
We recalled the usual condescending put down of the three story universe. A red herring if there ever was one. It’s best just to ignore that silliness. But how to understand it?
I want to suggest that the Ascension was a literal event with metaphorical meaning. I see no reason why the resurrected Jesus could not literally ascend out of sight at the time of his choosing, but I don’t think that means that he went up from earth below to a place called heaven that is somewhere above.
To go up, to rise, to be promoted, thumbs up, the sky’s the limit; all are a part of our ordinary metaphorical language in which the direction of up is understood to have a broad, complex meaning associated with other words such as better, position, status and the like. The same is true for down and its cognates as words associated with demotion, sadness, failure, and so forth. It’s all metaphorical language. It’s why, at least in English, we have to be so careful. If up and down are meant to be taken literally, we must clearly show what it is that goes up or down and where that gets to. Otherwise we can, and frequently do, get into trouble.
The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is already with us, but we cannot appreciate it fully in this life. Whatever and wherever heaven is, some part of it can be an element of our lives now. Yet it seems just out of our reach somewhere above us. Is it really up, above our heads? I don’t think so. It’s just the language we use to express the sure and certain hope of a fuller existence in God’s presence, an existence that transcends bodily death.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense for Jesus to act out the metaphorical meaning of rising to heaven through the physical act of ascension. Of course none of this makes sense to those unwilling to recognize the resurrection, but that’s another issue.