Skylights for the Soul

My wife, Dianna, will soon have a couple of skylights in her studio to let the light shine in.  The project got me thinking about what we have to do to let the light shine into our own lives.  It seems to me that there are two problems.  One is that we are too eager to sing “This little light of mine” when, in plain fact, we do not have a light, little or otherwise.  The other is that we give too little thought to the work required to allow God’s light to shine into us, much less through us to others.  
I continue to struggle with the discontinuity between what we profess, and sometimes sing about, in worship and how that gets lived out in daily life.  Maybe my angst comes from living in a conservative region where the few who profess to be Christian also tend toward the politics of rugged individualism based on a social ethic firmly rooted in the brambles of 19th century laissez faire with no apparent awareness of how much their own lives have been made possible by public policies that have organized collective resources for their benefit.
At the same time, I wonder how I, as pastor and teacher, can be more effective in helping those whom I am called to lead to adopt whatever personal disciplines will work for them that will allow God’s light to shine into their souls.  While I’m at it, I wonder about that for myself as well.  Perhaps you do also.  What is needed for there to be skylights of the soul?  How many have them and what do they say about them?  How many know they don’t, and what do they have to say about that?  How many don’t have a clue one way or the other, and don’t care?

Rural Clergy as Teams?

I attended a regional clergy gathering yesterday.  Between active and retired clergy I think there were maybe fifteen of us, plus the bishop.  We were gathered from an area extending maybe 160 miles from one end to the other in which there are ten parishes that, on a map, are strung out on an arcing line following the Yakima and Columbia River valleys.  It was a good meeting, a reunion of sorts for clergy who are not very often able to gather like this.
We began, like good clergy do, with a little prayer and bible study, notably Ephesians 4.11-16 in which we are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ.  There were three questions for reflection that were to lead our group discussion:
  • In what ways do we, as a clergy team, honor the diversity of gifts among us?
  • In what ways doe we, as a clergy team, cultivate the unity that God intends for us?
  • In what ways can our example “promote the body’s growth here in our diocese?
I had a problem with the questions and it centered on the word team.  What is a team?  Think of the teams you know about or played on.  At some level they are organized, trained, disciplined and coordinated to pursue a common goal within certain rules of engagement.  I am on some church teams in our diocese.  The boards and committees on which I serve are teams that work pretty well.  I am on some teams here in town; one at the local Adventist hospital is especially rewarding since they have made room for and honored my presence as an Episcopalian.  
The group gathered around the table at yesterday’s clergy meeting was not a team.  We are colleagues in some sense.  For the most part, we are genuinely fond of each other.  We even work together in twos and threes from time to time and for particular reasons. Each of us, in our own congregations, has teams with which we work, but as a group gathered for this day of collegiality and prayer, a day which we will not see again for many months, we are not a team.  It was a good day.  We rejoiced in each other’s company.  We all think we should do it more often, but our lives filled with congregational leadership, families and community obligations make it unlikely.   
Noting the rural nature of our diocese with its long distances between towns and cities, the old bugaboo of isolation was raised, but it seemed to sink almost as fast as it arose.  We are not isolated, we are separated by distance.  Isolation evokes images of solitary confinement in which one either has no access to others or is prevented from enjoying whatever access might be around.  We are not isolated unless we choose to be isolated.  We are separated by long distances, and, if we want the face-to-face company of other Episcopal clergy, it takes some effort to make that happen.  
That brings up the issue of honoring the diversity of gifts among us.  Because we are not able to socialize frequently as a group, we really don’t know each other well enough to know what gifts each may have.  That is not universally true.  There are clusters of clergy, two here, three there, who live near each other, like each other, and get together often enough to know each other quite well.  But as a group?  No.  
In the end, I believe that the desire to see widely dispersed clergy in a rural area working together as a well oiled team is an impractical expectation.  What is both desirable and practical is the expectation that they can become more collegial, and that’s a good thing.

Of Gangs and Parasites

Gangs are a problem in many communities in our part of the country.  For the most part they have migrated up from California along drug distribution routes and preyed mostly, but not exclusively, on young first and second generation Mexican immigrants.  Our valley had been spared most of it until recently, but slime tends to spread into unlikely places if it can find a path of little resistance.  And so, perhaps due to our own complacency, we seem to have a gang problem just like many others in the Pacific Northwest. 
Whatever else they are, gangs are essentially parasitic.  They can only exist if there is a reasonably healthy host community on which to feed.  They add nothing of value and their only product is the erosion and slow death of the good things of community life.  When illegal drugs are added to the formula, as they often are, they make users and addicts in our community directly complicit in the ravages of rape and killing rampant among the drug lord wars south of the border.  
The motivation for gang membership has been explained in many ways, and perhaps it is asking too much for middle school age recruits to think about gangs as parasites.  But it’s not asking too much to be assertive about letting gang leaders know that they are parasites.  And it’s not too much to ask that the community itself do its own hard work of self inoculation against parasitic infection.  For instance, I’ve heard several well informed citizens argue for more resources for law enforcement to deal with gangs.  Good for them, but it’s not enough.  The community cannot rely on the police and sheriff’s office to do all the work.  It’s not just a law enforcement problem.  It’s a problem that has something to do with our willingness to tolerate community conditions that invite and nourish parasitic gangs.  Education, housing, racism, neighborhood conditions, neighborhood leadership, public health, access to personal health care, economic development providing jobs with some hope for a decent standard of living, all that and more are conditions that must be addressed to create an environment in which the community prospers and gangs don’t.  
It’s not an easy task.  Communities that dump it all in the laps of law enforcement can expect little more than rear guard actions.  Communities that try to get by on the cheap, who, in miserly anxiety, are afraid to invest in present and future needs for a healthy community, are just setting themselves up for gangs to prosper.  Our community is proud of its fiscal conservatism.  When that turns into mean spirited cheapness, the doors to decline are opened wide and parasitic infection is invited in.  

Sex and the Golden Man

I attended a lecture Arthur Schlesinger maybe twenty-five years ago in which, reflecting on his recent book, he talked about the impending tribalization of America.  It was happening, he said, but it was not a good thing.  Someone asked what was needed to counteract it.  Sex, he said.  Michener had a similar thought in his 60s era book, Hawaii, where he idealized the “Golden Man,” the Hawaiian of whom it could not be said which race was his dominant feature.  
I thought about that when I officiated at my Goddaughter’s wedding a few days ago.  The melange of what we usually call characteristics of ethnicity and race (whatever that means) made it impossible to say for certain who was there, using those old stereotypes.  European, African, Hispanic and Indian were mixed in such complex ways that the most one might say is that these are Americans.  
It’s still common to want to put people into clearly marked boxes that we assign to skin color: black, white, brown, etc.  To that we often demand the addition of ethnic or cultural identifiers such as: African, Mexican, Chinese, Caribbean, and, of course, Ordinary, meaning white Northern European fully immersed in the cultural ethnicity of Middle America.  Needless to say, rank and file Ordinary people would take issue with that as they claim their unique ways of being Southern, New Englanders, Northern Californians, etc.  It’s a dubious claim, but if it makes them feel better it’s OK with me. 
The point is that something new is happening, and it’s happening among a new generation that rejoices in their ethnic heritage without letting it strangle their self identity or shutter their engagement with others who are not like themselves.  I doubt if Michener’s Golden Man will ever emerge as the norm, but Schlesinger was right, plain old sex is making a difference. 

A National Consensus on being American

Somewhere back in the early ‘80s, I wrote an essay asserting that the cultural disequilibrium caused by the civil war was not finally worked out until the voting rights act of a hundred years later.  At the same time, I opined that the cultural upheaval of the Vietnam Era might take almost as long to work itself out.  It was during that period when long trusted symbols and institutions of American cultural stability were challenged by all and rejected by many, but nothing was offered in their place.  
The roles of the church, women, sex, marriage, fraternal organizations, business and government were called into question.  If no one over thirty could be trusted, then no one could be trusted.  Almost forty years have gone by, and I don’t think we’ve got it worked out yet.  The current media driven popularity of Tea Party type politics and the hard right wing turn in Congress, is, in my opinion, the death throes of a time gone by, a time recalled in heavily filtered memories of the 1950s.  They accuse the president of having no new ideas, but all of theirs are relics of a former age that have never been successful in promoting economic or social well being.  Their only achievement has been to make the rich richer, the middle class poorer, and the poor locked in the prison of their poverty.  The Horatio Alger rags to riches yardstick for what anyone can do with a little pluck and hard work is true mostly in romantic fiction, seeing reality in a few well known cases where pluck and hard work were aided by extraordinary circumstances of good luck frequently abetted by ethically challenged cunning.
However, the current dominance of that kind of so called conservatism raises an interesting question. What happened to all the hippie radicals of former decades?  There weren’t that many of them to begin with. They just made a lot of noise, not unlike the hard right wingers of today.  Moreover, someone once said that today’s radicals are tomorrow’s stuffed shirts.  So who knows?  What about all the ordinary liberals?  The left wing, hard nosed community organizer Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals) had no love for rank and file liberals whom he considered to be weak kneed, bumbling, incompetent do-gooders lacking the courage to do the hard work of political change.  Maybe he was right.  In any case, it is today’s right wingers who have learned how to apply Alinsky’s methods to their brand of politics.
The point is that the national consciousness, if there is such a thing, has not yet figured out what it means to be an American in a way that the country can more or less agree to.  Anxiety surrounding the aftermath of 9/11 has not helped.  It has only fertilized the ground for seeds of unwarranted fear and xenophobic hysteria aided and abetted by the worst of yellow journalism.  One possible outcome could be the election of a right wing government in 2012.  That would drive the nation into the nether world of an even deeper recession accompanied by attempts to restrict civil liberties while unleashing opportunities for greater domestic violence and environmental degradation.  If elected, it would be the government we deserve.   It might also be the bitter medicine we need to swallow so that we can come to more stable national consensus of who we want to be as classically liberal Americans.

The Art and Artifice of Begging

We saw quite a few beggars in both Barcelona and Paris, cities where we spent enough time to get around on our own.  They seemed to come in three sets.  The first were women of an uncertain age, always dressed in something that looked vaguely North African.  Some came, cup thrust out, in a straightforward, pleading way, offering a very well rehearsed and abundantly sarcastic thank you when no coin was given.  Others assumed prayer poses in the middle of the sidewalk where they would stay motionless for a very long time.  It’s just a con, we were warned, and I agree, but they were still excruciatingly poor and their form of begging is humiliating, hard work with little to show for it at the end of the day.  I noticed that those most likely to give a coin were truck and cab drivers, and other less poor people passing by.    
The second set were young men who set up blankets in public places on which they displayed cheap trinkets for sale.  I’m not sure but suspect that they were well warned to scoot at the first sign of police.  They also were very poor and, for the most part, sufficiently unclean to be smelled before seen.  The third set were young women looking less poor and a good deal cleaner who professed to be deaf mutes seeking signatures and donations for a deaf charity.  They were in many places, but we enjoyed watching one group in lively conversation on the steps of a church during their break. 
Who knows, maybe they are all related in some way.  Outright begging, shoddy merchandise and gentle scams all add up to one thing.  They are still poor, and it is a lousy, humiliating way to make a living.  Probably the best thing about it is the psychological payoff to have separated some money from “the rich” thus achieving some small sense of victory.  Who are “the rich?”  For them it was anyone who gave a coin or bought a piece of junk.  As I said, I think most of that came from people only a little better off.  The rich do give, but it’s mostly through pickpocketing.

We rich tourists may not like it much.  What we don’t have is any right to be smug or haughty as is our wont to do.

Reentering the Womb

We went on our first cruise many years ago.  It was the Alaska cruise up the inland passage in celebration of my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. The whole family went as it then existed, all sixteen of us.  None of our children were married yet.  One nephew was young enough that we worried about his whereabouts and safety.  The excitement of it all, the novelty of a ship and the extraordinary scenery made it a trip of a lifetime that each of us remembers as the very best time.  
The years have fled. Our children are now in their forties.  Our oldest grandchild has her drivers license.  By age alone I have become the patriarch of the family.  A few years ago we rediscovered cruising as a way to see parts of the world that we might not otherwise have the chance.  To be sure, it’s only a sampling, but one can experience and learn a lot from observant sampling.  We recently returned from Europe on a trip that included, as part of it, a cruise from England, across the Channel to stops in Holland, Belgium, France, Portugal and Spain.
It was on that part of the trip that I began to think of the cruise ship as a womb experience, which may help explain why it is such a popular way of travel.  The womb is the ultimate safe haven in which the developing child has every need met without asking and without responsibility.  Birth is the traumatic exit from that Eden into a world in which demands must be made, responsibility learned and consequences endured.  No wonder psychological theory has often focussed on the womb and birth as a key to emotional problems in adulthood.  No matter how much we might like it, we cannot return to the secure, nourishing environment of the womb.  Or maybe we can.
A cruise ship is something like a womb for adults.  It is, even on the largest ships, a tightly compact, secure place in which every need is provided.  Nourishment in almost any form is provided day and night.  Staterooms are cleaned and replenished as if by magic.  Entertainment abounds in every venue.  Pools, spas and workout rooms pamper the body.  The digitally encoded ship’s ID card establishes one’s right to be on board, and gives the added illusion of the ability to afford whatever one wants at any time with a simple swipe and a personal thank you by name.  At ports of call one can experience something like birth by leaving the ship and entering an alien world.  Like newborns everywhere, the newly birthed are often whisked off to nurseries in the shape of tour busses attended by nurses in the form of English speaking guides.  The more adventuresome can go on their own, but like toddlers everywhere they seldom go far.  They test their new freedom with some apprehension and are generally quick to return.  
Unlike the reality of human birth, cruise passengers are able to reenter the womblike security of the ship at the end of each day’s landing.  And I think this is key.  For many, the psychologically infantile desire to reenter the womb may be little more than a fantasy worked out on the therapist’s couch, but I suspect that it is a subconsciously lived reality for many cruise ship passengers.  The womb can be reentered!  Security, for a price, can again be yours.  The excitement of new birth at each port is made less anxiety ridden by the sure and certain knowledge that the womb awaits one’s return.  I suspect that is also why the last night on board is so difficult for many.  It is time to leave the fantasy of the infantile and reenter the world of the adult in which the maternal womb is not even a memory.