A Lesson in Communication

I had a peculiar sort of unhelpful attempt at communication the other day.  It was the day after my eye surgery.  The post-op exam began with a nurse taking the usual vital signs and then asking how my eye felt.
What an odd question.  How was my eye supposed to feel?  I had a new eye, one that I had never had before.  What words would be useful in explaining what it felt like to me?    I was unfamiliar with it.  What would be the proper way for it to feel a day after surgery?  What would be an improper way?  For that matter, what does the word feel mean? 
Do you have any discomfort?, she asked.  Well, my eye had been taken apart and put back together again with some new parts, so, yes, I felt discomfort, but so what?  Wouldn’t that be normal?  What would be abnormal and worrisome?  Explain discomfort.  I needed better clues.
Can you see well?  Certainly I could see things I never saw before without strong glasses, but is that what well is?  Things were also blurry, which, I learned later is normal.  Should I have said something like, “Ah, yes everything is blurry, just like it’s supposed to be?”  The conversation was going nowhere, raising my level of anxiety, and her level of frustration.
Qualitative questions, such as How do you feel?, make sense only if there is some common sharing of what the particular feeling at issue is like under varying conditions that are often experienced in common ways.  For instance, we call it the common cold because it is a disease that is widely shared with symptoms that are similar enough for each of us to have some idea of what the other is feeling.  My guess is that that sort of commonality is more rare than it is common.
One might ask another clutching his chest, “Are you having a heart attack?”  A common response is often “I don’t know, I’ve never had one before.”  What’s common here is a shared ignorance of what a heart attack might feel like.  Colds and heart attacks are two examples that could lead to dozens of others, which might be entertaining but also lead us off track. 
It would have been helpful to me if the nurse had given me a rundown of sensations that would be normal for a person to experience after successful surgery.  I could have agreed that I experienced those sensations, or described others.   In two weeks I will go back for surgery on the other eye, and, having some experience to build on, will have some idea of what to expect.  I’ll be able to say something to the nurse based on at least the beginnings of a shared vocabulary.  
I don’t expect to go through eye surgery again when this is all done, and that makes it a unique event in my life.  My vocabulary about the event will be limited and soon forgotten.  But it’s not a unique event in the lives of the clinicians who do it day after day.  For them it’s a common event with a large shared vocabulary to use in discussing facts, thoughts and feelings. 
The same thing is true for most patients passing through our hospitals and clinics.  The patient experiences a unique event for which they have a very limited vocabulary that is not shared in common  with their ordinary, daily acquaintances.  The clinicians experience a common event for which they have a very large vocabulary held in common.  How will they ever make sense to each other?  Do they possess enough patience to make it happen?  Not very often, I’ll bet.
So let’s leave the clinic behind.  What about other arenas?  I’m a pastor and counselor.  My days are filled with theology, philosophy and psychology.  I have a circle of friends with whom I can converse at length through a shared vocabulary that is rich in history, tradition, and nuance of meaning.  But the people who sit in the pews each Sunday, or who are visiting with me in my living room, are not fluent in God talk and psychobabble.  Some of them are familiar enough with church behavior and worship to get along with ease as long as things don’t change too much.  For others, it’s a unique experience for which they have almost no vocabulary and do not know what to expect. 
The burden is on me to do two things.  First, and by far the most important, is to learn something of their vocabulary, enough to discover places where my conversation with them might begin.  They must be the teacher, and I the student.  The second, and less important, is to begin to teach them enough of the language of God talk, or psychobabble, for their conversation with me to begin.  For example, I’ve been a fire chaplain for about ten years.  It took two or three years for me to learn enough of their language to earn trust and enter into a competent level of conversation.  On the other hand, and for the most part, they are not interested in learning God talk or psychobabble, and that’s OK.  It seems to be enough for them that someone who does know that language is there to love and care for them.  I’m not very good at either, but sometimes good enough is good enough. 
The thing is, it’s not all about professionals.  It’s also about you and me as friends, neighbors, and strangers who happen to bump into each other.  It would be insanity to think that we could be intimate with everyone we meet.  Jesus, it seems, could do that, but we are not Jesus.  What we can do is to learn something of the vocabulary that is unique to each of the persons in our many circles of family, friends, co-workers and close acquaintances.  We don’t have to learn it all.  This isn’t therapy or inquisition.  We only have to learn enough for authentic conversation to begin.   
Too often, we are not willing to do even that. I meet each Tuesday with a small clergy group to study the lectionary.  It’s always enjoyable, but one member consistently finishes other’s statements and questions, and is usually wrong.  She is, I suspect, disinterested in the other other’s vocabulary.  Another takes every story told by the other and incorporates it into a story of her own as if the other had never spoken.  Worlds other than the world in which she lives appear to be of little interest because they don’t really exist.  Having said that, I wonder how they would describe my ignorance, illiteracy and arrogance?  Yet we struggle together week after week, year after year, to better understand God’s word, and to find ways to love each other.  Sometimes good enough is good enough, and love really does cover a multitude of sins.
The lesson, if there is one, is to work on the discipline of always and everywhere asking two questions: What vocabulary am I using, and is it common between us?  What vocabulary is she using, and do I know enough of it to begin an authentic conversation.
Any thoughts to add?

Simplicity, Complexity and Facts

A very conservative friend, not quite but bordering on Tea Party extremism, posted a cartoon on Facebook ridiculing an ABC newscast assuming the Aurora shooter may have had Tea Party connections, and then having to retract it moments later.  Another conservative friend posted and angry statement about liberals, who fail to check the facts, leaping to the conclusion that guns should be prohibited.  I was not surprised, but disappointed just the same, that they seem to have no recognition of the assumptions and conclusions to which they jump without the slightest bit of reliable evidence to support them.  It’s the old problem of the speck in the neighbor’s eye and the log in one’s own.
Nevertheless, they had a point.  ABC was guilty.  Jumping to conclusions without first checking the facts is a serious problem.  We do it all the time based on nothing more than unreflective assumptions based on attitudes and beliefs that are themselves rarely examined.  When conclusions come out of assumptions followed by facts contrived to support them, we have problems.  The banality of common gossip is an example of which we are all aware because we all engage in it without giving much consideration to the harm it may cause.  
The movie star and super market tabloid press of past decades made a lot of money out of gossip mongering.  Relatively few of us took seriously anything they printed.  It was just entertainment.  We knew the gullible ones who believed all without the slightest doubt.  It never occurred to them to ask, Is it true?  It was a little discouraging, but in the scheme of things it didn’t matter a lot.  The National Enquirer just didn’t have much influence in the national debate.  Their gullible readers were not thought and opinion leaders in our communities.
The national debate could get hot, tempers could flair, goofy ideas could gain some traction, but, for the most part, the agents of debate including the press, network news, and political leaders, were serious about the issues, challenged each other in good faith, and believed that some form of agreement would eventually be worked out.  It was not always pretty.  The civil rights and Vietnam debates tore the country apart.  Johnson was a ruthless arm twister and Nixon was a crook.  But always there were influential pubic voices asking, Is it true?  How do we know?  Is the evidence verifiable?  What else is involved?  How can we work together to move on?
Things have changed in many ways, and not for the good.  Conservative talk radio honed the art of interpreting events to match assumptions, manipulating data to imitate facts in support of predetermined conclusions, and contorting monologues into diatribes of attack and ridicule.  Fox News brought that style into television, as did a few important newspapers.  Audiences swelled as their own worst fears and prejudices were fed with fodder that reinforced and encouraged them.  Political strategists, using every bit of the transformation, employed blitzkrieg, take no prisoners and never back down tactics as the most efficient way to gain and keep political power.  The worst of Tammany Hall has become the archetype for a significant portion of the electorate.
Moreover, anything smacking of intellectualism or the academy seems to have become suspect as significant numbers of the electorate take refuge in the glorification of ignorance.  Scientific theory is dismissed as nothing more than the opinions of elitist academics, opinions no better and probably worse than whatever opinions you or I hold.  “Oh, it’s just a theory,” means “Oh, it’s just an opinion, and probably not a good one at that.”
The important question of Is it true? is too easily answered with claims to facts, taken out of context, without regard to an understanding of the relationships that tie a multitude of things together.  
Complex issues are made to look simple, and simple solutions are made to look virtuous.  There appears to be little understanding that there is a huge difference between understanding complexity in simple ways, and reducing complexity to simplicity by ignoring inconvenient evidence.  The quest for simple solutions to complex problems has merit only if one understands the web of consequences that even the best of simple solutions initiate.
Evidence that affirms one’s assumptions is seldom checked for accuracy.  Evidence that challenges one’s assumptions is disregarded if it cannot claim 100% accuracy.  Black and white certitude is lionized.  It cannot accommodate the shades of gray in the world in which we live, but that doesn’t matter if one ignores or denies the existence of gray.
I’m curious to see how this all works out, and, frankly, not all that hopeful.

Holding Teachers Accountable

Correctly understanding what I read in the press these days is increasingly problematic.  But if I understand it right, No Child Left Behind, and similar programs, measure teachers by the performance of their students on standardized tests.  If that is right, it’s among the silliest ways of measuring performance ever.  Teachers should be measured by the performance of teachers, not by the performance of students.  
You might recall the classic 1975 essay by Steven Kerr, “On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B.”  The point he made then, and which we have not yet learned, is that individuals and organizations often tell people that they want a particular behavior or outcome, but they reward something different, frequently something at odds or incompatible with what is desired.  
Something like that is going on here.  What is it that we want out of teachers as teachers?  To be well educated in their fields?  To demonstrate a thorough understanding of pedagogy?  To have personalities appropriate to the environment in which they teach?  To demonstrate a sense of calling and delight in the profession of teaching in the place where they are?  To demonstrate a life long commitment to their own continuing education and professional development?
We can hold teachers accountable for things such as these, and we should.
They make up a critically important element of the environment needed for education to take place, but there is more that is, for the most part, outside teachers’ control, and we cannot hold them accountable for what is outside their control.
We cannot hold teachers accountable for whether they have adequate support from school administrators and tax payers.  We cannot hold teachers accountable for the condition of the buildings in which they teach or the socio-economic conditions of their students.  We cannot hold teachers accountable for the quantity and quality of text books, ordinary school supplies, specialized equipment, up to date computers, and so on.
The best teacher will flounder without adequate institutional and public support.
We cannot even hold them accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests, which are themselves of doubtful value.  Teachers and parents can hold students accountable for what they have learned, and they must. 
If you want A reward A.  If you want B reward B.  But don’t hope for A while rewarding B.  It never works.  For a more detailed discussion of this folly I recommend reading Dilbert daily.

More Guns in More Hands is the Answer

I’m working on a couple of other short essays for this blog: one on the question of personal responsibility and the other on why No Child Left Behind and similar programs try to hold teachers accountable for the wrong things.  The Aurora theater shooting has intruded on that.  Print, broadcast and electronic media, together with social networking sites, have been overfilled with words of tearful outrage, prayerful compassion for the victims, and a strong sense of collective angst that this is yet one more sign of our decline into a culture of violence.  No doubt the months ahead will be dedicated to a public examination probing every aspect of the perpetrator’s life to discover a “why.”  It will be inconclusive and unsatisfying, but not without first smearing the reputations of others along the way.  Some will demand measures be taken so that something like this will never happen again.  A vain notion at best.
The worst demagogues among us will rise to the occasion.  An atheist will scornfully demand to know how a loving God could allow such a thing to happen.  A fundamentalist will retaliate with God’s wrath visited on a sinful people.  A radio host will name the secret cabal behind it.  One elected official has already announced that the suspect is a psychotic son of a bitch; an understandable statement of anger, but not helpful in the public discourse.  Another fulminated that if only others in the audience had been armed, they could have stopped the massacre.  More guns in more hands is the answer, as far as he is concerned.   My local Tea Party friends are already yelling that left wing liberals are blaming them, and that Obama will use this to take away their Second Amendment rights.
Frankly, they have a point.  They have had a lot to do with setting a public discourse of divisive, uncompromising, scape goating laced with threats of violence and the glorification of retributive justice.  With no Islamic terrorists or illegal aliens to blame, they are the easiest scape goat to grab onto.  Moreover, this tragic event of great moral evil will reignite the gun control debate, which is as it should be.
Maybe this time, instead of paranoid fear over losing Second Amendment rights, which may or may not be imaginary anyway, we can have a serious national conversation.  My own preference would be to license all guns and gun owners in a manner similar to the way we license cars and drivers.  My Tea Party friend Bill would have a fit over that, but I think if he could calm down enough to stop hyperventilating, we might actually be able to talk about it in a reasonable way.  Maybe he would discover that we liberal, or progressives, or center left moderates, whatever, are not out to destroy the Constitution, take away our freedoms, or coddle all the criminals. 

The Dreaded Question of Why?

I had a meeting with some medical people the other day to talk over some issues of grief related to an untimely death.  As our time together began to draw to a close, one person, who had already displayed a robust fundamentalist Christian faith, raised the dreaded question: Why?
We can talk about how and what: how did something happen; what happened.  We can talk about the sequence of events, and all the interrelated chains of cause and effect.  We can talk about our own feelings and what we were thinking, but Why?, the most common question of all, is another matter.  Why is a moral question. Why demands to know what moral reasoning underlies what happened.  Why is a good question to ask when moral reasoning is clearly the issue, but often it is not.  That does not stop it from being asked, sometimes as an angry demand. 
Most parents can recall a time when, with foot stamping and finger pointing, they demanded to know why their five year old shaved the cat, or filled the toilet bowl with an entire roll of toilet paper.  What was the answer?  “I dunno.”  An honest answer if there ever was one because why demanded to know the moral reasoning behind an incident in which moral reasoning played a very small and ill formed part.  
The cop demands to know why you ran the red light.  The honest answer for many is “I don’t know, I guess I wasn’t thinking.”  In other words, we can explained what happened and how it happened, but not why it happened because moral decision making was not a significant part of the event.
Why is a very difficult question to ask, and the full answer to why could take a very long time of deep introspection to discover.  Demanding to know the why of an untimely death, especially if that question is aimed at God, is a question that can never be answered, unless one believes that absolutely everything happens for a reason, that the reason is God driven, and that it can be discovered by believers with true faith in one hand and a bible in the other. 
I made two mistakes in the closing minutes of our time together.  I sought to say something about why being a question we could not answer.  I went on to assert that not everything happens for a moral reason.  Many things, perhaps including this untimely death, happen by chance.  It’s the way the universe works; chance plays a very large role in what happens for good or for ill.  
Chance does not rule out interrelated chains of cause and effect.  Chance does not rule out moral decisions made by human beings as they engage with the events of their lives.  Chance does not rule out God’s presence in those events: it creates enormous room for God to act as God chooses.  All kinds of probability analysis help us anticipate chance events, but they are very rough tools at their best, and frequently fail.
For instance, the high probability of violent thunderstorms last night was realized, as was the high probability that we might suffer at least one lightning strike caused fire in a standing wheat field.  The field that got struck, got struck by chance. By chance, it was the only one.
Suggesting, in those few minutes, that the moral question of why was beyond our ability to answer, and that God does not control everything for reasons we can discover, poked a sharp stick into the eye of this person’s faith, abruptly terminating whatever value our time together had.  If God didn’t have a reason for causing this untimely death, then what sense can be made of it?  If this priest doesn’t believe that God had a reason for causing this untimely death, then he must be an unbelieving wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A gathering such as this was not a place to jam a theological lesson into the concluding five minutes.  You would think that after so many years I would know better.  I wonder why I don’t?

Let’s Do A Little Healing First

If, as followers of Christ, we are sent out to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near at hand, what would that look like in practical terms?  It would have to look something like what Jesus did.  When the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus what they should say to John about whether Jesus might be the messiah, he told them to “go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
So, proclaiming the good news has something to do with restoring sight, healing the lame, cleansing lepers, enabling the deaf to hear, raising the dead and bringing good news to the poor.  Sounds fairly straight forward.  It has little to do with the common way of understanding evangelism, and everything to do with continuing the work that Jesus did, within the constraints of our human condition.   
Restoring sight, for instance, requires knowing what it is that one can’t see, and why they can’t see it.  That can’t be done without spending time for enough mutual trust to develop so that what can and cannot be seen can be the subject of unhurried conversation.  If the kingdom of God is near at hand, it is a kingdom that can be illuminated through the words so that others can see it, but not until the causes of their blindness have been dealt with.
What does the kingdom of God look like to you?  What words do you have to describe it?
What causes lameness?  Things disfigured, broken, out of joint, and sprained are incapacitating, making it hard or impossible to get around.  Everything is a struggle when one is lame.  The spiritually lame are no different, and, one way or another, each of us is lame to some degree.  Childhood experiences, exposure to unpleasant church preaching and practice, workplace problems, issues with home, health, friends and family all cause spiritual lameness.  Recovery requires a solid diagnosis.  What makes walking with God hard for a person?  There is a different answer for each, and only they know what that answer is.  Without assumption or prejudice, continuing the work of Christ means taking the time to listen to their story.  Then come simple exercises, done together, not hard at first, but always pressing onward and upward.
Peter and Paul understood their own lameness well.  They never recovered fully, but they learned to walk without fear or hesitation in spite of their limitations.  It’s part of what inspired others to follow their lead.
Leprosy is what we now call Hansen’s Disease.  It is easily treated with today’s medicines, but for centuries it was a death sentence.  It was so feared in Jesus’ day that many skin disorders were called leprosy.   Sufferers were stripped of every human dignity, forced to live apart as best they could, and shunned on pain of death from contact with any clean person.  Today’s lepers are those whom society shuns for whatever reason.  They are the detested, avoided, humiliated, bullied, and ignored for the way they look and act, the diseases they have, and the conditions of their lives.  Healing begins by recognizing them as beloved of God, respecting their human dignity, and embracing their company, not as betters reaching down, but as equals reaching out.   The disciples had a hard time with that.  They tended to think of themselves descending to the level of those in need, or raising others up to their own level.  Even among themselves they jostled for position as the greatest.  It took a while for them to learn that in God’s kingdom all God’s beloved are on the same level, just in different places on that level.  We are no different.  We live in a world of upper, middle and lower classes; hierarchical churches and corporations; to go up is good, to go down is bad.  It may be true that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but we are pretty sure that we have not fallen as far as others.  
As the sainted Fr. Damien discovered, it’s so much easier for one leper to embrace another, but first you have to know you are a leper. 
“Can you hear what I hear?” asks a popular Christmas song.  According to recent polls, there are many, especially among the young, who cannot hear the good news because of all the noises rattling out of churches that sound like narrow minded bigotry, cheap grace, get rich schemes, mind-boggling ignorance, vacuous thinking, and so forth.  All that noise has made them deaf to anything else.  We need to know what someone can hear and is hearing, before we can introduce them to something they can’t hear yet.  Polls are not reliable indicators of what any one person can or cannot hear.  Conversation is the only gateway to finding out.  It’s a conversation requires us to do most of the listening.
How is your own hearing?  Might you possibly be a bit deaf to what others are trying to tell you?  Do you ever listen to yourself to discern what others hear?  Truth be told, most of us are lousy listeners because we are lazy listeners.
You have heard the saying about being pecked to death by ducks.  It means that one can be killed bit by bit in hundreds of ways.  The walking dead are not zombies, they are our friends and neighbors who have died a thousand deaths at the hands of others.  But they are are not dead to God.  Resurrection can be theirs, a bit at a time, now, here in this life.  Jesus calls us to restore them to life, but how?  He raised the dead by touching them with the very source of life itself, the living word of God through whom all things came to be.  As followers of Christ, some small part of that power has been given to us also.  We carry it in the cracked and leaky clay pots of our own lives.  We carry it not to be hoarded, but to be poured out into the lives of others as a life giving balm.  Life and hope can be restored through the presence of God’s love that touches them through our presence, especially if we keep out of God’s way, hold our tongues, and refrain from preaching. 
Jesus was fully present to each person he encountered.  Through that full and undivided presence he healed, made whole and restored fulness of life.  The kingdom of God came crashing into lives who desperately needed it.  It was the good news.  We are not Jesus, but we are his followers.  He commissioned each of us to continue his work as best we are able.
Of course we need to tell the story, but first we must give sight to the blind, heal the lame, cleanse the lepers, restore hearing to the deaf, and raise the dead.  Telling the story will follow.

Libertarianism as Corrective

A recent article by AP writer Pauline Arrillaga noted that the popular idea of freedom has energized libertarian political ideology among a wide variety of Americans of all ages and conditions in life.   The curious thing about libertarian ideology taken to its literal conclusion is that it leads toward what can only be called fascism. 
By that I do not mean Hitler or Mussolini type fascism, but toward a society in which a minimized government eschewing nanny-state socialism, while encouraging rugged individualism, creates its own conditions for whatever government there is to be organized and run for the benefit of a relatively few private business owners and managers.  To protect their investments, these “job creators” use the supposedly limited powers of government to prevent any society wide movement that might threaten them.  The natural result is a life of hardship for many, their only freedom being the freedom to enjoy want and need, the slow but inexorable diminishment of civil liberties for the rest, and a general rejection of the idea of human rights.
We have seen hints of movement in that direction at times and places in our history.  The Know Nothings; the hight of the KKK and America First movements; some parts of the robber baron era; the Harding administration; certain aspects of the McCarthy era, and so it goes.  What has always saved us is the eventual recognition among voters that government is not the enemy, that civil rights (political freedoms) are a function of public policy, and that human rights are continually evolving into realities that can only be birthed through political action.  All of that adds up to an activist government.
To be fair, our current libertarian movement may be a necessary corrective to government that tends generate bureaucracies that grow and exist for their own sake, without much direction or intent, as they become more and more unwieldy and inefficient.  For some reason France, Italy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development come to mind.  Lest you become too dismissive of government, the same thing happens in large corporations: General Motors, Morgan Chase, AIG, etc.  It seems to be more a characteristic of any human organization than of government per se.  
Correctives as catalysts for needed change are good.  Correctives as dietary mainstays are poisonous.  True believers among hard core libertarians don’t know that.  Tea Partiers don’t even think about it.

The Power of Curses

I was called to a house for a pastoral visit not long ago.  No need to go into detail; suffice it to say that they were not members of my parish, nor any other as it turned out.  My usual practice on the way is to say a prayer asking God’s presence to be with me in body, mind and voice.  After I enter, I follow with a silent prayer for God’s presence in the house itself.  Then the visit begins.  
This time I felt that a barrier was in place that simply would not let God in no matter what.  True enough, the family on whom I was asked to call had no religious tradition of any kind whatsoever, but that is often the case and it doesn’t seem to keep God out.  All went well for a few minutes, at least until the head of the household broke down in a rage of anger and regret over the situation he was facing, God damning everything in sight, including himself.  It took a long time for him to calm down.  I learned from other members of the household that this was his usual way of reacting to just about anything that disturbed his equilibrium.  God was routinely invoked to damn everything for any reason at any time.  Otherwise, God was ignored.
Can a person who has chosen to ignore God in every way except to invoke God’s damnation on himself, and everything around him, whenever his world has been rattled, actually create a barrier to God’s presence in love, healing and blessing?  Here I think Mark’s version of Jesus cursing the fig tree is instructive.  You recall that he and his disciples saw that the tree bore no fruit because it was not the season for figs.  Just the same, he cursed it.  Passing that way again later in the day, they saw that the tree had died.  It’s a cruel story.  Why would Jesus curse a tree for not doing what it could not do?  How about considering it a startling object lesson for his disciples and for us?  We offer blessings, and prayers for blessings, expecting blessed results.  Why should we be surprised that offering curses, and prayers for curses, especially in God’s name, beget cursed results?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think God has much interest in fulfilling prayers for curses, especially from those who have chosen to ignore and be ignorant of God in every other way.  But I do think that a person who characteristically confronts life by God damning it is likely to reap a harvest of his or her own making, accompanied by a palpable absence of God’s presence.
Language is important. Words have power.  With or without God, they can bless and curse.