Nantucket Thoughts

The Nantucket ferry whistle just announced its departure for the mainland thirty some miles to the north.  Friends know we are partial to islands.  I have no idea where that comes from, but we seem to be drawn to islands.  The islands of Hawaii have been our momentary respite from winter for over thirty years, and “Oh to be in England” (at any time of year). Whidbey and the San Juans establish the epitome of Pacific Northwest beauty.  Nantucket, thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod, is a family destination for us a couple of times a year.  We love them all.

This week on Nantucket I’ve been struck by an observation I had not made before.  It’s about community health and the value of ethnic and economic diversity.  Summer is the big season here.  The population swells to claustrophobic proportions of wealthy visitors, people who want to look like wealthy visitors, and people who want to look at wealthy visitors hoping for a celebrity.  They come for the sea, beaches, and colonial charm too of course.  We come to visit family during the shoulder seasons in the spring and fall when the weather can be brisk, windy, and wet.  Most places don’t close for the winter until after Thanksgiving, opening up again in April, so avoiding the summer season provides access to all the shopping and dining amenities minus the crowds.  Hiking and biking trails are uncrowded, even solitary.  What struck me as I walked around the city center is that the island’s diversity of people is more obvious in the off season.

I’m told that during the summer season the glare of sunshine on a sea of white faces makes it hard to see much diversity.  That’s too bad.  Black families have been fixtures with a proud heritage in this community since colonial days.  Today’s island population has been supplemented by immigrants from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.  Without the horde of tourists it’s a pleasure to walk around among the ebb and flow of greater diversity who greet each other, stop for brief sidewalk conversations, and exchange small talk in the shops.   Not to overstate it, there is still a large gap between those who earn their living here, and those who can afford to make it their vacation or retirement home.  There is a large gap between those who own successful business, and those who work for them.  It’s not an an inexpensive place to live, and those on the bottom rungs have a hard time finding decent housing.  Just the same, the off season brings out a community that gives the appearance of real authenticity.  So what does that mean?

It means that I believe communities are healthier where ethnic and economic diversity mix freely in the public arena, and work together with mutual trust and respect for the welfare of the community.  Not that segregation ceases to exist.  Some is the echo of imposed segregation from former times.  Some is self imposed.  Some is the product of economic difference.  But all barriers are permeable, existing as much as possible within the walls of homes, and not at all in the public arena.  The summer season brings economic largesse to Nantucket, and that’s good, but the off season brings community.

It’s one of the things I like about living in Walla Walla.  There are wrong side of the tracks neighborhoods, and neighborhoods thought to be snooty, but in a small rural city, even one with several colleges, there is not much room for exclusivity.  Rich and poor mix because there is no place to be exclusive.  It isn’t always easy.  Tensions can flare.  But the community is healthier for it.  We experienced some of the same in parts of New York City, where we lived for a few years.  Chelsea, for instance, was a neighborhood where mixing with each other in the community, and working with each other for the community, was the normal way of living in the place.  We’ve had experiences in other places where that was not true.  We’ve lived in communities where the exclusivity of the place gave the illusion of living by right in an elite world apart from the unpleasantness going on elsewhere, apart from the unpleasantness of mixing as equals with people not like us, in expectation that the purpose of people not like us is to maintain the life style to which we are entitled, and that this is the best of all possible ways to live.  If Dr. Pangloss had hung on a little longer, he might not have been wrong after all.  That’s not healthy!  It’s not even sane.  On Nantucket, and in Walla Walla, there are plenty of people who think like that, but they cannot live like that because there is no place for it in the public arena.  

Who knew walking around Nantucket’s city center would bring all that out?  Ridiculous isn’t it.  Maybe we should go someplace exclusive for dinner.

Dorothy Sayers and Laws of Inheritance

I’m trying, again, to expand the subjects on which I write to get away from politics, economics, and theology.  So here goes.  Friends know my self therapy reading is British murder mysteries.  Of course there are dead bodies to contend with and crimes to be solved, but I’m not interested in thriller mysteries that wallow in as much graphic gore as possible while taking the hero through as many  cliff hanging adventures as an old Saturday matinee movie serial.  One author stands out as a favorite, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) who wrote in and about the interwar years.  Her command of the English language is superb.  She is honest about the conditions and prejudices of English life in those years, but she doesn’t sensationalize it.  Her works are sprinkled with references to and citations of classical literature.  Her ability at writing dialogue knows no equal.  Her cast of regulars develop, mature, learn, and so do occasional characters within the limits of a few hundred pages.  Each story demands that the reader examine a series of ethical questions in the process of solving the crimes.  Indeed she is a gifted theologian, as is known through some of her other writings.  Her principal hero, Lord Peter  Wimsey, is both Prince Hal and Falstaff, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, or, as she herself said, Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster.

Right now I’m reading Unnatural Death, which is set in 1926.  In it our hero and friends are discussing the laws of inheritance, and a new law passed in 1925 that was supposed to clarify and simplify the complicated array of statutes and case law that had been cadged together over the previous several centuries.  Wimsey said. “I know what an Act to make things simpler means.  It means that the people who drew it up don’t understand it themselves and that everyone of its clauses needs a law-suit to disentangle it.”

What was true in 1925 England remains true in our own time.  Who has not heard or said that over regulation is one of our biggest problems?  What lies underneath the complaint is the greater reality of redundant, unclear regulation administered through Kafkaesque inefficiency by staff who do the best they can given the material they have to work with.  And what is that material?

It is the law.  The well intentioned, probably necessary law, as written by legislators and their staffs who have little understanding of the complexities required to implement it, even though well aware that they will exist.  Combine that with intentional underfunding, and reliance on the courts to sort things out, and ‘voila,’ we have modern inefficient government bureaucracy.  It’s popular to blame tax and spend big government loving Democrats, but recent history suggests that small government Republicans have been the greater contributors to growing the size of government while masterminding increased deficits.  Let’s just say it’s been a team effort that, in recent years, has been joined by the tea party gang intent on mucking everything up by their know nothing libertarian opposition to everything.

I suppose it should reassure us that the British parliament of 1925 was no better, and the nation survived, even prospered, in spite of two world wars.  As long as we are drawing on them as an example, it might be wise to remember also that the British Empire, on which the sun never set, has become Great Britain, first among equals in a commonwealth of independent nations, and may soon find itself reduced to Little England, one nation among three or four competing for its place on two rather small islands.  Empires come.  Empires go.  So might America’s empire.  I don’t think it has much to do with laws the framers don’t understand, and the courts have to untangle, but it may have to do with public distaste and discouragement with governments whose best efforts at doing good simply add to the pathology of bureaucracies trying their best to implement what legislators enacted into law without understanding how it would work.

Dang.  This began as commentary on the writing of Dorothy Sayers, and look where it ended up.  I’ll try again.

Reading about Paul Growing

This is an article for those who have difficulty reading the bible yet are drawn to it just the same while wondering about claims of biblical inerrancy.  The rest of you can skip it.  Go do something else.

For the last several weeks those of us in liturgical churches have been hearing portions of Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy read as the epistle lesson in church.  This Sunday we turn to Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.  Most biblical scholars agree that the letters to Timothy were not written by Paul, but in Paul’s name, well after his death, yet remembering many of the things he said and wrote to Timothy.  On the other hand, First Thessalonians is the earliest Christian document that we have in our possession.  It predates all of the gospels, so it gives us a clear picture of what Paul believed and taught fairly early in his ministry.  It would be wrong to assume that it tells what all early Christians believed, for as is known, there were disagreements between Paul and those in Jerusalem, and even between Paul and his missionary partner Barnabas.  Having said that, First Thessalonians gives us our earliest insight into the beliefs of Paul and the lives of his little flock of brand new non-Jewish Christians in Greek Macedonia.

A common mistake made by some readers of the bible is to assume that something once published in it must be incontrovertibly and eternally true as written.  The greater truth is that scripture gives us the unfolding story of humanity’s growing relationship with God.  It’s easy to forget that Paul was a human being growing into his faith, setting aside old ways of thinking as he learned new ones.  In other words, as one reads through Paul, one encounters the story of a person’s growing, changing understanding of who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian.  I’ll leave it to you to discover for yourself more about that as you read through Paul on your own, but here are some hints.  His first letter to the Thessalonians anticipates the end of time and the second coming to be imminent, perhaps a few years away but close.  Years later he had set aside that thought in favor of living into the “already but not yet” of an indeterminate second coming in which the last day is likely to be the day of death for each of us.  In his early years, Paul was disinterested in whether the authorities approved or disapproved of Christianity.  He would take them on as they came.  By the time Timothy was written, the Church had grown and prospered enough to be the target of occasional persecutions.  It seemed wise to do what one could to keep a low profile, behaving and acting in public in ways less likely to draw unwanted attention.  Thus Paul’s early championing of the role of women in the Church gave way to restrictions on women more in keeping with local customs.  After all, these were the normal cultural values with which his new Christians were familiar and comfortable.  With those two hints in mind, I’ll leave it to you to dig deeper with questions of your own about how Paul’s understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to be a Christian developed over time.  Paul’s letters in the bible are organized from longest to shortest, so you will have to do some research on your own to put them into chronological order. It’s not hard.  An internet search will give you several versions that are mostly in agreement with each other.

Like Paul, we too mature in faith.  What was taught in Sunday school isn’t adequate for life in the adult world. Moreover, with age and study our ability to hear God’s Spirit speaking though the words of scripture improves greatly.  And lest we be too hard on the early Church for adopting more than they should of Greek and Roman culture, consider how we have so thoroughly integrated our Christianity with the American way of life.  A classic in 20th century theology was H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture.  In it he reviewed the important ways in which Christ is above culture, yet in culture, but stands against culture, while transforming culture.  It isn’t just one way, but all four at the same time, and we, as Christians in our own day, are called to walk along the same balance beam.

And there you have it.  At least for now.

Using and Abusing the Power of Words

The political debate has been filled with accusations and counter accusations about what was said in years past that does not comport with what was said last week, or what was said in private that is at odds with what has been said in public, or what was said in a slipshod way that is now portrayed as deliberate lying.  It’s time to talk about the use of the spoken word.

Let’s start with the public private divide.  Since my columns are under the title of Country Parson, why not consider the well known after church parking lot conversations?  The preacher, warmly thanked on the way out, is chastised for his or her crummy sermon once in the parking lot.  The enthusiastic applause for the newly elected parish leader is demeaned in the parking lot as the worst choice among an unqualified slate.  The new paint color to which all agreed is said, in the parking lot, to be awful, and why didn’t anybody ask my opinion?  In different ways it happens every Sunday about matters large, small, and utterly inconsequential.  I begin with that example because, as a pastor, I know that every pastor has had something to say about it in his or her own private conversations.  And speaking of pastors, consider any clergy gathering and the conflicting diversity of words shared privately, in small groups, and publicly before, during, and after meetings.  Not everything is said in love, and not everything is said in truth.  I know that’s a shock to some readers, and I’m sorry to have had to break the news to you.  Maybe it’s time to move beyond the church and its clergy?

In corporate life as in political life, what is said in meetings is not what is said in the hallway.  What is said in public is not what is said in private.  Explorations of options, opportunities, pros, cons, possible outcomes, etc., are expounded on with good words, bad words, judgmental words, terrific ideas, idiotic ideas, banal ideas, and bizarre ideas launched just for the fun of it.  Staff criticize bosses.  Bosses criticize staff.  Words are batted about with little discretion because, I suppose, we don’t consider that they are likely to have much life beyond the time and place they are spoken.  The same dynamic is true in our social and domestic lives.  We politely greet people we don’t like with feigned warmth, and cruelly gossip about them when they’re gone.  We sprinkle conversations with rumors, half truths, and outright lies, without giving it much thought.  What we say behind the bedroom door is not what we utter in the living room.  What we say to adults is not what we say to children. We choose to share some things, keep some things private (secret), and fudge on the rest.  Friends and acquaintances are on a sliding scale that determines how much we are willing to share with who.

That is the ordinary, everyday milieu of words in which we live.  Does that mean nothing is true and sacred about the words we use?  Must we be content to live in a word swamp where we can never be sure about truth?  No!  Certainly not!  It’s not that we live in a world of deception, it’s that we live in a world in which meaning and perception of meaning are not easily shared between people who each have their own life story that affects how they offer words to others, what meanings they attach to those words, and how they hear what others are saying to them.  Somehow it works.  We tolerate a broad range of word exchanges, and have learned how to navigate among them with considerable skill.

We also live in a world where we recognize the value of privacy.  There are parts of our lives that are private, and it’s no one’s business to pry.  Keeping them secret is not deception.  It’s maintaining privacy.  You know that about your own life.  Business negotiations are often conducted in privacy for a variety of legitimate reasons, and you know that about your own way of making a living.  The same is true for political negotiations.  The stakes are high.  Words are exchanged with care.  Full transparency is seldom an appropriate strategy.  Behind the scenes discussions within each camp test out possible decisions and their consequences.  Candor is essential, and a certain amount of privacy provides the space needed for candor.  As members of the public, we demand public transparency, but working things out between opposing sides, and being candid with colleagues, requires a certain amount of privacy, secure in the knowledge that “what is said in this room, stays in this room.”  It’s a balancing act.

We also have boundaries beyond which words are recognized as dangerous, destructive, just plain wrong.  Intentional lies told for the purpose of deceiving others in hurtful ways.  Words that demonize that which is not demonic.  Words that destroy the dignity of others.  Words that bring evil into the world.  Words that promote unethical and immoral behavior.  Words that betray trust.  Words that excuse bad behavior.  You know what they are.  It’s a long list.  The boundaries are not always well defined, and they are always flexible.  We have a tendency to hold others up to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.  We’re full of excuses for ourselves that we wouldn’t tolerate in others.  Just the same, the boundaries are there.

For these reasons, it troubles me that In our current political environment it has become common place to accuse candidates of horrendous crimes and misdemeanors for the use of words that would from any other person in any other time or place be in the ordinary, everyday milieu of words in which we live.  At the same time, words that are clear and consistent indicators of immoral malevolence are tolerated as unpleasantly problematic, even if they point to egregious acts of fraud and deception for private gain.  There is something fundamentally wrong about that.  It demeans the power of words by making them cartoonish caricatures of responsible conversation.  It uses the power of words to engage in violations of even the fuzziest, most flexible boundaries while maintaining a false front of righteous indignation in defense of prejudice masquerading as truth.  As the saying goes, we can be better than that.

I doubt that anything will change until the election is over.  I hope there will be a return to a more responsible use of words afterwards.  We shall see.

Hillary, Foundations, and the FBI: What I learned at breakfast

Grape Nuts and blueberries, that’s as normal a breakfast as I’m likely to have.  But the other day  I went out instead.  Not far from me at the diner were a group of three old guys thinking about going hunting, or maybe fishing, or maybe not, being served by one of those old time waitresses who call everyone honey or dear and have no problem entering into the conversation.  When they finally got down to it, politics was what was on their mind, presidential politics.

It was not that odd of a political conversation in the sense that no one offered any evidence or source for what they believed to be true.  They simply asserted it as incontrovertible.  You have probably heard the same.  Maybe you have done the same.  And what was incontrovertible, you ask?  The big one was Hillary’s foundation.  Each of them had special inside knowledge of the many, I mean many, FBI and Secret Service investigations that the liberal media was suppressing.  How exactly they were so well informed while the rest of us live in ignorance was never explained.  Nor were their differing sets of incontrovertible facts that each could expound on with increasing knowledge of greater detail about what the FBI and Secret Service know, but the rest of us don’t.  Even among the four of them, each knew what the others didn’t, but now they had shared a cornucopia of intelligence that brought them collectively up to speed.

The conversation ended with the assertion that if Hillary gets elected the Constitution will no longer be the law of the land.  The Supreme Court will replace it with its own rulings.  Wow!  Who knew the Supreme Court could rule on the meaning of the Constitution?  It’s just another hole in the hull of our sinking ship of democracy I guess.

I’d like to say that my mainstream Republican and Democratic friends are better than that, but coffee conversation seems to be filled on every side with a gullible willingness to believe as fact whatever attractive rumor passes by.  We reinforce each other by sharing them with certainty in their truth.  I am  even more stunned at the lack of basic knowledge of American civics, not in the young, but in mature adults who were supposed to have learned this stuff back when schools were schools.

I suppose it might help to have some kind of mass remedial education in 9th grade civics, but would it take?  There appears to be a missing link, and that is the ability to think critically.  Did we never teach critical thinking in high schools?  Or did we teach it but no one was paying attention?  Conservative acquaintances harrumph at critical thinking as just another liberal fad to brainwash kids.  Liberal acquaintances love critical thinking and assume that whatever they think must have been arrived at critically simply because they thought it.  The hard work of testing one’s thoughts with logic and verifiable evidence that spans the political spectrum seems to be an alien idea unworthy of American exceptionalism.  There also seems to be a general discomfort in learning that what is true is not the whole truth.  It’s never more than a partial truth, but properly tested it can be enough of the whole truth on which to act with confidence.

Oh well, we have to live with what we have, so here’s to the three old men and one old woman at breakfast.  May they decide to go hunting or fishing after all, and may they do it on November 8th.

Metaphor, Allegory, and the Bible

Each time I come across the story of Jonah I’m reminded of how difficult it is to explain the bible in metaphorical and allegorical terms.  It seems that people who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s (or maybe even later) were drilled on the bible as literal truth, even if they attended Sunday schools in mainline churches.  That’s important because Sunday school probably ended their formal education in biblical studies.  I guess the thought was that children could not understand metaphor or allegory, so the bible stories were told as simple truth.  How could that be, given all the Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, fairy tales, and Saturday movies kids watched?  Children are raised in a world of metaphor and allegory, and understand it well.  In any case, with formal education ended at the grade school level, the pews are filled with adults who have a hard time understanding the bible in any other way than what they were taught as children.  I’m selfishly grateful that my Sunday school lessons fell on deaf ears.  I was not entertained by paper cutouts mounted on flannel boards while some story was told by a teacher speaking in a voice appropriate for toddlers.  Being in church with the grownups was a better deal, even if I had to sit through a boring sermon.  But I digress.

Those who grew up in more recent times are a different matter.  They are likely to have had no exposure to the bible at all, except for what they may have heard through mass media, or in conversation with earnest door knocking evangelists.  For them it’s easy to dismiss the bible that they have never read as a literary chimera useful only as a companion to scriptures of other religions, also never read, and whatever spiritual book has been popular in the last couple of months, if indeed anything of a spiritual nature has attracted their attention..

How do you explain metaphor and allegory as bearers of holy truth to either them?  I think I wrote before about a faithful lifelong Episcopalian who was distressed to the point of anger when I told him that the story of Jonah was not historical fact.  He could not conceive of that possibility.  He wondered what other bible stories I might say were not factually true.  We spent an hour with me trying to explain that just as Jesus told parables, so did the writers of the Old Testament, and Jonah was a parable.  We did not achieve a breakthrough, but he did become more tolerant of my irregular views.  Those who have had no exposure to the bible are harder to reach.  Some simply have no interest in it, not even enough to be mildly curious.  Others attach all kinds of extraneous meanings to it, mostly related to what they don’t like about European colonial outrages and cultural dominance.

My best bible students over the years have been young teenagers willing to go through preparation for confirmation, the few college students who made our parish their home for four years, and adults who came to annual adult confirmation classes.  Obviously they were self selecting, and not representative of the larger population.  That said, young teens ate up scripture with enthusiasm once they were turned loose to discover metaphor, allegory, adventure stories, and the power of God’s love.  College students devoured scripture as it spoke to whatever they were learning in their majors and minors.  It didn’t always answer their questions, but it always set high standards for what an answer might be.  Two of them went on to become Episcopal priests.  The annual fall adult confirmation class, advertised as finally learning what you were supposed to have learned in confirmation but weren’t paying attention, always attracted ten to fifteen for an hour a week of deep conversation.  It was liberating for them to discover the bible in a whole new dimension.

As encouraging as all of that was, it’s also true that several life long members left to join more conservative denominations where such nonsense was not tolerated.  Discerning holy truth through metaphor and allegory can be hard work, particularly when it’s mixed in with elements to be taken literally, or nearly so.  It’s just easier to go where one is told what is true, what isn’t, and everyone says amen.

A Case of Itchy Ears

“For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Tim. 4.3-4)

I’ve always been fascinated by this passage.  Being a two handed sort of guy, on the one hand it comes to mind when I’ve been frustrated by the enthusiasm some have exhibited for chasing after new fads in spirituality, or the teaching of evangelists who have distorted scripture to fit bizarre world views.  I have a locker room friend at the Y who is keen on anything claiming the end of time is next Tuesday, secret cabals of global rulers, and any secret conspiracy story connected to church history.  He’s the sort of guy who reads Dan Brown books to get the facts.  All of it is linked to what he thinks Christianity is about.  He’s got itchy ears.  Crazy isn’t it?

On the other hand I have stood accused of having itchy ears.  As my own Episcopal Church has lurched through the revisions of its Book of Common Prayer, ordained women, and opened its doors to the gay community, I’ve had clergy, parishioners, former parishioners, and strangers lob this passage as a scriptural hand-grenade.  It is my Church, and me personally, so they have said, who turned away from listening to truth and wandered away to myths.  Good grief, how on earth could they think such a thing?  Can’t they see how blind they are to the guiding light of the Holy Spirit?  Why can’t they see what I see?

The accusation of itchy ears can demolish good things in the name of scriptural truth.  I remember the day and place when our local ministerial association began to fall apart.  It had existed for many years as a fellowship of pastors from traditions of every kind.  We shared prayer, offered mutual support, and had a good time.  One day some newer conservative evangelical pastors invited a speaker to talk on subject of reenergizing the church.  He was energetic and certain that the downfall of Christianity was caused by pluralism, the tool of the devil.  Pluralism was the work of itchy ears opening Christian worship to foreign gods that took the form of what?  Meditation.  Gay people.  Deviation from the substitutionary doctrine of atonement.  Being a Catholic.  Being an Episcopalian.  There were a few others, but you get the idea.  Loud amens from some of those present let the rest of us know who had the itchy ears and wandered away from sound doctrine.  Us.  It was the end of the fellowship.

What is sound doctrine?  In the West, sound doctrine was for centuries whatever the Church said was sound doctrine.  Any deviation was heresy punishable by excommunication, exile, or death.  Then along came the Reformation with its several menus of sound doctrines, each defended by theological rhetoric and force of arms.  You know that can’t be right.  Competing sound doctrines make for itchy ears.  So what is sound doctrine?  How do we choose?  I commend to your reading an article by Ben Moushon, a Seventh Day Adventist who has nailed the core of sound doctrine as well as anybody.  You can find it at  Look for “Dear Church Leaders, I Don’t Want Your Unity.”

When you get down to it, I guess itchy ears are not necessarily bad things to have.  They can be signs of theological curiosity.  Not always, but now and then.  Maybe the Holy Spirit can’t be heard except in itchy ears.  Luther had itchy ears.  Tutu has itchy ears.  I think the Dali Lama has itchy ears.  Maybe the current pope does too.  Itchy ears can put received orthodoxy to the test.  Itchy ears can hear the Holy Spirit leading on when others can’t.  The trick is not to get drawn off chasing after myths, in the common understanding of myths as untruths made up to look like truths, but to keep the core of sound doctrine as the measure of what the itchy ear is hearing.  And what is sound doctrine?  Read Mr. Moushon’s article.  Here’s a hint.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love others as Christ has loved you.