What’s in a Holy Name? What’s in Your Name?

I’ve agreed to fill in on Sunday, January 1 at  the parish where I had been rector for eight years.  Anyone want to guess how many are likely to be there?  It’s not just New Year’s Day; given our Pacific time zone, the services will be right in the middle of a day of bowl games.  Talk about high probability for a low Sunday!  I’ve begged and bribed my wife to be among the congregation so that there will be at least two, and we can celebrate the Eucharist.  It’s also the Feast of the Holy Name, which brings up two questions.  What makes a name holy, and if it’s holy, does it have any special power that other names don’t?  Jesus posed something like that when he rhetorically asked: “For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”  Is the name holy, or is it made holy by the holy one to whom it is given?
I suppose one ought to ask what holy means, and therein lies a problem.  Holy is not a thing.  It is a condition of a thing.  It has an abundance of meanings that gravitate around while weaving in and out of an intimate presence of the divine.  In  so doing, things that are holy take on a character of wholeness and health that exists in a dimension not quite our own.  Thus it is not always recognized as wholeness and health according to our ordinary standards.  It’s not much of an answer is it?  But it should give you a glimpse into the spiritual reality that has always been a part of our lives, and was briefly made incarnate for us to experience in our reality through Jesus Christ.
So, back to the main question: Is your name holy?  Or perhaps your name is made holy by the one who made you holy?  Are you holy?  When in baptism you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever did that make you holy in some way that you weren’t before?  Did that make your name holy in a way it otherwise wasn’t?  If it did, has it ever done you any good?  Does being made holy mean becoming a prissy, holier than thou, self righteous prig?  Can you be a scruffy, run of the mill, sometimes ill behaved human mutt, who enjoys a good time, and still be holy?  
For the sake of argument, let’s say that all creatures, being made in the image of God, are inhabited by the holy, but in baptism each takes on a special kind of holiness as prospective agents of God’s presence in the world, each according to one’s abilities.  In that sense, there is nothing that is not holy, but some holy things have been set aside for particular purposes.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans made the case that the potter (God) made all of us out of the same clay, but made some for one use, and some for another use – not a better use as such, but a different use with responsibility for doing odd jobs in God’s name (9.21).  My own sense is that we start out our holy lives at an infantile level, sometime literally, and gain in knowledge, understanding and skill by the grace of others who have preceded us, and our willingness to be taught, coached and disciplined under the guidance of those who have proven themselves to be masters.  Consider Luke and Yoda, or Harry and Dumbledore.  As those mythical stories tell, it can also go nowhere or the wrong way.  Success is not guaranteed.  
If you are among those who recognize that all creatures have something of the holy in them, that you are holy, your name is holy, and that in baptism you have been set aside for holy work – what then?  For starters, it’s time to recognize also that the world we live in is not myth.  It’s real.  We’re not playing a video game or watching a movie with many sequels.  What we say and do has a real impact on the lives of real people in real time.  After that, stop worrying about it.  Go do what you usually do.  You will be led to the place you need to be, or maybe others will be led to you.  It doesn’t matter.  It does matter that you remain awake and pay attention.  

Being set aside in one’s holiness to do the work God has given to be done might involve an occasional task or two of no great world shaking moment.  On the other hand, it might involve a lifetime’s dedication.  More likely it will be something in between that accommodates your drooping hands, weak knees, short attention span, and lack of serious training at the hands of a true master.  That’s certainly what I claim for myself.  It doesn’t matter.  Stay awake.  Do the work.  You are holy.  Your name is holy.  Honor your life and your name as being holy.  Remember, you have been sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  

How to play Trump, The Game: Part II

Looking back on Trump’s erratic business career littered with broken promises and law suits, echoed by an equally erratic personal  life, some have wondered if he has any guiding principles.  I think he might.
In 1968 a guy named Albert Z. Carr published an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Is Business Bluffing Ethical.”  You can read it online if interested.  The essence of it is that ordinary norms of what most people would call ethical have little or no place in business.  Business is a winner take all game in which any form of bluffing, lying, cheating, or double dealing is fair as long as it’s not blatantly illegal.  It’s not only fair, it’s the way successful business executives become successful, so wrote Carr.  Try to be ethical, and you’ll be a loser.  I have no idea what Trump read when he was at Wharton, but my guess is that this could have been a favorite, maybe the only thing that stuck.  It’s not that long, so people with short attention spans can handle it.  Whether he read it or not, it’s certainly been the credo that has guided his business dealings, and not without some success.  It often works well in the short run.  It can work for a long time if one stays just inside legal boundaries, and has a bit of luck avoiding others more devious than he or she.  Think of J.R. Ewing on the old oil field soap opera “Dallas.”
Ingrained as a habit of the heart (so to speak), it seems to be the same light guiding his politics.  Why should he care that the Carr article was challenged from every side, and has continued to be challenged these last forty-eight years by those who believe ethics are important in business?  Trump, like Carr, tosses challengers into the loser trash bin and goes merrily on his way.  Who cares about losers?  Not Trump.  His message to his minions is couched in the language of loser making revenge.  “All those (liberal) elites that look down on you, call you deplorable, and make your life hard, well stick with me and I’ll make them losers, losers every one.”  It sells.  Is it a bluff?  Not really.  He cares nothing for his minions, but he does care about revenge, and he understands the Carr philosophy perfectly.  Well, maybe he doesn’t understand it, but he knows how to use it. 

What’s the right response?  First, never take at face value anything he agrees to or promises.  Go out and tell the press you had an interesting conversation or think he’s a man you can work with if you want to, but don’t deceive yourself.  Second, always remember that his friendly smile, warm handshake, and complimentary words have no enduring meaning whatsoever.  They are well calculated to keep you off guard and off balance.  You can stay on his good side as long as you are loyal and useful.  Quit being useful and even loyalty won’t count for much – loser.  Third, while we might converse with each other about morality and ethics in politics, it is not an easy sell to a public that doesn’t trust politics or politicians, and has little understanding of American civics.  Evaluate everything he says and does in strictly practical terms.  What is actually happening?  What are the announced intentions?  What are the verifiable results?  Who benefits?  Who gets hurt?  And, as always, follow the money.  Fourth,  make it public in every possible way, but avoid snide, humiliating language.  

Fifth, and this is for those of you who are clergy, you have a responsibility to teach Christian ethics to your parishioners, not as an abstract religious ideal, but as a way of life in the secular world.  As important as they are, most of those sitting in the pews are not making daily decisions about abortion, sexuality, global warming, pipelines, etc.  They are making ethical decisions every day about how they live life and do business, and they need solid instruction about how to go about that as followers of Jesus, not Carr.  That’s your job.  If you don’t know how to do it, I have some basic materials that might help get you started.  

Christmas Greetings from Country Parson

It’s wonderful, happy, sad, tension filled time of the year.  We all know that perfect families have perfect Christmases, or so we’ve been told.  Television specials may present us with people and families who are not perfect, but by the time a magical Christmas Eve arrives, all their problems are solved, and life is wonderful again.  The problem for us is that none of us has a perfect family, has seldom had a perfect Christmas, and the difficulties we face do not disappear on Christmas Eve.  
Still, there is something so very special about Christmas that we can’t help but look forward to it, expecting to find the joy it promises.  As Christians, it may be because Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds present to us a Christmas more like the ones we experience.  The Word of God incarnate in the baby Jesus boldly entered the world as it is, not the world as Hallmark portrays it.  Let’s face it, many would look at the Holy Family as a prime example of what dysfunction looks like, if they didn’t know it was the Holy Family.  Mary is what to us would be an underage pregnant teenage girl without a believable explanation for who the father might be.  Joseph, a man of some local standing, foolishly risked his honor, reputation, and livelihood to marry her anyway.  Shepherds, whom we might compare to undocumented immigrants working in the local vineyards, were the only ones to receive the heavenly message.  Who would believe them?  Who could they even tell it to?  And it all happened in the reign of a brutal, dangerous king known for his heavy hand and willingness to kill anyone who got in his way.
Why?  It all seems so dark and scary.  It’s not at all what we see on television.  I think that’s the point.  Dark and scary cannot overcome God’s love for us, nor can it defeat the power of God to bring salvation to the whole world.  The opening lines of John’s gospel say it this way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That is the where the joy and hope of Christmas make themselves known to those who are willing to come humbly to the manger in the company of the shepherds.  The gifts we lay before him are our fears and anxieties.  The light of his presence will overcome the darkness in which they have been hiding.  If we let it.  That is the joyous gift of Christmas he will give to us.  If we will receive it.
What can we gain from Christmas?  Not renewed faith in the goodness of people, but renewed courageous faith in the power of God’s love knowing that the light we have seen has become the light that lives within us, can shine through us, and cannot be overcome by any darkness.  Consider, if you will, the words of a blessing sometimes heard at the conclusion of worship: Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage.  Hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil.  Go forth into the world in peace.  Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the afflicted, honor all persons.  Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.  
These are the gifts of Christmas that will bring joy into our lives.  

Merry Christmas to All

Deconstructing the Federal Government

If one set out to choose a cabinet and executive staff intent on deconstructing the federal government as we know it, one could do no better than the incoming administration.  And that’s the point.  It’s about deconstructing.  Some are ideologically motivated to deconstruct the federal government into the barest skeleton required by the Constitution so that state and local agencies will be free to address needs and issues as they are able and see fit.  Moreover, they are certain that many social needs can be better met through private enterprise and charities, encouraging higher standards of personal responsibility, and restoring what they call traditional family values.  Others are motivated by more practical considerations.  They want to remove the federal government as an obstacle to doing business in what ever way they think is best for their bottom lines. 
Trump is no ideologue.  He doesn’t have enough knowledge or curiosity about things ideological to be one.  Even if he did, he wouldn’t care.  If it’s not about him, it isn’t important.  As for the current system, he’s done best when he’s been able to manipulate its complexities in his favor.  He’s tended to fail when he’s had to compete head-to-head in the open market with others who know how to run a business.  He has no pressing need to dismantle the briar patch that has made him rich.  But he is a person who appears to take perverted delight demolishing, in humiliating ways, anyone or thing that stands between him and his ego.  So why not set his minions loose on the federal government the way the Caesars set gladiators and animals against one another?  He doesn’t need a coliseum as long as he has the news media and his Twitter account.  What fun entertainment for him and his ardent supporters.  The bloodier the better.  Whee!  When the battle has gone on long enough, he will fire the minions, and try something else.
Americans who are concerned with how best to meet needs and issues they believe demand a public response, and who view the federal government as an important tool for addressing those that are national in scope, or require resources beyond the abilities of state and local agencies, are missing the point.  They are focussed on needs and issues government can help address, but pay scant attention to its structure and efficiency.  The minions are focussed on the structure of the government, with needs and issues as peripheral concerns.  They exist, but on the periphery.  All the hollering about them coming from the center and left is but the distant muffled noise of unimportant people who can be safely ignored.  
What to do about it?  Centrists and progressives might consider engaging in the hard work of educating the public on the purposes of government, and the basics of how our federal system works at the national, state, and local levels.  It would be important not to overlook the relationship between government and the role of non governmental organizations that also address needs and issues.  They include the usual list of voluntary community organizations, larger associations and foundations, and also institutions sometimes taken for granted: schools, churches, social clubs, even local pubs.  There are some models to learn from.  The authors of the Federalist Papers did it in a time when literacy was limited and communication was slow.  A few decades ago the Southern Poverty Law Center began a program called Teaching Tolerance that has put curriculum material into classrooms all over the country.  Using the best of modern communication techniques, the same could be done for civics.  Did any of you read the December 17 New York Times article by Mike McIntire about how a guy in Britain created a fake internet news site called the “Patriot News Agency,” and made it into one of the hottest ultra right wing publicity machines invading every nook and cranny of the American election season?  He just laughed at the incompetence of centrists and progressives to do anything like it or about it.  Is there any reason why information well anchored in facts and reason can’t do the same and do it better?
It would be a good start but not enough.  There is a real problem with the complexity and inefficiency of the federal government.  Part is due to structural issues that could be corrected with a little discipline.  Part is due to legislation that incompetently micro manages implementation.  Part is due to liberal tendencies, yes I’m speaking to us, to define problems and solutions on grand scales, throw some money at them, and go on to other things.  Progressive leadership at the national and state levels would do well to be as hard headed pragmatic as possible in demanding that legislators, legislation, executives and bureaucracies be results oriented and accountable.
Pay attention!  Failure to do something like this is to fail!

Sex in the Age of Discontinuity

That’s not what this short article is about, but I needed a provocative headline to grab attention because this article is about the role of men in the age of discontinuity.  Maybe every age is discontinuous, but we often deceive ourselves into thinking that there was a time not long ago when it wasn’t.  Speaking of not long ago, it was not long ago that movements such as Promise Keepers, and something featuring men sitting around banging drums, had their moment of fame, and followers who were told it was the way to reclaim their rightful roles as undisputed heads of families, protectors of women folk, and guides to proper adult roles for their sons and daughters. 

They were popular because ours is an age in which gender specific roles as cornerstones of American culture have been challenged.  No, not challenged, displaced altogether.  But with what?  When men no longer have a preferred place reserved for them only, what do they have?  What role should they play?  What role are they called to play, and by whom are they called?  In this Christmas season we might look to Joseph, as revealed in Matthew’s gospel, for a few clues.

Joseph was a man of considerable standing in his community.  In his time and place, one of unquestioned patriarchal rule, a man of any standing whatsoever would have had nothing more to do with a girl like Mary.  Nothing was more important than one’s honor, but close behind were the honor of his family, his broader reputation in the region, and the future of his livelihood.  Social standing, pride, economic necessity, they all dictated that Mary had to go.  She was a corrupted sinner who had brought shameful disgrace to her family, his family, and him personally.  Joseph was a man of considerable standing in his community.  Being a compassionate man as well, he would prefer to get rid of her in a way that would at least keep her from being stoned to death.  It was the best he could do. 
But Joseph was also something else.  He was a man of faith.  He was a man who was wiling to listen to the angel.  He was a man who had the courage to lay aside his standing, his honor, his pride, his rights.  He was a man who was willing to risk his livelihood, and every prospect for a secure future, to go, as God directed him, on a path of unknown destination, but of well known danger in an unsettled and dangerous time.  He was a man who was willing to give up himself to God’s service not only with his lips, but with his life.  That’s what courageous faith looks like.  That’s what the role of a Christian man looks like today.  It’s not gender specific.  Few roles are.  To echo a popular internet meme: Be like a man, Be like Joseph.

A few thoughts on populism and the election

Populist movements have received a lot of attention in recent months.  It might be more accurate to say that the word populist has been used a lot in recent months.  It gets splattered around in articles with the frequency of misplaced commas, but with little explanation.  So what is populism?  At least that’s the question I asked myself.  Back in high school we were lucky enough to have a terrific civics teacher who put in the hard work of explaining the differences between populism, progressivism, and pragmatism, as it was expressed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His labor was not in vain.  It just took quite a few decades to sink in, and a little refresher study thanks to the internet. 
It seems that populism is not a conservative or liberal ideology.  In fact, it’s not an ideology at all.  It’s a reactionary movement that can come from any part of the political spectrum.  What is it reactionary to?  It is always a reaction by some portion of the population that believes it is being suppressed or oppressed by a powerful (corrupt?) elite, and that organized opposition is needed to combat it.  Usually the offending suppression or oppression is a verifiable condition of fairly long standing that finally reaches a tipping point in which previously unorganized victims find ways to come together to fight back, first in spontaneous fashion, and then in more organized ways.  Usually but not always.  Sometimes the offending suppression or oppression can be largely imaginary, as in secret plans to confiscate all our guns, and the skillful use of propaganda can light a populist fire with real consequences.  
There have been all kinds of populist movements.  On the current public stage one might include the Occupy movements, Black Lives Matter, the various tea party groups, as well as the newly resurgent white supremacists and neo nazis.  There have been political parties that have attempted to institutionalize populist movements.  Think of the Populist Party, Greenback Party, Progressive Party and the Share Our Wealth Party, each of which had it’s day and then withered.  Institutionalizing populist fervor never works, and yet the ideas they generate can often take hold as they enter into the mainstream of American political life.  Laws related to child labor, social security, minimum wage, corporate monopolies, predatory pricing, food and drug safety, and others began as thrusts from populist movements.   So too were laws that enforced segregation, restricted voting rights, barred immigration of certain races, and favored high import tariffs.  Populism, as a descriptor of movement dynamics, is amoral and has no inherent political bias.  It’s neither progressive nor conservative.  It is simply a way to describe how a certain kind of reactionary movement can come into existence, take root, and have influence over public policy.  
It’s tempting to think that all populist movements arise from the people, and are not constructed by outside forces with manipulative intent in mind.  And for the most part that’s true, but not always.  In the early days of the tea party movement, liberal commentator Rachel Maddow complained that it was not a genuine grassroots movement, that it was organized and financed by particular right wing big money corporate interests.  I think she had the Koch brothers in mind.  She was probably right, but it didn’t matter.  I recall hearing her say something like once they figure out they’re being had, they’ll all go home.  She was wrong.  The Kochs, or whoever, knew how to tap into smoldering discontent through skillful use of propaganda and organization of well planned opportunities for it to be expressed in ways sure to garner media attention.  It worked.  It’s working still.  Did it pay off for the behind the scenes organizers?  Who can say for certain, but the 2016 election results, with the current line up of proposed senior executive leadership, indicates a huge return on investment at the cost of a few trivial bones tossed to the crowds that had been so masterfully used.  Moreover, they’ve got a guy headed to the White House who, because of his narcissistic unpredictability and general lack of intellectual curiosity, is probably someone they can manipulate to their own advantage while letting him play at being president.  I wonder.  He’s the wily sort of crazy that may not be so easy to handle.  But I digress and have strayed from the subject of populism.
Our nation has been influenced by populist movements from colonial days to now.  A combination of our constitutional forms of government combined with a centrist political ethos has generally enabled us to self correct in ways that other nations have not.  We may take the occasional wrong turn, but always find our way back.  After rejecting populist movements as such, we have taken from them ideas that have contributed to the well being of the nation, weaving them into the institutional fabric of American life.  In like manner, we have spurned, after a time, sometimes too long of a time, populist ideas that have been destructive of society.  Our practice has been to tolerate a considerable deviation about the mean while suspiciously watching outliers to see whether they should be brought into the mix, left out in the cold, or made illegal.  It hasn’t been pretty at times.  From violent suppression of factory and mine strikers to toleration of the KKK, and our brief love affair with the America First movement, we have toyed with the possibility of not continuing as a democratic republic centered on shared American cultural values.  We’ve toyed with it, but no more than that.
Now we are in a political transition that may be as dangerous to the republic as was the election of 1860.  It remains to be seen whether a well engineered right wing swing toward something that looks a lot like fascism swathed in clothing that promises greater personal freedom and opportunity for working class folks can really work.  Or will the self correcting mechanisms embedded in our constitution and laws, backed by our history of centrist democracy succeed in keeping us ethically and politically healthy?  We shall see.

One thing I know, if any of my right wing friends read this short essay, they will take umbrage in high dudgeon at the very thought of having been manipulated.  How rudely arrogant of me when all they want is a simpler federal government that is not so intrusive in their lives, and leaves local problems to be solved by local people in their own way.  More on that at another time, along with a recipe for how to make an umbrage served in high dudgeon.

Is the Protestant Work Ethic relevant?

When I write about what conservative friends think about issues of public policy, I’m not writing about conservatives as a class, only about the friends to whom I have listened.  It disturbs me when I read articles that assert conservatives or liberals believe thus and so.  I consider my self left of center and very pragmatic.  What some commentators ascribe to all liberals or progressives is foreign to me, and it seems the height of conceit to slather an entire political spectrum with a brush of one unverifiable color.  In like manner, I cannot say conservatives think or believe thus and so.  I can only say what I understand my particular conservative friends think and believe because I have listened to them one at a time.  They cannot speak for all.  They can’t even speak for others who live in our area and vote like they do.   They can speak only for themselves, as I can speak only for myself.  When I write articles that imply a dialogue between us, I take the risk of misstating what they would say for themselves, but it’s one I’m willing to take for the sake of writing anything at all.
With that said, my friends farther to the right end of the spectrum believe that it is essential for people to be responsible for their own well being, and that government assistance programs are, for the most part, agencies enabling dependency rather than responsibility.  But for all the welfare programs, people would find ways to work for their needs rather than relying on government handouts.  But for all the government regulations, there would be abundant opportunity for entrepreneurial growth in business and industry.  The creeping socialism of the left is the greatest danger to America’s prosperity.  No doubt you have heard something similar, and more.  The roots of those assumptions lie deep in the American psyche, and I suspect they are tied closely to the so called Protestant work ethic, popularized by Max Weber in the early part of the 20th century as our civic inheritance of Puritan theology applied to daily life.  
Protestant by its foundation in Calvinist theology as expressed by colonial Puritans, it has a curious affection for one way of understanding justification by works that many Protestants ascribed to Roman Catholics, and to which they were adamantly opposed.  Grossly and unfairly summarized, it might be said that one side believed success achieved through hard work and civic diligence was a sign of God’s preordained blessing.  The other side believed that God’s blessing could be achieved through hard work and civic diligence.  Either way, hard work and civic diligence are at the center.  At best, slackers and reprobates fail the community, fail God and are bereft of God’s blessings.  At worst, they are signs of the devil’s handiwork sapping the life out of the community.  
What some of my very conservative friends leave out of their take on all of this is civic diligence.  It’s the same thing missing from what several right wing commentators write, to the extent that I stumble across them from time to time in our local paper.  It’s a big mistake.  Civic diligence is central to both ways of understanding the importance of hard work and God’s blessings.  The other day I was reading an essay on this very subject by John Cotton, one of those old colonial Puritans.  In it he asserted that there were three mandatory characteristics of the work to which every Christian [man] is called.  First, all work must be not only for his own well being, but also for the public good.  Second, the work one is called to is work for which one has skills, abilities, and understanding, and not other kinds of work.  Third, the work one is called to must be accomplished in ways acceptable to God’s purposes.  Obviously he had more to say, but the point is that if one wants to appeal to the founding principles of an American work ethic as the standard against which modern social policy is measured, then one ought to know what those principles are. And those principles always point toward the responsibility one has to the community for work that contributes to the well being of the community.  They require people to do what they are capable of doing, but not what they are not capable of doing.  They require that work be accomplished in morally, ethically acceptable ways.  
It’s the communitarian emphasis that my very conservative friends would find suspicious, even threatening, if they knew about it.  The rugged individualism and freedom from community oversight they attribute to the founding ideologies of the nation are not there.  Just to be fair, nascent European style socialism is not there either.  It’s important to make that point because they have a tendency to say if you don’t believe what they believe then you must be a socialist.  It doesn’t work that way, but trying to bring a more complex understanding into the conversation generally ends the conversation.  
Apart from the communitarian issue, their current delight in the president elect ignores the call to high standards of the moral and ethical component that characterized the early American work ethic.  For those old New England Puritans, success that does not reflect God’s will and ways is the work of the devil.  No matter how successful such a person might appear, it is destructive to the community and a sign of his or her eternal damnation.  It is to be rejected by the community.

Maybe none of this is important as we enter 2017.  Friends who think they are appealing to traditional American values are unlikely to read essays by those who gave birth to them.  I suspect they don’t really believe in them anyway.  They adhere to a Disney theme park version, and are not going to give it up.  On the other hand, maybe we need make it a part of the public debate.  What are the most workable ways to understand the scope of and relationships between communities and issues at the national, state, local levels?  What responsibility does the community have for creating conditions under which meaningful work opportunities for every level of skill and ability can exist?  What does it mean for persons and communities to have high moral and ethical standards for the work they do and the way they do it?  In what ways can we maximize individual right to live and work as each will without jeopardizing the right of others to do the same?  If each is to be as responsible for one’s self as each is able, what is needed for it to also provide for the necessities of life?  What is the responsibility of the community toward those who are irresponsible for what ever reason?