July Fourth and the Unifying Myth

July 4 is coming up, and with it more controversy emblematic of these recent decades.  Many generations in every place have observed the 4th with patriotic parades, picnics, decorations, concerts, and fireworks.  All in celebration of a unifying myth that the war for American independence from tyranny was driven by our desire to form a “more perfect union” of representative democracy in which all “men” were equal before the law.  It was not required that everyone agree about what that meant, and with communication less instantaneous than it is now, it was easy to assume that how I understood it was probably the same as how you understood it, so we could celebrate together as a nation as if in accord with one another.  Needless to say, the Civil War interrupted that ideal, but it was soon restored with a new veneer of patriotic idealism aided in part by the Spanish American War and the growing industrial might that gave America greater standing in the world.   Reinforced by two world wars through which America became the dominant world power, it was not seriously challenged until the civil rights movement and Viet Nam.  
The unifying July 4th myth is harder to celebrate these days.  Some whine about the Revolution being a middle class war waged on the backs of the poor, or that it was a rich man’s war waged on the backs of everyone else.  The disgrace of slavery is swung at it like a wrecking ball.  Accusations on behalf of American Indians, women, indentured servants, and unwanted immigrants are not far behind.  In the meantime, remnants of Civil War animosities intrude along with elements espousing white supremacy.  The instantaneous ubiquity of 24 hour news coverage and the chaos of social media means their voices can be heard throughout the land, each competing ever louder for attention and influence.
As for me and my ancestors, if they were involved at all in the Revolutionary War, they were wearing red coats and saluting Gen. Howe.  We didn’t come over until after the nastiness of the Civil War had subsided, and the coast was clear for taking the railroad to get some free land recently liberated from the Indians.  On top of that, most of the clergy in the denomination I serve were loyalists who fled to Canada or back to England.   One might wonder whether I have anything legitimate to say, but I’ll go on as if I do.  
And here’s the point: The unifying myth is good and we should celebrate it with gusto.  Because it’s a myth it isn’t required to be literally true, but it is required to bear truth.  The truth it bears illuminates the highest and most honorable of American aspirations, even if they are yet unrealized.  Making them the subject of July 4th celebration keeps them in the public eye, reminds us of what we have always hoped to become, and says something about how far we have to go to get there.  It isn’t so much a celebration of what we have done, but of what we have begun to do, at the cost of great human suffering, and what we have yet to accomplish.  
July 4th will inspire many patriotically themed prayers to be lifted up in places of worship, and in public places.  Maybe we cold amend them to go in a slightly different direction, as in these words cadged together from one in the Book of Common Prayer:

Grant, O God, that our holy and life giving Spirit may so move our human hearts as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence proclaiming our highest aspirations for living in a free and just society, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.

It must be God’s plan. God has a plan, right?

Has God got a plan for you?  I’ve touched on this question in the past, but it’s come up again with renewed anxiety because one of our two local hospitals, Walla Walla General, is closing its doors on July 24.  Shutting down the campus includes affiliated clinics, physician offices, and home health care services.  A little over 400 employees will be let go, not counting employees of contract services.  
It’s not that the community will suffer loss of quality hospital medical care.  The larger St. Mary’s Hospital is near by.  Except for the emergency department, they can absorb demand for hospital treatment.  Several physician clinics offer almost every specialty.  With luck, most displaced workers will find jobs in the health care sector.  Nevertheless, General will become a vacant, lifeless campus filled with lifeless equipment.  Yes, the highest quality care will still be available at St. Mary’s, but there’s a subtle difference in the way the two offer their services.  It seems like a small one, but it has a huge effect.  St. Mary’s is in the business of producing and selling quality medical care to those in need.  General’s is a ministry providing sanctuary for physical and spiritual healing to all who enter its doors.  To be sure, each has Christian roots.  St. Mary’s was founded by missionary  nuns, and continues to be a part of the Catholic affiliated Providence health care system.  General was founded by Seventh Day Adventists, and is a part of the Adventist health care system.  However, St. Mary’s and its Providence parent better understood, perhaps, the business of producing and selling hospital services.  In the changing environment of health care economics, General’s way became a money losing operation that could not be sustained, so it will close.  With it the community will lose a place where God’s grace and presence was infused in the every act of medical healing, but never thrust in the face or down the throat of anyone.  It’s a loss that extra beds and more physicians cannot replace.  
With that said, you can understand the level of anxiety it has created in the community.  As an Episcopal priest, I’ve had an enduring relationship with Adventist centered General as a patient, committee member, and occasional chaplain to staff, so it was not unusual for me to be among those setting time aside to listen to emotionally charged concerns about what was happening.  The most common thread was an appeal to God’s plan, for surely God has a plan, this is a part of it, and everything will work out OK – won’t it?  What do you suppose each person meant by their appeal to God’s plan?  Have you ever said something like that?  What did you mean?
My theology says that God’s plan is revealed in scripture and worked out through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is a plan for salvation in which our individual lives are not planned out in detail, only in the sense that in Christ God calls us to follow where Jesus has led.  God may certainly call some persons to particular service, but even then it does’t appear that God dictates each event of their lives.  Consider the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses as examples.  Did God lay out a complex flow diagram establishing the day-by-day events of their lives from which no deviation could be made?  Scripture itself says no, that’s not the way God does things.  Their stories are filled with questions, doubts, and negotiations with a God who was willing to negotiate.   Still, it’s comforting for some to believe that God has a plan for their life, and this time of intense anxiety must be part of it.  It’s short lived comfort because there are only two steps forward one can take.  One is to figure out what that plan is and follow it with God being maddeningly vague about giving directions.  Mess this up and you’re bound for reprobate land.  The other is to relax and let God do the work.  No doubt the phone will ring, an offer made, or maybe not, but whatever, it must be God’s plan.  If nothing else, it’s a way to avoid personal responsibility.  Both tend to fall into that form of Calvinism in which predestination takes all the questions out of it.  Either you’re in or out, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Wanting desperately to discover you’re among the saved, you have to look for signs of that plan and follow it, or you’re doomed.  Or, what the hell, you can’t do anything about it anyway so why worry?    
That doesn’t sound right, does it, and it isn’t.   But what is right?  Returning for a moment to those old stories of the Hebrew patriarchs we can find some clues.  God has plans.  God created order out of chaos.  God established processes, human and otherwise, that lead somewhere. Where?  To a new land, the formation of a new people, a new nation, a new way of living together.  To a new creation of all creation.  What God intends will come to pass, but God accomplishes it through engagement with people who are free to say yes, no, maybe, or can we talk about it.  Moreover, what God intends takes place in God’s time that extends hundreds, thousands, millions of years in all directions at the same time, which puts our puny life spans at a disadvantage.  It’s  not a scope of things we can easily comprehend, and our part in it, if any, is nothing but a micro step.  
Well, if not a sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge then the micro steps of my life must be important too.  What about a plan for that?  If we are serious about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, then that plan is clearly laid out.  “Here’s how I want you to lead your life,” says Jesus.  “Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.  For additional details consult the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the Great Commission.  That’s the plan.  Any questions?”
Well yes, it doesn’t seem like much of a plan.  It doesn’t say whether God planned to close General Hospital, or throw 400 health care providers out of work, or what the next step of the plan is.  And that’s the frustrating part.  God engages with us, but does not control us.  The more open one is to engaging with God, the more present God becomes in guiding and guarding our steps, but it’s our responsibility to choose and take those steps.  On the other hand, the less open, or more closed to engaging with God we are, the less present God becomes, leaving us entirely to our own devices.  Moreover, each of us lives in a time and place inhabited by several billion other persons, each making thousands of daily decisions that may affect our lives in unknown ways at unknown times.  On top of that, each of us is affected by the presence and actions of countless generations preceding us.  It means chance plays a big role in life, and “Luck be a Lady Tonight” is not among the approved prayers.  

None of that is very satisfying to those who want God to work out what is best for them according to his plan because it suggests there is no plan, at least not the kind of plan they have in mind and desperately want.   Sitting with an anxious person about to become unemployed who wants to know what God’s plan is, is not the time to explore an alternate theology.  It’s the time to listen, and hold them in prayer.  But here in this place is the time to go back to the basics.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Then take the responsibility to take the next step in your life with God as your companion on the way.   

Trash Talk and Propaganda

I sat down intent on writing something away from politics, something fun and maybe mildly entertaining.  Then I started thinking, always a bad sign, about the stuff that stuffs my inbox each day, and about the quality of political writing that used to epitomize the right wing but now infects the progressive side as well.  If you don’t want to read this entire article, it comes down to this.  It’s bad writing that doesn’t help.  It often uses the tools of classic propaganda that progressives should not simply avoid but condemn. Two pieces that caught my attention in the last couple of days stand out as examples of what I mean.  One was an editorial diatribe from Drew Magary in an online edition of GQ.  The other was a fund raising appeal from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV).
Magary wrote a scatalogically scathing article about his distaste for NYT columnist David Brooks, particularly Brooks’ take on the Russia investigation, which he thinks is adding up to not much.  Magary was offended that Brooks would dismiss a Russian cyber invasion to undermine American democracy as no big deal.  Differences on important issues argued out in public is a good thing, but Magary used up most of his energy on ad hominem attacks using the usual variety of sophomoric words one hears on talk radio and late night t.v.  Why?  He had a legitimate point to make.  Why demean it with irrelevant trash talk?  Isn’t that something better left to Limbaugh and company?  It’s not  likely that any voters and potential voters progressives need to attract will ever read GQ ,or anything Magary writes anywhere else.  And that’s a good thing because it’s precisely his style that shines a crude light on progressives as elite snobs who look down on everyone else as what?  Disreputable?  Despicable?  Low class?  The servant class?  Oh sure, they say they’re for the workers and struggling middle class, but they’re just a bunch of self righteous, over educated, elitists, and Magary proves it.
The First Amendment gives him (and me) the right to write whatever he pleases, and the internet gives him the ability to distribute it to the widest audience he can find.  But in this case he wasted a legitimate argument on cheap, snide shots that did a disservice to progressive interests.  So much for example number one.
Example number two concerns appeals for money from dozens of organizations representing causes that, in principle, I support, mostly on the progressive or liberal side of things.  The majority use a two step formula of hyperventilating about the horrible things that will happen if the government does or doesn’t do such and such, followed by an urgent appeal for money, the use of which is left vaguely implied.  I get such an appeal from the League of Conservation Voters several times a week, sometimes several times a day.  The most recent appealed for funds based on the Trump administration’s plan to repeal the Clean Water Rule, thus endangering the drinking water of up to 117 million people.  Oh No!  Help!  Now what does that imply?  That there is a Clean Water Rule protecting drinking water?  That it establishes a norm for clean drinking water?  That it might be related to something like Flint?  That its repeal will result in immediate harm to millions?  Quick, send money!
As it turns out, the Clean Water Rule was adopted in 2015, two years ago, and has never been implemented due to litigation and court ordered stays.   From what I can tell, it’s a decent rule clarifying how the Clean Water Act of 1972 should be applied to certain upstream waters and wetlands in a more systematic and less expensive way than the current case-by-case practice of enforcement.   The thing is, repealing it does nothing to change current practice, nor does it affect standards established by law or other regulations.  So the entire LCV appeal is nothing but old time propaganda in which a smidgen of truth has been contorted beyond credibility to take advantage of gullible people who won’t bother to check the facts, but are frightened into sending cash.  
To be fair, my friend Kieth, a right wing Trump supporting wheat farmer, went ballistic when it was promulgated two years ago because his right wing interest group pulled the same propaganda trick to scare their cash cows into believing every pot hole and seasonal wet area would be controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard.  It was patently false to anyone who bothered to do a little investigating, but it raised enough angst and cash to help litigate and get the stays they wanted.  Let’s leave that kind of thing to the right wing.  Progressives can do better.  
As for me, if you’re not going to be honest with me, I’m not going to send cash to you.  I’ll keep reading Brooks even when I think he’s dead wrong.  If I accidentally stumble across another Magary article, I’ll probably trash it.

An Open Letter to Washington’s 5th District – and maybe to yours too.

Washington’s fifth congressional district has been held for a decade by one of the most useless representatives one can imagine.  Cathy McMorris Rodgers ran her first campaign as a conservative evangelical Christian who would defend traditional family values.  She won handily, and has continued to do so with no trouble.  In the meantime, she has done as little for the district as is possible not to do, but with an attractive smile and none of the maniacal histrionics that have eventually ended the careers of other oddball members of congress.  Without visible accomplishment or competency, she has risen to the number three position in House leadership, seldom heard from but frequently seen as an adornment in photo ops.  Her most recent letter to constituents said plainly that she is 100% behind Trump’s agenda, and proud to be there.  It’s a solid statement of support for an agenda of phosphorescing swamp gas – seen for a moment in the dark of night, but gone by daylight.  How does she keep getting reelected, and will she finally be defeated in the next round?
No, she will not be defeated.  She will be reelected, and easily.  Why?  In spite of easy as pie mail-in ballots, voter turnout tends to be low.  Moderates and progressives haven’t seen a good reason to get excited about alternative candidates.  Cultural antipathy for the mythical extreme liberalness of the west side of the mountains inclines the east side to vote conservative just out of spite.  But wait!  There’s more!  Democrats, at least where I live, act like exclusive club members who talk with each other but don’t know how to talk with ranchers, farmers, and others who keep voting for McMoRo.  The district’s most committed voters think of themselves as conservative, and they understand that, no matter what, she will oppose the creeping socialism they’re convinced is what Democrats are all about.  Limbaugh and O’Reilly say so, so it must be true.  They want nothing from the federal government other than what they already have, so it doesn’t matter if she accomplishes little.  She can be counted on to keep the federal government from doing more, and that’s what they want.  The irony escapes them that Eastern Washington is dependent on federal government largesse.  Snake and Columbia River dams, paid for by the federal government, provide low cost electricity and irrigation water that enables our farms and ranches to exist.  Land grant colleges and county extension services bring the latest and best knowledge to their doors..  National forests, national parks, rural electrification, and generous farm bill goodies provide even more sustenance to people who detest government handouts and gripe about how poorly the ones they get are managed.  Many of their employees, and some of them, are on SNAP.  Sadly, they’re not without a valid point.  Too many government bureaucrats have forgotten, if they ever knew, they’re in the business of customer service.  There’s a difference between making people jump through government hoops under threat of penalty, and helping customers make government programs work well for them.
That’s the context, and here’s the problem.  Democrats have been running against McMoRo and her record.  It’s a losing proposition.  You can’t win by running against something.  You can only win by running for something on behalf of somebody.  The something must be clearly defined.  The somebody must be real and benefit from the something.  Both must be communicated in terms easily understood by potential voters who do not follow politics closely, except for what they’ve heard for their entire adult lives on talk radio.  That doesn’t mean dumbing things down so lesser mortals can understand, a mistake Democrats often make.  It means respecting the dignity of the voters they need but have seldom attracted.  Take two lessons: one from the far right wing, and one from the history of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party.  The former has been wining elections by running for lower (burdensome) taxes, fewer (onerous) regulations, and more freedom from Uncle Sam.  That sells, even in the face of long term detrimental effects on the average person’s quality of life.  The latter was known for giving voice to  farmers, ranchers, hourly workers, kids, teachers, and the oppressed for government action to make life better for the average person.  That meant investments in the future through fair taxes, protection from corporate and environmental abuse, and laws to better guarantee the freedoms that define the American dream.  When it’s done right, the far right’s propaganda becomes little more than a cheap back alley crap game run by con men taking suckers for a ride.  Oddly enough, when it’s done right, it opens the door for true conservatives to do what they do best: negotiate in good faith to impose needed discipline and restraint.    

Ignore McMoRo.  Ignore tea party   Concentrate on what needs to be done for the district that can only be done through bipartisan openly debated congressional action.  

Are You Good Enough?

A few days ago we went to a performance of Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale”, which is a retelling of Faust, or most any other story about the devil and human gullibility.  Like other versions, the tale ends with a question: Has the soldier learned anything?  The closing dialogue suggests he hasn’t, and that the audience probably hasn’t either.  In the midst of it all, the script overtly offers two options, everything or nothing.  To have everything one wants is to have nothing.  To be without anything is to have everything.  Left unsaid, but lying in plain sight, are other options: What is good? What is enough?  What is good enough?  Why is it so easy to entice humans to believe more than enough is better?  Do they ever learn?
They’re not new questions.  The Hebrew scripture’s book of Ecclesiastes explores lessons learned by a wealthy person who discovered that wealth, by itself, is vanity, a chasing after the wind, worth nothing.  Not that it’s a bad thing.  It opens doors enabling access to  goods and experiences that can bring a certain amount of pleasure.  But the pleasure is fleeting, of no lasting value, unless anchored in healthy loving relationships, comfort in the work of moral responsibility to others, walking daily with God.  To be wealthy is not a sin, nor is it a virtue.  It cannot bring worthwhile value to life.  However, it can easily seduce one down the path toward nothingness of the soul.  Why are we so gullible?  Why can’t we be satisfied with good enough?
What is good enough?  The idea has been around for a long time.  From psychologists, to engineers, to song writers, what is good enough has been explored in the public arena.  To be good enough is to recognize that human frailty, fallenness if you will, stands between us and perfection, not in some things but in everything.  Few things are perfect, but they have to be good enough.  What’s is good enough to send astronauts to the moon and back is different from what is good enough to build a cabin in the woods, or to run a company, or to be a parent, teacher, student, or anything in creation.  Good enough is a high standard, but it’s not perfection.  Gullible as we are, we don’t buy that.  Gullible as we are, we buy another story.
In contemporary culture, good enough is the same as not good enough,  surrender to not trying hard enough, not doing one’s best, the lazy person’s excuse.  Who says so?  Advertising and cultural myths for starters.  Anything less than a perfect 10 is not good enough.  Anything less than a gold medal is not good enough.  Anything less than a green jacket is not good enough.  Anything less than a 4.0 is not good enough.  Did you do your best finds no adequate answer in good enough.  Want to keep your job?  Be better than good enough.  It won’t be easy because you are not pretty or handsome enough, you don’t own a good enough car, you don’t drink good enough whiskey, you don’t own good enough clothes, you’re not in good enough shape.  You’re not good enough for the mythical world of perfection.  
What.does this have to do with a soldier, the devil, and unlimited wealth?  Everything, because we are as gullible as the soldier in our idolization of perfection, what we envy about what others have, our discontent, even contempt, for not being good enough or having enough, and our dismissive judgement of others for being more not good enough than us.  The devil may not be around to tempt us with unlimited success, but advertisers do, as do Power Ball and Lotto day dreams, and pop culture myths about perfect families living in perfect houses, taking perfect vacations.  Good grief, with the perfect deodorant you could be skipping along the perfect beach against a perfect sunset with the perfect sex object of your dreams.  But no, your deodorant is not good enough, and neither are you.  None of us measures up, and in our gullibility too many of us, not being satisfied with good enough, become unhappily comfortable with being not good enough, overly judgmental of others for being even less good enough, and lusting in our day dreaming hearts about what it would be like to have it all, which would finally be good enough.  The devil wins.  
The great geniuses of the world, every one of them, have told their stories of failure after failure before success came their way.  A few days ago I read a short essay by a recent college graduate whose 4.0 GPA was sunk by a B, and the freedom it gave her to know that she did not have to be perfect to be good enough.  Passionate lovers celebrating fifty or sixty years of marriage, long ago gave up perfection, learning to love all that was good enough in their marriage, and it was very  good.  To be good enough is to recognize that in all things there is room for improvement, the next step being better than it was before, with even better yet to come.  Perfection?  The choice is not everything or nothing.  If that’s the choice, the devil wins.  
What’s the right choice?  To be good enough, working diligently to become more good  enough tomorrow than we were today.  To rejoice in God’s creation, taking seriously our obligations as its stewards.  To be kind to ourselves and respect the dignity of every human being.  To rejoice in what we have.  To remember that God so loves the world that he came to live and die as one of us that we might have eternal life, not after we had attained perfect faith, but while we were yet unbelieving sinners.  If we’re good enough for God, we’re good enough.   

Old White Men Who Have Done Well In Life

Do old white men who have done well in life have anything useful to say?  Do they have a right to speak?  I’m an old white man who has done well in life, so I have an interest in what the answers might be.  They’re serious questions in some quarters where angry voices demand that old white men listen without speaking back.  Listen to what?  Sometimes to a lengthy indictment alleging their personal responsibility for the inequitable conditions of society, for the unearned privileges that have benefitted them while denying the same to others, and for their deafness to voices that have gone unheard for generations.  
The allegations are not without merit.  White men of means, whether old or not, have held the reigns of political and economic power for a long time.  Some believed it was their right and destiny.  Some understood they had a moral duty to society as ones who had the ability and opportunity to act for the good.  Others, perhaps most, simply wanted to do the best they could with the resources they had for the welfare of their families and themselves – no offense meant to anyone else.  Within the context of their understanding of the society in which they lived existed a complex economic and social class structure making it easy to be ignorant of conditions facing those outside, and of forces of change at work.  Indeed, forces of change, when recognized, could be seen, have been seen, are being seen, as dangerously abnormal, given their understanding of what normal is.  They may upset the accepted norm of what society was, is, and should look be.  Rather than changing everything, those outside the norm should aspire to enter into it. Why?  Because it’s the norm.  It’s the old, we’ve always done it that way, so it must be the best of all possible worlds.  The more aware and open minded would break down barriers , open doors and throw down the welcome mat – sincerely, honestly, with good intentions.  That with barriers removed and doors opened, the entire economic and social class structure might morph into something unrecognizable was never considered a possibility.  Why would it?  If some old white men look bewildered, it is as one should expect.
If that’s an allegation that can be stuck on the class of people known as old white men who have done well in life, can it be stuck on each of them regardless of who they are?  Can each be held culpable while everyone else is declared innocent?  Lumping all old while men into an undifferentiated class to be equally and individually reviled as guilty of systemic social and economic injustice is morally repugnant, just as it has been and continues to be for what we have done to others on the basis of their class, race, or ethnicity.  Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, makes the point this way: “[Intolerance, in] a moment can switch to a decision to liquidate not only all actual criminals but all who are racially predestined to commit certain crimes.”  She was writing about growing antisemitism in Europe that would lead to the Holocaust, but it’s the same dynamic that undergirds every form of bigotry and prejudice.  We’ve certainly experienced enough of it in our own country, most particularly in our treatment of descendants of former African slaves, as well as every other non-white group, and a few “undesirable” Europeans.  Should it be a surprise if changing demographics and new found voices inspire members of those groups to return the favor?  That doesn’t make it right, just not surprising.  It also avoids the question: Do old white men who have done well in life have anything useful to say, and do they have a right to speak?  I think it’s the wrong question.  The question should be, Does this person have anything useful to say, and should I listen to it?  
As it turns out, some old white men who have done well in life have spent a lifetime listening to others as best they could, never ceasing to learn how to listen better.  They may be less tone deaf than they are frequently accused of being.  Some have had an abundance of life experiences, with time to reflect on them in ways that could help make life better for others, given the chance to tell our stories.  Some know so well the various systems under which they have prospered that they are the experts on how to help others do so, even when it’s been stacked against them.  Some are pros at handling the reigns of power, are willing to teach others, and will happily turn them over to a new generation of a new people.  Some have the keys for changing systems to be more equitably fair, and are willing to help others learn how to use them, if asked.  Some have learned that doing well, prospering by whatever measure, is but marginally related to money in the bank.  Some know very well that the good things of life that have come their way are due to accidents of birth and good luck, but not without the aid of a lifetime of diligent hard work.  They are happily grateful to have been so fortunate, and want to do what they can to see that others have the same opportunities. 
Which some are they?  You’ll have to decide.

An Anglican and a Catholic Walk into a Bar

So there I was minding my own business when my friend Bob saddled up during a concert intermission to raise a few challenging questions that had come up in the men’s prayer group at his Roman Catholic parish.  They had to do with what several who had made their Cursillo asserted about truth and salvation.  It ended up with me writing a response for us to use in deeper conversation when we get together.  It went like this.

It seems that his Cursillo group may have two characteristics that stand out from others in his parish:  a more charismatic/evangelical bent; a grounding in Catholic cultural traditions not in sync with contemporary Catholic theology.  Of course I may be entirely wrong about that, but assuming it’s the case, what about cultural traditions?  Across the length and breadth of American Christianity are those who complain about the faith submitting to “the world” rather than standing for Christian virtue.  For the most part, what they take to be Christian virtue is whatever  they were raised to believe is acceptable and normal for them according to the cultural values of the day.  Curious isn’t it?  They are the products of the very “world” they claim to be against.  It’s just that their world existed only for a fairly short time during their formative years, and they’re having a hard time engaging with all the changes since then.  I’ve met often with Christians of several denominations whose understanding of what the faith is and who can be saved was cemented into their heads and hearts by incompetent teachers during their grade school years, after which they quit learning anything new about the faith, scripture, tradition, or how to use their own gifts of reason.  That God might have something new to say, or that God may never have said what they were taught, are unacceptable alternatives.  We demand quality education in everything else.  Why are we so content with otherwise intelligent adults going through life with a fifth grade education about God?  Some Roman Catholics have the added burden of having been taught that the catechism of their childhood, and the social teachings of the Church according to what some teacher said they were, are a greater, more concrete truth than scripture, unaware of how rapidly changing and flexible that teaching has been over the centuries.  Some Protestants who buy into the literal and inerrant truth of scripture are no better off.  

As for the charismatic/evangelical wing in his parish, it is good to be open to a more intimate and emotionally felt relationship with God.  We could learn something from them.  The medieval mystics led the way, and moderns such as Thomas Merton have continued to demonstrate what that path looks like.  However, it has often been simplified to mean little more than emotionally “accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior,” and that, to me, is nothing but a cheap bumper sticker form of faith.  Jesus said to follow him, another matter altogether.  In his letter, St. James dismissed the faith of those who claimed Jesus as their savior if they could not show how they followed him in their lives.  I think James got it right.  Turning to Cursillo, my own experience was less than perfect.  I was troubled by the mind control atmosphere of the weekend combined with the expectation that all should have some kind of mountain top experience to show that they were real Christians.  Nonsense!

OK, the next question had to do with whether one can be saved if they are not a what?  A Christian?  A Roman Catholic?  As an Anglican, I can safely say that all Episcopalians are in.  Of others one can’t be too sure.  What’s the litmus test?  Surely there must be one.  One can proof text (cherry pick) scripture to make whatever case one chooses to make.  Early Church fathers such as Origen favored the possibility of universal salvation.   Not all agreed, the debate still rages, but it moves away from exclusivity.  For what it’s worth, recent popes have leaned in the direction of universal salvation without tipping all the way over.  The point being that it is God, not us, who has the final word.  As Bob and I discussed briefly, Jesus healed (and saved) a lot of people, so says the gospel record, and not a single one of them was a Christian.  When, in John’s gospel, Jesus says that no one can come to the Father except through him, we are compelled to remember that we are trinitarians.  He might has well have said that no one can come to God except through God.  Its a tautology that stands on a firm trinitarian foundation.  And who is the judge?  Not us!

What good Roman Catholics can say with confidence is that their tradition of faith is a reliable pathway, and that walking in it assures them that they are already walking into their eternal life in God’s presence.  What they cannot claim is that other Christian traditions are not reliable pathways.  The old exclusiveness (there is no salvation outside the ‘Catholic’ Church) never had a leg to stand on, no matter how deeply it was believed.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Wikipedia on the question

The Latin phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: “outside the Church there is no salvation”.[1][2] The 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church explained this as “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.”[3]  This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century. The axiom is often used as shorthand for the doctrine that the Church is necessary for salvation. It is a dogma in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches in reference to their own communions. It is also held by many historic Protestant Churches. However, Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox each have a unique ecclesiological understanding of what constitutes the Church. The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers. Kallistos Ware, a Greek Orthodox bishop, has expressed this doctrine as follows:
“Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (G. Florovsky, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church”, in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.[4]

The Catholic Church also teaches that the doctrine does not mean that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned in case of inculpable ignorance. Some of the most pertinent Catholic expressions of this doctrine are: the profession of faith of Pope Innocent III (1208), the profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the bull Unam sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (1302), and the profession of faith of the Council of Florence (1442). The axiom “No salvation outside the Church” has been frequently repeated over the centuries in different terms by the ordinary magisterium.

It does raise the question of what to do about those who claim to be Christian but are far outside the Nicene circle, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons for instance.  Again, we have to leave that up to God no matter how mistaken we believe they are.  It might be well to remember that Jesus is cited as saying something like “whoever is not against me (or you) is for me (or you).” (Luke 9.49). 

What about non believers and those who follow other religions?  On the one hand we must be bold in affirming that there is only one God, and that this God has been fully revealed to us in Christ Jesus who is the Messiah, and whom we call the Son of God.  We tried to explain what we mean by that in the Chalcedonian Definition, but in the end we have to admit it is a holy mystery.  Let’s face it, the Definition may have made sense to  5th century Greco-Roman philosophers, but it’s indecipherable gobbledygook to those sitting in today’s pews.  Can we be satisfied simply saying there is no other way to God except through God, and Jesus shows us the way?  Besides, Jesus (John 5) said that the time is now when even the dead will hear his voice, so it appears that our last chance may not be in this life after all.  Who knows?  Not me.  I’m willing to leave that up to God.  Maybe that’s why we Anglicans were such lousy missionaries.  Unless, of course, we had the might and rule of the British Empire to back us up, but that’s for another time. 

And with that, Bob and I have fodder for hours of conversation.

The Future of National and Local Papers

In years gone by I read three or four daily papers before the morning was over, and spent more hours scanning publications such as The National Journal and CQ Weekly, as well as watching this new thing, a 24 hour news channel called CNN.  The internet, such as it was, gave access to a few data bases and a couple of university libraries.  That’s how I kept up on what was going on in my world at that time.
Times have changed.  The internet can give us access to news sources almost without limit, and if Wikipedia doesn’t ave an article on something, it’s a good bet no one else does either.  Twenty four hour cable news is available on at least five or six easily accessible networks, and what isn’t on t.v. Is on talk radio.  What’s more, social media has become the instant manure spreader of anything and everything someone thinks is news.  It’s the clothesline, coconut, jungle drum wireless of the world.   Some have wondered if major daily papers are  dinosaurs that have not yet realized their time has come and gone.  Local papers struggle to adapt to a new role not yet defined.  Some have given up on print altogether and gone straight digital.  Others try to work it both ways.  Do they have a future?
I think so.  But what is it?  By definition, papers have to be written, edited, printed and distributed.  It’s a deliberate process, even if printing and distribution is done electronically.  Deliberation is good.  It makes time for more insightful investigation and reflection – something we need.  It is that very element of deliberation that allows them to be aggregators and evaluators of all that undifferentiated screaming for attention newsy mess out there.  At the local level they can explore and explain what is important and worthy to know about the life of the community.  Let’s face it, cable news has to find something to say every hour of every day.  It results in breathless announcements of breaking news about the sensational and trivial, along with in depth blabbering about things they hope to know more about, or wished they knew anything about, but are willing to guess about in order to have something to say.  Then they rehash the same stuff with enough minor modifications each time to make it resemble the children’s game of telephone.  Moreover, if something sensational happens in your home town, it will be reported to the nation as if it had happened, or could happen, in every home town, which has the effect of raising national anxiety without need or purpose.  As for talk radio, it’s become the domain of right wing provocateurs inciting gullible listeners to outrage over whatever they can concoct, the more conspiratorial the better, just because it’s entertaining and profitable, ethical responsibility be damned.  For all of that, local gossip networks remain the fastest known form of communication within their limited areas.  Ignoring the laws of physics, they operate faster than the speed of light.  They also ignore rules of logic and the need to verify anything.  Anyone interested in anything any of them have to say can find something on the internet to support their point of view.  Who can make sense of it?  Someone has said that we are drowning in stuff that looks like information, but having a hard time gaining knowledge or wisdom from it.  
That’s where national newspapers come in.  We need them to become aggregators and evaluators of what is truly newsworthy, especially as it relates to the well being of our nation and its communities.  We need them to become bastions of what used to be called investigative reporting, and sources of soberly informed editorial opinion.  For what it’s worth, I try to look at three national papers (digital editions): the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.  All three offer superb reporting.  The Times and Post tend to have liberal editorial opinions, while the Journal is quite conservative.  Yes, a few conservative friends moan about the liberal bias of national media, but considering the breadth of new sources out there, it’s a pretty whiny moan – not worth much.  For that matter, they’re simply repeating a mantra they’ve heard ad nauseam on Fox and from talk radio.  
Small city local papers, such as our Walla Walla Union Bulletin, have a different role, but one of equal importance.  Like the national scene, our area, and probably yours, is overrun with local internet news sources wallowing in a fast moving stream of undifferentiated rumors, announcements, questions, anger, frustration, and semi accurate real time news about unfolding events.  The paper’s job is to report on events of significance to the community, having assessed fact from fiction, giving well considered meaning to them.  We sometimes make fun of local school and sports reporting, but what could be more important than the news about what our children have accomplished on and off the field?  Like most small town papers, it’s understaffed by a parade of journalism newbies aided by a few old pros.  Editing bloopers, debatable accuracy, and word limits on articles demanding something more leave it open to constant ridicule.  In truth, it is for the most part a reliable source of reasonably well vetted information about what’s going on in the area.  Now and then if offers serialized in depth investigative reporting on major issues about which every informed citizen should know.  Perhaps its most important function is an editorial page open to letters in abundance from every conceivable point of view.  Think of it as a small town Hyde Park in print.  Yes, it attracts the usual cast of local crackpots, but even they are voices of discontent that need to be heard because they reflect underlying anxieties felt less passionately by the less vocal who will go to the polls and vote according to what they hope will relieve their anxiousness.

Do papers, national and local, have a future?  I think they do.  Can they be managed to produce a decent profit for their owners?  It remains to be seen.  

High School Graduation, Traditions, and Excellence

One of our granddaughters graduated from high school a few days ago.  It was quite an event.  A hundred and fifty girls, young women, celebrating a pivotal moment in their lives, one which, for them, can happen only once and never be repeated.  A gymnasium filled with families and friends, and the entire school administration lined up to celebrate their achievements.  It’s a rite of passage perhaps more important than graduation from college because it is the sign and symbol that they are leaving childhood behind as they enter the world of emerging adulthood.  
What struck me is its uniqueness as an event belonging to them only.  It can never belong to any other.  At the same time, it is one event, a single day, that is part of a chain of events stretching from decades past to decades yet to come.  Their school, for instance, was founded 150 years ago, with every expectation of 150 yet to come.  A class has graduated each year, and each year it is as if such a moment has never happened before and never will again.  Surrounding them are faculty and staff for whom this is one more repetition of an annual event much like the one last year, and likely the one next year and the year after that.  This fall a new class of freshmen will be welcomed as if for the first time.  Next spring a new class of seniors will be graduated as if it had never happened before.  At least that’s how it is likely to feel for the new freshmen and graduating seniors.  
However, all this first time ever uniqueness is contained within the context of tradition.  The idea of tradition may seem a little old fashioned to some, but it’s important, and I think its essential to establishing standards of excellence.    I’m going to stick with the school example for a while, but I want you to consider how important the same dynamic is for a multitude of institutions and organizations.  
When done well, entering students will be made aware that they have been bequeathed something of value from previous generations.  They will be guided to understand their responsibility to live into the high standards of the school’s traditions, bearers of it for those who will follow.  Not every school has a tradition worthy of being bequeathed or celebrated.  Some have none at all.  No one cares.  Let’s think about that.
I was impressed by the understated yet powerful way my granddaughter’s school traditions of academic excellence and moral values were integrated into the ceremony, reminding the graduates that they have been good stewards of them during their four years, encouraging them to carry them with them into their adult lives.  Are there schools that can’t do that because they don’t have a tradition of excellence or moral values?  What about so called troubled schools where unteachable students are blamed, or their irresponsible parents, or the incompetent faculty?  Maybe we have overlooked something more important: crafting and establishing a tradition of excellence and moral values that students are expected to live into and up to.  It can’t happen if no one knows what they are, and if administrations have not made a commitment to honor them.  What’s appropriate for one school may not be appropriate for another.  Each one must be suited for the place and people it serves.  Every now and then we are treated to a wow success story, but it always seem to revolve around the charisma of a particular teacher or principal, with success lasting only as long as that persons lasts, and only for those whom she or he touches.  Trying to replicate their successes by doing what they do never works, because they are only momentary glimpses of what an appropriate tradition would look like if it was institutionalized.  What’s important is an appropriate tradition of academic excellence and moral values welded into the heart of the institution, and into which administrators, faculty, and students are expected to live.
What if a school doesn’t have one?  A hundred and fifty years ago my granddaughter’s school didn’t have one.  The founders simply began where they were and set them, welding them into the institution over time.  These days we seem to dislike the idea of institutionalizing anything.  Stifles creativity, it is said.  Maybe, but some things to be institutionalize.  I graduated for high school sixty years ago.  It was the public high school for a large consolidated district that included urban and rural areas encompassing a wide variety of social and economic class.  Some students would go on to college, others trained for vocational careers.  A Future Farmers of America club was active.  What made it a high performing school was it’s tradition of academic excellence and commitment to building moral values into the curriculum.  It doesn’t require an elite private school for traditions such as these to guide students and faculty.  I doubt there is any school anywhere that can’t do the same, and it would make all the difference.  

Now for a word of caution.  Throughout this brief essay, I’ve used the phrase moral values.  Experience warns me that many will assume it means  patriotism, conservative Christian values, prayer in school, and the like.  It doesn’t.  It means honesty, integrity, respect for self and others, concern for the good of the community, and experience at being held responsible and accountable for what one says and does.