American Democracy Under Threat

American democracy is threatened by the political trajectory first set by Senator McConnell during the Obama years when he blocked legislation, most judicial confirmations, and outrageously refused to consider Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  He removed the Senate from its tradition as a deliberative legislative body, and made it into a sledge hammer of opposition.  It’s a threat accelerated by the Trump administration, which, in spite of emotional appeals to working class folk, shows little concern for, or knowledge of, conditions favoring economic and social well being for them.  

Until recently McConnell’s mastery of political skills has enabled him to avoid too much public scrutiny.  He’s been hard to pin down, even in the harsh glare of social media and cable news.  Trump, on the other hand, is a showman, a practiced con man, whose schtick is constructed out of wildly exaggerated claims and promises about whatever enters his mind, backed by insulting contempt for anyone crossing him.  He’s impossible to avoid.  His morning tweets make headlines in spite of their inanity.  His carnival sideshow rallies and impromptu “chopper talks” display the wandering mind of an ignorant man who, nevertheless, is laser focussed on what will feed his ego and sell well to his followers.  It’s a bizarre combination of traits.

While McConnell has enriched himself, becoming a multimillionaire on the coattails of his wife’s family – bearing the odor of congressional insider trading – he’s been able to maintain a patina of good breeding and decent standing amongst the D.C. social elite.  Trump, on the other hand, makes no pretense of good breeding.  Having been rejected by the society of New York’s wealthy elite, he makes do with the adoration of his base, the unreliable loyalty of aides and associates, and his well honed ability to publicly humiliate anyone who displeases him.

Together, they’ve made themselves demigods of right wing libertarianism: the low tax, small government ideology that’s replaced authentic conservatism without most conservatives recognizing what happened.

What dismays me are the reasonably well informed acquaintances who would never tolerate a Trump like coworker whose integrity, trustworthiness and abilities were as corrupt as his, yet remain his solid supporters.  They’re convinced that, apart from his boorish behavior, he’s done great things for the country.  They dream of a libertarian dominated America as the best of all possible worlds: a paradise of limited government, low taxes, strong military, and self sufficient people living peacefully on their own plot of land.  It’s a compelling Jeffersonian dream.  They tend to hold the social values of mid 20th century middle class white America as sacred.  They believe they’re the values into which others, regardless of race or ethnicity, should aspire to live, and they’re genuinely appalled that anyone would think that racist.  They’ve been indoctrinated by talk radio and Fox News to believe anything labeled liberal or progressive is thinly disguised far left socialism intent on invading private lives, ending American capitalism, and appropriating private property.  To give them academic credibility, they have a small collection of right wing think tanks, schools like Hillsdale College, and writers like Dennis Prager.  Fearful it might all be taken away, they tolerate Trump as their last best defense.

The view that American democracy is vulnerable and under attack by the president and senate majority leader is in stark contrast to the view that American values are under attack by liberals and progressives.  Each side views centrists as doormats lying between the two poles.  Still, for the most part they are poles that could be in conversation with one another, leading to acceptable agreements that could work well enough.  And well enough may be as much as we can hope for.  

What happens when political leaders can’t be satisfied with well enough?  McConnell can’t, but he’s hemmed in by senate traditions, the Constitution, public scrutiny, and maybe even lingering loyalty to the principles of representative democracy.  He won’t compromise, but he’s limited in what he can accomplish.  Trump believes he’s not hemmed in by anything, neither tradition, the Constitution, nor public scrutiny.  He thinks he can do anything he wants, and has said so.  He has little understanding of the principles of representative democracy, and so little loyalty to them.  To the extent he can be hemmed in, it’s by his own incompetency, and the public scrutiny of impeachment that he hadn’t expected. 

Hemming in is not enough.  They need to go.  Both of them.  As soon as possible.  Government needs to be returned to the leadership of persons able to engage in conversation with those whose ideas are dramatically different from their own, persons who can negotiate workable agreements with each other.  Tea party and Freedom Caucus legislators need to be replaced with representatives who desire to serve the needs and interests of their states and districts in the context of what works best for the nation.  

Conservative voices are needed to check liberal excess. Liberal voices are needed to open doors to new ways toward better lives for more people.  Centrist voices are needed as a reality check on both. 

Judgment & the Golden Mean

Although we’re warned about judging others, we do it anyway, and not once in a while, but always.  We’re not very good at it, but that doesn’t stop us.  Psychologists like to remind us that we can’t possibly know what’s going on in the lives of most others we judge.  Our evidence is weak, our prejudice strong, and still our convictions are unshakable. It doesn’t stop us. 

Judgments can be mild, perhaps even affectionate, but more often they’re arrows and verbal hand grenades tossed at each other, causing harm even when none is intended.  Jesus cautioned us not to judge others lest we be judged and held accountable for it.  Yet we’re not excused from judging.  There are critical decisions we must make: judgment of persons, places, conditions and consequences.  Each day requires us to make them about the integrity, trustworthiness and abilities of others with whom we live, work, and encounter.  We can’t avoid it.  Whether or not we must, we also make judgments about people and issues more remote from our daily lives,  Some are important because the people and issues are important to the well being of communities and nations; others entertain our emotional needs and desires in good ways and bad.

There are three easy paths to making judgments.  One is to be a cynic, suspicious of everyone and everything, certain that every boon comes with a treacherous hook.  The second is to be a sentimentalist, naively unaware of threatening conditions and behavior, believing in the best of everybody.  Oddly enough, both are gullible, easily manipulated, and constantly make poor decisions with bad consequences.  Most of us are neither one nor the other, but wander about in between, sometimes leaning a little this way, sometimes the other.  Some relish being knee deep in conflict, others avoid it in any way they can.  

The third easy path is zealotry.  I’m writing this piece on the Feast of St. Stephen, a young man known to us from the 7th chapter of Acts where his unfettered zeal overriding good judgment ended in death by stoning.  His story introduced Saul (Paul) as being driven by an opposite but equally unfettered zeal overriding good judgment.  Saul eventually got knocked to the ground by Jesus’ sudden appearance in a blinding light.  Sternly lectured by the Lord, his zeal was transformed from a rabid desire to imprison and kill Christians, to teaching and leading them.  He learned to fetter his zeal (most of the time) and made better judgements for it.

Balance is the key.  It’s the Golden Mean of Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the middle way.  It’s a way often ridiculed in today’s politically polarized environment as standing for nothing, willing to compromise on everything, a way only the wishy-washy would choose.  Yet it’s the way through which better judgments for the greater good are made possible without being torpedoed by cynicism, sentimentality or zealotry.  It’s a way marked by an appropriate degree of patience, time for reflection, consideration of options and consequences, and determination to see things through.  It’s a way not easily sidetracked by polarizing emotional appeals, but seeks to find ground for workable answers to issues.  It’s a way that tries, as best it can, to truly see and understand the other, set aside its own prejudices, and make room for an acceptable range of variation.

Sometimes missed in the gospel record is how much time Jesus took to slow down, reflect and pray; how much time he took to listen carefully to others; and how much effort he put into teaching others to be both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  He established a pattern for others to follow.  As Christians who acknowledge his divinity, it is a pattern more than divinely inspired.  It’s instruction directly from the Word of God about how we are to think and act when making judgments about persons, places, conditions, and consequences.  

Saul, soon to be known as Paul, had to learn that the hard way.  As his letters attest, never a sentimentalist but sometimes falling back into cynicism and zealotry, he did the best he could.  If we are serious about following Jesus, we too must do the best we can to strike for the Golden Mean.  It requires judgment based on reason, a search for and testing of objective truth, a self awareness of our own values, beliefs and prejudices, and submission to God’s Way of Love.

It’s not a quest for perfection.  But with Paul as an example, and with compassion for our own weaknesses, we can do better.  It is, in my opinion, the only way through which we can help our society emerge from the extreme polarization experienced today.

I am troubled by: We can do better

I am troubled by – these words begin a number of my Facebook and Twitter posts.  Among other things, I am troubled by the civic life of our country subsumed under floods of ranting presidential tweets footnoted by spontaneous “Chopper Talk” press briefings that often devolve into rambling nonsense.  I am troubled by his cartoonish performances at rallies where there are no barriers between truth and fiction.  I am troubled because the way presidents present themselves helps set acceptable standards for public conversation in every coffee shop, bar, and social gathering.  All the more so in our age of real time coverage and unfiltered social networking that leaves little opportunity for studied reflection.

For instance, it’s now acceptable to use humiliating name calling as a conventional form of exchange on social media.  It’s now acceptable to define others by their most controversial characteristics.  That kind of behavior was always around.  Most of us grew out of it by the end of our high school years.  Those who didn’t seldom rose far in their chosen fields.  Relatively small sectors of the population adopted crude, humiliating, demeaning talk as language shared among themselves, I suppose as self defense against the hostile world they believed surrounded them.

Starting with talk radio and the tea party movement, growing with the freedom caucus in congress, and culminating with our current president, this form of crude public discourse has become normalized – just another way of expressing one’s legitimate opinions and feelings as protected by the First Amendment.  Moreover, led by the president, he and his supporters now claim to speak for the majority of Americans.  It’s given license to any and all, from whatever corner of the political world, to do the same. 

The anonymity one can claim on social media makes it safer to ‘troll’ others without fear of consequence.  It means conversation in the public forum about important issues is sure to be invaded by demeaningly hostile comments providing nothing useful.  Extending beyond social media, the same is just as likely to occur in gatherings where featured speakers are subject to verbal highjacking by loud, crude protesters demanding that their right to be heard outweighs anyone else’s right to be heard. 

The idea of decorum, politeness, and adhering to standards of propriety is too often dismissed as more than old fashioned.  It’s a sign of ‘snow flake’ weakness, an unwillingness to stand for what is right.  To expect public conversation about important issues to rise to a reasonable level of intellectual integrity and respect for one another is the vain hope of “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” to borrow a phrase from Spiro Agnew: he whose integrity was for sale to any bidder.

We can do better.  To allow ourselves to sink to such a low level is a national embarrassment that weakens our international standing, and tears at the soul and fabric of society.

I’m a Sap for Christmas

I’m a sap for Christmas. In my former parishes, never did I get through the opening solo of “Once in Royal David’s City” without a tearful thank you for yet another generation of young people, acolytes kneeling at the altar rail. At the little rural church I serve in retirement, never once have I made it through “Silent Night” sung in candlelight without a tearful thank you for the faithful service of this elderly congregation that never lets age get in its way.

Wondrous beyond words is the image of the Word made flesh lying as a newborn in rough conditions and threatening times, yet proclaimed by angels and adored by shepherds. 

And, yes, I’m the same guy who’s lectured about the historic origins of Christmas celebrations; the uncertainty of the place, date or time of year of Jesus birth; and the unpleasant news that Luke and Matthew can’t be harmonized into a fabulous Charlie Brown pageant.  

It’s true that Mark says nothing about the birth, and doesn’t begin the story of Jesus until his baptism when he was about 30 by John the Baptist.  John the Evangelist, also says nothing about the birth, and his story begins with the beginning when God began to create.  Only Matthew and Luke have anything to say, and they tell two very different stories about the birth.  I don’t think they invented them out of imagination.  I think the stories were old, their origins springing from the event itself.  However mutated they became through their telling and retelling, they nevertheless bore truth that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not long before Herod the Great died.  There was scandalous doubt about his parentage.  Locals who witnessed it told of strange, inexplicable events in the skies.

I don’t know why Mark had nothing to say about it.  Maybe he’d heard the stories in all their various forms too often, and deciding to skip what he could not resolve, got right to the heart of the matter –– the start of Jesus’ adult work.  John, on the other hand, was aware that Matthew and Luke had told their versions, so why repeat them.  It was more important for him to answer a different question: What do we mean when we say Jesus is the Son of God?

Maybe the larger question is why Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include a birth narrative.  I’ll never know that answer either, but have a guess.  First, they had the stories.  Second, they may have thought Mark was wrong in not including them, especially since they were now writing for audiences living far away, unfamiliar with Judaean Judaism, and naturally curious about where Jesus came from.  Third, they may have thought the birth narrative was a necessary bookend to the resurrection narrative, which taken together, leave no doubt about who Jesus is as the Word made flesh.

I suppose we could discuss questions such as these for a long time, as previous generations have for centuries.  But it would lead us away from the awesome mystery of God’s incarnation in the most vulnerable way possible.  As others have in their times, our time seems dark and vulnerable.  Prophetic hope seems more remote than it did a few decades ago.  During the World Wars we had a clear understanding of who the enemies of peace were.  During the Cold War, we thought we did.  Today we’re in endless wars of no particular purpose or end.  Today we see the most threatening violence and strife not elsewhere, but within our nation.  Day and night we scan the world for enemies, but iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from our marketplaces (Ps. 55).  No need is so pressing that we cannot stop, reflect, and go to the manger to see this thing that has taken place.  What better time than this to “hush the noise and cease [our] strife and hear the angels sing.”  

We & They: Who are We? Who are They?

Who are we? Who are they?  The rise of ethnic nationalism may have something to do with how these questions are answered.

Every person has struggled with the question, who am I?  It can be answered only in the context of one’s life experiences among the people with whom one lives and works.  It means an equally important question will always be, who are we?  But who are we is usually answered in the context of, who are they?, the they who are not we.

I sent in for one of the cheap DNA tests to discover my heritage.  Raised a son of the Upper Midwest, it turns out I’m mostly British.  Given the successive waves of tribes that invaded the British Isles, and the cheap price I paid for the basic kit, little more can be said about my ethnic or racial ancestors.  Still, to be British, or more particularly, to be English, always meant to be among a certain class of we who were definitely not among the many they of continental Europe, or anywhere else.  It’s no longer true.  The Anglo-Saxon-Norman English can no longer be certain about who the we of England are.  Waves of immigration from former colonies and Eastern Europe mean a large population who cannot claim descent from centuries of life on the island, yet they’re citizens of the United KIngdom with all the rights and privileges thereof.  The mayor of London, for instance, traces his lineage to colonial India, and he’s not C of E but Sunni.

Perhaps Brexit should not be a surprise, but an expected move to recapture, as much as possible, the we-ness of being English according to the old standards.  Of course it’s a fool’s errand, but it’s not irrational.  The same can be said of most European countries.  Their long cherished national identity as a people sharing common ancestry is challenged by the influx of peoples whose skin color and religion are not theirs, and who trace their ancestry to far off places on other continents.

We Americans are a little different.  Proudly we claim to be a nation of immigrants –– with limitations.  My status as a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) placed me in the center of those who controlled the stories of who we are as Americans.  I am among the we who established us as the standard to which all others were held.  Some of the others were were admitted to the circle of we if, after a time, they assimilated our ethos, and adopted our stories as theirs.  We had no objection to them retaining a few symbols of ethnic heritage, as long as they didn’t crowd out the dominance of our own.  Blacks, American Indians, Asians and most Hispanics never quite made the cut, not that we didn’t try with well meaning efforts to make them into honorary WASPs, sometimes against their will –– the Indian schools for instance.

It’s breaking down.  It’s been breaking down since the end of WWII.  WASPs no longer have the place of authority that once allowed them to set the rules of who we, as Americans, are.  Whites of whatever ethnicity or social class are no longer the sole arbiters of who is in and who is not.  Moreover, the stories we tell about our origins as a people are no longer limited to Pilgrims and pioneers.  I was struck by Ghana’s Year of Return (2019) that encouraged American blacks to discover their roots in Africa.  They hoped for settlement and investment, and got some of it, but mostly they got visitors who came to discover more about who they are.  Then they went home carrying with them new stories America’s origins that don’t begin in coastal slave markets, but don’t deny the reality of it.  In a similar way, American Indians have boldly asserted the right of their stories to a place of primacy as first peoples in America’s narrative.  The same is true of Hispanics whose ancestors settled the West long before other Europeans.  And consider those of Asian descent who were banned from entering the country or owning property, yet flourish as fully accredited Americans who don’t need to be accredited by anyone else.    

Curiously, the old WASPish standards retain influence.  Who we are as Americans tends to gravitate in that direction, but into that vortex come new stories and traditions creating a new narrative with more parts.  American history can no longer start in England with a parade of ships to Jamestown and Plymouth.  It has to include Ghana, China, Spanish America, and the Indian nations into which they came.  They won’t displace Jamestown and Plymouth, nor will they displace the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or westward push of European settlement.  But those stories will have to stand side-by-side with others that will diminish the luster with which they’ve been polished.  That’s OK.  We’ll polish up the new narrative to have its own luster.

In the meantime, it shouldn’t surprise us that a large part of the old time white population isn’t happy about losing their place, or being forced to accommodate a new narrative that includes others always treated as they, not we.  It’s what’s behind a lot of the tea party stuff and America First nationalism.  Nor should we be surprised at the angry impatience of some who demand their rightful status as members of we Americans, on their own terms, and without the need of anyone else’s permission.

There’s a lot of talk about the divisiveness in society, our polarization, and how E Pluribus Unum is disintegrating before our very eyes.  There is an unhealthy turn away from representative democracy toward authoritarianism aided by a racially segregated plutocracy.  I want to believe it is the last refuge of those committed to the old narrative, and that for all their bravado, they’re doomed to failure.  I want to believe we are feeling the birth pangs of a new narrative, a healthier more resilient narrative, that will give new life to a stronger democratic republic. 

Predators in the Peaceable Kingdom

I can’t get Isaiah’s prophecy of a peaceable kingdom out of my mind.  Many congregations heard it read out loud on the second Sunday of Advent.  When the Messiah comes, “…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain. (Isa 11)

It’s a beautiful scene, made all the more so by Edward Hicks’ familiar paintings.  It’s pleasant to imagine what that world would be like, but where are the people?  Aren’t there supposed to be people in the peaceable kingdom, or have we so disappointed God that he’s given us up for cows and bears?  Jesus’ nativity says no, God has not given up on us.  To the contrary, Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3), humanity in particular, along with cows, bears and the rest of creation.

The peaceable kingdom vision depicts predators and prey living in harmony with one another.  No longer will one species need be nourished at the cost of another species’ life.  Among earth’s creatures, we humans stand apart from all others as the most voracious of all predators.  We kill all manner of other animals to satisfy our bodily hunger.  We kill for the sport of it.  We kill each other with heedless abandon, sometimes in the name of the state, and sometimes out of personal animus.  We have even been known to kill each other for the sport of it.  

Our skills at predation have become quite sophisticated. We kill to nourish our fears, anxieties, ambitions, and egos. We do it not by taking whole lives, just parts of them, through looks, words, and deeds. Abusing, oppressing, humiliating, dominating, intimidating are all ways to kill a little of another’s body, mind and spirit. We cheat and steal from one another in criminal acts, and in the ways we conduct business, treat employees, violate that which has been entrusted to us, and more. They are all forms of predation.

Earthly creation was given into our hands, entrusted to us by God to serve as stewards responsible for its welfare.  We have used its resources to benefit the well being of humanity, but not always wisely.  We have too often failed to consider the well being of creation itself.  Our ability to apply new technologies for our personal benefit have often surpassed our ability to reflect on how they affect the long term health and well being of the rest of creation.  We have, in some insidious way, become parasites preying on the host that gives us life.  It’s dis-ease is our disease, and we are adept at denying both.  It’s not out of evil intent.  In fact, we’ve usually meant for good things to happen, and taken pride in our achievements.  More people live longer, healthier lives.  There are fewer famines and less extreme poverty.  We’re more aware of our interdependence as peoples of differing ethnicities and nations.  Nevertheless, we have trashed our environment, and threatened the viability of our fellow non-human creatures. 

As predators go, none have surpassed us.  I wonder if it’s one reason why we’re easily frightened by the science fiction threat of invasion by extra terrestrials who are more powerful predators than we.  Is it fear that another life form superior to our own would have to be predators because evolution favors predation over all other traits?

Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is not about wolves, lambs, leopards and kids.  It’s about us.  The animals in his vision are metaphors for human beings.  It is we who will neither hurt nor destroy in God’s peaceable kingdom.  But when?

Theologians are fond of talking about the already but not yet; the inbreaking of God’s kingdom already present in our time and place, but the fullness of it is not yet ours to experience in this life.  Isaiah’s vision of God’s peaceable kingdom has always been present, at least in small pieces, because God has always been engaged with creation as both judge and savior.  But with God’s incarnation in Jesus, whose birth we soon celebrate, it ceased to be a matter of visions, prophecies, and God’s words mediated by human agency.  Jesus did not speak and act for God, but was God speaking and acting for us.  What Jesus did, Jesus still does, and will continue to do.  Jesus is not a historical event to be remembered but a present reality to be followed.  

Followed in what way?  As bearers of the peaceable kingdom, at least as much as each is able, in the ordinary events of daily life.  The first rule: do no harm.  Bringing healing, restoration, and opportunity into the lives of others may be the goal of discipleship, but first we must accept for ourselves the healing, restoration, and opportunity for new life Jesus offers to us.  Having done so as best we can, we must commit to doing no harm to other creatures, human and non human.  It’s not that easy.  We remain predators depending on the lives of other creatures to nourish our own.  We remain creatures for whom violence in some forms may be necessary to defend against violence in other forms.  As predators, we remain suspicious of each others’ intentions, and for good reason.  It’s not that easy to do no harm, but we can try.  And when we try, we can begin to bring the healing and restoration to new life that has been given to us, into the lives of others, at least a little.  It’s a start.  It’s good news. 

Perhaps, in some small measure, we might then also begin to say, as Jesus said, look what’s happening: Those who were blind have new sight; Those who could not hear God’s gracious words have heard them; Those who could not follow Jesus are walking with us; Those who were excluded as unclean have become one with us; That is good news.  It’s not easy.  History tells us that in enthusiastic hubris, we’ve often done great harm trying to bring the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  We’ve used our predator skills to proclaim the good news.  It doesn’t work that way.  Remember the first rule: Do no harm. 

Healthy Congregations: It’s a Balancing Act

Every clergy gathering sooner or later turns to the social psychology of parish membership, with special concern for what motivates new comers to attend in the first place, decide to stay or leave, and what works to accommodate them within the existing culture of the place.

Academics and church consultants have lectured and written about it for decades, but every gathering seems to start all over as if for the first time.  And why not?  The river of clergy who have been exposed to well researched guidance from experienced experts moves on, leaving behind those who, indeed, must start from the beginning.  

I have my own take on the question based on years of consulting and teaching in the realm of community organizations.  It’s only a partial answer, but it might help one or two others work out their own better ways.  It begins with why someone might come into a church in the first place.

To be sure, there are life long church folk who, upon arriving in town, search out a church that looks good to them and start attending.  For most newcomers, their entrance is related to a personal issue held close and seldom shared.  Personal issues are high in emotional content, meaning entering a church for the first time is not without anxiety.  Will I be welcomed?  Will there be people like me?  Will it be a place where my hunger will be fed?  Will my wounds and fears be tended? Will I understand what’s going on?  Will they like me?  Will I be embarrassed?  What if I do something wrong?  Entering a church for the first time is a deeply me centered experience.  Some may enter in shyness, others with feigned self confidence, or brash plunging straight ahead, but it’s all a way of dealing with the anxiety of entering for the first time.  Introverts like me likely want to be relatively invisible until they can get their bearings.

If the initial experience is successful, newcomers may become regulars looking for connections with whom to share a little about their expectations and needs in companionable fellowship.  Through it they may develop a greater knowledge of God as revealed in Christ Jesus, deepen their faith in God’s goodness, and grow in confidence as Christians.  The simple acts of attending and participating in fellowship establish the foundation for long term commitments, and sometimes that’s as far as it goes.  Is it enough?  I think it is.  

Others, who have gained confidence that their basic needs are met, will be attracted to more active involvement if avenues for it are made available.  It’s the usual menu of choir, church school, altar guild, lay ministry, adult Christian education and other subsets of parish life beyond attending worship and coffee hour.  Success depends in large part on whether the congregation provides open, barrier free, well marked avenues of access.  Pastors are all too familiar with established groups resistant to newcomers invading their territory.  There is nothing more common than open doors and closed circles.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

In time there will be some who recognize that, working together, the congregation can do good things  for those in need in the community.  They are the ones who respond to the call to be missional.  They retain their needs for personal nourishment, fellowship, and small group involvement, but they have a sense that the gifts and resources of the congregation need to be made available to those in need elsewhere.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and other ways of taking the good news of God in Christ Jesus out into the world is the work God has given them to do.  They may find it hard to understand why everyone can’t see what they see and do what they do.  In their enthusiasm to recruit others, they may put too much pressure on those not yet ready or have other interests.

Some, not many, will become more aware of how much it costs to do all that needs to be done, more aware of the blessings that have come their way, and more committed to underwriting the church budget.  Sacrificial tithers can be tempted to assume a proprietary interest in church affairs, which is never a healthy thing, but it happens.  They have a hard time understanding why others don’t do as they do.  Those whose generosity is founded on sacred gratitude are the true financial pillars of the church, and more likely to honor the abundance of gifts distributed in different ways among the congregation.

A few will have the skills and abilities to lend their talents to overseeing the organization itself.  With luck, they will be selected to serve on the parish council or vestry, providing wisdom needed to make sound policy decisions for today and tomorrow.  It doesn’t always work out that way in practice.  Too often the qualified few are outnumbered by those who have been arm twisted to serve, or who delight in being on boards for personal reasons with personal agendas.  It’s a reality to be managed.  The truth is volunteer leaders need to be led, and that’s the pastor’s job.  

Does this sound a little like a Maslow pyramid?  There are similarities.  The point is that every congregation of any size has members in each group.  Their needs must be recognized and met with none assuming priority over the others.  The boundaries between groups are not just permeable, they’re vaguely drawn.  Moreover, the ebb and flow of daily life means even established members can suddenly find themselves feeling like strangers, newcomers, wondering if the congregation will be a safe place of sanctuary for them.

It’s a balancing act.  Each contingent within the congregation has needs and interests that must be met.  Focussing in on one to the exclusion of the others will cause disruption and unhappiness among those whose needs are not being addressed.  Focussing on a high priority for a season, while maintaining comfortable adequacy in the others, is more likely to encourage healthy congregational life.    

It’s all a Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories with political consequences swirl through the public arena, as they always have.  In decades past they were the fodder of gossipy tabloids sold at super market checkouts, and followed by small posses of the easily deceived who rarely admitted it.  The internet and social media changed all that.  Together with talk radio and hyper-partisan “news” media, they’ve provided undeserved credibility for conspiracy theories that influence a large, publicly vocal audience.  

It’s hard to know how to respond to conspiracy believers because rational appeals to facts simply reinforce their conviction that fact mongers are a part of the conspiracy.  Just the same, I was reminded by a helpful comment I read not long ago that conspiracy theories are not theories at all; they’re just stories, conspiracy stories, and it might help all of us to review what conspiracy theories really are, and how they differ from real theories. 

Conspiracy theories, stories actually, are based on unlikely strings of events believed to be coordinated through complicated mechanisms controlled by cabals operating behind veils of secrecy.  No decent conspiracy story is complete without the secret cabal being revealed, yet the mystery is always deepened and the secrecy remains.  Only the enlightened who have been able to peek behind the veil know the truth.  Those who spread the story invite their hearers to be among the enlightened, urging them to participate in spreading it to as many others as possible.  Incredibly, the more publicity it gets, the more secrecy the conspiracy is able to maintain.  It’s like everybody knows George Soros is the secret financier manipulating all things liberal, yet for as public as it is, he can still be secretly doing it.  The schtick is loosely related to: cable tv commercials promising exclusive offers on secret new products available in limited supply to those who call in the next five minutes; penny stocks letting only the few in on the ground floor of extravagant riches; and the amazing way to lose weight and build muscle, all without exercise.  

Theories on the other hand, have a different definition.  Theories are evidence based proposals of truths shown to be consistent with all available observations.  They begin with hypotheses: educated intuitions about how something works based on limited examinations of evidence that bear promise and need a closer look.  As with Einstein’s work on relativity, they can shake the very foundations of received knowledge, and be subject to harsh examination.  Which is exactly the point.  Nascent theories are subject to public review, not hidden behind veils of secrecy.  When hypotheses have been tested against enough verifiable evidence, they form a theory subject to further public examination, and always amenable to modification by new knowledge.  Their validity is judged by how well they explain observed behaviors in the world about us.  

Moreover, the public examination to which they’re subject is not a matter for opinion polling.  It’s a matter for those who have competency in the field.  The lack of competency has never stopped us from having opinions about various theories, the theory of evolution being a big one, but opinions of those with little or no competency in the field, no matter how strongly held, are not valid arguments in the examination of any theory.

We are a little too free with our collective use of the word theory.  Announcing that one has a theory about this or that is often no more than a way of offering an opinion about what is true based on one’s prejudices and whatever casual information one has chosen to pick up.  It may not even measure up to a decent hypothesis.  If the so called theory is firmly attached to core social or religious values, it may be emotionally well defended against any serious examination.  Or it may be just a flippant comment thrown out over coffee or cocktails.  “I have a theory about that,” is something I’ve been know to say when what I really meant was, “I have an idea about something, and you should know about it because it’s really great.”

The frivolous freedom with which we use the word is a big part of what allows conspiracy theories to gain traction.  We attach it to all kinds of ideas, opinions, guesses, and things we were superficially taught in school.  It’s so loosey-goosey that when a juicy conspiracy theory comes along, it can look a lot like a real theory by the way it’s presented, seducing us down a rabbit hole of non sequiturs.  The right wing seems to be most susceptible to falling for them, and that could be due to several decades of right wing talk radio broadcasting them day and night.  Yet, just the other day one of my more leftish friends had a “theory” about the five corporate masters of all mainline media conspiring to manipulate polling data in Trump’s favor.  I wondered.  Are there really only five?  Do they form a cabal of tightly coordinated control?  Can they really keep a secret?  Since polling organizations are abundant, mostly independent, often associated with universities or nonpartisan think tanks, each accessible by anyone who wants to look at their data, is it possible to manipulate them all?  Conspiracy stories can be made up to say so, but they’re not theories because they fall apart under any serious examination.  

Be careful my friends.  Sometime there really is a conspiracy.  But there has never been one kept secret for long, nor one able to control the targets of its own conspiracy.