Creation Is Sacred

It seems whenever a new mine, pipeline or industrial plant is announced, it somewhat trespasses on lands held sacred by one Indian tribe or another.  One might begin to wonder if there is any land at all that is not sacred to some tribe or group.  

The answer is no, there is not land that isn’t sacred.  All lands are sacred, not to somebody, but in and of themselves. For that matter, so is the air and all waters.  All lands are sacred, but some hold a place of special reverence for some people.  It may be a mountain, a river, a burial ground, or even a building like a church or temple.  Such special places deserve special reverence because they symbolize the liminal space where the divine and humanity meet in special ways.

It does not mean that land, air and water cannot be used for utilitarian purpose.  It does mean that every use must be made with respectful consideration for the sacredness of creation, and places held to have special sacred status cannot be appropriated without permission of those in whose territory it exists.

It’s an idea that runs headlong into the question of property rights.  Preserving and protecting property rights has been a central function of government for many centuries, and no more fully expressed than in American jurisprudence. To own property is to have exclusive rights to its use, and American individualism asserts the added right to use it any way the owner wants.  We have plenty of legal limitations to those rights, but every one has been fought against tooth and nail.  Limitations on property rights were won, not out of respect for the sacredness of the land, but for the common good of the community, or the superior rights of government, which have sometimes been corrupted by private interests. Nevertheless, private property and the rights that go with it are an essential element of the American way.  

It’s not a bad thing, but as a concept it has its own built in limitations.  The most obvious one of which is that all private property is owned only temporarily.  Someone owned the property before its current deed holder, and someone else will own it in years to come.  One’s exclusive rights, anchored by a paid off deed, are for an indeterminate amount time, yet temporary just the same.  The land, air and water used by the current deed holder is in the form of a sacred trust that imposes moral obligations not only for the benefit of future deed holders, but also for the land, water and air itself.

Some cultures have developed a deep understanding of what moral obligation to creation means.  Other cultures, ours included, have rejected that ideal as a romantic platitude that might sound good from the pulpit, but is utterly impractical in the real world.  It’s the stuff of well meaning do gooders and environmental extremists. The result has been the wasteful degradation of, and willful disrespect for, creation. We have begun to recognize this but remain hesitant to take needed action.

In the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church is a question: Will you respect the dignity of every human being?  The answer is: I will with God’s help.  It may be that the question should be amended to ask: Will you respect the dignity of every human being and all of creation?  Dignity, in this case, meaning the status of being made in the image of God with the amendment adding recognition that it also recognizes creation itself is sacred in its own way.

A reasonable objection would be to wonder what good that would do.  Would it change anything?  By itself, no it would not.  If other major denominations joined with similar amendments to their baptismal covenants, it would begin to build moral momentum backed by the teaching of the church encouraging the faithful to amend their own ways of treating property over which they have control.  There are other religious traditions with a similar understanding of the sacred nature of creation, and they too could become a part of building moral momentum.

Another objection would be that only governmental regulation would have any force behind it, and the American value of libertarian individualism would be a tough obstacle to overcome.  There is truth in that also, but history has shown that moral momentum working for responsible regulation can be powerfully effective.

There are two basic forces motivating public behavior in most every area.   One is law and the other is custom.  Of these, custom has the deeper roots.  Law can change it around the edges, but only moral momentum can change it at the roots, and so the two must work together. 

If we are going to have any success in saving the planet for future generations, it is essential to go in this direction, and it starts with the church declaring unambiguously that all creation is sacred.

Two Sides of Prayer

Books, articles and essays without number have been written about prayer.  Even Country Parson has written a few.  What more is there to be said?  It seems that no matter how much has been written and said about prayer, the same questions keep coming up from the faithful and skeptic alike.  With that in mind, I want to discuss something about personal prayer.  Corporate (congregational) prayer will perhaps, be for another time.

Start by giving up everything taught in Sunday school about praise, petition and intercession.  Just lay it aside.  There are really but two sides of prayer.  One is to engage in conversation with God.  The other is to engage in self examination with God and another person, most often one of the psalmists, but just as likely a pastor or close friend. There is not special language of prayer needed, no formulas, no scripted words required.

Conversation with God begins with sharing what’s on your heart – your feelings, anxieties, fears, joys, celebrations, griefs, etc., also what’s in your head – thoughts, ideas, doubts, wonders, questions, etc.  Like any conversation, it’s a matter of give and take.  You have to be quiet and listen.  My old spiritual director once told me that I didn’t shut up long enough for God to get a word in edgewise.  The other day I sat next to three people who had just met again after many years.  One of them began to talk and didn’t stop for nearly an hour.  That’s not conversation.  What happens when you stop talking and start listening?  Probably nothing.  You will sit there quietly listening only to find every kind of thought intruding.  Sit quiet and listen anyway.  The still small voice of God will come to you in the events of the day and the voices of people whom you meet.

Is there a place for petitions and intercessions in conversation with God?  Yes, of course, but probably not as we were taught when children.  It’s not a matter of asking God to do something special for those we pray for.  It works the other way around; our prayers become conduits through which God’s blessing flows into the lives of those for whom we pray.  It isn’t magic.  There are no incantations to make certain things happen.  We cannot know what God’s blessings will be, only that they will be there.  What about petitions?  You know the kind: I need a new car, a job, someone to love, food, shelter, a chance in life. The doors you need to be opened will be, but they may not be the doors you expected or wanted.  God is not a fairy godmother granting wishes, but God loves you, cares for you, wants to be engaged your life. But there is thinking, acting and working for you to do.  How do we get through life?  With God’s help, but we have to take responsibility for what we do.

That brings me to the second part of prayer: introspection in the form of conversation with God and another person.  The other person could be a spiritual director, confessor, pastor or trusted close friend.  But it could also be a psalmist.  Reading the psalms through in regular rotations is a good way to do that.  My preference is the seven week cycle associated with the Daily Office, but any way will do.  In the psalms you will meet every conceivable human emotion: the good, bad and ugly.  The open opportunity to converse with them, even argue.  One psalmist implores God to kill his enemies, and you say that’s not nice, in fact it’s evil.  But wait, do I have enemies?  Do I want them dead?  What does God say about enemies?  Can I do that?  Another psalmist says that even in the valley of death, God sets a table for him in the presence of his enemies. What does that mean?  Are the enemies sitting at table too?  Why not?  Does that shared table make a difference?  What might that look like in my life?  And so the conversation goes. 

 As for me, I engage most fully with the psalmist of Psalm 119, the longest of all psalms.  Its many stanzas, grouped in sections by the Hebrew alphabet, explore what it means to read, mark, study and inwardly digest God’s holy word.  It soars to the height of trust in God’s law, descends to the depth of human inability to follow it, boasts of personal perfection, and pleads for enlightenment.  It begs the reader into conversation and argument with the psalmists, one’s own self, and God.  It may not be a way that works for you, but there is a way, and I encourage you to find it, making it your daily discipline.

CORE VALUES & WINNING ELECTIONS: Practical advice for Democratic candidates

I’ve known Oathkeeper type men, and a few women, over 

the course of the last few decades, not that any of them were actual members.  The common thread between them was a deep suspicion of a tyrannical government that threatened their rights and freedom by ever deeper intrusions into their personal lives. Tyrannical and tyranny of the majority were sprinkled throughout their political conversation, terms they learned from and were egged on by right wing talk radio and social media.  It’s nothing new, but rather the universal language of what was once called the peasant class that today we often call the working or lower middle class.

Liberal democratic policies have done much to create conditions that have opened doors to greater opportunity, more equitable justice, and safer, healthier conditions for life, so one would expect the working class and lower middle class voters to embrace them, and they have, up to a point.

What’s changed?  Liberal democratic policies have done much good, but they have also put limits on some aspects of individual freedom.  One is not free to do whatever one wants with his/her property.  There is an obligation to the common good that comes with property rights.  The same is true in other areas: public health, worker safety, environmental protections, etc.  Extending equal rights to others who have not previously enjoyed them can be seen as taking rights away from those who have long had them. The growing racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. threatens to take away the presumption of white Anglo-Saxon hegemony.  It’s the ammunition needed for those who favor oligarchy over American representative democracy to use to incite fears of tyrannical government and tyranny of the majority.  They’ve used this ammunition to its maximum effect.

Right wing media have made it possible to create and sustain polycentric local groups in a networked movement intent on defending core values of family, freedom and property against a tyranny that doesn’t exist, against the government that is on their side.  It’s worked well.

The liberal response has been to use reason, data, and fact checking to illuminate the corruption and lies of right wing propaganda, and especially to show how it’s a threat to democracy itself.  As important as that is, it’s not enough because the question is not about facts and data, but about feelings centering on core values.

If Democrats want to win back middle and working class voters in the midterms, they must convert their facts and data into the language of feelings about core values, promoting with pugnacious effort in every possible way, and most especially through local in person events attracting local news and social media.  They must ignore right wing taunts and traps, sticking to their own message without deviation.  

Biden, not the most gifted of public communicators, has done that, but he’s only one voice. What he needs is a powerful, coordinated voice from the DNC and every Democratic candidate all focusing with feeling on the core values of their voting constituencies.

As important as social media is, as important as email appeals for funds are, it’s more important that voices be heard on every community radio station, appearances on every local tv newscast, and in person interviews with every local newspaper.  

None of it will convert the right wing base. They are not the target audience.  The target audience is the 230 million voters who are not right wingers, but who have been sown with seeds of right wing voices and are unsure.

Our democracy depends on Democrats doing it right this time.  Whether hard right wing voters know it or not, the values they most cherish depend on Democratic success.  If the trumpers and oligarchs win, those who most fear losing their freedom will lose it. 

Millennia of Migration Muddles Modernity

For millennia on end, mass migrations have flowed over the face of the earth in trickles, ripples and tsunamis. Recorded history names each wave of migrants as a people, and it names places as the lands of the people who have lived there long enough to establish reasonable stability and control, but the idea of nations of ethnically discrete people and fixed borders is not clear at all.  That’s true even in the time of the Roman Empire.

It’s only within relatively modern times that nation states defined by exclusive ethnic identity living within fixed borders have become the norm.  Consider how long it took for the battling dukedoms and principalities of France, Germany and Italy to become singular nations.  Britain, the last frontier of westward migration is an ethnic dumping ground.  It’s only within the last several centuries that the English have confidently described themselves as Anglo-Saxon.

With that as background, consider the European settlement of what is now the United States. It began with trickles of migration the huge land could easily absorb without seriously affecting the equilibrium of the place.  That soon turned to ripples, then tsunamis of violent conquest.  Out of it came a new nation state of mixed pedigree that the early 19th century had self identified as an Anglo-Saxon nation.  The ideal of civilization itself was defined confidently as Anglo-Saxon with an American twist.  Even the most liberal of thinkers agreed it was so: Emerson and Frederick Douglas for instance.  African Americans had no voice in the matter.  Indigenous American Indians were aliens to be conquered, converted to European ways or killed.  The dominant Mexican culture of the Southwest  was a trinket to adorn the Anglo-Saxon structure.  Asian immigrants were a needed but troubling subset fairly easy to subjugate.  

Anglo-Saxon America was said to be free and open to all. And it was to all who were willing and able to adapt to Anglo-Saxon hegemony.  I don’t think there was any evil intent.  Civilization was a good thing. America should be a civilized country, and civilization was defined as Anglo-Saxon.  That was the plain and obvious way of what made for the common good.  The USA would become a nation state of Americans with a particularity like the particularities of France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, etc. woven seamlessly into the Anglo-Saxon fabric of American civilization.

Times have changed.  The ancient peoples who first settled America many thousands of years ago want a say in what it means to be American.  Millions of African descent, burdened with the history of slavery, want a say in what it means to be American. The same is true for Asians, and of a growing number of Arabic Americans.  The Mexican heritage of the West is no longer willing to be just an adornment or repository for cheap farm labor.

Will these forces destroy the Anglo-Saxon foundation that has defined everything America is and stands for?  Some are afraid it will, especially as they see White America on the way to becoming just another minority among a nation of minorities.  I wonder.  

The Anglo-Saxon foundation of American civilization is not a bad one.  It’s strongly built on high ideals and solid reasoning: exemplified by the Constitution as amended, principles of individual liberty in the interest of the common good, the virtues  of family, self reliance, accountability, etc.  In short, it’s a solid, reliable foundation on which to build.  It’s not going to be destroyed or demeaned.  But as with any foundation, the structures to be added will make improvements in the old while adding things entirely new.

What will that look like?  There are some indicators in the  ethnic  diversity of men and women in high public and private offices who endorse and exemplify the best of American ideals.  There is growing recognition that American history can be told honestly from different points of view without jeopardizing the foundation of American civilization.  There is growing recognition that integration does not require homogenization. “E pluribus unum” can be more than a slogan.

The same pressures are now facing Europe, creating the same concerns.  How can Germany remain German, or France remain French and yet absorb African and Arab immigrants of strange ways and religions?  Can England remain Anglo-Saxon if it’s flooded with peoples from its former colonies?  America is poised to help answer these questions by leading the way.  

There is an alternative.  We could follow China’s path.  China is determined that everyone will be Han Chinese and speak standard Mandarin.   There are to be no exceptions. Re-education, suppression, imprisonment and execution are the tools used to make it so.  There can be only one China, only one way of being Chinese, and that way is Han.  It remains to be seen how that will work out for them, but is it a way we would want for America?  The White Supremacist movement heads in that direction.  Even as they claim to want to save the country and its Constitution, they favor authoritarian rule, the very antithesis of all that America stands for.  

By The Numbers: Is it OK to use violence to “save the country?”

Here are some very rough numbers that might help create context for discussion.

The U.S. population is about 331 million, of which roughly 252 million are of voting age.

Of the voting age population, about 63 million self identify as Republicans (Gallup, Dec. 2021)

Some 24% of them say they are OK with violence as a way to “save the country.”  That’s about 15 million, a huge number to be sure.  But there are are over 230 million who are not OK with that.  

How to interpret it is unclear, but it does raise dozens of questions worthy of discussion.  Don’t get hung up on the math.  The numbers are roughly right and exactly wrong.  They merely point to more important things.

It’s Still Epiphany: Take A New Look

We have entered the odd season of Epiphany that lasts from January 6, to Ash Wednesday, this year on March 2.  What purpose the season serves isn’t entirely clear to many regular church goers.  Is it simply a midwinter break between Christmas and Lent?

No, it’s an important season of the Christian year that prepares us for the spiritual work of Lent.  In what way?  Let’s start at the beginning. Epiphany,  always twelve days after Christmas, falls on January 6 and celebrates not the visit of the magi, but the Light of Christ that drew them to Bethlehem. It’s the light they carried with them into their own lands, far distant and foreign to the people of Judea and Galilee.  

Scripture readings in the weeks that follow explore how the Word of God made known in the Light of Christ extended into the Mediterranean world beyond the domains of Jerusalem and its people.  

The movement of God’s Word into the greater world celebrated in the season of Epiphany has its antecedents in Hebrew Scriptures rich with anticipatory examples.  Ruth from Moab, the Queen of Sheba, the Sidonian widow, Namaan the Syrian general, the City of Nineveh, and the diaspora of Jewish settlements all over the eastern Mediterranean world.  God’s Word was never limited to the land of Israel, nor were other peoples excluded from receiving it. What changed with the birth of Jesus is the light of God’s Word made flesh came to illuminate not some but all in every time and place. The gospels record Jesus engaging with, healing and teaching Roman soldiers, foreigners from Sidon, Samaria and the Decapolis. Each was an example for his disciples to follow as they spread the Light of Christ into the whole of the Roman Empire.  

Readings and sermons that fill the Epiphany season are intended to inspire us to continue the work of carrying the Light of Christ into the world.  But it would be a mistake to think that what was done in the first century Roman world is what we are supposed to copy in our own day. It is holy guidance for reminding us that, as by our baptism we are under holy obligation to carry the Light of Christ according to the needs and conditions of our day. The odd season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday should be a time of exploration and examination.  In what ways can the Light of Christ be made brighter in our own troubled times?  

It’s a time for creative thinking.   Some old ways no longer work, some need to be restored to usefulness, and some discarded.  Exciting new ways need to be employed with skilled enthusiasm.  Most especially, we cannot presume that we are the only enlightened ones taking the Light of Christ into deepest darkest wherever.  Evangelical fervor has too often assumed that the Light of Christ was to be wrapped in the cultural and social standards of one’s own native land.  It wasn’t subtle:  Europeans were civilized, no one else was, The Light of Christ was subordinated to expanding Western cultural hegemony with all of its prejudices.  Learning to be powerfully humble in the way of Archbishop Tutu may be our biggest challenge.   The second challenge may be the recognition that we are not called to take on burdens added to the ones we already carry.   God is not asking us to do something else, but to do what we are already doing in a new way with the Light of Christ shining more brightly in the process.  

In short, this is a season in which to explore what it means to bear the Light of Christ into the world if we never leave our own backyards or travel the face of the earth.

In a way, Epiphany prepares us for a different kind of Lenten discipline.  What does that mean?  Lent is a time for self examination, confession, and amendment of life.  The usual practice is to give up something, take on something, and attend church more often.  The tone is somber.  It’s very personal.  It’s not bad, but a Lent extending from Epiphany adds something new to it.  In what ways could we remain our authentic selves, yet do better at bearing the Light of Christ in the year ahead?  Is our congregation a beacon of Christ’s light for the community, or is it an exclusive club for members only?  Is our outreach in Christ’s name? Are we true to the call of discipleship to be followers who trust Jesus to lead us, or do we put our primary loyalties somewhere else?

These are difficult questions that are not going to occupy the minds of most church goers, but they are questions that could inspire the minds of pastors and teachers as they lead others through the forty days of Lent.  

Recruiting and Keeping Employees: a new-old way

Recruiting and keeping workforce is much in the news these days. The Great Resignation, Ghosting or whatever, the fact remains that many businesses are finding it very difficult to recruit and retain employees, especially in entry level and lower tier positions. 

There are a few obvious problems that come to mind: a low unemployment rate, a population aging out of the work force, low population growth, and shutdowns of immigration.  But there seems to be more, demographics can’t explain everything.   Something’s wrong with the relationships between employers and employees. Whatever sense of bonding there once was has been dissolved. 

There’s been a lot of speculation about what’s going on.  The answer may lie with a management theory, based on disreputable research, made popular in the early 1960s.  In 1958, Frederick Herzberg published a ground breaking piece based on his work with engineers and accountants at a large GE factory.  He claimed there were two stages to keeping and motivating employees.  

The first stage he called hygiene factors.  These were things like pay, benefits, working conditions, policies and procedures, safety, quality of supervision, and decent relationships with coworkers.   They established the baseline to be met for employees not to be dissatisfied with their jobs.  They were not motivators, but they were necessary to avoid wide spread employee dissatisfaction.  

The second stage Herzberg called motivators.  Motivators included the nature of the work itself, having a sense of purpose worthy of one’s time and effort, the sense of achievement valued by others, recognition from management that workers were valued assets to the company, that there were opportunities for growth and advancement, interesting, challenging work that fed the need adults have to exercise responsibility.

It sounded great, was widely published, and found its way into most management curricula.  The problem was that the research on which it was based didn’t hold up to scrutiny.  It was, in short, an invalid study.

However, things can be invalid and yet true.  In the 64 years that have passed, empirical evidence has piled up to suggest, despite the error of his ways, Herzberg was probably right. 

Good pay and decent benefits are not enough to motivate anyone.  They are necessary baselines.  That’s all.  In fact, no company or boss can motivate anyone, but they can create conditions in which employees find their own motivation.  Establishing those conditions is what Herzberg labeled as motivators.  Sadly, over the last four decades or so, employees have come to be treated as disposable commodities, modern day serfs, especially at the bottom end.  It’s the feudal mentality of work or starve – no one owes you anything more than that.  

Whether it was the pandemic, four years of Trump, demographic changes, new technologies, or some wild and crazy combination of everything, we may never know, but employees appear to have risen up spontaneously to demand that if jobs are to be filled and turnover reduced, employers must provide the needed hygiene factors and the desired motivating conditions.

Hard core conservatives hope this form of foolishness dies out, and soon, so the economy can return to a more servile, less demanding workforce.  Biden’s Build Back Better Plan would throw a monkey wrench into their hopes.  Keeping it from passing might very well help them realize their desires.  If so, it will continue the process of relegating The United States of America to second tier status on the world stage, but it would help keep power and wealth in the hands of a few.

We are unlikely to ever return to the norm of life long employment in one discipline or for one employer.  We do have the possibility of using Herzberg’s ideas as the foundation for a 21st century set of norms opening to   workers a life of opportunity and contentment. It would be a move toward restoring the foundations of loyalty between employer and employee.  It can’t be done if the only measure of success is the quarterly report and bottom line.  It can’t be done if business owners ascribe to themselves all rights and privileges while treating employees as replaceable commodities. 

Look at it this way.  You cannot buy anything these days without getting a customer satisfaction survey in the mail or a request to fill one out online at the bottom of every receipt.  No matter that most surveys are thinly veiled marketing gimmicks, the fact remains that we have been led to expect to be satisfied and to report on it.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that employees are thinking, if customer satisfaction is important, then why not treat my status as employee the same way.  The old ways won’t work.  Coating them with sugar and spice doesn’t make them new ways.  It’s time to move on to a new way of thinking about employment.  The result, I think, will be a better national economy able to lead the world  into a more prosperous future for all.  

Final note:  For several decades I was among those teaching this stuff to managers.  They all loved it, eagerly adopted the vocabulary, and changed their practices not one iota.  The cult of libertarian individualism, to the exclusion of all else, had too great a hold. Let’s hope for a different outcome this time.