Our “Peak Crazy” Social Psyche

Our Peak Crazy Social Psyche

Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

Peak Crazy

Today’s New York Times (September 28, 2016) asks if our national psyche has reached a “peak craziness” with regard to our penchant for accepting conspiracy theories.  “Peak Craziness” was a new concept for me.  A search shows that it is not a widely used idea; however, I find it a helpful one.  It suggests a reaching of a distorted, foolish summit or high point in human experience and discourse.

Upon reading the NY Times commentary it was clear that while conspiracy theories aren’t a new phenomenon in our society, the changes in the way we receive our news and the power of social media, give a credence to conspiracy theories that is dense in saliency and reach.  Our “news” comes at us fast and furiously and these theories become an ordering mechanism for the hurried, anxious or fearful.

One couldn’t help but chuckle on Tuesday morning when Donald Trump complained that his microphone had malfunctioned during his recent debate with Hillary Clinton.  Trump went on to say that “he didn’t want to believe in conspiracy theories” and wondered why he had microphone problems and Mrs. Clinton did not.  It is no surprise, I guess, that the candidate who has been the most active in bringing our nation to a peak craziness around conspiracy theories would suggest that any failure on his part is the result of some conspiracy.   Truth is, that both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton have painted pictures of “vast conspiracies” as part of their election narrative. 

While I give more credence to Ms. Clinton’s concerns — whether about the crazed conjecturing about Benghazi, White Water, missing emails, etc. — it seems that she gives too much attention to some vast plot or “hidden hand” that determines present and future circumstance.  Of course, Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories are more pernicious — filled with racism and xenophobia.  In fact, the record is clear, Trump’s “birther” conspiracy comments, freighted with bigoted attempts to undermine Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, was a major factor in his staying in public consciousness.  We will no doubt hear of other “conspiracies” as Mr. Trump plays a kind of ideological bumper cars with the truth and our national psyche.

Spirit Island: Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park

Thinking about the idea of Peak Craziness reminds me of our recent visit to Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park.  Mary Schaffer is said to be the first person of European ancestry to “discover” Maligne Lake.  Using a map provided by Samson Beaver, a First Nations chief of the Stoney People, Mary Schaffer’s small party found this nonpareil site.  The glory of the lake and the surrounding peaks filled them with wonder.  An artist, Mary Schaffer, spoke of this as a place beyond ever fully capturing by words or brush.  Depending on where one stands there are peaks and glaciers in every direction surrounding the lake. 

Near the glacier-fed headwaters is Spirit Island.  The island is a sacred ground for the First Nations people who spoke of this as the temple of the gods.

One wonders if the humanly constructed “peaks of craziness” in our national psyche are blocking our view,  preventing us from seeing the genuine peaks of wonder all around.  Perhaps we need to spend more time on our own Spirit Islands to to see the true beauty of this election season.  There they are, towering beyond all our conspiracy theories, the peaks of shared humanity, the remarkable wonder of democracy — even when messy — and the towering responsibility of citizenship.

Let’s live as a Spirit island people, who work and vote in a world as free of conspiracy peaks as possible.



Five Queries on a Fine September Day

Five Queries on a Fine September Day

Autumn is in the air.  Just a touch in some places.   Still enough to know change is ahead.  So, change.  I awoke this morning with five questions about change on my mind.  As the leaves turn color and the fresh garden tomatoes dwindle, it seems right to wonder about the future. These are my provincial, idiosyncratic musings in mid-September.  Call these my “dancing with irony” questions.  Both autumn and anomaly are in the air.  So, here goes:

1.  Will it jinx the Chicago Cub’s chances for a world series victory, after waiting over a century, by talking about their great year with marvelous pitching and fine young players?  Woops, I may have just done it!

2. Should Simone Biles, the astonishing 19-year-old gymnast, be given an additional gold medal (or two or three more, and a lot more press coverage) for just being an extraordinary athlete and remarkable human being in a world where Ryan Lochte captures more headlines?

3.  Why are so many of the folks eager to protect the United Methodist Church from changing the Book of Discipline, the very same ones who take any mention of being United Methodists out of their congregation’s names and off their websites and church signage?

4.  Are the people who believe President Obama is a secret Muslim the same folks who believe Donald Trump is a practicing Christian?

5.  How is it that a recent CNN/ORC poll found 50% of respondents asserting that Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” and only 35% thought Hillary Clinton was “more honest and trustworthy,” when careful analysis by PolitiFacts says that 53% of Trumps statements should be rated “false” or “pants on fire” and only 13% of Secretary Clinton’s statements should have this rating?

Might misogyny have something to do with it?   Forgive me, sorry, I promised only five questions. 

Surely things will improve tomorrow!

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

September 6, 2016

An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week.  Unexpected.  And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep.  Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California.  Elaine and I were in Sacramento. 

The “Safe” — an empty pork and beans can

Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising.  It was a grassy and green stretch.  On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California.  Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government.  On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees.  Beyond them an empty field.  The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels.  No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.

About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass.  It gyrated across my path.  The light beckoned me come.   I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment.  Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious.  Only the trees for cover.  I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish.  They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor.  With no response, I looked more closely.  There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans.   Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents.  Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.

Who lived here?  For how long?  Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks?  The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me.   How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation?  Bad luck?  Addiction?  Mental illness?  How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us?  Our bad luck?  Our ideological addictions?  Our mental illness? 

A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can.  Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it.  I returned.  Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude.  Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can. 

I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way.  I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light.  I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years.  Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks.  Yes, I prayed for our nation and world.  More, I prayed for myself.  My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating.  So many live on the edge.  It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do.  How many homeless in the U.S.?  Eleven million?  Or, as some say, thirty million? 

I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value.  Should I call a church or social workers?  NO!  Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary.  Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero.  Nor were my motives heroic.  There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims.  Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.

I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child?  Might that child be undocumented?  Might that child be a refugee?  A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago?  Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?

IMG_1645Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light.   Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key.  My first thought was to carry it back to the camp.  Leave it there with the rosary in the can.  Then I realized the key might be for me.  I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins.  I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all.  Now — here is the real surprise for me.  In that moment there was JOY.  The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling.  The JOY of having another key to my identity.  Lost and found — Joy.  Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.”  I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.

Yes, I was so privileged.  I had work to do.  In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.

I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments:  ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

I brought the key home with me.





ReCentering Methodism

ReCentering Methodism

These are days of discontent and disruption (even despair) in United Methodism in the United States. Earlier this week, my friend Professor Ted Campbell speaking to a gathering of World Methodists said the following about the United Methodist denomination: “The question at this point is not whether we divide or not,” said Campbell, standing under a “One” sign that signified the unity theme of the conference. “That I fear is a given now.”[United Methodist News, 9-1-16

As a “cradle Methodist,” one who has lived and loved this Wesleyan expression of the church for more than seven decades, I have watched our common story as it is shattered apart.  As it unfolds I watch with the horrid fascination of someone who fears she is seeing a train wreck about to occur.   “A given?”  So says my friend.  I pray and hope Ted is WRONG.  Really, are we to divide over this?  This? 

Still, Professor Campbell’s comment has caused me to do much thinking about our denomination.  If we are going to speak of “givens,” I have a few to add.   Here are a few “givens” that have been firmly in place for too long and I would suggest have led to my friend’s stark assessment of our situation.

In his fine book Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe reflects on the cultural battles in our nation.  He notes James Davison Hunter’s statement that culture wars consist of “competing utopian politics that will not rest until there is complete victory.”  Wolfe continues regretfully, “The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase ‘culture wars’ is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.”

Gregory Wolfe summarizes further: “Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.” Borrowing from Wolfe, I would adapt his statement to read that somewhere in our denomination’s history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than theology –especially our understanding of the church.  We stopped caring for the health of our institution and began to seek total victory through our politics.  Humility took a back seat to triumph.  Years ago, it became a given — raw politics replaced more generous theological discourse.  Outside forces played a role.  If “culture wars” are an oxymoron, shouldn’t theological wars be equally onerous?  (More on this in future.)

So, there is the previous “given” of politics being more salient than respectful theological discourse.  I would suggest two other “givens” that underpin this. 

It is increasingly scientifically clear that there are biological, hereditary contributors to  a person’s sexual orientation.  Year by year, the science keeps mounting — this research is a “given.”  It is not that United Methodists have been unaware.  In the 1980s and 1990s biological scientists like Sally Geiss were encouraging a more scientifically based view of human genetics.  However, by narrow majorities, the General Conference chose to ignore this work.  This, my friends, is another “given” that should be set along side the one Professor Campbell mentions.  We have been MADE by our creator to have differing sexual proclivities and desires.  I believe this is a “given” that should inform our theological reflection and transcend the political and the theological divisiveness we face.  I fear on this issue our denomination continues to operate with the ignorance of those who once believed the earth was flat, even in the face of solid scientific evidence to the contrary.

Finally, I suggest it is a “given” that the true disagreement among us, the issue that divides, isn’t primarily human sexuality but how we interpret scripture.  For years I have asked my friends, who wish to exclude homosexual persons from full participation in the church, to share with me their hermeneutic of scripture.  I ask on what basis they interpret the five or six passages of all of scripture that MIGHT refer to what we understand today as homosexuality?  How is it that my colleagues, with whom I disagree on this one matter, find more space to interpret scripture in less literal ways when it comes to divorce, the role of women in the church, support for slavery, polygamy, the eating of pork or even being left-handed?   How is there this latitude in interpretation on some important matters like divorce, slavery, the role of women and at the same time a restrictive interpretation of passages on homosexuality? 

I believe it is a “given” that until we can sit down respectfully and reason together about our interpretive approaches and differences, we will live more by political strategies than by theological respect.  As one wag recently confided in me, “I wonder if this increasingly openness to schism, to the dividing of the body of Christ first rests in an openness to divorce, even though Jesus spoke against it?  Perhaps once you accept divorce as normal, you are more open to a dividing of the church!”  Interesting and troubling thought, this — even as I find it slightly off key.

Another friend has said that there can be grace-filled endings of marriages, but there seem never to be grace-filled divisions of a congregation or denomination.  In this I fully agree.  Over the years I have watched the damage done by the exclusionary practices, theologies and splintering activities of the Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist denominations.  It is clear that the seeking of some mythical purity has left both groups less focused on mission and imaginative ministry.

It is my belief that United Methodism has been shaped by too many “givens” already, without our easily accepting another, even if it is proposed by the good Professor Campbell.  What if we worked on some other prior givens like: politics being more highly valued than theology, the scientific evidence we have at hand, or the inability to speak constructively about differing hermeneutical interpretations.  What if folks in the emerging Wesley Covenant Association were to include all of these givens in their upcoming deliberations?  What then?