Overdosed on political chicanery? Too many pundits? Too many tweets? Too many seventy-year-olds acting like pre-schoolers? Need to give it a rest, step away from all of the intrigue, drama and confusion? Okay, I agree. Breath slowly: in-out, in-out. Think differently, perhaps like a child again. What to do in this circumstance? PLAY, I think. It’s recess time!
We are with our grandchildren, Gus and Eleanor, in Oakland, California. They offer us sanity-baths every day. Yesterday, after a game of hide-and-seek, I said “Okay, it is time for a little Tom Foolery!” They looked back with blank, puzzled expressions. “Tom who?”
“It’s tomfoolery,” I said. “You don’t know Tom?” I didn’t explain the derivation of the word from “Tom Fole” in the Middle Ages. I didn’t say it was the name given to ones who majored in silliness or buffoonery. Eventually, Tom Fool became the identifier of the clown, the joker, the mischief-maker in a parade, play or pageant.
So, I said “tomfoolery is when we joke, play games and tell silly stories.”
“Like what?” I heard them ask. And before I realized it, I was seven years old again and I heard myself reciting that doggerel from childhood:
Ladies and Jellyspoons, hobos and tramps,
cross-eyed mosquitos and bow-legged ants,
I stand before you and not behind you
to tell you something I know nothing about.
“Go on, papaw,” I heard them say and I remembered the next lines:
Next Thursday which is Good Friday,
there’s a Mother’s Day meeting for fathers only,
wear your best clothes if you haven’t any.
Please come if you can’t; if you can stay at home.
Admission is free, pay at the door;
pull up a chair and sit on the floor.
“MORE, papaw,” the cries rang out. Fortunately, thankfully, it was all I could remember. Later I did a web search and found that there were many versions of the silly poem. It is said to be anonymous — and there are many, many versions. An indication of the breadth of human imagination. One version that is close to what I remember continues with this:
It makes no difference where you sit, the man in the gallery’s sure to spit. The show is over, but before you go, let me tell you a story I don’t really know.
One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight. (The blind man went to see fair play; the mute man went to shout “hooray!”) Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise, and came and killed the two dead boys. A paralysed donkey passing by kicked the blind man in the eye; knocked him through a nine-inch wall, into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
If you don’t believe this lie is true, ask the blind man; he saw it too, through a knothole in a wooden brick wall. And the man with no legs walked away.
So, with the summer solstice behind us and the Fourth of July weekend just ahead, it is a time for play, for riddles and silly poems. All the while I am aware that this play, this rest, is much-needed. And that such silly poems make more sense than the shenanigans of many of our political, cultural and religious leaders.
It’s time to go to the ZOO! And, together we can recite the poem: “Ladies and Jellyspoons, hobos and tramps…”
Citizenship depends on connection. Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution. Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”
Berry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.” It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center. Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals. Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.
Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package. Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states.
Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels. Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care. These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s. This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.
The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.
I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people. My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.
I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor. She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.”
I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks. Still we seem slow to reconnect with them. The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me. Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand. And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.
More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation. We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference. There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions. To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals. It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.
When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond?
Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader. It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership.
For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change. I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections. I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich. I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.
We are not alone. Others are seeking to build connections as well. Let me tell you about my friend. A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state. What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish. So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments. Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great! This is just where I am supposed to be!” He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him.
I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature. He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class. He becomes for me a sign of hope. He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections.
My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape. She is right — about 10% of the time! It is a running joke for us. Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape. Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed. Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.
Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me. My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her. Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix. Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.
Embarrassment is on my mind recently. Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape. We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church. I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, “Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)
It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing. As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world. We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance. He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.
Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency. I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say. However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue. We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone. There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.
Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress. A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation. What tragic madness!
Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences. Good. This is a much-needed message. However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces. Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly. The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016. Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments. We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.
Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017. Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017). Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner? Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change? I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field. We will never know. However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year. This is our continuing embarrassment.
The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump.
Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.” I agree, mostly. Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem. We should all be embarrassed. Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed.
What can we do? Let me suggest four things:
Take personal responsibility. Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation. In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people. Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
Plan and act locally. Find ways you can make a difference where you live. For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby. Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.” In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult. In places like this our work is more basic. We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand.
Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger. Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
Act now. Channel that embarrassment. Do something today. It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor. Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society.
Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.