Epiphany and epiphanies

One year ago, on January 5th, 2021, I foolishly thought I had an overview of what was to unfold in the year ahead. At the very least, I thought, Epiphany Day 2021, the next day, would be like others I had known. It would be a day to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, Epiphany Day. Foolishly I thought it would be an “Epiphany as usual” when Christians celebrated “the light that has come into the world for all people.” We would again emphasize the light that overcomes darkness for all humanity (John 1:9). I was wrong.

We celebrate this LIGHT, the coming of Christ with the “large E” Epiphany. There are also “small e” epiphanies that transform our perceptions — not always moving from darkness to light. Epiphanies, (large E or small e), are times when we may discover that things are not what they appear to be. Last year, January 6th 2021, was a day to remember and rejoice in the great Epiphany, but that Light was dimmed by an “epiphany” unfolding on the steps of our nation’s Capitol.

My perceptions, my assumptions, my intutions about the strength of the U.S. democracy and our national body politic were deeply challenged, under assult by a mob of insurrectionists. Sadly, ironically, many were carrying Christian symbols — flags and signs that read “Jesus saves.” Many in the mob believed they were acting out of honorable religious motivations.

Our national institutions proved not as resiliant as I had thought. My assumptions about the way the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth inform responsible citizenship were being assaulted. My assumptions about a broadly shared sense of fairness or widely accepted governing traditions were sorely tested.

I was prepared for a new Presidency, a new Congress and a time when clearer realities about our common life and mutual respect would be affirmed. I believed our nation was escaping, narrowly, but we were escaping, the cruely, the grievance-based-dysfunction, the lies and dystopia we had suffered during the preceeding four years. I thought that unlike other nations (China, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Turkey among others) our deeply embedded democratic institutions and a shared assumption that persons could disagree without turning to violence would hold. My sense was that we were better somehow — closer to the Epiphany values manifest in the coming of the Christ. Alas, reality came knocking at my door. I openned that door to the surprise that we were a more broken and wounded nation than I had thought.

On Wednesday afternoon, January 6th, 2021 an epiphay (small e) shook previously held assumptions. A friend phoned that afternoon. Just a friendly call to ‘catch up.’ I remember saying, “Turn on the television. All hell is breaking loose. There is a mob, must be 10,000 people, openly attacking the Capitol building!” Thinking back now, I was right, “All hell was breaking loose.” This attack, my small epiphany on that day, remains a chilling reminder that easy assumptions about American exceptionalism now need to be carefully re-considered.

It was spiritual vertigo and a citizenship vertigo rolled into one. Easy assumptions about our commonweal and appropriate patterns of national govenance vanished. This vertigo continued throughout 2021. Old deceits seemed to take on more strength. THE BIG LIE about cheating in the 2020 elections continues to be believed, according to recent polls, by over 30% of the adult population. The violence of the insurrection on Epiphany Day 2021 was in many quarters downplayed, even denied. “Just a group of tourists visiting their Capitol” some would say. Vertigo continued as the year filled-up with other surprises: the omicron varriery of COVID. Silly debates over mask wearing and critical race theory. Politics proved astonishingly polarized. Racism found new expressions and justifications. Friends died. Children suffered from isolation and limited online educational practices. Ice storms, fires and hurricanes came, it appeared, with a new overpowering force.

My thoughts of an ability to predict the future were wrong.  We may think we can control things; yet often our efforts result in surprises or unintended consequences. We think we can nail things down but we cannot.  We have not factored in the difference between CHRONOS and KAIROS. The Epiphany is the way beyond the sad and disappointing epiphanies of human evil and deceit. Even when we are tempted to fear the worst, for people of faith there is the option to choose a life shaped by a larger reality… it is bigger than insurrectionists breaking into a nation’s Capitol building, it is the discovery that God’s light has broken into the world and “the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I do so believe.

My friend, Thomas Lane Butts died in 2021. He understood. Tom put it this way “Our penchant for permanence, which seems to get stronger as we grow older is probably a genetic (God-given) arrangement in our nature which prepares us to die.  The only people I know who have a genuine permanent arrangement with life are those whose lives have ended.  In all the rest of us change is still going on.  As a matter of fact, change is a basic characteristic of life, and without it, life as we know it would be snuffed out.”  (CELEBRATE THE TEMPORARY, January 12, 1997, The Protestant Hour Radio Series)

So how might we proceed as we enter Epiphany 2022 and the many epiphanies that lie ahead? I once had a choral conductor who would jokingly say, “I want you to keep both eyes on me and the other eye on the music!” He was asking us to transcend our normal and perceived limits.  To see things whole — beyond simply the music on the page.

Let Epiphany 2022 come as a reminder that there is a light that has come into the world that transcends the small, uncomfortable epiphanies. Light that is true to God’s designs for humanity. Light that shined in the dark places of our nations and world can overcome the antidemocratic forces seeking to destroy the good, the true and the beautiful.

Brittish theologian Rosemary Haughton argued that there are small conversions, or “flash-point moments” of decision, when we experience God in ways that allow a re-structure our daily calendar. Daily practices of prayer, mediation and study are times of formation providing for a life within community that can lead to transformation for persons and institutions — even nations.

Formation proceeds out of the routines of life and sets the stage for transformation of persons and communities.  Conversion emerges from the images already embedded in our deep memories and in our daily practices. The way we behave in those regular and calendared hours, minutes and seconds can anticipate the opportunities for transformation or renewal.  We have the opportunity to measure our lives not only in terms of length, wealth, achievement but, even more, we can practice ways that shape relationships with neighbor and with God. Epiphany suggests that even the surprizing and distressing epiphanies can be transcended.  A time when God’s purposes can be made know is possible.

God is not finished with us yet.  Life goes on.  Transformation is possible.  Rilke, the poet, said,  “The future enters into us in order to transform us long before it happens.”

Our “Terrible Good” Democracy

Our Terrible Good Democracy

Ralph was a large gruff voiced man, tough exterior with a tender soul. Mostly he hid the gentle side, but the tenderness leaked out more and more as you got to know him.

He was in his seventies by the time we met. He stood straight and tall even as there was evidence of aging. If one watched for it, there was a twinkle at the edges of his eyes, like a small mouse sneaking around the corner of a room. On any given Sunday, after church, I would greet Ralph with, “How are you today, Ralph?” I knew his answer ahead of time. This retired, successful man, in a gravelly voice would reply “Oh, I’m terrible good. You?” Hearing the words TERRIBLE GOOD always caused me to chuckle. It was vintage Ralph, summarizing a rough exterior covering a gentle spirit. His response, his pose, his practiced gruffness meant “I’m very good or I’m doing exceptionally well.” It was always followed with his one word question: “You?”

Terrible Good is one way I think about our national experience of democracy in the United States today. There is a terribleness, a meanness, much more threatening and ugly toward others than Ralph’s gruff demeanor. Somehow civil discourse has been devalued and too often set aside. Public governance has been turned into yelling matches across ideologial divides. Some of the interchanges in school board meetings or even in the U.S. Congress are more like a scuffle on a elementary school play ground than a display of honest human differences. It is ugly and unless we are careful it can be destructive to our future. There is so much that is good about us as a people, as a nation that, I fear, gets lost in the bellicose rudeness. Why is this so? And, what can be done to better display the goodness of our people? I have three hunches to offer.

  1. The Media Made Us Do It.” This is not a new explanation and is, in fact, the most common one offered. Marshall McLuhan was perhaps right, “The medium is the message.” From social media interactions to talk radio to the cable television channels, for many in our nation the offering of information has been set aside and instead exchanges become an ongoing battle, a bludgeoning of “the other.” Complex challenges are distilled into easy answers and turned into verbal brickbats tossed across any convenient ideologocial or cultural chasim.
  2. “There are Fewer Parking-Lot-Conversations.” As a clergy person, I would often see persons engaged in parking-lot-conversations following a worship service or meeting. Sometimes these conversations would last a half an hour, or would move to a nearby restaurant or watering hole. People got to know one another in regular, healthy human exchanges, where differences were freely shared. I recall a lot of teasing about sports teams (Cardinals vs. Cubs; Colts vs. Bears, etc.), or joking about the best college or university, or, yes, disagreements about politics. I heard many such conversations and teasing between Republicans, Democrats and Independents on the asphalt. Sometimes the conversations were serious but almost always to my memory, respectful. I saw this behavior in other arenas as well. For example, I still recall the gatherings following a school board or city council meeting where persons of opposite parties would gather at an establishment and engage in post meeting banter. There was much laughter and often a testing of alternative approaches to problems. Several things happened to change this over the past twenty years. First, churches became more and more ideologically/politically segregated, leaving space for fewer such teasing opportunities. I think the same is true of our politics. Mostly gone are the days when opponents like Tip O’Neal and Ronald Reagan jovially visited after a tough day of battle in Washington. COVID hasn’t helped — there have been fewer people attending fewer public meetings.
  3. “We are fogetting how to practice local democracy.” Local democracy, and by “local” I mean at the grass roots, subatomic, or subpolitical party level. I mean meetings at the PTA, garden club, bowling league, League of Women Voters, church board meetings, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks or dozens of other social or service clubs. While I am not arguing that Roberts Rules of Order should be followed by every group, I do wonder if at the local level we are forgetting how to make fair and democratic decisions. If Roberts Rules are assumed, then some simple things like setting an agenda, learning how to make a motion and call for a vote are helpful. There are other ways to proceed (Consensus, Democratic Rules, Atwood Rules, Group Discernment, etc.). To my mind, if there is no agreed upon way to proeed, an option many will chose is trying to “win” by yelling more loudly than others. There should be some agreement about process. In too many organizations we have turned to the practice of electing officers/leaders and then leaving all the work to those persons, later to grumble about decisions made. My friend Parker Palmer once spoke of visiting an African American Sunday School Class years ago as they were electing officers for the upcoming year. He noted that even in a small class of fewer than ten people, everyone held an office. After the class Palmer asked a friend why everyone held a post and the answer was simple and elegant. “We are practicing.” I believe it is time to give much more attention to the practice of local democracy.

If asked how democracy in the United States is doing today, I would respond that we are “TERRIBLE GOOD.” Of course, to prove this is true, a majority of us would need to answer as Ralph did and ask, “YOU?” More practice at listening to the voices of others and knowing how to fairly make decisions at the local level is something all of us can focus on doing better.

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer: Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful, we pray that this Thanksgiving can be a time when personal fear and grievance are abated. Help us choose a calm and gracious way. Even when greeted with words, signs and actions of contempt, inspire in us a gracious spirit.

Release the air from the overblown angers toward those with whom we differ. Help us recovery from our national addiction to a soap opera of easy categories, where heros and villians are identified. Forgive our tendency to divide the world up as our prejudices are cycled and recycled in each news cycle. When we forget, may we be reminded of our own failures, frailties and misguided hungers and appetites. O God, in your mercy, heal us as a people.

Give us calm hearts to act with unusual grace toward those we love and even toward our most diagreeable neighbors. Stay the hands of those who would do violence. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, rekindle our imagination and care for one another. Help us remember, with St. Augustine, that “God loves each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and God loves all as God loves each.” Then, in the days that follow, after we have overdosed on turkey and football, give us the wisdom, courage and imagination to address the mean-spirited language, customs and social status concerns. Help us find ways to end discrimination so prevalent in our world. Help us, as we call on all to act in terms of God’s great narrative of reconciliation and care for all creation. Amen.

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Context of prayer:

Driving along the highways in Amador County California this week there were road signs that bespoke our national trauma. It is almost as if a national “self sabatoge” is taking place. Discourse is overly simplistic, rude and crude, and based on persistent falsehoods; or, to quote a John Prine lyric, “When you’ve got hell to pay, put truth on layaway.”

As I pass the road signs, it is painfully clear there are no easy answers to our national brokenness and distrust. Yes, I have strong opinions about how truth has been subverted. It is not, however, only the fault of one man or one political party. Truth is more precious than some purveyors on cable networks advertize. This brokenness will take decades to address — and, in fact, the tensions and social fractures are decades old, make that centuries old. May our lost sense of OUR STORY been restored and a grand narrative again find purchase in our respect for one another, even when we disagree. The core features of our commonwheal as a nation will require a sense of hope and commitment to the good, true and beautiful — even when it seems forever undermined by the ugliness that surrounds.

Amador County, CA, Nov. 2021

From the internet, same day

I close with another quote from the great prophet, John Prine, who died this past year. He put his hope in these words:

If by chance I should find myself at rest, 
By falling from this jagged cliff, 
I look below and I look above, 
I’m surrounded by your boundless love. 
Surround me with your boundless love, 
Confound with your boundless love,
I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be 
When you found me with your boundless love,
You dumbfound me with your boundless love, 
You surround me with your boundless love.

The Maps We Carry

My grandson, Colin, and I were in upstate New York on our way to Boston. We had stopped off at Niagara Falls. Enjoyed the marvelous views. We rode under the Falls on the Maid of the Mist boat and came out drenched on the other side. We were then off to the hotel nearby. As we collected our luggage, I grabbed my road atlas from the pocket behind the passenger seat. It was time to make some old-fashioned travel plans, done the right way, with a map. I was weary of following the GPS system in the car or on my cell phone.

Upstate New York is lovely country. I wanted to check alternative possible routes to Boston. Then, explore a route back west, perhaps stopping off at one of the Finger Lakes? Didn’t I remember that I-86 was a lovely alternative to the heavily traveled I-90? I would check it out. There was much less traffic on I-86, and no tolls! Perfect way to enjoy the beauty of the Mohawk Valley. Perhaps we could check out some remaining stretches of the old Erie Canal. Yes, I would use the atlas.

We checked into our room. Settled in for a little rest before dinner. I grabbed my trusted road atlas, opened it, and began to laugh out loud.

What I had brought to the room in order to check out travel routes through upstate New York was not an atlas of the United States at all! It was my dog-eared Indiana Gazetteer. A collection of local topographical maps that included every street and back road in the state of Indiana – at least in 1990! This Gazetteer was over twenty years old. It had been a treasured friend when seeking shortcuts in my home state. Well worn, I had used it often. As I leafed though the pages, memories of trips in Indiana came to mind.

Then there was a rush of understanding that this was a good metaphor of our human situation. How much of our understanding today comes from the out-dated and out of context maps carried in our memories? I once read of an adventurous people who sought to travel “off the map.” Had we forgotten this as a possibility? Are we locked into old patterns or electronically limited GPS systems? There was a time, as a boy scout, I had known how to find my way with a compass and rudimentary map.

Sometimes we carry intricate details of a world that once was but is no more. We can believe there is a return to a “safe and familiar” world long gone. Interesting human artifacts, these; but not much help in a newly evolving world. Our culture, our mores, our routines, our faith expressions, our educational systems and our governance patterns are transitioning — and quickly. It can be, understandably, a threatening time. This, in some ways, explains the hunger for authoritarian certainties that wash across our nation and our world.

We can be locked into mental maps that are simply too small for the journey ahead. Just when I need to have a more expansive view, I can get stuck with an out-of-date set of categories and images of reality. The nostalgic MAGA belief that one leader will help “Make America Great Again” is one of the most dangerous, and small minded maps of our time. This is, I believe a dead end, rather than a route forward. Or, it is like a religious denomination that seeks to return to a world that no longer exists.

The landscape ahead is of another territory all together. This, just when I thought I had retired! The most detailed mapping of streets and roads in Indiana, that I carry with me, isn’t much help in planning a trip through Upstate New York. There is no value for me when in New York planning a trip on back roads from Rushville to LaPorte, Indiana. New understandings, new companions on the journey ahead, a fresh reading of our scriptures and great documents like the U.S. Constitution can provide compass points — a sense of direction.

There are some maps that appear to help for short passages of the journey ahead. And, there are some parts of the travel that will require a compass of righteousness, the wisdom of spiritual guides and willingness to travel off the old maps I carry. My personally-crafted gazetteer will need some updating. As Rick Steves puts it, we should “Keep on Traveling.”

Neighbors or Fools?

In Boston, of course at a Red Sox game. Joy. Wonderment. Old Fenway Park is a marvel.

Also an awareness that the folks around me who were strangers just an hour ago are now more. They are not friends — but they could be. We have already laughed, joked and talked a little philosophy. All around folks come from different places, speaking with wonderful accents that delight my hearing. Mostly from the Bay State a gathering that is racially and economically diverse. We teased about who would put ketchup on a hot dog? There is conversation — real conversation with folks who a few minutes ago were strangers. On the field there are diverse players — each one celebrated or feared for his baseball talent.

The rain that delayed the game was a blessed relief from the heat. Let me say it plainly — the heat IS an indicator of climate change. The fellowship in the stands is a relief from the pettiness, the lies and the anger in our nation. It is a relief to be away from the focus on grievance, victim-hood, abuse and denials being displayed by so-called “public officials.” I turn to Fox News and am amazed at the narrow distorted, and yes, deceitful language there. I turn to CNN or MSNBC and grow weary of the ways it is evident we have become the dis-united states of America. We are a broken society.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had it right when he said “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Is Fenway Park, and the democratic impulses it represented, a relic? (I am aware there are vast economic differences between my seat in the stands and those in the sky boxes above me. Still, like baseball itself, the gathering is a marvel.) It may be a slowly dying game, but its slower pace allows for time to learn about becoming a neighbor again.

Our Unmaskings

Colin Murray, Soldier Field, 6/16/21

The weather was as good as it gets – one of those days I have been waiting for well over 475 days. My grandson, Colin Murray was graduating from Whitney Young High School. Where better in Chicago for such an event than at Soldier Field on the shore of Lake Michigan? June 16, 2021. Most of us in the large crowd of proud friends and relatives were wearing masks. It was great to be in a public place doing “almost normal things.” Lots of sunshine and cool breezes and reason to celebrate the 515 students were graduating. These 2021 grads were off to the next passages in their lives. The graduation bulletin listed their destinations to places around the world. Impressive. I confess to choking back some tears as I watched this diverse, talented group of youngsters. These graduates represent the future of our great multicultural society. Huzzah for them, and for our nation, and our world!

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of anti-mask protesters who attended other large gatherings over the past year. Otherwise intelligent persons consciously choosing to display their “liberty” by NOT wearing masks. And, too often, a few weeks later, the community where these “liberties” were displayed saw a spike in the number of COVID-19 related illness and deaths! It’s a crazy world, isn’t it? There is recent legislation allowing firearms to be carried in the open in some states, with few restrictions on weapon sales, and at the same time significant new limits are being placed on when, where and how persons can vote. Seems more than a little upside-down. All of this while the number and frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. is increasing.

We have been down a similar road before. There was the debate over seat belts back in the 1970s and the opposition to the polio vaccination, or adding fluoride to the water when I was a child. I certainly understand the need to be cautious and wise with regulations. Still, even with measures in place to protect the larger population, there is a desire by some to see conspiracy instead of a desired well-being-for-all that is intended.

I am far from being a constitutional scholar. Even so, the preamble to the U. S. Constitution is clear: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The idea of “promoting the general Welfare,” seems straight forward and a good foundational basis for healthy and enduring civic life. The framers of the Constitution understood the inherent competing interests of individual liberty and social responsibility. Public health measures sing in harmony with Constitutional intentions. Things like face masks, vaccinations, quarantines, building codes, safe food and drug production/sales, licenses as to who can operate an automobile, practice medicine are all part of the general welfare.

We will find our way forward from this I do believe. Even in sensible gun measures one day soon, I pray. At Indiana University there was a regulation students arriving in the fall would need to display proof of a coronavirus vaccination. Sadly, the state legislature tried to intervene and claimed such basic public health efforts were illegal. There was a recent small protest at the university against such a requirement. I loved the way the university acted like the “adult in the conversation” by saying, “Okay then, we won’t be policing the students. But guess what? We will offer incentives.” There will be a drawing open to all who provide evidence of their vaccination that includes great gift cards for the book store and other purchases around town. There will be electronic devices and for at least one lucky student, a year of free tuition. Now that is promoting the general welfare in a creative way.

It seems to me that what has been unmasked during this pandemic is the way some have believed their individual liberty trumped the promotion of the general welfare. In a word, it is a way of seeking to justify self-centered-ness. It was all about the “ME” with an absence of any sense of the “WE”.

Micah 6:8 is a fine summary of what is expected (make that required) of God’s people. It is to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” One of the great unmaskings coming out of the pandemic is the way bad theology shaped the practices of many in our churches. One day in the future, we will be able to see the relationship between political and religious gatherings where masks were discounted, even ridiculed, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 related damage done in a community.

A “religious” anti-masker protesting outside a grocery store challenged me for wearing a mask as I entered. The challenge was, “Give me one good reason you are wearing that thing.” I wanted to respond “I can give you over 600,000 good reasons. Those who died.” I didn’t. Parking lot debates are usually not very productive! Already, today, the evidence is clear. In city after city, and health care facility after health care facility TODAY those hospitalized with COVID are all folks who refused or for some other “reason” were not vaccinated against the virus.

Early in the pandemic, St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch, Colorado offered masks with the Micah text. It has become my mask of choice over the past fifteen months. While my prayer is that we can be sufficiently past the pandemic, just in case we are not, I am looking into finding a mask that simply reads, “Promote the General Welfare.”

I find this moment hope-filled. A time to believe there is a better future is possible. Why? Because yesterday I saw 515 reasons to be hope-filled… and this is just at one school in a nation where millions of our children and youth have struggled through the pandemic and I believe the vast majority have witnessed an important unmasking. They no longer believe there are easy answers to complex public challenges but there is a path forward.

A Necessity of Democracy: Listening

Listening: This morning, having coffee with a friend, we reflected on the challenges faced by institutions in our nation just now. In government, education and religion — just to name three — old patterns of participation or civic engagement seem threatened. The former taken-for-granted connective tissues are frayed or seem to have disappeared. My friend reminded me of the comment made by television host Larry King who said, “I never learned anything while I was talking.”

It occurred to me then that I had done a lot of talking already on this morning — not to mention all the talking I had done over these seventy-five years. It is the occupational hazard of being a preacher, I guess. I remembered the time I preached a sermon during Holy Week on “Silence” that lasted for 25 minutes! However, I am not alone. Too much talking and too little listening is a national malady. Much of the talk these days seems to be done in “ideological bubbles of agreement” which are dangerous to our body politic.

Years ago I mused about the importance of parking lot conversations after church or meetings of the city council or school board. I don’t romanticize these, I have seen angry disagreements unfold among the pickup trucks and hybrid cars. On occasion, I have even seen small physical altercations — nothing serious, but troubling none-the-less. I guess this is better than such incidents occurring in the sanctuary or city council chambers. Mostly, parking lot conversations I have witnessed have been done in good humor — like the teasing between Indiana University and Purdue University supporters. Okay, that’s not a good illustration, but you know what I mean. What’s the old saw, “Can we disagree without being disagreeable?”

Our ability to listen, even when we disagree, is perhaps more important than our ability to speak — although the freedom of speech and legal protest is also essential. My point is that we seem to have lost an appreciation for all three; and more specifically, when we don’t listen our words and actions often miss the mark necessary for true communication. I recall with both sadness and a chuckle the denominational gathering of United Methodist clergy for what is referred to as a “clergy session” when a microphone was requested so that a concern could be expressed. The bishop and other leaders seemed surprised, nonplussed really, they had not planned on needing to listen to anyone in the gathering. Only a generation prior, in such gatherings it was normal to have dialogue and disagreements expressed at such gatherings. Something was lost over a period of a little more than a decade. That something was “listening.” Listening so that participation and faith in the institution might be stronger.

My spouse and I have participated on many boards, nonprofit and otherwise, over the years. We have noticed that in such meetings, there has been a loss in understanding some basic elements of healthy listening and decision making. While Roberts Rule of Order is not the only way, or perhaps the best way, fair-minded decision making can occur, it is often the case that today many meetings of boards occur without the basics of an agenda, knowledge of how to make a motion or call for a vote. Sadly, we are out of practice at the local level whether in civic board meetings, the church or in politics.

In our nation and world, listening seems undervalued, even ridiculed. Witness the criticism of President Biden for his willingness to take time to listen and try for a bipartisan approach to certain challenges we face. I admit, it has seemed like a fool’s errand, even naive, to think that Mitch McConnell who has made his reputation on blocking any and all things that he can’t control. I don’t deny that the filibuster in the Senate, as it is currently practiced, is harmful and I do think that, after listening, it is time for some tough votes to support voting rights or infrastructure improvements. The listening has been done and action needs to come… but it is important that listening was done!

So, two basic suggestions: 1) pick up the phone and call that person with whom you disagree and listen. Perhaps there is too much of a divide just now. Perhaps, if appropriate, you might still say something like “I appreciate you.” 2) Next meeting you attend where decisions are made, listen to see how you can in small ways improve the democratic process. It might be as simple as saying, “Could take a moment to set out an agenda, maybe set one now or plan on it next meeting?”

Retooling our listening abilities are a necessity if our democracy is to survive in any and all of our institutions, large and small.

Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community

Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community

Democracy in the United States of America came to the edge of survival on January 6th, 2021. We watched in horror as our nation moved perilously close to a chasm, a coup d’etat. In fact, there are concerns that widespread anarchy may be exhibited in coming days. I pray not. A mob of insurrectionists, egged on by a psychologically disturbed and morally bankrupt president, invaded and occupied the capitol building for several hours. Others will investigate the “whys” and “wherefores” of this totalitarian-near-miss. It is time to hold the invaders accountable. For all citizens this is the time to consider the “thenceforth.” What now? Where next? How might we gain our bearings? How shall we, as citizens of this remarkable republic, proceed?

With no small irony, January 6th is also the day we Christians annually celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. It is a season of light, of discovery, of realization, of seeing new things, in new ways. In 2021 Epiphany became a day of treachery and tragedy. Insurrectionists sought to destroy our democracy. While some may seek revolution, let us understand that Epiphany is better employed as a time of revelation.

Over the next few postings, let’s think together about what has been and might be revealed. We will do this under three categories: Carnage, Complicity and Community.

I. Carnage

Trump Inauguration 2017

“American Carnage” is the way Donald Trump chose to describe our nation and its institutions in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Former President George W. Bush was heard to comment afterward, “That was some strange sh*t.” Trump was elected as the champion of grievance and revenge. He has built a governing philosophy based on lies, division and self promotion. Even listening to him at the inauguration in 2017, I found myself thinking of the axiom from sociologists W. I. and Dorothy S. Thomas: “What we perceive to be real becomes real in its consequences.” What was perceived then as carnage has ricocheted in genuine death and tragedy from Charlottesville to Seattle to Minneapolis and finally landing at the Capitol building on Epiphany 2021.

Social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was asked by journalist David Cayley “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich responded, “Neither. The best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.“**

Ivan Illich, source Wikipedia

Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century.  His brilliant critiques of our counterproductive institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge. He offered valuable wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies.  Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his sharp analysis. 

Illich was a truth-teller. He saw the failures of our schools, our broken economies, our media and strategies that continued to ignore and crush the underprivileged, our distortions of faith traditions, our inability to see. He understood the conditions of despair that became the source of Trump’s appeal… he understood the power of fear and misplaced anger.

Illich’s call was not to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some set of “fixes,” or an elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.”  He was about something much more basic — as basic as the streets where we walk and the tables we share (or don’t share).  His call was to reinvest in the original “revelation,” the motivating principles behind our “helping” and “governing” institutions and the essential importance of neighborliness (see Tools for Conviviality).

Illich was silenced for years by the Catholic Church, prohibited from teaching through official church media. He writes of a church that has lost its highest calling in The Corruption of the Church.

Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” is was the chosen one to end the Carnage in our nation found a home in the narrative of the Religious Right. Donald and his religious enablers turned Christianity away from narratives of grace and mercy into a faith that was rooted in individual salvation alone, into a struggle for a “religious freedom” to discriminate and faith as a tool of retaliation and censure against those who differed. It became a way to promote, even baptize, exclusion, racism and greed. Religious leaders like Eric Metexas and Franklin Graham were so bold as to suggest that anyone, Christian or not, anyone who didn’t follow Donald Trump was demon possessed (The Atlantic, “To Trump’s Evangelical’s Everyone Else is a Sinner,” November 25, 2019).

Metexas, who like Senator Josh Hawley, is Ivy League educated and can be an attractive, engaging spokesperson for a narrow and corrupted narrative. It is a narrative that cocoons the message of Jesus of Nazareth inside a political ideology. In the process it transforms the Gospel message into something distorted and limited. Folks like Metexas, make the parable of the Good Samaritan into a tale about how fortunate it was that the Samaritan was wealthy so he could assist the one found beaten on the road! The parable becomes a story in praise of wealth and tax cuts for those in power.

Here is a good test question for us all about our core narratives and Epiphany. Does your ideology capture your faith, limiting and containing it? Or is your ideology continually challenged and transformed by your faith? Compare the way Eric Metexas and Ivan Illich understand the Good Samaritan story. For Illich, this is an ever opening revelation. It is about “an untrammeled freedom to act” turning all strangers into a neighbor where “no category, whether of law or custom, language or culture, can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (Caley, David, “Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich,” p.30).

Capitol Building, Summer 2018

In the summer of 2018 I walked along the Capitol Mall on a number of occasions. I had joined a group of colleagues to work on a revision of The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. In random conversations with strangers on the Mall and in the hotel lounge, it was apparent something troubling was already taking place — an attempt to reshape the nation’s story into one of Donald Trump’s (and his enablers) making. The American Carnage motif had taken root. Persons were out to remake the nation. As one proudly told me, “There is a new sheriff in town.” When I spoke about the offices of the Board of Church and Society, where we were meeting, being the only denominational presence on The Hill, I was told that, “Sorry, that is no longer true, we are on the inside.” Inside and outside language was strange to me as I still carried some notion of the separation of church and state. The “We” had to do with a certain brand of Evangelicalism busy making Faustian bargains with Donald Trump.

At the time I didn’t foresee the tragedy coming on Epiphany Day 2021. However, I sensed then there was a dangerous change underway. Some were seeking to challenge our national self understandings into ones shaped by a small, restrictive vision for our nation and for the faith.

Father Richard Rohr speaks of the import of story, of revelation, on January 10, 2021. He writes of an alternative journey defined by a “Christ map” that can shape who we can be as a people when he writes: We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it. (Rohr, Richard, “Stories are Essential,” Center for Action and Contemplation, 1/10/21)

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**A fuller expression of the idea by Illich is “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.

Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.

It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.

2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020 came with cloudy skies and a nation struggling with the highest yet number of COVID-19 cases. Walking across the campus of Indiana University, young women and men in the ROTC were raising the U.S. and Indiana flags. I was struck by the ways our proud nation is enmeshed in a sad drama around the recent presidential election.

We wait to unite in common purpose to address the corona virus pandemic. We wait to regain a sense of shared national identity after a period of tragic division and authoritarian misadventures. We offer a sad spectacle across the globe. Others, rightly, view us with pity. The U.S., beacon of democracy over the centuries, is humbled and divided. When our electoral process is treated like a realty television show (in reruns) and persons who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution spout unproven charges of voter fraud, we struggle with a pandemic greater than that of the corona virus. It is a pandemic of mistrust and deceit. I watch as “Old Glory” is raised and ponder where we, as a people, are headed.

Indiana University, Veterans Day 2020

After pausing and praying, I walked on wondering what little bit each one of us might do. I composed letters in my mind to my congressional representatives from Indiana. All Republican. None of them with sufficient courage as yet to honor our democracy by acknowledging the obvious — Joseph Biden has been elected as the 46th President of the United States.

A column by Thomas Friedman kept playing across my mind. https://nyti.ms/2GSAdtc. It is entitled “Only Truth Can Save Our Democracy.” Let me quote Friedman here: “We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.

He is right. We are passing through perilous times when truth itself has been devalued. Deceits and scapegoating of those who disagree or are at the margins of our society threatens the common life within history’s greatest democracy.

Upon return home, I wrote letters to each of my representatives. Below is a copy of my letter to Senator Michael Braun. I encourage you to write — letters of challenge and letters of gratitude. I encourage you to pray — write and pray — do it today.

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Senator Michael Braun                                                       November 11, 2020 374 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Braun,

I write to you on this Veterans Day, 2020, to express my disappointment with your dismissive and dangerous response to the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States.  Sir, the people of our state and nation deserve better than such poltroonery from you in these stress-filled times.  As I presume you know, there are issues of national security at risk, not to mention the potential for the undermining basic democratic processes.  We are too great a nation, and you, too intelligent a senator, not to perceive the dangers of encouraging and enabling a president who continues to behave like a tinpot dictator. 

We are better than this.  You are better than this.  At least I thought so until I heard your comment that the nation’s popular vote “was basically a tie if you take out California.”  Since reading this statement by you, on this Veteran’s Day, I have thought you might want to propose a new Braun-approved version of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Let’s see:

I pledge allegiance to the flag 
of the United States of America, 
And to the Republic(ans) for which it stands, 
One nation, under God, indivisible (except for California), 
with Liberty and Justice for all 
(except those Trumpists wish to exclude). 

We deserve better and I think you know it. Why is it, in these days, that the core Republican strategy seems to always seek to exclude and/or scapegoat others?  Perhaps we could say that the number of U.S. Senators in congress is basically tied if you take out Indiana. My family and friends in California think of you as a senator (some even speak of you as a person of intellect and decency); perhaps you might consider thinking of them as fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Dr. Philip Amerson