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

Choose Your Conspiracy Carefully

Choose Your Conspiracy Carefully

The people in the U.S. are navigating through the choppy waters. I think of this as the gulf of conspiracy. Less than a month ago, my visit to the dentist demonstrated this. Prior to entry, much care was taken — “Call before entering when you arrive. Let us know if you have a fever or other symptoms? You must wear a mask.” Good. A place of care. Once inside, however I found another contagion. A pandemic of conspiracy, spread by a friendly staff member. As we talked, she opined that “COVID-19 deaths are exaggerated so that doctors and hospitals can make more money.” Okay, I thought — that’s a new one — a pretty sad and inaccurate one — given the risks being taken by medical staff and the financial distress many healthcare systems face in this dramatically changed economic reality.

Sidewalk art, Indiana University campus, 2020

However, that wasn’t the first touch with conspiracy that morning. A phone call earlier from a friend began, “Don’t you think Donald Trump is pretending to have the corona virus and doing this for political purposes?” “No,” I responded, “How would this be helpful?”

Our nation seems to be swimming in a sea of conspiracies. Today there is the claim of “widespread voter fraud” by President Trump and his most loyal supporters. There is no evidence. Election officials, including Republicans, deny this in states where such “fraud” is claimed to have occurred. This conspiracy joins ranks of others in 2020 like the anti-vaxxers who oppose all vaccines, the belief that Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump and the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately produced in a Chinese lab.

I hear multiple conspiracies each day. Some are minor and some perhaps carry a small grain of truth. Ever hear of Area 51 in Nevada or the various theories behind the assassination of President Kennedy, or that Neil Armstrong didn’t really walk on the moon? Other conspiracies offer more existential and long-term danger: like those labeling all media as “Fake News” so as to undermine all news sources, or the claim that climate change is a hoax even as our natural environment may be irreparably damaged, or the astonishing QAnon assertions that Tom Hanks joins the Democrats in cannibalism and child sex-trafficking.

Alaskan Highway

Presidential elections are fertile ground for new conspiracies. Those who start political conspiracies behaved like rabbits this year, breeding and releasing multiple distortions and threats into our civic life. We need take great care in choosing which conspiracies shape our understandings. You say – “Hey, wait a minute there, fella, I don’t fall for conspiracies!” Sorry, I have some sad news to report. From many research quarters (universities and sophisticated research centers) comes the knowledge that everyone is prone to accepting ideas that bolster preconceived notions. Confirmation bias is alive and well. It is the notion that we choose the information that reinforces our beliefs and values.

Am I saying that we are stuck in our conspiracies? Well NO, and, sadly, potentially yes. Conspiracies do not an entire worldview make; however, our worldviews do make us more susceptible. Here is where the value of the intervening correctives come into play. Reason, research and faith-informed reflection are a critical trio for me. Other correctives are enshrined in our nation’s constitution and bill of rights. Still others are operational — things like continuing education, practicing critical thinking, reading widely, legal precedence and community engagement each can assist in holding our hubris and distortions in check.

For years I have felt something important is lost as religious congregations have become more and more monolithic in make-up theologically and culturally. Genuine and durable democracy and respect across ideological divisions was often bolstered in friendly disagreements across the table at the pitch-in dinner or visits after worship in the parking lot.

There is a sign along the Alaskan Highway that reads “Choose Your Rut Carefully. You’ll Be In It For The Next Sixty Miles.” I hate to admit it, but I am old enough to remember such signs as my family traveled across Missouri and Oklahoma back in the early 1950s. Of course, then it was only a few miles in the same rut. The conspiracies to which we may fall prey can turn into ruts that mislead and distract for years.

As I think of conspiracies and the rut I choose, I am am reminded of Ivan Illich, priest and social critic. Illich speaks of “conspiratio” and “comestio” as essential to faith and the civic life [See David Cayley’s conversations with Ilich in “The Rivers North of the Future,” Anansi Press, 2005].

Illich asserts that conspiratio is not a bunch of rebels trying to undermine or overthrow a political order. It is not the sowing of misinformation or deceit. It is more radical than this! It is about living by a new narrative. It is a changing of the “I” into a new “We.” It is the Gospel narrative set out in the parables of Jesus. Stories of Good Samaritan, the Importuning Widow, the Ten Bridesmaids, and on and on and on the parables go. There are stories of those celebrating the finding of that which was lost, and of the best wine served late and with abundance. There is a conversion of what is presumed to be a suspicious and limited existence toward a community of abundance and conviviality. It is the narrative of God’s grace and the joys of faith over against the dominant grim order. It is about that which was lost, being found. Conspiratio is “breathing together,” represented in the “kiss of peace” offered as believers come to celebrate the Eucharist. Comestio is the sharing of a common meal where all are welcome at the table.

I have not done justice to Illich here; still let me affirm that he points to the conspiracy into which I choose to live.

This morning as I walked my normal route contemplating how to end this reflection an incident occurred that surely comes as a sign for me of the conspiracy I choose. My walk took me through a neighborhood park named in memory of Dr. Ernest Butler, an African American pastor in Bloomington and friend of mine for many years.

Along the trail, between the playground and tennis courts, a man in his mid-forties approached. He motioned and asked if I could help. I nodded yes, not certain what he wanted. He said, “Have you seen a boy on the trail, sandy haired?” Raising his arm he gave indication of the young man’s height. “No,” I replied, “If I see him what do you want me to tell him?” The man choked back his words, wetness welling in his eyes, “Tell him, his father loves him. He should come home.”

I walked on. A half an hour or so later I saw the father and boy sitting together on a bridge, talking. May I live to see such conspiracies often.

Fortnight – Day14: Truth and Wisdom

Fortnight – Day14: Truth and Wisdom 

A democracy can die of too many lies. I remember hearing those words from Bill Moyers, nearly a year ago. “A Democracy can die of too many lies,” he said. “And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (see Bill Moyers on Truth).

I recall the impact of hearing this then — these words still resonate strongly in my soul today. On the eve the presidential election 2020, I am stirred by the deep desire to return to a place where gas-lighting and fabrication are no longer the taken-for-granted tools of a nation’s leader. Even so, I have become aware that something more important than truth has been devalued — something more essential to our society’s health and future well-being. There was a time, not that long ago, when we were able to value truth and understand that an even larger human gift was WISDOM.

Will we again come to value both and know the difference? How long will it take to remember that wisdom involves a “speaking truth in love?” Or, that wisdom carries an ability to weave the facts of the moment into a larger constructive narrative. Truth may help you know where you are, while it is wisdom that will help you know where you need to go.

Writing in the Christian Scholar’s Review, Professor Lambert Zuidervaart (Oct 18, 2018) points us to the essential value of wisdom. He writes: “The love of wisdom needs the wisdom of love.” His article begins with a poem by Miriam Pederson “Hold Your Horses.”[1]

Lasso truth
like a run-away steer
and you will find its veins
running cold.

Approach it like a lover
with a ribbon for her hair
and truth, in time,
will lean in your direction.

Wisdom is more than knowledge… It is not knowing a truth so much as allowing the little truth we do know to take residence in our daily lives. It is how “our truth” is further enhanced by the gifts of compassion, mutuality, hospitality, hope — and, yes, love. Might we know, as T S Elliot put it that “Truth on our level is a different thing from truth for the jellyfish“? Truth is not always singular and shapeless.  It is often difficult to fully capture and this is where wisdom is beneficial.

Earlier this summer, Ken Sehested wrote that: “almost every breakthrough begins with a breakdown.” (Sehested, Prayer and Politics, 6/12/20) Something will be broken by the election tomorrow. Might it lead to a breakthrough? What might result from this shattering? For me? For those with whom I disagree? Might we each be too quick to proclaim an un-lived truth, that lacks the fullness of wisdom? Or, will we choose a retaliation that will inevitably follow — if our sole goal is arguing for our particular set of truths?

In writing on All Saints Sunday, yesterday, I was reminded of a tale I once heard about Oliver Cromwell. While the story may be apocryphal — and certainly deserves a wider historical rendering — it may illustrate my hopes for how many might behave in the post-election season. The story goes that when the treasury ran out of silver to provide coinage for the nation, Cromwell sent troops to the cathedrals to find the precious metal.  Returning, they reported, “The only silver we can find is in the statues of the saints stationed in the corners of the cathedrals.”  Cromwell responded, “Good, melt down the saints and put them in circulation!”

Good friends, VOTE, PRAY, and ACT, as saints who have been placed in circulation. In these days when singing is often limited to a few singers in our churches — I say we go to the street corners (masks in place) and sing for WISDOM. Let’s VOTE, PRAY, ACT and SING for WISDOM!

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Reading the fine article by Professor Zuidervaart, I was delighted to see him reference a hymn lyric by my friend, Ruth Duck. Professor Duck is a retired distinguished professor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

Come and Seek the Way of Wisdom, Ruth Duck

Come and seek the ways of Wisdom, 
she who danced, when earth was new. 
Follow closely what she teaches, 
for her words are right and true. 
Wisdom clears the path to justice, 
showing us what love must do. 

Listen to the voice of Wisdom, 
crying in the market-place. 
Hear the Word made flesh among us, 
full of glory, truth and grace. 
When the word takes root and ripens, 
peace and righteousness embrace. 

Sister Wisdom, come, assist us; 
nurture all who seek rebirth. 
Spirit-guide and close companion, 
bring to light our sacred worth. 
Free us to become your people, 
holy friends of God and earth. 

Ruth Duck, 1997 The Pilgrim Press

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

All Saints Day 2020 arrives two days ahead of the Presidential Election. We remember lives well lived — and others lived not so well. We consider the fraying of our national identity and the evident threats to our commonweal. Mortality lurks as a backdrop on the nation’s theatrical stage this year. I think of the friends who have died. Many wonderful folks. There are 230,000 others in the United States and 1.2 million around the world who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic since February. We know only a handful of their names or life stories. Still, this is ALL SAINTS DAY.

The New York Times today (11/1/2020) carried an opinion piece entitled “Obituaries for the The American Dream 1931-2020.” It was inspired by Lizania Cruz, a Dominican artist and museum curator, who asked other artists When and How The American Dream Died For You? The Times opened the question to a wider audience and invited readers to respond.

One of the original responses was from, Marsha McDonald who wrote: “The American Dream died for me when I realized how many of my fellow Americans valued selfishness over community, power over justice, prejudice over generosity, demagoguery over science. For me, the 2020 pandemic is very real, but also a metaphor. How sick our national soul is! The old dream should pass away. Isn’t it time for us to dream new dreams, better dreams, that include us all?

Since All Saints Sunday 2019, I have spent countless hours looking into the history of Methodism and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.** This research led to libraries, books and articles, old newspapers along with dozens of conversations and email exchanges. There are mysteries yet to be solved. Even so, I have sadly learned more of the broad swath of racism and religious bigotry that infected (and still infects) the church. At the same time my research uncovered the lives and witness of dozens of remarkable persons of faith in the early 20th Century who opposed the Klan and worked against this corruption of the Gospel and human dignity. In their day, these women and men dreamed “new dreams, better dreams, that included us all.”

If I were I to write my letter as a part of an Obituary for the American Dream today it would be a rolling set of dates — times of death, trauma and despair — and times of hoped for rebirth. Scores of times, a refrain, recurring rhythms of loss and return. Times when the dream died – along with Dr. King or the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, or the twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or the treacheries of hunger, violence, betrayal and death witnessed while working in impoverished settings filled with saintly people in the U.S. and Latin America, and on and on and on. THEN – times when hope was rekindled.

Shortly after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 author Morris West wrote an appreciation titled “Good Pope John” for Life Magazine in which he wondered: “Will they canonize him and make him, officially, a saint in the calendar?  In a way, I hope not… I want to remember him for what he was — a loving man, a simple priest, a good pastor and a builder of bridges across which we poor devils may one day hope to scramble across to salvation.” In 2014, Pope John XXIII was canonized — so much for the wishes of Mr. West.

I don’t know that any one American Dream should be canonized. In truth all of our best dreams will end up in some graveyard of good intentions. In fundamental ways, our society and culture are flawed and destined to continuing corruptions — as are all human political and institutional designs. Our hope is not in finding the perfect president, or political ideology or government program. In truth, there is no “draining of the swamp”; instead we require an honest assessment of the human dilemma and self-critical response — where better oversight and care of all of our swampy places is required — social and personal. The future is not yet clear, even so I join in cautious hope.

I pray that Jon Meachem is correct in offering that: “In our finest hours…the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.” (The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels)

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Thomas Merton wrote: “What makes the saints saints is a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.” (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p 57)

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Ordinary Saints, Malcolm Guite

The ordinary saints, the ones we know, 
Our too-familiar family and friends, 
When shall we see them? 
Who can truly show 
Whilst still rough-hewn, 
the God who shapes our ends? 
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold 
That is and always was our common ground, 
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold 
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound 
From which the light we never noticed fell 
Into our lives? 
Remember how we turned 
To look at them, and they looked back? 
That full- -eyed love unselved us, and we turned around, 
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace. 
But one day we will see them face to face.

(Malcolm Guite, From Plough, March 22, 2018)

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**[My interest was in part linked to my appreciation for the research by retired Indiana University Professor James Madison, whose book The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland arrived in September 2020. Madison rightly argues that the Klan was made up by more than the “hillbillies and Great Unteachables” as some claimed. Klan membership extended into the ranks of community and church leaders. My interest, of course, was given more urgency by the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the past year.]