Powering Democracy and Replacing Redundant Lighthouses

Powering Democracy and Replacing Redundant Lighthouses

Bornholm, Denmark is an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Lovely place; a center point for one of the green power initiaitives in this small nation. In Denmark today over 50% of current electrical energy comes from renewable wind and solar power – a marked increase in recent decades. Denmark’s goal is to be 100% free of fossil fuels by 2030! This small nation is showing the rest of us a possible future. What is required for such dramatic change?

Denmark is a nation built out of a web of islands and distinct communities. While language and history, economic opportunuties, war and domination, have woven the Danes together, there is more to the story. There is imagination – an opnness to work together for new approaches to challenges. Currently, on Bornholm island, in order to make space for the windmills, new landfill projects are emering along some of the shore. Hundreds of windmills will be constructed. Has there been opposition? Of course. Still, all this is part of a national effort to, not only supply Denmark’s energy needs, but become a nation that produces its own electric power and sells energy to others. Rather astonishing. Along with thousands of miles of shoreline, the Danes have wind, and more, imagination is at play.

Rønne Lighthouse, Bornholm, Denmark

On some islands, a few former lighthouses, will now be further from shore and less visible to aid those sailing. These lighthouses are being replaced, made redundant. Some would argue that modern satellite GPS systems have eliminated the value of and need for lighthouses altogether; even so, new light sources will be installed.

This would not be the first time Denmark has led Europe, and the world, with imagination for desperately needed change. Little known is the story of the Danish Folk School Movement begun in the early 1800s. In that time, a wide majority of the pesantry living in the region were impoverished. Illiteracy was among the highest in Europe. Only a wealthy few had access to representation in government. The situation was bleak, trust in others to make change was low.

A remarkable man, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872), a Lutheran theologian saw Denmark’s future based on the construction of a system of universal literacy and the development of common trust. His vision led to the Folk School Movement. The goal was not to build a stratified society based on test results and university degrees. Rather, he focused on enriching comminities with educational options to nurture the human spirit through song, poetry, crafts, literature. It was a celebrating the giftedness of the people. Gruntvig saw renewal coming from the “bottom up.” Some of the “students” could also teach — they were weavers, cooks, farmers, fishers. Gardening, dance, practical uses of math and science were taught. Yes, there were classes in spiritual matters that were a part of the whole. Grundtvig’s goal was the preparing of persons for more enlightened citizenship and the development of networks of community trust. The folk school movement offered a place where those with limited money and time could learn new and more democratic habits, values and skills that would be needed for a healthy future society.

One hundred years later, by the early 1900s, Denmark enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. At the same time a vibrant emerging democracy was electing representatives to the Folketinget, or the house of commoners. A majority of these folks representing districts from across Denmark at the time, had studied in the Danish Folk School system. Today, Denmark has a unicameral government with representatives serving in the Folketing. Not all is, or has been, perfect in this story — there was the Nazi occupation and times of political corruption and turmoil. Still the folk school movement, wind mills and redundant lighthouses can serve as valued metaphors for us and others who seek a way to proceed to a more democratic and literate world.

In many places there is need for the renewal of trust, and a way to learn a new literacy based on a knowledge that is accurate and inclusive of others. It is difficult to think of the situation faced by Denmark in the early 1800s and not compare it to the malaise of our modern time. Distrust of institutions and a sense of brokenness in so many of our communities is evident and threatening to our futures. One measure of this malaise is offered in the Edelman Trusts Barometer https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer. Across the world, trust in our institutions, and one another, is at an all time low. Perhaps our “democratic lighthouses” are placed too far from our current shorelines. We do not see the light that might offer us a better set of bearings for the future.

Taken as a practical example and metaphor, what might one learn from the Danish experience? A few possible lessons would include:

  1. As to energy independence from fossil fuels, Denmark is showing us that dramatic and rapid change is possible. They have the attribute of wind; others of us have the prospect of, along with wind, adding many more solar power options to our resources
  2. Perhaps some of our cultural, commercial, social, educational, healthcare and religious “lighthouses” need to be moved or rebuilt and re-imagined. How might we relocate the work of the press (news and social media), churches, the schools, healthcare systems, theaters, museums, etc. so that they are closer and more relevant to the journeys of those traveling in the future?
  3. Are there ways to think systemicly about how to move ahead to encourage a more trusting and democratic common life? (In the U.S. I am of the opinion that a program of universal service options for our young would be such an institutional initiative.)
  4. What gifts of the people, across our communities, can be brought to places that seek to enrich the common life. Do we have imagination for such systemic and constructive change? These will be needed to do some Cultural Land Fill work as new ecologies of democracy emerge. I think of the excellent resource of the Tamarack Institute: https://www.tamarackcommunity.ca/?hsLang=en and the Asset Based Community Development projects:https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/asset-based-community-development/.

As a child, I learned an old hymn and often sang it. It was about the importance of lighthouses for people who lacked the light of faith.

The first verse was:

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
For to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.

Perhaps people of faith can join folks in other arenas to build new light sources for imagination, democracy and spirituality. It seems the church has put too much of its focus for too long, too far from where the light of imaginative faith is needed. We have offered little spiritual light and what is offered is shining in the wrong places. Rather than a faith that builds up trust and community, too much time has spent dividing, excluding and relegating those who differ to another separate island.

For the imagination already offering us hope in Denmark and beyond, I give thanks.

Summer Reading Bouquet

A Summer Reading Bouquet

Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.

For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.

Dr. Georgia Harkness

In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.

By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.

For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Bob Greenleaf shared the story of an elderly, reclusive couple living in a small village who seldom ventured from their home.  However, one day the elderly man set out alone on an adventure. He traveled to a nearby city and after some exploring he returned with a battered cello he had found on a trash heap. The damaged cello had but one string. The twisted bow stick had only a few remaining hairs.  That evening and for weeks following, he seated himself in a front room corner and sawed away on the one single open string. Over and over he played one scratchy, repeated note. Day after day he played — his playing droned on increasing his wife’s unhappiness. Finally, able to stand it no longer, she decided to travel herself to the city.

Upon her return, she confronted her husband. “See here,” she said, “I have gone to the city and found people playing instruments very much like yours. The instrument is called a ‘cello’ and should have four strings. What’s more, those who play them move their fingers all along the neck of the cello and play many notes on each string.”  “Even more,” she continued, “people often play these cellos along with many others instruments. The sound is beautiful and powerful when they all play together. I am told such a group is called a symphony.  Why do you sit here day after day playing that one raspy note?”

The old fella gave his spouse a cold look and responded, “I would expect that of you.  Those people you saw are still trying to find the one right note, I have found it!” 

Robert K. Greenleaf, was a mentor to scores of folks; I was privleged to visit with him several times. His writings on Servant Leadership were widely read and practiced. Even in this, Bob knew that there would be the tendancy to turn his ideas into a distortion — a limited understanding — a one-note perspective. Too often it would be focused on “fixing” and “doing” rather than on “listening to others” and “reframing life with wider understandings.” Bob would chuckle at those who used Servant Leadership as a formula and say, “Leadership is a little like playing the cello. If you can’t hear the music maybe you shouldn’t try.” Or, Bob once opined “if you can’t share your playing with others, in a call and response way, then you will likely miss the beauty of the whole.

As I listen to the singular issues expounded in much of today’s social and religious discourse, I think of Bob and the story of the man and his broken cello. One note, one idea, one conviction (or two or three) can capture and predominate. Such behavior is like playing with too few strings on an instrument or giving too little attention to seeing things whole, seeing life and our challenges more comprehensively.

Perhaps you have seen the video of Johnny Mathis who holds one note, loudly, for almost a minute-and-a-half. It is amazing. Mathis is singing Johnny One Note, a song from the Broadway Musical “Babes in Arms” from 1937. (The movie version of this show starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.)

The Free Dictionary identifies the idiom “Johnny-One-Note” as “Someone who repeatedly expresses or maintains a strong opinion on a single or a few particular subjects.” The song Johnny-One-Note and the idiom display the reality that when one person holds one note long and loudly, it is difficult to hear anything else.

Bob Greenleaf died on September 29, 1990, at the age of 86. Some of the wisdom Bob shared seems even more relevant today. He called himself an “institution watcher.” His experiences within large institutions like AT&T and the Ford Foundation led to his insights, his consulting and writing. In answering the question how does one best lead in humane, constructive and effective ways? He wrote “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society;  will he benefit, or at least, will he not be further deprived?” (From The Servant Leader, p. 7)

Bob is buried in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana after spending much of his working life in corporate headquarters on the East Coast. His head stone captures his sense of humor, and the whimsy of life, with an epitaph he wrote for himself: “Potentially a good plumber, spoiled by a sophisticated education.

One of his many insights that comes today was his statement that “Whether we get a better society in the future will be determined by how well older people nurture the spirit of younger people.”

Bob Greenleaf encouraged folks to “see things whole;” maybe this is why he liked telling the story of the man and his battered cello.

Sunday School and Poker

Sunday School and Poker

Recently I visited an adult Sunday School class in a nearby town. It was, well – unusual, surprising, and helpful to my understanding of some of our current culutural divides. In this class leadership is shared among the members.  Folks volunteer and can schedule their time as “teacher.” Greet Idea with lots of benefits.  You can learn about musical instruments, Buddhism, jogging, or one of the Biblical Prophets.  The class is filled with thoughtful and faithful people. It is in my mind one good model of excellence in congregational life.  It is a place of sharing and care.  One quickly can tell that there is much mutual affection in the group as there is an abundance of teasing and laughter. As John Wesley put it, there is a generous dollop of “watching over one another in love” stirred into the weekly fellowship. All to the good.

It is also a place where the divisions and distortions of our current political situation are offered. Among the many points of view, the many topics covered, sometimes a heavy dose of MAGA partisanship is brought to the lectern by the volunteer teacher.  I visited one Sunday morning when the Gospel-linked understandings of faith got more than a little garbled by Fox News “truths.”

That’s okay, good even.  I knew that there would be open conversation and a range of perspectives in this class.  Here is an opportunity for dialogue and the gentle corrections possible through friendship.  I have often thought that Sunday School classes and post-church-parking-lot-conversations serve as a seedbed for improved democracy.  I saw some of that in the class that day. I also witnessed the ways strongly held beliefs or ideological frameworks can disfigure the core message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I knew that members of the Sunday School class cared for this good man, filled with worrisome opinions and muddled prejudices. They knew of his real-life challenges. They were neighbors to one another. They offered each a place of respect. We all face challenges, whether betrayal, addiction, loss of health or loss of a spouse. We all know the dilemmas of fractures with friends or family. We all face loss of health or opportunity.

The volunteer teacher that morning proclaimed that from his studies, there was no guarantee the scriptures were the authoritative word of God, or that Jesus ever told the Good Samaritan story.  He then offered that the best framework for life is found in a poker game. “Each person at the table is dealt a hand at birth; that is the hand we play in life.” The cards one is dealt limit options, but he said this “will also offer some opportunities. The idea is to play the hand you are dealt as best you can when sitting at the poker-table-of-life.  Trying to help people can only hurt them if they haven’t been dealt the right cards.”

Wow!! Quite a framework. Quite a set of assumptions, all wrapped at the edges in the class-warfare encouraged by the Trumpian politics of our time.  In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemmingway writes: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  I prefer the answer Jesus gives to the question “And who is my neighbor?”  It begins, “There was a certain man…”

Pondering this in recent weeks, I come to two conclusions: 

  1. There is no coherence to the MAGA movement. It is polyform, a muddle of prejudice, half-truths, wishful thinking, grievance and a struggle for self-esteem. As much as it may claim Christianity as source, it is often (mostly?) untethered from the Gospels.  It is also thickly covered over, cocooned, if you will, by the belief that others are cheating, getting something they don’t deserve. Interestingly, it is a modern Gnosticism, – a belief in a special knowledge each individual may garner by watching the correct rightwing television or a scouring of questionable internet sites.
  2.  Such gatherings at this Sunday School class, and other venues where diversity is welcomed and where all are respected, are all too rare.  These places are a most needed antidote to our current social/cultural/religious divides.

I will plan to return to this class – in part because all the other Sunday School classes I know of near me are filled with folks who all think alike.  I guess this is the poker hand I have been dealt.

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.