Back to “Normal”?

What Shall We Consider Normal?

When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?

Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?

In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?

Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.

So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).

Is Normal Our Best?

My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!

In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”

In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”

As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).

Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.

I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.

If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.

Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.

Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)

So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.

Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.

Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?

Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?

Who will take responsibility? Is there a voice of ethical clarity among the leaders in the White House?

As a six-year-old I accompanied my father to a religious bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky. To my preschool eyes, the counters were a wonderland — filled with lovely trinkets — “notions,” as the store owners called them. I saw dozens of inviting small treasures designed, no doubt, by someone in post-war Japan to appeal to a six-year-old American child. One of these items, a small two inch pocket knife somehow, mysteriously, ended up in MY pocket. The imitation pearl handle carried the inscription “God is Love.” Those were the same words beautifully stenciled in the front of the sanctuary of the antebellum church where my father was pastor. In fact, those words, “God is Love,” were among the first three words I had learned to read.

Heading home, back across the old K & I bridge that separated Louisville from New Albany, I took out my new prized possession, opening the blade and reading the words again. Then I heard, “where did you get that?” I was jolted from my revere. I remember that my heart leaped and there was a noticeable wetness in my six-year-old pants. Again, “Where did you get that?” my papa asked. Through tears, I told him that it was beautiful and it had the words “God is Love” printed on it just like in the front of the church. “See,” I held it up, trembling and then handing my booty over. Within a half-an-hour we were back in the store. After paying for the knife, papa explained that he had given me a loan and I would be paying him back out of my allowance, with interest!

I learned a lot that day… and on many other days, as I learned personal habits of responsibility and about the lifestyle to be expected of followers of Jesus.

As the COVID-19 virus lumbers across our nation destroying the lives, health and the future of millions, I wonder if our president ever learned such a basic ethical lesson. As our healthcare, educational, commercial and technological strength is sapped away, instead of a clear taking-of-responsibility, instead of a plan, we are offered up excuses, phony narratives, wagons-full of diversions, and, most troubling we are given binary options as to who is to blame and how we are to proceed. We are told again and again — and shifting from day to day — that one idea, or group, or preference must be sacrificed to another in order to recover from this scourge.

I wonder — did anyone ever hold the six-year-old Donald Trump accountable that made a difference in his sense of the value of himself and others? Or, how about when he was twelve, or twenty-five, or sixty? Has this sad, sad man ever been asked to move toward healthy adulthood? It is precisely this that would help him now lead a nation in answering the questions, “Whose lives are to be saved and what is to be treasured?” Did he ever have to look past his own self-interests to know that life is complex and most things are NOT a simple either/or choice?

With the virus, a veil has been lifted that makes evident what was present but unseen by too many prior to this pandemic. It is much more than the narcissism and deceitfulness of the White House that is exposed. It is a revealing of the inequalities in healthcare access and economic resources available to our citizens. [I will not rehearse the data here as to which groups of persons are currently suffering the most from this virus. I will suggest that ultimately, we ALL face difficulties due to these inequities.]

The disparities in healthy options for care based on social class or race have become painfully clear. Who are suffering the most? Will we treasure these? As the statistics from this pandemic are presented it is clear that the essential front line workers, healthcare providers, AND public service personnel are also those who are the most economically challenged. They are the lower-middle class, the poor, the immigrant and those without shelter or healthcare options.

The United States represents less than five percent of the world population and current reporting has us with more than twenty-five percent of the reported cases in the world! Something is amiss. Something more than the way the counting is done — here or elsewhere!

Where is Our Treasure? If God is Love, what does it mean for us?

Persons familiar with Christian scriptures will have already anticipated that I will point to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. Jesus offers this observation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus goes on and teaches, in these passages and throughout the gospels, that it is the neighbor, the weak ones, the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the wealthy — ALL are to be treasured. All are a part of God’s household of love.

What do we believe should be valued and who should be sacrificed? These are matters of the heart — they are core values. For most they are learned in childhood. Sadly, for some, these are never learned. They may also reflect our ability as a nation to stand tall and take responsibility now.

A second answer, found throughout scripture is our kinship with all others and all of creation. Every other person is a child of God and they should have BOTH a life and a livelihood.

In Genesis 4:9 after killing his brother Abel, Cain responds to the question, “Where is your brother?” He answers with those famous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some translate this as “Am I my brother’s guardian, my brother’s baby-sitter, or my brother’s brother?” In this exchange of questions, it is the next question asked of Cain by God that we now face. It is “What have you done?” Are we our brother and sister’s kin?

I believe the answer for our citizens and responsible adults everywhere is, and must be, a resounding “YES.” Who is my neighbor? Who is the one who should receive my care? Every other person!

Sadly, I have known some pastors, rabbis and imams who read their scriptures differently. They would say the answer to the question “Where is your brother or sister?” is “they are only those who are in my congregation or who are truly Christian, Jew or Muslim. Only these are to be considered my neighbor,” they would suggest. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). How can we not see that the three words “God is Love” apply to all, everywhere?

This is NOT a screed against the wealthy. Some of the most generous folks I have met are blessed with many resources and they share them wisely and widely. At the same time, some of the stingiest people I have known are persons who always, in every action and decision, seek to selfishly add to their possessions. In a year, or perhaps two, the answer will be clearer as to what we have truly treasured. We will see how some of those who have taken political actions in these months were also benefiting their own status, portfolios and bank accounts. This is, sadly, too often the human behavior.

We can love our livelihoods — but not if we sacrifice the neighbor.

For me, as a Christian, I continue to learn the core lesson that “God is Love.”

For This We Pray

My awakening came after the National Prayer Breakfast on the morning of February 6th. The annual prayer breakfast was heavily covered by the news media. For the wrong reasons. You see, following Arthur Brooks’ message about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, President Trump began his remarks with “I don’t know if I agree with Arthur,” and proceeded to question the faith commitments and prayers of those who disagree with him. It was a direct dismissal of Brooks’ message that our nation needed to move beyond a “culture of contempt.”

These are difficult days. Prayer is in short supply. Rationed? No, I fear it has “been disappeared.” Taken to the outskirts of our commonweal and imprisoned in our ideological certainties. Lost in rancor amplified by competing messages of contempt sent across social media and cable news.

The impeachment trial had ended only a few hours prior to the breakfast. The Senate voted for acquittal. Senator Mitt Romney had spoken movingly of his own deep faith commitments and these ethical commitments lead him to vote for removal of the president based on one of the charges. So, this prayer breakfast, this annual event to increase mutual respect and deepen faith, was turned into a sad spewing of invective and malice.

The national news reports missed the lead story — the truly critical message of the morning. The true-north of the gathering was Brooks’ call to step beyond our culture of contempt and ending with a video-linked benediction offered by Congressman John Lewis who reminded those present of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “I have decided to stick with love, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” O God, teach me to pray.

As the day went on, I kept thinking of the missed opportunity, the deeper story. The call to move past all the grievance and fear. To clearly name the lies and still act as neighbor with those who disagree. This is difficult work. O God, teach us to pray.

I found myself wondering what would happen if, despite what the president believes about the prayers and faith commitments of folks like me (or even Mitt Romney or Nancy Pelosi) — what if — what if my prayers, our prayers were ever more publicly visible and shaped around the core commitment to neighbor love. O God teach me how to pray.

What if there was a daily call to prayer for millions of us, as a preparing of our nation’s heart and mind shaped for acts of love? What if these were prayers of confession for my (our) failures? What if daily, there was a national call to prayer, challenging the retributive policies that require the making enemies, the telling of lies about others, the ridiculing of those who differ, the establishment of dichotomies? Such prayers could not be carried in the shibboleth of nice, soft words. They would include prayers of judgement and for deliverance from the evil of these days. O God, teach me to pray?

Such prayers will require acts of resistance and demand the courage to speak both with respect and still with clear critiques of the falsehoods and damage being done to others and to our republic. O God, teach us how to pray.

With this on my mind I came across the passage below in Peter Storey’s autobiography, “I Beg to Differ.” Storey, a Methodist pastor in South Africa, who fought the good and courageous fight against Apartheid, knew how to pray this kind of prayer — the prayer that I was now seeking to discover in this time and place. He speaks of the call to those with whom he worked in this way:

“I reminded them that “John Wesley’s theology was beaten out on the anvil of his daily battle with personal and social evil in a brutalised society very much like our own.” Real hope was born in the inward life of the soul because “hope’s final fortress is the heart”, but needed to be realised in concrete action. Rather than being part of the nation’s disease, the Church had to be the place where “the love of God leaps across the parallel lines drawn by history.” ― [from Peter Storey’s, “I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas.”]

“Hope’s final fortress is the heart,” O God, teach me how to pray.

Response to the Violence at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

October 27, 2018

Members and Friends of First United Methodist, San Diego,

We learned on national news of the terrible assault on members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Immediately our thoughts turned to friends in the Jewish communities here in San Diego.  I want us, as members of First United Methodist, to speak with a loud and clear voice against any such anti-Semitic acts of terror.  In this time, we will stand with these our neighbors. 

I ask you to join me in prayer.  We will have special prayers in our services tomorrow and we will continue to raise a voice against such crimes in the days ahead. For nearly forty years our congregation has joined in an annual Thanksgiving worship with friends at Beth Israel of San Diego.  Just this past week members of our staff met with Rabbis Michael Berk and Arlene Bernstein to plan for our service together on November 21st at Temple Beth Israel.  Dr. Fanestil will be preaching at the service this year.  Let’s show our solidarity with our neighbors by joining in this service.

First United Methodist Church will stand against such intolerance and violence.  It is evidenced so frequently in our nation and world today.  I want us to be such a voice for any group targeted for abuse or discrimination in our city.  Especially now, however, we stand with these friends at Beth Israel and Jewish communities around the globe.

The peace of Christ,

Philip Amerson

News from an Errant Boy

News from an Errant Boy

Near the end of a route
he glances back
still carrying a basketful of undelivered scuttlebutt
unwelcomed, unfaked news
few eagerly bought.

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A carrier, spreader of tales, features, opinion, infectious dis-ease
tucked in Tribune, Courier or Star,
each carefully rolled or banded
made ready to fly
in predawn raids on a neighborhood.

Mounted on a shiny Schwinn red stallion
he slalomed the streets,
loosing a flock of ink-stained sparrows
into boxwoods, across rooftops, and through roses,
most dropping arm’s-length from a door.

If not distracted by shooting star or northern light
he kept score
like a major leaguer
ninety-five percent on a great day,
Santo or Banks zipping it to first.

At collection time, dogs barked, doors cracked, curtains parted, or simply silence,
some away, others hiding, many grumbling,
and a few tipping
if only with a smile
But Mrs. Arnholt had warm cookies and milk.

Later, he couriered along other routes –  
conferences, sermons, lectures, reports,
audits, inventories, evaluations and strategic plans.
some landed on roofs, some sailed through boxwoods or into roses,
a few slid to a place near the door.

At such collection times, dogs barked, doors cracked, curtains parted,
mostly there was silence
many hid, some grumbled, and a few, generous beyond expectation,
opened imaginations and purses like
Mrs. Arnholt offering warm cookies and milk.

Dear boy, still on his fool’s errands,
casting fish wrapped delicacies, tinged with gospel mystery, hither and yon.
Little scoring among fear-filled Kool-Aid drinkers.
Some deliveries will never land – near the heart
Still he peddles toward the finish, basket overflowing.

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