Monday, July 7, 2014

Belonging

The other day, the day after I arrived back at my home after a mont-long journey, I went to work out at the (amazing, fantastic, unbelivable) gym where I'm a member.

I walked in to the gym, into a large group of people, into a surprising welcome. I felt like the mere fact that I had returned and was going to work out again was celebrated - I felt like I had arrived at a place where I belong.

(At this point in the story, I'm compelled to recall the theme song from that 80s sitcom ~ a song completely and fully about welcome.)

Now, granted, I'm a regular at the gym, and have been for a couple of years. I'm not new, I'm there pretty frequently, and I show up a different class times, so I get to know more people than just one subset of the gym membership.

Of course some of the people there the other day didn't welcome me back, simply because they don't know me. But the ones who I'd spent tiem with seemed genuinely glad that I had returned.

***

I'm thinking about three specific families who I've known in my capacity as a pastor. Each of these families had been members of the congregation for at least four years (or as long as 15). For each of these families, life circumstance had taken them away from the congregation for between 6 months and two years.

When life circumstance brought them back, I observed them slip quietly into a pew with hardly any notice from anyone in the congregation.

***

What's the difference between my gym and many congregation?

  • Is it that I spend 2-5 days per week at the gym, while most people spend 2-4 days per month at church. I show up at they gym at least four times more often than most people show up at church?
  • Is it that we suffer together at the gym, while most people show up to church acting as if they don't experience suffering at all, and therefore don't need to share suffering?
  • Is it that the simple act of showing up at the gym is an implicit (or explicit) admission that we fall short and need improvement, while at church we do our best to hide our faults?
  • Is it something else?


These are real questions, and I'm genuinely interested to hear what my eight readers think.

$0.02

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Royalty

Royalty

* Royalty: an internationally-connected, and often wealthy, group of people who stewards a nation and provides for the large-scale needs of all of the people.

* Peasantry: a locally-connected, and often not wealthy, group of people who steawards the local land and landscape, and who provide for the small-scale needs of all of the people.

* Definitions you see above: idealistic visions of royalty and peasantry, which probably have never been and will never be realized in the actual world.


***

It doesn't usually work like this. And so royalty is baffling to me, a person who's never lived in a society with any collective experience of royalty. I don't understand the English fascination with royalty.

The other day, we visited a palace. The beauty and impressive grandeur of the place were inescapable. I was impressed.

But just below the surface and equally inescapable to our perception, was a very uncomfortable class system that made itself evident in our experience of the palace - that gave me the feeling of being used by the aristocracy for their own gain at my expense.

What I expected was a tour of the palace and an opportunity to see how a palace might have functioned in the past. That's what we got at the other historical places we've visited on this trip - why wouldn't we expect the same?

I would have loved some kind of compare-and-contrast presentation - maybe a look at the staterooms and the kitchen as they functioned in 1800; maybe an articuilation of the differences between the bedrooms used by a dutchess and her maid's chambers; maybe an explanation of the differences between the life of a 10-year-old son of the duke and the 10-year-old son of the footman.

What we got, though, was a walk thorugh a few staterooms and an un-engaging history of the palace, while most of the palace was private residence and therefore off-limits to the public. Of course, I also got the feeling that my money is being used to prop us a system that benefits very few and has virtually no place in today's world.

Of course, I'm willing to stipulate that there may still be a place in the world for royalty. For that to be the case, though, the whole system would necessarily have to be restructured - everything would have to start from scratch in order to get anywhere close to the ideal.

Of course, one could make similar criticisms of the church.

$0.02


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Public Houses

I've had the pleasure of enjoying some extended time in Scotland and England over the past couple of weeks. While most of the trip has been fantiastic, I'm interested right this minute in public houses (pubs). Sure, I enjoy having a beer - but my interest is deeper than that.

Dictionaries don't seem to distinguish, but common parlance here in the UK seems to note a difference between the following: pub, ale house, tavern, bar. (Because this is posted on the internet, I have no doubt that if I get this wrong, someone will correct me ... in fact, I expect someone may correct me even if I get it right.) To wit, I heard the following: "He went into a pub ... no, it was more of an ale house."

The bars I've been in, most of which have been in the US, seem to exist so that people can drink. Sure, there are often other things to do in bars (pool, darts, conversation, etc.), but drinking is primary.

On the other hand, my experience of Scottish and English pubs is that they exist as gathering places. Sure, ales and lagers and whiskies are consumed, but the conversation that happens as community gathers together seems to be central.

As I write this, I'm sitting in a pub. Around me there are three groups of 2-5 people sitting and sharing conversation. I'm the only person sitting alone, and that's only because I'm writing.

At another pub, there were at least 35 people in a 12'x12' space. In addition to the musician singing from behind his guitar in one corner, there were no fewer than five conversations, at least one of which was between strangers. I know this, because the person next to me started a conversation with me even while I was writing. Then, when the musician took a smoke break, another patron stopped his own conversation in order to sing his own song.

Another time I was interrupted in the midst of writing was when I was surrounded by at least 60 people gathered almost shoulder to shoulder filling a pub that was also filled with friendly conversation and impromptu live music.

It may well be simply because I'm in a foreign place that I see with idealistic vision - or maybe the pubs I've been in have just been really great. Still, the culture seems to be that whoever shows up at a public house has a place to belong, and everyone who shows up belongs there simply because they've walked in the door.

I appreciate the idea and practice of a local establishment being a regular gathering place where everyone is welcome, where ideas can be exchanged, and where life can be lamented and celebrated.

$0.02

Monday, June 9, 2014

Some thoughts on individual rights and freedoms

I grew up with a western-USAmerican mindset, where the natural inclination for a person is to do as they please, and for that person to allow others the same priviledge. It's a culture of self-reliance and of independance and of individuality - qualities that I see as virtuous. At the same time, though, they also lead toward self-centered conservatism and isolationism and a lack of concern for fellow citizens.

A sense of independant & self-reliant individualism is intimately connected to the idea of inalienable individual rights (which, most of my seven readers will recall, are deeply imbedded in the US Constitution). Those are the foundation fo western civilization, and particularly of USAmerican culture.

(Unfortunately, our societal push toward freedom in founding this great nation trampled on the personal & societal rights of millions of individuals who were part of the scores of Native (North, Central, and South) American societies. Further, our individualistic push toward the pursuit of life & liberty & happiness trampled on the personal and societal rights of Africans and their decendants who were individually and societally enslaved in order to build profit for some.)

I'm thinking about where individual rights begin and end over the past couple of days. Let me explain.

I'm traveling with my family through the United Kingdom this month. We spent a few days in London at the outset of our trip, and I was paying attention to the cyclists that are all over this city.
There were quite a few people on bikes - all kinds of people and all kinds of bicycles.

In addition to the bikes and cyclists who were all around, I also noticed London's cycling infrastructure. There are cycle lanes on almost every major street, and also on most of the intermediate streets as well. The minor streets were generally unmarked for cyclists - however, people on bikes were traveling on those just as they did on intermediate and major streets - in the midst of and alongisde cars and trucks as if bikes were traffic. What a beautiful thing.

In addition to the cycle lanes painted on many streets, I also saw that on some streets, physical barriers (cement curbs) had been installed, as if the city wants to keep people on bicycles safe. Additionally, bicycle parking seems to be readily available almost everywhere, and we walked by scores of rental bike stands.

What's the difference between London (where drivers slow down for cyclists in the road, recognizing perhaps that any delay the cyclist causes will amount to no more than 30 seconds) and Denver (where in a 25 mph zone I was buzzed by a driver who passed me when my speed was 27, and who proceeded a few minutes later (after I'd passed him at a stop) to honk and yell at me because he had to wait no longer than five seconds extra for me to get through an intersection)?

[Of course, I'm probably not giving him the benefit of the doubt, but he seemed to be self-centered and lacking in concern for the perspective of his fellow citizen.]

What's the difference? I wonder if our understanding and embrace of western individualism plays a role?

Did the driver believe that I was trampling on his right to not be delayed as he drove his truck? Does he believe that I have an individual right to ride a bicycle on the street?

Does that driver consider that my right to ride a bicycle on the street is restricted - that I ought not occupy the whole lane most of the time? And does that driver also believe that his right to drive a truck must sometimes also be restricted by my right to ride a bicycle on public streets?

Here's the thing. In a free and equal society, no ond has unrestricted rights. I have the right to freely swing my fist - but my right to swing my fist ends (is restricted at the point where) someone else's nose begins.

So I find myself facing a balancing-act sort of dilemma, particularly with regard to the "right to keep and bear arms" issue.

On the one hand, I absolutely don't want to restrict the rights that our USAmerican constitution provides - the right for citizens to keep and bear arms. On the other hand, do we extend that right so far that it takes away rights from other people?

Does the right to keep and bear arms extend so far as to allow individuals to bring military-style rifles into places of business? I'd like to say yes. But what if an individual who openly carries a semi-automatic rifle into a department store curtails someone's right to the pursuit of happiness? Or, what if carrying a loaded weapon into a restraunt curtails a group's right to peaceful assembly?

Say, for instance, a family's breadwinner just received a promotion, moving the family from a poor neighborhood in San Diego where there are regular gun battles between drug cartels, and where a relative was killed in crossfire. And what if they moved into a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Dallas. What if, when they're shopping for school supplies in a middle-class department store for their kids' school clothes, a group of young men come in the store walking around with pistols on their belts that look just like the guns carried by the cartels? The family is traumatized, and their pursuit of happiness is curtailed.

Who's rights are more important?

Or, for instance, what if a group of Iraq war veterans meet to discuss and work through the PTSD they're living with in the aftermath of their experience in conflict? And what if they go out to lunch together after the meeting? And what if, as they're enjoying some delicious burritos, a couple of young men walk through the doors carrying semi-automatic military-style rifles? The instincts of those veterans will kick in, and their right to peaceful assembly will be immediately curtailed.

Who's rights are more important?

These truly are genuine questions - I'd be interested in a genuine and thought-filled answers ...or at least a respectful conversation.

$0.02

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lent, Week Five

During this season of Lent, I'm writing reflections based on the psalm assigned for each Sunday by the Revised  Common Lectionary (look it up, if you want), and sharing those with the congregation I serve when we gather for Evening Prayer on Wednesday evenings. This reflection is from April 9, week five, and is based on Psalm 130
You ever sing the blues?
      ever play the blues?
Once I found myself on stage
            playing the blues
      12 bars later, I was lost
            transported beyond myself by
                  musical catharsis

***

the blues
            down in the dumps
            feeling low down
            depression
the blues
      a state or spell of low spirits
      down-hearted-ness

***

out of the depths
      I cry to you, O Lord
down in the dumps, I cry
      feeling low down, I cry
      singing the blues, I cry to you, O Lord

out of my depths I cry
      and in my depths, I know you hear

***

speaking, or singing, my blues
            giving voice to my cries
      allows space for my own identity
            to be transported beyond the blues
      allows space within my self
            within my very self
for my self to recognize that God is present
      for me to enter into divine embrace

***

though speaking, sharing, singing
            does not magically, or immediately
                  or necessarily
      automatically change my reality
            still I cry out
                  trusting that God,
                        who has passed through through the gates of Hell
                              about as low down as you can get
                  trusting that God, in our crying out
                        in our blues lamentation
            trusting that in our crying out to our God
                  we are ourselves invited into
                        the presence of the divine

and we allow ourselves
            to expect to be
      transported beyond the blues, beyond
            our lamentation, beyond
            our selves

and into the promise of
      the presence of
            divine redemption

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lent, Week Four

During this season of Lent, I'm writing reflections based on the psalm assigned for each Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary (look it up, if you want), and sharing those with the congregation I serve when we gather for Evening Prayer on Wednesday evenings. This reflection is from April 2, week four, and is based on Psalm 23
we’re so far removed,
            most of us,
      from sheep and shepherds
            the Lord may as well be my
                  blacksmith, or my
                  tentmaker

people still do those things
      but they’re not so ubiquitous as they once were
tentmakers & blacksmiths & shepherds are,
      you may be aware
            no longer part of everyday life

*** 
but though we may not know shepherds
            or tentmakers or blacksmiths
      we all know shadows
      we all know death

what scares you?
            spiders, or snakes
            school …
                  or graduation?
      valleys

what keeps you up at night?
            taxes? rent? grades?
      shadow

what twists you up deep inside?
            divorce? unemployment?
                  life-sapping illness?
                        (your own, or a beloved’s)
      death

*** 
it may not be today,   
      but we live in the promise
            that we’re not so far removed
                  from the shepherd
            that we’re not so far removed
                  from the table prepared for us
      we live with hope in the promise
      that our soul will be granted
            respite
            rest
            repose
            refreshment
            renewal
     
      that we will be led beside
                  and are not so far removed from
            still water

      that we are led beside
                  and not so far removed from
            the living water springing up to eternal life

Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Abolish the IRS

is what I saw on the bumper sticker in front of me this morning. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion; but as I drove along behind her, I dreamed about having a conversation about that bumper sticker. Of course, given the way folks get worked up about their political opinions, I suspect that conversation would never be possible ... but still, I can dream. So, here's how I imagine that conversation going:

Me: So, you want to abolish the IRS?

Her: Absolutely, and without question.

Me: So, if we get rid of the IRS, who would collect taxes?

Her: That's part of the point - that money is mine, and the government shouldn't take it from me.

Me: But if the government doesn't collect taxes, how will the roads we drive on get built and maintained? How will the police and fire departments get paid? How will the government be funded?

Her: Neighborhoods and communities would band together to take care of their own neighborhoods, to take care of themselves. Plus, the government is too big anyway - we don't need nearly so much government infrastructure.

Me: You're advocating for smaller government?

Her: Yes.

Me: But still, even if the government is smaller, someone needs to collect taxes. Do we get rid of the one we have now (the IRS) in favor of another agency that we develop after abolishing the IRS?

Her: No. The government doesn't need to take my money from me.

Me: You're really advocating anarchy, then, right?

Her: No, not anarchy. I'm advocating neighborhoods and affinity groups banding together to take care of themselves instead of the government thinking they need to tell us what to do.

Me: OK, so neighbors band together to take care of their own roads, and their own sewer systems and their own police forces. How, then, would these things be paid for?

Her: Neighbors would make contributions to a fund to pay for them. 

Me: Well, you may be thinking on a smaller scale, but neighborhoods banding together to take care of themselves seems to me to be the definition of government. It seems to me to be a bad idea to abolish the IRS, or most other government agencies. Obviously some need reform. Obviously some don't work the way they ought to work. However, unless a person is advocating anarchy, it seems asenine to think it's a good idea to get rid of the IRS, especially when that sentiment is on a car that's driving down a road paid for with tax money.

Folks, that's the way the conversation would go in my head. And I'm not even considering the Christian values that we hold to care for one another, to be our brother's and sister's keeper.

It seems like I've set up a straw man to argue against - I have to be missing something from 'Her' side of the conversation, but can't imagine what it is. Someone, help me out in the comments section.

$0.02