Saturday, May 27, 2017

Listening Across the Divide



She always wants to talk, because all day, she is alone.

It's one of the reasons I started driving for Meals on Wheels, back when I started at my current church. Meals on Wheels, which provides nutritious meals to the homebound and the elderly, had always been part of the life of the congregation where I grew up, and it seemed a natural fit.   With a part-time pastoring gig far away, I had the bandwidth to both help out with the kids as they grew up and to do volunteering in my own community.  Now that they are mostly grown, I continue to volunteer.

And so I find myself in the homes of those who are unable to get out much for themselves.  Disabled veterans.  Cancer patients, hooked up to their oxygen.  And the old, who more often than not are far from a family scattered by the endless churn of our culture.

She's one of them, a recent widow, deep into her eighties.  She is always in the same chair, right by the door.

Her little dog, in the kitchen.

And all around her, cues that she and I inhabit very different parts of the American political spectrum.

Fox News, always on.  "Even at night," she says.  "Because it makes it almost feel like I'm not alone." A stack of newspapers, all ultra-conservative.  Neat stacks of letters, fundraisers for right wing candidates and causes.

Were we to talk about politics, it would not go well.  But she doesn't want to talk about politics.

She just wants someone to talk to.  Period.  And someone to listen.

She wants to talk about her husband, who had been taking care of her until he suddenly became ill and died.  She wants someone to listen as she describes waking screaming from a nightmare, alone and terrified in the darkness of an empty home with no-one to comfort her or calm her.   She wants to talk about the frustrations of dealing with an impossibly complex medical system.  She wants to talk about dogs.

She wants to hear about life and gardens and beautiful spring days.

So I take the time, and we talk, and I listen.  It is the duty of my faith, and the purpose of the Way of my teacher.

Beyond that, I just enjoy talking to her, in the way that sharing life and stories with another person gives pleasure to human life.

Measured against faith and our common humanity, that she and I are on other sides of our nation's deepening, shadowed divide means nothing.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Six Marks of a Fool



Life is not predictable.  It isn't.  You can't ever say, well, if I do X, Y will certainly happen.  On a Newtonian level, that might work most of the time.  But when it comes to human action and human deciding, creating a particular outcome is never a 100% certainty.

There are, however, certain patterns of behavior and life-disciplines that are likely to produce success.  They do not guarantee it.  Nothing guarantees success, because that's not how our space-time functions.  Instead, there are ways of ordering your life that increase the probability of encountering a positive future outcome.  Because creation is nonlinear, and YHWH is not our lackey, no outcome is guaranteed.   The best we can do is act in such a way that our desired outcome is more likely.

As a disciple of Jesus and a lifelong student of scripture, I know what that looks like.  That pattern of disciplined action is what the bible calls wisdom.

Set against it are other patterns of behavior, ones that have the inverse effect.  These are ways of living that almost invariably create entropy, because they stand against God's shaping and guiding power.  Not "creative entropy," that openness to the new that stirs growth and hope and wonder.  But just plain ol' breaking things, the "energy" that comes from decay and decline and the rot of life-sustaining structures.

These patterns of behavior are called "foolishness," and those who practice those patterns are called fools.

Note, because this is significant: fools are not stupid.  They do not lack intelligence.  As every book-and-dice role-playing-gamer knows, intelligence and wisdom are entirely different things.  That you're smart as a whip does not mean that you use your intelligence to make the right decisions about your life.

In point of fact, cunning fools end up doing the most damage to themselves and others.  It's like convincing a friend to lend you their Ford F-150 Raptor in a snowstorm, which you then somehow use to get yourself truly deeply and inextricably stuck in an eight foot drift.

So what then, are the marks of the fool, Biblically speaking?  How do we know if someone is manifesting the signs of folly, of being the sort of person who will manage to break everything they encounter?

Of equal...or perhaps deeper...significance: how do we know if we are on that path ourselves?

So below, a listicle for your convenience, the six marks of fools, linked through and through with the ancient wisdom teachings of my faith:

1) Impulsiveness.  Fools invariably and without exception act and speak without considering the consequences.  I feel this, now, so I'm going to do it.  I want to say this,  so I'm going to say it.  I want this object or that person, so I'm going to go for it.  Fools are quickly and easily distracted by bright shiny objects.  This can result, occasionally, in success.  But so does Russian Roulette.   More often than not, that absence of self restraint and foresight leads to failure.   It makes them gullible and easily manipulated.  The fools' lack of discipline sabotages growth and progress.

2) Greed.  Fools hunger for wealth and the social power that comes from it.   They can never have enough of it, and will chase it with single-minded abandon.  More, more, more, says the fool, from the misguided assumption that their insatiable appetites are to be indulged.  They are greedy for power, greedy for attention, greedy for pleasure.  And as a slave to those appetites, they will sacrifice anything.  Prior relationships.  Promises they've made.  Anything.  Fools, through chance of fate or chance of birth, can become very, very rich.  But they are nonetheless fools.  And their wealth means nothing, in the face of the entropy of their lives.

3) Stubbornness.  Fools never change their minds.  Nothing they have ever done is wrong.  Not ever.  They will never ever change their approach to something, because why should they?  They never adapt, never modify their perspective, never consider that perhaps a different tactic would yield better results.  Fools do not grow, or learn.  Fools do not take correction.  They always know best, and won't ever listen to the advice of others.  They are shallow cynics, sure that every way but their own way is flawed, mocking and belittling that which would improve them.  Which is why they fail.

4) Rage:  Fools are not in control of their emotional states, and when confronted, they often blow up.  Let it be said: Anger is a valuable emotion.  It tells us that something is wrong.  It alerts us to brokenness, and to our own woundedness.  Sometimes, it gives us the energy needed to right a wrong or an injustice.  But the wise know that anger doesn't consider consequences.  Anger just wants to smash, and no-one is angrier than a fool confronted.  Fools don't hold back.  Fools give vent to their rage without considering the impact it will have, without concern for relationships or the integrity of others or healing.  Fools bully and bluster and bludgeon their way through the world.  They make a mess of things.

5) Mendacity.  Or, to use a non-SAT word: Fools lie.  They lie about others.  They lie about themselves.  Truth means nothing to a fool.  It does not matter if the thing they are saying is not real, or that what they promise will never happen.  Does a statement serve their impulse right now?  Does it feed their hunger, or reinforce their position?  Then they'll spin out a complete fabrication with the ease and practice of a master seamstress.  They do not think about how that will ultimately catch up with them.  They don't consider how that separates them from the deep reality of God's work in creation.  I mean, seriously.  Why would they?  They're fools.

6) Delusion.  So fools lie.  They are mendacious.  Mendalicious, even.  But there's a striking feature to their lies:  fools very often believe the very lies they speak.    As easily as they are manipulated by others, they most easily manipulate themselves.  They'd rather live in the world of their falsehood than the complex world around them, the world where living well means being in humble relationship with their Creator.

But fools can be smart, and fools can be charming, and fools love it when others affirm them and their deluded sense of self.  In fact, they are most dangerous when others do believe them, because they radiate a confidence that those who are not wary mistake for authority and being "honest."  They lead others down a path to destruction, as their penchant for chaos tears apart lives.  This is where fools do the most damage, to friends and families, communities and organizations.

And nations.

Especially nations.

God help us.