Thursday, October 8, 2020

Transfer of Power

The reason I sigh

Heartbeats arise

Throat like a vise

Is not the fly

Or the blood in his eye

But that being wise

To softly spoken unctuous

Lies

I'm watching my America reprise

The tale

Of how

A democracy

dies


Friday, September 18, 2020

Jesus Experts

There are many rules in this internet era.  Don't read the comments.  Don't ever search for anything without Safesearch on.  Do not click on a link in an email that claims to be from your credit card company.

To those, as we all know, is added this: do not ever use the internet to diagnose yourself.  Oh, it can be great for troubleshooting an issue around the house, or for figuring out how to fix something.  But when it comes to your own body, nevereverever go online to figure out what that ache, twinge, or throb might be.

Because even if the information is there, if you're not an expert, you can go way off the reservation.  You don't know how to interpret what you're seeing, don't know how to bring in other relevant information, and don't know how to assess the likelihood of a particular outcome.  Whenever I've attempted to diagnose myself, I have a nearly 100% track record of being wrong.

I mean, yes, we all do want to be good at everything, but we aren't.  There are certain things other human beings know that we do not.  I may regularly garden, for example, but a master gardener I am not.  I am constantly learning from and being informed by folks who know seed and soil better than I.  I can do the most basic motorcycle maintenance, but when things get more technical I know...from experience...that I'm better off trusting the heavily tatted mechanics who are less likely to render my bike unrideable.  I can do some basic home rewiring, but when things get complicated, I'd rather call an electrician than burn my house down.

Similarly, I'm more likely to trust a doctor who's been to medical school, or a nurse who's gotten similar training.  They know what they're looking at, in ways that I really don't. I've learned to give my trust only to folks who genuinely have a clue.  

Is this true for our journey with Jesus?  Are there folks who are experts, in ways that we are not?  That's a little tougher to say, because the metric is a little different.  How do you know when someone's take on the faith is Spirit-filled, and when it's just them lining their pockets, padding their egos, or serving the purposes of power?

I look to the saints, honestly.  Meaning, not necessarily the saints of the ancient faith, although they're worth knowing.  I look to the saints around us, the folks who show the fruits of a deeply authentic walk with Jesus.  They're the ones showing grace, offering up forbearance, giving comfort.  They show hospitality to the stranger, and serve those in need.

They don't tend to be the loudest or most aggressive folks.  They don't seem to need you to agree with them, or pressure you to parrot everything they say.  They make no claim to perfection.  They aren't trying to sell you something.  They just do the Jesus thing, day after day.  

You might have to slow down a bit, and listen for them.  

It's worth doing, as we seek to build up our souls.




Thursday, September 10, 2020

Telling it Like it Is

It wasn't the conversation I particularly wanted to be having, but I knew it was coming.

Just the year before, my little congregation...generous to a fault...had given me a modest bump in salary, along with agreeing to pick up the hefty costs of health insurance for my family.  My concern, expressed to leadership at the time, was that this would not be sustainable.  Unlike most small congregations, we have no debt and have slowly amassed an emergency reserve fund over the last nine years.  But even with that, I could see the writing on the wall.

We're a little church in a time when little churches are struggling to maintain the old model of congregational life, and as several long standing church families moved away or prepared to move for retirement, there was only a marginal possibility we'd make up the difference in giving.  Much as I love the small church, folks just don't come through the doors like they used to, and gentle-hearted, unassuming, and intimate servant communities aren't where the cultural energy lies of late.

So last year, I had to be sure we all were clear: the church was going to be facing a financial crisis.  We were burning through reserves, and unless something radical was done, we'd find ourselves with our backs against the wall within a year.  It wasn't what anyone wanted to hear, and it wasn't what I wanted to tell folks, but it was the truth.  Leadership had those hard conversations.  We made sure we told the rest of the church, because hiding or ignoring problems only makes them worse.

We'd have to make some major cuts, and those cuts would have to involve my salary.  Again, this was just the reality.  In small churches like ours with total budgets that barely reach six figures, pastoral salaries are the farthest thing from Osteen levels, but they're still the largest chunk of expenditure.

The financial bleeding stopped.  We stabilized, and made the difficult but necessary adjustments.  Which meant, as it so happened, that when the pandemic hit, we still had emergency reserves to carry us through this new time of crisis.

If you're in a position of leadership, you have to be honest with your community.  This isn't the easy thing.  It's hard, particularly if you don't like conflict.  And Lord knows, I'm as conflict averse as anyone.  But I've had to learn to overcome that, because leveling with folks is absolutely essential for the survival of a community.  If there's a crisis, there is always the temptation to sweep it under the rug, or to minimize it, or to come up with rosy fantasy scenarios that keep folks from getting all upset.  "Oh, it'll be fine."  "It's not a big deal."  "I'm sure God will send us a miracle!"

There is also the temptation to cast blame, to find someone else who's fault it is.  Anything to avoid having to say the hard thing, and to make the hard choice, and to take the harder path.  Those things set heavy on the ego.  We'd rather dwell in the reality in which nothing is demanded of us, and where everything always goes our way, where we are bright and shiny and always, always right.

Telling people what they want to hear is the realm of the pitchman and the promoter, not the leader.  To lead wisely and well, you need to tell it like it is, to be a straight shooter, to speak even those truths that don't benefit you personally.  You have to trust your people and your community.

Leaders who can't present their people with the truth, who choose the comfortable fantasy over speaking the hard challenge?  They have no business leading.  They are why churches...and nations...fail.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Wasps

In the room of my childhood

A dream of wasps growing

Thick as my thumb

Tight wet in their cells

Fat and glistening

Pressing outwards

Row upon row

Tens and hundreds

More upon more

To burst and rise and take angry wing


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Froth

In the morning light
Of a dream before waking
I stood on a hill
Overlooking the sea

In leaves of low branches
Daybreak was caught
Dancing like stars
In facets of diamond

I knelt to the earth
Lethe's dirt, Lethe's sand
And dreaming
Looked close

Caught in the leaves
Windblown spheres
Of ocean froth
Gleamed living jewels

In the bright of sunrise
Effervescent and fleeting
In a dream on a hill
Overlooking the sea

On Planting a Poison Seed


Mainstream American Christianity is an odd thing these days.

It's changed over the course of my lifetime, as the dominant theology of our culture has transitioned.  The argument between the modernists and the fundamentalists has  been settled, with the winner being...neither of them.   American theology is now prosperity theology, the name-it-and-claim-it faith of tee vee Jesus preachers.  It's our semi-official state religion, as this administration has surrounded itself with the priesthood of Mammon, who know a good grift when they see one.

The heart of the prosperity gospel is remarkably simple:  Do what God asks, and you will be rewarded.  Plant a seed, and God will meet your need.  This means, in practice, that you're giving money to the aforementioned tee vee preachers, whose wealth and success clearly indicates the correctness of this theology.  How could my pastor possibly have a jet, if God did not favor my pastor?  Why would pastor have a 25,000 square foot mansion with its own international airport, if God did not favor pastor?  

Yeah.  I know.  But that's the schtick.

I've never bought in to that transactional approach to faith, not at all.  God's grace is poured out to us whether we merit it or not.  It's completely unrelated to how much treasure we dump into our particular franchise of AmeriChrist, Inc.  I also don't for a moment buy that wealth, material success and righteousness are linked.  The wicked can do quite well for themselves financially, and as a follower of Jesus, I know that suffering can come to the righteous.  It's that whole "cross" thing.  

Still, I can't ignore that there is a consistency and mechanistic predictability to prosperity preaching that appeals to millions.  We want to know that our actions and intentions create blessings in our lives.  We want to know that we can do things that will influence how God treats with us, and that we'll be rewarded for doing what is expected of us.  You always know where you stand with that God.

But there's a thing that I can't quite fathom, and it has to do with the logical extension of Prosperity theology.  If doing right by God with our lives and our treasure guarantees blessings and wealth and well-being, then the inverse should also be true.  If we are doing wrong by God, then we will be materially cursed.  If we are pouring our treasure and our energies into things that are an offense to our Maker, then...if the idea of prosperity preaching is true...we should expect to receive the dark reward of our blighted choices.

People or nations that plant poisonous seeds should expect a harvest of poison fruit.

Which gets us to the strange paradox of America right now.  Prosperity preachers are all in with our current national direction.  Their theology defines our national life.  Donald J. Trump is the Prosperity Gospel President.  

But...are we prospering?  Is everything going swimmingly?  

If you believe the theological reasoning of the preachers who now flutter around Trump's baleful light, there's a direct correlation between our choices and God's favor.  And Sweet Lord Jesus, unless you're dumber than a bag of particularly dumb rocks, you can't miss where we are right now in terms of God's favor.  No sane human being would say that we're in a time of God's blessing.

Things have gone to hell in a handbasket.  We're in the thick of a pandemic that seems to have no end, and in which more Americans have died than in the First World War.  We're economically crippled, with debt running wildly out of control.  The rifts of division in our culture are widening, and old wounds are re-opening.  The streets are filled with discord and tear gas.  Armed militias prowl our streets and threaten other citizens.  We've never been less respected by other nations, and never been more an object of pity to other nations. On top of that, there've been four years of freakishly intense weather.  Historic floods.  Wildfires obliterating entire communities.  Devastating storms have left coastal communities staggered, and left entire cities in ruins in the heartland.

If you believe that God favors the righteous nation with blessings, then open your eyes and look.

God. Is. Not. Favoring. Trump's. America.  

We're gettin' a taste of God's abundance right now, but what we Americans are getting is our butts abundantly kicked.  Not by the "subversives" and "leftists" who have always been the straw men of right wing despots, but by reality itself.  

By the standards of America's warped version of Christian faith, we have clearly offended God, and are reaping the whirlwind we have sown.

Is this my theology?  No.  It is not.

But it is the theology of a people who have confused lies, discord and failure with truth, harmony, and prosperity.
  

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Cross and the Punisher


He lives just a couple of houses up the street from us.  

He's genial enough as neighbors go, happy to offer a pleasant word in passing, or a comment about the weather.  Don't know his name, and he doesn't know mine, but we do exchange a nod or a word of greetings.  What I know about his is what I can infer from his household.  It's the house with the most flags, meaning that not only is there a flag pole with an American flag and a yellow Don't Tread on Me flag, but a good solid dozen little flags set out in front of the shrubbery.   

He's a Ford guy, meaning every vehicle at the house is a Ford.  An Edge, an Explorer, an F-150, and...for a long time...a raised old F250 from the 1990s.  This summer, he replaced that F-250 with a brand spankin' new F-250, a big black beast of a truck.  Honestly, it's a pretty nice vehicle.  Not really the best for inside the Beltway commuting, but he's a hunter and a sportsman, so I get the appeal.

He'd had it for a couple of months when the stickers went up on the cab window.

On the left side, there was a cross emblazoned with the stars and stripes.  Not really my cup of tea theologically, but very in keeping with the rest of his home decorating scheme.

On the right, there was a Trump 2020 sticker.  This didn't surprise me, given the NRA stickers on the old truck and the aforementioned Don't Tread on Me flag.  But this was not just any Trump 2020 sticker.  It was a Punisher Skull Trump 2020 Sticker, also emblazoned with the stars and stripes.

It's a peculiar juxtaposition.  The Punisher, in the event you're not familiar with him, is a Marvel Universe anti-hero.  He's a cynical, gun-wielding vigilante who sees it as his calling to set things right by killing people.  If you've ever seen the Clint Eastwood film Magnum Force?  The Punisher isn't Clint Eastwood.  The Punisher is closer to one of the cops who murder the people they've determined are scum or enemies of law and order. A good analogue to the Punisher, from elsewhere in the comic book world: Judge Dredd, who enforces the law without mercy in a fascistic fantasy dystopia. Not a villain, exactly, but definitely on the darker side of things.

The Punisher has a skull on his outfit, and that skull has become an icon of the Trumpist right wing. For them, it parses as powerful, as kick-butt.  You can't mess with me, it says, or some dyin's comin' your way.  I get that, generally.  It's like kids liking the skull and crossbones pirate flag, as they play around with the liberating power of doing whatever one pleases.  Or the skulls preferred as biker flair.  As a political symbol, though?  

It's odd, given that the Punisher's skull is rather obviously meant to be a symbol of brutal, cold-hearted violence.  It is not a symbol of good.  It was never intended to be.  It reads as evil, turned against evil.

I mean, does it look good?  Clear your mind, and imagine showing this to an average American in 1976.  "Here's a campaign sticker from the year 2020," you'd say.  "What do you think it says about the state of the country and the spirit of this candidate?"

I think you'd be met with a horrified shudder.

And there's something else.  It is exactly the opposite of a cross.  The Punisher, in point of fact, is exactly the kind of person who might consider crucifixion as a viable option for someone who he considers an enemy.  

Those two stickers on my neighbor's truck speak to the fundamental tension between Trumpism and Christian faith.  One embraces the ideal of violence and fetishizes retribution and a sense of aggrievement.  The other defies violence and embraces self-sacrifice and forgiveness as the highest virtues.

Together, the two are irreconcilably dissonant.  That kind of dissonance tears a person apart.  Or a country.

Yesterday, I saw my neighbor drive by on his way to work.  The Trump Punisher Skull was gone, but the cross remained.

A good thing, I suppose.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Being Groomed for Despotism

Among the many things I was taught in seminary, one was particularly useful:

How to identify the techniques that pedophiles and sexual predators use to groom their victims.   Because trust is necessary for healthy community, and there are those who use the trust they've been given to prey on others.  There were a range of things we were told to watch for in our congregations, and misconceptions we'd need to keep at bay if we were to maintain the integrity of our flocks.  

Pedophiles are often charming, outgoing people with natural charisma.  You enjoy them.  You like talking with them.  They don't always manifest as "creepy."  They're just endearing characters.

They seem have an affinity for kids.  They spend time around them.  Show interest, again, in a genuinely charming way.  They seem to have a childlike spirit.  They ingratiate themselves with parents.  All, perfectly normal.  They're part of "us."

Then other things are added in, as trust is gained.  Picture taking.  Offers to help with child care.  

And touch.  First a little.  Then more.  Hands on shoulders.  On sides.  On thighs.  Physical closeness, sometimes in public, as a way of saying, hey, this is all fine.  All perfectly normal, but starting to stretch the sense of what is and is not acceptable.

So that when the boundary is finally crossed, and sexual violation occurs, it feels like less of a violation.  Feels natural.  Expected.  

I'm attuned to that, was taught to watch for that, so that...when I saw all of that happening at my first congregation...I knew not to dismiss it.  I knew I needed to say something.  There were multiple confrontations.  Revelations of past issues.  Of lies and deceptions.  I am not a man who lets his anger out, but I did then.  Ultimately, a long standing member of that little church was told that if he could not change his behavior, he would not be welcome.  He chose to leave.  It was hard as all hell, but calling it out was my duty as a pastor.

I look at the life of our fragile young republic, and I wonder if we are in the same hard place.  

Over the last six years, I've watched as boundaries have been stretched and broken by our current president.  It's fine if candidate Donald Trump refuses to release his tax returns to prove he's not financially compromised, it's not illegal.  He's just showing he's strong.  It's fine if he has a long checkered history of cheating and sexual misconduct, because nobody's perfect.  It's fine if he winks at violence, because he's just kidding around.  It's fine if foreign despots hack his political opponents and fill social media with deceptions that support him, because we all know that's how it's always worked. Politics are just corrupt anyway.

It's all about normalizing, about making things seem like they're fine.

Millions of Americans are OK with Trump now lying every day, about things both serious and banal.  Millions are fine with 150,000 dead from a pandemic that Trump chose to ignore, diminish, and politicize. With Trump overtly funneling millions of tax dollars into his hotel businesses.  With Trump calling into question the basic processes of functioning government.  With Trump refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas, and state subpoenas, and now openly defying rulings of the Supreme Court.

And, of course, Trump challenging as "fake" and "unfair" anything that doesn't go his way, up to and including the results of elections.  Even elections he won, he's willing to dispute if they didn't make him look good.  

Donald J. Trump is, right now, suggesting that he has the right to ignore an election result that does not go his way.  He is, right now, trying to normalize the idea that if he loses, it will be illegitimate.  He's floated the trial balloon, today, that maybe elections should be postponed. 

A substantial percentage of America has been groomed by Donald J. Trump for despotism, in precisely the way a sexual predator grooms his victims for abuse.  Faced with near certain defeat, he wants those he has seduced into following him to believe they should abandon the most fundamental boundary that separates our republic from dictatorships.

Because the integrity of this republic means nothing to him.  It has never meant anything to him.

That is how predators are.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Of Whiteness and Integrated Identity

I've never really thought of myself as white.

Not that my culture doesn't consider me white, with all of the rights and privileges thereunto. 

But as a category of self-understanding, white never served any integrative purpose.  Meaning, to unpack that rather awkward psychobabbly way of putting it, I've never seen it as a defining part of my identity.  There are other aspects of my identity that are defining.

I am male, and good with that.  I am straight, and comfortable with what that entails. 

I have a mongrel heritage, drawn from a diverse array of related but distinct cultures.

I am American, and personally vested in the well being of my constitutional republic.  I vote.  I stay informed.  I keep alert for threats to freedom, both to myself and to others.

I am a husband, and a father, and a son, and see in each of these certain defining purposes for my life.

Overarching all of these, I am a Christian.  In the teachings of Jesus and the witness of millennia of the Beloved Community, I find the ethos that gives cohesion to my identity. 

These ways of organizing and prioritizing my responses to life are both my foundation and my purpose.  In so far as I act to honor their best intent, my actions reflect a particular chosen identity. 

I cannot, with any honesty, say that whiteness does the same.  Again, I was taught to understand my heritage as complex and multifaceted, drawing from multiple regions, cultures and ethnic lineages.  That understanding shaped my liberality towards other cultures, peoples, and forms of human self expression.  If I was made up of various different things, then encountering difference was no threat.

Whiteness wasn't ever part of that.  In fact, whiteness, as a way of understanding oneself, seems to stand in distinct tension with my more complex ground of self.   This awareness has nothing to do with our current spasm of race-anxiety.  I have always chafed at whiteness.  Back in high school when I was filling out the obligatory forms, marking myself as "white" felt like an imposition.  An erasure of reality.  

What I struggle with mightily in this moment of racial anxiety is this:  I'm not sure whiteness can constructively shape identity.  I hear earnest folks addressing "white people" as a unit, or saying "as a white person I..." or suggesting that "white people" need to do this or that.  I don't think "white" can deal constructively with racism, because "white" was at the heart of the problem of modern era racism. 

I just can't see any way that claiming white identity gets us beyond our mess.

I look to the idea of being white, and I do see how it influences culture and how it shapes self understanding.  I see in it nothing that I want to orient myself towards.  It feels unhealthy, destructive, and inherently false.

As a *resisted* identity, sure.  That I get.  Writers like Ibram X. Kendi have suggested being "white" may inhabit the same sort of identity category as saying you're an alcoholic or an addict.  Meaning, yeah, it does form identity, but only in negative ways.  That, in fact, there may be something inherently blighted about it.

If that's the case, it's not a constructive identity, either to self or to community.  It is, instead, a disintegrative form of self understanding, one that drives us further away from both societal justice and spiritual grace.


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Sound of Rain

As she's gotten older, our pup Ellie has gotten more and more twitchy.  She was always a bit of a cat-like dog, prone to staring out the window looking wan and somehow forgetting to come when called.  She's the kind of dog who you have to search the house for when you get home.

She's sweet with kids, and great with guests, and tends to show up when you're feeling upset with a strangely intent look on her face.  "You doing ok," she emotes.  Of course, once she's determined that you're fine, she wanders off again, but still.

The last few years, though, she's started having real trouble with unsettling noises.  Fireworks, sure, most dogs have problems with that.  Thunder?  That's pretty common.  But she's now consistently unsettled by the sound of our icemaker dropping a load of ice into the freezer bin.  She's most disturbed, it seems, by the sound of rain.  Not thunder.  Just plain ol' rain, falling on our roof.  It makes a noise.  Noise means danger.  

She gets panicky, wandering around in circles, staring at walls, panting and so overwhelmed by the rain that she's utterly unresponsive.  In a particularly heavy downpour, she'll get as low in the house as she can, and then she'll start trying to dig her way further down, through carpet and the padded flooring in our workout room. 

Thundershirts and doggo CBD do nothing.  There's a doggy anxiety med that sometimes works, but not always.  Mostly, she just can't deal.  She just has no idea what's going on, and her pupper brain can't process the input.

It'd be nice to say that humans are different, but we're often not.  If we have no frame of reference from which to understand and cope with uncertainty, we come apart.  Similarly, if our frame of reference isn't sufficient to take into account a new reality, we'll struggle to respond in any constructive way.

We become paralyzed by our fears, staring without comprehension at the world around us.  We become reactive in ways that are destructive to self, relationships, and community.

As we struggle with the unfamiliar din of our times, hearing the rattling of discord and the uncertain future of our failed pandemic response, it's entirely understandable that we might have a similar anxiety reaction.  Lord, is it ever.  But as hard as it might be metaphorically raining out, having a solid ethical and spiritual foundation helps us find our way, and to respond in ways that are constructive and hopeful, wise and gracious.

Faith, which orients us to that which is both a present comfort and an endless unveiling, lets us engage with the unexpected and the traumatic, and to overcome and not be ruled by our fears.  

Our faith is living and adaptive, as our foundation in Christ and the living witness of the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the best possible paths forward.  

That's the foundation of our hope as we press forward into this stormy time.


Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The One I'm Talking About

He goes for what he wants, and he is a creature of very definite appetites.  

He doesn't care at all for conventional wisdom, and doesn't give a damn about what is "correct."  He uses chaos to control, makes sure people don't know exactly what he's doing, shrouds his actions in layer after layer of deception and misdirection.  He's lawyered up, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, surrounded by people who help him do whatever he likes and have whatever he likes.  Or whoever he likes.

What he wants from others is to own them.  Their submission to him gives him pleasure.  He thinks of people as objects you possess, as something you can control through force of will, deception, or fear.  

He oozes that sense of power that comes from wealth, and that's a seductive draw for many, what loops them in to his circle of influence.  There's that sense that, if you just let him have what he wants, he'll do things for you.  Get you what you want in exchange.

That's his appeal.  His draw.  His power.

You know, him.  The one I'm talking about.




Monday, June 29, 2020

The Little Red Hen Fights COVID





Once upon a time, there was a little red hen  who lived on a farm . She was friends with a lazy dog , a sleepy cat , and a noisy yellow duck .



One day the little red hen  was told that all the farms in the land were on the verge of a pandemic, and her farm was forced to shut down.  The little red hen  had an idea. She would follow the advice of experts and institute testing protocols to help keep the farm open.
The little red hen  asked her friends, "Who will help me do the testing?"
"I can't be bothered," barked the lazy dog .
"You're not the boss of me," purred the sleepy cat .
"MAGA!" quacked the noisy yellow duck .
"Then I will," said the little red hen . So the little red hen   tested herself.  But none of her friends did.



When the testing showed things weren't going well, the little red hen asked her friends, "Who will help institute contact tracing?"

"I can't be bothered," barked the lazy dog .
"You're not the boss of me," purred the sleepy cat .
"MAGA!" quacked the noisy yellow duck .
"Then I will," said the little red hen . So the little red hen  tried contact tracing all by herself, but it was too much without help.


When the testing then showed the pandemic was starting to spread out of control, the little red hen asked her friends, "Who will wear a mask to reduce the spread of this thing?"
"I can't be bothered," barked the lazy dog .
"You're not the boss of me," purred the sleepy cat .
"MAGA!" quacked the noisy yellow duck .
"Then I will," said the little red hen . So the little red hen  wore her mask everywhere she went, even though others didn't.



The tired little red hen asked her friends, "Who will be really careful about where they go, self-quarantine, and generally try not to unnecessarily infect the other animals?"
"I can't be bothered," barked the lazy dog .
"You're not the boss of me," purred the sleepy cat .
"MAGA!" quacked the noisy yellow duck .
"Then I will," said the little red hen . So the little red hen  stayed home, limited her outings, and tried really hard to socially distance by staying in her coop.



When it came time to reopen, and all the other farms in the land were getting back to life as usual, the tired little red hen asked her friends, "Who will reopen with me?"
"I can't taste anything," whimpered the lazy dog .
"I feel like crap," meowed the sleepy cat .
"COUGH COUGH COUGH," quacked the noisy yellow duck .
"Yeah" said the little red hen .  "That's what I figured."  And she tromped back to her coop, muttering.

"Fools."

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Quotes

It is better to wear a mask and not need it than to need a mask and not wear it.

A masked society is a polite society.

A person without a mask can only flee from COVID, and COVID is not overcome by fleeing from it.

Masks should have a place of honor in every home, as they provide the protection that the current government will not give.

It is up to the private citizen to protect himself and his family, and this is not only acceptable, but necessary.  Wear a mask, citizen.

The fight will not be the way you want it to be.  The fight will be the way it is.  It's up to you to adapt.  Wear a mask, citizen.

It's time to restore the American precept that each individual is responsible for their actions.  Wear a mask, citizen.

I wear a mask to protect my family.

Wearing a mask is an act of love.  It says I love my life, my friends, and my family, and I will do what I must to keep them safe.






Saturday, June 20, 2020

Light Shepherd

Shall I curse Your leprous white Sin Name your Evil My words all a bitter shepherd's goad Driving you down to the bleating pen of my hate Or Listen Or Watch Eyes scrying for embers of light Speak Words turning the rich dark soil Of your most Gracious living possible Soul

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Of Masks and Moral Responsibility

A week ago, I attended a march in my small town.  Four to five hundred souls marched peaceably to recognize the human value and integrity of black folk, and I was honored to be a part of it.

 

Though there were hundreds there, there were also notable precautions against this cursed pandemic.  It was outdoors, in the bright hot sun.  People were visibly trying to make space between groups.  And functionally everyone was wearing a mask.  Ninety five percent, at a minimum, with the handful of outliers mostly being adolescent boys who are dumb in the way I was when I was their age.  Folks were taking it seriously.

 

Last week, I also came across this strange, harsh cartoon about masks, one produced by a far-right political activist.  Some over on #twitter were making light of it, but there were plenty of folks and/or bots of uncertain origin spreading it unironically. 

 

What struck me was not just its bullying, Nelson Muntz mockery of perceived ideological weakness.  The cartoon expresses a warped morality that has abandoned traditional virtues.  Wearing a mask isn't a bolshy Jacobin thing to do.


Wearing a mask is conservative.  It's about personal responsibility, seeing freedom as a call to duty and care for your neighbor.  It requires discipline and a desire to protect both the vulnerable and the integrity of your community.  It recognizes legitimate authority. It rises from a spirit of decency, charity, and integrity. 

 

There was something else. Something darker.  Starting this weekend and continuing for the next few months, there will be political rallies on the American right.  Americans who increasingly embrace the ideology of this cartoon will gather by the tens of thousands.  They will shout and cheer.  They'll be packed in tight.  They'll be older.  And goaded on by this kind of propaganda and the ego-hunger of a demagogue, they'll view masks as a sign of weakness, as a leftist snowflake thing.  "Yeah, you can wear one, but you're just a coward and a weakling if you do."  "Don't drink the Kool Aid," they'll smile, the oversweet blood red stain on their lips.

 

Then they'll go back to their homes, their communities, and their churches.

 

It's a recipe for death.  Not just one person, shot dead on Fifth Avenue, but hundreds of deaths.  Horrible, prolonged, suffocating deaths in the overburdened ICUs of mid-sized Southern towns, as exhausted nurses helplessly watch yet another human being die alone.

 

Were I a cruelly Darwinian soul, I might sneer at those folks, and say they're getting what they deserve.  "You cannot separate a fool from their folly," I could say.  "A rod for the back of fools," I could say.  But Jesus being my Lord and Savior and all, I try to avoid that way of being.  I desire no-one's suffering.  Instead, I do what one does when you realize you're helpless to stop a horror.  Or when you watch a person caught in the thrall of their personal demons, their ears closed to your voice, their eyes turned away from your help.  I raise my voice, even though it might not be heard. I pray. 

 

And I wear my mask, which says: I am willing to do my part.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

LIttle Churches and Regathering

I enjoy having a plan.  There's a concreteness to it, especially if that plan is simple, straightforward, and familiar. 

You do a familiar thing, and it's comfortable and things run smoothly.  But life rarely offers up neat, easy, and familiar paths.

As we roll into summer, things are still up in the air.  There are hopeful signs here and there that we may be able to reopen.  After months of social distancing, closures, and mask wearing, all of our national efforts seems to have stalled out that virus. 

But we're not sure, not enough, not yet.  As the Session of my church met this last month to talk about potentially regathering, no-one felt it was time to go back to that normal that we all do miss.  Our sweet little sanctuary is too small, that comfy soft space too limiting to do the singing and greeting and being together that we so love.  And sure, we could gather without raising our voices in song or in prayer, with no bulletins and no communion, no time in fellowship, and no classes in which to study together.

That just wouldn't be worth doing.  I mean, sure, we'd "be together."  "Hey, come to church!  We don't sing.  We stay away from each other.  We don't pray out loud.  We can't see one another's faces."

I wish I could say that sounded appealing, but Lord have mercy, it does not.

Instead, we're waiting to see whether there's a second wave, which we should know definitively in two weeks.  At that point, we'll put our heads together and determine, based on the best available information, what is the best way forward.

In choosing any path, it's best to be neither panicky nor headstrong.  Anxiously fretting over every possible negative outcome and stubbornly blundering ahead no matter what are equally unwise.  And while wisdom these days may seem in short supply, it's right there in scripture for any who seek it. 

For the next five weeks, our adult ed class will be looking at the marks of wisdom for a Christian soul, because it seems kinda like a useful thing to keep in front of our souls in this time.  We'll get those from the Epistle of James, one of the most practical, direct moral teachings in the Bible.

Lord willing, we'll be in a place to gather again when we're done.  I am very much looking forward to that.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Young Crow

I walked this morning, in the burgeoning steam and moist of a Virginia summer day. From up the street there came a peculiar ruckus, one that caught my attention. A voice, yelling out. "Awk AAAA Ewwww. Ak. Awk AAAA aaa ew Awk AAA."
I scanned the tree line for the source of the sound. There it was. A crow, alone on the branch of a dead tree. It preened, and then called out. Preened, and then called out. "Ah Waaak A Ock. Ock Aaa. Ock AAAA! Wak Ock Aaaaa."
Not short calls, but long perorations, whole sentences filled with a medley of gargling, subtly changing tones. It felt less like a cry, and more complex, more like something we mostly hairless bipeds would consider language.
Which told me, because I feel an affinity to crows and ravens and have studied their ways, that it was likely a juvenile. Where adult crows settle in to simpler, familiar, useful calls, crow adolescents experiment. They play with sounds. They sing out intricate patterns to the world, testing their voices. For a while, those songs are as subtle as those of their wise-eyed raven cousins. But then, slowly, young crows settle down into the simple caw of adult crow life.
Being the sort of silly person who says things like "I feel an affinity to crows and ravens and have studied their ways," I called back, mimicking phrasing. But, as expected, I got no reply. It simply sang on, exploring the voice of youth and neatening its feathers.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

My Story Mine


Once My story
Mine Leaves parted lips Sings the air And alights Purring Tickling Whispering In your Waiting Ear It is no longer My story Mine but Yours.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Lafayette Square Park, Faith, and Freedom

I grew up in and around DC. My whole young life, church happened downtown, at New York Avenue Presbyterian, just a short walk from the White House. She's a storied old girl. John Quincy Adams worshiped there. As did Eisenhower. So did Abraham Lincoln, which is why one of the rooms I'd play hide and seek in with friends after Sunday School had the original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a teen, I still went to church, but I was...well. I didn't like Sunday School. I was gloweringly sixteen, into Camus and Sartre, and even though I loved the church in the way that a teen loves their parents, it just felt too...something. Too soft, perhaps. Too formal. It lacked that dark edge that appealed to my adolescent eyes, so newly opened to the mess of the adult world.

So I'd leave the church, grab a free City Paper, and wander over to Lafayette Square Park. It was my quiet place. My sanctuary. I'd settle in, read snarky, informed reviews of film and culture, and watch the world go by. The park was quieter on a Sunday morning, but as the day wore on, there was plenty to watch. Tourists from all over America, here to see the sights. Clusters of visitors from other countries, wandering behind tour guides. Near the bench where I'd sit and read, a little yellow church sat, a trickle of Episcopalians coming and going for their bells and smells and Jesus..

In Lafayette Square Park, there'd be occasional demonstrations and protesters. People with signs. Folks trying to get you to sign petitions. At least one older peace activist basically just lived there.

I'd watch the tour guides do their schtick, leading school groups and church groups. "Look," they'd say, pointing to the resident activist with her signs. "Right here in front of the White House, people are free to speak their minds. That's the difference," they'd say, "Between America and the Soviet Union. This is a free country." And the school groups would chat with the protesters, and move on.

Despite my newly found teen cynicism, it was undeniably real. For all of her flaws, I couldn't deny my own eyes and experience. America was genuinely free.

That park is not accessible now. It's cordoned off from the American people. The peaceable voice of the people's grievance, driven from that space by clubs and tear gas and flashbangs. Even that modest yellow church on the park is now forcibly closed, as yesterday church members and leaders were denied access to their own property.

"Law and order," those in power say, "makes this necessary." "Safety and security," they say, "requires it." These are lies unworthy of our republic. At the height of the Cold War, toe to toe with Soviet authoritarianism, nuclear holocaust just one misunderstanding and a twenty minute missile flight away? In those hard times, Lafayette Park was open, as both a symbol and as living proof that Americans are a free people, whose leader does not hide behind high walls and cold eyed men with guns.

Those freedoms have been taken to serve the ego of a petty despot, a dissembling huckster and bully who has desecrated the freedoms that made America a beacon to the world. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the people to seek redress.

I remember what it was like to sit as a free American in that park on a cool Sunday morning. I remember what it meant, even at the height of my adolescent awakening, to know what it meant to be free.

I refuse to forget that freedom.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Climate and COVID

The writing life continues, as I prepare to send off a manuscript on the climate crisis to my publisher.

One of the things I'm struggling with is how to integrate the pandemic into my writing.  There are clear conceptual connections between how America is dealing with the pandemic and how we've dealt with climate change, ones that seem obvious.  Like, say: 

How we ignore science, and reject expertise as elitist or controlling.  How we create false narratives to support our ideological biases.  How we value the immediate over any long term vision.  How deeply we're willing to steal from our future to satisfy our desires in the now.

But making that connection isn't easy now, because most of the impacts of this pandemic are yet to come.  Looking at the most likely probabilities, our next four to six months are going to be rough.  

We are moving to reopen, which seems viable after months of semi-quarantine.  The success of that reopening feels deeply unlikely.  Yes, it could work.  It could definitely work.  I buy that.

To make it work, we'd need to be doing the things...as a nation, all together...that would make success more likely.  Testing, tracing, and quarantining are the three keys to this.  You test broadly across a population to detect any new outbreaks.  You trace contacts so you can map the possible impact of any resurgence.  And you locally quarantine based on your testing  and tracing, so that the system more broadly can continue functioning.

If you do those things, the odds of a successful national reopening are vastly improved.

We are doing none of those things.  Testing is sporadic, inconsistent, and limited.  Contact tracing?  Sweet Lord Jesus no.  There's nothing in place nationally.  Nothing.  And quarantine efforts are a splattered, sloppy mess of conflicting local and regional recommendations.

There is a slender chance that providence will smile on our foolishness.  What is considerably more likely is a significant COVID resurgence, a second wave of this outbreak that matches or exceeds the first.  We are that villager who decides to take a long walk when the eye of the hurricane passes over, sure that the worst of the storm is past.  

By the time my book goes to print in 2021, the impacts of our decisions right now will be clear.  It is most likely that they'll offer up a painful parallel to our inadequate response to climate change.  

But as I don't know that for sure, it's kinda hard to write that into a manuscript.




Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Daily Liveblog of the COVID Year

being observations or memorials
of the most remarkable occurrences,
as well public as private, which happened in
Washington DC during the great visitation in 2020.
Written by a Citizen who continued
all the while in Washington.


April 1

I mowed yesterday for the first time this year. It was beautiful out, just perfect, but our lawn was not what most folks would call perfect. It never is, as what we have in our front yard is the farthest thing from a uniform carpet of green. It's a chaotic blend of greens and light browns, random tufts and tiny flowers. There is grass, but it shares the space with a tossed salad of other greenery.
Which, as I've been reading lately, is a very good way to describe our yard. Because in a pinch, or so survival guides tell me, much of the surface cover of our yard is edible. Dandelion greens and flowering tops. Clover, too, in a pinch, although it's best to stick with the flowers.
And chickweed...ubiquitous, relentless chickweed...perfectly nutritious as a green with minor preparation, either in salad or sauteed with a little butter and onion.
As I carried the cuttings back to my compost pile, I wondered at how much energy we Americans put into making our lawns a perfectly uniform green desert, chemically blasted free of "weeds," "weeds" that could grace our plates at any time of our choosing. Or in a time of great need.

March 30


I love singing hymns in my little church. It's just so delightfully comforting, so nice to mingle my voice with those of my congregation. For the last few years, I've had this idea. My sons both have lovely voices, tenor and bass, that they've taken the care to train and develop. Wouldn't it be nice, I've thought, to sing with them? It felt like a fantasy, a pipe dream. They're grown, and away. Also, they're Jewish, which means Jesus music ain't generally their thang.
Well, we're all home now. And as much as I'm adapting to remote worship, I'm missing that singing. So, in the confines of my study this last week, they agreed to sing one with me. Softly and Tenderly, a sweet old gospel standard, with nice tight harmonies. As excited as I was to lift up my voice with them, my offspring are on another level vocally. "Dad, Dad, you're not supporting." "No, no, no...you need to set your mouth...yeah. Kind of like that. Close enough."
We worked through it, the three of us together. My voice bobbled and cracked. I missed the opening. I went completely off key. I got the giggles listening to myself fumble. But they were patient, and kept on until it came together well enough. Just doing it with them was a blessing.
You can find blessings in almost any time, if you look.

March 28

Time has felt odd lately. The flow of days is all wrong, as the minutes and hours stumble over one another, uncertain of their places, unsure of their steps. It's like watching a middle school squaredance, uncertain and awkward, the days uncomfortable in their newly changed selves.
We're just not quite sure what we're supposed to do. We knew the dance before, kind of, and had it down enough to get by. But now we're not even sure we know what day it is half of the time. There are no markers, no measures, no points that let us orient our days.
Which is why those rituals of life are more important than ever. My existence still has Sunday worship as its fulcrum, that moment when I am doing what I'm called to do, even if the specifics are kinda different these days. Juggling AV and USB cables and fretting that my uncut hair is starting to resemble that of a public access televangelist aren't my old norm, but so it goes.
And then there's Shabbas observance, because unlike most Christian pastors, I find myself in a household with four Jews for the forseeable future. When the boys were growing up, Friday nights meant prayers intoned in Hebrew over, marking the day, blessing the fruit of the earth and the vine.
Last night, over takeout Chinese and the flickering light of tea candles, we did just that. Here, we said together. This is the day it is.
We remember where we are, and what we're doing.


March 27

Yesterday morning was damp again, the wetness welcome in the soil of my gardens. Into the earth, more of my seed-saved kale for a late spring harvest, before the nibblers and the crawlers are out in force. The kale, joined by spinach and carrots, with space set aside for the tomatoes to go in several weeks from now.
In barrels filled with compost, potatoes are springing up in their vigorous way, joined by the rising fresh leafing of strawberries. At the front of the house, the blueberry bushes are starting to leaf too, tantalizing us with a harvest that mostly feeds the birds. The fate of my blueberries always makes me think of that sweet old Disney song. "That's a lovely sentiment, Ms. Poppins, but I planted those for a reason," I sigh, as the sparrows flutter away sated.
As I puttered about my suburban quarter acre, checking and tending here and there, something caught my eye. Two years ago, I'd randomly buried excess seed potatoes in an untended patch of earth in the back yard. I promptly forgot about them.
But there they were, the familiar leaves wet with the spring rain, springing eagerly from the unforgiving, unenriched Virginia clay.
"Well, look at you go," I said, because talking to potatoes seems perfectly reasonable these days. "Good for you."
One of the great pleasures of a garden are those little surprises.


March 26

I went to church, and the day was cold and damp and grey. The buildings, cool and dark and quiet. No meetings. No worship. The news of the day, from the governor, that schools would be closed through late April. I and my lay leaders are committed to listening to competent, wise counsel on such matters. We're following the state and county on closure, and that meant, well. That meant, definitively: no Easter worship in our sweet little brick sanctuary. It was no surprise, but still set a little heavy. My soul felt weary and as grey as the day. It's hard to set aside the rituals of meaning that define a life.
I checked the mail, and the phones, and the general integrity of the building. I took a couple of calls, did some prep for Sunday's bible study, and then headed home.
Getting off the Beltway, nearly back, I stopped at a light. By the side of the road, an abandoned, handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard. The young woman who panhandles there, now gone. But her words remained, the ink clear and unblurred by rain.
"Anything helps," said the sign.
Well. That is good to know.


March 24

Yesterday was Monday, and Monday is a slower day. Wet and cool, on the border of cold. I felt that cold as I weeded, clearing out the soil in the raised bed to the left of the driveway. In between the weeds, kale poking up, starting to flourish, sweet from the cold of winter.
Clearing around the kale was hard and manual. I squatted, feeling the long squat in my knees and quads, my fingers probing into the rich dark soil, the wetness chilling to the bone. But the weeds needed to be gone from the bed, and other greens planted. So I dug and pulled and pulled and dug, my hands crusted with dirt and numbed with cold.
When I came back into the kitchen, I washed my hands, scrubbing the earth from under my nubby, bitten nails, the warm water a blessing.

March 23

Yesterday after virtual church, I went to the store. I walked, because if I can walk an errand, I do. It's good for me physically, and better for creation, and better for my soul. Walking clears my mind, and disconnects me from the strange compound hysteria of our virtual world. So I strapped on one of our big frame packs, and walked with my son and his girlfriend to the local Harris Teeter. Round trip: about three and a half miles. It's just around half an hour walk each way, if you dawdle.
The flowers, in bloom, the air sweet the scent of spring. We passed shuttered schools and quiet churches. A funky little house we'd never noticed before, yard neatly ordered, surrounded by polka dotted poles upon which sat the Buddha's head. We passed the sweet little gardens out front of my son's old elementary school, and critiqued the book selection in a Tiny Library. One doesn't see such things while driving.
At the Starbucks in the strip mall, a long line of cars snaking halfway across the parking lot. Each idling, windows up, sitting and waiting, occupants staring at their phones, locked away on a lovely spring afternoon. Humans are so peculiar.

March 21

Essential businesses must remain open, we are told.
Yesterday, I walked past one of the title lending "businesses" that have sprung up all throughout Virginia over the last two decades. In exchange for the right to take your car as collateral, they offer loans at absurdly high, usurious interest rates. 200%. 300%. It's fundamentally predatory, but such businesses present themselves as "providing a a lifeline." They give generously to the re-election campaigns of Virginia politicians, who serve them well.
With the economy seizing up, they were doing a brisk business. A woman, leaving in a late model Kia. Older, morbidly obese, and wearing a surgical mask. She did not look well. At the door, a woman and a man waited for admittance. I wondered which of the cars belonged to which. Was his the Toyota work-truck? Was hers the Honda Accord? They stood six feet apart from one another in the strangely warm March sun. They did not talk.
Inside, "easy money," now desperately needed, borrowed from an uncertain future at a heavy cost.


March 20

The two shopping carts sat on either side of the bench, piled with possessions. They usually can be found outside a Burger King, but BK is closed now for anything but take out.
I approached the mass of possessions, wondering in my selfish way if there would be an ask as I passed. Two of them, each familiar, were beneath an umbrella, opened to shelter them from an unusually hot March sun. He, grizzled and greybearded. She, sturdy, of indeterminate age, latina or indigenous.
I glanced at them, a furtive bourgeois curiosity. He was asleep, curled up, his head on her lap. She, her hand softly on his head, looking down at his face, her expression inscrutable. The umbrella, a shadowed halo cast around the two of them.
I looked away. It was too intimate, this moment of connection between the two.
She did not look up as I passed.


March 19

Two days ago, out in the back yard, I was gathering kindling for a coming cold snap. The dog seemed unusually happy. She eagerly trotted over to a spot behind the shed, where I'd seen her rolling about gleefully the day before. I followed, with the intent of stirring our compost pile. That's when I noticed the smell.
Behind the shed, the remains of a raccoon, a ruined shapeless mass of fur and dark melting flesh. It crawled with innumerable white and squirming things. The dog wanted so bad to roll in it, to perfume herself with it. Dog odorants, I think, would be named Old Stank and Rotstench no. 5. I sent her inside, which she did reluctantly and with her more usual ennui.
I buried what remained of it yesterday morning. Took the shovel, and dug out a small trench in the wet clay near the shed. I scooped the dripping pile of bone and blackness into the hole, and though it was utterly foul beyond foulness, I found myself laughing as I filled in the hapless creature's grave.
Were I in a writer's workshop with the Creator of the Universe, I'd call Them out on the foreshadowing. "This feels a little obvious," I'd say, right before the thunder drowned out my voice.


March 18

Every morning at sevenish, I'm out with the dog. It's bright, clear, and brisk this morning, the air sharp with cold. The dog snuffles about in her usual aimless way, tending to the scents that must be investigated. She leaves her little comments-section stream on whatever chat the passing neighbor dogs are having this week.
I, on the other hand, am listening. It is sevenish, but sevenish is different. The aural environment has changed. There's an ambient noise we suburban creatures simply forget, the soft thunder of millions of tons of steel constantly on the move. It is always present, always there, a distant cataract of steel and tire and tarmac.
Today, that roar is quieter. Not gone, but notably hushed. Its voice, lowered. As one might when one hears an unexpected sound upstairs. It feels wary. At attention.


March 17

Today is lovely, Spring evidently oblivious to the ambient anxieties and mortal fears of human beings. Our little suburban street is suddenly filled with foot traffic. Not just the usual trickle of dog walkers, but teens. Runners. Couples. Families with strollers.
A family passes. Their little girl, not more than two, leaves her mother's hand and capers across our front yard. She finds a stick. She squats and looks at it. Then she picks it up, considers her options for a moment, and throws it. Throwing it pleases her, and she scampers back to her mother's outstretched arm, utterly devoid of any care in the world other than perhaps finding another suitable throwing stick.

March 16

Last night, Lije and I dropped by the local Burger King, where we snagged a couple of Impossible Whoppers for takeout. The place was typically Annandale-diverse, as it tends to be.
Esconced in the corner was the grey bearded homeless man who usually spends a chunk of his days there, chatting with a couple of guys in baseball caps. He's there on cold days, and on rainy days, because he can be. The staff at the BK are fine with him being there, in a way I'm not sure other businesses would be.
When the restaurants all close, and the libraries close, one wonders where he'll go in this strange, unwelcoming time.