Friday, March 31, 2023

Heart and Feet and the Tide

It's always a new thing.  Yesterday, it was the podiatrist visit.  Dad's been doing better lately, as we've struggled to work with his failing heart.  He's been better with his meds, better with managing his sodium, better at not drinking the damned brandy. 

But his heart is so weak now, as it struggles away in his chest.  We go to his doctor's appointments, and they take his blood pressure, and the techs are always surprised with just how low it is.  100 over 29?  That has to be wrong.  They take it again, and it isn't wrong.  The system, barely pressurized.  There's only so much that muscle has left in it.

He'd been complaining about foot pain, and his new primary care doctor had been concerned about the significant decrease in blood flow to his extremities.  We'd added a lotion to his treatment, and I'd put it on at night, slathering it onto his reddened, gnarled feet, the sharp scent filling my nostrils.  

I do that once a week, when I take the place of his home aide.  A week ago, his feet looked fine.

But when we took off his socks at the podiatrist yesterday, one week later, there were wounds.  A large, suppurating blister on his heel.  On the pad of his foot under his little toe, another.  Smaller, deeper, an angry blood blister with a dark black center.

The podiatrist was alarmed.  Took pictures.  Cleaned the wounds, and cleared away the dead flesh.  There was urgency.  

He came home, his foot bandaged, with instructions to change the dressing and apply a debriding salve.  There's risk, to his mobility, to his foot, to his leg.  It's something more, something else, even if it's not unexpected or improbable.  

Caring for an aging parent is a state of constant adaptation, like being a little boy with a sandcastle as the tide comes inexorably in.  The waves crash, and the walls fall, and you rebuild, and fall back, and rebuild again.  

Yet still the water rises.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Mrs. Hunter

When I was a very little boy, no more than five or six, my mom would take me along with her to visit a friend.  

We'd drive to the retirement home where she lived, a set of midrise towers on the outskirts of DC.  It was, if the fading threads of old memory serve me, a nice place, surrounded by flowering trees and gardens, and intended for the surviving spouses of military officers.  Mostly, it was just me and Mom, because for some reason I can't ever recall my brother coming along.  Given our propensity to squabble as little ones, this was probably for the best.

Ruth Hunter...or Mrs. Hunter, as I called her...was an elderly woman, a widow living alone in a retirement community.  She had worked an editor and a writer for some journal or another, someone who'd written grownup things that grownups were interested in.  Mom had gotten to know her while in her graduate program at Georgetown, and then worked for her as a writer for a while.  Or so I faintly remember, through the haze of the years.

We'd arrive, and wend our way up to the little one room apartment where she lived.  It wasn't much of a space, just four walls and a small bathroom, furnished simply with a few choice items from a former life. 

There, she and Mom would talk and spend time talking about the boring things that grownups talk about.  I'd sit and read, being a spindly little bookish creature.  Sometimes, she'd ask questions about my life, and I'd answer seriously, and Mrs. Hunter would smile at my sharing.

I would be enlisted to search for pills on the floor, squeezing my little frame spider-like under furniture to recover little missing blue or white tablets.  Mrs. Hunter couldn't get them herself, as she required a can...and then, as the years advanced, a get around.  She was old, she would say, and she couldn't get down to do it herself, and she let me know in no uncertain terms that I was being useful.

"Ah, Davidy," she would say.  "You are my best beloved." 

After chatting, we'd go for a walk around the facility, and through the gardens.  Then, if I was lucky, we would head to the cafeteria to eat lunch with her. This meant dessert, and dessert was always welcome.  Ice cream or pie or pudding, so long as it was dessert, I was happy.

When her mobility deteriorated, we'd wheel her about her in a wheelchair.  We continued to visit her well into my teens.  I cannot, from my own memory, remember when she passed.  It may have been when I was in college.

Spending time with the elderly was just something one did, or so I learned as a little boy in the mid 1970s.  It was a natural thing, an important thing, this connection between the generations.  I took for granted, as children often do, that it was simply a thing that happened to everyone.  It wasn't about me, or my activities.  It was about her, and the friendship she and Mom shared, about human connection.


Wednesday, March 29, 2023

"It's not the guns. It's the culture."

"It's not the guns.  It's the culture."

This is the argument, raised several times a month, whenever there is another in America's never-ending series of school massacres.  Or church massacres.  Or mall massacres.  Or country concert massacres.  I lose track.  They're simply too frequent to remember them all.

There's always a gun involved.  A murderer can't do this as easily with pointed sticks, which we know because we no longer hunt nor make war with spears.

No matter what the circumstance, or who is killed, or how many are killed, there is little question that we as a society are at an impasse.  We make the same arguments, every single time.  "It's the guns!"  "It's the culture!"  "We have too many guns!"  "Our culture is broken!"  "There need to be fewer guns!"  "There needs to be more Jesus!"

We have coalesced into two factions, utterly divided, unable to hear one another.  We are Blue and Red, progressive and conservative, thesis and antithesis.  

But I found myself wondering if perhaps a way out lies in synthesis.

It is not just the guns, nor simply the culture, but the poisonous combination of the both.

The thing that is broken is our gun culture.  

The spirit that now animates America's gun culture is at the heart of this long tragedy.

Years ago, I wrote a little novel, a peculiar apocalyptic tale of the Amish living through the collapse of American society.  One thing that's easy to miss in our gauzy buggies-and-bonnets romance-novel view of Old Order Mennonites is that they own firearms.  Plenty of guns.  They hunt.  They slaughter livestock.  There are guns in my novel, and those guns serve a purpose. 

But that purpose is not self-defense, or the use of force against an aggressor.  The Amish, who are as deeply, sternly pacifist as the first Christians were pacifist, would rather die than harm another.  Better to lose your life than your soul, to paraphrase our mutual Master. 

It's a gun counterculture, one steeped in the hard Christian discipline of nonviolence and self-sacrificial pacifism.  If American gun culture was like Amish gun culture, things would be different.  But it is not.  It has also changed.

In my grandfather's time, guns were the realm of hunters, farmers, and sport.  My grandfather owned a rifle, which he used for those purposes.  Now?  Most Americans own guns because guns make us feel powerful, and power makes us feel safe.  If we are threatened, we can use our guns to kill our assailants.  That's what our culture teaches, what the endless firefight of our Roman circus entertainment industry celebrates and encourages, what the howling profit-driven umbrage of culture warriors sings to our hearts.

The call, from many of my Christian brothers and sisters, is for a change to the human heart.  I accept that.

Why do you own a gun, if you own a gun?

Is a gun a practical tool that feeds your family or your neighbors?  Do you hunt or slaughter livestock?  Do you compete in shooting sports?  Then all may be well with your soul.

Do you believe that violence has redemptive power?  Do you believe that the power to harm those who threaten you is justified?  Righteous, even?   Are you fearful for your life, afraid that without a gun, you will be in danger?  Do you desire dominance and power over your enemies?  Are you a proud gun owner?

If so, then the proud spirit of your gun ownership is the opposite of what Jesus taught.  It is what is broken.  Because that dark spirit, the spirit that desires to rule over neighbor and enemy?   The Amish describe that pridefulness as "hochmut," and it is the fundamental nature of all human sin. It is close to what classical Christian orthodoxy would call "concupiscience," the proud lust to possess, to dominate and control.   

Because it is not just the guns.  It is the culture, and the spirit that animates the culture.

Monday, March 27, 2023

The Ords, Part 2

 Within my denomination, one of the things you gotta do if you want to ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament is pass a series of ordination exams.  There are five, and one of the most challenging is the Exegesis test.  You're given a text in the original language, meaning either Hebrew or Greek, depending, and then you've got to both translate it and render an interpretation of that text's meaning.

Helps are permitted, natch, but it's a challenging experience.  Is it a necessary test?  Not at all.  It entirely duplicates what a certified seminary education provides.  It's a needless redundancy, which is no surprise.  We Presbyterians are great at trial by process.

In twenty twenty two, that exam presented readers with a particularly challenging text.  It was one of the many stories of ultraviolence found in scripture.  In Judges 19, a young woman...a "concubine" serially and brutally raped, then dies as a result of her injuries.  The Levite to whom she belongs had thrown her to a mob of men whose intent had been to rape him instead.  To make things even less pleasant, the Levite then hacks her corpse into pieces, which he sends to each of the tribes of Israel as a mark of his outrage. 

It's a horrific tale of sexual violence and body horror desecration, which...having led adult bible studies on the book of just kinda par for the course for that bit of brutal history.  Is it something you're going to ever, ever preach on from the pulpit?  Most unlikely.  Do you need to be able to interpret it?  Yes, you do, because it's in the Bible, and if you want to be a pastor, you have to be equipped and able to deal with the hard stuff.

This seems obvious.  This text is a perfect scripture to surface the horrors of patriarchy and the dehumanization of women, a blunt and godless act of misogynistic terror.  It don't preach, but it does teach, and Presbyterian pastors are Teaching Elders, after all.

Or we were supposed to be.

The inclusion of this text raised a hue and cry among some in the denomination, as folks complained about the use of a traumatizing "Text of Terror" in a high stakes exam.  Victims of violence will be triggered by having to encounter this text, or so one argument went.  The test is a stressful one, with ordination on the line, and to add to that stress by forcing candidates to deal with a retraumatizing scripture alone was abusive, inconsiderate and disrespectful to the experience of victims.   Such a text should only be encountered in a supportive group, others added, and with the help of professional therapists.  

These themes were picked up and amplified through social media.  Voices that disagreed were shouted down or shamed.

Which was, for me, yet another sign of the demise of the Presbyterian Church.  If this is how the "next generation of Presbyterian pastors" responds to that text, we are royally [fornicated] as a denomination.  

I mean, sure, it's an awful text. Horrible.  No [excrement,} Sherlock.  But if you can't interpret it, and you can't explain it contextually and theologically, you're not ready to serve a church.

Because that [excrement] will come up.  What, you think that kids don't read the Bibles you give them?  You think that parishioners won't encounter that text, be horrified, and want an answer from you?

And that's just a God-blighted text, and an act of interpretation.  Members of your, breathing human beings...are likely to experience abuse or sexual violence.  They'll meet with you late on an exhausting Sunday, when you're spent and before you've had your afternoon caffeine bump, because please, pastor, I need to talk, and a story of terror will come tumbling out. People you love dearly in your congregation will die, sometimes horribly.  You'll be in your church office one minute, and ten minutes later, you'll be praying over the corpse of someone you've come to know and love while the family weeps nearby.

You'll need to confront abusers, to tell that dear sweet charming old man who's a major donor and has been a member of the church for seventy years that he's been violating a Covenant of Agreement that forbids him from secretly spending time around pubescent boys, and that he's got to leave.  And sure, you'll have a couple of elders cowering awkwardly behind you, but that's gonna be you, right there.

You'll need to listen to someone confess that they have perpetrated abuse, that they've lied to and betrayed their partners and spouses.  You'll need to encounter every single thing that's ever hurt you in life, mirrored in the lived experience of those coming to you for help.

That's some seriously difficult [excrement], and sure, of course, it's "triggering."  "Traumatizing."

If you're going to be a pastor, your theology...and more importantly, your faith in Christ...needs to be strong enough to deal with those times.

What was, I think, most striking about the "Text of Terror" fiasco was the assumption that people who have never been pastors and have never served congregations in a pastoral capacity should be able to define what is and is not appropriate for pastors to know.  

Not the wise, not the experienced, not those who've been doing the work for decades and know what it means.  But the callow, the naive, those who haven't been tried or tested.  

And don't want to be tested.

Lord have mercy.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Everything and Everywhere

We cannot be, nor can we endure, Everything Everywhere All At Once.

The movie itself was a hoot, albeit fluffier than I'd hoped.  There was kung fu action, absurd silliness and family drama bathos, all woven up into a multiversal narrative that lightly explored themes of identity and choice.  It was fun but shallow, a little bit of caffeinated quantum foam atop one's latte.  I enjoyed it far more than any of the Marvel Universe's recent oversaturated pastel cash grab products.  Dear Baby Jesus, have those films become unwatchable. 

Was EEAAO the best film of 2022?  That is, of course, entirely subjective, and in my universe, it wasn't even close.  Banshees of Inisherin was my best film of 2022.  It was beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, fiercely provocative, emotionally complex, viscerally brutal, utterly heartwrenching.  But a film centering on a tragic friendship between two heterosexual white dudes ain't gonna get the nod from the Academy in 2023.  That isn't complaining.  It's just the truth of the industry zeitgeist. understood in contemporary the magic ingredient.   An interracial queer romance?  A couple of Historical Firsts?   Throw in a dollop of publicist-driven Industry Comeback Story, and the choice of the Academy is obvious.

So sure, Everything Everywhere was cotton candy philosophizing, a shallow hit of cinematic sugar that pressed all the right intersectional buttons.  But what?  In the infinite complexity of the multiverse, what does that matter?  It worked as a film, it was often creative, and it wasn't too terrible to watch, so good on ya, mates.

There's a peculiarity about multiverse narratives, one that has certainly stuck with me as I've explored the theology and morality of the Many Worlds over the last two decades.  Meaning and ethics can be deeply challenged in a cosmology that asserts that there is no one linear timeline.   Why?  Because multiversality asserts that there's no one ending to our story...or any story.  In the multiverse, there's no guarantee of a good outcome, no evident purpose to all of being beyond the completeness of being itself.  What is the place of faith...particularly my Christian such a seemingly amoral cosmos?

For me, engaging theologically with the potential reality of the multiverse has created something of a paradox.  On the one hand, it means that I now see freedom as a terrifying absolute.  As a self-aware and sentient being, I can engage with and consider the probable impact of my choices, and of the choices of others.  I am deeply aware of the potential of every moment, for good and for ill.  I am also deeply aware of the positive potential that lies within even those with whom I disagree.  They are not automatons, any more than I am an automaton.  

On the other, an existential sense of the churning tohu wabohu chaos of infinite possibility has made me...and here lies the paradox...more conservative.  We cannot, as limited and mortal beings, embrace every choice.  We homo sapiens sapiens cannot be everything everywhere all at once, because that would destroy us.  That's the realm of God, of the I Am That I Am.  We aren't God, or even gods.  We're creatures of linear narrative, little lumps of temporally bounded fleshy process, and when we attempt to do and be everything, it destroys us.  Our psyches disintegrate.  We cease to cohere as persons.  Our souls are shattered and scattered, and we spiral smoking down to ruin like singed, helpless, foolish Icarus.

Faith is the bulwark against that devouring entropy.   It integrates.  It sustains.  It allows us to cohere as human persons.  My commitment to Jesus is unchanged, no matter what the universe.  In that, it doesn't matter whether there are a functional infinity of potential realities, or just one.  Just as faith guided our choosing back when we were sure there was just One Story, it now guides us when there are many. 

Of Reels and the Climate Crisis

My most recent publisher reached out to me recently, along with all of the other authors in their stable who've written on the climate crisis.  It was a genial enough email, one notifying me that they were preparing an online marketing push around Earth Day this year.  "Hey, we're going to pitch your books," it said.  "We're going to use Reels, and here's a short guide on how to make one and how to put it up on Tha Socialz."

On the one hand, that's lovely.  Thanks!

But there's an irony in using reels...those short dopamine-bump TikTok-inspired videos that are now omnipresent all all social pitch a book.  Reels are the opposite of books.  Reels are the enemy of literature.  Reels are the shallowest, most trivial, most low-attention-span form of human communication.  They are to visual media what Twitter was for blogging.  They are the realm of the reaction take, the Blooper, the Push Up Decolletage, the Moment of Puppies and Kittens and Ooh Squirrel.  

Reels are radically subliterate, the sort of thing that wires a mind away from sustained argument, reason, and the deep patient soul-growth that a good book can nurture.

I mean, I do have a TikTok account, which I used to see what the platform had to offer.  It was, despite a couple of hours spent customizing it so that the Chinese Communist Party could better understand my personal preferences, brainmeltingly trivial.  Nothing it shared with me was of interest.

On Facebook, which I kinda sorta tolerate, I keep hoping for an option to turn the danged reels off.  

It was a reminder that the medium, as McLuhan so adeptly put it, is the message.  And the message of TikTok, like that of Twitter, is Heraclitan meaninglessness, an endless gorging on succulent nothing.  It is immediacy devoid of context.  It is Eternally Adolescent Now Now Now.  Here's a thing and here's a thing and here's a thing!  

Which means there's an inescapable irony using Reels to pitch books about our dangerously warming earth.  

This epochal shift in our planetary ecology is a long crash, a moral crisis that requires us to be seeing across the centuries it will take us repair the damage we've done.  It's an event occurring on a timescale that will span generations.  To engage it, we need farsightedness.  We need a sustained sense of purpose and attention.  We need to slow down, to disengage from the trivial, to stop leaping after one thing and then another thing.  

And with every reel we watch, we are training our psyches to do precisely the opposite.

God, Florida, and Our Bad Theologies

There, in the comments section of one of the weather sites I visit, was the comment.  I know, I know, don't read the comments, but I did, and there it was.

The wording, a little more profane than I permit myself here on this blog, wondered aloud where God was in the destruction wrought by Ian.  Where is your fake Easter Bunny God now, stupid homeless Florida Christians, was the trite refrain.  It's the sort of casual, shallow, sophomoric cruelty one expects from internet trolls, as if people of faith haven't found rational, gracious answers to the problem of suffering.  

Bad theology, I mumbled, and I rolled my eyes.

Then, deep in the body of an article about survivors of the now-devastated Pine Island, a woman who earnestly declared that she was certain God existed because she and her husband had survived the ordeal.  Now I know God is real, she said.  This isn't particularly Biblical, if you ever crack open the book of Job.  Or any of the Gospels.

Beyond being theologically questionable, it's also probably the opposite of the truth.  She is far more likely to have gotten a definitive answer to the puzzle of God's existence had she not survived.  I sighed at the peculiar solipsism of it all.  Bad theology, again.

Then there were the fulminations of the far right conspiracy theorists, the QAnon adhering "Republicans," declared with bright eyed certainty that the storm only hit that area of Florida because the DEEP STATE was using HAARP WEATHER CONTROL to PUNISH the GOD FEARING AMERICANS who voted for RON DESANTIS.

This is, of course, insane.  If the Leftist Globalist Deep State Pizza Pedophile Cabal had any real control over the weather, Ian would have leveled Mar-a-lago.   

QAnon is theology, of a sort, and it's bad.  Really, really bad.

Knowing my own heart, I am not above some bad theology myself.  Though I know that God brings rain upon the righteous and unrighteous alike, and that suffering and loss are simply part of our mortal condition, it's just so very tempting to attribute divine intention to the destruction of Ian.

Particularly if the divinity in question is the I Am That I Am, the God who we know through the Bible.  Because that God has a very particular interest in how we treat the poor and the outcast, the orphan and the stranger in our land.  Against that metric, Florida ain't doing so well lately.

I mean, here is a state that once welcomed people escaping poverty and oppression with open arms. 
Recently, though, it has gone wildly out of its way to be unwelcoming to refugees forced to flee their homes.  Ian comes just weeks after Florida Governor Ron Desantis engaged in a show of egregious cruelty to a group of Venezuelans fleeing that brutal, failed Marxist regime.  

We will not welcome these desperate, hungry, homeless strangers into our homes, he declared, even though said refugees weren't even in his state.  He spat out the word "sanctuary" like it was a bad taste in his mouth.  Move along, you are not wanted here, he declared, sounding for all the world like he was the satrap of Jericho in a previous life.

Now there are tens of thousands of Floridians without homes,  Floridians who have lost everything, Floridians forced to seek refuge elsewhere.  Floridians who know, first hand, what it is like to be forced to flee.

Bad Theology whispers in my ear: "Biblical cause and effect, baby.  This is the work of a just and angry God.  The measure you give is the measure you will receive.  They deserve this.  It is punishment for their collective sin against the stranger.  That was the sin of Sodom, and the sin of Gomorrah, after all."

Were I a different sort of Christian, I might listen to the Tempters' whisper.  But all I see, among Floridians, are people in need, children of God, some faithful, some not, some kind, some not, some welcoming, some not.  It's not for me to do anything other than hope they find food and shelter and hope for their future.

The Ords, Part 1

We Presbyterians are wonderful at inflicting process on ourselves, and nowhere is that more true than in the processes of ordination.  Layer upon layer of good ideas and accountability, piling up over the years, have rendered becoming a Presbyterian pastor...or Teaching Elder...or Minister of Word and Sacrament...or whatever it is we're calling it these days...a byzantine test of endurance.

I described it once, to a committee that was validating my move to candidacy, as a "trial by process."  Some of them laughed, others didn't, but it was the reality I knew I was facing.  I expected to be tested, and annoyed, and frustrated, and that expectation was not disappointed.

So much of it is redundant, unnecessary, or without evident purpose, and nowhere is that more true than the Ordination Exams.  The denomination administers tests on an array of different subjects, to ensure that pastors know their stuff.  It's a bit like the civil service exams, and equally redolent of 20th century Federal bureaucracy.

If that was it, well, that'd be fine.  Pastors should know their stuff.  But Presbyterians also require an advanced degree from an accredited seminary, which is where one learns about polity and exegesis and worship.  If you've passed coursework from an accredited institution of higher education, then why isn't that sufficient?  Does accreditation not count for anything?  I mean, sure, the schools are all different, and professors are all different, and only Princeton is Princeton.  But the Ords are all graded by an equally wide variance of lay folk.  It ain't any different.

The Ords are a product of a different time, when Presbyterian church membership wasn't plummeting earthward in an unrecoverable stall.  They are a waste of energy, a squandering of our dwindling human resources.

Giving Up on Being an Author

 I've pretty much given up on trying to be an author.

Ten years, I was at it, bumping out manuscripts like a feral sow birthing piglets.  For a brief while, things seemed to work.  The words flowed in a stream, living, burbling, playing across the surfaces of life.  It was a joy.  Easy.  Delightful.

Over the last year, that flow has dwindled to nothing.  I start a manuscript, and it stalls.  I start another, and it withers.  The river, as the musical Songs for a New World once put it, don't flow for me, no no no.  Part of that has come with a shifting of my life into middle age, as more and more of my energies have been redirected into caring for my aging parents.  Dad was in the hospital five times last year, as his congestive heart failure continued its inexorable advance.  He's past the point where he can function on his own, and Mom's memory failure and osteoporosis mean that she can't care for him either.  Managing caregiving and doing caregiving myself takes time and bandwidth.  That's a factor, without question.

That's not all of it.  A substantial amount of my writing output was, if I am honest with myself, stimulated by having briefly succeeded.  My first novel wasn't a bestseller, but it did well, as books go.  It felt like there was a real possibility of ongoing publication, of being not simply a writer, but an Author.  It was an ego thing, and not necessarily in a bad way.  Having one editor and then another say, hey, you know what, this ain't bad?   That validation stirred a sudden burst of confidence that there was a point to my writing, that it wasn't simple solipsism, that there was a purpose to taking the time to pour out the stories and reflections and insights of my soul.

It stirred me to aspire.

There's a fine line between aspiration and self-delusion.

The struggles to publish anything since that novel have quite effectively deflated that sense of external validation.  I am not what the industry is looking for.  My insights are not relevant, are not trending.  My imagination is not correct.  I, personally, am not interesting, in ways that I cannot change and cannot modify.  My efforts are meaningless, toil that is chasing the wind.  If you write a story, and love that story, it's hard to tell that tale and have it received with disinterest, or not received at all.

"Here is my heart, the work of my life, months of my focused toil, years of my dreams," says the writer, laying their words on the altar.  Then, from the heavens of industry, nothing but silent reproach.  When your sacrifice is ignored or rejected, it's easy to become as resentful as Cain, simmering murderously as Abel's bacon sizzles in the nostrils of God.  

Or to despair.  To simply give up.  Which, I think, I largely have.

That's why I've returned to this writing for a while.  Because this was where I'd journaled, where I'd turned my thoughts into words.  It primed the pump.  There was pleasure in the simple act of writing.  

Blogs were once a place for conversation, too, before Facebook and Twitter killed them.  Now, they're nothing but a place of content vomit, a medium to establish platform, a way to drive ad based revenue.  Or to record thought.  I don't need to publish those thoughts.  Why contribute to the cacophonous din?  Why "produce content?"  Why invite the bobbleheaded nodding of lazy groupthink, or the reflexive offense of the censorious?  Simply have thoughts, and write them down.

I do not need to be an author.  But that does not mean that I should not write. 

Gas Stoves

Remember how America was up in arms about gas stoves?  Pepperidge Farm remembers, perhaps, but we don't.

We've forgotten about it now, because a whole month has passed and human beings are fickle and easily distracted.  But it was the hubbub-of-the-day for a couple of weeks, for all of the usual reasons.  It was a false, overdrawn narrative, like most manufactured crises.

A single unguarded comment from an EPA administrator was picked up, misrepresented, and blown wildly out of proportion by right wing media.  As close to half of American households cook with gas, and gas cooking only contributes 0.1% of America's harmful emissions, it's basically a non-issue, utterly marginal as a contributor to climate change.  For the far-right, though, that makes it perfect as a wedge issue.  You can rile hundreds of millions of citizens with the imagined threat that they'll be forced to replace a basic and expensive appliance.  That, and people actually prefer gas.  Electric ovens and cooktops are an inferior cooking experience.  I've had both, and there's just no comparison. 

For progressives, this became yet another opportunity to show that progressives have no idea how to pick their battles.  Is this a significant problem?  No.  Does pursuing the issue rile a substantial portion of the population?  It does.  But if the right is against it, then the left will be for it, and vicey versey, so once more into the breach!

For several weeks, every progressive I know was suddenly focused on the evils of gas stoves.  Opportunistic "studies" showed that gas stoves contributed to climate change.  "As much as 500,000 cars," one activist opined, without noting that America has over 250,000,000 registered vehicles.

Again, that's zero point one percent.

And sure, spaces where you regularly cook with every industrial kitchen in every restaurant everywhere...should be well ventilated.  Particulate emissions are a thing, and the data there about health impacts is real and acknowledged by all.  

But our primary areas for significant reduction of fossil fuel use are transportation, agriculture, and home heating.  In those areas, increases in efficiency or transitions to less polluting electric options can have a large impact. 

In the long struggle to adapt to climate change and reduce its impact, we'll need to keep our eyes on the prize, rather than chasing after every single little thing.

Social Justice and Evangelism

In a recent issue of the Christian Century, there was a thought-provoking article by Mark Glanville, a professor at Regent College.  Glanville reflects critically on an old refrain often taken up by conservatives and evangelicals.  Whenever Christians turn their eyes towards a societal injustice, and begin preaching or moving against it, there are those who say it is a distraction.

Glanville had been troubled by the response of a Southern Baptist leader, who'd suggested that those passionate about rooting out sexual malfeasance in the church were part of a "satanic scheme to distract us from evangelism."  This is preposterous, of course.  Where pastors abuse their leadership status to prey on congregants, there's pretty much no grey area.  Such abuses are an offense to the Gospel.

Glanville goes on to press against the idea that justice advocacy is a distraction, noting that precisely that argument was made by pro-slavery churchmen to condemn the abolitionist movement.   He presses the idea that churches should be "advocating for survivors of sexual abuse and discerning where racism is at work."  

These are important things, and valid fruits of the Gospel.

But they are missing something.   The challenge facing the withering oldline denominations is not that justice work is a distraction.  It's that justice work isn't evangelism, and that our failure to evangelize renders advocacy work meaningless.

Why so? 

Let us take, as case in point, the earnest efforts of my own denomination towards justice.  We Presbyterians (USA) were in conclave this year.  We've been making statements about racial justice, and environmental justice, and gender justice, and reproductive justice, and justice for Queer Folk.  We've stated our righteous demands, as advocates and activists do.  We've called for the end of the war in Ukraine, and peace in the Congo.  We've called for justice in Israel and Palestine.  We've demanded the end of cash bail.  We've formed commissions, task forces, and study groups. 

But what does that do?  

In a democracy, you need to be able to back that proclamation with the mobilization of and transformation of human beings.  In a republic, you need to be a movement.  

We ain't that, unless you define the process of organizational senescence as a movement.

When the church was formed, the PC(USA) stood at four point six million members.  We were heard because we represented 2.3% of the US population.  Not a huge number, sure, but enough to make a difference.  In 2022, we are 0.3% of the population.  We're a rounding error.  Less than a rounding error.  

For fifty years, we've operated under the assumption that if we focus our energies on advocating for justice, they will come.  Evangelism is not necessary.  It's a little icky icky poo poo, a little demanding, a little inadequately interfaith.   We pour our energy into making statements and calling for studies and advocating policies and proclaiming justice, while the foundation underneath those proclamations cracks and fragments into sand.

That foundation is the local church.  It is the root and soil from which the Gospel is lived.  Countless congregations that are seeing their membership dwindle and fade, as the promised wave of souls drawn to our progressive policy proclamations and rainbow flags fails to materialize.

Why is this?  Honestly, it's simple.  Why be a member of a church that is indistinguishable from a political movement?  I mean, even if you agree with that movement, where's the value-added of doing that in a congregational context?

You do not need to be part of a church to advocate for progressive policy positions, or to find community around a justice issue.  You do not need the church if you are primarily interested in eliminating cash bail, or responding to the climate crisis, or being antiracist.  If I wanted to be part of a church that was nothing more than a transparent gloss over a political movement, I might as well be a guns'n'country evangelical.

The church is nothing more and nothing less than a group of human beings who have committed to following Jesus together.  When we forget that, we fail.