Friday, October 28, 2011

Shopping for Pants at Kohl's

If my choice is between getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick or going shopping I will go shopping, but I would much prefer visiting the dentist. I shop only when there is no other choice, which became the case when I finally acknowledged that I have become shorter.

I had vaguely wondered why the cuffs of my pants were fraying so rapidly, and Susan finally noted that it might have something to do with the fact that they were dragging on the ground. The arthritic deterioration in my spine that has caused various unpleasant symptoms in recent years has now taken an inch or two of height from me. I needed an entire new pants wardrobe, so I steeled myself and headed for Kohl’s.

For those who do not know it, Kohl’s is a discount department store that sells decent-quality merchandise at reasonable prices and always has some sort of sale going. They regularly send us promotional material that requires us to peel off a sticker to learn the amount of our “special discount,” and on the most recent one we had won the Kohl’s lottery with the enviable 30% discount. Armed with my discount card I headed for Kohl’s on a Wednesday, which is Senior Discount Day, when everyone over the age of 60 gets an additional 15% off. My mission was to find pants that were already on sale and then take another 45% off the price. What could possibly go wrong?

I tried on a fair number of pants, most of which hung on my thin frame like burlap sacks. The fit categories appear to have shifted in the last few years. What they now call “natural fit” are pants that used to be called “relaxed fit,” and the trousers they now call “relaxed fit” should be called “bordering on obese fit.” I finally located a few pairs of “thin fit” pants in my new size, and, since I was going to get 45% off everything, also purchased a shirt and a few birthday gifts for our grandson.

Except when I got to the register I learned that my 30% discount card was not good until the next Monday (I failed to read the fine print), so I received only my senior discount. But I did get twenty “Kohl’s Dollars,” part of another promotion they were running. Since I still needed to replace my jeans, I would simply come back on Monday to get my 30% discount and spend my Kohl’s Dollars.

On Monday I found some jeans – in the “hip, urban young guy” department, which remarkably enough had a nice selection of thin fit Levis 511s (“second pair half price!”). When I took them to the register I received my 30% discount but learned that my Kohl’s Dollars were not good until Thursday (another failure to read the fine print). And to get my 30% discount I had to put the jeans on my Kohl’s account, which I did not have. I opened an account, purchased my jeans, and received – take a deep breath - another ten Kohl’s Dollars.

On Thursday I returned to Kohl’s with the thirty Kohl’s Dollars and my still-valid 30% discount card, determined not to let the Kohl’s Dollars expire, only to discover there was nothing in the entire store I wanted or needed. I picked out six pairs of nice socks, but since they were on sale I was still only halfway to my thirty Kohl’s Dollars. Which means that our grandson is going to have a very nice birthday.
I am done shopping for the foreseeable future. But the next time I need something from Kohl’s I plan to read all the fine print. Or take my accountant.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reflections on Visiting Warsaw

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1. Poland is a country that it would never have occurred to us to visit without the Alzheimer Europe conference to draw us there, and one that does not offer a great deal of what normally motivates tourists to travel – not “world-class” museums, cathedrals, castles, architecture, cuisine, wildlife, etc. The language is more difficult than romance languages, direct flights from US cities are almost non-existent; on almost any version of a Life List of places to visit, it would have a hard time cracking the time 30. And yet for experiencing the sense of “other” that is one of the most rewarding joys of travel, it holds its own with far more storied destinations.

2. We can hardly claim to “know” Warsaw after six days, with more than half our time devoted to the conference and most of the rest of it to activities related to the conference (speaking at the university, visiting a nursing home and day care facility). And yet it is in doing the sorts of things that tourists rarely do that we can discover the strongest sense of “place.” One outcome was meeting Karisa, a teaching physician who was our driver to the nursing home, and with whom we somehow formed a connection sufficient to spend the afternoon with her on our final day, meeting in Wilanow to see the poster museum (hardly a major tourist draw), walk the grounds of the summer palace, and chat in a café, forming a friendship that will likely last.  
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We barely touched upon the few “must do” things that tourists typically do in Warsaw – we spent perhaps 50 minutes in Old Town, and we never saw New Town or the Royal Way. This may prove hard to explain to the few people we know who have been to Warsaw. But we became reasonably accomplished at navigating the bus system , wandered the streets of the Centrum district where our hotel was, and managed to stumble across wonderful dining experiences that were not to be found in any guide book, or even on the web. Among them:

3. The tiny, basement level Georgian restaurant where we ate on our second night. No English was spoken by the hostess/waitress, who we figured out likely owns and runs the place with her father, who does the cooking. We were served a heaping platter of lamb, eggplant stuffed with more lamb, tasty appetizers and drank Georgian wine (who knew there was such a thing?). And on our last night, while looking for a restaurant we never found, we stumbled into a charming place that served one of the most memorable meals we have ever eaten, including desserts that (we were informed) are considered by local folks to be the finest in the city.

4. Who would ever expect to become genuinely fond of a conference hotel? We ate dinner twice in their restaurant (three kinds of pierogies, all very tasty). As best we can recall, it was the first time we have spent six consecutive nights in the same hotel, and we were well taken care of. We came to know the staff in both bar and restaurant a bit (I was introduced to a vodka infused with “bison grass” that I wish we could get in the states). The hotel catered the coffee breaks during the conference with delightful pastries, provided very good lunches, and:

5. Our breakfasts were free and extraordinarily good – much food from which to choose, fancy espresso machines, and I finally found a juice – black current – that I enjoy with breakfast. Our room was of modest size, but very well equipped, with two desk chairs and two reading chairs, and had free Internet (once we purchased an Ethernet adapter for our MacBook Air). Given all these extras, our room was
6. Surprisingly affordable, as was all of Warsaw. We took $100 US in zlotys and hard a hard time spending it, something that conference delegates from other countries also noted. An excellent dinner for two with a decent wine runs maybe sixty dollars, bus tickets are about a dollar, a fine vodka three or four bucks. We have not calculated our total costs yet, but it is fair to say that, ignoring airfare, the week cost about half what we would have spent in major Western European cities.

7. Pretty much the only Polish word we learned to say more or less correctly (other than “yes” and “no”) was “thank you.” That and a smile will pretty much get you by most anywhere. Except maybe France.

8. Being in Poland brought back many of our childhood memories of the “Iron Curtain,” and our sense that behind that curtain there was nothing but a grey blanket of misery. Certainly there is much to remind a visitor of the horror and tragedy that has marked Polish history, particularly 20th century history, first with the German destruction and occupation, then with the Soviet oppression. But human beings in general and Poles in particular are remarkably resilient, and Warsaw is very much a modern European city (although still playing catch-up in a few respects) with an economy that is healthy by the standards of Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc. We saw many young professionals on the streets, well-dressed and gabbing into cell phones on their way to and from work. Likely the rural areas are a different story, but we had no sense whatsoever of Poland being backwards or Western Europe’s “poor relation.”

9. Our room looked out onto the “Centrum Rondo,” which utterly fascinated us. First, picture a four-lane roundabout in the very center of a major city, with all the drivers seeming to know what lane to be in. Now run trams through the roundabout in both north/south and east/west directions, with the traffic signals somehow taking them into account. Then imagine a world underneath the roundabout with dozens of shops (including some sort of brothel that “members” appear to have keys for) and 18 (my best guess/count) sets of stairs leading up and down. Only in our last two days did we succeed in surfacing where we wanted to on the first attempt. You want urban? Warsaw’s got it.

10. We discovered once more, (as we did this past summer in England) how much we enjoy being anywhere in Europe. We envy the friends we met at the conference their ability to travel just a few hundred miles and be in another country with its own language and culture, and how at ease they are in moving between them. Most everyone but us was fluent in two or three languages and can get by in several others. It is not that Europeans cannot be provincial, but they need to work harder at it. If our budget permitted it, three trips to Europe per year would feel just about right. Sadly, it does not. Next year’s Alzheimer Europe Conference will be in Vienna, where I have heard the pastries are pretty good. Barring the sudden death of a rich uncle (and neither of us has an uncle, rich or otherwise), it is hard to imagine attending. Hard, but not completely unthinkable. And finally:

11. We enjoyed all of our new European friends. But Italians still have the most fun.
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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Center for Progressive Renewal: a GLBT future for the UCC?

A few months ago I went to the Center for Progressive Renewal in Atlanta to be trained as a potential consultant to UCC congregations identified as having the potential to “turn around;” troubled or struggling churches that with a bit of guidance and direction might be able to flourish and grow again. I did not feel any particular sense of calling to become a consultant to congregations, but my dear friend Tony Robinson, himself a very successful church consultant, urged me to at least bring an open mind.

I was glad I went, first because I was able to renew friendships with some folks I had not seen in many years (Bill McKinney, retiring president of the Pacific School of Religion; Steve Sterner, who was about to retire from UCC Local Church Ministries; Ron Buford, who brought the “Still Speaking” Initiative into being; and, of course, Tony) and meet some wonderful folks who were new to me. But frankly, I had no real sense of what the Center for Progressive Renewal was all about. I had spent some time on their very slick website, and was mightily impressed by the ways in which they were using technology, but could not quite get a handle on their identity or mission.

The short version is that in an era where very few UCC Conferences can sustain a position in church development and renewal on their own staffs, the CPR is seeking to become a quasi-independent organization (they do not yet have their own 501c3 status but that is a part of their plan) that will take on this role, primarily for UCC churches but also for those belonging to other “progressive” judicatories. (I have confessed in a previous post that I struggle with the word “progressive,” so will not belabor it again here).

Their co-executive directors, Cameron Trimble and Mike Piazza, are bright and energetic. Cameron is startlingly young to be so accomplished (old guy perspective here), and recently migrated from the United Methodist Church to the UCC. Mike is the founding pastor of the Cathedral of Hope, a primarily GLBT congregation in Dallas that moved from the Metropolitan Community Church to the UCC some years ago, the largest congregation ever to join the UCC. They are supported by a dedicated and talented staff of part-time folks, with a strong focus on technology. This is a good thing: given how tight church and judicatory budgets are these days, the more that can be done on-line the better. In many important respects, they represent the future of church renewal, leadership development, coaching, etc.

They are very blunt about how they triage their consulting opportunities. They do not want to invest their limited resources in ventures not likely to succeed, which describes the overwhelming majority of UCC congregations. They believe that the future of the United Church of Christ is largely southern and primarily GLBT, meaning churches made up mostly of gay and lesbian Christians and the straight folks who like to hang out with them.

I have no real problem with either emphasis. The South is where population growth has been happening for decades, and the UCC has done a pretty miserable job of establishing itself there. Moreover, the South remains less secularized than other regions. In my view, it is hardly an accident that the Cathedral of Hope grew like wildfire in Dallas, even though it is not regarded as a “gay-friendly” part of the country. Dallas is arguably the “churchiest” of all major cities in the U.S.; every restaurant that serves Sunday brunch offers a discount if you bring your church bulletin, and department store ads still feature “church dresses.” Like everyone else in Dallas, GLBT folks want to be in church on Sunday morning. And being in a less gay-friendly region can help to build community not just among GLBT folks, but also among those who support them. Being lesbian parents is unremarkable in Seattle or Minneapolis, but it remains a challenge in the South.

So yes, there is a legitimate mission to strengthen and support GLBT congregations in the South, and yes, there is potential for meaningful growth in doing so. But then my list of problems with this strategy begins.

First, I am not nearly ready to abandon the thousands of congregations who do not fit the CPR’s vision. I still hold the conviction that small, aging congregations in areas where the population is stagnant or declining have opportunities not only to survive but to flourish if they can identify real community needs, particularly the needs of an aging population, and address them. Yes, the overall picture is glum, but I find it hard to believe that God no longer has any use for us above the Mason Dixon line.

Secondly, the GLBT emphasis brings me to the same issue I have had all along with the Still Speaking campaign, namely whether “everyone is welcome here!” is an adequate vision on which to hang the faith identity of a congregation. As Stan Hauerwas once expressed it, “I have the suspicion that God Almighty finds our genitals a good deal less fascinating than we do.” Or as a pastor of a thriving congregation recently said to my friend Tony, “Folks only come to this church looking for two things—a genuine experience of God’s presence and a safe place to talk about that experience.”

There is precious little interest in theology among the CPR staff, nor is there much desire to talk about Jesus. I would in no way want the UCC to be anything less than fully inclusive of GLBT folks, and it makes sense to me in certain regions of the country to emphasis that inclusiveness strongly and publicly, but I cling to the conviction that the calling of the church is to make Christian disciples out of us, whether we self-identify as gay or straight. Too many of our churches think that getting folks in the door and congratulating them for being such wonderful people is enough. It isn’t.

Finally, I wonder about the math in this formula for church growth and renewal. If ten percent of Americans self-identify as GLBT, and the UCC manages to attract—let us be remarkably optimistic here—ten percent of them to its congregations, our potential growth will be coming from 1% of the population.

I will continue to follow the work of the CPR and pray for its mission. I have offered myself as a resource person on addressing the issues and opportunities raised by aging and dementia, an offer that was politely received and, likely, promptly forgotten. Clearly it is not the right fit for me, but I welcome what they bring to the table and do not want to underestimate the good that God can bring out of their sincere efforts.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A few kind words for the Established Church

I have promised to write more about the United Church of Christ on this blog, but have been distracted by our recent trip to England to visit Memory Cafes, which I encourage you to read about on our Aging Together blog. During that trip we spent three days with Rob Merchant, a gerontologist and theologian who serves as rector to seven small Anglican parishes in rural Gloucestershire. I had the privilege of preaching in two of these churches (the “new” one was constructed in the 16th century while the oldest dates to the 11th) to congregations ranging from seven to twelve.

While we in mainline Christianity make a lot of noises about the loss of our privileged position as the de facto “established church” in America, this was my first experience with a truly established church (it is, after all, called “the Church of England”) and what it means to serve as faithful pastor in such a setting. Here are a few thoughts and observations of some relevance to those of us living and serving in the twilight of mainline Protestant Christianity in America.

1. We should never underestimate the loyalty of members to their churches, or the deep emotional and spiritual investment of those with a multi-generational history in their congregations. In practical terms it makes no sense whatsoever to try to keep these seven rural churches going. Try to imagine the maintenance issues associated with a building that is eight centuries old. The dream of one congregation is to have a working toilet in the church building, but the engineering challenges make this impossible (in rural England, remember to pee before leaving for church). Somehow they find a way to do the repairs that simply must be done to the buildings, and to maintain the cemeteries that serve as history books for the entire village. The practical thing would be to close four or five of the churches and merge them into two or three viable congregations, and one day it may come to this. But the deep center of identity and meaning these churches provide to their members suggests that they will put that day off as long as possible.

2. Rob’s predecessor served those churches for 30 years, and provided the people of the villages with the same consistent message: you are a member of the parish by virtue of living within it; you do not need to attend worship to be a good Christian (although showing up on Easter, Christmas Eve and Boxing Day is good form); and the church will always be here for you. Rob is more or less stuck with the first point, is gently trying to correct the second, and is deeply committed to the third. While the seven churches combined rarely draw a total of 100 persons to Sunday worship, he serves as caring pastor to a flock of about 3,000 souls.

3. Not all of those souls are Anglican souls. We accompanied him on a visit to an older couple, the husband an acclaimed artist with dementia (you can read their story on the Aging Together blog). She is a Roman Catholic, but the closest Catholic parish is in the city of Gloucester, quite some distance from the village of Hartpury. She clearly regards Rob as her pastor, and gratefully shares in the Eucharist with her “vaguely Christian” spouse. If I had in any way associated the Established Church with a certain degree of arrogance, what I witnessed was precisely the opposite – humble and faithful service to all in need.

4. In American Protestantism, whether Evangelical or Mainline, busyness itself is counted a virtue and a wide range of groups and programs is considered essential to a vital church. It is assumed that a church that is not growing in numbers and planning its next expansion project is somehow failing the test of faithfulness. Worship must be a major production where no detail is overlooked. As I participated in my first Anglican Evensong, trying to find my place in various service books that were older than I am (everyone else present was apparently born already knowing the practices and traditions), I had reason to question these assumptions. When the time came for my meditation, I abandoned my carefully-prepared notes and simply reflected aloud on our texts, deeply aware of how connected we were to God and one another through this simple and ancient act of worship.

Economic realities may ultimately lead to the demise of some of these congregations, but they have persisted faithfully with far fewer resources than many of our small Mainline congregations that are labeled “declining” or “dying.” Their doors, by the way, are never locked; that would be unthinkable. They are the settings where young couples marry and the dead are remembered and grieved. They are the entire village’s anchor in the transcendent realm, the embodiment of their highest aspirations and ideals. They are where the God revealed in Jesus Christ is encountered in worship. And that is enough, it is more than enough.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Churchy thoughts: the UCC is in crisis

I have allowed this blog to lie fallow for a number of months as I focused on completing my Goodwill chaplaincy and sorting out the pattern for life’s next stage. I am now officially a “retiree,” at least in the sense that I am no longer receiving a paycheck (thank you, UCC pension boards; bless you, social security!). My primary focus for the coming year will be on the work Susan and I are doing on dementia, friendship and community. This will include a fair number of speaking engagements and a bit of travel. We leave for England next week, where we will visit four towns with active Memory Café programs. Their models vary slightly, which will help us sort out which model will be the best fit for the program we hope to initiate here. In October we will both present papers at the Alzheimer’s Europe Conference in Warsaw and Susan will return to Europe for a conference in November.

But I also want to make service to the church a part of the new mix, so I would l would like to do some reflecting on the state of the church and my possible role within it in a series of posts. Those not interested in churchy posts can feel free to tune out for a month or two.

Let’s start with an ugly truth: the United Church of Christ is in tatters. Until about six weeks ago, I do not realize how rapidly its decline has accelerated. We have 38 Conferences, or regional judicatories. At least ten are now hanging by a thread: in or near bankruptcy, without any full-time staff, etc. Our own Wisconsin Conference, among the healthiest in comparative terms, has just “right-sized” its own staff in a manner that will radically change how it resources its member congregations. The average age of UCC members across the country is 62. More than half of its congregations are, at best, fragile; many will never again be served by a full-time ordained minister.

Why? A big piece of it is not UCC-specific—the role of religion in American life is greatly diminished across the boards. Young adults are disaffiliating from congregations at six times the historic rate, and many will not be coming back. The United States is becoming France (and not only because our artisan cheese is getting better).

UCC congregations are disproportionately located where populations are declining—across the northern tier of states, in dying small towns and rural areas and in inner cities where demographics have changed. We were too slow out of the gate in founding congregations in high-growth areas, and now lack the resources to do so.

We also pretty much bet the farm on the idea that if we just got the word out about how swell we are because we include everyone, folks would break down our doors. But our big “everyone is welcome here!” campaign probably helped the Unitarian-Universalists more than it helped the UCC. After all, if your core identity is built around inclusiveness, why exclude non-Christians? The principal outcome of our “Still Speaking” campaign was to make us the favorite church of young adults who have no interest in being part of a church.

These things hold true to varying degrees for the other denominations that used to be called “mainline.” The new word, it seems, is “progressive,” which I detest, because it essentially says to other church bodies “we are progressive and you are not.” It is more a political term than a theological one, and it is not playing particularly well in the political realm these days either. As my friend Tony Robinson puts it: “mainline churches used to be the ‘default choice’ for selecting a church home, and the ‘default’ is now Evangelical.” It never occurred to us that this could happen. How could anyone not choose us when we were so welcoming, inclusive, and justice-minded? Turns out folks wanted to develop a personal relationship with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Who could have guessed?

So now I have made a significant commitment to the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC in sorting out how we may serve God faithfully in a challenging era where we no longer sit at the head of the table of American Christianity (hopefully we have not yet been relegated to the card table set up in the kitchen). Challenged though it may be, the Wisconsin Conference still has a great deal going for it. We have been shaped by a robust theology, a rare thing in the UCC. Our folks are wonderfully loyal overall, to their God and to their wider church family. We need to find a way to continue in faithful witness and service with virtually no resources from the national office, which has pretty much run out of creative ways to rearrange the deck chairs as the ship goes down. We represent an important tradition within the Christian family, a tradition that is unique in significant ways. I believe that God is still capable of getting some good out of us. I have a few stories to tell—about a strange and disturbing center in Atlanta, about the Ethiopian eunuch and a few other things. Yes folks, it is all-church all-the-time on this blog for awhile!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why I cannot rejoice in Bin Laden's death

Osama Bin Laden was a very wicked man who perpetrated great evil. He was the enemy not only of the United States, but of civilization itself. Doubtless it is a better world, arguably a safer one (although in the short term it will likely be even more dangerous), with him removed from it.

Yet I cannot rejoice in any violent death, not even that of a wicked man, for it necessarily continues the cycle of violence itself. I have never found the argument that capital punishment serves as a deterrent convincing, and I am equally skeptical that Al Qaeda will be deterred from future terrorist activity by Bin Laden’s execution. Fanatics who regard suicide bombing as a spiritually noble way to die are not likely to be dissuaded by the threat “we will bring you to justice, no matter how long it takes!”

There are many lost souls in our world, some of those souls terribly warped and twisted. Bin Laden clearly was in that latter category. I am not saying that he should not have been put to death (certainly he would not have permitted himself to be taken alive), merely that I cannot rejoice in it. My faith teaches that rejoicing is the proper response when a lost soul is reclaimed, not when a lost soul is executed. It had to be done: I understand that, even agree with it. And yet I grieve my own complicity in the cycle of responding to violence with violence.

There is a bit of irony in the timing of his death. After nearly ten years of armed conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bin Laden is finally killed just as the Arab world begins to embrace freedom and democracy rather than the path of hatred he taught. The young in particular, those whose frustration made them so ripe for recruitment by Al Qaeda, are coming to believe that they have the power to shape a better future. People who believe in their future are not likely to become suicide bombers.

Some are claiming that Bin Laden’s death marks the end of a dark era, and I hope and pray that will prove to be true. In the real world eras never end tidily, of course. Some Al Qaeda cells will likely endure for years, even decades. More grievous acts of terror will occur, we will retaliate, and that retaliation will then be used as a tool to recruit more to the path of terrorism. That is how the cycle has always worked: violence cannot bring an end to violence.

What can? Hopes and dreams. In the end we all want the same things: a safe and decent world in which to raise children, friendship and community, love and laughter, and the freedom to pursue our hopes and dreams. Bin Laden is dead. May new hopes and dreams be born in the imaginations of both those who idolized him and those who hated him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whining About the Weather

Those who deny the reality of climate change resulting from human activity like to point to each unexpected cold spell as “proof” that there is no such thing as “global warming.” But the climate change models argue that even as the overall temperature of the planet (as averaged over the course of the year) continues to rise, this increase will be accompanied by more extreme swings in local weather patterns. Columnist Thomas Friedman has given this phenomenon a name: “Global Weirding.”

Today it is feeling very weird indeed as we await the arrival of a major snowstorm on April 19. If the predicted 6-8 inches materialize, many of us will face an ethical dilemma: are we morally required to shovel wet, heavy snow that will be gone within three days? If the snowplow comes through, we will likely have no choice—the snow-blower that I put away for the year weeks ago will be summoned back to duty. Oh, and the ice scrapers and brushes are back in the cars while my snow tires are sitting on a rack at the tire store.

What a spring! Last week we were in the 70s, and I got my yard work started even as the massive storms that spawned multiple tornados and hailstorms approached. Raking out the lawn was like cleaning up a battlefield: there were many patches of fur and feathers, testifying that our feeders created a buffet table for the local hawks over the winter. Sadly, the hawk to rabbit ratio was not nearly high enough, and the rabbits did their usual damage, girdling all the forsythia and mowing down the raspberries among other insults. My estimate of the final score is rabbits 6, hawks 2, McFadden 0.
Last year I was able to start planting spring vegetables in late March. Given how wet the ground is (and how much wetter it is about to become), this year it may be June before the first seed is planted. Bah!

Being as I am a 63-year-old ordained clergyperson, one might reasonably assume that I have cultivated rich gifts of wisdom and patience that enable me to place such minor inconveniences in proper perspective. I know, for example, that God is good and is present to us in all circumstances. I know that it is our relationships with others that give life joy and meaning. I know a lot more stuff like that. But I reserve my right to whine.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

News Fatigue

Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed by the effort to follow world events right now? I generally feel obligated to remain aware of current events, to have some understanding of them, and—at least on a good day—to hold an opinion about them. I confess that the largely peaceful revolution in Egypt, one of the most significant events of our young century, has pretty much slipped off my screen entirely. Libya is front and center right now, with a shifting cast of characters too complex for me to absorb. Gaddafi is clearly a bad guy, a very bad guy. The rebels are the good guys, unless they later prove not to be. The U.S. military played the limited (and highly effective) role promised and then, also as promised, pulled back and turned enforcement of the no-fly zone over to NATO. Which is dominated by the U.S. In a most encouraging sign, the Arab League is supporting this operation. Except when it isn’t. Some argue that the U.S. took too active a role; others insist that we need to “finish the job” by deposing Gaddafi. And all of this is changing hour by hour.

That does not leave much time or energy to focus on what is happening in Yemen, Syria, or the other nations where pro-democracy forces are challenging entrenched power, because I also need to pay attention to what is happening in Japan. And earthquake so powerful that my imagination can barely grasp it, followed by a tsunami of incredible destructive force. Many lives lost, others profoundly disrupted. A Japanese economy that may require years to recover, sending ripples around the globe. Crippled nuclear reactors are leaking radioactivity in a tense drama that has skittish people in the American Midwest popping iodine pills. The future of nuclear energy is being passionately debated, with persuasive arguments being made on both sides of the issue. I will share my opinion if you wish, but it will likely be different tomorrow.

These momentous events have pushed U.S. politics out of the headlines almost entirely, but Washington is rapidly approaching another impasse over the federal budget that this time, some pundits believe, may result in a government shut-down. That did not work out particularly well the last time it happened. And here in Wisconsin, the budget bill Governor Walker signed is now officially a law, unless it isn’t, so some municipalities are enforcing it and some are not. Chaotic and confusing? You bet. Democracy is always a messy affair, but in these divisive, contentious times, we appear to be teetering on the edge of complete dysfunction.

I try to read two newspapers each day and read "The Economist" each week, as well as following events on the web and radio. It is beginning to feel like a full-time job, and not a particularly enjoyable or encouraging one. So I am grateful for the sports section, and the beginning of baseball season. The world may be crumbling around us, but if the Brewers can stay healthy, we have a real shot at the post-season this year. The snow will melt, the crocuses will bloom, and the umpire will bellow “Play Ball!” The substance of hope has been built on far less than this: God is good and all, somehow, will be well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wisdom Born of Tragedy

From time to time I share thoughts from others on this page. This is a portion of an essay that my friend Debra Dean Murphy, Assistant Professor of Religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College, wrote in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“The indiscriminate destruction caused by earthquakes and tsunamis messes with our sense of cosmic justice. It shatters our romantic views of nature and of divinity–the silliness we often succumb to when we credit God with a beautiful sunset or a striking cloud formation. It silences, thankfully, if only for awhile, the bad theology of Everything Happens for a Reason. (That the Japanese are the only people to have suffered a nuclear attack and are now at grave risk for prolonged radiation contamination is a particularly cruel irony that ought to leave us in stunned silence.)

This kind of “natural” devastation also reminds us of how little control we really have in this life, despite our considerable efforts to manage, contain, and forestall the unforeseeable. We know this in personal, intimate ways–a loved one stricken with cancer, say–but we seem so willing to buy into the lie that we can preempt disaster with our cleverness and moral resolve (and a few billion dollars).
A decade of rhetoric about “homeland security” has trained us to think that we can make our country safe from outside attack, that, indeed, we must value and pursue security above all else. Politicians routinely campaign on such ideas, counting on an edgy, fearful electorate to latch on to any promise to keep us from harm–no matter how dubious or contrived.

But life is fragile, peace is always precarious, and the earth itself no respecter of persons or property. One gigantic wave and whole populations are decimated; one seismic shift and time itself is altered.

If there’s a lesson in this most recent tragedy (and it’s generally a bad idea to go looking for one), it’s that humans exist in a complex, interdependent web of relations with each other and with a planet that is sometimes inhospitable to our habitation of it. It was as instructive as it was terrifying to anticipate and track the waves that washed up on the California coast as the tsunami made its inevitable way westward. What happened in Japan didn’t stay in Japan.

Because corporations have written the dominant narrative of our time–that we exist to consume their products and that this is made possible by the easy flow of capital, goods, services, and labor across increasingly permeable borders, we might think that it is free market capitalism which binds us together, making us “one world.” But in fact the earthquake and tsunami have revealed our common humanity and common destiny, reminding us that we have always been linked to our neighbors near and far, and that consumerism won’t save us but acknowledging our mutual dependence and shared vulnerability just might.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Air Travel and High-Tech Luggage

In the coming months, Susan and I hope to have many speaking opportunities based upon our soon-to-be-published book, Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship and Flourishing Communities, which means that we will be living the life of Road Warriors. This is fine if the speaking engagement is in a place close enough to drive to, but air travel will be a part of the picture, and air travel has become increasingly unpleasant and uncertain. For example, we have an upcoming workshop in Quincy, Illinois. If you are flying from Appleton to Quincy, there is but one sequence of three flights that will get you there the same day, which leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong. Even though the sponsoring organization will pay travel costs, I have been hesitant to book the flights, thinking it might be safer, even faster, to drive.

It was pondering this next phase of life that set me to studying our luggage this past weekend. We own three suitcases: Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Of the bear family, only Baby qualifies as a carry-on, and on smaller planes “carry-on” now means “plane-side check.” Which is why I have tended to use my duffel bag for travel whenever possible: I have never met the overhead bin it could not be stuffed into. Susan also has a duffel bag, which unlike mine is not held together with duct tape. Duffels are great when you need to run from one end of an airport to the other (if you don’t mind having your belongings crash into your hip with each step), but a contemporary carry-on with clever wheels and a handle has virtues of its own. We decided to venture out to see what options we might find in luggage departments.

We quickly found what seemed to be the perfect carry-on for our needs. It was reasonably priced. It appeared to be rugged and featured a clever padded compartment for a laptop that permits easy access for going through airport security. It appeared perfect until we actually opened it: between the framework for the handle and the laptop compartment, there was only enough room left inside for two pairs of underwear and a clean set of socks. Yes, we have reached the point where luggage has become so clever that it no longer works as luggage. We examined a bewildering range of carry-ons, some with as many as eight wheels spinning in various directions. In the end we purchased a duffel bag. I tossed my beloved duct-taped bag into the trash and donated Papa Bear to Goodwill (I cannot imagine ever checking a suitcase again for a trip shorter than a week). Even with our aging bodies, we will be tossing duffel bags over our shoulders for all trips that feature tight schedules.

Overall I believe that technological advancement is a good thing. I also grudgingly admit that air travel works remarkably well most of the time. But if I really need to be someplace the same day and it is less than 500 miles away, tossing the duffels in the back of the car makes a lot of sense. I am willing to buy my own peanuts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

John Calvin goes to Madison, Wisconsin

The heated battle over the state budget is the single most divisive issue to unfold in Wisconsin in the nearly thirty years I have lived here. I cannot pretend to neutrality in the matter—I am married to a state employee, a professor in the UW system who will likely have no choice but to retire early if the budget bill passes in its present form. But while I admit to having a dog in the hunt, I grieve even more deeply the “take no prisoners” tone of the battle, the complete absence of discussion and debate, and the demonization of the opposing view that is coming from both sides of the aisle (even though one side of the aisle has gone missing, so to speak).

Every faith tradition has specific forms of wisdom and experience to offer in contentious public conflicts such as this one. My own tradition is Reformed Protestantism, which is deeply rooted in the teachings of John Calvin. Calvinism has always insisted that the essential nature of human beings is sinful and corrupt, which makes us appear a grim bunch to those who insist that human beings are essentially good and decent with a spiritual essence made up of puppy dogs, rainbows and unicorns. To them we reply that we are merely realists, and that acknowledgement of our sinful nature is essential if we are to have any chance of overcoming it.

So one perspective that a Calvinist brings to any contentious public policy matter is the knowledge that one’s own virtue is suspect and one’s own opinions are likely flawed, because truth and wisdom belong to God alone. This is why Calvinism has a long tradition of lively debate. “Debate” does not mean screaming at one’s opponent, but rather listening carefully and openly to one’s opponent before responding. We have a great fondness for Isaiah 1:18: “’Come now, let us reason together’ says the Lord.” In practice, this has sometimes taken the form of requiring you to state your opponent’s position to his or her satisfaction before stating your own. When you know yourself to be a sinner and your opponent to be a sinner as well, you are less likely to come out of your corner swinging. You need one another’s partial grasp of the truth if you are to have any hope of getting closer to the actual truth. When you understand the pervasive power of sin, you are more likely to be humble.

Another perspective offered by Calvinist thought is that the quest for truth cannot be rushed, for the Spirit does not act in accordance with our hurried timetables. In our tradition, if there was conflict in the community—not an uncommon event—and reasoning with one another hit a wall of stubborn pig-headedness, a wise elder was likely to call for a “season of prayer.” All discussion and debate was set aside, sometimes for days or even weeks, so that those holding opposing views could pray for and with one another. Only when all in the community agreed that they were in “right relationship” with one another was discussion permitted to resume. If they hit a wall again, well, time for another season of prayer. The goal was not for one side to emerge the winner, but for the entire community to come to consensus on how they might best put God’s will into practice. It sounds quaint; very 17th century, but I think there is wisdom here that speaks to our own era, in which politics has become a blood sport.

Given all that is at stake in the budget battle and how many lives it will impact, including the lives of future generations, there is much to be said for slowing things down and backing away from the ugly acrimony in order to reason together, even pray for one another. When anyone says “there will be no negotiation and there can be no compromise,” Calvin would say that is the voice of human sinfulness. I have strong opinions about this budget debate, certainly, but I know that they are shaped in part by my own self-interests. Knowing that, I must be prepared to compromise with those who disagree with me, who are neither better nor worse people than I am. Real solutions are born only when we acknowledge our own limitations and reach out to one another.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt, Democracy and Facebook

"The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience." ~Howard Zinn

We are constantly swimming in a sea of information, sometimes too much information. Intelligence agencies are continuously monitoring the activities of both governments and individuals, appearing to know everything about everyone. How remarkable, then, that major social upheavals can still take us completely by surprise. Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall. And now Egypt. Largely non-violent, these revolutionary events have changed the face of the globe, and nobody saw them coming. Even though the initial protests were quelled, Tiananmen Square proved a pivot point in China’s journey towards embracing capitalism and greater openness. The fall of the Berlin Wall cast its ripples throughout the Warsaw Pact nations, leading to the demise of the Soviet Union.

What sort of ripples will a newly democratic Egypt spread through the entire Arab world? It is much too soon to say, but it would be betting against history to underestimate its impact. I suspect that many other heads of state in the region are beginning to ponder Plan B. What millions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in warfare could not accomplish in the Middle East has now been achieved by young Egyptians with dreams of freedom and self-determination, walking with candles rather than marching with weapons.

American democracy in our time is at best a messy affair (as each election season reminds us) where special interest groups with deep pockets wield far too much influence. Democracy is an imperfect and dangerously vulnerable system of government. The only thing you can say it its favor is that the other systems are far worse. We take the best in democracy for granted and likely exaggerate its flaws. Our first response to what Egypt has accomplished should be one of deep gratitude for the blessing of democracy. The second should be renewed determination to make American democracy worthy of imitation by those who hunger for this blessing (we have some work to do on that one).

It is interesting to reflect on the role of communications technology in these dramatic social upheavals; faxes and emails in the first two, and social media in Egypt. It appears that the entire Egyptian revolution began with a single Facebook page. The free exchange of ideas and information has always been the most formidable enemy of dictatorship, and we have now reached the technological threshold where even the most sophisticated government censors cannot seal their borders from the world. The next time I find myself griping about the pointless frivolity of Facebook I will remind myself of its very real power and potential as a force for freedom and justice. Were I in charge of American foreign policy and military power, I would build fewer tanks and make more Facebook “friends.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Cult that Unites Us

I am more of a baseball guy than a football guy, but a season like this one makes rabid Packers fans of all of us. We have friends in Milwaukee whose ignorance of football is nearly complete; they have but the vaguest understanding of the rules of the game, and are clueless about the various positions played on offense and defense. Yet during the Ravens game, while eating in a very good restaurant, Anne was following the score on her phone, whooping whenever the Packers scored. “I’ve been programmed!” she said. “I have been indoctrinated into a cult!” The wonder is that it required eight years of living in Wisconsin before she realized the obvious.

Being members of a cult leads us to engage in superstitions behaviors. For the last three games I have worn my “1996 NFC Champions” sweatshirt, and that shirt clearly affected the outcome of the Bears game in particular. Since I wore that shirt for the Packers’ victory in Superbowl XXXI, I certainly need to wear it for this year’s game, right? But I will be flying home from a meeting in Mississippi during the Superbowl (bad planning on my part, I know), and a part of me wonders if wearing it while not watching the game could backfire. As a pastor and theologian, I reject superstition and magical thinking of all kinds. Except when the Packers are in the Superbowl.

Then there is the curious case of the makeshift shrine at the Festival Foods near our home. On a whim, the produce manager made a Packers logo out of green and yellow peppers two days before the NFC championship game. Customers came flocking to take pictures of it, and it went viral on Facebook. Now they have no choice: it must stay in place through the Superbowl, which means regularly replenishing the peppers. Many famous religious shrines were likewise first erected in a moment of spontaneous gratitude or hope, but all those of which I am aware were constructed of more durable materials.

Most religions require their followers to engage in disciplined practices (like wearing a 15-year-old sweatshirt) and hold certain places to be sacred (like the Festival produce section). But, you may ask, do most religions not also honor venerated figures who represent wisdom and truth? For that we have St. Vince, whose words are likely being read from at least as many pulpits as the words of St. Paul. Paul may have taken the Gospel to all the world, including Rome, but he never made it to the Superbowl.

My friends in Milwaukee are Jewish and I am a Christian, so the Packers cult is clearly interfaith. Many, including myself, lament the division and conflict between the world’s great religious traditions. Perhaps we have found the solution: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist – all are welcome to gather in the produce section to affirm our common bond and proclaim our mutual loyalty to the green and gold. What’s not to like about a cult that includes foam cheesheads and nachos?

Friday, January 21, 2011

When Winter was Really Winter

Thirteen below when I got up this morning; our annual “cold snap” has arrived. 1983 was my first year in Wisconsin. In December we hit minus 28 and it stayed below zero for five straight days. I thought that every winter was going to be like that, and briefly questioned the wisdom of moving here. Fortunately, I have since learned that such bitter spells are not common, even here in the Wisconsin tundra. The days are getting noticeably longer, the seed catalogues have arrived, and the Brewers pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 16. For baseball fans, that day marks the official end of winter, so I know I am going to get through.

In younger days, when we lived in New Jersey, we used to take winter vacations at a friend’s cabin in the mountains of northern New Hampshire. With no weather forecasts available to us, we drove marginal cars through fierce snowstorms in mountain passes, too young and stupid to be frightened. Mountaineering skis were essential transportation for folks who lived up in the mountains, because cars could be useless for days on end. One night the temperature got close to minus forty, and this ignorant flatlander had left the parking brake set on his Fiat. It was several days before I could get it unfrozen.

Local folks called cold spells like that “Sally sit by the fire” days, and the world pretty much shut down. Winter decoration consisted of hanging old blankets in the doorways of the warmest room, usually the kitchen, and moving the bedding in there. One neighbor simply gave up on indoor plumbing for the worst part of winter—he kept the seat for the outhouse hanging above the wood stove in the kitchen and tried to make it to the outhouse while it still had a bit of warmth to it. I’m told that the rangers who overwinter on Isle Royale still do the same thing.

Our expectations have changed a great deal over the decades, largely thanks to improved technology. We expect the plows to keep roads open no matter how heavy the snow and the furnace to keep our house warm no matter how low the thermometer plummets. We do not like to be inconvenienced, by the weather or anything else.

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher whose work I admire, laments our increasing dependence upon technological devices, arguing that we have lost important “focal practices” that once formed and shaped us. Take the wood stove that heats our cabin in the U.P. It forces me to secure firewood every year, then to split, stack and dry it. I have learned a bit about different woods and how they burn, and how to tend the stove to maintain a reasonably comfortable temperature. It shapes the rhythm of the day. Every half hour or so I am poking it or adding wood, and if I leave the cabin for too long I need to start a new fire.

Here at home, if I am chilly I tap the touch screen of a thermostat of such sophistication that I only vaguely understand how it works, and it calls for heat from a furnace that I don’t have a clue how to fix if it conks out on me. It is all very convenient, to be sure. But sometimes I ponder all the skills we have lost to our increasing dependence upon technology, and wonder if our lives are poorer for it. Winter used to force us to slow down, make adjustments, change our plans. Now we maintain our busy schedules no matter what, griping and grumbling over the smallest delay or inconvenience. Winter was in some ways more enjoyable when we had to take it seriously.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Blood Libel"

Note: I am focusing almost entirely on my "Aging Together" blog (see link) these days. I will mostly use this site to repost articles from my Goodwill blog that are not "Goodwill"specific." Like this one.

The tragic and horrific shootings in Arizona have precipitated national debate on a number of issues, including gun control (good luck on that one), our mental health treatment system, and—most broadly—the nature of political discourse in our nation, and its potential to precipitate anger and violence.

Sarah Palin has been a central figure in much of this debate because she, it is argued, has employed particularly violent metaphors (“don’t retreat; reload!”) and sponsored an ad that featured crosshairs superimposed on the 8th congressional district where Congresswoman Giffords serves.

How, or if, these things are connected no-one can say. There is no evidence that the disturbed young man who attempted to assassinate the congresswoman, taking many other lives in the effort, was politically motivated in the conventional sense. As Palin and many others have pointed out, violent images in American political discourse are hardly a new phenomenon. My guess is that we will see a scaling back in this kind of violent imagery in political discourse, at least for a period of time, and that can only be a good thing. There will always be a small number of emotionally-disturbed persons teetering on the edge of some sort of violent action, and when society sets clear moral boundaries it may help them to reign in such impulses. And less exposure to angry, violent images would certainly benefit society as a whole in countless ways.

So I was minded to view the emerging national debate precipitated by this tragedy as an opportunity for positive change rather than an opportunity to cast blame. But more recently my jaw dropped when Ms. Palin, defending the images she has used, employed the term “blood libel.” I can only assume that she, like most Americans, was not aware of the origin of this ugly phrase. It dates to the first century, a time of tension and conflict between Jewish and Christian communities marked by bizarre rumors and accusations from both sides. Jews were accused of mixing the blood of Christians in with the matzos prepared for the Passover, and were alleged to especially prize the blood of Christian children and infants. It gets much worse than I care to describe: the Christian children were allegedly tortured in unspeakable ways before being ritually sacrificed.

These accusations (or blood libel) were revived again and again throughout history They figured prominently in the Nazi persecution of Jews that led to the Holocaust, and still play a role in undergirding anti-Semitism today. The term “blood libel” should never, ever be used in any context other than making reference to its ugly role in breeding anti-Semitism.

Any of us who have ever inserted our foot in our mouth, making things worse rather than better (which is pretty much all of us) should have some sympathy for Ms. Palin. I would be pleased and grateful if she were to acknowledge that it was a serious error to use this hurtful, hateful term, but that is not likely to happen. I trust that it will not be used again, by Ms. Palin or anyone else in public life. Words matter; words can be weapons, words literally can kill. And when words are used on a public stage, their power to wound, or heal, is magnified. We should expect and demand public discourse that uplifts rather than denigrates the human condition.