Monday, August 14, 2017

Vocation

Mitch Hedberg had a funny joke that I like to retell often because it's easy to remember: "I'm sick of following my dreams.  I'm just going to ask where they're going, and hook up with 'em later."  It's funny for a couple of reasons: it's clever in a silly way, and many of us can relate.

Following our dreams sounds like a perfect plan when we are children and the realities of adult living haven't hit us yet.  Too often, dreams are smashed into smitherines with no hope of repair.  We get tired of following our dreams because at some point they become impossible (at age thirty, probably not going to become an astronaut with an English degree) or miserably implausible and depressing if we try holding on to them.  This isn't to say, of course, that accomplishing one's dreams is always impossible.  There are plenty of people who work hard with singular focus toward a life goal and wake up one day with a heart full of success.  That reality happens, too.  The fact that the latter reality happens less often means, though, that ultimately there's a fine line between promising our children the fulfillment of their dreams if they work hard enough and teaching them from the beginning that life stinks.  A lot has to do with privilege, too, whether we like it or not--whether we're talking race, class, or sex privilege: a wealthy white boy will be, on average, far more likely to follow his dreams and also hook up with 'em later.

What we do with the fine line is a tough question for parents.  We want our kids to dream big and become something great and be happy.  We'd rather not teach them about the weighty obligations and unfairness of life at age eight or ten.  My wife watches a lot of Gilmore Girls.  Near the end of the original airing of the show, the secondary main character of the show, Rory, a young woman who has had so much promise throughout the running of the show, has a choice to make: take a solid, respected journalism position out of college or postpone her working career to seek a prestigious fellowship that could land her an even better position, the position of her dreams, in the future.  Her mother, Lorelai, actually encourages Rory to take the job because Lorelai has had to fight for what she wants her whole life and understands life's practical side; Rory's boyfriend, Logan (a rich, white male by the way), encourages Rory to go after her dreams.  Rory listens to her boyfriend, seeks the fellowship, doesn't get it, her previous potential employer has long moved on, and after seven seasons of hope and promise that Rory would rise through all the struggles her mother endured for her and stand atop the world, everything collapses.  Indeed, when the new, eighth season ran on Netflix, Rory was still floundering ten years later--not sure what to do with her life while still dating Logan despite his living in a different country engaged to another woman.  "What happened to the Rory with promise and a moral center?" is just about the only question that ran through my head watching part of the eighth season with my wife.  The answer, I think, lies back with her decision to chase her dreams rather than make a practical decision.

Again, not everyone's life turns out that way when following and chasing one's dreams.  Enough do, though, to wonder how we are supposed to navigate life or advise those who are starting out.  I'm going to be a lot like Rory here and admit that, after three paragraphs of build-up, I don't have an answer.  In fact, I'm barely even going to address the question.  Take that, suckas!  But seriously, I do want to point out that there's a spiritual dimension to the question of whether we should follow our dreams or not--a question that we could rephrase more generally, "What in the world am I supposed to do with my life?"  Usually we answer that question with two alternatives: earning as much money as I can right now, or some version of pragmatism, on the one hand; or working towards happiness or life success, or some version of idealism, on the other hand.  What I want to suggest is that there's a third alternative that, maybe, may be a middle way between the other two: vocation.

Vocation is a spiritual, religious concept prominent in many traditions of Christianity and other faiths, like Hinduism, that basically boils down to what God has made you for or calls you to do.  I prefer the latter, what God calls us to, because I am heavy on free-will and spiritual liberty.  As such, I believe that it's entirely possible that God 'makes us' with a purpose in mind but then we take a life path that swerves us well off course and then God has to adjust and call us to some other purpose.  Perhaps God has to adjust multiple times until we hear the call and move in that direction.  Either way, part of the concept of vocation is that God enables and empowers us to fulfill our purpose or our call.  In other words, God gives us the spiritual gifts to do what we are called to.

My own life is a good example of the power of the concept and why I think it's important we reclaim the importance of vocation in our "Navigate Life Tool Bag."  When I first went off to college I thought for sure that I would be a math teacher.  I was and am good at math and I like teaching.  I had even done some teaching interns at high school with that plan in mind.  My thinking basically was, "What am I best at?  Math.  What can I do in life with math?  Teach."  I didn't know of any other mathematical career choices other than teaching, but more importantly I didn't know of any other questions to ask.  It's critical to note that I didn't know of other questions to ask because when I got to college, within a year I realized that no matter how good at math I may be, I hated it.  Recently as a private tutor I've regained some appreciation for mathematics but at that point I knew I did not want to spend the rest of my life working with math.  So I finally asked another question, "What do I enjoy?"  To my parents' chagrin, the answer was reading.  I loved reading and I had grown to love writing, too.  When I told my parents I was switching majors their reaction gave voice to my own fears, "What are you ever going to do with an English degree?  Teach?  You know how many English teachers are out of a job because of a shortage in demand?"  I had no idea what I would do but I had started to follow my dreams by asking what my dreams were, what I'd like to do with my life, what I would enjoy and make me happy in life.

A couple of years later I found myself asking another question.  Now, I know some people don't believe in this type of thing, but I truly believe that I heard God's speaking to me at a church worship one Sunday that I should be a pastor.  Regardless of whether or not you believe in that sort of thing, hear me out: I believed in what happened, but I didn't believe it could be really and honestly true.  Why?  Because I hated and was no good at public speaking, I was incredibly shy and introverted (and yes, please understand shyness and introversion are two different things.  You can be an outgoing introvert), and I have a terrifying reaction to being around needles and other hospital situations in which I faint and seizure for minutes.  All of that were serious roadblocks to becoming a pastor because, obviously, a pastor needs to preach, needs to meet and engage a whole community of people, in and around the church, and needs to visit people in hospitals.  How in the living hell could I become a pastor?  So I started asking a third set of questions, the questions of vocation, namely, "What does God want me to do?  What am I spiritually gifted for?" but the answers were not pleasant.

But then amazing things started happening to and with me.  The more I started asking the questions of vocation and wondering why I should bother because the answer to the first question, "What does God want me to do?" conflicted with the answer to the second question, "What am I spiritually gifted for?", the more God showed some almighty power.  And, I suppose somewhat ironically, it happened because of a political science class.

That political science class had a student with social anxiety and perhaps other forms of mental illness.  Other students mocked him.  I, in seeing how he was mocked, decided I needed to learn how to overcome my own shyness and talk to him, show him some support and care.  So I did, and all of a sudden, and I mean all of a sudden--well, okay, after a few months--I was no longer shy.  Still an introvert, wanting to spend most of my time alone, but no longer shy.  By the time I got to seminary, for instance, I was comfortable asking girls out left and right.  It wasn't exactly healthy, but I wasn't shy.  And then, not long after I started mustering the courage to speak to that one student and be a friend, the fear of public speaking dissipated, too.  The professor of the class required that each student give a five-minute presentation on some assigned article.  I had completed my requirement early in the semester to get it over and done with.  I hated it and got a bad grade.  But sometime after the start of my invasion of the lands of shyness, and our professor informed us that the class was small enough that some students would have to sign up twice, and if a student volunteered he or she would get extra credit, I suddenly, and I mean suddenly (this time I really mean it), felt entirely comfortable doing public speaking.  I don't know why.  Perhaps my professor's genuine interest in his students played a part (shout out to Dr. William Grover), but I think God's Spirit had more to do with it.  I volunteered for two more articles and I enjoyed every moment of those two additional presentations.  It was as if God said to me, "If you even consider going down the path I have in mind for you, I'll make sure you have the gifts for it."  I'm not the greatest pastor on earth, but I am a pastor who has overcome my general shyness and loves preaching.

What about visiting people at the hospital, you ask?  Well, God did something else amazing that didn't seem so amazing at the time.  God gave me a slow-moving anxiety attack that led to a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.  Fun, right?  Seven years later I have finally realized that, actually, that time was special and blessed and, and the realization led to my feeling the need to write this article/post.  You see, that diagnosis brought me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me medication to deal with my anxiety.  Eventually I learned how to handle my anxiety without medication but still needed help with certain events, like needles or hospital situations, or flying in an airplane.  I still had little hope for becoming a pastor because I did not want medication to be a constant part of my life.  Indeed, my inability to handle my anxiety in certain events was one-half the reason I stopped following the path to becoming a pastor while at seminary.  Perhaps my deciding not to become a pastor was a God-send, too, because it wasn't until the year after I graduated that I started dating my now-wife.  At the time she worked for a company that produces and sells supplements.  One of those supplements is fittingly called "Serenity Now" and provides instant and long-lasting calm.  With her guidance and support, I now had the final piece of the puzzle: take some calm pills, that are healthy supplements rather than medication, and then just be honest with the people I'm visiting in the hospital.  Strangely, if my wife weren't such a staunch supporter of my health--and of me generally, of course--I'm not sure I ever would have thought to say, "Okay, I have to look away now so that I don't see the needle, because I'm here for you and I don't want to become a distraction seizuring on the floor."  I don't believe that God sends us people to marry and all that, but I'm rethinking it, because I needed my wife to feel comfortable becoming a pastor.  God didn't give me the gift of visitation, but God did remove the spiritual obstacle that had been in my way.

Now here I am as a pastor.  I don't earn a whole lot of money doing it and I'm certainly not successful in the way I could have wished, and, even, I'm not doing what I thought I wanted to do.  I thought I wanted to be a writer and a writer only.  That was my dream.  But honestly, I believe that I am doing what I am called to do and what I am gifted for.  For that reason, every day I feel fulfilled, despite constant fears that I am not what my churches need, that I'm committing rookie errors all over the place, or generally not doing enough.  Still I feel fulfilled. 

Vocation is critical here because, as I've said, I have not chosen the path of practicality or chasing my dream.  Instead I asked the questions of vocation, "What does God want me to do?  What am I gifted for?"  I followed those questions to the end and found that, strangely, I was and am gifted in ways I didn't know beforehand.  By asking the questions of vocation doors were opened that I hadn't even been aware of previously.  By asking the questions of vocation I came to a place where my happiness is connected more to fulfillment and contentment than getting what I want, be it financial success or accomplishing my dream or both.  Success, then, is redefined as answering the questions of vocation. 

Answering the questions of vocation can be hard.  What we are gifted for is not the same, I think, as what we are good at.  I am good at math but I'm not gifted in math.  I am gifted as a preacher but I may not be good at it.  I don't know that I can explain the difference well so I won't try, but in our souls I think we all probably know the difference.  Perhaps a gift is a some place between talent and passion.

Once we answer the questions of vocation, moving in that direction can be fairly easy.  For instance, if you're gifted in hospitality, well, there's a whole range of occupations from which you can choose.  If you've discovered that's your gift, then you can be fulfilled in life by either chasing your dreams, whatever they are, and inviting neighbors into your house for a weekly meal and chat, or by taking a more pragmatic route and taking the first available housekeeping job.  When we are talking about vocation, it doesn't necessarily matter what we do, it matters that we are doing it because we are gifted and/or called.

If we believe in God, then vocation adds hope to our lives, too.  As in my life story, if we believe in God and go in the direction that God has called us to, then there always remains the hope that God will provide the gifts necessary.  Of course, it must be God's path and not our own, otherwise we won't be gifted in the ways necessary.  I find great hope in this because it means we need to start walking before the bridge has been built and yet God won't let us fall.  That's cool, as the young people say.

Reclaiming vocation as the deciding factor in our lives, then, adds hope to our lives and eliminates the false and depressing either/or between pragmatism and dream-chasing.  One can do both or neither when choosing to live by one's vocational dictates.  As long as one's vocation is the deciding factor then fulfillment is on the horizon.  Reclaiming vocation as our guiding light also, regardless of belief in God, empowers us to see what our true gifts are, of what we are capable, and that feelings of hopelessness when we don't know what to do with our lives, or misery when we know all too well that we might do what we're good at without joy, do not rule us.  Instead, we are our own rulers; who we are and what our gifts are determine our path forward.  True, vocational insight may not lead to success, financial or otherwise, but vocational insight reminds us that success is fulfilling who we are. 

All this may sound like an unsuccessful person trying to justify his life.  But I am reminded every time I enter a hospital to visit a parishioner that vocation is real and, if understood correctly, can truly save our lives from wandering, depression, and hopelessness.  Maybe I'm not doing a good job of explaining what vocation is or why it's important.  I don't care.  Writing may be part of my vocation, but that means only that it fulfills who I am and what my gifts are, not that I'm good at it.

So who are we?  What are our gifts (not just what we're good at)?  How is God calling us? 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Holy Pastor Doing Stuff

By installment three of my new video series I figured I'd share, finally.  Here's Holy Pastor Doing Stuff.  Check out the others!

How to Brush Your Teeth

Monday, April 24, 2017

Divisive Unity

Trump and Republicans and many of their supporters have, since the election, many times said, "The election is over.  Get over it.  We need a unified country."  Oftentimes these statements are followed with, "You've never seen the Republicans act that way."

Of course, anyone with an unbiased memory will immediately know these statements for what they are: hypocritical amnesia.  Many Republicans protested Obama's election claiming he was/is not American and Muslim (as if that is supposed to matter); many Republican Congressmen explicitly and publicly said they'd reject any Obama policies just to stall the government in order to elect a Republican Congress and President; and Republicans initiated the whole Supreme Court nomination fiasco (though Gorsuch is a good selection, the fiasco is the process) by unprecedentedly refusing to hold hearings for Garland--this last one is particularly difficult because the reasoning was that the American people had the right to vote for a president to nominate the justice and, even if we ignore the fact that we had a sitting president who just nominated someone, the presidential election campaign technically and officially does not start until the conventions in June.  Given all these quite recent events, a Republican telling a Democrat to 'get over it' is hypocritical.  Adding that Republicans would never act 'that way,' meaning protests and stalling, is nothing but amnesia.

By the way I've begun here you might think I'm launching into Republican bashing.  I'm not.  As always, it is important to hold one another accountable for the truthfulness and genuineness of our statements, but here I'm more concerned with the Republicans' call for unity.  Unity was a major talking point for all the candidates in the election and certainly was a talking point afterwards, too.  After the election, Trump, McConnell, Ryan and others all said it was time to forget everything past and move on together because he, and this Congress, would be for the people, all the people.  It's been rather clear that Trump is not a president for all the people, but let's put that aside for the moment as well.  Let's just focus on this call to unity amidst hypocritical amnesia.

What do people mean when they call for and pray for unity?  Obviously, when you are on the 'losing' side and you call for and pray for unity, unity for the sake of the good of all people is indeed what you want.  That is true because if your chosen policies and leaders have lost, then you gain nothing by becoming unified around a different set of policies and leaders.  Gaining nothing is perhaps the purest evidence we have of altruistic motives.  If, on the other hand, you gain total control by calling for unity because the majority is on your side, then unity is not necessarily altruistic.  When unity gives you everything then when you say, 'unity,' what you're really saying is, 'power and dominance.'  Calls for unity from a position of strength sounds oppressive to those on the losing side whose voices would be drowned out in supposed unity. 

While I do not mean to say that all Republicans who call for unity have ulterior motives and are actually power hungry, hoping to silence those who disagree, it is almost certainly true that when a victor calls for unity, those who are defeated feel silenced and oppressed.  Whether the victor likes it or not, and whether the country or organization in question needs unity or not, those in the minority who hear, "Let's forget our differences and move on as a unified whole," are actually hearing, "Look, our side is clearly stronger, give up, shut up, and assimilate."  You may say that responding in such a self-victimized way is not appropriate, that the victors, in this case Republicans, do not want to silence or oppress anyone and, again, the losers should get over it and move on.  You may say that.  But the typical loser's response is at least legitimate.  The Founding Fathers created a government that would protect minority voices and groups for this particular reason.  Our government's constitution and structure acknowledges that throughout history minority voices and groups have been silenced and oppressed in the name of unity and assimilation. 

The United Methodist Church, in which I am a pastor, knows this well.  Currently we are intensely debating homosexuality in the church (I don't know how to properly talk about this.  Saying, 'the issue of homosexuality' is certainly not right, nor is 'the place of homosexuality.'  What I have here said doesn't sound right, either, but alas).  This debate has raged for a long time and is now seemingly coming to a breaking point as the Church has yet to budge from its stance that, while persons who are homosexual are welcome and loved, persons who are homosexual cannot be married or ordained.  Lately, because of the intensity of the debate, there have been many calls for unity.  As a church, the Church has said, we have to be unified, since we are the Body of Christ after all.  Of course, the problem is that unity sounds great to those who are confident that we can and will rally around keeping the status quo, the tradition; while to those in the LGBTQ+ and alliance community, unity sounds like a subtle new way of perpetuating their silence.  Indeed, how would you feel if for thirty years you have been fighting for what you believe to be right, all the while being shut out not only from the church but from the very discussion, and then at the moment when your movement had momentum the majority portions said, "Well, wait, let's have unity"?  How would you feel?  Would you not feel like unity were being used as a silencing and oppressing tool?  To silence you so that the majority position could regain complete control?  If you didn't feel that way then you probably didn't care much about your positions in the first place.

Herein lies the difficulty: unity is a good ideal because any organization is stronger when unified, but when humans are involved differences of opinion--no, passionate differences of opinion are inevitable.  Calls for unity are, by nature, divisive. 

Divisive unity may sound disconcerting to you.  The idea that calling for unity might create more division, especially at times when it seems unity is most needed, may be troubling to you.  But you shouldn't be troubled.  Our country and Western religions are built on the right and the necessity for prophecy, for standing for justice in the name of liberty.  Without prophecy, without the freedom to voice one's sense of prophetic justice in a divisive climate, we would still be a slave-holding country, Jesus wouldn't have existed, and we'd be a part of Great Britain.  To put it bluntly, life would suck if we were always unified.  There must be room for divisive unity; there must be room for people to not 'get over it and move on' when justice and mercy are at stake, when the very ideals of our country are at stake.  Prophecy and liberty must never be stifled.

So where does that leave us?  First of all, we should get over and move on from hypocritical amnesia.  In general, we should probably never say, 'We won, get over it.'  Beyond that, we need to create space for dialogue.  People who are in the minority do need to accept that their positions may not always carry the day, but they have a right to expect that they will be heard.  Our political system has taught candidates, and the rest of us, that as long as we have enough votes we don't need those who disagree with us (remember Mitt Romney's famous statement?).  That is the wrong approach.  We cannot legitimately call for unity when we don't care about those in our unified bubble who aren't like us.  At the end of the day, then, unity must be a place where all people are invited to gather to speak and also to be heard.  The reason why minority voices and groups raise hell as they do is because, first, they believe they are right, but secondly because they are silenced.  We must hear one another and accept that we cannot all agree, and this also includes ensuring that the processes by which we make decisions are transparently fair (hint hint). 

We need to embrace divisive unity in order to move forward.  Perhaps the best way to embrace divisive unity is by limiting the number of universal rules our organizations have.  For the UMC, perhaps open the door to allow marriages and ordinations if the church, pastor, or conference involved are okay with it; for our government, perhaps take a more libertarian approach on social policies and let science do the talking for agency policies.  Whatever we do, rather than silence our divisions, we must let those divisions be our unity, because throughout history the minority's voice and prophecy has always made civilization move forward stronger.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Libertarianism and Truth

There are a number of reflections from the most recent presidential campaign that I still feel the need to write about.  Bear with me.  I also should warn you that this post is essentially, without explicitly doing so, explaining why I am a Libertarian when we define ourselves by political parties (which I try not to do).

Here's the deal, friends: there's a difference between objective and subjective truth.  Objective truth could be called Truth, if we know what the capital t means.  If we don't know what the capital t means, let me explain.  Objective truth is truth as defined by reality, by what you and I and anyone else can all see and touch and concede to be true.  Objective truth, then, cannot be argued or denied.  It is truth determined by objects in reality.  Subjective truth is truth defined by each person, each person being the subject.  Subjective truths, then, by nature, are intangible.  When we talk about a subjective truth we are talking emotional or spiritual truths.  What the nature of love, anger, family, friendship, etc., are must be determined by individuals, by each one of us, by subjects.  God and religion, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, are objective truths (either God exists or He doesn't, but if God exists He exists objectively) that must be determined subjectively (if God exists we can't see Him, so we personally must determine that He exists).

Let's explore starting with objective truth.  For instance, if you and I were both standing on a sidewalk at a road intersection next to a stop sign, we could both see it or at least touch it and know that it's there.  Unless one of us were legitimately off our rockers, we couldn't argue about the objective truth that a stop sign stood there.  It's clearly there, that stop sign.  The reality of the stop sign is unquestionable because, indeed, it really exists, and is therefore an objective truth.  No argument, deception, or philosophical roundabouts could expunge the stop sign as objective truth.

Now, we might come to different conclusions about what the stop sign means.  Chris Rock has a funny joke about slavery in America that includes a bit about a stop sign.  For your viewing pleasure (if you don't mind cursing left and right): Slavery in America.  The joke really begins at the three minute mark.  What Rock's joke gets at is that we might not all know what a stop sign means.  We can all agree that it's there, that it exists, it has objective truth, but perhaps we either can't read or think, "Does this sign mean for me to stop, or just everyone else?  Probably just everyone else" and drive right through.  Or if there were a crosswalk at the intersection and cars were coming our way, I might say that we shouldn't walk until all the cars have indeed stopped at the sign while you might say that it's okay to start walking before they've stopped since they need to stop anyway.  We might come to different conclusions but none of that can disregard or negate the objective truth of the sign.

The nature of objective truth matters.  During the election, I had a Facebook conversation with someone that I do not know about our country's military budget.  The lady (whom I shall call Adeline for random reasons) declared that we needed to elect Trump because our military had gone ignored for too many years and was now one of the worst equipped and most underfunded militaries in the world.  I told Adeline she was wrong, but if she had other reasons to vote for Trump then she should go ahead.  Adeline then responded by saying she can't be wrong because she knew lots of people in the military who said so.  I then found and linked Adeline to one of the many sources that show, indeed, that the U.S.A. spends far more on defense/military than any other country, at least three times more, in fact.  If the military is not well-equipped then that can't be the government's fault, it would be the Pentagon's fault.  What Adeline then responded with truly shocked me.  She said, as far as my memory can recall, "I don't need your sources, I have my own."  Without Adeline's proving the veracity of her sources, I can only conclude that her 'sources' were individuals spouting off words, all proving to be untrue.  Objectively untrue.  You see, the objective truth of the matter is that we do spend far more than any other country on our military.  Use Google and you'll find any number of sources to prove that objective truth.  Anyone who says anything to the contrary is simply wrong. 

We have to understand what objective truth looks like.  Once we understand it, we'll see that a distressing amount of what President Trump's campaign team, the man himself, and his White House Staff claim are untruths, disagreeing with basic, objective truth.  We cannot label a falsity 'alternative truth' and change the nature of reality.  Reality and objective truth is what it is and cannot be modified.  There are some things that are true, objectively, and cannot be spun into being maybe true.

One of the difficulties we have with objective truth, I think, is that what is objective true is sometimes based on definitions.  The unemployment rate is a perfect example.  There are, what, six different unemployment rates?  They are all needed because they all have different definitions of what constitutes unemployment.  Based on your chosen definition of unemployment you might want to use a different rate. 

Because objective truth is sometimes dependent on our definitions, as with the unemployment rate, people can get confused and think that truth, in general, is not at all objective and is instead subjective.  That's not true, however.  To confirm that objective truth does not turn into subjective truth simply because of a dependency on definitions, think of words.  Words are, basically, merely sounds; but sounds for which we have agreed-upon definitions.  You cannot say, "I hate you," to your wife and then later, when she is divorcing you, say, "Well, you know what I meant is that I love you."  'Hate' and 'love,' though merely sounds and are subjectively determined for meaning, do have objective definitions by which we navigate life.  Whatever we subjectively decide 'love' and 'hate' to mean, we all know that by objective standards we tell people that we want to keep close that we love them and people we want to keep far away that we hate them--though let's try not to hate anyone, eh?  'Cat' is just a sound that could mean anything.  Yes, think about it.  Before there were definitions, that sound 'cat' could have been applied to any object in reality.  But it has now been applied to the small, domesticated feline objects that go, "meow."  So now, 'cat' has an objective definition and so has objective truth.  In English, you cannot say 'cat' and mean 'tree.'  In another language the sound 'cat' may have a different definition but, all the same, it has objective truth because it has a definition.  The sound 'oh' in English means, "what a surprise; hmm; woops," but in Spanish it means, "or."  Different definitions, but once we choose a definition, there is objective truth there.

Back to the unemployment rate.  Each of those different unemployment rates is objectively true.  You cannot say that one or all definitions are false simply because there are multiple definitions.  You cannot make up your own truth about unemployment simply because there are multiple definitions.  There are different definitions, yes, but each is objectively true.  An untruth, therefore, can be ratted out and should then be condemned rather than accepted as part of the process.  If we start accepting untruths then we have nothing to stand on--'cat' will mean 'tree' and 'desk' will mean 'I' and 'to be' will mean 'outlast,' and sooner or later we'll have no friggin idea what the frick is going on.  Objective truth must be accepted as objective truth.

I'll repeat: Objective truth must be accepted as objective truth.  Untruth, objective untruth, must be condemned and thrown out rather than accepted.  If we live any other way, especially when we try to live in community, which is what politics ultimately is, then we are like the guy in the Bible who built his house on sand with no solid foundation.  We need a foundation.  If we feel like some objective truth doesn't tell the whole story, then that is a good argument for creating better definitions, not a case for succumbing to a universe of only subjective truth.

Speaking of subjective truth, there is plenty of room out there for what we, personally, believe to be true that no fact or objective truth can determine for us, the individual.  Daily life is full of decisions and choices based only in subjective truth.  What is the best way to make our spouse happy?  I'm still working on that.  Which coffee shop has better coffee?  I personally don't care.  I could go on but I hope you get the idea.  There are no factual, objective answers to those question, no matter what Cosmopolitan or coffee-connoiseurs may say.  Each one of us, you and I, can have different answers that we believe whole-heartedly to be true.  And, for us, our answer will be true, subjectively.

Again, understanding how truth works matters, particularly subjective truth.  What is the best way to attain peace in the world?  For me it's by being peaceful.  The concept of having a large military budget offends me.  For you, though, you may say that peace is attained through strength, in which case you'd want a higher military budget than I would, which is fine, subjectively... but you still can't argue that our military budget is deplorable, because that is objectively false, very false. 

More to my point, what constitutes the happiest and most whole wholesome family?  Or what is the best way to protect and preserve life?  Are the answers to ban homosexuality and abortion?  These are questions determined subjectively.  Each one of us will have a different answer for different reasons and each one of us will defend our truth passionately.  At the end of the day, though, there isn't any objective reality or truth to back up our subjective claims.  Making objective decisions that affect everyone on a matter of subjective truth becomes and is tricky.  You may say, "Well, homosexuality is evil," and believe everyone who says otherwise is wrong, but they're not wrong.  Anyone who says otherwise is merely different and has taken another subjective path from yours.  'Wrong' can only be applied to objective truth.

Look, many people hear that I am not against the legalization of marijuana, not against abortion, not against the legalization and acceptance of homosexual marriages/ordinations in law and in the church, and think that I am somehow a misguided pastor misguiding the flock.  But saying that I am 'not against' issues does not mean that I am 'for' them either.  All I am saying is that I understand certain issues--that generally happen to be the issues that rouse the most passion out of us, wanting to everyone to live our way--must be decided on an individual, subjective basis.  Would I approve of an abortion in my marriage?  Probably not, but honestly I don't know.  What I do know is that I cannot and will not tell a young, poor expectant mother whose husband recently died that she must have her baby.  Or anyone else.  Do I wish that more people would practice abstinence and not risk pregnancies that they would not be willing to carry through?  Sure, but a) that wouldn't solve the entire problem anyway, and b) we're not talking about my subjective truth when we're talking about other people's lives.  The same goes for homosexuality and--though you can debate this last one--marijuana, as well as a great deal of other issues.  While I may have firm opinions on issues, based in my religious belief, my belief has been determined subjectively and I cannot and will not force that on anyone.  Such a philosophy just happens to be the Libertarian way, but that's beside the point.

What is the point here is that, when it comes to our political involvement in our government, we must understand the difference between objective and subjective truth.  Confusing the two leads to harmful results.  Making objective decisions for subjective realities leads to oppression and persecution, and forms of elitism on the other side; making subjective decisions for objective realities leads to a government based on lies, deception, and egomania.  If our leaders got up and said, "That Wait for Traffic sign doesn't exist," (subjective decision for objective reality) would we want to follow them into the intersection?  Dear God I hope not.  Likewise, if our leaders, seeing how busy the intersection is, perhaps the busiest intersection in the world, got up and said, "No matter where anyone lives or works, or what they are doing, everyone must drive through this intersection at least once a day because clearly that's how the world works well," (objective decision for subjective reality) would we all want to put down what we are doing and drive through that intersection?  I hope not.  So first, we must understand the difference between objective and subjective truth.  When something is objectively true, we must accept it; when something can only be subjectively true, we must accept that, too. 

In order to make appropriate decisions, then, we should let those who are fact-finders in our society do the fact-finding so that we can make objective decisions for objective truth.  I mean our scientists and journalists.  Defunding or attacking either our journalists or scientists means that we are more likely to start making harmful subjective decisions in place of using objective truth.  And on the flip side, when subjective truth is the rule of the day, and we can't objectively know one way or another, then it is best to love one another rather than target and hate certain groups and let non-essentials be decided individually.  To paraphrase: facts are facts and we should hold one another, especially our leaders, accountable; some issues have no facts and so in the meantime let's love one another.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ecumenical Cross Walk Reflections

This past Sunday was Easter Sunday.  At the churches I serve, it was a day of great celebration... I mean, real celebration.  We danced, clapped, laughed, cheered, jumped for joy; we did everything you'd expect those who are celebrating to do.  Easter to us was not just a day to dress in bright, flowery clothing and sing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" (though we did that, of course, especially as Methodists).  Easter was and is a day for us to celebrate, truly.

Yet as I have repeatedly said to my congregations, there is no Easter Sunday without Thursday and Friday.  While Easter and the resurrection are the center of the Christian faith, we cannot celebrate what Christ did and does for us on Easter without Thursday and Friday.  Indeed, Christ hardly did anything for us if we don't acknowledge Friday.  For what reason did Christ rise from the grave?  If we can't answer that question then what meaning does Easter have?  And the answer to the question is that Christ rose to save us from death and sin.  Death and sin.  Both of which are the key players of Maundy Thursday (sharing a meal but also the betrayal; betrayal as in betraying our God) and Good Friday (death and, wouldn't you know it, betraying our God).  So if we don't first acknowledge that we are mortals, that we are created beings who fall short of our intentions and dreams and our created purpose; if we don't first acknowledge that we are sinful, whatever we mean by that; if we don't first acknowledge those facts then Christ rises for no purpose.  We must, then, at the very least, make Good Friday a critical part of our faith journeys every year.

Since first experiencing a cross walk in Swanton, VT, and carrying a rather heavy cross a short distance, I have decided that some form of a cross walk on Good Friday is indeed the best way to faithfully journey with our God on Good Friday and Holy Week in general.  Even if you don't carry a cross or if the cross isn't all that heavy or if you haven't been tortured and beaten before carrying the cross, still you are using your whole being to journey with Christ when you walk.  Doctors, psychologists, theologians, etc. all agree that there is a mind-body-soul connection, so walking as a spiritual exercise beats all other spiritual exercise.  Not to mention, of course, the fact that you can imagine yourself actually walking with Christ who himself walked (stumbled?) up to Cavalry.

I have further decided that ecumenical cross walks are the pinnacle of spiritual exercise.  At the cross walk we just had here in Jericho and Underhill, VT, we had at least seven denominations represented by my count.  It was probably eight, who knows.  Pastors of all these various denominations offered reflections on the "I AM" statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John while walking three miles.  It was, if such a thing can be said about Good Friday, a beautiful experience.  And everyone knew it. 

Our last stop took us to a UCC church.  Pastor Kevin Goldenbogen asked us to reflect together on what the experience meant for us.  A number of people said it was a joy to walk with people of different faith backgrounds and beliefs.  Probably half of the folk who stood to say something in reflection mentioned that we were walking together in unity.  Sure, you could tell that the pastors were of different theological and pastoral persuasions, but that made the walk all the more meaningful as we heard, hopefully, the full breadth of God's Word to us on that momentous day of our faith.  And, of course, in the midst of it all, as Pastor Kevin said (as I remember it), "There are reasons why we have upwards of eight denominations represented here, but it does us well to be reminded there is one God." 

It does do us well to be reminded there is one God.  The gospels tell us this constantly, even though we may not be attune to the reminder.  Think of how many times the Pharisees are mentioned, and scribes, and priests, all Jews but clearly believing in God, the one God, differently.  There were other sects of Judaism, too, including namely the Sadducees and also the Essenes.  Yet all these sects and groups were, it would seem, present with Jesus on his, on the, cross walk.  In the Gospel of John "the Jews" is an unfortunately all-encompassing derogatory remark, and in John 19:20 we read that "many of the Jews" read the inscription above Jesus's cross because Golgotha "was near the city."  The Gospel of Luke says a great many followed on the walk.  The Gospels of Mark and Matthew say that the chief priests and the scribes were among those who mocked Jesus at the crucifixion.  All the gospels place enough people at the scene for them to have conversations.  All but John's gospel relate that Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross.  Who the heck was he?  Since he was compelled to carry the cross, we don't even know for certain if Simon was Jewish.  So,  you see, it took all kinds on that first cross walk, too.  Different denominations and non-believers, many disagreeing passionately with one another, certainly few agreeing on who Jesus Christ is, all present on the cross walk to witness, willingly or unwillingly, what God was doing.  As well it should be for us: if there is a God, there is One, so why not walk together on this journey of life?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Parsonage on the Side of the Road

My first pastoral ministry appointment was to a church that rented out its parsonage (called 'parsonage' because of ye olden days when ministers were called parsons) and so my wife and I were on our own for housing.  I loved living in a house we could call our own on a dead-end street a few miles away from the church and downtown and with good neighbors.  As much as I loved that house, though, I looked forward to someday living in a parsonage.  Why?  Well, partly so I could stop pretending I knew anything about caring for a house, and mostly because I had an image in my head of parsonages.  That image consisted of living on the side of a main road so that people could walk by, stop in and talk, or drive by and ask for directions.  My image turned out to be an illusion.

That's right.  No one is driving by and asking for directions.  I guess my illusion had been informed by film, perhaps, in which people would stop and ask for directions and then the person they asked directions from turns out to be a serial killer.  And I guess, at some point in my life, I watched a film or video in which someone knocked on the door of a minister's house and the minister turned out to be a creep.  Now, I did not have hopes of being a creepy serial killer.  For whatever reason, though, I watched or created those images in my head and thought, "Yeah, parsonages are often on main roads, people need directions, people will stop by."  I thought I could be the love of Christ for any stranger who stops in to ask for help.  But that has yet to happen.  In fact, I seriously doubt any stranger will ever stop by asking for help or directions.  I doubt it for two reasons: 1) when people from the town walk by the parsonage, which is right next to the church building, I get the rather strong feeling that not even they know the house is where the minister lives, and 2) why would anyone need help with directions?

The other day I saw from my window (I like to look outside, so I often am being creepy without intending to be) a couple drive in to our parking lot and both the driver and the passenger had their phones out.  Obviously, anyone can guess what they were doing.  Rather than say to themselves, "Hey, we've pulled into a church parking lot, there's a house here, the pastor must live here, surely he or she will help us, and he or she is local and will probably know where we're trying to go," they said, "Let's ask our phones and try to figure this out." 

Before I go any further, let me state that this fairly regular occurrence is not a criticism of the world today or 'kids today,' as we like to say, because I probably would not have been able to help, since I'm actually not any good with directions or knowing where crap is, and so phones and GPS are the only recourse lost folk have when they pull into our parking lot. 

What I am saying, however, is that the world has changed.  Wherever I got the idea that people stop by parsonages on the side of main roads to ask for help and/or directions, whether from an old film or story or my imagination, people simply do not knock on the door or ring the doorbell for help or directions.  Because I don't know where I got this notion, I can't actually say that the world has changed, that once upon a time people would have knocked on the door or rung the doorbell.  I can say that the world has changed from what we'd like to have happen.  We'd like for people to hear our minds' shouting, "Hey, I'm right in here, I'd love to help!"  Unfortunately telepathy hasn't been developed fully yet.  We're working on it.

How we help one another, whether as a person of faith evangelizing or spreading God's love, or simply as a compassionate fellow human being, is thus affected.  We like to say to people in emotional or physical need, "If you ever need anything, just let me know."  Look at the most recent Facebook post that you or a friend wrote in which you complained, vented, or shared some trouble you're experiencing, and count how many times people said, "Let me know if you need anything."  We love it.  We love that phrase because, a) it puts no pressure on us, and b) we live in a society in which every individual is supposed to care for themselves.  The person needing directions is supposed to look on his or her phone for directions rather than asking a local.  If someone is going to have a license and drive places, it's his or her responsibility to get there.  More than that, because every person is supposed to look out for themselves, we no longer appreciate intrusions into our space and time.  "Why ask me for help?  I don't know.  You figure it out."  We have so engrained this train of thought in ourselves that when we actually need help, there's just about no chance whatsoever that we will tell anyone or ask for help, even those who have said we should let them know if there's anything they can do.

In this climate, we can't rest at making ourselves available.  I think churches really struggle with this.  We're still stuck in the, "We're here.  Everyone knows we're here.  How can we make it more known that we're here so more people will come in?"  But that's not the question.  The question isn't whether or not anyone knows we're here.  Even if they do, it won't matter.  No one is going to come to a church and ask for directions anymore, physical or spiritual directions.  Instead, if we want to help and guide those who are lost and in need, we need to go out and do it.  Again, whether we're talking church or simply our lives with our friends, then we can't sit around and wait for more people to know they can come to us.  We need to go out and just help.

Unfortunately, going out and helping without waiting to be asked can be dangerous for the very reason no one will ask for help.  As I said, no one likes intrusions upon space and time.  Still, when we see someone who is walking through life with little hope or direction, rather than say, "Well, maybe it's my imagination, they'll ask me if they really are feeling hopeless," we should go to that person, wrap our arm around her or his shoulder, and say, "You know, I love you.  Because I love you, I'd also love to share with you what keeps me ticking.  Maybe it will give you even more meaning in life."  No waiting, and no judgment that the person is hopelessly lost; just a kind gesture. 

And, if ever you see someone pull into a parking lot or your driveway looking confused and staring at a phone or GPS, maybe you go out and ask if you can give them directions from an experienced resident.  I'll work on taking my own advice, too.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Apathy and Third Parties

I'll be brief with this one... sort of.  What I'm thinking about today is that there's no quicker way to apathy than a two-party system.  And there's no quicker way to demagoguery, fanaticism, and politics-by-fiction than apathy.

The reason there's no quicker way to apathy than a two-party system is that neither party would then be able to elucidate a distinct platform on a variety of issues.  A majority of people in this country, and around the world, would be defined as moderates or near-center in a right vs. left party debate.  Thus, in a fight to win party dominance, both parties in a two-party system need to fight over those moderates, and in doing so their platforms cannot, by rule, be all that unique.  Certainly, each party would also need to pander to their 'side,' and so differences between parties would exist, but not enough to the point that any significant change could occur when offices change hands.  If no significant change occurs, then apathy grows as people realize that it doesn't much matter which of the two parties have control of government: the result would stay nearly the same.

I'll go further and say that a two-party system also breeds corruption.  With only two parties there are fewer leaders, and with fewer leaders there are fewer chances to rise up the ranks and fewer targets for lobbyists and others, and so there is greater opportunity for those who cross lines of integrity. 

But the two-party system's main consequences are not corruption so let's keep that as a side note.  The main consequences are, 1) a strong apathy that creates an uninformed and destructive passion; and 2) 'movements' of the people.

First, we all should be able to agree that when a high percentage of a democratic nation's citizenry grow apathetic, the populace is uninformed.  To the extent that an apathetic society is informed, it is informed by sound bites.  Gone are the days when people might actually stay in regular contact with their representatives or remain up to date on bills in state and national legislatures.  Gone are the days when people might actually attend town meetings, town selectboard meetings, city council meetings, or any other local government actions.  Instead, we listen to five minutes of news.  Instead, we read Facebook.  Instead, we seek after biased news that tells our story so that we can read an article or two a day and feel better.

Apathetically being uninformed then creates destructive passions.  At some point, because of the sound bite, piecemeal manner in which we get our news and form our opinions, we only accept our way of thinking as truthful and we only accept our party's explanation.  A few minutes or less of news and information a day are simply not enough to seriously reflect, and therefore not enough to convince a person to change positions.  Confirmation of one's own stance is the only possible outcome of sound-bite news.  Even if we do not think of our opinions as adhering to party logic, that is what we will be doing because in a two-party system there are only two sides of the aisle and our bias will, inevitably, fall on one side or another.  If and when our passions emerge, they will thus be destructive because the other side--and there will only be one other side--will be the enemy to our side.  Indeed, the rise of 'fake news' shouldn't have been all that surprising because of the acceptance of one's own logic, whether it's real or not, without any reflection.  Less surprising still, though more destructive, is the more common habit of labeling truthful news as fake simply because we don't like it and our biased sources, our party's sources, do not confirm the truth.  One party is determined to be destructively set against the other.  People are determined to be set against people on the other side.  Whether we want to think of ourselves as part of the problem or not, we are, simply by taking part in a two-party system.  It is a structural fault.

Now what we're seeing now with Trump, and with Bernie Sanders, is an attempt to transcend the party dynamics to create a movement of the people.  Many who voted for or supported Trump or Sanders might think that they transcended the problem with two-party dynamics.  They did not.  In effect, Trump and Sanders made the two-party, oligarchic system worse.  By claiming to be a movement of the people with platforms that could have, and should have, resulted in new parties altogether, both men perpetuated the myth that only the Republican and Democratic parties are worth anything.  Essentially, Trump and Sanders used their respected parties to get elected rather than doing what could have best served our country in creating new parties with their unique platforms.  Perhaps neither would have had a chance running as the candidate for some new party, but Trump was not and is not a Republican and Sanders was not and is not a Democrat.  Why run as a candidate of those parties?  For personal gain, not integrity.

I do not blame either Trump or Sanders.  Both did what they believed to be right and there is certainly a logic to getting elected no matter what it takes if you believe in your position.  Despite that, it is because of Trump's and Sanders's 'movements' that we now see greater destructive passion aimed at the other side and, worse, greater apathy in both parties.  Members who associate themselves with either party are now lost in confusion concerning for what his or her party actually stands.  With such apathy stemming from confusion, the voices that are left in the game are louder and, again, more destructively passionate.  And, on top of that, members of the 'movements' all think that they now have more right to total control of the political landscape because 'the people' are on their side, thus leading them to believe that all those who disagree are sore, sad losers.  It's all a vicious cycle, and it's all because of movements that should have resulted in the establishment of new parties but instead resulted in the fortification of a corrupt, apathy-making two-party system.

Recently I heard a political scientist from England state that parties are the protector of democracy.  After what we have seen in the past year, we should understand.  Parties are the mechanisms by which we begin dialogues by clearly marking out our boundaries and positions in rank of importance.  The more political parties we have, the more clearly we demarcate our positions and the more clearly we can dialogue.  More parties creates more clarity rather than less, and also create more dialogue rather than less because a multi-party system eliminates all the factors in apathy covered above.  Without apathy, a multi-party system is therefore less likely to result in the easy planting and growing of false narratives and destructive passions.  We are therefore more likely to talk than hate.  Even if biased hate stuck around, we'd still better be able to dialogue because dialogue first requires understanding the other, and with more clear party designations there would be better understanding.

The solution here is obvious and not obvious.  Allow, support, and involve ourselves in third parties.  The more viable parties there are, the more likely movements will not confuse party lines and create hysteria, and the more likely they are to rise up within the appropriate parties and help all people understand, reflect on, and dialogue within the appropriate political landscape.  Third parties are not delusional.  To the extent that they are delusional, they are such because of the two parties sucking up all the resources and painting the third parties as irrelevant.  Third parties are only irrelevant because the two-party system would break down with a third party.  Simply calling parties other than Republican and Democratic 'third parties' is part of the problem: there is more than one third party. 

Here's the funny thing.  In my discussing Trump with people who voted for him, most could agree, usually without prompting, that his words and actions were deplorable and unacceptable (hear me aright, I am not calling those who voted for Trump 'deplorable').  Indeed, if they had an alternative, they would rather have not voted for him.  And that's funny.  It's funny because most people who voted for Trump did and do have an alternative: the Libertarian Party.  Many voted for Trump to reduce taxes, to reduce American policing around the world, and to re-balance federal and state government.  Is that not Libertarian?  Further, many people who voted for Trump, if we went down the list of Libertarian priorities, would say, "Yes, I agree."  Why not vote for what you actually believe?  A novel idea.  I'm not saying that people should vote Libertarian because it's some superior party or that those who voted for Trump voted wrongly.  What I am saying is that many who voted for Trump have said they'd rather they didn't have to, and if we simply moved out of our apathy in the two-party system then those people could have voted their conscience rather than for what they determined to be the lesser of two very great evils.  As I see it, we technically have six parties in our country as I write, and only the Republican and Democratic parties can conveniently sit on the linear two-party line.  We also have the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, whatever Trump is, and Sanders's Democratic Socialist party (which should be its own party).  If everyone voted their conscience and supported the party they believe in, rather than waiting every two or four years to vote for the lesser evil, then we'd instantly erase a whole lot of apathy and evil because we'd also have four or five major parties and one or two smaller ones.

The less obvious 'third party' solution is to involve ourselves with third-party organizations.  Non-profits and churches fit this bill.  If we are unsatisfied with our political system, the solution is not to fall prey to false narratives because of our apathy and susceptibility to sound bites but rather it is to change the ground on which the political system is planted.  If the soil of our communities changes, so does everything else.  Non-profits and churches (which are non-profits, heyo) transform the soil of our communities.  I can just about guarantee that there is a non-profit out there that will suit your taste.  And whatever your taste, we cannot let apathy or adherence to a mania be our response when things do not go well.  We must make the change we want happen one way or another.  If we are political, then building up a third or fourth party will be the best solution; if we are religious or justice-oriented, then a non-profit or church will be the best solution. 

If we are worried that churches or non-profits can't make the third-party type of change we'd like to see, then the reason is similar to why we think political third-parties don't work: we have made churches and non-profits obsolete via our apathy.  Organizations are only as powerful in community work as the support they receive. 

So if you are as concerned as I am about the destructive prevalence of the two-party system and all its various, harmful symptoms, give a political or organizational third party a chance.