The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Becket: A Tragic Hero, in a Bad Cause

On the feast day of Thomas Becket, I always feel impelled to note his profoundly ambiguous legacy. On the one hand, his death was the stuff of legend--fearlessly confronting the four knights who came to murder him, impelled by King Henry II's rash words.

On the other hand, the cause for which he fought--clerical immunity from the secular law--has prove over the centuries to be an incredibly ill-conceived one. The legacy of clericalism and cover up has cost the Church and the faithful dearly. (You can read an earlier draft here.) And Anne Duggan's edition of his correspondence does not exactly palliate his less noble aspects; I came away from it more sympathetic toward Henry than I had been previously--and Duggan is an admirer of Becket.

I have to admit that there is something about him that catches the imagination. And there is the great moment in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, portraying Becket rejecting the last, most insidious temptation--to use the Church's power for self-aggrandizement:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Perhaps it wasn't true to events (Gilbert Foliot thought that exactly the offense Becket was guilty of, and he was no fool.) But sometimes when the facts don't work out, we honor the intent anyway.

A problematic saint, Becket--the font of much good, but also of much harm. A great man despite his flaws? Perhaps; but perhaps it is wiser to view him as a man great in his love for God and the Church, but lacking the critically important virtue of prudence.

Monday, December 28, 2015

"Be Swift to Love, Make Haste to Be Kind"

My old friend and mentor Bill Tully used often to end services with these words, from Henri Frederic Amiel :
Life is short,

And we do not have much time

to gladden the hearts of those who

make the journey with us.

So… be swift to love,

and make haste to be kind.

And the blessing of God,

who made us,

who loves us,

and who travels with us

be with you now and forever.
I had these words rubbed into me yesterday, when I heard from an old friend that someone we had both known a long time ago a had died. I had not been close with this person--in face, we had not been friends at all, but had quite strongly disliked each other.

Our lived then went separate ways, and I did not hear of this person until about a couple years ago--30 years after our paths had crossed--when a social media contact request appeared on my screen.

I did not reply to it, one way or another.

Be swift to love,
make haste to be kind.

We never know the day or the hour.

I wonder if, had I answered the request, we would have found common ground at last? Maybe not; we were inimical to each other when young--but the things that loom large in youth are seen in different perspective in middle age. I wish now that I had at least tried.

Every time we say "no" to these opportunities to reconcile disparate pieces of life, we are closing the door to possibility. I wish I had done so in this case. I'm really writing this as an aide-memoir, so that I may be more wise another time.

Because I don't want to say "no" anymore.

And you, whom I did not claim as a friend? Forgive me. And rest in peace.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"God is Here and Christ is Now": A Christmas Eve Sermon

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City, December 24, 2015 at 12:00 pm)

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Well, that happened quickly, didn’t it? 2015, I mean—another calendar year zipping by, a winter that feels more like early Fall, and here we are, once more, on the day that will give way to Christmas Eve.

Are you ready? Am I ready?

I suppose it all depends on what you mean. Am I ready for the glitz, the gifts, my nephew and niece swamping my parents’ living room with wrapping paper?

Not quite.

Oh, I finished my shopping—just. I’m ignoring all the emails from Department Stores, from Amazon and Best Buy and Costco, among various other sellers of things good and less good.

And I’m saying to myself. “It is enough. Let it be enough.”

I don’t come to Christmas the way I did as a child—breathless with excitement for a large pile of toys. One of the down sides of growing up, maybe. But maybe not. Because when the wrapping paper is torn through, and the favorite toys mine at last, the rest of the day could seem anticlimactic. And as adults, we can often buy ourselves the things we want as well as the things we need. So the child’s Christmas in New York approach didn’t work for me anymore.

A few years back, I was rereading a favorite novel of mine,
Robertson Davies' A Mixture of Frailties (1958), in which a young writer enjoys a Christmas in Wales. Davies has him tell a friend that:
If I were at home, I would have finished my Christmas shopping a full two weeks ago; I would have wrapped everything up in elaborate paper, and tied it with expensive twine.

[Yes, he said "expensive trwine. Just go with it.]

I would approach the great festal day prepared for everything but a good time.... [F]or the first time in my life, I have got Christmas into focus. Tomorrow, I shall worship, I shall feast, and--quite incidentally, I shall give and receive.
(P. 176-177 (first ed.))

I've tried to learn from that, to make the worship central, the good times with family and dear friends central too, and the giving and receiving a pleasant incidental. The joy is in the celebration, the music, and the day, not in the "stuff." The gifts are symbols, symbols of affection and celebration. Even the massive, rock-like Panettone that someone is absolutely going to dump on me.

But what are we celebrating, here, today, in the drab last days of 2015? Isaiah tells us that “unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given.” And in the King James version that sounds pretty impressive. And the shepherds were given the same news, from an angel no less. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
But Jesus’s birth took place just about two millennia ago. What are we still celebrating for?

Are we waiting for the Second Coming, when so many think we’ll get the conquering Messiah Jesus refused to be? I don’t get that feeling.

No, I think we’re celebrating something far better than that. I think we’re celebrating the fact that our scriptures and our holy tradition tell us the decisive intervention of God in human affairs was to come down from heaven and share in all our joys and all our sufferings.
To be one of us, and share all the good and all the bad. To roam from town to town, and to help those who would let Him. To choose to die rather than to choose violence, and to love unconditionally throughout his life. Our Christian story isn’t like Greek mythology, where all-powerful gods and goddesses use people up like the toys kids will unwrap tomorrow. It isn’t like Norse mythology, where battles are fought to a standstill, creation is destroyed—and then the whole bloody cycle starts again.

No, our story is one where we first glimpse God in a newborn infant. A little child born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. We first see Jesus as a homeless child, stabled among the animals.

And yet that child is special. He won’t write any books. He won’t be a conqueror. He’ll just serve people, forgive them, heal them, and feed them. And he’ll teach them and us that that’s the very nature of God.

In the wake of the First World War, an Anglican theologian tried to explain to a bruised and battered people what the Incarnation meant, what Christmas was all about. He did it very briefly. “God is love,” Charles Gore wrote, “and love is sympathy and self-sacrifice.” Sympathy doesn’t mean pity—it means to feel with others, to share in their experiences. And self-sacrifice isn’t an exercise in beating oneself up. It’s giving of ourselves to help others.

And so, Gore wrote, “[t]he Incarnation is the supreme act of self sacrificing sympathy, by which one whose nature is divine . . .” emptied himself of divinity in order to grow, feel, think, and suffer like we do.

Or, to put it more bluntly, the story that defines us is one in which love, forgiveness, and compassion are so important that we believe that they are the very best not just of humanity, but of God. And we also believe that that love, that compassion, that forgiveness are as true of God today as they were that first Christmas Eve.

The Christmas story isn’t just a sweet story, it’s our story. It’s the story of love in a violent, often cruel world not so very different from ours. Isis rages, people shoot kids in schools, congregants in a church, or coworkers at a holiday party, and the powers of the world look on, unable to stop the violence, or, worse, fanning the flames.

And that’s just this year.

But God is there, in the victims’ families when they forgave the murderer who opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. God is there with the teachers who gave their lives to protect their students. And God is there in San Bernardino when Shannon Johnson made himself a human shield for a coworker, telling her “I got you.”

We celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the Incarnation, because it never ends. It’s not a historical event; it’s ongoing.

We celebrate it because God is here, and Christ is now.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Monday, December 21, 2015

New York and Nimet

Today I was discussing old radio favorites with a colleague, and WQXR's inimitable Nimet Habachy came up. She of the silken voice, eclectic and excellent taste. I listened to New York at Night through my teen years, and my love of classical music was enhanced by her enthusiastic and witty table-setting. Thanks to the power of Teh Google, I found an engaging mini-memoir:
cheherazade spun tales for a Sultan for a lousy one thousand and one nights. I spun tapes, records and CD’s for insomniac New Yorkers for over six thousand and one nights on WQXR radio, the (then) radio station of the New York Times. Scheherazade enjoyed only one nocturnal companion, the Sultan Shahryar. I, on the other hand, had a handsome cross-section of New Yorkers on any given night; obstetricians, New York’s finest, the Entenmann delivery men, cabbies and a lot of people with jet lag who weren’t too sure where they were.

Scheherazade’s Sultan had a nasty habit of killing his night’s companion the next morning in retaliation for having been betrayed by his first love. But the wily Scheherazade told such good tales, the sultan had to keep her alive till the next day so he could hear the end of the story. Needing to keep my ratings up on the graveyard shift, I found I could tease the listeners into keeping me company a little longer by stringing out the identification of the piece of music, so they had to stay awake to find out what they were hearing.

Many was the time listeners had to hear a brief history of Tudor England before finally learning they had been hearing Gloriana, Benjamin Britten’s opera on Elizabeth Tudor. If I created an intriguing enough link to the next piece, why then I could keep the listener around for maybe the next offering and the next… Then, Mr. Arbitron, who kept score of numbers of listeners out there, would have to concede someone was there at 4 am and I could keep my job a little longer.

Like Scheherazade, I could indulge in certain powers. Even as she could lull the Sultan with a romantic tale, I could do the same by offering the music of Debussy and Vaughan Williams. Scheherazade could excite the Sultan with a rousing adventure: all I had to do was play Wagner, a sure fire way to keep anyone awake. With diabolical pleasure, I pushed a button and New York slept or jumped out of bed at my command. Heady stuff.

How did it all come about? In 1980, I was “at liberty” but performing as a chorister in a singular production of Carmen playing every geriatric center between Manhattan and Co-Op City. I was reveling in putting the voice lessons I was taking to good use and learning the Bizet score. The population of Seville varied according to who was employed from week to week. Wishing to play my part to the utmost, I concocted what I deemed was an appropriate Spanish get-up, heavy on red and gold bangles. It wasn’t my fault that our Carmen was diminutive and favored beige and that some elderly residents mistook me for Carmen.
Read the rest, and meet the lady who helped me fall in love with classical music.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

End of an Industrial Era

Reading about the closure of the last deep coal mine in Great Britain moved me in a way I didn't expect. When I read the headline, I thought "Thank God!," remembering all the stories I read about mining working conditions and accidents in researching Phineas Finn's and the Earl of Brentford's visit to the Pontnewydd coal mine for Phineas at Bay.

But as I read the article, I remembered the stories of the coal miners themselves; the everyday courage shown by underpaid men and, all too often boys, working under conditions we would blanch at, with death or serious physical injury a daily risk, so familiar as to go unthought of until it eventuated. I thought also of the wives and children who grew up in these environments, and whose stories are generally only ever hinted at.

My research was not of the depth to tell those stories--I was, after all, only stopping off in a fictional mine in a real Welsh mining town (as Pontnewydd then was, but is no longer). No, I used such a locale as a backdrop for an event, the catalyst of the main plot of my novel. But I'm glad that my editior pushed me further, and impelled me to go into the bowels of the mine, to try to add some flesh to the bones of my plot. Because the miners deserved more, and while I hope they all find a safer and more remunerative way of making a living, I am glad I got to delve a little into the culture of that difficult, dangerous job.

I can't regret the closing of collieries, but I regret the dispalcement of the miners, even as I hope for a better future for them and their families. And I'm glad I got to look into their lives a little bit.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"I Had ONE Line. I Forgot It": Return to the Boards

So today I had the pleasure of acting for the first time since between college and law school. It was part of the Anthony Powell Society Luncheon, this year marking AP's 110th birthday. I was asked to play Bob Duport in a scene from Hearing Secret Harmonies--a scene in which the elderly, wheelchair-bound Duport snarls at art not to his taste, preens at having had the sense to hang on to his terrible collection of seascapes until they were profitable, and gloats to Jenkins about that "chateau bottled shit" Widmerpool being knocked out by Louie Glober (not quite; just his specs were broken, Bob's daughter Polly corrects him).

In short, I got to be nasty, plaintive ("Look at me now. Shunted about in a bath chair. Penny for the guy. That's how I feel"), matey, and so absent minded that my ex-wife had to remind me of the woman I'd cheated on her with.

Er, Duport's ex-wife, that is.

The luncheon was excellent, the company better, and my co-stars carried me through. We had a wheelchair, and I donned an elderly tweed jacket and a deplorably moth-eaten sweater that was even worse than I remembered.

I'd forgotten how much fun acting is. And how nervous I get just before going on.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Way We Read Now: Surmounting the Stereotypes

I missed George Packer's well deserved paean of praise to Anthony Trollope's magnificent The Way We Live Now. Packer praises Trollope's book for man of the right reasons; this, for example, is admirably well put:
Trollope’s London is a satirical distortion of the city that he found upon returning from eighteen months of overseas travel: the luxurious center of a vast empire floating on limitless credit, a society defined entirely by commercial interest, a hothouse of financial speculation and status competition, a place where relationships have become purely transactional.

The mysterious figure looming at the center of “The Way We Live Now” is Augustus Melmotte, a financier (the term had just been coined) of obscure origins—French? Irish-American? Jewish?—and unsavory reputation. No one knows how Melmotte made his fortune—there are rumors of jail time in Germany and fraud in France—but he’s rich, unimaginably rich, maybe the richest man in the world, and that’s enough for almost everyone in London society to swallow their blue-blood prejudices and distaste for his upstart manners. City investors beg to buy shares of Melmotte’s newly incorporated South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, a murky project for a rail line from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz that has all the signs of being a fraud. A lucky few are given seats on the company’s board; young aristocrats chase after the hand and income of Melmotte’s unlovely but unexpectedly tough-minded daughter, Marie; socialites trade favors to score scarce tickets to his sumptuous dinner in honor of the emperor of China; the Conservative and Liberal Parties vie to put Melmotte forward as their parliamentary candidate for Westminster (the Tories win). Whether or not he’s a fraudster doesn’t matter, as long as the music keeps playing.

Just about everything in this money-soaked world is false. Love and marriage, for example. The female characters in “The Way We Live Now” are sold off in marriage to the highest bidder like horses at a bazaar. Marie Melmotte’s prospects turn so decisively on up-to-the-minute appraisals of her net value that, after being wooed and dropped by several suitors, she finally abandons her romantic fantasies and comes to a clear-eyed conclusion: “I don’t think I’ll marry anybody. What’s the use? It’s only money. Nobody cares for anything else.” The man who finally wins her hand, a California businessman named Fisker, does so by pitching marriage as a straightforward deal, minus the pretty words: “Let us go in for life together. We’ve both done uncommon well.”
But then Packer hits a sour note. He writes:
One character tries to stand athwart the tide of finance and falsehood. Roger Carbury, Lady Carbury’s cousin, is a bachelor in his late thirties, doomed to love a much younger woman (Lady Carbury’s daughter, Hetta) who can’t bring herself to reciprocate. He’s an old-fashioned country gentleman with disdain for just about everything that England, with its stupendous new wealth, is becoming. He’s the only character who isn’t dazzled by Melmotte and his money: “A miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”

Trollope always complicates the moral starkness of his portraits. Carbury—the closest thing in the novel to an authorial stand-in—is not only a man of unshakeable principle but also a self-righteous prig who never hesitates to tell friends and family how to live their lives.
He's also a borderline stalker, harassing Hetta, and aching to quarrel with his protégé Paul Montague who has committed the unutterable sin of winning her love. More to the point, Trollope has missed the moral center of the novel. It's Roger Carbury, in part. But Roger shares that role with it's also a character Packer describes in distinctly unflattering terms:
A pronounced streak of xenophobia and anti-Semitism runs through “The Way We Live Now”—mostly attributed to Trollope’s high-society characters, but the author doesn’t completely escape the taint. He describes a Jewish financier named Brehgert as “a fat, greasy man of fifty, conspicuous for hair-dye.” When Brehgert proposes to a young Englishwoman who’s overestimated her own worth for too many years to be picky, the reaction is nearly universal horror, but she’s more pragmatic: as long as the man is rich, why should anyone care about his religion? Greed can be the leading wedge of freedom.
Yes, Breghert is at first sketched in profoundly unflattering terms, but he and Roger Carbury are the only thoroughly honest men in the book. In fact, Breghert treats those around him with equity and kindness, even when they treat him with contempt. As the book progresses, these two men--the old fashioned Tory whose day has passed and the seeming stereotype--are the only ones who try very hard to render to every one about them their due. And they're both outsiders, in a very real way--Roger has outlived his time; the High Victorian virtues he admires have been lost in the corruption of the age, and his embittered nature strips them of some of heir value. Breghert takes insult, scorn and polite contempt from his social "betters" and returns it with decency, but firmness.

I couldn't resist bringing Breghert back in Phineas at Bay, to explore that kindly, subfusc decency a little more, to spend a little more time with the nicer of the two honest men our Diogenes found in his search through a profligate London.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Law and Gospel: A Day With Nadia Bolz-Weber

(Photo of Nadia Bolz-Weber at First Lutheran Church, Albany, NY; photo by CRTC).

Day 2 of the Capital Region Theological Association's Weekend with Nadia Bolz-Weber, and I just want to comment on some of the high points> Before I turn to my takeaways from Pastor Nadia, let me thank the gracious and warm staff of the CRTC who made this newcomer feel most welcome, and who averted disaster for the members of my breakout session group (we ended up all at lunch together) after the restaurant--no names, no penal drill--took so long to produce our meals that we hadn't received them at the end of the time allotted for us to eat--the program was delayed to let us get back. Also, I want to thank Katy Stenta for her hospitality and kindness, as well as for good conversation in the intervals and the breakout sessions. (Now g'wan and read her blog; she's good; her twitter stream under #NadiaTakeover gives a pretty good précis of the day.)

Now to my own response to the day. Nadia's commentary on Grace continues to resonate with me, especially her explication of it answering a questioner who wanted to know what she meant by describing herself as a "Law and Gospel" preacher. Here's a summary of what she said, based on the notes I furiously tapped out on my iPad:

We want the law to save us us, but it convicts us. We want to justify ourselves by the law but nobody can live up to the law. But Law drives us to the foot of the Cross where we cry out My Lord and My God. Every time Jesus was confronted by someone who sought affirmation of their goodness through obedience ego the Law, Jesus pointed out that the Law demanded yet more of them. A young man is able to affirm he hasn't committed adultery--Jesus asks: Have you lusted after other? And, of course, he has. The Law is a lover that will never love us back.

Only grace saves us. But here's the problem; Grace is not comfortable--it's out of our control, it's that free, unearned gift. But it means that we can't earn salvation. Right relationship with God is't not having to bother him because we have achieved sinlessness. Christianity isn't a sin management program--it's accepting our need for God and accepting to that he wants to restore, redeem and forgive us, out of love.

She quoted Martin Luther: "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly" in explicating this notion, and its corollary Christian freedom--a phrase not heard often enough, she suggested. Nadia urged us to consider that what people loved about was not, as they said, its creativity, but rather its exercise of Christian freedom--the freedom of a people who know that they are fodiven, ransomed, and that they don't have to earn that forgiveness, just to live in response to it.

As a lawyer who discovered the limits of the Law in my own life, all of this strikes a deep chord with me. As did Luther's line--I think it was Robertson Davies who memorably said "Dare nobly, sin greatly" (in The Manticore, if I remember correctly.)

A final point--Bolz-Weber criticized much of liberal Christianity (rightly, in my opinion), for having a "high anthropology"--that is, for having too high an opinion of human goodness. She said that she only had to look at her own flaws--present as well as past--to know that that view doesn't jibe with reality. I can;t help but agree. Once again, that great passage from C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark, where Lewis Eliot debates an official of the Third Reich, speaks for me:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
(Revised 12/14/15)

Friday, December 11, 2015

An Evening With Nadia Bolz-Weber

This evening was the first of two parts of the CRTC workshop with Nadia Bolz-Weber that I am attending. It consisted of an interview with Pastor Nadia by a moderator and a brief Q-and-A with the audience, followed by a book signing.

Hearing speak for over an hour was an illuminating experience She describes herself (accurately) as an orthodox Lutheran preacher of the Gospel. Oh, she's kinetic, funny as hell, and passionate--there's no way of describing here what her talk was like.

Although, it occurred to me, these clips of her speaking elsewhere hit some of the notes that resonated with me--a little differently, but you can see her doing it, and get a better flavor for her presentation than I can give you bu trying to summarize her words:

1. "God's Grace is Absolutely Free; We Don't Earn It, We Just Try to Respond to it"

This resonates with me especially. She related it to her experience in AA, andI can identify. Why one alcoholic gets sober and another doesn't is a great mystery. But when the obsession is lifted--that's grace.

2. "Accidental Saints": Finding God in All the Wrong People

Anyway, more tomorrow, with the actual workshop group. So far, an enlightening and inspiring event.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"The Readiness is All": A Sermon for Advent II, 2015

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC
December 6, 2015)

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

OK, That’s Hamlet, not Scripture, but I think it has something to tell us about Advent. Advent is one of those seasons of the Church year when the mood inside these walls is especially different from the mood outside. Outside, you can feel the buildup to Christmas intensifying. Get your shopping done! There are bargains to be had—better hurry! Buy for the kids, the parents, the spouse. And, hey—buy something for yourself, too. After all, who knows what you want better than you do?

Inside here though—the readings take us to a very different place. The unknown prophet named by tradition as Malachi starts off on a joyful note--the Lord whom we seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom we delight—he is coming. And then the prophet asks us, darkly, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

He tells us that the Lord will refine us like silver—which involves a lot of fire—and the experience will be like cleansing garments with fuller’s soap. Now, fuller's soap is not Ivory Snow, or some nice gentle cleanser that softens your hands while you do the dishes. It’s made of alkali, urine and chalk. It’s like taking a bath in bleach, only it smells worse. A lot worse.

So, like many Episcopalians before us, we flee from the Old Testament to the New. Where Luke introduces us to the uncomfortable figure of John the Baptist, fiercely preaching a severe gospel of repentance.

Is this Advent or Lent we’re going through, anyway?

And is our beloved holiday season really a warning to be afraid, to be very afraid, of the judgment of the Lord?

No. I don’t believe that it is.

“Be not afraid” Jesus says over and over, in all of the Gospels, so I’m pretty sure we don’t have to dread his presence in our lives. Whatever Advent means, and these readings mean, it isn’t that. We don't follow the Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards, who famously warned his own parishioners, “God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” That’s very dramatic, and I’m sure it increased the offering that week, but it’s bad theology. Even in a week when The New York Times that there have more mass shootings than days this year—it’s still bad theology.

The Fourth Gospel tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and did so that we could become children of God. All of us.

The proper response to that good news is joy, but joy with a tinge of awe. We don’t do awe well in our generation. We toss around the word “awesome” as a synonym for “excellent” or “good.” But that’s not awe.

Look around you, at this space we have the honor of worshipping in—the explosions of color and light in the Rose Window, the blending of wood and stone, brick and marble. We’re in a place of celebration, but it’s celebration that has a solemn quality to it. It’s joyful, but it’s a joy that carries deep meaning, and mystery. We’ll never completely understand it, but it’s real and can move our hearts, so that we come back week after week.

Awe can be frightening. And I’m not going to conjure up all the standard nature metaphors—beautiful but terrifying lightning storms, or incredible mountain vistas. Because good though they are, we’re talking about God, and I can’t have a relationship with Niagara Falls, or a mountain. It can’t know us, can’t love us the way we are taught, and the way I believe, that God loves us.

No, let’s stick closer to home for this. Think back to the first moment you realized were in love. Not infatuation. Not desire. The real thing. Now, I can’t speak for anybody but me, but mixed in with that unbelievable joy, that thrill that only the presence of that one special person can bring, is a kind of fear. The fear of being vulnerable. Will she love me back? What happens when he gets to know how insecure I am? Will I get hurt?

That’s awe.

And becoming aware, really taking on board, the love of God carries with it some awe. It’s hard to accept that we are loved by God. It’s especially hard to find room in our busy lives in an increasingly scary world that seems out of joint. With all that, how can we make space for a relationship with a God we can’t see, or touch, or whose voice we can’t hear.

It’s hard to remember the children we once were, and find that kind of spontaneity in ourselves again.

And that’s what Advent is for.

It’s a time for finding that moment when we feel at one with the world, where we can open ourselves to feelings we so often push to the side.

And how on earth do we do that?

Well, in AA, we have a saying—act as if. Be a part of what’s happening here these next few weeks before Christmas. Stay for coffee afterward, maybe take a tour. Maybe take an active part. There are all kinds of ways, you know—help decorate the church for Christmas, wrap toys to be given to children to fulfill Christmas wishes.

Here’s a secret—Community Ministry gives you the opportunity to meet incredible people, both our volunteers but especially our guests, who so often taught me what grace under pressure really is like. If that’s not for you, you can take a class—we have everything from Bible study to yoga classes throughout the week. Or just be here and soak it in, and clear some space for yourself to breathe. And listen. Don’t worry if you don’t hear anything. You will when the time is right for you.

Advent for me is a chance to make that space in life so that we can hear the inmost promptings of the heart, can open ourselves to discovering where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Now, I stole those words. They’re from Frederick Buchner, and they’re the best translation I’ve come upon for what theologians mean when they talk about God calling each of us, clergy and lay, to a special ministry. It’s finding that place, he , “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Some find that place in ordained ministry, as priests, or, as I have, as a permanent deacon.

But our lay ministers and volunteers, our altar guild, the incredibly talented musicians who create beauty here every week, are responding to that call. And so are many people whose responses we don’t see, because they pursue that calling outside the church walls, and we’re here as a community and sustenance for them.

Advent is a bit like Lent, then.

It’s a chance to stop a bit, recognize that every day the world offers us all chances to find that place, and put our deep gladness to work. It’s a chance to step back from the rush, and get ready to hear. It’s a chance to oppose the cruelties and violence that are so common in our world, and by opposing end them. Not with more violence, but by acts of kindness and a refusal to accept that cruelty and violence establish the norm. They do not. So Advent is not a deadline; it’s a process. It’s about readiness.

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Learned Helplessness and Signs of Hope

In the wake of this week's reportage that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015, and yesterday's voting down by the GOP House of a proposed amendment to prevent gun sales to terrorists, you could be excused for falling into a state of absolute despair about our politics. I admit, I have my moments when I'm tempted to.

But there are reasons not to do so. First, the problem of passing reasonable legislation that could ameliorate our gun problem is a problem of political culture, not constitutional law, despite the assumptions who read nothing more than headlines describing Supreme Court decisions. Yes, it's true that District of Columbia v. Heller found an individual right to own firearms [1], but that's not all the Court held:
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. . . . For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. . . Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment , nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
(Citations omitted.)

The Court notes in a footnote that "[w]e identify these presumptively lawful regulatory measures only as examples; our list does not purport to be exhaustive."

There's a second caveat to the Court's finding of a personal right to own a firearm:
We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.”


It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment ’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
(Citations omitted.)

Think about that for a moment. The Second Amendment protects ownership only of weapons that were the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time” of its enactment. This is hardly the charter the NRA was hoping for.

So if we can find the will politically, we can act. We are only helpless because we perceive ourselves to be.

Two other grounds for hope. First, although mass shootings are on the rise, gun violence overall has significantly decreased since its peak in the mid-1990s. That doesn't mean we should let our craven political class off the hook; it does mean that anger, not panic, is the correct response. It also means we need to grapple with the specific problems posed by mass shootings, to see what policy initiatives and legislation could help address them.

Along those lines, I want to highlight a post from Brian W. Schoeneman, a veteran political professional who is also, I think it fair to say, a serious conservative, and avid Second Amendment supporter. Remember when I angrily called for gun owners to step up? Schoeneman does (admittedly with some shots at liberals, but I'll take it):
It is incumbent upon those of us in the gun rights community, not the gun grabbing advocates, to come up with the ideas to help solve this problem, however. Our passion for defending our second amendment rights has lead to a great expansion in the rights of Americans to keep and bear arms as protected by the Second Amendment, which we should be proud of. At the same time, to paraphrase Stan Lee, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. No law-abiding gun owner wants their rights infringed upon because a criminal used a gun to shoot up a school, a theater, a clinic or anywhere else. But that’s the first, and only, response from those on the left to these crimes. Clearly, the solutions to these problems aren’t going to come from the left. They have to come from us.

In the interests of full disclosure, when I ran for House of Delegates in 2011, I received the AQ rating from the NRA. I also received the Virginia Citizens Defense League endorsement. I’ve been a gun rights advocate my entire life – it was the earliest political issue I became passionate about. I’m also a gun owner, owning both long guns and handguns, and I took my wife on our second date to the gun range. For those concerned about my conservative credentials, this is one issue where I am to the right of Attilla the Hun. At the same time, I recognize that the status quo – where every day and every week we see more tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora, and these latest – is untenable. We need to take some positive steps to address these issues.
OK, not thrilled to be called a gun grabber--but still: Thank God. Seriously. Because if Mr. Schoeneman gets it, then we might just see more on his side of the fence join with him. And he might be surprised to discover how many liberals don't want to eliminate the Second Amendment, but would make common cause with conservatives to try solutions that might solve what he rightly calls an epidemic.

Here are his ideas--he carefully notes that they are not final proposals suitable for enactment, but first thoughts to start discussing (I'm abridging his discussion of the ideas, but it's well worth a read):
1. A national firearms transfer fee to fund mental health beds and an enhanced NICS background check system – Funding for mental health, especially in poorer communities, has been a concern. . . . . Imposing a reasonable, flat fee on every transfer of a firearm that requires a background check – not more than $20 – could help provide additional funding without raising taxes on everybody. The fee would be set aside specifically for mental health and NICS, with the mental health portion going where it is most needed.

...$20 is the equivalent of a box or two of ammo. $100 is too high. $20 is reasonable.

2. Expand the NICS background check system to include the terrorism watch list – . . . .If we are honestly concerned about international and domestic terror, it makes little sense for us not to be cross-checking gun purchases through the terrorism watch lists. While there are obvious concerns about the accuracy of those lists, those same concerns exist for all of the various databases used here.

If we do add the terrorism watch list to NICS, there needs to be an expedited appeal process to ensure those mistakenly on the list or those who are on the list because they are wanted for questioning in regards to some other individual’s activities (as the NRA noted in the link above) aren’t delayed unnecessarily from buying a gun.

Because we are dealing with a Constitutional right, these changes absolutely have to involve due process, and give anybody denied at the minimum a right to be heard in their own defense.

3. Repeal the three day “must issue” rule for delays in background checks – Right now, if a background check can’t be completed within three days, gun dealers are required to transfer the gun. Over 99% of background checks are instant, but there are some that take longer, often due to gaps in the data. It is likely that, if we add the terrorist watch lists to NICS, the delays will increase. While there should always be an emphasis on speed, speed at the expense of accuracy is not acceptable here. It is better to err on the side of caution and not transfer a firearm if the background check has not been completed. If this becomes a common way of delaying purchases and impacts law abiding citizens significantly, it can be addressed later. . . .

4. Pressure on social media companies to do more to restrict the ability of potential mass shooters to connect with like-minded individuals and self-radicalize – While I am not aware of any formal studies (we could use one) on the role of social media in the increased number of mass shootings, there does appear to be plenty of anecdotal evidence. And there is no question that the rise of social media has had a major impact on recruiting of radical Islamic terrorists and the self-radicalization of Americans. Facebook and Twitter – the latter especially – have been common tools used by terrorists to spread propaganda and self radicalize.

As more and more Americans spend more and more time interacting with each other over social media, the emphasis on policing social media needs to increase. While government should not step in here to curtail what is, unfortunately, free speech, these social media companies should make it more difficult for hate groups, potential terrorists and their sympathizers, and similar high-risk people to use their platforms to coordinate attacks and spread propaganda. . . .

5. Treat these mass murder as a public health issue – Treating gun violence as a public health issue has been controversial for a while and almost derailed the Surgeon General’s nomination. That being said, there is some logic to treating this violence – especially the parts of it tied to mental health issue – as a public health issue. At the very least, it would lead to more non-partisan studies on the issue, and potentially to more people trying to find solutions. There are a lot of areas that need to be explored, not the least of which is the actual – not anecdotal – relationship between mental health and mass shootings, as well as the relationship between certain types of drugs and violent behavior. It’s time we take these issues out of the realm of politics and conspiracy theories and actually start studying them.
Schoeneman writes that "Even the solutions I’ve outlined below feel inadequate. I don’t know if any solution is ever going to feel adequate in the wake of another one of these tragedies, but we can’t afford to let despair cloud reason. My goal here is to present solutions that actually address the various problems leading to mass shootings, and are politically feasible."

I doubt he'd thank me for my endorsement, but I think he's met that goal (though he's getting beat up pretty badly in the comment section of his blog). Most of the ideas he presents are good (number 4 really is only viable if the social media companies and communities do it themselves, without government pressure, let alone mandates. Otherwise the First Amendment is being violated--but Schoeneman is aware of the problem, and tailors his suggestion to address it), and I'm delighted to see them proposed by a genuine conservative and supporter of the Second Amendment. If others in his community join him, we could see some progress. We might even stop screaming at each other, and start talking--and, even better, listening.

[1] While the Court's analysis in Heller essentially erases what it calls the "prefatory clause" of the Second Amendment, what I would call the declaration of purpose, its analysis is on the whole defensible, and, in many ways, correct. Much more problematic is McDonald v City of Chicago, which "incorporates" the Second Amendment against the states, who would be the entities to make sure that the militias are in fact "well-regulated," which is the purpose of the Amendment. While I'm normally a believer in incorporation of the Bill of Rights as against the states, the Second Amendment doesn't really fit that paradigm, as incorporation leaves nobody with the ability to ensure the militias are in fact "well-regulated," thereby defeating the purpose and reducing the declaration of intent to surplusage.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Only Engine of Survival

Leonard Cohen's darkest song, "The Future." gives us a stark warning:
You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little jew
who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going
any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future:
it is murder.
Things like today's shooting in San Bernadino,make you suspect that Cohen's vision was prophetic:
Multiple assailants terrorized this city Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding at least 17 at a center for the disabled and leading the police on a manhunt culminating in a shootout in a residential neighborhood that left two suspects dead and a possible third in custody.

Panic, chaos and rumor gripped this largely working-class community about 60 miles east of Los Angeles as the attackers carried out the nation’s worst mass shooting since the assault on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., nearly three years ago.The shooting began around 11 a.m. at the Inland Regional Center inside a building that was being used by the county health department for a holiday party as others cowered and hid in the building, sending out texts. Chief Jarrod Burguan of the San Bernardino police said that most of the victims were found in one part of that building. He said the attackers also left an object that “is believed to be potentially an explosive device.”
Of course, we're still processing the Colorado Springs Planned parenthood shootings, which happened--when was it?--oh, yes--last week, right around the time of the Oregon shooting (remember that one?)

Note that I say we are "processing" this terrible events. Not "reeling from" or "in shock from" like we genuinely were in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. We're not in shock any more. This is the new normal.

Don't believe me? Well, read for yourself:
More than one a day.

That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people injured or dead occurred in the United States this year, according to compilations of episodes derived from news reports.

Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been injured in such shootings this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.


Two databases that track mass shootings that leave four or more dead or injured — and — depend on news accounts and are not official. Nonetheless, they give an indication of the widespread nature of such episodes. Since January, there have been at least 354 such cases in about 220 cities in 47 states, shootings, according to
That's more mass shootings than there have been days thus far in 2015.

Our national response has consisted of finger-pointing, gridlock, and complete inaction. Oh, and rise of the Open Carry Movement, which "seeks to normalize the carrying of firearms in public places."

We the People, in sum, do not care.

You want a Culture of Death? Look around you; it's here. This is what it truly looks like--when another massacre loses the power to shock, and so "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity".

Our politics are not up to the task--I admire President Obama's effort to stir up action--but we are torpid as a people.

This will continue as long as we let it. We have to choose that only engine of survival--love--and not give in to passivity, to the hopeless monotonous recitation of dreadful news now grown familiar and even boring. As a friend of mien who died last week was fond of saying, "Love is the Answer."

And we'd better choose to love our neighbors more than we love our guns, our status quo, our causes--whatever it is, even if it is good in itself, that we make an idol that can then instruct us to kill our neighbor.

Because if we don't, I've seen the future--it is murder.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

That's One Hell of a Bird...

Just a brief note to praise the remarkable Heaven Sent, the penultimate episode of Doctor Who this season. Capaldi's performance, Moffat's script (I think quite possibly his best and darkest since Jekyll), Rachel Talalay's direction, fuse into an extra long episode that is riveting and almost painful to watch.

The ads always say the Doctor is meeting an unparalleled threat, pushed as never before, etc.--this time, it really happens. Unable to divulge the secret that might set him free, 12 takes the long way around, in a tortuous, and yet ultimately stirring episode that wrung my cynical old pump more than once. (Oh, and Murray Gold's score was just right this week, at one point (%:04-5:27) evoked Colin Town's score from The Haunting of Julia:


I'll get back to other matters tomorrow, but just wanted to praise this extraordinary episode.