Thursday, October 26, 2017

What Ever Happened to Middle Earth?

Warning: this is a political post--sort of. What I mean is that in it, I am hoping for, praying for, advocating for a type of sanity that has gone missing from the American political landscape. Here's what I mean...

If you read multiple newspapers, as I do, and try to read a balance of news across the spectrum from "liberal" to "conservative," a fearful thing emerges: the polarization of America into extremes has roots and wings--it is not just a myth of Facebook posts and bar conversations, apparently. Where did we lose "Middle Earth"?

In the political world, we have devolved into Bernie Sanders, Socialist Democrat, on one side, and "The Party of Trump" on the other. Responsible politicians falling anywhere away from these poles--even a really conservative guy like Jeff Flake--becomes persona non grata. Off with his head. Are we  even hearing from any Democrats several rungs down the fire escape toward reason from Senator Sanders? Chuck Schumer is a kind of Democratic Jeff Flake--a really liberal guy whose voice is lost as people seem bent on listening to the siren song of the far extremes. Where is Middle Earth where we all--common citizens and elected officials--used to meet to talk real solutions to the real problems facing us?

In a column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/26/17), Ed Rogers, a conservative contributor to the Washington Post, makes this statement: "Let's remember, the mainstream media wants nothing less than to see the destruction of the Republican Party." This statement is wrong on so many levels. First of all, "mainstream media" is a pejorative term made up by people who don't like to read stories more than 140 characters in length. It can also be fired as a bullet from both "sides" of the debate, although I see the term being slung more from the conservative side. As one trained in journalism and communications, I can say that reporters are taught to "get the facts"--the "five Ws and the H"--Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How? Reporters take meticulous notes, and make sure quotes are accurate. And, they seek multiple, corroborating sources. Columnists, on the other hand, may give opinions. While these should also be backed up with facts, the Op Ed writer is not under the same constraint to maintain balanced sources. Have these lines become blurred, from time to time? Probably, as something called the "New Journalism" crept into prominence back in the 1970s, as I recall. However, in the field of reporting, news stories are on dangerous ground if they contain inaccurate information about people or companies, as litigation may ensue. Not so much with opinion pieces. Secondly, there is no media conspiracy for the "destruction of the Republican Party." That is a ludicrous assertion. As much of the media is owned by staunchly conservative syndicates and wealthy individuals today as by liberal ones. No one is out to get the Republican Party, but when it is fully "in power" as it is now, and doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything but killing its own wounded and wallowing in a mire of unfinished legislation, this is news, and any reporter worth her salt will write about it. To have one political party so much in charge and to see nothing coming of it for almost a year is a true "man bites dog" moment. If (and God, please don't let it be so!) the Republican Party is destroyed, it will be a case of self-cannibalism.

What about the treatment of the Democrats in the press? Frankly, we're not reading much. After Clinton's loss, that party hasn't really fielded a lineup of reasonable voices, that I can see. Schumer says something, Bernie pontificates, Adam Schiff barks about Devin Nunes' flawed definition of what "recuse" means--these are fodder for Op Ed, not much actual reporting. As a Democrat, I'm way beyond disappointed with the miasma emanating from this party right now, but I'm even more angry about the lip service they are paying to finding Middle Earth.

I have to confess that I have not been immune from being dragged into the polarized dog fight on social media. America has elected a highly polarizing "media star" as President, and this has greatly catalyzed our rapid run to the extreme poles. However, he is President, and nothing will get done in Washington without passing over the Resolute Desk, so it will have to be part of Middle Earth, if we are ever to find it again. I'll be honest: beyond praying for our government, including President Trump, I don't know what to do. My occasional opinions posted on Facebook or in this blog are mostly signs of my frustration over how Middle Earth has disappeared like Atlantis, and over people labeling things like "Mainstream Media."

As a United Methodist Pastor, I'm quite concerned for the cares and needs of people, and history tells us that Middle Earth is the only place their concerns will find the proverbial balm. The political extremes have never been kind to the middle class, who are the people filling our pews and living in the neighborhoods I have lived in. And what about the poor and the oppressed? They are either radically under-served by the extremes, or exploited by them. At a few points on the timeline of history, they have united and risen up in revolution, but usually wind up pretty much back where they were, and with some self-self-aggrandizing despot in power.

And then there's religion. Those labeled "Evangelicals" have stolen the news cycle because they seem to have moved into the Trump camp. Seeing the President as a sudden and surprising chance to realize their monotoned agenda--getting a conservative Supreme Court that will roll back Roe v. Wade and marriage equality--they have abandoned nine-tenths of the teachings of Jesus, in my view. But they are in the news, currently among the "man bites dog" stories. As they keep playing this one note on the piano of social issues, though, I suspect even the "Mainstream Media" will give them less column inches. Is there room for us liberal gospel preachers in this debate? As such, I am for connecting people to God, people to people, and helping people who need a hand-up. And in reality, we know that these pursuits will only find legitimate fruition in Middle Earth. Religious liberals want to play chords and songs on the proverbial keyboard of ideas, not one note, but in the current polarized climate, it's like the piano keys are disappearing, an octave at a time.

So, what do we do? How do we reset our socio-political GPS for Middle Earth? I think this begins by being informed. We should stop getting most of our news from Twitter or Facebook (the latter is OK if we use it to follow links to legitimate news sources, not Breitbart or BlueState). Read, people, read. Read a broad base of books--they are actually still publishing books, and serious authors from across the socio-political spectrum are writing them. Read newspapers. Responsible papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are available online, with a limited number of free stories. Better yet, subscribe. The First Amendment feeds on printed news. Printed information is absent the non-verbal component of communication, which allows the reader to form her or his own opinion about what they read. That's a problem with video and audio-based news--these non-verbal cues (facial expressions, eye contact, body posture, intonation) may speak a very different message from the words the speaker is actually saying, and this often obfuscates the intended message, or in the worst case, allows a hidden message to be presented, counter to the words spoken.

Let our own planet earth provide a parable: The poles are forbidding, cold, cold places where even compasses can no longer provide guidance for proper navigation. Middle Earth is a warm gathering place where trade winds blow and seasons change. More of us live in Middle Earth than in any other place on the planet. May we move our ideas there with us and begin to reason together to fix our common problems, care for those disenfranchised and hurting, and set a course for a hopeful future for us all. As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How did Halloween become such a thing?

I read again recently that the amount of decorations sold for Halloween exceed even what we shell out for Christmas. How did Halloween become such a huge thing?

First of all, many of us don't spend as much on Christmas because we have TONS of decorations acquired over the years, and much of it came from our parents or grandparents when they "downsized." St. Paul's and North Hills Community Outreach does a thing every Fall where we collect donations of Christmas decorations and then offer them for free to persons who maybe can't afford to purchase them. You can't believe what all gets donated. Clearly, there is a prodigious glut of Christmas decorations out there, languishing in attics, basements, garages, and probably even stuffed into the little doors and drawers under nightstands and end tables!

But what about Halloween? It's always been a kid-favorite holiday, with the costumes, trick-or-treating for candy, and the resulting overall sugar overload. And, many people like to scare or be scared. Also, there is a long dry spell between the July 4 holiday and Thanksgiving, which is basically a football and eating marathon, anyway, neither of which much appeals to children. So, Halloween filled the gap. As an aging Baby Boomer, I can say that my friends and I looked so forward to getting dressed up and going out on neighborhood candy hauls. Then, when I was about 11, something went wrong: deranged individuals began hiding razor blades in candy or coating it with drugs. I can remember how the whole Halloween trick-or-treating thing took a huge hit. It was a seriously depressing time.

Now, we aging Baby Boomers are grandparents, and our children are parents. Both groups of "adults" want our kids and grand kids to recapture some of the fun of Halloween, so we do what we always do--go WAY overboard. Decorations have become quite sophisticated, costumes have become much more fantastic, and all of the candy is hermetically sealed (in fact, it's almost impossible to get into it). Parents inspect every treat, just to make sure, though.

Adult costume parties for Halloween have multiplied, too. I can't believe the number of email advertisements I get from places selling elaborate--and costly--adult Halloween costumes!

All in all, I don't think there is anything wrong with all of this. People of faith have often had a kind of bittersweet relationship with goblins and demons, with many believing the "real things" are conspiring to use Halloween to recruit little ones into devilish behavior. They thought the same thing would happen if they read any of the Harry Potter books. I really don't see a difference in kids from either activity.

Still, Dara and I never celebrated Halloween with our children. Maybe it was because of some of these spiritual concerns, coupled with fears over getting candy from strangers. Maybe it was due, in part, to the fact that we were students during much of our kids' childhood, and we couldn't afford to reciprocate with the treat distribution. I do know that we taught our children about the significance of All Saints Day, and honoring the saints who went before us. And, I know we took our kids out for a special night on Halloween--dinner at a place of their choice, and then to the Carnegie Science Center, for example. I don't think they missed anything. And it didn't "poison" them to the holiday, as our daughter and son-in-law take our grandchildren trick-or-treating.

Whatever you and your family do for Halloween, be safe. And take some time to explain the origins of "All Hallows' Eve" and "All Saints Day." As we honor the saints of our lives, this may be almost as important as telling our kids about the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus.

Happy Halloween, Yinz.

Friday, October 13, 2017


As a white, privileged male in a culture that makes me a dominant figure just because of how I look in the mirror, I am so sad for women today.

[Let me qualify this post by first stating that I no longer believe in gender being merely a "binary" thing, so when I use the terms "male" and "female," I am using them broadly, at least while addressing the topic of sexual harassment. For the purpose of this narrative, the terms describe persons who identify as female being exploited  or harassed by persons who identify as male. Such is the case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the women who have begun to come forward publicly  about his sexual aggressions.]

What women put up with--and have for millennia, most likely--is unbelievable. Books, research, and mountains of case studies have revealed a glimmer of what it is like being discriminated against, underpaid, and objectified because of one's gender. And now, this Weinstein story breaks, revealing the long and sordid history of this infamous "image-maker" who, all along the way, used women for personal pleasure in exchange for offering them fame. While Weinstein's pathology may go even deeper than "pleasure," given his psychopathic sleaze alleged in the emerging testimonies, the fact remains that women are subjected to this kind of thing every day in about every place. It may not be "sleep with me or I'll ruin your career" kinds of things all of the time, but lewd commends behind their backs from male co-workers, bosses who leer, or dump their frustrations on women subordinates because they can, are frequent occurrences in offices, academia, retail, or the military--even in the church.

The horrific stories about Weinstein's behavior, which in many cases is likely criminal, serve to uncover this phenomenon afresh, hopefully prompting corrective and constructive conversation. I do fear, though, that it could cause some men who may be guilty of lesser infractions to "justify" their own behavior: "Well, at least I'm not as bad as Weinstein!" As people of faith, we must encourage the corrective, and to some degree, therapeutic conversations, and pray for women bold enough to join them and share their own stories. We should also offer our support for these women and explore ways to enjoin efforts aimed at justice and safety in the workplace for them. The last thing we should do is justify the behaviors, which, unfortunately, the church has done far too many times for the Jimmy Swiggarts, Jim Bakers, and numbers of lessor known clergy who have been caught harassing or even sexually assaulting women. Bishops, in many cases, just move clergy accused of inappropriate activity with church members or staff, and everyone is urged to "be good Christians and forgive." But what about the victims? How do they feel when this is the "fix"?

Why does this stuff happen? Unfortunately, the "Because we can" answer out of society's general model of male dominance and privilege is valid. Testosterone is another culprit. Coupled with the tendency to nurture males to be "tough" or "manly," while women are urged to be "soft" and "sensitive" (some TV ads for body lotions actually USE this line), this dangerous mix sets up the potential for predatory behavior, which may range from flirtation to harassment (or even worse, in the case of the Weinsteins and Cosbys of the world). How many cases of young college men harassing women on campus have been dispatched with the phrase, "Boys will be boys"?

If it is true that testosterone is a factor in prompting inappropriate behavior in males, what is the role of religion and its system of morals and ethics in reining this in? As former President Jimmy Carter pointed out in an interview with a "men's magazine" during his election campaign, most men are guilty of some level of "lusting after women," something Carter confessed to, further saying he sought God's forgiveness and empowerment to modify his negative thoughts and behaviors. I believe the teachings of the Bible and the ethics which can be extrapolated from them may help us build a "code of conduct" between men and women:

  •  Jesus' teaching, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" should be construed in this situation to mean that I, as a man, would not want to be exploited, manipulated, or otherwise harassed to do something against my will, values, or desires in order to keep my job, receive a promotion, or be treated respectfully in the workplace or any place, for that matter. hence I must refrain from participating in any of these behaviors toward others.
  • "Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves" means developing a respect for the personhood of my neighbor in such a way that I value them, even as I value my own self and integrity. Thus, I will treat them out of this respect. One of the core values of the Wesleyan tradition is that: Every human being is endowed with a sense of dignity and moral responsibility. We should act like it.
  • Love has many different understandings and levels, ranging from liking something (like chocolate) to loving as God loves, loving romantically, and even loving intimately. Understanding these differences and maintaining appropriate levels of self-control so as to apply and experience the appropriate "level" of love to the persons and circumstances of our lives leads to healthy relationships and behavioral norms that maintain appropriate boundaries with them. 
  • Avoiding stimuli that blur or obscure the understanding of these "love values," such as alcohol/ substance abuse, pornography, literature or films that denigrate or exploit women, or associations with men who indulge in these kind of things.  Steering clear of activities like these is helpful in developing and maintaining what the Bible calls self-control.
  • Entering into regular and healthy conversation with the women in our social or occupational circles about women's issues may serve to sensitize men to what women experience in these interactions. (When I engage in these conversations, I learn all kinds of things! One of the most valuable lessons has been that what males of my generation were taught to be polite compliments to women are often now considered inappropriate, such as comments about how nice a dress looks. I confess, this is a hard habit to break, and while all women do not feel objectified by this, many do.) 
  • With God's help, work to develop a healthy model of personhood, appreciating others for the person they are and affirming them for the contributions they make through their talents, labors, and attitudes, without regard to their gender identity. 
  • Get to know people. Build legitimate trust, over time, and resolve to do nothing to erode or destroy this gift of trust. For men, who will continue to wrestle with our own enculturation and testosterone, this may go a long way in creating healthy relationships across gender identity lines at work, in our social circles, and even in our homes!
Well, these are just a few I thought of. You may have more good suggestions, if you think about it. And that is the final suggestion: Think. I have taught the teens in my youth groups that one extra second of thinking before engaging in an action may make a huge difference as to the outcome. This same caution works for men of all ages regarding how we interact with others along the gender spectrum. We have a great model in Jesus, who, according to the biblical record, initiated and maintained respectful and egalitarian relationships with the people he encountered, earning their respect in return. Do thou likewise! Shalom.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What happened in Vegas will probably stay in Vegas...until it happens again...

Another mass shooting. This time the worst in U.S. history! Frankly, I'm tempted to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...for all the good it does to write anything more about these tragedies. Here are a few facts I have read in the wake of this latest bloodshed:

-The number of persons killed by guns in the U.S. since 1970 is greater than the total of all of the deaths of Americans in all of the wars we have fought, beginning with the Revolutionary War!

-When ISIS claims responsibility, all Muslims are condemned as holding to a "violent religion"; when a person of color commits a violent act, many stereotype all persons of color as tending toward such acts; when a white person commits a heinous act like the Las Vegas shootings or the Charleston shootings, he is dubbed a "lone wolf." How very sad.

-A bill before the Congress to make silencers for guns legal has, at least temporarily, been delayed. AND, the NRA has gone dark. My pessimism says that they will very soon begin their ridiculous rhetoric and spin once again, and plead for Congress to pass the silencer bill.

What are we going to do, people? Since the church I serve has committed to working for justice as part of its new Vision statement, I hope to explore with them some options, possibly working with an interfaith group such as N.O.R.T.H. (Neighboring Organizations Responding Together for Hope).

What are you going to do? If you are a gun lover, probably nothing. Some of these, in "fear" of new regulations which seem to never come, have gone out and emptied the shelves of gun shops since the Las Vegas shootings. Just what we need--more fearful people with guns...

It's again time for action. Again. Once again. What are we going to do? Of course, we will pray, and we will talk, and we might even write a letter or two. But these things have yielded no fruit on the gun issue. So? What now?

As a person of faith, I will pray. But maybe it's time to pray for more than comfort, even more than wisdom. Maybe it's time to pray for empowerment for people to make some changes. Let's start by working for a ban on semi-automatic weapons. I'm in.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...