Category: Faith and Society

Post Election Blues

November 9, 2016

Despite the fact that we just chose celebrity over substance, and promises over a demonstrated record of performance, I am shocked…shocked I tell you to find that my mood this morning is one of optimism, hope, and dare I say, joy.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am no fan of the President-Elect, who will hereinafter be referred to as President-Elect T—-, and after January 20, 2017 as President T—-, as I cannot bear to speak his name.

My hope lies, not in an expectation of the wonderful things that will come from a T—- administration; rather, my hope lies in my profound confidence in our government and the enduring strength of our democratic institutions. I am certain that our nation is stronger than any individual who may occupy any office. The House of Representatives is more than the Speaker of the House. The Senate is so much more than an ill-tempered Senate Majority Leader, and the Supreme Court than its Chief Justice or any given member of the court. I believe that the Presidency is more than the words and deeds of the occupant of the Oval Office.

Despite the fact that I just renewed my passport, I have no plans to leave. I believe that no matter what occurs in the next four years, or who occupies the Oval Office, or who President-Elect T—- appoints to high office; our nation and our values will survive. Further, I believe that the T—- presidency will usher in a new golden age of American Democracy and world leadership. Not, I hasten to add, because of the actions and policies of a President T—-, but in reaction to what I am led to expect by his campaign rhetoric and his reported past actions.

I expect a President T—- to inspire the next generation of national leaders to seek office with higher goals and higher values than we have seen so far from President-Elect T—-. I hope that the T—- presidency will finally put an end to the notion that politics is the last refuge of thieves and scoundrels; a profession unworthy of our best and brightest. And I hope that as a result of his time in office, men of his ilk will no longer show their face in public let alone seek an office of high public trust.

December 16, 2016

I will not protest the election of Donald Trump although as anyone who knows me can attest I am not a fan of the President-elect. It is, after all, a founding and necessary principle of a functioning democracy that the losing party gracefully accept the results of an election as Secretary Clinton did as soon as the results were announced and as Governor Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Further, although I have my doubts about the actual business savvy of the President-elect since his adult life seems to have been devoted to creating and perpetuating an image, first of the rich playboy, then of the successful real estate tycoon, then the reality show star; images that remain cloaked in a secrecy that prevents the public from knowing any facts that would substantiate the claims he makes about himself; In the face of my doubts, I will not give into my fears that we have elected a vacuous parody of a man.

If, however, the darkest implications of the campaign rhetoric, the cabinet appointees, and the midnight tweets come to pass, I hope that I have the courage of my convictions and that I will speak out when the illusion of a populist champion of the disillusioned working family falls away and the authoritarian regime emerges in all its fascist fury.

And that I will stand with the immigrant, the LGBT and gender non-conforming members of my community, and the Muslims, and all followers of faith traditions not recognized by triumphalist Christians, and all whose ethnic heritage threatens the alt-right.

And that I will not only stand with but also suffer alongside those who are disenfranchised, dismissed, and oppressed when all the hateful rhetoric that energized the campaign rallies and victory tours activates the basest demons of our shadow selves and unleashes a rage and fury not seen on our shores and in our streets.

If these are the final days of our democracy, and I hope and pray that these are instead the beginning of a new realization of the ideals and dreams of our founders, if these are the harbingers of our final days then I commit my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor to those who stand up and say no to Trump’s vision of a great America.

 

 

Pandora and the Pilot or What I Learned From Dia de los Muertos

Like most of the aging pilots I know, the most dreaded date on the calendar is the annual appointment with the Flight Surgeon, the day a previously undetected medical condition might come to light and ground us permanently leaving us to walk among the mere mortals who have never joined John Gillespie Magee Jr. as he “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

There I am, standing before the dreaded eye chart, straining to read the 20/20 line with my left eye. The 20/40 line remains clearly in view, but the ability to read no lower on the chart than 20/40 only qualifies me for the “Third Class” medical certificate. I’m striving for the “Second Class” certificate which qualifies me to be paid for performing pilot duties in any aircraft and in a variety of activities except flying for the scheduled airlines.

Now, there is no practical reason for me to maintain the “Second Class” medical certificate. Flight Instruction, the only professional aviation activity I have ever engaged in, requires the “Third Class” certificate. No, the only reason I have continued to maintain the “Second Class” certificate is for the status of knowing that I could apply for any number of professional flying positions that require that qualification.

I did manage to eke out a sufficiently accurate reading of the 20/20 line of the eye chart that day, but the near miss by one of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” set me to thinking about why continuing to meet the FAA’s standards of the “Second Class” medical certificate and the continued permission to fly airplanes is so important to me.

Until now, I explained my attachment to my pilot certificate and flying airplanes as the fulfillment of my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. I was the kid who ran outside to watch every aircraft as it flew overhead. I built model airplanes, read books on aviation, memorized performance data on the airplanes of the day, and fantasized about the heroics of famous aviators and aviatrixes.

I was crestfallen when, as a third grader, I came home from a visit to the optometrist with my first pair of glasses. I already knew that military aviators had to have perfect 20/20 vision to qualify for flight training. That weakness of my mortal flesh however did not diminish my enthusiasm for flight. I would soon learn of “general aviation” the realm of flight occupied by private pilots, airshow pilots, and pilots who build their own airplanes. There remained a whole world of flying opportunities open to me.

After graduating college I entered active duty with the Air Force. Upon arrival at my first duty station, I immediately joined the flying club and began taking lessons. For the next year, my free time was consumed with all things aviation: ground school, flight lessons, and reading every aviation magazine I could get my hands on. After earning my private pilot certificate I enrolled for advanced flight training. Each achievement led to earning additional licenses and ratings. The cycle has continued to this day. Even now, there are flight experiences that I long to add to my logbook.

Coming home from the flight surgeon with my re-issued Second Class medical set me to exploring why the prospect of not passing my next medical exam and having to face the reality of giving up flying someday was so distressing. This brings us to Pandora, the myth, not the jewelry or the Internet radio station.

[The language snob in me feels compelled to interject that it still rankles me that the word “myth” has come to mean a falsehood or misconception. I hold to the classic meaning of myth: a narrative that expresses the most profound and often elusive truths of our human existence.]

As you may recall Zeus presented Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, with an elaborately decorated jar as a wedding gift. Pandora opened the jar releasing its contents, many demons and evils. Realizing what she had done, she tried to replace the lid, keeping the last of its contents, Hope, in the jar. The explanation of this myth as it was first taught to me held that amid the many demons and miseries that Pandora unleashed on the world, Hope was the one that could remedy the “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

I later came upon the interpretation that Hope, rather than being a blessing was instead one of the curses that torment our mortal coil. Hope tempts us to remain too long in the misery of a failed relationship; to persist in a dead-end job long after we could have taken the initiative to leave; in short, to refuse to see the truth of our circumstances.

I had to acknowledge that for the 40+ years I have been involved in aviation I have invested my hope in my status as a pilot. I have hoped that being a pilot would set me apart from the average guy. I have hoped that my status as a flight instructor would win me the respect of others and most importantly of myself. The result has been that this misplaced hope has tormented me with the fear that my flying days will some day end. This fear fed my insatiable desire to add more hours to my logbook and ratings to my pilot certificate. This anxiety caused me to look past the joy of each moment I have spent in flight. Hope has led me into a life of achievement and misery.

This brings us to Dia del los Muertos. Early in our time in Santa Fe, I was struck, even appalled by my frequent encounters with the art and imagery of the Day of the Dead. Skeletons dancing in the streets; Catrina adorned in her aristocratic finery; the skeletal couple at the marriage altar. I found myself turning away from these icons in my ignorance of their bold and shocking proclamation.

Then, on the last Sunday of October our first year here, we visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe. Rev. Gail Marriner explained that Dia de los Muertos provides the occasion for families to look past the pain of grief and loss and to remember and celebrate their ancestors’ lives. It is an occasion to again experience the love that those who have passed brought into their lives. I came away with the realization that being reminded of our mortality challenges us to celebrate every moment of our lives and to live without fearing the end that is certain to come.

Now, I didn’t leave that service and decorate our house with depictions of Catrina, or plant marigolds, or learn to bake pan de muerto. I did come away with a new appreciation for the art and icons of Dia del Muerto. And more to the point of this essay, my recollection of that awareness now calls me to acknowledge that the day is coming when I will no longer be able to pilot an aircraft. It further encourages me to appreciate each flight experience between now and that day more fully and with gratitude that I have been able to be a pilot at all.

Returning to Pandora for a moment. It occurs to me that we are asking the wrong question when we ask if Hope is an angel or a demon. Hope is always calling to us to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” The question is not whether we choose to hope. The question is where shall we invest our hope.

The world sends us constant messages offering us opportunities to invest our hope. Invest in drugs to restore our sexual vitality; in cosmetics to revitalize our appearance; in the second opinion of a cancer treatment center to reverse our disease; in the latest analgesic to relieve our pain; in firearms to keep us safe from the deranged gunman; in a well managed portfolio to sustain us in retirement; in the elite sports league to provide opportunities for our children; the latest video game to avoid our boredom; the latest smart phone to end our isolation; and on and on and on.

I’m not a “blood of the lamb” kind of guy for two reasons. First, I’m not convinced that “Christ died for your sins” it is the most compelling expression of the Christian proclamation; but more importantly, like you, I’m not a first century Jew struggling with the theological crisis that arose from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. That said, despite his use of this imagery, I find the hymn of Edward Mote relevant and instructive:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.

Unless we invest out hope in something lasting and transcendent, Pandora’s Hope joins the ranks of the other demons she unleashed on the world and becomes the most insidious, vicious, and destructive of them all.

The Poor are not a Problem to be Solved

Recently, I posted two somewhat provocative statements on my Facebook wall. I was a bit disappointed by the relatively few comments generated by the following:

The poor are not a problem to be solved.

The opposite of poverty is not wealth,
The opposite of poverty is justice.

The first statement was conveyed to me in a conversation with my Spiritual Director several years ago. Regrettably, I did not note the source of the second (Probably a Facebook post).

It is not a topic we like to discuss. Haven’t we all been annoyed by panhandlers asking for money as we enter the grocery store? Pastors and parishioners alike are vexed by how to handle the person stopping by on Sunday morning asking for gas money so he can make it home to his family, buy medication for his children, or complete an emergency car repair. After hearing enough of these requests, it is easy to slip into cynicism and conclude that it is all one big con game.

Advice to the troubled parishioner or the harassed shopper sometimes alludes to Jesus telling his disciples “for the poor you have with you always” in an attempt to mollify their discomfort with ignoring these requests. Politicians often cite this passage to give their plans to cut welfare programs an air of respectability. I also hear it used in fatalistic resignation to the enormity of the task of assisting the poor.

The statement, in fact, comes from the narrative of the anointing in Bethany found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12. Judas asks, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”… But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.  For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”(John 12:5,7-8, NRSV)

Far from dismissing the plight of the poor, Jesus is saying that concern for the poor is not the only agenda for his followers. This passage foreshadows his death and burial and affirms that the disciples have responsibility for both the immediate concerns of Jesus and his followers, as well as an on-going ministry that clearly includes concern for the welfare of the poor.

Looking at the ethics and teaching of all three Abrahamic Traditions, we find that hospitality to the stranger; protection of the sojourner; and care for the widow and the orphan are foundational ethical teachings of the prophets of each tradition.

So, in response to statements such as “the poor are not a problem to be solved” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice,” I would say that we dare not appeal to Jesus (“for the poor you always have with you”) and say that the plight of the poor is a constant in society, regardless of the political and economic system of the day.

On the contrary, I challenge people of faith to be critics of the status quo. Follow the lead of the prophets and bring the highest principles of your tradition, not the values and structures of the status quo, to the debate. Rather than try to “solve the problem of poverty” acknowledge that whatever political/economic system is in place, some will be poor, some will be prosperous, and some will rise to the top and enjoy wealth.

The challenge of the faithful is to continue to examine the structures and dynamics of the status quo for the ways, intended and unintended, that confer advantages on some and disadvantages on others. See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.

A postscript for the church: For those of us called to ministry, it can be a subtle, but real temptation to be caught in the trap of trying to solve the problems of the poor. See Henri Nouwen’s treatment of the Temptations of Jesus (Downward Mobility, The Selfless Way of Christ, Sojourners Magazine). He finds in Jesus’ response to the temptations to do something relevant, something spectacular, and something powerful and influential, the true calling of Christians: to be faithful to the highest calling of our tradition.

As we try to find ways to respond to the panhandler at our door, I think much wisdom can be found in the narrative of Acts 3 in which a beggar confronts Saint Peter at the temple asking for alms. Peter says “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” (Acts 3:6, KJV)   It may be tempting to think that preaching the Gospel and maintaining a prophetic critique of the status quo isn’t “doing” anything about the plight of the poor. On the contrary, keeping the ethics of our tradition in the forefront of the minds of the people and constantly looking for ways to make a more just society is “silver and gold” enough. It is “doing” what we are called and uniquely qualified to do.