Friday, June 28, 2024

The Greek Chorus

     My understanding of the role of the Greek chorus in ancient plays was to be the narrators, but also to foreshadow how horribly things were going to go for the hero.  We see Perseus going off to slay the gorgon Medusa, and in the background, the chorus would sing something encouraging like…

     (Sung to the tune of Ring Around the Rosie. 🎶)

Try to kill Me-du-sa.
Good luck with that, you lo-ser!
You’re Going. To. Die!

     I suspect all of us have a little Greek chorus in our heads. You know, the voices that tell us that we are going to fail, that we are not worthy of being loved, and that we have a face that maybe even our mothers didn’t love.

     One of the ways I handle my Greek chorus is with my well-known warped sense of humor. I address them in all seriousness, “Ladies and gentlemen of the Greek chorus, thank you… thank you. I appreciate your effort. Now, I need to move ahead.” It makes me laugh and teaches me not to take the chorus quite so seriously.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

When do you have enough?

     From the Washington Post today: 

"An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire."

"For five years, the SEC said, Beasley and Judd paid existing investors with money from new clients — a classic Ponzi scheme. The most notorious fraud of this kind, run by Wall Street financial guru Bernie Madoff, cost investors billions of dollars. By comparison, one expert said, the alleged Vegas scam was distinguished less by its size and more by its victims: It came to be known as the 'Mormon Ponzi scheme.' ”

     From what I have read, such crimes are called "affinity fraud," and they are not just a religious group phenomenon, so it feels unfair to say a particular faith is more gullible than say a group that belongs to the Elks Club.  We all belong to affinity groups — religious, professional, and social — and would be more likely to listen to an associate in that group.   The thing in common seems to be a lack of sense of when you have enough in life.  These folks had huge amounts to invest.  Being Mormon, they had such extra even after having tithed (10%) to their church, as is required.  That sounds like "enough" for anyone, but their faith hadn't yet taught them that.

     Here's the part that made me sick to my stomach:

"As the operation got bigger, so did the men’s lifestyles. Beasley bought a $3.8 million house in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. He bought a $750,000 RV, a $250,000 boat, a $240,000 Bentley Continental and two $25,000 Jet Skis..."

     It wasn't the house, or the RV, or the boat, or the Bentley, that got me — such things are beyond my imagination — it was the jet skis.  Just a couple of smaller purchases for fun, kind of like when you throw in a pack of gum at the check-out stand.  I recently paid off the last of an equity loan on my house after many years.  It was worth it because it got my kids through college.  The last chunk of it was less than one jet ski.  When I think about the budgeting, the saving, the extra payments, the worrying, not taking vacations, avoiding eating out, etc. it took me to pay off that loan, it made the callousness of these men even more shocking.  

     My bank has called me twice since I paid it off.  Their money manager ("Just call me Jeff!") wants to talk to me personally about investing.  I haven't picked up.  I will certainly try to use my middle class retirement income wisely, but I am quite clear I already have enough.

"... I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." — Philippians 4:11-13

Friday, October 22, 2021

Teaching Chronicles: Parents Behaving Badly — The Man Purse

      It was my youngest daughter's senior year.  To be specific, it was the fall open house of my youngest daughter's senior year — after this, I was done!  No more teacher conferences, science fairs, fundraisers, or open houses... I could almost taste freedom!  I begin with this to partially excuse my behavior, because in this episode of "Parents Behaving Badly," I am the parent.

     The way open houses are set up in high school is parents are rushed from one ten-minute presentation to another with a three-minute passing period so we can, "Get a feel for how your kids do it."  The flaw in this is the kids get a chance to know their school... and they are younger and more resilient.  Parents wander from wing to wing approaching teachers with beseeching looks as they attempt to find their child's next class period only to discover it is on the other side of campus.  So, with it being my last open house and the way it was organized, I think I am allowed a certain degree of cynicism.

     We had arrived at the final class: "Home Management and Design: Textiles and Fashion."  If you like me are wondering what this class is about, perhaps it will help if I tell you when we were in high school, we called it "sewing."  Worse than the somewhat highbrow title, the teacher was really enthusiastic... I mean really enthusiastic — more enthusiastic than I was ready to deal with at the end of this ordeal.  She was, in fact, on a sewing mission from God.  After introducing herself, she rocketed off into a list of exciting projects the kids would be working on.  She enthused about starting with stuffed animals, moving on to pillows, and possibly learning enough stitches and patterns before the end of the semester  (her voice reaching a crescendo of triumph) to be able to make "man purses" for the dads.

     You know how even in a completely quiet room of thirty or forty people, there is always a little bit of background noise — people fidget, feet shuffle, throats are cleared.  When she said the word "man purses" the room went entirely silent as eighteen dads froze. Over the years, my daughter has developed a finely tuned dad snark-o-meter.  At the phrase "man purse" she knew the needle had been buried, and I was about to say something oh-so clever.  As I turned my head toward her, she attempted to preempt me.  Quietly, out the side of her mouth, her eyes frozen straight ahead, she said, "Shut up." 

     Undeterred by her shocking disrespect for her parent, I asked, "Honey, are you going to make Daddy a man purse?" 

     Refusing to look at me, she muttered again, "Shut up."  

     I persisted, "But, Honey, what if Daddy really wants a man purse?"  

     She hissed, "Shut up!"  

     Unfortunately, I never did find out any more about the man purse or my daughter's feelings concerning it because the session ended.  Sadly, I never got my man purse that year.  One of the important lessons of parenting is accepting there will be disappointments along the way.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Teaching Chronicles: Kids Behaving Badly — Pencil Sharpener Bully

     Mark's handwriting was completely illegible.  Now, I don't mean it was difficult to tell his E's from his A's or he forgot to cross his T's, I mean it looked as if he had taken off his shoes and socks in class, stuck a pencil in between his big and second toe, and attempted to scratch out his work.

     At first, I just tried to encourage him to write more neatly.  His handwriting would improve for a little bit, but within a few days be right back to the illegible scrawl.  As a next step, I brought him a couple brand-new pencils, and then sat with him and worked on his penmanship.  As long as I was sitting right there, he actually had pretty good handwriting for a fourth grade boy.  Boys always have a harder time with handwriting in the younger grades because it takes longer for their fine motor skills to develop.  I had developed some pretty incredible ninja abilities to decipher poor handwriting, but Mark had me beat.  Although this was my first year of teaching, I knew better than to ding a kid for penmanship on a spelling test.  No, I wasn't expecting perfection, but I couldn't give credit for spelling the word "truck" if it looks like you have written the word "glurp."  I was even considering giving him oral spelling tests instead of written ones.

     It was a Thursday morning before school when his mom called me.  "Has Mark talked to you about the boy who sits next to the pencil sharpener?"  No, in fact, Mark had not.  It turned out every time he went over to sharpen a pencil, the kid would poke him with his pencil, or say something threatening to him under his breath, usually following up with his threats during recess.  Rather than undergo the trial by fire that was sharpening pencils, Mark would use his pencils until they became just nubs, mostly wood with mere traces of graphite, scratching against the paper — he had a whole collection of them in his desk.  Sigh… thank goodness for parents.

     The bully's seat was immediately moved to the front right of the room close to my desk, he received a lecture that I believe included threats of dismemberment, and like magic, Mark's penmanship became legible.  Now after thirty years of teaching under my belt, I would like to think I would've picked up on this on my own quickly.

     Still, it's an important rule in teaching and in life: What you see and think is going on, is not necessarily what is really going on.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

I Am a Recovering News Junkie!

     I must admit, I am a news junkie.  I didn't realize how much of a junkie I was until I left my full-time
job at Trinity Cathedral in April 2020.  It used to be I'd take a quick glance at the headlines and then rush off to work.  Maybe I'd catch up with the news at lunchtime for about fifteen minutes, but then I didn't think much about it until evening when I would watch local and national news.  Now, however, what I have discovered is I can literally devour the news for hours in the morning (or until my pot of coffee runs out.)  I'll start with the New York Times, move on to the Washington Post, read my local paper, amuse myself for a little bit with Facebook, and then see what the absolute latest is by checking Twitter.  By the time you've gone through the cycle, you can go back to the beginning and start over because there are new articles!  You see my problem.

     Maybe all this would be a harmless diversion if times were better, but given the dire state of the news — everything from the coronavirus, to politics, to global warming, to violence — it is absolutely soul-crushing.  It slowly began to dawn on me how much this was affecting my outlook on life, and I remembered the admonition from St. Paul, 

"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."  (Philippians 4:8)

     It is an old saying that whatever you turn your attention to is what will grow.  It took me too long to realize my feelings of anxiety and depression were directly related to how much news I was consuming.  So, I put myself on a diet.  I cut the amount of news I consumed down to a manageable level, and I can tell you I feel a lot better.  I don't feel anything less informed about what is going on, but I don't feel like I'm drowning in it anymore.  Like every diet, that one sliver of pie is not the problem… it's when you decide to eat the entire pie in one sitting.  Sometimes I still blow it, and a couple hours into reading the news in the morning, my neck and shoulders are tense and aching — that tends to get my attention.  Where we focus our attention is one of the great issues in life.  The psalmist says, 

"Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.  (119:37)  

     If like me, you found yourself overly anxious and depressed, there can be many causes (some of the physical… be sure to have that checked also), but one of them may be where you are focusing your attention.  I don't recommend being uninformed, sticking our heads in the sand when there are real problems, or being a Pollyanna, but we have to limit the amount of toxicity we consume.

     I suppose you could claim that technically you are a vegetarian if all you eat is potato chips, but I suspect most vegetarians would tell you just avoiding meat is not the point.  The point is adding fruit and vegetables to your diet will improve your health.  Just so, avoiding negative stuff is not enough.  St. Paul says we also have to focus our attention on things that are honorable, worthy of praise, pleasing, commendable, and excellent.  We need to dial down the negative stuff we take in, but dial-up the sunsets, and the art, and the poetry, and people we love, and stories about folks who are brave and kind.  I promise, you won't miss much, and you may find you gain a bit more faith in the goodness that is within you and within others.  And when you do that, this old world will seem just a bit brighter.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Being a Christian Before and After the Election

     In the first century, you read about St. Paul having a lot of choices: He had the choice of how to travel — pretty much limited to ship, donkey, or on foot; He had the choice of what he ate —He only criticized folks who saw themselves as holier than others because of what they would or would not eat.  But one thing you never read about St. Paul having to choose was the person for whom he would vote for Emperor.  There's a good reason for that.  He didn't have the freedom to vote in the first century.

     But just because he couldn't vote, didn't mean he didn't have some strong opinions about the politics of his day.  He spoke against the strong oppressing the weak. Like Jesus, he stood with the poor against the rich. He also dealt with people who said pretty much the only way to be a good Christian was either to take up arms against the Empire or surrender and go out of your way to become a martyr.  He basically told them not to be so dramatic; they just needed to obey authorities as far as possible, even the Emperor, and live their lives as quietly as they could (Romans 13.)  

     Many modern partisan religious salespersons have used this passage of Paul's to justify everything from slavery to serving in the army of the Third Reich.  Most often, they just exploit this passage to try and force others to obey unjust laws or follow a leader blindly without criticism in the United States, a democracy where we can vote and have the right to protest.  It is further noted they only bring up St. Paul in this context when whoever happens to be in political power agrees with them, and ignore it when the other party takes power.

     Jesus was involved in politics.  No, he did not have election bumper stickers on the back of his donkey, or a yard sign for his preferred Sanhedrin candidate, and he didn’t lick envelopes for a candidate's mailing while teaching the Beatitudes.  The way Jesus was involved in politics was simply to teach truth.  When you are in the presence of an unjust power structure and preach truth, it is always inherently political.

     When you criticize the rich and instruct them to share what they have with the poor, Jesus was addressing values, but the same time challenging the current unjust economic and political structure.

     When you show mercy to a woman caught in adultery, while an angry mob stands by wanting her stoned according to the law, he was teaching values, but he was also criticizing an unjust legal system steeped in sexism and racism.

     When he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and said, "My father's house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations," he was criticizing an unjust business and economic system that robbed the poor to enrich the already rich, and also indicted a corrupt religious establishment based on violence, profit, and hypocrisy.  You might think the church should not be meddling in certain areas, but I’m afraid I have to tell you Jesus involved himself in every area of human existence… no area was exempt.

     While I do not believe the Church should endorse candidates, I do believe the Church must be involved in politics.  When I say that, I mean the church should be involved in politics in the way that Jesus was: by teaching truth and values.  You might not think those are political, but when you are in the presence of an unjust power structure and you teach the Gospel… the Truth… the Church is going to be seen as political.

     If you don't believe me, just try to talk about how Jesus, and indeed the entire Abrahamic tradition, including Islam, speaks of the core value of welcoming the stranger and the wanderer. See if you are not accused of being political about the subject of immigration.  

     Try to talk about the Christian value of honesty and truthfulness, and see if you are not accused of calling a politician a liar. 

     Post something on Facebook about Jesus’ teachings on peace and nonviolence.  Trust me, one of your commenters will see that as a political statement against the Second Amendment

     Oscar Romero summed it up well when he said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” If you don’t think teaching basic Christian values is not political, believe Oscar Romero, a Roman Catholic bishop who was assassinated for standing up to his government in defending the poor of his nation.

     The only reason such values are seen as political is because human beings have made them political.  That doesn't make them any the less the values of the Church.

     As for individual Christians, we are supposed to do good in the world… to make this world a little better. In our own time, it is our role to bring the kingdom of God into this present reality (I think there’s a famous part of a prayer that’s about that.)  One way we can do that is to vote.  It is not enough we observe personal piety; we, as Christians, must do what we can to dismantle oppressive power structures in our societies and create ones that support justice — when Jesus talked about sin, it was not just personal; he talked a lot about institutional… systemic societal sin.  That means we as individuals have to make political choices that can change society.  

     I personally have been involved in politics for many years, and I learned a long time ago I don't have to necessarily agree with a candidate on everything, or even like her or him, to vote for them.  I just have to look at a candidate and compare his or her stands with my values.  Some of those values are broad Christian values the church teaches: Will they care for the poor?  Will they be welcome the stranger?  Are they truthful?  But then I also will judge them on some values I believe are derived from my faith, but that I admit other people may see differently when it comes down to how you apply those values.  I will ask if they support education.  I will ask if they protect individual freedoms.  Naturally, no candidate ever ticks off all the boxes.  Ultimately, I have to make up my mind and vote.

     I cast my ballot this week.  I made my choices.  But now I have begun to think about the morning after the election.  Just as I was a Christian before the election, I am a Christian afterward.  And quite honestly, don't we spend most of our lives in the afterward?  So I have been thinking hard about how it is my responsibility to love my neighbors before and after the election, even if they vote differently.  And it will be the role of Christians and God's church throughout time to stand against injustice such as economic disparity, sexism, and racism, especially as it is embedded in the power structures of our day.  Yes, I voted for one person for president, but that just means I made my best judgment grounded in my faith and values at the time.  And once that person takes office, they become responsible for both the inherent injustices in the systems that dominate our country and any they might create by their policies.  It will not be my role as a Christian to follow them blindly.  In that afterward time, it will be my part, and yours, and the Church's to speak truth to power.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Wolf of Gubbio

     This is the story of the Wolf of Gubbio as recorded in the  Fioretti di San Francesco.  While you read it, I would invite you to reflect on what it says about violence in our world.

     During the period around 1220 when St. Francis was living in Gubbio, a fierce wolf appeared in the country and began attacking livestock.  Soon the wolf graduated to direct assaults on humans, and not long after began to dine upon them exclusively.  It was known for lingering outside of the city gates in wait for anyone foolish enough to venture beyond them alone.  No weapon was capable of inflicting injury upon the wolf, and all who attempted to destroy it were devoured.  Eventually mere sight of the animal caused the entire city to raise alarm and the public refused to go outside the walls for any reason.  It was at this point, when Gubbio was under siege, that Francis announced he was going to take leave and meet the wolf.  He was advised against this more than once but, irrespective of the warnings, made the sign of the Cross and went beyond the gates with a small group of followers in tow.  When he neared the lair of the wolf, the crowd held back at a safe distance, but remained close enough to witness what transpired.  The wolf, having seen the group approach, rushed at Francis with its jaws open.  Again Francis made the sign of the Cross and commanded the wolf to cease its attacks in the name of God, at which point the wolf trotted up to him docilely and lay at his feet, putting its head in his hands.  The Fioretti then describes word-for-word his dealings with the wolf:

     "Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer.  All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more."  The wolf bowed its head and submitted to Francis, completely at his mercy.

     "As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?"

     In agreement, the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis' outstretched hand, and the oath was made.  Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.  At this sight, the men who had followed him through the walls were utterly astonished and they spread the news; soon the whole city knew of the miracle. The townsfolk gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet.  When Francis reached the marketplace, he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon... With the sermon ended, Francis renewed his pact with the wolf publicly, assuring it that the people of Gubbio would feed it from their very doors if it ceased its depredations.  Once more the wolf placed its paw in Francis' hand.

     Thereafter, Gubbio venerated Francis and he received great praise from its citizens.  Many of them were convinced by the miracle and offered their thanks to God, going on to be converted.  This episode in the Fioretti is concluded with a note that the wolf lived for a further two years at Gubbio, going from home to home for sustenance and honoring the provisions of its agreement with Francis.  At its death the city was saddened, for even though it had slain so many it was a symbol of the sanctity of Francis and the power of God.  According to tradition, Gubbio gave the wolf an honorable burial and later built the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace at the site.  During renovations in 1872, the skeleton of a large wolf, apparently several centuries old, was found under a slab near the church wall and then reburied inside.

     Before St. Francis arrived, the villagers had bought into the Myth of Redemptive Violence, namely, that the way to deal with violence is to bring more violence against it.  It didn't work.

     We buy into this same Myth of Redemptive Violence when we say things like, "The only way to stop a bad man with a gun, is is a good man with a gun."  We buy into this same Myth of Redemptive Violence when peaceful protests seem to have no effect, and we turn in desperation to looting and throwing bricks.  Although we may not realize it, even when we despair and say, "What difference does it make if we vote?"  What we are, in effect, saying is that peaceful methods don't work.

     We lost a great and good man recently, Congressman John Lewis.  His example which has inspired so many was that he chose peace instead of violence.  He chose not to fight back against oppression, but also refused to bow to it.  His blood and witness were part of what made the Civil Rights Act possible.  It was the same choice Gandhi made.  It was the same choice Martin Luther King Jr. made.  It was the same choice Jesus made.

     The easy choice this world seems to default to is always fighting back.  Violence is the first response we try.  Yell angry words at your opponent!  Call him names!  Flip him off!  Honk your horn!  Throw a brick through a window!  Send in unmarked federal troops!  If you have been paying attention to the news recently, you have seen the Myth of Redemptive Violence unravel in real time.  Violence only begets more violence.  This is why the first step in making peace during any war is getting both sides to declare a cease-fire.  Only then can the work of peace begin.

     Being a peacemaker is often a lot more difficult and a lot more work than throwing a brick.  But if we can make peace and nonviolence our default reaction, it is so much more effective, and maybe in the words of Jesus, we will be called blessed for doing so.