The Long Sabbath

Everyone is dealing with the science-fiction novel we’ve found ourselves in the middle of in their own way. Introverts are snuggling in with a secret smile, while extraverts literally and figuratively climb the walls. People of all social inclinations with anxiety are struggling. We’re all trying to figure out how much food to buy, how seriously to take the precautions.

Time to Reflect

While, like many of you, I am fearful of what may be coming, and I certainly do not want anyone to suffer or die, I find myself experiencing a kind of gratitude about this moment. At last, I can stop pretending that these other things matter more than being at home with my family. I can spend a little more time thinking about and caring for people I love, and doing things I enjoy. I’m grateful that our society that never stops is being forced to take a sabbath and stop to breathe.

Paul of Tarsus, who wrote much of the New Testament, liked to refer to himself as “chief among sinners” when explaining what people should do. I love that phrase because it reminds me to not be high and mighty when making recommendations. So please understand I’m chief among sinners when I tell you to unplug from social media some. I had to stop yesterday and just listen to white noise for an hour because I got my social media flywheel spinning.

Anxiety doesn’t just manifest as direct fear of bad things and that feeling in your stomach. It can also manifest as obsessive news checking, or”patrolling” back and forth among sites to find out what’s happening and how people are doing. That’s how mine shows in times like these. So unplug, and take some time doing something else, anything else. Play a game, go outside (at a safe distance from your neighbors), cook a meal that you wouldn’t typically take the time to prepare.

I encourage you to use some of this quiet time to reconnect with your spiritual practices. When the world around us is quiet, we’re faced with ourselves. Frankly, that’s why most of us keep ourselves so busy — so we don’t have to face ourselves and our pain. Our busy world being slowed to a halt is the emotional equivalent of being placed in a sensory deprivation tank. The difference is that instead of hallucinations, we’re instead faced with the emotions and fears we’ve been suppressing to maintain our function in this obsessively productive society.

I am a Christian and find the notion of being able to lay my weaknesses and fears out before God to take and replace with God’s strength and power comforting, but other people may experience that differently. Whatever you do, take some time each day to connect with your spiritual source, meditate, and calm your soul.

Time To Give

Even as I write about my gratitude, I recognize what a privileged position I sit in to even think about a month or more off in that way. I worry for my friends who are in the service industry or who work in other fields that will be hammered by this quarantine. I encourage us to check in on those folks and consider redirecting our donations to large organizations to local groups that care for people in precarious jobs like The Giving Kitchen or your local equivalent. Buy gift certificates for local restaurants that you can use when this is over.

If you know people directly, you can give directly as you feel led and as you feel comfortable. Not loan, give. And wherever you give, do it locally. If we all focus on our community rather than on the loudest or most well-marketed groups out there, we can ensure that everyone is covered.

A Human-Centered Society

The phrase that has been on my mind a lot lately is “human-centered“. We have constructed a profit and productivity-centered society, instead of a human-centered society. When computers increased our productivity, we decided to produce a lot more instead of pay that dividend to people in terms of a shorter work-week or better pay. The 40-hour workweek itself is a construct, granted one that saved us from a worse scenario, but it is not based in any psychology or science that I am aware of. There are no rules that require humans to be busy on tasks that don’t directly keep them alive and are not spiritually or mentally fulfilling for 40 hours a week.

We’re learning a lot of things about our society that we thought were true simply are not. Slate published an article talking about this issue a directly and coarsely, but their points are completely on. If we are suspending student loan interest for a crisis, why have it at all if student loans are an investment in our people? If wildly profitable businesses find it in their hearts to offer paid leave all of a sudden, or jails choose not to hold low-risk offenders, or we stop shutting off water, why can’t we just have that as part of a society? These are the questions people well on the left of our political spectrum have been asking all along.

The Return

When this ends, and God willing, it will end in the next few weeks, there will be a return to social, busy life. When the businesses and government entities that so benevolently enacted human-centered policies try to roll them back, let’s stay their hand. Let’s ask, “If you survived this, let’s stop and do the math. Could you survive such policies permanently?”

Why shouldn’t most people who can do so work remote, reducing traffic and stress and increasing productivity per unit of time worked?

Why can’t we have a society with guaranteed paid leave?

Why should people spend protracted amounts of time in jail for non-violent, low-risk offenses?

What are the services do we see as necessary to public health that we don’t provide until there’s a global emergency?

Should we keep providing those so that we can mitigate another emergency?

When we return, let’s not plug back into the proverbial Matrix. Let’s demand a human-centered approach to every aspect of our society. Let’s build a society where cold, metallic towers of money aren’t the only place we can find joy, where hoarding resources isn’t necessary because we are whole inside and don’t need to fill a hole with things.

It sounds idealistic and ridiculous to many. But isn’t the idea that the entire industrial complex would pull together to enact human-centered policies in less than a week to prevent a pandemic from killing us all ridiculous? Isn’t it ridiculous that for all our wealth and productivity, we are so vulnerable in the first place because we haven’t thought about the human cost of what we’ve built?

Stay smart, stay safe, and may God bless and keep you and those you love through this season.

 

 

The War on Greetings – A Holiday Reflection

This year, I am angrier than usual about the weaponization of “Merry Christmas”. It seems so selfish and insular, not to mention completely outside the spirit, to either spit “Merry Christmas” from the mouth like acid or to say it with a wink and a secret gesture, as if you’re a persecuted minority rather than a former hegemonic force that has curled inward on itself.

For those in both camps, I know it is hard to imagine any status other than domination or persecution. But the spirit of Jesus’s teaching was to bring a new order, not shaped or threatened by the realpolitik of the age, but powered entirely by love. Interfaith relationship shouldn’t be hard for Christians. The call to keep telling the story is not a call to subjugate others at the foot of the cross, but a call to invite, welcome, and receive any who would come of their own accord, complete with all cultural folkways and ways of being that do not directly contradict. Moreover, the call, even above the sharing of the story, is to love our neighbor, without restriction or limits.

The Christmas we celebrate is syncretic, with trees from Celtic and Northern European traditions, gift exchange from the Romans and older traditions, feasting from time immemorial. The date itself aligns with the Winter Solstice, not actual records of Jesus’s birthday. (Everyone knows Jesus was a Leo.) We shouldn’t put on too many airs about our Christian purity and piety in our celebration of the season as we do.

If you know your neighbor is Christian, sure, say Merry Christmas, just don’t get all Cyclops in Watchmen about it. If not, just say Happy Holidays. Or say both. If someone says Happy Hanukkah to me, I am pleased to receive a kind word, not trying to figure out what that means for Jewish-Christian relations.

If you want to honor that baby born to a marginalized family at the edge of a powerful kingdom, love your neighbor well by meeting them where they are.

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.

A Meditation on Loving Oneself, in Practice

(inspired by reflection on a post I made to FB a year ago)

I had an obvious revelation yesterday, but I saw it in a new way. I’m on Day 4 of a personal yoga practice, just 15 minutes in the morning. I have to do something like this daily because I have a lot of low back pain and stiffness due to tight hip flexors. I’m still in pain (it’s only Day 4) but the pain gets a little bit less each day, and I can bend a little bit more each day. I’m a notorious starter, so only time will tell whether my intentions hold over the long haul. But I’m diligently trying to learn how to be a person that maintains small, critical practices like these as I age and the body forgets how to forgive negligence.

So back to that revelation, yes. It was this:
Our society is not constructed to allow us to care for ourselves.

Duh, right? But I’m in a good, flexible job that makes reasonable demands of me. I live comfortably in my home, and I have time to see friends and family. And I still feel like I’m on a treadmill, as if the slightest misstep will cause me to tumble. I still feel like I have to run at full speed, all the time, toward “productivity”.

But that’s not real. That’s years of programming. That’s years of having value assigned to what I do, but none assigned to who I am. So I’m working on an ongoing effort to take the time I need, every day, to care for myself.

I started with foot lotion. Every day, I would take 15-30 seconds and apply a foot-specific lotion after my shower. On days that were stressful, I would have thoughts like, “You don’t have time to do this. You’ve got to get to work!”

Isn’t that ridiculous? I don’t have 30 seconds to put on foot lotion? But that exposed the lie in a way that a grander gesture could not. What kind of conscious and unconscious training led me to a place where I felt that it was so important for me to get to work that only the most basic grooming and care was warranted?

So now, at 44, pain is having its say, pain that has been caused by years of neglect or cutting corners in care. Pain says, “that’s enough. No further.” Pain slows us down until we do what’s right, or until we stop. I’m not, of course, speaking about people born with chronic pain issues, or who acquire them unavoidably along the course of their lives due to heredity or injury. I’m speaking of those of us who have good health that we neglect. For us, the neglectors, pain will keep having its say until we stop, listen, and heed.

So today, when I get up, I do two sun salutations, facing out the window of an empty bedroom in my house. I bend forward and stop where it begins to hurt, even if I don’t look anything like the model. Today, I can lift out of a forward bend to a standing position without bracing against my thighs, which I couldn’t do on Day 1. And then, when I’m done, I shower, and I put on foot lotion.

How are you loving yourselves today?

The Human Division and the American Conservative Lens

I’m reading John Scalzi’s The Human Division, the 5th book in his fun modern space opera Old Man’s War series. I enjoy it because it’s thrilling and sweeping like old sci-fi, but racism and sexism are marginalized instead of normalized like in the old 50s and 60s series I cut my teeth on.

In one part, a character (call him A because I hate spoilers of any kind) who is the scion of a powerful and rich family on a planet returns home. His driver (call him B) is a close friend; a member of a family that serves his. The driver relates how A’s rich dad always talks about working hard for what you get, but has given him a sinecure job that allows him the time and resources to focus on his career as a poet. “Your dad has been generous in that way of his. . . Always thumping on about people having to make their own way in the world and the value of an honest day’s labor. He’d rather die than fund a grant. But he gives me a ridiculously easy job and pays me well enough that I can work on my words.”

B goes on to tell how he won a poetry award and A’s dad was so proud that he displays B’s award in his office. He also shares how B’s sister scrubbed toilets in the house for a year but then used the generous compensation to fund graduate studies. A’s dad even went to the doctoral ceremony and also keeps a picture in his office.

I stopped reading right where I was and immediately thought, “this is what American Republicans and conservatives think of themselves.” I immediately recalled a customer I had, a quite wealthy man who reliably voted conservative, who paid for his housekeeper’s health care when she had a serious condition arise and did not have health insurance to cover it. That was truly kind and generous. But why do we live in a society where largesse is the only option that results in a good outcome?

American conservatives think of themselves as A’s dad: standing firmly for values of hard work and self-making, but quietly and generously helping those in need close to them. Generosity of spirit to our neighbor is welcomed, but it must always be coupled with the difficult question, “Who is my neighbor?” What happens to those not close enough to a person of means to obtain patronage? And how many people of means are actually consistently generous?

When we talk about benefit programs that are tax-funded, whether they are food, housing, health, or care for those who cannot work due to age or disability, we are asking this question: To what extent should generous rich people and organizations meet the people’s needs versus the society meeting the people’s needs?

I think the conservative value of local control does matter and is good to ensure local needs are met properly. We don’t need to give everybody umbrellas if they live in a town in the desert. However, care has to be taken to ensure that local bias does not enter into who is cared for. We saw local control used as a weapon of injustice during the Civil Rights Movement, and so a healthy skepticism is warranted.

Rich people are just people, no better, no worse than others. However, their money gives them an ability to impact society in a broader way than the average person. Like anyone, they will help people they are close to, and be less likely to help people they are not close to. Even in charitable giving, they (and we) give to causes they care about, not necessarily where there is the greatest local need. Churches have a better track record of helping local areas, but if everyone with the ability to do so in a community is not contributing to a church, it’s unfair to expect them to bear the burden of the whole community.

Taxes aren’t a panacea; anything run by people involves planning, oversight, and stewardship. However, getting more people to contribute less, and making sure help is not conditional on proximity, relationship, organizational membership, or creed allows us to build a more just society. It would be wonderful if the generosity of churches and the rich eliminated social programs and could be consistently counted on to do so. But we don’t live in that world.

Scalzi’s book is cleverly titled and is about many kinds of human division. To address this one, we will have to stop expecting a feudal framework and an individual moral code to meet modern needs in full.

Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos, and The Veil

There used to be a time in the year the veil between the spirit world and the mortal world was supposed to be thinned. It made sense to land that time at the changing of the seasons, when the natural harvesting, dying, and hibernation cycle of fall was well underway and the first chill of winter was detectable. It was a time to be watchful, yes, as not all spiritual forces are good. But it was also a time to pray for and think about loved ones who had moved on into that realm. This was true in Druidic harvest festivals and Aztec autumnal rituals alike.
The Christians syncretized these traditions (and possibly added their own original content as well) into All Hallow’s Eve and All Hallows Day, where the saints (the “hallowed” ones) are honored and recently departed souls are prayed for. As is usual with many streams of Christianity, what came before was rebranded as “demonic”, and the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. We rightly as Christians did not worship other gods, but we also lost some of the cultural tradition and possibly spiritual understanding that did not require that worship. I’m not advocating that we watch Friday The 13th at church, or that we don Druidic robes and pray to Celtic deities, but I think it’s safe to let your kids wear a mask and trick-or-treat, or to put a pumpkin or skull in your yard.
I have read several observations about how bad we are at dealing with death here. I think Coco resonated with so many Americans who didn’t grow up with Dia De Los Muertos traditions because we’re hungry for a way to stay connected, however tenuously. We are supposed to feel good because our loved ones are “in a better place”. We’re supposed to delight in the notion of their arrival in eternal paradise, which itself is limited by our limited human perception of what is good and enjoyable. But we’re sad. We miss them so much. And we occasionally get signs they’re watching over us, connected, but we don’t have language or tools to process that.
I think it would be good for non-Latino Americans to not appropriate, but adopt some of the Dia De Los Muertos traditions with appreciation, respect, and deference to the originators. I don’t know how that works. We managed to adopt the Gaelic traditions and spread them nationwide in a way that seemed to work, but in our present context, I don’t know what sharing a tradition looks like. I suppose it looks like developing real relationships with the people who own the tradition, being invited to join in, and entering the way a respectful and welcome guest enters a home for a dinner. Perhaps you’ll be given a plate to take with you, and perhaps not, but you can enjoy the gathering either way, even if you can’t cook that delicious dish they served for yourself.
We emphasize the fear part of these holidays but not the part that tells us that death is natural, a part of existence, and doesn’t have to be so scary. Each painted face and mask says that I, too, am mortal, will someday be bones, but I am not afraid. I will celebrate transition through the veil, and I will know that however this works, whether its an energetic echo, the residue they left through my memories, or an actual sentient presence, my loved ones never really leave me.

An American Conversation on Guns and Violence

Ed. Note: All quotes are from actual shooter manifestos. I did not paraphrase or make up anything said by “Shooters”.

Republicans and Moderates: I don’t know what we’re going to do about these shootings. It’s a shame about these boys’ mental health.

Democrats: But you won’t pay for their health care and your Saint Reagan closed the mental hospitals and. . .

Moderates: *holds finger up* Ah-ah-ah. Remember we weren’t supposed to talk politics today. Too divisive. Both sides are to blame for where we are.

Shooters: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” (1)

Republicans and Moderates: I just feel sorry for these troubled, obviously mentally ill boys.

Shooters: “I am just a regular White man, from a regular family. Who decided to take a stand to ensure a future for my people.” (2)

Republicans: If we prayed more as a people, this wouldn’t happen.

Shooters: “There has been little done when it comes to defending the European race. As an individual I can only kill so many Jews. . . Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews – remember that you are secure in Christ.” (3)

Republicans: Well, I mean, the things he’s saying are clearly not right, but he is talking about Christ, so. Shame about that boy’s mental health.

Republicans & Moderates: But it’s not really about the guns when you think about it, is it? Why do they do this?

Shooters: “To create conflict between the two ideologies within the United States on the ownership of firearms in order to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide within the United states.This conflict over the 2nd amendment and the attempted removal of firearms rights will ultimately result in a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.” (2)

Republicans: There’s nothing to be done I suppose. Guns are essential to our life and identity, and besides, who will protect us from the government without our guns?

Democrats: But you ARE the government! All we’re saying is a little more gun con-

Moderates: Stop playing politics. Both sides are the government, and both sides are to blame for this.

Republicans: You’re being too fair, Moderates. The black identity extremists calling everyone racist, and these women who can’t take a compliment and turn everything into a MeToo lawsuit are the problem. We need to go back to a better time when people weren’t so politically correct. That’s what’s creating this climate of violence.

Shooters: “My orchestration of the Day of Retribution is my attempt to do everything, in my power, to destroy everything I cannot have. All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy.” (4)

Moderates: I guess we’ll never really know. And I guess things won’t get better until we stop playing politics, stop talking about things that divide us, and move forward.

Republicans: Yes, we have to stop playing politics, give every real American a gun, and back the blue. God bless our troops, our police, and our guns. God bless the real America.

Democrats: *presses face into hands and weeps*

____________________________________

1 – El Paso shooter’s manifesto, 2019

2 – Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, 2019

3 – San Diego Synagogue shooter’s manifesto, 2019

4 – Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto (the “incel”), 2014

“Did God Really Say?” – The Crucible of Evil

White supremacy is a scourge from the pit of Hell and is Satan’s most effective weapon currently in use on this planet.

I tend to only weakly believe in an incarnate Devil and less in a concrete, fire and brimstone Hell. But I do believe that evil exists both on spiritual and physical planes. And evil has one power: “Did God really say?”

Did God really say love your neighbor as yourself?

Did God really say none are worthy, yet all have reconciliation available?

Did God really say we are all equal?

Did God really say the last shall be first, and the sanctimonious, heartless ones will be pushed to the outside while the humble, kind ones will be exalted?

That question echoes in our weak human minds in a thousand forms. We answer, “Maybe not. Not exactly.” And evil, cooked in that crucible, is made manifest.

We have enabled people like these shooters who killed so many in New Zealand when we have denigrated Muslims, insulted their religion, culture, and humanity. We have enabled them when we allow our leaders to ask “what’s so bad about white supremacy?” We have enabled them when we seek the advancement of Christian dominion instead of an irresistible community of love, too broad and beautiful to be satisfied with one narrow cultural expression.

As Rabbi Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” If you made choices for economic reasons, or because of court picks, those choices have implications. If you ignore cries for collective justice and paper them over with individual kindness that does not require you to actually become uncomfortable, that ignorance has implications.

Some of us are guilty of supporting evil. But all of us are responsible for creating a world in which it has no quarter. There is plenty of research and thought on how to deconstruct this, if you have the will. Don’t get distracted by your preferred corner of evil to point at. Start where the seat of power is.

Start with white supremacy.