26 October 2013

Beyond Ideologies: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

I think there was a time when, for me, belonging to something provided a unique sense of both personal identity and place in the larger social structure.  To be sure, belonging to a group is a natural human trait (as it is with almost all known biological species).  It not only insures survival but creates structure and order within a given system.  However, belonging in that manner is not my point here.

Beyond familial and human culture infrastructure, there is a kind of "belonging" that acts as a means whereby we can classify our behaviors, beliefs and thought patterns.  For instance: I was born into a family whose ancestry is Northern European...in my case, mostly Scottish.  My parents were Christians...as it seems my ancestors had been for as far back as I can verify at this time (16th Century).  My parents were Episcopalian Christians.  This further identified/defined a particular methodology and doctrinal stream of belief.  I was baptized into this tradition and raised in that micro-culture of the larger community.

I was raised in a small town environment in Central Florida.  The population of Winter Haven, FL was roughly 30,000 during my growing up years.  Further, it was a community with a mix of retired folks and families with post-World War II children...the Baby Boomers.  There were several elementary schools, two Jr. high schools (as they were known at the time) and one high school.  So, in the final three years of education, 430 (or so) of us were educated by the same teachers and in the same environment.

The defining membership duality that occupied our parents (and, thereby, us) in the 1950s and 60s was "Americanism vs. Communism."  I vividly remember "A-Bomb Drills," fallout shelters, and the rampant cultural paranoia known as "McCarthyism."  It was named after Senator Joe McCarthy, who spearheaded a relentless hunt for "Commie spies" along with individuals and cells of communists.  Because mass media was still young, we weren't inundated 24/7.  Yet,there was a palpable paranoia and anxiety about communism.  There was also the dualism of race....being an "integrationist" or "segregationist" defining part of our teenage years.  It was the only truly intense argument my dad and I ever had.  I was 14 yrs old and supported integration in a paper I wrote in a Jr. high English class.

Somewhere during all of this (not even speaking of the rapidly intensifying Vietnam War-that-was-not-a-war...as we were often told), I decided that political ideology was a dirty game.  For me, the one, truly safe group of my teenage years was the Boy Scouts.  I lucked into a great group that included many of my childhood/neighborhood buddies.  I immersed myself in the rugged outdoor activities that defined our particular scout troop and became an Eagle Scout just prior to my 14th birthday.  I remained very active until my college years.  Boy Scout Troop 122, St. Paul's Episcopal Church and Winter Haven High School shaped the critical teenage years of my life.

My vocational path emerged from the confluence of the above groups.  Fred the "science guy" ultimately became Fred the Episcopal Priest.  Early in my graduate studies leading to ordination, it became clear that one got defined by, a) the seminary attended; b) the theologians studied; and c) the collegial friends made.  Without any effort on my part, I became known as a "High Church Anglo-Catholic" within the Episcopal Tradition.  Even though my reason for going to my particular seminary had a whole lot more to do with my working through a potential call to monastic life, the ecclesiastical ideology brand got imprinted and stuck.  My seminary graduating class may have been among the most culturally diverse group of folks to move through Nashotah House up to that time.  Our average age  was 28, and we ranged the whole gamut of socio-political and ecclesiastical orientations.

My growth path from high school was:  college-military-seminary-priesthood.  That path began in 1968 and culminated with ordination in 1978. Of the 33 persons in my seminary graduating class of 1978, only three of us had military service prior to graduate studies.  That was not a popular time to be a military veteran.  It took time to overcome the prejudice and judgment leveled on us in the seminary community...by a small but vocal group.  It was during this time that I made a decision.

As far as it would be within my skills, craft, resources and leadership position to do so, I would create space in my working environment so that any person would feel comfortable and welcomed.   That decision became a passion and defined how I conducted 33 years of active parochial ministry.  While I remained true to this passion, I must report that I failed to create a truly inclusive community in any of the four parishes where I was the Rector (read: canonically in charge).  Systems tend to not like diversity, because differences are used to define grouping.  I like the word "glom."  We prefer to glom onto others who think and behave like we do.  It is the essence of Dualism.  There it is....the central "-ism" that, in theological parlance, is the nature of sin itself.

It is true, in large measure, that we so much want to identify with something -- or someone -- that we end up belonging to...that is, being possessed by...that group or person.  It has been my experience, as a parochial priest, that the term "demonic possession" has a great deal more to do with what or who we belong to than an actual malevolent, cosmic entity.  Journeying with folks through the pain of deliverance from such possession occupied a great part of my pastoral work.

I am reminded of the story of Jesus and the rich young man.  The young man questioned Jesus regarding salvation (wholeness).  Jesus countered (as usual) with his own question about keeping the law.  After the young man reflected that he had done all those things from his youth, Jesus simply said, "sell all you own and come, follow me."  At this, the young man turns (sadly it seems) and walked away...."for he had many possessions."

Bishop Michael Marshall, an English theologian, did a teaching on the above story at a conference I attended some 25 years ago.  As he reflected on the outcome, Bishop Marshall simply said:  "He longed to belong, but he belonged to his belongings.  He was possessed by his possessions."

Ultimately, Jesus was not equating wealth with discipleship.  The request reached for something much deeper:  Upon what is your ultimate value based?   For the young man in the story, it was what he owned.  For someone else, it could have been the group to which he belonged, or the position he held or the knowledge that he held.  Think, for instance, of another encounter.

Jesus had an evening visit from a Pharisee, Nicodemus.  Pharisees, as part of the local Sanhedrin, were both highly educated and carried great weight in council as teachers of the Law.  Along with the Sadducees, they formed the Judean "political parties" of Jesus' era.  Nicodemus asked what was necessary for salvation.  This time, Jesus responded with, "you must be born anew."  Nicodemus was considered one of the wisest of the Pharisee party, but he could not wrap his head around re-entering his mother's womb and starting the life process over.  Jesus ultimately became frustrated with Nicodemus' inability to get past the practicalities of knowledge and into the deeper wisdom of Truth.  My image is of Jesus throwing up his hands and saying, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?!...If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?"

In our age, we take great pride in how much we know, how many degrees we own, how many factoids we have ready to hurl at those with whom we disagree.  Nicodemus is a person with whom we might readily identify.

One of the things I don't like about living in Florida is the necessity of declaring one's political party affiliation as a prerequisite to eligibility to vote in a primary election.  One of the things I quit doing many years ago was defining my political ideology, and I did that based upon the automatic judgment from others that being a member of a political party invites.  My ideology simply isn't that "clean," meaning it depends on the issue or the particular political theory attached to an issue.  Yet, a huge amount of money and rhetoric is thrown into partisan politics.  Such terms as "doing battle" or "go to war" is common, and abusive, language in speaking of opposing ideological stances.  The arbitrary lines of being either "in" or "out" of these groups creates a duality that has great potential for a kind of near demonic possession.

It is highly unlikely that anything I say here will cause a shift in our currently toxic political and socio-economic rhetoric.  The division between wealth and relative poverty; the "hostage taking" involved in partisan legislative process; the cultural and racial biases that are much more obvious than folks will admit within our decisions on who is in and who is out (e.g. state voter registration); the constant finger pointing and abusive language within all classifications of social media; the extremes of dualistic thinking that leads to "all or nothing" and "win or lose" behavior....all of these paint a grim picture.  None of it reflects anything that I have experienced in my study of cultural and political history, regarding the hopes, dreams and intentions of our founders and those who articulated the great "American Experiment."

I am not, by nature, a cynic.  Nor am I, in any way, a "doomsday prophet."  Most of the time, I am both hopeful and optimistic.  Most of the time, I am simply able to ignore abusive language, paranoid rantings, and opinions that obviously lack grounding in thoughtful or well researched investigation.  My way of "doing business" has almost always included having some depth of knowledge or insight.  Because I am emotive in my personality type, I know that the first level of response to anything is going to be "from my gut."  With years of practice, I automatically do a "gut check" when faced with almost anything....and simply refrain from response until, and unless, I can apply my thought processes to the information being received.

I am not always successful in any of this.  A person shoves an RNC or DNC card in my face....I know that that person is feigning a blow (a boxing term...throwing a fake punch to distract an opponent and get them flustered).  That person is also insecure enough to believe that showing others that "I belong to this group" will somehow empower them; intimidate those who are not in that group; and set up some level of "I am in and you are out" rhetoric.

Actually, my response to someone, who "flashed" me with a political card, surprised them into speechlessness, when I pulled out my wallet and flashing my health insurance card.  I simply said, "I'm covered, are you?"

There is an emerging level of spirituality and healing that is bringing people together in ways not seen in our history.  I think the Great American Experiment will extend itself, but it will shift.  It will not be fully what it could be until we get our own house in order.  It means healing some very deep wounds:  with indigenous peoples and peoples of various ethnic and cultural origins who are part of the tapestry of life but still marginalized by fear, bigotry and negligence.  One essential component of any true democracy/republic is compassion.....the ability to "walk in solidarity with".... all creation.

Meanwhile, I practice the advice given in Desiderata:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.          -- Max Ehrmann
(In the Public Domain, No copyright)

Love and Blessings!
Fr. Fred+

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