Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Call to Something More Holy Than Supreme

I don’t want to talk about the President.  It’s not that I don’t care about the office or have no opinion of its current occupant.  It’s simply that in these ham-handed, binary times during which subtlety and nuance have become casualties of public discourse where reason and reasonable objectivity once felt comfortably at home, I’ll express my political thoughts in the ballot box.  Besides, I try to keep in mind that nausea and diarrhea are not the real problems when I’m suffering such maladies, but the outward expression of something deeper. 

So no, I’m less concerned about the President than I am about the rest of us.  This is surely not the first time in history that a people have lost their way, but we seem hell-bent on elevating our particular manifestation of lostness to epic heights.  Or perhaps we should be speaking, instead, of depths.  Wiser social observers than me will better understand what brought us to this morass.  Stolen opportunity.  Economic frustration.  An increasingly crowded and diverse public and philosophical space.  Instant and constant communication of both news and opinion with no rubrics to differentiate the two.  All of the above.  And more.  But whatever the drivers, they have brought us to a very loud, aggressive, intolerant and unforgiving place.  And it’s frightening.  I wish that the shameful clash of people and ideologies last weekend in Virginia – fueled by prejudiced hatred – was the exception, but alas it is paradigmatic. 

Only two descriptors present themselves in what remains of the conduct of our public life:  “me”, and everyone else.  Every now and then multiple “me’s” seem able to make common cause, but they are marriages of convenience rather than sacred vows, as fragile as the egos that beat their chests behind them. 

But of all the battling contestants in this Roman Coliseum called “America”  I am perhaps most disappointed in my own lifelong community:  the church.  Our most visible representatives have become “hater apologists” – or, in the words of our biblical forebears, “Court Prophets.”  And our congregations, once ideologically royal purple, have segregated into Reds and Blues.  More partisan than confessional, more defensive than invitational, more condemning than caring, it’s hard to find much residue in our worship and our “discipleship” of the one we profess to follow. 

As long as we view ourselves as “supreme” – racially, politically, patriotically, morally -- we are missing the point, and are well along the way to losing our soul. 

The fact is we simply cannot love by hating.  We cannot welcome through exclusion.  We cannot heal by brutalizing.  We cannot grow deeper by becoming more and more shallow.  We have a better story than that.  We have a better message than that.  We have a nobler mission than that. And we have a more powerful example than that.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Learning How to Cry Like A Baby

At six and a half months of age, Truett is an extraordinarily happy and easy-going baby.  He smiles, he laughs, he scrutinizes the various textures with which his fingers come into contact, he studies intently nearby objects and movements with a decided preference for ceiling fans whenever he can catch sight of one.  He will concentrate on curiosities for minutes at a time.  But make no mistake, he does, indeed, cry.  He cries when he is hungry, and he cries when he is overly tired -- this latter, of course, along with an occasional whimper when a diaper change is overdue, is hardly his fault.  Credit those tears to his caregivers who have gotten busy with other matters under heaven.  So, hunger and fatigue.  That's pretty much it, which I find to be an amazingly short list.

When, I've begun to wonder -- and for what reasons -- does that list begin to lengthen?  By the time a person reaches my age we are crying about all sorts of things -- skinned knees and hurt feelings, griefs, disappointments regardless of merit, even unspeakable joys.  We cry because we don't get our way, we cry because of what was said about us on the playground or by the media.  We cry at movies, we cry in church, we cry with relief.  But even as I review the list which is intrinsically incomplete, I note that somewhere along the way tears of need -- for food, for rest -- give way to tears of want.  I cry because I received what I didn't want -- or conversely, I cry because what I desperately wanted actually came my way?  

I don't mean to malign the “wants”. After all, developmental psychologists would dig down into several of them and find them  sprouting from core needs like validation and basic security of one form or another.  That said, I can't help but wonder if our lists of crying offenses haven't gotten a bit out of control.  Could it be that when we call someone a “big baby”, rather than the target of our derision we are slandering instead the babies in our midst who reserve their tears for the core essentials?

Maybe that's what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged us to become like little children, rather than the whining adults we have excessively become.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Inevitable Vicissitudes -- and Work -- Of Politics

A few years ago I had the privilege of assisting a family making burial arrangements at the Veteran's Cemetery near Des Moines. It is a beautiful and beautifully maintained memorial site, tightly managed and efficiently run. The representative helping the family went through the options, the paperwork, and the benefits -- among them being a certificate commemorating the deceased and signed by the President. I was saddened -- no, I was angered -- when the representative paused at this point and with a kind of pregnant gaze mentioned to the family that the form for this certificate didn't have to be sent in any time soon. “Some would prefer their certificate to be signed by a different President, and so delay the submission.”
I've been thinking of that lamentable conversation in recent days as we collectively start a new chapter as a citizenry. We are of a decidedly mixed mind as we toe up to this starting line. Some are excited by the prospects. Others find them appalling. Fair enough. That's the political system. Always there are defenders and detractors. Always there are political allies as well as foes both partisan and principled. Some in each category are more strident than others. At the end of the day, however, we only get one President at a time. One, who serves us all.
Which is why I'm feeling again the same acute sadness, weariness and indeed annoyance with the “opt out” reflex so popular among so many of us as I did that day in the Veteran's Cemetery. “Not my President” is the mantra I see hashtagged, Facebooked, bumper stickered and crowed. But that sentiment makes for a better slogan than a democracy. We get one President at a time, whether it's the one we voted for or not. He or she may not represent our values, our core principles or our chosen way of being in the world. But make no mistake: she or he does indeed represent us in consequential ways that bear our signature, whether we have written it there or not. There are no asterisks, no “opt out” boxes, no abstentions. Republicans, who constantly chaffed at such “not my President” dismissals of George W. Bush’s legitimacy, should be just as vigilant about this as Democrats who wearied at the similarly obstructionist and repugnant dismissals by Republicans of Barack Obama's leadership.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not happy about where we are and where the signs suggest we are headed. I didn't vote for this President. Quite apart from his philosophical principles which I find mercurial at best and callous if not punitive at worst, for all his financial and professional advantages I experience him to be an unseemly, boorish, churlish cretin who offends most of my moral, religious and social sensibilities, most of the time.
But we only get one President at a time, and though the parties have their own interests to spin, it is in no one's interest for him to fail. Like it or not, he is OUR President. We had better figure out how to encourage him, pray for him, indeed nudge him toward our collective success, or it will be to our collective loss.
Lobby, then, write letters, call your elected representatives, make your views known, and in a few years vote again, keeping in mind that ones principles prevail either by outnumbering those who oppose them, or by persuasion -- and the former is typically accomplished by the latter.
Those who long for a different course might consider abandoning the quixotic quest for technicalities to invalidate the recent election, along with the near drone-like dismissals of everything emanating from it, and get on with the harder but more critical work of fashioning and communicating a compellingly winsome case for something better.
Far more than merely casting a vote, that's the real work of a democracy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Packed Away, But Not Quite Forgotten

Santa survived another year.  I don’t mean “Santa” in the fairy tale sense, or “Santa” in the metaphorical sense, or “Santa” in the nostalgic sense.  I mean the fragile construction paper ornament that has hung on a Diebel family Christmas tree for each of the past 50 years.  More, I hope, since I would like to believe that the crudely simple little work of childhood fabrication is the product of a very young Tim Diebel.  But give it its due:  what it lacks in fine artistry it more than makes up for in longevity.  Every Advent that we have had it since my parents passed it into our keeping from theirs I have feared for its survival.  The paper is increasingly brittle and the folds frightfully thin.  Unwilling to risk the tugs of a wire ornament hanger I routinely nestle it in amongst the branches of the tree, crossing my fingers that nothing will dislodge it and send it to its dismemberment.

But here we were on January 8 stowing the precious decorations and dismantling the tree – late, I know, for most households but a precious indulgence in ours – and Paper Santa was the last to be removed.  I had worked around it.  First came off the glass stars, and then the miscellaneous treasures from travels and friends and family remembrances.  The balls were next and then the topping bow. 

Everything, one by one, until nothing remained but Santa.   I haven’t fully found explanation for my reticence.  I am a sentimental fool, and that’s almost certainly part of the reason.  Memories of Christmas trees past and the family times around them are powerful forces, and I willingly submit to their embrace.  So yes, sentimentality is part of it – but only part. 

I’m getting older, too – now months into my 61st year – and touching something of my childhood affords a kind of steadying existential crutch amidst the dizzying awareness of the passage of time.  I still can’t believe I have already attended my 40th high school reunion since it feels, for all the world, like that senior year was months rather than decades ago.  I rarely see those old classmates and know practically nothing of their present lives, and yet I still think of them as close and best friends.  Some of them were around, I suspect, when Paper Santa was getting colored, cut and folded, and there is something grounding about fingering the cotton puffs and the crayon lines.

It could likewise be that with the birth of a new grandson I am anticipating a whole new generation of Paper Santas to come – this ancient one as something of an anticipatory foretaste of the feast to come.  I hope so – and look forward to making room on future trees.

Future, then, as well as past; an ancient self visiting a much older one; memory as well as promise; grounding as well as fancy; childhood naiveté confronting and challenging the cynicism of age.

I don’t know completely.  All I know is that it was the last to leave its bristly perch and the longest to remain in my hands; held, cherished – not so much as a talisman with magic powers for whatever lies ahead, but more as a touchstone, a blessing of sorts, from all that lies behind that has prepared this self for whatever might yet be.

Goodnight, then, Santa.

Until next year.