Thursday, August 4, 2011

First Speed Bump Question - Chapter 6 - The Longing Way Home

I’m beginning to come to terms with the truth that as we age, we get slower which means that I’m several times slower than I used to be. I know that’s a lame excuse for length of time between posts of chapters of my blog-book, if in fact you’ve noticed. However, I do hope you haven’t stopped following my blog-book and I do know it’s hard to keep up interest over the intervals. So, once again, as a partial antidote to the problem, I’ve decided to post whatever I write as I write it. My intention is to include you in the process and maybe stimulate you to offer comments or questions or suggestions to consider as I write rather than just afterward.

Also, it’s been suggested to me, and I agree, that since the length of the posts of my blog book are much longer than are typical, the easiest way to read mine is to copy the blog version and then paste the copy on whatever your computer version of Word Perfect might be, make the necessary adjustment of print size and then print the copy to read at your own pace. Try it and let me know if it works. Blessings always, Ted

FIRST SPEED BUMP QUESTION - Chapter Six - The Longing Way Home

I’m not sure how to focus the various thoughts that have been tromping around in my mind in recent weeks (June-November 2011). As probably you have, I’ve trying to sort through and understand what’s going on in our country these days. Most of it is summed up by the nasty hassle of the debt ceiling negotiations of political ideologues butting heads like mountain goat’s over rutting rights. And that narrow-mindedness seems to be a growing trend as the 2012 election begins to heat up.

The urgent question is, “How do we track and respond to what’s going on, here?” To answer, begin with what Bill Moyers said about it: “This is the most dangerous moment in American history. Either we’re going to be a nation of, by and for the people, or of, by and for corporations.” (1)

If that sounds too simplistic, too dire or exaggerated, I would still contend that Moyers is very close to the truth about a complex issue. Add to his warning something James Surowieck wrote about the situation: “You might think that there are benefits to putting negotiators under the gun. But, as the Dutch psychologist Carsten de Dreu has shown, time pressure tends to close minds, not open them. Under time pressure. negotiators tend to rely more on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. They don’t consider as wide a range of alternatives, and are more likely to jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. Time pressure also reduces the chance that an agreement will be what psychologists call ‘integrative’ -- taking everyone’s interests and values into account.” (2)

If de Dreu’s insights applied only to the political negotiators and processes, they’d be interesting but limited. But the truth is de Dreu makes two constructively relevant points about us all: 1- The effects of time pressure on our thinking and deciding; 2- That pressure, among other factors, generates outcomes that are not “integrative." Both points relate to Moyers statement. No one can really hold that what’s going on in our nation takes “everyone’s interests and values into account.”

For the most part, the same holds true for what’s going on in our own lives. Most of us collude in generating none-integrative outcomes by the frenetic pace that whips us into non-integrative lives bouncing to the jig of a thousand enticements or the rap of incessant anxieties which drowned out the soft hum of our deepest longing.

Equally, if not more serious, is that non-integrative outcomes do not address the lives and needs of those in the shadows of our society -- the poor, the sick, the aged, the homeless, poor and middle class children, yea, the middle class as a whole --people who are under stress. Not only are too many of us more economically marginalized but we're spiritually shriveling to "non-integrative” obsessive self-interest parties rather than those having “integrative” consideration of the interests of others as well as their own. Increasingly it seems people are buying into the deceit and intransigence of politicians and corporations without realizing that by doing so, they are going against their own and their neighbors true interests. Add the effects of the non-integrative outcomes of our stereotypes and cognitive (and spiritual) shortcuts on millions of poverty stricken people around the world and where does that leave us?

I contend it leaves us in the company of the lawyer and the man beaten by thieves and left half-dead on the road to Jericho in the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel. It goes like this, remember? The lawyer steps out from the crowd and asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In turn, Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart ... soul ... strength ... and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him, “You have answered right; do this and you will live.” According to Luke, the lawyer, “to justify himself,” then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds to the question with the parable.*(Luke 10:25-27)

In the parable, Jesus makes it clear that our neighbors definitely include not just our close, comfortable friends but those strange, chancy ones in need, like the beaten person by the road who others passed by in their haste to do whatever things they considered more important. To really emphasize how widely inclusive the circle of neighbors is, Jesus makes a Samaritan the prime example of what is means to love them. Remember, Israelites considered Samaritans to be unclean, outcasts, religious heretics, and enemies of the Jewish people. To use such a one as an example of a merciful, loving neighbor, and a destitute, write-off, beaten man as a neighbor to love, was a radical view.

But I think that in his parable Jesus gives two additional messages. One is that it's possible, even probable, that the lawyer’s first question,“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?,” is not just to set a trap to embarrass or expose Jesus as a heretic, but that his question actually expresses something of the lawyer’s human longing, a longing we all share. If so, that adds a broader more inclusive dimension to the exchange, namely, that Jesus is inviting the lawyer to realize he is also a needy neighbor like the beaten man on the Jericho Road, as well as an unloving neighbor who, like the priest and Levite, ignores and walks past the beaten one.

That indicates that the lawyer's problem isn't just his hypocrisy and indifference; it's also his refusal to identify with the beaten man and thus to recognize the flicker of longing in his first question as a key to his real identity. You see, if Jesus’ parable is taken as a vignette of the human situation at large, then we, like the lawyer, are called not only to love our neighbor as he Samaritan did, but to realize we are a neighbor who has a deep longing for abiding love, and so need other neighbors to love us and help us love them and all other neighbors. That means we should see ourselves as part of the human network of neighbors. And yet, most of us know how hard it is do to that, don't we?

The second message is that the Samaritan is a neighbor, too. He is the neighbor who loves and is an example of what it means to love God, and so, to love another neighbor as himself. So the rest of the message of the parable is not just that by his actions the Samaritan is a neighbor who loves, but is also a neighbor to be loved -- and is, at least by himself in attending to the summons of his longing. Think about that. Isn’t that what it means to love your neighbor as yourself? As a Samaritan man, he knows what it is to be despised and rejected emotionally and spiritual. That is another version of being “beaten” in a way we all experience one way or another. So, the Samaritan also longs to be loved just as he loves the other “beaten man” on the Road to Jericho, and by responding to his longing for that, he is loving himself in the process. That kind of loving reflects the first part of the commandment, or invitation, to love God with all your heart in response to God loving you with all his/her heart. To love your self in that way is what it is to begin trusting the grace of God.

At its depths, the parable is “good news’ but also it is demanding news, not exactly the kind you'd expect if you think Jesus is essentially "gentle, meek and mild." That's makes it sharply relevant to us and the present social, political scene. For the most part, what we heard during the recent national debt crisis haggle, and since, was and is spouted not only by arrogant politicians and self-declared presidential candidates, but also by temper-tantrum voters, probably including many of us. It consists mostly of stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. Not many, certainly not enough, advocate for the range of alternatives that justice, compassion and innovation require.

Ergo, the “solution” and its fallout puts most of the burden on the 80% of our society who are the shrinking middle-class and the poor, old, sick, leaving the upper 15% doing increasingly well, 5% of them being billionaires many times over. The “debate” seems less about ideas and trying to solve problems in an integrative and just way than it is about ideologies and grabbing power. How many times does the Good Samaritan parable have to be repeated before we all get it?

But the issue cuts an even wider swath we might first suppose. Though there are many Good Samaritans in our society, thank God, (and surely many of us are among them) and though we certainly need as many more as will step up, the critical challenge is to try to prevent as many victims as we can. The challenge is to try to change the unjust, non-integrative choices and conditions that leave so many “beaten” people tossed aside on our contemporary versions of the Jericho Road we’re all racing on.

That is a hard, complicated, long term challenge. But it’s an unavoidable one if - if - we are to be who we claim we are and want to be, and really are, namely neighbors to love and be loved by, others rather than just being individuals hastily pursuing supposedly "more important things.” I believe this public aspect of the parable is also an essential part of what Jesus is conveying when he has the Samaritan not only rescue the beaten man but transport him to an inn and pay for his care. As I see it,by doing that, Jesus expands the context of being a Good Samaritan from just the personal to the public.

So back to psychologist de Due’s finding that “ … time pressure tends to close minds, not open them. Under time pressure. negotiators tend to rely more on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. They don’t consider as wide a range of alternatives … “ Our inclination is to blame others for what’s happening around us, and often to us, but that just doesn’t wash. It disguises both our own accountability for our personal and communal actions as well as our own need and deep longing for true community and meaning.

The truth is many, if not most, of our time pressures are self-imposed and we’re typically inclined to argue they are justifiably necessary, just as the priest and Levite would argue as they hurried past the half-dead man by the side of the Jericho Road. For example, a large majority of us, 87%, are angry at and blame congress and the President for the crises in our country. But only 37% of us voted in the 2010 elections which resulted in the present make-up of that non-integrative congress. How many of us were in the 63 % who didn't vote? How many of us worked for candidates who most closely represented our values? How many of us support organizations who work to change the way big money influences elections?

If this all sounds too politically biased or too concerned with political issues, I do not intend it to be that. What I am trying to lift up is the painful truth that our political hassle and economic squeeze mirrors much of human history as well as our own lives. Isn’t part of that hassle what a large portion of our time pressure is about? Another name for it is the rat race. It’s a dehumanizing race because its first consequence is to misdirect our deepest human longing by promoting lies about what we really long for as well as what really makes us most human.

So, the first speed bump question about the “rat race" is, "Says Who?" Whose voice is our authority? On what basis do we make choices? Amid the din of the day or in quiet times afterward, who guides, challenges, nurtures us, troubles or assures us? To whom or what do we feel or think we’re eventually accountable? It is worth noting, for example, that each gospel records Jesus as having authority. *(Matthew 7:29, Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32 - RSV)

We all have personal beliefs or values we say we try to live by. Yet, those beliefs and values fade under the pressure of time and busy-ness. We make critical choices without realizing that’s what we’re doing. We end up thoughtlessly conforming to society’s hustle and hustlers promoting the market of things to pursue, possess, consume, entertain and the competition for status, money, power. Even as our life styles are already much higher than most of the rest of the world, so are the expectations they engender. We become uncritically loyal to our habitual social/cultural processes, traditions, groups, churches, political parties, institutions, economic systems, our beloved nation, even when they may be functioning in ways contrary to the values and beliefs we profess.

Can these really be the “Says who?” sources to whom/which we feel or think we’re actually, truly accountable? How do they match up to our deepest longing? On second, or third, or thirtieth thought, might there actually be a different authority for our lives? There’s the first rat race speed bump.

A somewhat humorous example of the bind that speed bump puts us in. Once, a friend of mine challenged her beloved mother about her support of the President’s decision to launch our country into a war. My friend pointed out to her mother, a devout Roman Catholic, that the Pope had come out against the war, too. In a snit her mother responded, “Well, the Pope must be wrong.” Anything feel familiar about that scenario?

The point here isn’t whether or not you agree with the Pope or Roman Catholicism. The simple point is to illustrate how easily and often our “values” get lost in the shuffle. More critically, it illustrates how difficult life decisions are often made reflexively and without reflection on the question, “Says who?” Unless we frequently and consistently consider the core question "Says who?," we end up with non-integrative outcomes for our personal lives as well as for our "neighbors" and larger society. Part of our human dilemma is our need for an authority to help us with our finite limitations on one hand, and on the other, to counter our tendencies to give allegiance to those that seem easiest and most self-serving to us, that it, those who reflect the going coin of the realm, and we see our society valuing.

Other compelling dimensions of the "Says who?” question are, "Who am I? What kind of person do I long to be?” Just a consumer? A competitor? Winner? Wealthy? Well known? Or maybe a neighbor, a good Samaritan? Push the question to yet another dimension: "To whom do I ultimately belong? -- ultimately, not just in a time sense but a trust sense, a longing sense. Is it some substitute god like your self? A friend? Spouse? The Company? Employer? Club? Lodge? Cause? Political Party? Country? Mall? Bank? A Christlike God, maybe? Who am I, or Whose? The answer that really matters is the one from our core, our heart, not just our lips? We need to ask ourselves the question very often, probably several times a day. Our answer(s) require struggle, honesty, humility and prayer, lots of prayer.

More crucially, our struggle to come up with a core answer to “Says who?” tests our willingness to learn to live courageously and hopefully, even joyfully, without absolute certainty. Our longing for "eternal life" can only be tentatively met in our finite lives. Living without absolute certainty means stepping out on the promises. That's exactly what faith means and our deepest longing calls us to do. Only finite authorities peddle certainty which is why they are so seductive. But true authority is not authoritarian or dominating or tyrannical or controlling or seductive or scheming. It is open, inviting, teaching, challenging, creative, promising and unfathomably loving.

In their book on science and religion entitled Questions of Truth, mathematician Nicholas Beal and quantum physicist John Polkinghorne. who later became an Anglican priest, put it this way: "The creation of the God whose nature is love will not be a kind of cosmic puppet theater in which the divine Puppet-Master pulls every string. The gift of love is always the gift of some due form of independence granted to the beloved ... The history of the universe is not the performance of a fixed score, written by God in eternity and inexorably performed by creatures, but it is a grand improvisation in which the Creator and creatures cooperate in the unfolding development of the grand fugue of creation." (3) Think hard about that discernment of two distinquished scientists. Let it soak in to your very being as one of “the beloved."

I believe our awareness and participation in the "grand improvisation" is rooted in our primal longing and is not about a "fixed score." Suzanne Guthrie tells of leaving a Greenwich Village jazz club late one night and walking toward her train. Suddenly the sound of a single saxophone broke the lonely night. Guthrie says it was a prayer rising to its god on the solitude of a city street. She was deeply moved and remembered the sound. It changed things for her. She says, "The voice (of that saxophone) cries for me to turn every particle of my being toward the loneliness, to orient my life so that I live in a way that accommodates God's existence." The voice of the sax slowed her down to her loneliness and nudged her to make a course correction.

The authority of our deepest longing is something like that, like a quiver of the soul at the urge of a distant pitch note through the quiet of night, or a phrase of a song heard under the rumble of the day. It comes as a dogged reminder, a haunting promise, an unavoidable challenge, calling us to orient our lives its direction in order to find our longing way home - home to a kingdom, to a "neighborhood," by loving our neighbors as ourselves, our very selves. On the way, perhaps we'll learn, if only bit by bit, how a Christlike God loves us fumbling neighbors.

(1) Thom Hartman - Conversations with Great Minds: Bob Edgar - August 5, 2011
(2) James Surowieck - The New Yorker, August 1, 2001 - The Financial Page
(3) Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief - John Polkinghorne, Nicholas Beale - Westminster John Knox Press - Louisville, Kentucky - Pg. 15

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