Monday, May 25, 2015

Trying my patience

Friend Loy quotes one A.B. Simpson:

God may send you, dear friends, some costly packages. Do not worry if they are done up in rough wrappings. You may be sure there are treasures of love, and kindness, and wisdom hidden within. If we take what He sends, and trust Him for the goodness in it, even in the dark, we shall learn the meaning of the secrets of Providence. “

Meanwhile, friend Bill quotes G.K. Chesterton:

“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

As I look at those quotes from my own perch while trying to ignore the shards of broken metaphors on the ground below me, Simpson and Chesterton seem each to be talking about patience. It makes sense to put them on the same team, with Simpson at shortstop and Chesterton patrolling center field. The reason I think that is because Simpson calls directly for trust in God despite appearances, and four sentences gives him enough glove to scoop up even a hard grounder.

The man behind Simpson has more turf to cover, yet the parabola inscribed in the air by a long fly ball holds no terrors for Chesterton. He knows that for a living thing to stand against the current of the stream around it implies a willingness to endure opposition. That's a pretty good definition of patience, and it's more focused than Simpson's because Chesterton stands farther out, and so has to put more mustard on the ball to get it back to the infield after a catch.

The thing about impatience, as I'm slowly learning, is that it's always a marker for failure to trust: When things go well, we say “More right now!” and when things go badly, we say “Make it stop!” And by “we,” of course, I mean “I.” But note the hint of pride in both reactions, and the unwillingness to wear the bridle of time.

Patience seems to be the fix for that anxiety. Courted long enough, it flowers into trust, so that when Jesus (or a friend doing His work) eventually ambles up and says something like “Desperado, Why don't you come to your senses?” we actually hear and recognize Him. I hope that's true. I need to believe that right now. Who says the Road to Emmaus can't also be a ranch or a ball field? 

In the words of that underrated theologian, Tom Petty, "the waiting is the hardest part."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

So swim the Tiber already

Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay to explain why so many people of her generation avoid church. Evans quotes approvingly from one of her friends, who went looking for a worship service that is "not sensational, flashy, or particularly 'relevant'." What that friend wanted instead wasn't relevance or affirmation, but an invitation to full membership in what she called "the life of an ancient-future community."

That phrasing rankles me because I'm older than Evans and her peers, and more attuned to the syntax that aspiring theologians unwrap like a fresh deck of cards when they're trying to prove that they're intellectual and compassionate. The poetically liturgical "Ever ancient, ever new" captures the same insight as "ancient-future" without threatening to veer off into the mail-order shamanism that looks to places like Stonehenge and Sedona for whatever dignity it can borrow.

Unfortunate word choice aside, I'm glad that Ms. Evans and her friends have come around to the idea that the timeless trumps the trendy. She needn't be smug about what she calls the "Millennial" ability to sniff out hypocrisy, however -- that just means that even younger people realize we're all sinners.

Four years after abandoning an evangelical Protestant church community whose spiffy worship services were unable to assuage her doubt and disillusionment, Evans now considers herself an Episcopalian. I cheered when she used part of her essay to plug ritual and sacrament:

"You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality," she wrote. "You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God."

Evans rounded out her examples by capping them with a summary worthy of huzzahs: "What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments."

Good stuff, that.  And yet I fear that Rachel Evans will eventually be disillusioned again, because despite that wonderful acknowledgement of ritual and sacrament, she also writes that the magnet that drew her back into church wasn't truth so much as Episcopalian "inclusivity." The big red doors of her church are open to all, she's happy to say: "conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me."

But of course those doors are open to all. That's not an Episcopalian distinctive; it's a mark of authentic Christianity that every Christian communion has inherited to a greater or lesser degree from the original fellowship organized by Jesus and headed by Saint Peter. To call the church "inclusive" is to call it "catholic."

Wittingly or not, Evans has transposed the vocabulary of the church fathers into a key she finds easier to sing. If that helps her meet the obligation we all have to live the Great Commandment, it's a wonderful thing. But if Evans (or anyone else) clings so tightly to inclusivity that the embrace leaves no room for the other marks of the church, then there's a problem, because "one," "holy," and "apostolic" sit at the same table that "catholic" does. To put one mark of the church in front of the others is to risk jettisoning faith when your own congregation falls short of that mark.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wolcott with a swing and a miss

I don't often see my sister, but she knows I've dabbled in media criticism, and so she recently mailed me commentary by James Wolcott that in print was called  The Sweet Smell of Disgrace and on the  Vanity Fair web site was re-packaged as Brian Williams, Rolling Stone, and the Rise of the "Media Culpa." 

In print and in pixel, Wolcott has fun with mixed metaphors and false gravitas. But if you read the essay, you get the impression that Wolcott laments not the well-publicized screw-ups of his fellow journalists, but the web-driven accountability for those screw-ups. It's the "yippee-kay-yay cries of Schadenfreude from the usual rodeo hands on the Internet" that irritate Wolcott more than "promiscuous copycats" and marquee names brought low. Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly are the names that Wolcott cites, one dinged for false memories and the other for "serial exaggeration."

That work in front of a camera and behind an anchor desk tends to encourage a "flexible" relationship with truth is hardly news, is it?

Wolcott would have done much better to examine the upper-middle-class progressive biases that he shares with Williams and O'Reilly, but does not admit to having. At least two things function as tells there:

One: Wolcott writes that debunked stories of sexual assault on college campuses "did considerable damage after their credibility crumpled," and by that he means that fraud at the heart of those particular stories couldn't help but damage the preferred narrative of the Predatory College Male. An essayist with an eye on the reputations of students falsely accused would have recast the same sentence to point out that the debunked stories actually did considerable damage before their credibility crumpled.

Two: On the basis of precisely nothing, Wolcott declares that Bill O'Reilly (by default the "conservative" in his analysis, if only because Brian Williams needed a counterweight) has respectable TV ratings because he "functions as the angry white man's apoplexy supplier" and "his average viewer is Grandpa Simpson, shaking his fist at a cloud."

Wolcott does not seem to fathom that there are "angry white men" who can't stand Bill O'Reilly. As one such recently pointed out, "O'Reilly is a pretty thoughtless man, given to the sort of rantings of the Lunchbucket Philosopher, basing his philosophy not on Judeo-Christian teachings, as he never tired of cliche-ing, but on his visceral gut reactions."

In other words, pace Wolcott, Bill O'Reilly has not earned enough respect among conservatives of either gender (read: people whom progressives seldom pal around with) to be a preferred "apoplexy supplier." O'Reilly is actually more of an apoplexy target, especially now that -- like the progressives he occasionally challenges -- he's decided that appeasing terrorists, and arguing with women who do not appease terrorists, is the better part of valor. "No Spin Zone"? It is to laugh.

Wolcott would know that if he'd read or talked to a few "angry white men" instead of writing them off as cartoon characters. He might also know that no one following the news needs help from professional contrarians to work him- or herself into a proper snit, because ignorance and injustice are easy to find, even if not always in the places where our mandarins look first.