What is the Matter???!!!???

A pool, not a swab, of sweat sits on the exercise apparatus where I was about to lay my head while working my flabby abs. I ask myself: “What is the matter with people?”

Walking against the light, a jaywalker strolls in front of my car, his eyes locked straight ahead to let me know that he thinks I think he doesn’t matter; in reality he’s telling me I don’t matter. And, as I fume, I say to myself: If Jesus weren’t my co-pilot…

Our daily interactions, daily inconveniences, daily doses of incivility, and the daily crust of indifference we force feed each other spur me to ask: What is the matter with people?

Do they think someone else should wipe up their sweat? Do they think that other people’s time is meaningless? Do they think that the drivers and passengers in the cars waiting for them don’t matter? Don’t they know that the grrr the cars emit is coming not from the engine but the drivers???

And what of the lost, frustrated, irritated souls who drop by church expecting that we have the answer to any and all things that ail them, the ones who curse us and call us names when we aren’t human ATMs. Does St. Luke’s look like a money tree? What is the matter with people?

And if this is our daily crust of indifference, how big a leap is it from incivility to inhumanity? What is the matter with people that we think we don’t sweat or don’t matter or, as has justifiably asked time and again, that we don’t need to breathe?

I Can't BreatheWhat is the matter with people? Nothing that hasn’t always been the matter: our narcissism, our selfishness, our sin, our inability to realize we are all equal in the eyes of God, our inability to attune our eyes and ears and hearts and minds to love. It’s always been here. Our lack of civility, our lack of humanity, is one with our failure to be in touch with divinity.

That’s what’s the matter!

Crèche SceneWhat we need is that touch of divinity, and it is precisely that divinity that seeks us at Christmas.

It’s not “Who We Are”


It’s an interesting coincidence: the movie “Unbroken” is about an American POW imprisoned and abused. In the movies, they torture us. They are cruel. We are courageous. But its release coincides with the Senate Report on CIA Torture. Some, of course, are genuinely surprised by the report. Others, God help them, defend torture. Some, of course, say, this is not who we are. Of course not! It’s who they are!

But that’s not my memory of history. Does anyone remember the still alive-but-renamed School of the Americas where we trained Salvadoran and Guatemalan officials to torture their people? Or the history of the Texas Rangers? Or the whipping and rape of slaves? Or lynchings? Or the torture (and genocide) of Native Americans? Or the American torture of Filipinos at the turn of the twentieth century? Or the torture of American conscientious objectors in American prisons during World War 1. Or police methods here, there, and everywhere? Or, or, or.

These are only the tips of many icebergs. How many examples of our collective behavior must we acknowledge before we admit: this is exactly who we are?

CIA ReportAnd it is who we continue to be. Liberals may blame recent torture on the Bush-Cheney tandem, but the Obama-Biden team isn’t bringing any perpetrators to justice. That’s what we do to them when they abuse us, but not when we are the torturers. We put them on trial, not us. We remember what they did, not what we do. That, too, is who we are. We like to think that such things are aberrations in an otherwise seamless pattern of goodness, but both are well-established patterns.

And then news pours in again about mind-wasting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching atrocities – they do it again. Other news reminds us that while this is part of who we are, we are also more than that. Other news comes in that polls say that many or most Americans approve of torture…when we do it to them. And while it is hard to justify Jimmy Carter’s old statement that Americans are good people that, too, is partly true.

“Unbroken” may be a true story of courage. It is certainly a story about their cruelty. But it is not the only story. There is also a long American history of torture. And it is a tragic part of who and what we are: broken.

Normal and/or Privileged and/or Blessed


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I have food in my refrigerator. To me that’s normal. But knowing that many people are hungry makes me think that I’m blessed. Or am I merely privileged, socially and economically?

I’m healthy. For me that’s normal. But knowing that so many are sick or frail or wounded or weak, I realize that I’m blessed. But knowing I have access to health care, I know I’m also privileged.

I will gather at Thanksgiving with family. Knowing that so many are alone and/or lonely makes me realize that I’m blessed.

What we usually consider “normal” isn’t normal. We usually assume we ought to be healthy; we ought to have food (and a refrigerator); we ought to have loved ones. It is as “normal” to be sick as healthy, to be hungry as to have food, to be lonely and cold and isolated as to feel warmed by love.

Blake_1793_Job's_TormentorsThe Book of Job is a story of someone richly blessed – he has family (in quantity); he has wealth (in quantity); he has people’s respect. That is considered normal, or maybe normal plus. His tragedy – one to which we relate because we can imagine having and losing everything – is that he loses wealth, health, social status, and loved ones. He assumes, as we assume, that the beginning of the story is normal when, in reality, he was one of the privileged and one of the blessed.

In the confusion of life, we have a hard time differentiating between the ways we are socially privileged (or not) from the ways we are blessed by God (to reconsider who God blesses, consider the Beatitudes).

beatitudes23In the mystery of life, it is often hard to know what to make of the good things in our lives. We even take it for granted that we take them for granted!

But as we prepare for Thanksgiving, I pray that we take a moment to reshuffle our confusion about what is normal, privileged, and blessed. Then perhaps we will want everyone to share whatever privileges we have. Then perhaps we will realize how bountifully blessed we are.

Jostled by Life

Bumper CarsI thought: that lot used to have bumper cars, not the cheesy kind at amusement parks, the kind with loud engines that reeked of gasoline. They were fast…or seemed so. Around each “car” was a huge tire. When you banged into somebody else, you really bounced. I went there once with friends, a brother, and a cousin, and we laughed hysterically all evening.

Years later, the same cousin took us to a water park in the Middle of Nowhere, Canada. The water park had inner tubes and rapids and no lines – we went for one ride after another after another. It was bliss. If I lived nearby, I would never have worked again!

Water ParkOn the other hand, I remember going to Disneyland with my niece when she was four. She was tall enough for a rollercoaster, but as the ride began, she said: “I don’t think this ride is for my age group!” She cried the whole way.

Disneyland RollercoasterIt can be fun to jostle and bounce around when we know it’s safe. It’s no fun to be bounced around when we aren’t sure. And it’s no fun when life bounces us around. We can think: this part of life’s ride isn’t for us!

In the past few months, there has been much unplanned, unpleasant jostling among some family members, friends, and parishioners: saying goodbye to an old friend moving away, hearing that friends have cancer, blowing a goodbye kiss to a dying parishioner who could no longer talk.

As unpleasant and bumped and jostled as I’ve felt, my faith leads me to believe that as hard – even as horrible – as life can be, it is within a context of safety. Not safety that we won’t be hurt, but that, as Paul says, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Some use the word “saved” to describe this state of being, but I prefer the word “safe,” in the sense that we are held in God’s hand as we laugh hysterically and as we cry pitifully.

Life jostles us, shakes us, bumps us, and worse. Sometimes it’s blissful and centering. Sometimes it’s awful and disorienting. But all of this ride, all of life, is for us.

Parental Hopes and Fears

Driving down a suburban street, I saw them half a block away, a father and his daughter – about seven – on their bikes. I was wary as I got closer and, sure enough, she wobbled and swerved ever so slightly into the street. Not far enough that I had to slam on my brakes, but my foot was on yellow alert. He stopped right behind her and I scanned his face as panic erupted and then subsided.

Child Riding a Bike_2

In that passing tableau, I saw every parent’s hopes and fears. What could be better than a bike ride with your child? Quality time, play time, serenity, sharing, a beatific moment. Yet even when so much is right, always in the corner of a parent’s mind or barely beyond it, there’s an anxiety that something could go wrong.

Although out of season, I thought of a line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Parental hopes and fears meet everywhere, shape-shifting through time and across borders. In West Africa, it’s hope for health and fear of Ebola. In one part of Southern California, it’s hopes for college and fears of failure. In another part of Southern California, it’s hopes for legalization and fear of deportation.

Hymn 79

If, as Jesus suggests, God has parental feelings towards us, what are God’s divine hopes and fears: that we will be safe? Secure? Healthy? Joyful? Loved and loving? Fully alive? In Southern California, West Africa, and Bethlehem?

It took only a few seconds to pass the bike mini-drama and the parent’s mini-scare. I prayed that the rest of their day would be a safe series of the countless sacred moments that knit our lives together and make us whole. In those same few seconds they faded from sight in my rearview mirror and passed into memory. But there they stay in the company of all parental hopes and fears, those of Bethlehem, West Africa, and Southern California, those in every human heart, and those in God’s heart.

Communists, Socialists, and Terrorists


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I am no fan of violence, so I abhor terrorism. But I loathe it no more than war. There is no moral difference between killing people with a bomb strapped to oneself and a bomb delivered via drone. I abhor terrorism, but everybody calls their enemies “terrorists” – Israel of Hamas (as Great Britain said of Israelis seventy years ago), Assad of his various enemies in Syria, the US of Sunnis disenfranchised by the Iraqi regime.

Nelson Mandela“Terrorist” has come to mean anyone opposed to my side! Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. The British, had they thought of it, would have called George Washington a terrorist. Desmond Tutu has been called a terrorist because he favors sanctions against Israel. Does he advocate violence? No! He calls for direct nonviolent action. But go ahead! Call him a terrorist. Why not?

George WashingtonI feel neutral about socialism as I do about capitalism. But when people call President Obama a socialist, I have to laugh! He speaks about income inequality! His administration helped devise a health system slightly less awful than the one we’ve had. When a centrist like Obama is called a “socialist,” the term has lost its meaning.

MLKNow Martin Luther King, Jr.: he was a socialist. He wanted no part of capitalism. He lived modestly, giving all of his earnings from speeches away. But did people call King a socialist? No. They called him a “communist.” Now one or two of his political advisers had links to the Communist Party, but they weren’t running the Soviet Union! King was called a communist because people felt he endangered their way of life. And he did, as Christianity always does!

Desmond TutuWhen I hear Obama called a socialist and remember that King was called a communist, all it means to me is that King was more dangerous to the status quo than Obama. And when I hear Tutu called a terrorist, flip a coin, laugh or cry.

Communism was many things. Socialism is many things. True terrorism is a horrible thing. But in our time, all three words have completely lost their meaning.


Sometimes it’s something we see on the news in our media’s Whac-A-Mole approach to pseudo-reality.  Sometimes it’s happening in another part of the world – absurdly horrendous and obscenely blasphemous violence in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, Honduras, northern Nigeria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic.

Central AfricaSometimes it’s the everyday inhumanity nearer to home – a neglectful disdain toward the working poor, an open scorn for the homeless, the incarceration of immigrant children, minimal and minimized wages, wage theft.

HondurasSometimes it’s what’s taking place in the lives of our friends and families – fractured relationships, tenuous mental health, life threatening crises, substance abuse.

Sometimes, to use an outworn biblical phrase, it’s time for us to gird up our loins.  Sometimes we summon up the strength of purpose to work with allies to resist violence and injustice.   Sometimes we discover within us the sturdiness of soul to stand in solidarity with the most neglected, ignored, dehumanized, or abused.  Sometimes we dig deep into our emptiness to bring courage and compassion to our loved ones when they most need it.

IraqAnd sometimes we become deflated.  We ask with the Psalmists: how long, O Lord (Ps 13:1)?  Why do you stand so far off (Ps 10:1)?  We make the words of the Book of Lamentations our own:  I am the one who has seen affliction (Lam 3:1), and I can’t do a thing about it.  Sometimes we have nothing but our weakness to share, nothing but our paralysis to prod us, nothing but our spiritual exhaustion to breathe life into others.

Sometimes we hear the echo of the famous third chapter of Ecclesiastes that to everything there is a season.  And sometimes, as it says, it is nothing but a time to weep (3:4).  Sometimes, some nights, some days, for a part of last night, for a part of this day, it’s that time for me.

And yet I know that sometimes something about such nights and days is holy.

My Daily Dimwittedness

Bzz. . . Bz.  Bzzzz.  I was parking.  The buzzing had to be my cell phone, but it didn’t sound right – not rhythmic, not measured.  Car parked, I checked my phone.  No calls.  No messages.  Bzzzz.  Bz.  Ah!  Something more traditional: a bee!  I thought of Paul: Bee, where is thy sting?  I didn’t want to know.


I got out of the car, reminded the bee that it was “born free,” and suggested that, like Simeon, it depart in peace.  And as if bidden by Francis of Assisi himself, the bee exited without incident.

What did I learn from this?  Well, I, for one, can’t tell the difference between one kind of buzzing and another.  I, for one, have become so immersed in technology’s beeps and blips and such a foreigner to the sounds of God’s creatures that when I hear a bee, I expect a text!

That is not the only sign of my alienation from creation.  But it’s one thing not to be able to tell roadkill from a tire on the freeway at 200 feet; it’s another when I can’t tell a cell phone from a bee at 20 inches.

I kept thinking.  I realized (again) that I, for one, am more attuned to the sounds of society than the sounds or the silence of God.  I am not only alienated from God’s creatures.  I am alienated from my Creator.  That’s a different kind of sting from the one I thought the bee might deliver.

 I often bemoan our collective daily spiritual alienation.  I am often aware of the ways our culture offers us a daily dull-wittedness while our faith calls us to be mindful, awake, alert, and therefore alive!  But I don’t always personalize the abstraction.


 A bee sting hurts, but my numb, desensitized dull-wittedness stings worse.  Thank you, Bee, and not only for not stinging me.  You reawakened me to my need to re-tune my ears, my eyes, my faith, and my lifestyle to become more attentive to creatures, creation, and our Creator.


Wasting Life

In the film Ida, an 18-year-old and her aunt live in mid-twentieth-century Communist Poland. Left at a convent as an orphan during the war, the niece is about to take monastic vows. She knows nothing of life outside the monastery. Her only clothes are her habit. Her world-weary aunt, part of the legal bureaucracy, is a chain-smoking, heavy drinking, serial “manizer” (think womanizer). The two have conflicting worldviews. When one says to the other, “I won’t let you waste your life,” the only surprise is that it’s the aunt who pronounces judgment.

IdaReligious people are supposed to be the judgmental ones (and too often fulfill that tragic and ironic expectation), but we have no monopoly on condemnations. Even spiritual people, religious people, church people find monastic life odd, irrelevant, perhaps ridiculous. But the irony of that bite of movie dialogue is that the depressed, self-medicating, acting out woman considers herself a socially acceptable, even a socially prescribed, norm.Ida 2

We know we can waste our lives. That’s why the synoptic Gospels call people to repent: you are wasting your life; try again! That’s why the Gospel of John invites us to a life of abundance. There is so much more!

Ida’s clash of lifestyles highlights the choice of our direction in life: live selfishly or for the common good. But there is equal potential for waste in how we use our time. I am often aware of the ways Blase Pascal’s divertissement (distractions) dominate and distort our lives – we fill our lives with junk – junk food, junk entertainment, junk consumerism. That isn’t to say that we are to be constantly compulsively productive. Observing the ways people planned frenetic vacations, G. K. Chesterton said: “I can never find enough Nothing to do.” We need play time, down time, Sabbath time, recreation that re-creates. We need balanced lives.

I don’t want to waste my life. So I choose life’s direction carefully. And I hope I use my time well. I have only one precious life. I want to use God’s gift to the fullest.

This is Democracy?

Voter's Rights

I voted this month. I always vote. It was the state primary and the city election. Who could resist? Most people. Most people don’t vote. On one hand, I wish we held elections only in even numbered years and had polling places open all weekend to encourage people to vote. On the other hand I half-wish that “low information” voters didn’t vote. But when a majority doesn’t vote, is this a democracy?

We hear a public refrain: we have the best political system in the world! But we brag about our system in theory, and we bemoan it in practice. We believe our system – like Muhammad Ali – is the greatest, so we try to export it no matter the cost or the results.

The recent city/state election showed signs of democracy. Two months ago in the local primary, there were several viable candidates for Mayor. That’s good. In 2000, the national primaries started with two viable candidates in each major political party. That’s bad, and I don’t think that’s democracy.

There are many ways we could and should question the meaning of “American democracy.” But the simple fact that the majority is electorally silent says: this isn’t a democracy.

Democracy, of course, is not a biblical concept. Even theologically, it is fraught with contradictions. Reinhold Niebuhr saw it as a way to prevent absolute power from corrupting individuals and nations absolutely. Given his heightened skepticism about sinful human nature and evil institutions, he hoped democracy could moderate the worst of each. Democracy is not “the light of the world” (I have other ideas about that), but it’s better than flawed alternatives.

In a sense, when I vote, I vote for democracy. I vote because it’s one way to claim some power for ordinary people. My view is more pragmatic than principled. Often I vote without enthusiasm to choose the lesser of two evils, much as Niebuhr preferred democracy to dictatorship. I vote because in our society, I believe that Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” includes voting even if what we live in is a quasi-democracy.