Enough with your butt!

For quite a while I have noticed a disturbing social media trend, especially among younger women. They post pictures of themselves looking away from the camera so you can see their (at times freakishly large) butts. Much of the time they are at least looking over their shoulder at the camera, but sometimes they don’t. Such a picture says, “here is the most important, attractive part of me.” Since there is a trendy sexual fascination with big butts, these pictures send the message that the most important aspect – perhaps even the only important aspect – of these young women is their attractiveness as a sexual partner. Generations of feminists are screaming silently.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be attractive to those whom we find attractive. Nobody is campaigning to be voted the least attractive person on the block. We all want the pictures taken of us to be flattering, to the extent that some people avoid having their picture taken with great dedication. By featuring mostly pictures of our backsides, we are sending a message that says my primary value is that you will have a surface on which to take notes when you bend me over and have sex with me, and you won’t be bothered by pesky sounds and words (from my mouth at least) because my face will be in a pillow. I hate to be the one to break this news, but that isn’t a empowering position…

The old maxim here rings true: No matter how good looking someone is, sooner or later you have to talk to them and no matter how great a conversationalist someone is, sooner or later you have to look at them. I would hasten to add that if you think someone has a apple bottom, you’re buying your produce at the wrong place! It used to be that women got upset if they thought men were staring at their breasts. Now they are offering for men (and women) a side to start at with impunity, unless of course they have eyes in the back of their heads.

Ultimately, the most important sex organ is the brain. That’s a fortunate thing, because looks will fade over time and butts will sag – to the point where it may sound like a round of applause every time someone walks out of the room. Initial attraction is a physically based event, no doubt, but if a person spends eight hours a day in the gym doing squats there may well be a kind of social deficit that develops that will impact your relationships more than your butt ever could. Be proud of your appearance, take good care of yourself, attend to your health, recognize that bigger isn’t always better – in fact, beyond a point, it never is better. Be a well rounded person, and not just in your behind!

I Lost a Friend Yesterday

My friend and colleague Bishop Jerry Roy passed away unexpectedly yesterday. He was quite likely the most interesting man I have ever known, with a diverse background that created a man who was kind, but not weak; strong yet gentle, and he an instinctive compassion that seemed to arise from the core of his being at the slightest hint of someone in pain or need. Such men are often forged in lives of service and sacrifice that are not always easy, but you seldom hear them complain about it. I suspect, but do not know, that the Jerry I knew was a very different man than the young Jerry. I suppose that’s true of most of us.

Unexpected death is always shocking, of course. I have noticed, however, that no matter the circumstances of someone’s passing those left behind tend to express a desire that it was otherwise. I suspect that is a very natural resistance to the whole idea of the passing of someone who is loved. Even when death is slow and drawn out, it still comes as a shock to those who care about the person. Our clergy group had our regular biweekly zoom call on Saturday and Jerry was in attendance, full of vigor and stories – including one in which he shared with us that his neighbor, through acts of kindness after finding out that Jerry was seventy-two years old, had decided Jerry was frail and so extended acts of kindness such as shoveling Jerry’s sidewalk. Jerry chuckled as he told us he wasn’t sure how he felt about being treated like an old man. If there was one thing Jerry was not, it was decrepit.

I spoke much of the day yesterday with other friends and colleagues about our loss. Some of the most poignant comments began, “I wish I had told him…” On the one hand, such comments should serve as reminders to not leave important things unsaid. Even if we are young and healthy, there may be a city bus outside with our names written on it. With that being said, I think Jerry was aware of everything that was left unsaid – not because we become omniscient at death, though we might. I believe Jerry knew because he had a way of knowing what the people around him felt and experienced. That compassion of his that ran so deeply placed him in an equally deep communion with the people he encountered, their struggles, and their feelings.

For me, Jerry’s legacy will be that compassion and his patience. When I was (not much) younger, I suffered from a profound lack patience. It often amazed me how patient Jerry was. He had the gift of making people feel as if he always had time for them, even when I found myself in the corner muttering in frustration. Jerry understood that the greatest gift was time. I know in my life it is easy to feel as if there isn’t enough time, but I am learning that is a misperception rooted in our own sense of self importance. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerry. We all should.

Can you get back up?

I should start by saying I don’t like people fighting for money. Not a fan of boxing, I believe cage fighting is as barbaric as throwing Christians to the lions for entertainment doring the Roman Empire, and I believe that one day we will look back at the “sport” of encouraging people of color to brutalize each other for the entertainment and monetary gain of mostly white folks as a low point in human history. We need to change our view of morality to say, “do whatever you want with another consenting adult in the bedroom, but don’t brutalize another living creature or allow yourself to be entertained by watching such crap.”

That being said, every human being gets knocked down by life every now and then. Some of us are knocked down repeatedly. Getting knocked down is unavoidable unless you choose to not participate in life. Given that humans learn by making mistakes and mistakes will lead us, on occasion, to be knocked down, only a voluntary fool has never been knocked down. There is no shame in getting knocked down.

Unlike people who brutalize one another for the monetary gain of others, when we are knocked down we don’t have a ten count to rise again before being counted out. It is perfectly acceptable, likely even a good idea, to stay down for as long as we need to check that we are still in one piece. There is no merit in being the black knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, leaping to our feet and claiming we aren’t hurt or only have a flesh wound. In fact, doing so just hides wounds that really do need our attention and won’t go away without it. So, if you need to stay down and assess your situation before rising again, by all means do so.

Then remove those who brutalize others, physically or emotionally, from your circle.

There is no merit in keeping people around who are not good for us. If we find ourselves making excuses for the bad behavior of others, we need to see that such a practice comes from a devaluing of ourselves, a lack of self-respect and self-worth. We cannot “save” anyone else by allowing ourselves to be their victim. There is nothing in anyone’s past that justifies allowing them to bully us for their own entertainment. We don’t help anyone by tolerating that behavior. In fact, by enabling the bad behavior of others we actually do them harm because, absent change, they will simply become more and more isolated. Instead, get back up, brush yourself off, take out the trash, and get back to life.

Pissing from Beyond the Grave

How we go out matters. The last thing we do in life actually happens after we are gone, when the will is read. For most of us, it’s our only postmortem message to the world. Many people seem to think that their will is their last chance to shit on people, to let them know how little regard they had for people in life but they lacked the courage to say so until after death. We sometimes hear about these things in movies, books, or television programs. Old rich guy #1 dies having known that his wife had been sleeping with his brother for years. Having chosen never to confront them in life, he cuts them out of the will to strike back at them after death. At their heart, such actions are passive-aggressive in the extreme. They do accomplish one thing. They cement your death.

My Nana and Grandpa Schroeder both passed away in the last century, but they live on. They live on because they truly are the only members of my family who gave the tiniest little damn about me. They provided refuge from a home environment that was toxic in the extreme. Since they only lived two blocks away it was easy to hop on my bike and go over there where I was always welcome and they both listened to me. Nana was always in the kitchen, it seemed, wearing what used to be called a house dress. Grandpa was often in the den, which was on the other side of a kitchen wall. When I arrived Nana would call to him or knock on the wall to let him know someone was there. He would stop what he was doing, come in the kitchen and sit on his stool. Until I left, we would all sit there and visit. In a very real way, they saw me. I don’t know if anyone else did, I certainly can’t think of anyone. The result is that I have stories, memories of time spent together, that I still share today. They live on.

On the other hand, my parents were toxic addicts who couldn’t care about anyone but themselves and never saw their way clear to try to change that. When I first read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA it was like reading a family history. On my eighteenth birthday my father came home (he was working out of state) to take me out for a beer and tell me he was never coming back. What should have been a memorable rite of passage became memorable for the wrong reasons. The next morning he told me that he most valued the travelling he had done for work, the places he had seen, the people he had met. He said he wouldn’t trade that for anything. When I asked if that included his family, if the travelling meant more to him than us, he replied, “yes.” To this day, I can forgive him for feeling that way – my mother was the closest thing to pure evil I have encountered. What I cannot forgive was that he said it to me, even after I asked for clarification and gave him a way out.

Whenever I hear the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” I think of how I grew up and how, for quite a while, I was a lot like my father. It has taken a very long time to step away from that, to not allow externals to define me and to trust enough to have real relationships. God knows, I am still not perfect and never will be. One thing I can promise my kids they will never experience is the pain I have experienced in knowing that not only was my father never interested in doing the work of maintaining a relationship with me or anyone else, but he also chose to kick at me from beyond the grave. It’s not completely surprising that he did that. He was always a spineless weasel who avoided confrontation at all costs and preferred to whimper in a cesspool of self-pity, passive aggressively striking out when he was sure he had bitchy women around him to protect him.

What this last act of my father has done is ensure that he is dead and will not live on. Who will tell stories of their great times with him? There will be a short time, perhaps, when the handful of people he deigned to pay off in the end, may speak of him. Beyond that, there are no stories, no remembrances of time spent together because there wasn’t any time spent together. His time was at the office, working, avoiding personal relationship, and at social engagements at country club like settings where he unwittingly played a pathetically un-funny version of Rodney Dangerfield’s character in the movie Caddyshack. How we go out matters. Using our last act to lash out speaks volumes about us even if we believe it is we who are making the statement. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to be remembered poorly in exchange for a satisfaction obtained through spite that we can’t even feel after we are dead. We all deserve better, for ourselves and our survivors.

When Does Appeasement Embolden?

When does appeasement embolden? Anyone who has raised children knows that point exists. Children, as an appropriate task of development, challenge their parents, test limits, and push against the rules. At different ages, different rules are challenged at different levels of intensity, but the challenges happen and those kids are looking for the reassurance that comes from boundaries being in place. A parental strategy of allowing any behavior to pass unchecked is no strategy at all. In fact, it is actually detrimental to the children’s well being. Presumably, with appropriately imperfect parental guidance, children develop the ability to self regulate. They become the adults who have very few, if any, interactions with law enforcement beyond traffic enforcement. Clearly, however, development to the level of self regulation isn’t a given.

We have been encouraged to appease even the most radical Trump supporters. Honesty compels me to confess that I have not been able to do that. People I used to be connected with on social media who insisted on pressing their irrational pro-Trump beliefs have been blocked. To say the least, I didn’t find the cognitive dissonance created by the barrage of lies and conspiracy theories to be edifying. On January 6th, we saw the results of a policy of appeasement played out in Washington D.C.. Despite that, we hear people, including President-elect Biden, advocating a continued policy of appeasement. You cannot fix a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it.

It’s important to emphasize that I am not advocating violence in response to violence. That is a strategy that is doomed to fail no matter where it is tried. What I am advocating is non-violent non-appeasement. There is no reason that any of us should listen to an irrational person blither on about their beliefs. We don’t need to confront them, in fact confrontation isn’t effective with an irrational person. What does work is setting firm boundaries. We need to tell people in our lives who try to engage us on this level that we need them to stop, and if they don’t then we need to terminate the conversation and, if necessary, the relationship. There is nothing wrong about refusing to entertain content that is irrational or upsetting. Those of us with children need to set an example of appropriate boundaries for them, perhaps explaining that Uncle Joe isn’t thinking very clearly right now. We don’t have to denigrate a person to establish effective boundaries.

Politicians adopt positions that are consistent with the goals they hope to achieve. A healthy politician (and I suspect they do exist, in the wild if not in captivity) may set boundaries in their personal lives more tightly than they would in their political lives. Tp that point, I can’t imagine Donald Trump will be receiving many dinner invitations from Congressmen or Congresswomen on either side of the aisle after January 20th. We need to remember, however, that appeasement isn’t an effective strategy for unity. At best it causes the likes of radicalized Trump supporters to go underground, waiting for their next opportunity to emerge and wreak havoc. If we are serious about unity, we will need to engage the process of reconciliation, as was done so effectively in South Africa. People across the political spectrum need the opportunity to be heard. None of us would find all of their grievances reasonable or even realistic, but people deserve to be heard – in the right way and in the right forum. Needless to say, trying to carry out a coup is neither the right method nor the right forum.

What does “good enough” mean?

Most of us hear the expression “good enough” as rather negative. We tend to associate it with not being good enough. We hear the expression in almost every corner of our lives. We can be “not good enough” to get the job we want, the relationship we crave, to win a competition we are in, to understand a complicated issue or concept – all of which represent failure on some level. If we hear those messages long enough, we start to believe them. In truth, and in a very specific sense, especially early in life there are things we aren’t good enough to effectively engage, either because we lack knowledge, or skills, or experience in a particular area. We will always have areas where we aren’t good enough to do something. Running a four minute mile is something most of us will never do. Then again, most of us aren’t losing a whole lot of sleep over that fact!

There’s another “good enough” that we often ignore. Even worse, we may be blind to it! American Tibetan Buddhist Lama Surya Das, when asked if he was enlightened, responded, “I am enlightened enough.” Since enlightenment is seen as a kind of perfection, we might paraphrase this exchange as someone asking if we are perfect and our response being that we are perfect enough. In this way we see that, in common thought, being good enough has come to mean that we are perfect, able to handle anything that may arise, never hesitant or doubting. Can you see that for the distortion it is? None of us are perfect, and so if someone comes along and asks if we are perfect the best response may be laughter.

Imagine if we stopped beating ourselves up for not being something nobody is! We don’t feel bad about being less than eight feet tall. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound and we aren’t faster than a speeding locomotive, but we don’t feel bad about not being Superman. If we are asked if we are Superman, slightly disguised in the “good enough” language, we shouldn’t feel bad about answering “no” to that question, either. What would happen if we came to understand that we are all good enough to put forth our best effort, and that is the only good enough that mattered? What would happen if we stopped looking for the things we cannot accomplish and instead started focusing on the things we can do? What if we extended the same courtesy to others?

What would happen is that we would shift our current cultural focus on what is lacking to what is present, from the impossible to the possible, from the ugly to the beautiful that dwells in each of us. We should be aware that our minds are programmed from Neanderthal days to look for the things that are different or lacking and so might be threatening. Given that most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by sabre tooth tigers, maybe we could start to surrender all of our Neanderthal practices. If we don’t, we are putting an artificial cap on our potential, our progress, and our happiness.

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Dick Clark passed and his ball could no longer dropped to commemorate the New Year. What’s the point in even staying up if you can’t see Dick? Then there is the truth that as we age staying up until midnight becomes less a celebration than some kind of bizarre endurance test from which it takes two days to recover even if you don’t drink to excess. On top of all that, given that the year that just passed has been the most challenging of our collective lives, the party seems more like a celebration of a prison break than anything else – except that we haven’t really escaped the prison. We are in the tunnel we dug to escape through and though we haven’t quite gotten to freedom we can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel. All of that, taken together, doesn’t seem like much of a party.

I keep coming back to the concept of things we can and cannot control. The list of the former is always much shorter than the latter, much to our chagrin. Unless we are scientists working to develop vaccines, there really isn’t much we can do about the virus. Unless we are qualified to perform lobotomies we can’t do much about conspiracy theorists, virus deniers, or anti-maskers. We have to rely on natural selection to solve that problem. We can’t do much about the political divisiveness in our country, because politicians created that problem and politicians will have to solve it.

The things we can control include how much news we choose to consume. In a 24 hour news cycle, we tend to hear bad news over and over. We are hard wired toward bad new as a remnant of our survival instincts from thousands of years ago. Changing that wiring, if it is possible, takes a very long time. A better solution might be consuming the good to offset the bad. We can start a gratitude journal, take time to enjoy good music, reduce our screen time, and end each day with a list of three things we did well that day. We can practice deep listening, not only to other people but to nature and our own bodies. Helping someone else goes a long way toward improving how we feel about ourselves, so we might find a way to engage in helping. The best part of every one of these things is that they are free, but the return on investment is truly amazing! By shifting our focus, we might impact more than we imagined!

You Can’t Do It That Way!

How often do we hear that from academics, especially in the field of spirituality and religion? I have heard it so often I want to vomit every time yet another insecure academic trying to justify their professional existence announces what does and does not constitute “proper” spiritual practice. Whatever currently popular spiritual trend catches their attention is dismissed either because it doesn’t pass their litmus test of what constitutes proper practice or the practitioners don’t have (in their mind) the proper qualifications to do the practice authentically, or both.

Mind you, I am far from anti-intellectual. I support the Academy and think it has a purpose and does good work. It’s when they try to dismiss everything that comes from anyone who hasn’t spent their lives in higher education as somehow inherently inadequate that I have a problem. When academics suggest that anything that doesn’t come from them or one of their colleagues isn’t “valid,” I feel compelled to point out that it’s a good thing for the rest of us that they aren’t in charge of social graces. I often wonder if when people from the theology department announce that the only people qualified to opine on any scripture are those who can read it in the original languages, the people from the foreign language department become insulted because their translation ability has been besmirched by their colleagues! Do the people from the history and anthropology departments wonder why the theology department disregards the truths that humans were illiterate through most of history and the printing press was invented only five hundred years ago?

Even more importantly, please don’t tell me I can’t do something a particular way when in fact I just did. For example, if you tell me I can’t investigate Celtic spirituality when I just finished reading a book about it I am afraid I already did investigate it. If you insist I cannot read a particular scripture because I am not a polyglot, I must tell you that most people who have read a scripture have read it in translation. While the subtle nuances may be lost in translation, I believe that translators do the best job possible. Unless I am obsessive compulsive, it is close enough for my purposes.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone making pious pronouncements about the validity of your particular practice discourage you. In everybody’s experience there are bound to be more or less useful spiritual practices. What I find helpful, you may find simplistic and foolish. It’s not that the practices themselves are less that perfect, because they all are less than perfect. It’s that we have different needs and are at different places on our journeys, so of course different practices and perspectives will appeal to us. It’s the nature of practices to evolve and adapt to current needs, so we don’t need to feel embarrassed that we don’t do anything the way it was done one thousand years ago. The point of our practice is to move us along on our spiritual journey, not to please anyone else or pay homage to what once was but isn’t any longer.

Picking and Choosing

The truth is that most of us pick and choose the things we feel are important, never stopping to look at the sum total of what garners our support or checking those things for consistency. Consider that people become really energized over the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which they feel (rightly or not) guarantees them the right to own firearms. Generally speaking, people are aware of and favor the Fifth Amendment. The rest of the Amendments we are perhaps minimally aware of or want to see applied very selectively. The same people who hold these positions consider themselves patriotic, but are they really?

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We regularly hear people prattle on about free speech and their rights to a very distorted version of free exercise of religion, but we hardly ever hear much about freedom of the press – among Trumpian Republicans, especially. Instead, we hear a lot about “fake news,” a classic example of Freudian projection if ever there was one. We have seen reporters exiled from press briefings and the rhetoric of the administration lead to death threats toward reporters. We hear about a desire to restrict the press, and the outgoing administration in Washington did everything it could to damage news sources that are at least minimally credible while promoting those that served its propaganda aims.

Here is a principle to consider: the public availability of more information is always better. That’s not to say any of us should or could consume every bit of news that is offered. It is to say that anyone who wants to limit the number of outlets available to the public is trying to manipulate that same public and doesn’t have its best interests in mind. In a time of rising fascism around the world, we would do well to keep the importance of a free press in the front of our minds!

Values

One of the most important things that religion is supposed to do is to teach values. Unfortunately, many of the values western religion has found important are not things that western people find valuable. Worrying about who is sleeping with whom, how often it is permissible to scratch yourself and where (on your body, and whether you are in a public place or not), dietary laws, purity codes, how to avoid anything that gives pleasure, and a host of similar pseudo-values are things that understandably just don’t energize contemporary people. Unfortunately, a large slice of western Christianity has fixated on things that are contrary the proper purview of religion and spirituality, such as nationalism, patriotism, and political power (to name but a few).

Then there are the people who come up with all manner of inventive ways to get around the prohibitions with which they don’t agree. Maybe they are in a system that forbids premarital sex, so they redefine sex to be genital intercourse and become expert at oral and anal sex. There’s nothing wrong with such expertise, but one can’t with any integrity claim to be sexually chaste just because the vagina isn’t penetrated by a penis. Alternately, these people may have certain dietary restrictions in their tradition, so they redefine what certain foods are. If you can’t eat pork, you might decide the problem is with meat with bones in it but boneless ribs are allowed. Humans are very creative, and there seems to be no end to our creativity in bending rules connected to values that we claim to hold but don’t really believe are important. Here are some serious questions – if the values your religion teaches seem silly or irrelevant, why do you listen? Why waste your time? Why not be honest about what you believe?

Religion often gets caught up in silliness and ignores the important. Sometimes that’s an accident, but other times it’s an attempt to avoid issues that really matter but might be controversial or uncomfortable.¬†Are you aware that your pastor is very restricted in terms of the subject matter she brings up with the congregation, whether from the pulpit or in education classes? There are subjects that really should be discussed by adults in a spiritual community, but if bringing those subjects up is going to result in members of the congregation calling for the pastor’s job the odds are they will be buried deeper than crude oil in Siberia. Many if not most congregations elect people to their boards who aren’t qualified to be there because they serve their own interests rather than the interests of the congregation. There also isn’t any guarantee they are spiritually or interpersonally astute. That means we end up with pretty bland, pretty uneducated people of “faith” who are better versed in superstition than ethics populating boards and vestries in churches across America.

In the end, there shouldn’t be a great deal of safety in faith. We should feel challenged and stretched as we consider the implications for our beliefs and how we should interact with the world around us. On the other hand, churches should be safe spaces where honest discussions can occur. If we belong to a church, attend regularly, and never hear anything that stretches or challenges us, then we belong to a country club rather than a church. There isn’t anything wrong with belonging to a country club as long as we are aware that’s what we have joined. On the other hand, if we think we have joined a church but find ourselves at a country club, someone is being less than honest. Above all, the church needs to be honest in all that it does. I’m afraid it fails that goal more often than not.

If you want help in determining whether your Christian church is a country club, all you need to do is read the Sermon on the Mount. You’ll find it in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Are those things taught in your church, or is more time spent on the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, partisan politics, and culture wars? If it’s the latter, you have a country club that follows its own agenda rather than following Jesus. Can you imagine the implications of that? The truth is that there are very few churches in America, but a ton of country clubs. No golf shoes in the Sanctuary, please!