Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"A Hymn in Praise of Our Remaining Churches"

Demise of rural places of worship raises questions about our belief systems

This was written by Ron Macinnis who authors a column titled LIVING IN THE PROMISED LAND for the Halifax Herald in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  I was taken by his words because they reminded me of an earlier time in my life and the virtues that were such an integral part of the values, and that were so ingrained in our character and how we related to others.  True, it was a simpler life but, I believe, it was a better life because we did not have the diversions that took our attention away from those with whom we shared our lives and the community in which we lived.   We genuinely cared about one another and we were always ready to lend a helping hand whenever and wherever it was needed.  We did not have the wonders of the electronic age to trump our ability to talk to and relate to one another.  Each day was there for us to appreciate the essence of the life we shared and, above all else, to feel the pain and suffering that was often our common lot, but which were to be endured in one form or another.

The churches which were willingly supported by the people of those small towns sustained us and kept hope alive when that was about all we had.  That compassion is a characteristic I truly miss.  Nothing about what passes for “fun” and the mountain of visceral and material pleasures we covet today could ever tap into those finer aspects of what we were as human beings and which were a cherished part of each day we lived.  Those churches may look like tombs, but to some of us we know that deep within the recesses of those silent structures is a box of treasures somewhere from a golden age when people had character and decency but, sadly, seem long forgotten in the din, hustle and bustle of today’s hectic pace of life.

Are we really any better now?

Cowboy Bob
The Sagebrush Philosopher
February 19, 2014      


What I saw in my travels one day stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was in that moment that full impact of the metaphoric content of the scene hit me. 

For here was a vision that underlined the reality of what we, as a society, have done: we have, for all intents and purposes, albeit unavoidably put our churches, and all they stood for, out on the street.

While it is true that some of our old, gracious, highly symbolic, old rural Nova Scotia church buildings have been “repurposed,” and their physical form will take on new function, their demeanor, their aura, their evocative spirit and their important role as a gathering place will change indelibly, and in that I find there is, for our rural communities, a monumental loss of something deeply important to us all.

It is hard to know where to start with this one:  maybe with a nostalgic drive through our little rural hollows and hamlets, and the warming, esthetic pleasure I have derived from the presence of the tidy, little white churches dotting the green countryside, and how they spoke to me as would an open-armed, warm-and-welcome greeting on the doorstep of a friend – this would be a good place to stop and meet some of the folk, I would think.  Or if need be, for whatever reason, I could find help.  And certainly, at a deep level our churches spoke to me, based on my experience in rural community development, of the important role they played in holding our communities together:  of the dinners, of Christmas baskets, of the outreach to those in need and the endless but socially bonding conversations that took place when people got together as they did in the old days.  And, of course, there was the music, sometimes nothing short of spectacular. 

Perhaps most important, though, all of these churches stood for the virtues of compassion, of forgiveness, of loving one’s neighbor, of the importance of community and of keeping that fabric together.  I must say, in the years of community work I did in a small village, churches played a vital role in stitching community fabric together.  But it was one of ever-diminishing impact:  One could see their disappearance coming for years in the rising tide of grey hair in the pews. 

Why may that have been?

Perhaps because of the seeds of the demise of the church were planted many years ago.  I explored this at depth once out of curiosity and was gripped by the tale, tragic as it was.

Somehow, over time, the simple but beautiful everyday teachings of the man, Jesus, ended up being bought and sold by the early church’s heavenly gatekeepers: many of those precious lessons, scratched in the sand on a beach, became tangled in rhetoric, overrun with twisted brambles of myth and ritual, and frightening tales of a petulant, demanding and vengeful god who could all but hurl thunderbolts if He got ticked. 

And then there was the added burden through the centuries of rising costs to pay for buildings, the construction of which was specifically and ironically declared irrelevant by the church’s own spiritual master.  (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Mathew 18:20)

Maybe Jesus understood something about human nature we did not. 

Little wonder then that our last couple of generations, with a sea of spiritualities and diversions on the other side of a keyboard, have little or no desire to do what is required
to keep those charming old buildings afloat, much less to be impassioned on a Sunday morning to go to church.

Our new cathedrals, after all, if we are forthright about it, are those big-boxes bursting with bargains, a sales flyer for a church bulletin, and an offering plate up front.  That is where all the cars are on Sunday.

But the big question is, what now?

Where may we find the moral and spiritual guidance, however imperfect it may have been, that came from the churches of past days?  From whence the reminder of human decency that one saw from afar when approaching our little rural communities?  Of the importance of compassion?  Of the loving heart?  Of community?
Sadly, from where I sit, I do not know the answer to my own question. 

But one never knows. 

Maybe new churches will spring up online.  Maybe congregations will buy into the idea of adaptive reuse, wherein other compatible organizations can share space and responsibilities of support.  Maybe some of the old churches will be repurposed as a new kind of church with new and younger adherents and a more concise “gospel,” less complex, more relevant, and tailored to the longings of today’s citizens, young and old alike.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. 

But, in the meantime, we should keep our eye on the ball:  whatever happens we need a moral guiding light of some sort to help keep our social fabric intact and to get us across the shoals of our uncertain future. 

With our churches falling away at an alarming rate – I know of at least 20, but data is hard to get – we may do well to keep in mind in our quest for that guiding light the uncomplicated but sweeping theology of one Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem in the days of King Herod. 

When a skeptical young infidel came to him and agreed to join his church if the rabbi could explain the contents of his holy book while he stood on one foot, the young man was humbled by the answer he heard.  Hillel said, in so many words,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This is the whole book:  the rest is commentary.”

Ron Macinnis closes off with this request:  “Your thoughts on this matter, dear reader, would be most welcome.”  (promisedland@herald.can)


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

“It’s About Time!”

I did not grow up in a religious home.  What was lacking, however, was compensated by the zealousness of my Grandmother Minnie.  She was from the old Baptist School and had a black, leather covered Bible that was well worn from the diligence of her study of all that was believed to be good and holy within those pages.  She was as certain of the absolute truth of what was recorded therein as most of her children were that it was not.

As a child, I was terrified of what was meant by all of the words printed in the text of that book.  As I came of age as a grade-school student, Grandmother Minnie decided the time had come for me to become familiar with the tenets of her religion, and took it upon herself to introduce me to the joys of going to my first service at the Jesus Saves Baptist Church and the oratory of Reverent Pulis.  As the pageantry of that experience drew to a close, I became even more terrified.  The culmination was the point at which those who had been inspired by the words of the Lord (as so aptly intoned by Reverend Pulis) were to “go forward.”  Those words had absolutely no meaning to me, but I was asked by Grandmother Minnie if I did not want to “go forward.”  It quickly became apparent to me that I would be required to stand in front of the congregation, profess my belief in all that had been inspired by and attributed to the Lord, and culminate in the ritual of being “baptized.” 

I quickly discovered that “being baptized” amounted to a healthy dunking in a watering tank for livestock at the hands of Reverend Pulis, at which point I would then become a believer in the Lord and would be well on my way to a virtuous life and guaranteed salvation.  That was the first and last time I placed my trust in the inspirational words of absolute certainty coming from the mouth of anyone even remotely associated with the label of preacher. 

As I matured and joined the United States Navy for a tour of duty, I came to wonder just how all the marvels of the world around me came into being.  The mere fact that there were more unanswered questions than there were answers led me to conclude that there must be a higher power that could come into being by more than a spontaneous cosmic accident and, probably, was beyond my comprehension.  There had to be something greater and more powerful than anything I could possibly imagine.  I never felt that it was anything I could ever clearly understand; much less explain in absolute terms.  Therein was the mystery and one that still remains with me.  That is a conclusion that is entirely mine and nothing I can empirically prove or disprove as part of the belief system for others.  Nor do I believe that what I have come to accept is anything more than part of the system of beliefs of anyone else, despite the certainty of what they profess to be otherwise.  In my view, it is nothing but a system of beliefs that is yet to be empirically proven.  It is a system of beliefs I have come to choose, but one about which I have no illusions of proving. 

No matter how hard they may try to assert otherwise, the absolute certainty attributed to the teachings of any religion are nothing more than what a willing group of people have chosen to believe.  I remain open to proof, but anything less is self-delusional.  What in essence really is a simple act of faith unfortunately morphs into a zealousness that becomes absolute and unquestionable resulting, too often, in demagoguery.
Throughout recorded history there has been unlimited numbers of divinely inspired minds that have stated and preached, with absolute certainty, that they are the holders of the inspired word of God.  I would invite anyone to simply embark on a cursory study of all that is “inspired” and explain to me what value lies in all the horrific tales of violence that have been, and are yet to be visited on the human race.  However, all I see is the growing decadence and limitless evil emanating from the minds of those we label as our fellow human beings.  Where, I ask you, is the compassion for the suffering of others?  What is it that moves us to do with less and give more to others?   Where is it within us to deny our own materialistic and hedonistic appetites for the greater good of all of us?  What has brought us to the point of absolute certainty that all of our worst attributes are somehow a rightful entitlement, and that those who believe otherwise are simply fools to be exploited by all the “haves,” with any notion of justice being nothing more than folly?

Never, in my entire life, have I seen the standards of human decency and human decadence so fluid and ill-defined.  There are no measures of what is right vs. what is wrong.  Rather, any such measures are left to the individual and it is a world of “whatever the traffic will bear.”  We are no longer shocked by anything.  Greed is good and any lesser ambition is patently stupid.  What is even more egregious is the mere fact that we accept it all with complete abandon.  And the world sinks deeper into the mire and toward complete collapse.  Chicken Little keeps saying “The sky is falling; the sky is falling,” and the only response she ever hears is, “So what? Tomorrow is another day.”  Anyone and anything perceived to be weak and vulnerable is fair game.  They are the prey for the stronger among us, simply for the asking; all based on a set of simple beliefs. 

The greatest legacy of my life was from a professor at the university from which I graduated.  For his parting words to those of us going out into the world for the first time we were admonished to adopt as our mantra for the rest of our lives, “Question, question, question, and never abandon that fundamental premise for so long as you shall live!”

I have, by my own volition and free will, been a member of the Roman Catholic Church for most of my adult life.  I did not choose it because I necessarily believed in all that it professed to be, but because I chose to believe in what I most wanted and needed to believe.  That is an issue of choice based on reason, not based on mystery or fear.  Is it an imperfect system of beliefs?  Of course!  Is it a system of beliefs that can be made more perfect?  Of course!  Is it the only inspired Word of God?  How do I know?  Is He the only God and when, where and to whom has He spoken?  I have no idea.  Obviously, that line of questioning could go on ad infinitum, never to be conclusively answered.  In the final analysis it is the choice of a system of beliefs we choose to adopt.  From that point forward we become the embodiment of that system of beliefs and, if we are the least bit inclined to be rational, we do all in our power to see that system continue to nourish our very souls and become the guiding light of all we are destined to become as human beings.  However, with the passage of time comes the illusory phenomenon of insidious change that may threaten that system of beliefs and undermine the validity of what it once appeared to be.  We can no longer see the forest for the trees.   

I believe that the strongest and most pervasive phenomenon of the human condition is the ability of outside forces to corrupt what we are most prone to believe by our very nature.   The same applies to organizations of whatever ilk they are likely to be.  The more corrupt they become, the more inclined to further corruption they are likely to be.  Lord Acton said it best; “Absolute power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Therein lies what I believe to be the greatest peril to civilization, as we know it, and what I believe is the most ominous for some of the greatest institutions of civilization in our history; not the least of which is the Roman Catholic Church.  I commend the United Nations for taking it to task and raising many of the unanswered questions that have yet to be answered, and for far too long.   

The Catholic Church has, in my opinion, been seduced by the very power within the hierarchy of the Church.  The corrupting influence of that power has caused so many of its real problems to be passed over at the expense of reason that could have been better applied to lesser problems, not that any of them should be minimized.  The focus seems to have been directed more at the priests who are the offenders, and less at the so-called “princes” of the church who overlooked and tacitly condoned what was going on.  Who most benefitted from that?  Those who were in positions of power and influence.  Why did the responsibility for what befell the Church not come raining down on the heads of the Bishops, the Archbishops and the Cardinals who covered up so much of what was occurring, and who continued to be revered by the Church and their station within the Church?  Clearly, I see a conspiracy of silence with what appeared to have been set in motion in order to protect the power of those in high places.  They were accorded deference and respect they forfeited when they became as complicit in what was going on as the actual perpetrators of those offenses. 

What befell Cardinal Dolan of New York while he was serving as the Archbishop of Milwaukee in whose diocese boys who were deaf and mute were being molested by clergy?  The last I knew he was comfortably settled in St. Patrick’s Cathedral surrounded by all of the trappings of power and prestige customarily accorded that station.  Where was he when justice was handed out?  What kind of retribution is promotion to one of the most powerful and prestigious offices in the American Catholic Church?

Where was the atonement that should have been demanded from Cardinal Roger Mahony for his complicity in the cover-up of sex offenses while he was in the position of Archbishop of Los Angeles?  It was subordinated to the power and prestige of the office he held rather than his conduct in that office.  How did his complicity differ from that of the parish priests who were known to be sex offenders and who served in his diocese?  The mere fact that he knew what was going on makes him as complicit as any one or all of the priests he was aiding in the cover-up. 

Where was the retribution that should have come down on the head of Cardinal Laws of Boston for his failure to address the problems of sex crimes among the clergy of his Diocese?  The penalty he paid was for Pope John Paul II to transfer him to the largest and most affluent church in Rome where he remains to this day.  What pain did he suffer and how did he atone for his role in the scandal?  Moreover, we now hear that Pope John Paul II is going to be canonized as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church!  Where is the rationale and justice in the face of all this?  I see no evidence of it, whatsoever.  If that isn’t raw political power I don’t know what is.  Moreover, what rational mind who is cognizant of this kind of power and privilege could accept this as “punishment” that fits the “crime?”  I just don’t see it. 

The foregoing is just a miniscule number of those in the hierarchy of the Church who has gotten off Scot free and has never been held to account for their transgressions simply because of the power and prestige of the offices they coveted and abused. 

Rather than acquiescing to the ravage of the Church’s vital resources serving the poor and deprived of the world in the form of schools, hospitals, churches, monasteries, etc. by those seeking “justice,” (if you can call it that), why has the Church not chosen to punish all those who could have and should have taken the influential and powerful members of the ruling hierarchy of the Church to task, defrocked them and let them suffer the shame and scorn of the public they betrayed and the victims who will never recover from the stain that will be indelibly etched into the history of the church, the church they so willingly betrayed in the pursuit of their own avarice and lust for power and prestige.  Nothing about them justifies the least bit of deference or leniency. 

All of the vast resources of the Church belong to the people of the Church.  Those resources were obtained through the sacrifice and devotion of those seeking spiritual guidance and salvation from that same church.  Many of those same resources were willingly taken from the legacy left by coal miners, fishermen, and myriad others who willingly gave of themselves through arduous labor in the service of a greater good and to charity for others of less means.  Instead, who benefitted?  Those who were encouraged to adopt a sense of entitlement and the opiate of money to wash away the pain of what they had endured.  Behind them, as one would expect, are legions of those who claim membership in the union of those seeking justice on behalf of others, all for a price of course.

Money is not the issue.  What is rests with all of those who used and exploited an institution and a system of beliefs they were sworn to serve, but only ravaged for their own aggrandizement, ambitions and shame.  Yet, to this very day, the Church has lost a treasure of resources acquired over many years to be used in the service of the poorest among us because it failed to address the cancerous growth of what was in the offing for more years than most of us could possibly recount.  

Now, let us focus on much the same set of issues closer to home. 

Why is it that, historically, those who are the most vile among us almost always seem to get a mild slap on the wrist for their crimes against humanity, but those who are their victims suffer the most?  How does the history of the Roman Catholic Church differ markedly in comparison to the history of wealth, power and privilege in the secular world?  How does its history differ significantly from the Wall Street Bankers, and the scions of commerce and industry who have become billionaires at the expense of those they have so blatantly and wantonly exploited, aided and abetted by a willing government that is sworn to serve those very same people?  How is it that they are supremely confident that no misfortune will ever befall them and the wealth they so covet?  Do they honestly believe the day will never come when they will have to pay their fair share and assume the responsibility and accountability that comes with their ill-gotten gains? 

Why do we, as a people, disparage the simplicity and purity of honesty, yet defer so willingly to thievery and exploitation by those who have mastered and practice every conceivable kind of thievery and dishonesty that can be imagined?  Their reward is handed out every day by a compliant government that subsidizes their greed with money commandeered from the people whose sacrifice is gargantuan compared to the millions in pocket change for the rich and powerful?

Where is that “government of the people, by the people and for the people” that is so revered and so often quoted by those whose disdain for those words is almost palpable?  Their words ring hollow and I see nothing of value to the broader social contract by what they allege vs. what they practice. 

I think we need to refocus on the basics.  We need to break free of the bonds of the rich and powerful, reclaim this nation for the people, restructure the framework of social and political justice so it serves all of the people, all of the time, and there is no privileged among us who have not earned the right to be respected members of the society they have exploited for their own personal gain.          

Karl Marx is famous for the quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”  That embodies the essence of his contempt for a system of beliefs that can and should serve the common good.  I am more inclined to believe that, in the case of modern-day America, too many of those among us believe that materialism and hedonism is the alpha and omega of life’s ambitions, underscored by Marie Antoinette’s admonition for the masses to simply “Let them eat cake.”  There has to be more to it than that. 

Pope John Paul I said that Christ’s Church should be a poor church.  I think the time has come for the people of the United States of America to reclaim this democracy for the people.  Democracy should be a fair and just system, with liberty and opportunity for all and not a system for the wealthy, privileged and powerful to exploit at will for their own self-aggrandizement.  We need to start by culling from the system those who think they have deluded us into believing they proudly serve and genuinely care about the people while they work feverishly to guard the interests of the masters of that same wealth, privilege and power.  
Do I believe it can be salvaged?  Yes.  Do I believe massive reform will come to either the Catholic Church, the Government of the United States or the ingrained sense of entitlement claimed by the rich and the super rich will come about anytime soon?  No, because it will be a challenge of gigantic proportions simply because of its prominence in the world, its influence in the world and what it represents to the world.  What lies ahead is rather akin to the beast at the head of the herd that becomes injured and falls to the back of the herd.  The wolves have smelled that weakness and, if human nature proves correct, that same nature will motivate them to move in for the kill.  They are motivated by the same predatory skills that have befallen other bastions of power and influence throughout history that have so callously ignored the many humanitarian needs of people throughout the world, all in the pursuit of the “almighty dollar”, placing their own avaricious monetary gain ahead of their unbridled greed.  Nothing excuses the wanton plunder of what has, and will surely occur again, by the predators in the disguise of angels simply waiting in the shadows to further line their pockets at the expense of a greater need and a greater good.   

I have no idea as to why the rule of celibacy was invoked as a requirement for becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.  I am totally mystified by that requirement. 

We are all living examples of God’s Creation, and God created mammals to procreate for survival of the species.  Man, as I understand it, is a mammal.  Mammals are infused with hormones that cause them to want to reproduce.  That is one of the strongest drives mammals have and one that is the most intense in gratification.  That is not lurid or titillating; it is simply a fact of life.  Why would God require that his church consign the most vital of His servants to a life that is contrary to that very nature?  It makes no sense to me at all.  It seems totally contrary to the essence of humanity, to me. 

If other religions, both Christian and others, can constructively deal with the issue of marital fidelity, then why can’t the Catholic Church?  My limited experience suggests to me that it is entirely possible for Ministers to be just as proficient in preaching the gospel and the values of the religion as can any Priest.  If the Catholic Church seriously wants to address this issue, then it seems to me it has to acknowledge that fundamental fact.  Celibacy has no place in a viable and dedicated priestly life to the religion it serves.  It only creates conflict and torment for simply being normal.  What does that achieve?  How does a life of loneliness and solitude serve God in any more noble ways than does a dedicated priest, a devoted husband and the father of children?     

In instances where sexual orientation precludes a married life and where there is a calling to serve, the Church has monasteries where those individuals could have the opportunity to devote their lives to intellectual, ecclesiastical and other callings that lend themselves to a celibate life, to the service of mankind and to the Church.  There is no reason why those same children of God cannot, and should not, be given the privilege of serving Him as well.

Pope Benedict showed tremendous courage by putting a significant number of pedophile priests out to pasture as his parting shot at what has been a smoldering fire within the belly of the Church for far too long.  It is time to open the windows, let in the fresh air and breathe new life into one of the greatest religious institutions in the history of the world.  It is time for his church to finish the job.  It is time for his successors to pick up the cudgel and get on with the challenge and promise of a better future for all the faithful.

It is, also, time for the American people to say “Enough is enough.”  The time has come to purge our public institutions of those who abuse the system, taking from the many in order to serve their masters of wealth, power and privilege.  We need a multiparty system of government, none of which should ever be allowed to enjoy special status over any of the others.  Democracy must always belong to the people, not vested interests of any kind.  It must be a society that belongs to us, the people and that democracy must serve all of us equally, fairly and justly. We have a long way to go before this even approaches reality; but it can be done.  

Cowboy Bob
The Sagebrush Philosopher
February 12, 2014                              

Thursday, February 6, 2014

This is too good not to pass on.