Tag Archives: humility

Licensed to Vote

voteSometimes I think one should be licensed to vote in national elections, perhaps take a test as one is tested for a driver’s license. Each of us wield a powerful tool, the vote, more deadly than any vehicle. We should be responsible with that tool, just as we should be responsible with our vehicles. We must know the rules of the road – the role of government, the history of our country, essentially, Civics 101.

The history of the West is largely the history of Jews and Christians and their systems of right and wrong, codified in time, ways of living together (not always successful) that honor the dignity of every person. We are taught shoulds and oughts. We feel shame and guilt when we should and ought to feel this way. We honor humility, and we dishonor pride. These are mechanisms of change within and without, ways to right our behavior, to become righteous, better people. We confess our sins and we make amendment. We repent, return to the right path. Can a society survive without these habits of living and thinking? Can a society that values self-esteem over self-sacrifice continue as a community? That is the challenge of today’s secular culture.

In many areas of society – government, church, family – I increasingly meet those who want to run away from serious debate, rational reasoning. We are like birds with our heads in the proverbial sand. It is more comfortable to avoid discomfort, to insulate oneself with rosy visions of reality. Who doesn’t want to love everyone and be loved by everyone? Sounds good.

But life is more complicated than that, indeed, survival as a nation is more complicated. One behavior slides toward another. In studying history, whether it be the history of an individual or a nation, we see these patterns and can better predict outcomes from those patterns. We apply that knowledge to current crises and so make better decisions.

In a democracy we citizens need to be educated on the issues. Without an educated electorate electing, choosing candidates and platforms who will determine our nation’s future, democracy becomes a sham and we the people, blindly teeter on the edge of a cliff.

It takes courage to face reality, whether it be the state of our own hearts or the state of the state. Many of us would rather not face facts, just to keep the peace. The price is high, however, as we veer unchecked toward the precipice.

In our nation, we look to educational institutions to educate us, to ensure each generation learns their country’s founding story, as unbiased as possible, through clear lenses rather than filtered through biases of gender or class, race or religion. We look to our schools and universities to foster honest debate, in fact, to teach us how to debate civilly, how to consider the opposite side of an argument. Most importantly, we want to be able to hear criticism and not deem it hate speech, to differ without fearing jail.

There has been a recent trend on university campuses for students to veto invitations to speakers with whom they disagree. So far, among many, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, George Will, and Charles Murray have been invited and disinvited because of the possibility of disagreement among students. For disagreement has become synonymous with hate. Here, on university campuses, where the exchange of free ideas should be encouraged, where the First Amendment right of free speech should be explained and exalted, tyranny of thought and language reigns.

McLaughlin & Associates conducted a survey of attitudes towards free speech on campus, and by wide margins, students desire codes regulating speech for students and faculty, requiring “trigger warnings” in class in case material might be uncomfortable. Might be uncomfortable? I would find the trigger warnings themselves uncomfortable; does that mean there should be triggers for the triggers?

Such absurdity nearly sidesteps the serious harm done to free speech and the dumbing down of an electorate who should be tough on all sides through reason. The gift of reason is unique to our species, one claimed divine and proof of God’s existence, that is, the existence of a reasoning Creator. We think things through, we legislate laws, we judge our fellows innocent and guilty. Courts and their legal systems, rights to defense and trial, separation of powers stemming from Magna Carta and earlier, all are rooted in the remarkable belief that we can reason through our differences, and only in this way can we maintain peace.

That we must train the next generation to do the same, to carry on this great tradition of Western civilization, seems obvious, at least to this writer, using her limited talents to reason.

Children who are surrounded by serious conversation around the dinner table are deemed to have a head start in life in contrast to those not exposed to such speech. They learn by example the steps taken to reach a point, and the charity required to listen to opposing views. Such beginnings are far more powerful than class or gender or race. There was a time it was thought that only the best educated could provide these beginnings for their children.

Not so any more, it appears, with the current trends. For academia favors a sweet diet of no opinion, sameness. We must agree (with the liberal viewpoint) or be arrested. Why does this brave new world remind me of a book by that name? Why does it remind me of Islamic State and its thought police who behead Christians and crucify those of differing beliefs, who sell their children into slavery, who watch and wait as America grows increasingly weak and wavering?

The natural desire to avoid conflict, to silence speech contrary to one’s own, and then silence one’s own speech to keep the peace, is especially harmful to a nation nearing national elections in 2016. But we must take courage, pull our heads out of the sand, and listen to the arguments pro and con. We must study our Western patrimony (Daniel Hannon’s Inventing Freedom is a good and readable start) and make intelligent, educated choices in the voter booth next year. We should listen to the candidates and judge their true character. Do they understand America’s true character? Are they unafraid to uphold the character and the history of the West? Or do they feed us a sweet diet of platitudes and promises to make us feel better?

If we don’t do our homework, then we should not be voting. If we do not license ourselves to vote, others will take our vote from us.

A Dry Season

hills2It’s a dry season here in the Bay Area. Brown hills holding their gnarly oaks roll east from the Pacific toward the Sierras. “We need rain,” a friend said. “As always,” I said. “Tahoe was down fifteen feet,” someone else told me. “No snow pack I guess,” I lamented.

Man has always battled the natural world, has always been subject to “Mother Nature,” a fickle mother. When we are dry, she doesn’t always give us rain, and we have learned to store water in great basins carved from our mountains and valleys. We do not want to be prodigal with the gift of rain; we must ration it for the future.

And as Joseph instructed the Egyptian pharaoh, we build storehouses for our grain. We use our intellect to breed better crops to feed not just ourselves, but the world. We invent better machinery to deliver food from farm to table. But even so, we can’t control the weather. We still do rain dances; we pray and plan in the full years to be ready for the lean ones. We have savings accounts, or wish we had. We buy insurance or wish we had. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.”

We are little people doing battle with the the great universe. And yet we have these huge egos, believing we can fly close to the sun with waxen wings. We are the boy David facing the cosmic Goliath with a sling and a stone. We are full of hubris, pride that goes before the fall, the Greek nemesis. We want to be our own gods. We do not see our wings melting.

I sometimes wonder how these great contrasts between reality and unreality, between who we are and who we imagine we are, live together in our souls. I suppose such pride can be good, for it propels us forward, encourages us to create as God creates, drives us to better our world and its peoples using a mind that reflects God’s own, made in his image. Somewhere deep inside, beyond politically correct and cool and longing for acceptance, we want to be good and true. There is a kernel of humility in each of us, a mustard seed that we want to water to grow to be fully good.

Christians explain this dynamic between good and evil, humility and pride by pointing to our innate goodness having come from our very creation, being made in God’s image, birthed by his love. We point to our sinfulness – our desire to disobey God – as having come from our fallen nature. Somewhere deep within our human beginnings, deep within the garden we call Eden, so long ago, we made a wrong turn, and that turn led to other wrong turns, which led to others.

The saints are those who try to correct those wrong turns, those who try to re-turn onto the right path. We want to learn from them for they know the way, opening themselves to God through prayer and sacrament. They scour their hearts through confession and repentance, re-turning. They prepare a place for God to live, to dwell within. We tell the stories of the saints to one another and to our children. We tell of saints from the past and the present, yes even some who live among us, so that we might touch the hem of their garment, so that we might learn how to re-turn onto the right path as they have done.

As Christians, we have a way, a path out of the jungle into the light into God himself. When we are thirsty, we have sacramental fountains and scriptural rivers of water and life that make sense of all the dry seasons. We store our water and grain in the heart of the Church, so that we will not thirst or hunger.

We have a way forward as we move among one another, healing and loving as God heals and loves, allowing him to work in and through us. So that the natural world – with its storms or lack of storms, with its heat and its cold, with its lions that devour and bears that maul – is set in perspective. It is a good world, but a not-always-friendly world. Yet its goodness lies at the heart of each seed sprouting to the light. We know this is true. So it is good for us to use our talents as best we can to be good caretakers, producing foods and storing water for a hungry and thirsty world.

We are in the dry season. Fall is coming soon. The leaves will die and turn and drop to the earth in glorious color. We too will die and turn and drop to the earth, our ashen flesh becoming dust, our souls bursting in their own glorious color as they wing to the light. We watch and we pray and we give thanks for it all, for the goodness of even the dry times, for the harvest of God is always plentiful.

The Fire Trail in Our Hearts

Yelp1

My good friend Bishop Morse often said, “God wins in the end.” As I age, my years and my tears tell me the same thing, for I see darkness exposed by light more and more often. 

Each of us has a border that runs though our hearts, dividing the dark and the light, the evil and the good. Only when we illuminate that dark side can we become whole as we are meant to be. It takes courage to shine light on the cancer growing in those corners, the red raw wounds of deeds and misdeeds, that done and that left undone. It takes God’s spirit to embolden us to confess our sins. 

And so as I write and rewrite The Fire Trail, a novel in many ways about that line running through each of us, between the uncivil and the civil, I am reminded that I am not immune to the dark encroaching on the light, to the barbaric crossing that border in my heart. None of us are. 

Our culture does not encourage us to be humble, since humility lowers self-esteem. But true humility allows God to wash our hearts clean, and even if the soap stings, only then can we begin to heal. C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” And what a relief it is to think of others and not oneself, to turn outward and not inward, to dwell on the miracle of each of us, of all creation, and not just the miracle of me. Such turning toward the light strengthens us, doesn’t weaken us, as our culture claims mistakenly. Turning toward the light, toward the commands of God and the demands of true sacrificial love, makes us larger and more real, pulls us toward certainty and sanity. 

And so when I repeat the forceful and almost-embarrassing words of the General Confession in our Book of Common Prayer each Sunday, I am encouraged to admit I have not loved enough this last week. I have withdrawn my heart when I should have opened it wide. I have forgotten my prayers, and particularly my intercessory prayers. I have squandered time, that precious gift on loan to each of us, the gift of life itself: 

“We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.”

Is the burden truly intolerable? Must I bewail my wickedness? The dark part of me says no, I didn’t really do anything wicked this week. The light part, on the other side of that fire trail through my heart, says that because I know God and have the benefit of scripture and sacraments and the Church I am held to a closer accounting, a higher mark. To whom much is given, much is required. God is, indeed, wrathful and indignant because I did not say my prayers, because I squandered my time and treasure, because I know better. They may be venial and not mortal sins (no murder involved), but even these “little” sins allow festering in the dark corners of my heart. And one sin leads to another, like cancer. 

A terrible crime is committed in my novel, The Fire Trail, near the Berkeley hills Fire Trail, the wide break that protects the town from wildfires. Other crimes cross the trail and hurt the townspeople, destroying the peace and setting fires in neighborhoods once safe. And we hear of worldwide breaches, of wars and rumors of wars, of beheadings and bombings and massacres, of eruptions of lava and ash spilling into our communities. 

Humanity will always carry that scar, that jagged line running through its heart; it will always need to tend the firebreak so that the wild will not devour the tame, so that the fires do not breach the lines, do not leap into our towns, countries, and world. 

I suppose my little novel is merely a reminder that this is true, that we must not fall asleep on this crucial watch. The guards in our towers must be awake and alert so that they can spot the first flames coming over the hill, before our people are engulfed. 

And so it is with the making of laws, good law that builds upon good law, laws that our children may in turn build upon. We in the present carry this great burden, responsibility, and honor, to watch – even demand – that this happens. We must weave the good and the true of the past into the present, so that our children may one day do the same with their inheritance. What we do, how we vote (each one of us), matters. History matters. Liberty matters. The Constitution, the rule of law, our three branches of government, all matter. Who we are as a free people in a world of unfree peoples matters. 

We will be answerable for our inheritance, whether we have squandered it, whether we have hidden it, or whether we have increased it with goodness and wisdom. 

One of my characters seeks goodness, beauty, truth, and transcendence. A reader of my manuscript, The Fire Trail, an Anglican priest, explained this week to me (forgive my paraphrasing, Father) that goodness (virtue) can only come from truth (veritas), truth being God, that without God goodness denies itself, for it becomes self-serving and proud, no longer good. It is union with God that allows the fruits of virtue to grow and flourish. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) wrote about this. 

This is the question of our time. Can we be good, virtuous, civilized, without God? Or if all of us cannot manage belief in God, can those who do not believe see the need to respect those who do, support those institutions that will bear virtuous fruit through the building of schools, hospitals, and other endeavors devoted to the common good? 

In the early 1980’s Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book called The Naked Public Square, pointing out this great need in our nation’s public conversation. Os Guinness has written The Global Public Square, pointing out the need for such conversation in the world, the need for the Judeo-Christian perspective on culture creation.

But it begins with and in our own hearts. It starts with that line dividing the dark and the light. It begins with Sunday worship and confession and union with God. Only then can we turn to our communities and countries and world and shine the light in the dark corners. 

And, as Bishop Morse reminded me, God wins in the end. We need merely be faith-ful.

On Sowing Seeds

I’ve been researching Beethoven since I’m including his Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor Concerto,” in my novel-in-progress. I learned Beethoven studied with Haydn to master the skill of “counterpoint.” The lyrical second movement in the concerto is a perfect tribute to his mastery.

The melody haunts me. It lives, dancing in my aural memory, much as Beethoven must have experienced as he composed it, for he was losing his hearing in this year of 1809. He never performed the concerto, but left it to be performed by others. The notes are tender, calling one into their beauty. I thought it was sad that he didn’t hear it performed, but then, I suppose, he did in a way. I also learned that he didn’t name it “Emperor,” that others named it, and that he would not have appreciated the title. Alas.

So it was with great interest that I read in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal a review by T. J. Reed of Not I, Memoirs of a German Childhood, by Joachim Fest (1926-2006). The complacency of good Germans during the rise of Hitler has troubled many: If it could happen in Germany, why not anywhere? After all, Germany was “a culture that produced Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Beethoven.” Hitler’s rule, was, to many “good” Germans merely a “Nazi phase.” Things would change soon, surely. They had great pride in their culture, great faith in their own people.

But of course, we know things got worse, a lot worse. As I listen to Beethoven’s piano concerto and am filled with such exquisite joy, I understand how some Germans slid into complacency, thinking they could wait it all out, because of their strong culture. But “high culture,” art for art’s sake, brilliance, excellence, man at his greatest and most noble will never tame the beast within each of us. We shall always have a dark place, a shadowy corner, where something isn’t quite right, where cancer grows. For what happens in a society, happens first in each person’s heart.

Joachim Fest’s family were Catholic dissidents. How did they read the times? What gave Joachim’s father the vision to see what was happening as early as the 1920’s, when his Catholic Centre Party joined with Social Democrats against Communists and Nazis? By 1933 the father lost his headmaster’s job; soon the four children were removed from school; soon friends deserted them. And even with his vision, what gave Joaquim’s father the strength to risk everything to not be complacent, to not look the other way?

I believe (and I hope to find out more in the memoir) that the answer was his faith, his God. The title, Not I, refers to St. Peter’s reply to Christ, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Just so, Joachim’s father refused to go along.

Excellence, perfection, talent, beauty, accomplishment, achievement. We all want these, whether we are born with talent or not, whether we are born with beauty or not. But their price is often pride, a natural (and deserved, we say defensively) flowering after a budding success. And a great pride means a great fall. As is often said, the higher you are, the farther you fall. Perhaps this pattern occurred in 1930’s Germany, and in the appeasing nations of the West as well, who didn’t want to risk their own peace, and trusted in their own “civilized” European world.

The glories of man – Michelangelo’s sculptures, Rafael’s paintings, the music of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, the stunning canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites, the poetry of Shakespeare, excellence in sports, theater, finance, medicine, or any other human endeavor – all carry the temptation of pride, the temptation to sit back and congratulate oneself, a temptation to be complacent. What corrects, prevents this? What pulls us down from the that peak in time?

Only God can correct, prevent, protect our world, humankind. Only seeing ourselves through our creator’s eyes. Only looking deep into our own hearts and shining a light into the shadowy places to see what lurks there. It is a good exercise of the soul – daily self-examination. What was my attitude today? Was I thankful or complaining? Was I judgmental or forgiving? Was my anger turned to love? Was I lazy? Was I envious? Was I gossipy and perhaps worse, enjoying the gossip?

The list goes on, a well-known catechism of sins the Church helpfully provides from Scripture. And today, on this Pre-Lenten Sexagesima Sunday, we are reminded, through the parable of the sower and the seeds, of our many choices each day, hour, minute. Is the soil of our hearts rich enough to receive a single seed of goodness (Godliness), from God? If yes, do we choose to water the seed with worship, Scripture, sacrament? Do we allow the seed to take root in our lives, in our families and communities?

And when the seed flowers, reaching for the light, and we see that it is good and beautiful and Godly, do we credit ourselves? Do we credit our culture? Or do we credit the sower of the seed? Do we admit our dependence, our powerlessness without the sower?

I think that Joachim Fest’s father knew the sower. Joachim’s father could see into the heart of man just as his creator sees. His heart was rich, loamy, a bed to receive the gifts of vision, strength and courage.

It is tempting, with even the smallest success, to preen like a peacock, feathers in glorious array. But such a temptation is the perfect and necessary time to reflect on sowers and seeds and fertile ground. This is the time to examine, confess, and repent, before climbing any higher. This is the time to conquer false pride with true humility.

We draw closer to Lent. We pray for humility so that we may truly see who we are and who we are meant to be.