Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Neighbors: Remembering Mario

I dropped by Best Buns this morning. There's nothing unusual about that. It's pretty much my neighborhood coffee shop. I have spent more money on their muffins and mochas than I care to ponder. I've also spent a lot of time there that is worth pondering.

As Mr. Rogers said, "imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person."

For several months now I've walked into Best Buns once or twice a week hoping to see Mario, my favorite barista. He became my favorite barista because he paid attention to small details -- lining up the logo on the insulating cardboard ring with the logo on the cup with the sippy hole on the lid, for example -- and because he always, as a matter of course, offered a kind word.

I got to know him a little over the past few years after thanking him once for the care he took with his customers' drinks. I would hang out at the counter while he worked on the drinks of others, and we'd chat about the things that neighbors chat about -- the weather, our kids, work, soccer games. He was an immigrant, working two jobs, and raising his kids.

Early this summer he was absent from work for a while, and when he came back I asked what was up. He'd had some sinus infection problems. He was back for a few weeks, and then gone again long enough that I asked after him and learned he'd been hospitalized. He never returned to work.

This morning I stopped in with my daughter and ordered a couple of muffins and a couple of mochas. I noticed when the barista finished crafting our drinks and expected her to call my name and hand them across the counter. Instead, she walked around behind all of the baked goods cases and brought the drinks over to me. She handed them to me and then leaned in close and shared the news that Mario had died over the weekend. She gave me a hug and said, "I gave him the card you dropped by."

It was a sad, kind word. Of such are neighborhoods built and communities created.

The neighborhood feels diminished today, and no words will restore what has been lost. That is true with every death of a kind and generous soul. But with the small kindnesses of words each of us can build resilient communities that nurture kindness and generosity, such that though our absence diminishes what we leave behind the neighborhoods we leave are strong enough to continue nurturing new neighbors far beyond our own times.

Thank you, Mario, for countless delicious cups of coffee. The neighborhood you helped to build misses you.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Memory Well

The daily "memories" feature has become my favorite aspect of Facebook. It could be simple navel gazing, but looking back at snippets of life that seemed worth posting provides a mix of joy, gratitude, and sorrow that provides an opportunity for reflection that may be a short and simple as the original experience but that may also open onto something deeper.
To make of a life more than a series of unrelated experiences that change nothing requires reflection, and in recent months dipping into the memory has become the prompt for my morning prayers.
Today's memories included this note from nine years ago.
I am noticing, with curiosity and a bit of sadness, that none of my friends has Republican friends either ... it's no wonder American politics is so deeply divided -- we don't know each other (or we don't like each other).
I have no clue what kind of survey data this observation from nine years ago was based on but I don't doubt its general validity. I am also certain that the situation has only grown worse -- more stratified and contested -- since then. It still makes me sad.
It also makes me believe that our two-party system has outlived its usefulness. I don't know if it's true for most of us, but for many of us neither "Democrat" nor "Republican" comes close to representing the complex political, social, and economic views we hold, much less the spiritual ones.
Personally, I'm way off the left end of the spectrum somewhere with the democratic socialists, but I'm not going to capitalize that because the party that gathers under that name still doesn't come close to representing the web of my own convictions nor does it have any realistic chance to win elections I can vote in.
Whatever else I may be or believe in, I am a small "d" democrat. I believe that the best decisions for the most people get made when the most voices are heard. Our current system is designed to shut out the voices of people who do not already hold power within the system -- either by virtue of money (most of the time) or privilege (all of the time). That is not a bug. It's a feature. The dominant two parties are simply the ones who currently best exploit it.
If we, the people, don't figure out how to speak with one another with care, concern, and compassion we will never figure out a politics which honors our disparate voices, much less one that roughly crafts a social order that meets our disparate needs.
I really didn't anticipate this when I strolled down memory lane this morning!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cold and Stiff

I am uncommonly cold for June in St. Louis and way more stiff than is usual even for 58. That’s what being on a concrete convention center floor for several hours will do to a body.
Twenty or so folks from Fossil Free PCUSA and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship staged a die-in just outside the entrance to the plenary hall this afternoon following the assembly’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies. As I lay on the floor my mind was a jumble of thoughts and emotions: disappointment; anger; and, ultimately, hope.
I am disappointed that my church chose a path that does not seem promising to me. I am peevish that the powerful central parts of the institution used – I might even say abused – process to ignore the voices of the 40 presbyteries that endorsed divestment and the committee that held hearings and voted 35-20 to support divestment. That’s more such endorsements than any other single item before the assembly, and yet the plenary session heard supporters of a minority report speak for almost a half hour while supporters of the main motion were essentially shut out.
I do not question the motivations or convictions of those who voted for the minority report. Unlike at previous assemblies, I did not hear a single commissioner questioning the reality of climate change nor the centrality of burning fossil fuels in driving climate change.
Instead, commissioners supporting continued engagement with the fossil fuel industry focused their arguments on three main points:
1.     The fact that money in the retirement fund – the Board of Pensions – actually belongs to members of the plan and not to the denomination (and that some members of the plan are not even members of the denomination).
2.     The suggestion that divestment from fossil fuel companies might cost retirees money.
3.     The desire to maintain a “place at the table” by virtue of being a shareholder.
At one level, each of these points is true. But truth, when partial, misleads rather than sets free. Each of these points is a partial truth, or, at least, was presented in a partial manner.
Opponents of divestment used the fact that Board of Pension money belongs to plan members to, in effect, blame individual plan members for not electing a socially responsible retirement savings option. There are all kinds of problems with that argument, including unanswered questions about how what percentage of plan members have any retirement savings plan beyond the defined benefits pension plan. But more to the point, while individual actions are important we have a board of pensions so that we can act collectively.
I wrote this reflection in a hotel restaurant. I took a moment this evening to suggest to the waiter that she ask hotel management to adopt a “straws optional” policy and told her a bit about how much straws contribute to plastic waste (another fossil fuel related problem). When she brought me my salad a few minutes later she said, “I stopped putting straws in drinks.”
I said, “cool; thanks for doing that!” and I mean it.
Individual steps are all well and good, but collective action is so much more effective. A ban on unnecessary straws would be a major dent in a significant waste problem. Jessica’s personal “no straws” policy? Not so much.
“Not so much” may also be the answer to what retirees stand to lose from divestment. I don’t know. Neither did any of the commissioners who voted today because nobody offered a guess. Guess, of course, is the operative word. Nobody knows how a stock will perform. Past performance, as they say, is not guarantee of future success. We do know, however, that fossil fuel is a lousy long-term investment because in the not-so-long term the supply will run out.
While we wait for that to happen, though, this general assembly wants to maintain a place at the corporate table to try to influence corporate behavior through our Mission Responsibility Through Investment board.
If we’d been playing a drinking game that compelled a drink every time “place at the table” was mentioned we’d all have been under the table. Yet that strikes me as the weakest argument of them all.
For one thing, the amount of money we have to invest is barely a drop in the oil barrel. I keep imagining the dialogue when MRTI calls on Exxon Mobile.
MRTI: be nice to the earth.
Exxon: who the hell are you again?
MRTI argues that, as part of a larger coalition of investors, they do have a reasonably significant voice. That remains to be seen, but it still does not give me confidence.
After all, fossil fuel executives ought to have exactly as much credibility as tobacco company executives have. As much as the latter lied about the health effects of its products the former have lied about the environmental health effects of its. Burning tobacco is lousy for your lungs. Burning fossil fuels is lousy for your planet. But we wouldn’t know it from listening to the lies and propaganda of the corporate executives. Why do we want a seat at a table where our conversation partners lie to us?
As one commissioner suggested during debate today, Jesus didn’t seek a seat at the table of the money changers, he flipped the tables over.
As I walked out of the restaurant this evening, I ran into a man in a kilt. John, a Scots Presbyterian who enjoys hanging out with the colonists at general assemblies, had been moved by the young adults advocating with Fossil Free PCUSA and the Peace Fellowship. He loved the energy and joy with which they advocated throughout the week. He was also struck by the powerful witness of our former co-moderators and our stated clerk. (He also said “clerk” with a Scottish accent and I nearly swooned, but that is a different post.) He noted a completely different feeling about this assembly compared even with two years ago in Portland.
“It’s like you know who you are now and you’re walking with confidence into the future.”
I’ve seen the same thing this week, as we walked through the streets in threat to civic order. So, despite being down on the floor for a few hours this afternoon, I believe that, together, we are rising up to something new in the church. We will, inevitably, divest from fossil fuels, because we are learning who we are even as we become something new.
We are, slowly, decently and in order, becoming a people who value justice more even that the process that we prize, and who are beginning to trust the One who taught us that where our treasure is there are hearts will be as well.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tuesday: Justice in the Streets

Presbyterians took to the streets of St. Louis today to deliver some $47,000 to the city's justice center to pay bail for hundreds of folks caught in a cash-bail system that is unjust and, if we still believe in the quaint notion of "innocent until proven guilty," also unconstitutional. Hundreds of us marched a bit more than a mile through the scorching heat from the convention center to the jail to bring liberation to the captives and to show the world what church looks like.
My friend, Bruce Reyes-Chow, received the following tweet as he marched:
"Hello! I live on Washington Avenue in St Louis. I am used to conventions happening down here, but I am not used to being moved to tears by the members of the groups. The message of that march was beautiful. I am not used to seeing a religion actually live out messages in the way you guys did today. Thank you for opening my mind, eyes, and heart to both the problem of cash bail and to the Presbyterians of the USA."
It's not all polity at GA. We're doing justice, too.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Monday: God Alone is Lord of the Conscience

“God alone is Lord of the conscience.” That’s the bedrock upon which Presbyterian polity rests, and it’s always good to hear it articulated at General Assembly. This morning I am sitting in committee 11 – social justice issues.
The committee is holding hearings on about 20 different pieces of business over two days. The day begins with open testimony. Dozens of people sign up to speak to the committee on the array of concerns on its docket. Anyone can sign up to speak – Presbyterians, non-Presbyterians, people of any faith or of no faith – because we believe that the church must listen to the world.
We also believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience – that no institution can stand between an individual and their conscience nor compel any individual to proclaim a belief they do not sincerely hold.
So we just heard back-to-back testimony from a doctor who is a woman speaking against an overture on religious freedom that, she feels, would require her to act against her convictions or be labelled a sinner by her church. She was followed by a pastor, also a woman, who shared the story of her ectopic pregnancy. Their views on abortion – and, probably, a whole lot more – were diametrically opposed, but they both were free to tell their stories, to speak their truth.
Now the church, embodied by the 50 or so individual members of committee 11, must discern the church’s truth. Moreover, whatever truth the committee discerns today (and the full assembly discerns later this week) individuals within the church will be free to follow their consciences; indeed, within our polity, individuals are called to follow where the Lord of their conscience leads. In that following lies salvation.
The challenge, of course, lies when faithful folks feel led in contradictory directions. The work of the church comes in working out our salvation together day by day in fear and trembling.