Church

Cat

It started in the morning and worsened through the afternoon, such that, by bedtime, I laid out with an ice pack over my puffed and bloodshot eye. Allergy, no doubt, just the latest phase as the days cool in which, in any case, I spend interminable hours indoors with three cats. Especially this one, who lays on my lap as I read and twists to contort herself to explicitly suggest the spot to be petted (she prefers the under-chin). I comply. My eye twitches.

Now she starts to sneeze, though, in violent bursts of four, five, six cat-snorts that leave her licking at her nose, dazed. Could she be allergic to me, too?

Ours is a pact of mutually assured destruction.

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Church

Process

Process is a scrim. Under these conditions, its flaws are well-lit and its limitations infuriating. But with a slight lighting change, it disappears to reveal the outline of figures behind it.

Process is real. It has measurable, concrete effects on people who don’t understand it. The process for applying for unemployment; the process for group deliberation; the process of a toddler’s bedtime—most things that matter involve process.

Justice is a process.

Focus too intently on the mechanics of a process and you miss the human actors enmeshed in it. Some of those actors built the process. Their motives and incentives are fair game for scrutiny. But others behind the scrim have their hands on it now, and they’re using it for aims it may not have been designed to pursue. They’re not passive actors.

These are the questions I put to complaints about process: do we understand it as well as we can? And can we wield it to do the things we want to do? If the answer to either question is “no,” we have work to do.

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Church

Wicklow

There is a collection of sonnets set in the middle of Seamus Heaney’s 1979 book, Field Work. The 10 poems take a house in county Wicklow, Ireland, as their subject, the Heaney family domicile for four years.

I’ve been to Wicklow. A Priest named Gerry introduced me to Robert, a zealous Catholic convert my age and—like me—aspiring seminarian, and mere weeks into our friendship Robert proposed a weekend trip to Avoca, in Wicklow, to haunt the setting of the hit show “Ballykissangel.” We stayed in a bed and breakfast, drank at Fitzgerald’s, and, of course, attended a mass (everywhere we went together it was a mass) at St. Mary and St. Patrick’s parish.

Today, the passing observer would take us for a couple. But I spent the long Saturday afternoon of that weekend greeting the approach of dusk while finishing a Russel Banks novel as Robert snored through an interminable nap.

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Church

Magic

I flip through the pages of the New York Review of Books regularly and order titles that look promising from my local bookstore. Last week one arrived, a biography of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It’s lovely, and reading it is taking me back in time.

I have a water-damaged paperback of selected Heaney poems on my office bookshelf. There’s an inscription on the back of the cover and a letter tucked in the middle. The letter and the water damage are related. It’s a whole story.

The magic of a book is its ability to summon other books that cast a spell over you in some earlier time. You may have forgotten about that spell, but any new book will recall it.

See? Magic.

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Church

Confirmation ExZoom

Yesterday our church Session examined a slate of Confirmation youth over Zoom, and now we all have another thing in our ministry repertoire. It felt so daunting back in April, when the exam would have normally occurred, so we punted. But we’re months yet from being back in-person for things like this, so now was the time. And it worked.

The same things we’ve found critical to ministry in this milieu came through here: a dedicated technician to arrange breakouts so that the person moderating isn’t juggling multiple tasks at once, printed materials sent out well in advance, and clear prompts for feedback. Those things are all in our control and make a world of difference.

But the more meaningful factors are the best ones—the people. Elders who are curious about the church’s young people and eager to hear their stories. Youth who are earnest and open-hearted. Time and space for the Spirit to bob and weave among them. That’s the secret sauce. It always has been. It’s no less secret for being online.

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Church

Lies

I think I’ve sent my last fact checking article. I’ve gotten so used to investigating suspicious links on Snopes and sending rebuttals, to copying and pasting Politifact URLs into messages, that I have failed to notice the utter uselessness of those activities. I keep sending them to the same people.

The facetious promise of fact checking is that liars will be held to account and forced, by a truth-demanding public, to reign in exaggerations and to tighten up misleading claims. And that seems to work often enough. But the bald-faced lie, the pants-on-fire falsehood, actually seems impervious to fact checking in a way that spin is not. And I don’t know what to do with that.

Our discourse if now filled with claims and official statements that nobody defends as true. The inauguration crowd was not the largest ever. “Under God” was not omitted from the Pledge of Allegiance. The map was clearly altered with a Sharpie, for heaven’s sake. Exposing the falsehood of these assertions is easy, and it is useless.

Lies like these are a weapon against which fact checking is defenseless. Because they are not actually attempts to establish an actual state of affairs or even to spin a narrative. They are assertions of power. The ability to contradict reality in broad daylight and to be lauded for it is a fearsome ability. It means that people fear to contradict you. Lies and fear go hand-in-hand.

What’s the alternative to fact checking? Building honest power honestly. When we use our influence to advance transparency and integrity, we strike a greater blow against falsehood than a lifetime of fact checking.

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Church

Credulity

Credulity: noun. readiness or willingness to believe especially on slight or uncertain evidence.

Cell phone videos on Twitter are “slight or uncertain evidence,” whether they feature apparent violence perpetrated by uniformed officers or depictions of crowds tangling with police. Things are really happening, and those things can be known adequately, if not fully, enough to form responsible opinions and advocate for effective responses. But the first video clip you see calls upon your credulity, and you should be honest about what you are doing when you opine about it without further substantiation.

Credulity is an act of will. We believe what we want to be true.

“There’s a lot we don’t know” is as true of the actions of demonstrators in Kenosha as it is of the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police. When you grant credulity to 15 second video clips of “mobs” and “riots” but not to footage of a black man’s murder, you are making a choice. Of course, the opposite is also true.

We employ credulity in service of conviction. It is worth asking, then, if the convictions driving our deployment of credulity are about the value of human life and a revulsion at violence against an unarmed civilian, or whether those convictions are about “order” and the sanctity of property.

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Church

Bags

For as long as weather will permit, the dog gets a little walk around the block first thing every day. I crawl out of bed, slide on my Rainbows, and grab the leash before opening the front door for him to bolt out. We live on the second floor, so he runs ahead of me down the stairs to the exit to the street. That’s where the leash goes on.

I probably won’t be doing this once it requires socks. Definitely not once a coat is required. Or gloves, or a hat. We bought him a Puppy Apartment and we keep it well supplied with pads. But it’s beautiful every morning now, so what’s the trouble really?

The trouble is the dog messes with me, and it’s making us broke. His leash holds a spool of poop bags, and ever since this morning walk routine started I’ve been using 2-3 of them every time out. I’ve reordered boxes of them twice since June!

He’s trolling me. We’ll walk about 50 yards from the front door down the sidewalk where he’ll crouch and do what he’s here to do. Dutifully, I will pick it up with one of the bright green bags and we will move along back toward our building. But invariably, within a couple of minutes–bam!–he’s crouching again and I’m un-spooling a second bag. It has been known to happen a third time.

Today I took him the other way around the block, where there are patches of grass on which he can linger. If he’s going to double up, at least I can wait before picking up the first one so I only have to use one bag. I waited. And waited. After about three minutes I concluded that today must be a one-off and I made the pickup and tied off the bag. Wouldn’t you know that less than a minute later, right on the front doorstep, he made me use a second bag?

I’m being trolled by a toy poodle.

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Church

Conventions

Let me suggest that if you’re looking to make a good faith effort at hearing your opponents out and assuming the best about them, skip their convention (and pray they skip yours). Skip all the fact checking articles the next morning, too.

Conventions aren’t for the opponents and they don’t run on factual precision.

Don’t let the offensive convention bombast deter you from actually listening to the people who love it when given the chance.

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Church

Platform

I spoke with someone yesterday about the November election when I knew that person and I are not going to vote for any of the same candidates for literally any office. I’m trying hard to listen and understand more than simply fulminate, and this conversation was a useful come-down after four nights of one-way DNC messaging that I found satisfactory, at times even compelling.

Speaking of the DNC, my friend quipped: “I’ve read the platform. I can’t vote for that.” Now, I’ve not read the platform. I don’t think she really has read it either. I expect she’s read missives about it on her preferred media outlets. But I checked it out, and it’s hardly notable, at least not to anyone who has a basic understanding of the broad priorities of our country’s two main political parties. And yet, it is, for my friend, this cycle’s disqualifying evidence. (I’ve since learned that the party she’s committed to support won’t be writing a platform at all at their convention. Will that cause my friend a problem?)

I’m really torn right now between my desire to listen to and understand the convictions of my ideological opponents and a gut-churning discomfort with that the fact of who they’re supporting. That is mostly because in conversations with some of these opponents in my formative years, character mattered more than anything on a ballot. That shifted four years ago–and largely hasn’t moved–to “the platform,” though hardly anything changed about the platform to make it any more loathsome to them than it would have already been, presumably.

Watching that change in them with my own eyes has filled me with anger and sadness. It also makes me a little bit afraid. Because, if their convictions about character turned out to be so thin, then how confident should I be in my own convictions–about character, but also about fairness and justice and equity and how we prioritize all that stuff?

Maybe a benefit of listening to understand is that it goads us into taking stock of what we’re telling everyone we believe and what we value. Because those things will be tested, almost certainly before we’re ready.

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