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“If Only…” Thinking about the Tapestry of Life

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is interesting to think about life, what has transpired, and what might have been if only…

Like anyone I wonder about all of the “what ifs” and “might have been” parts of my life. Of course there are many, going back to things that I could not control, such as the choices that my parents made regarding their lives, career, family, and home. Then there are my own choices, choices that I made, some for better, and some maybe for worse. Then there were the choices of men and women in my life and career that impacted my life and the decisions that I made, again for better or worse.

Some of my dreams, and nightmares too, involve those decisions, particularly the ones that I could not control; but then there were those decisions, particularly regarding my military career choices, that come back to haunt my dreams. Those can be troubling; the things that I volunteered to do and the costs of those to Judy as a result of those decisions. Many of those decisions, particularly my decisions to volunteer for certain deployments and operations have come at a great cost to both of us, the struggle with the effects of PTSD even ten years after my return from Iraq is still very real.

But then I am reminded that none of us have a crystal ball that allows us to see what the result of our decisions will be; none of us are God, or some other omniscient being. We make our decisions based on what we know, and what we think might be the outcome of our decisions.

I love the television series Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes is called Tapestry. In the episode Captain Picard is killed. He is then met by the being known as Q, played by John De Lancie for a do-over, a second chance to reverse a choice that he made as a young officer.

On Q’s promise that his choice will not alter history Picard takes the chance and he ends up regretting it. In his second chance to avoid the incident that allowed him to be killed he alienates himself from his friends, and turns him in to a different person, unwilling to take chances and doomed to insignificance. When he returns to his new present he finds himself alive but a different person. Instead of a starship captain is a nondescript lieutenant junior grade doing a job that he hates as an assistant astrophysics officer.

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Distraught Picard complains to Q:

Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is a fascinating exchange and one that when I wonder about the choices that I have made that I think about; because when all is said and done, my life, like all of ours is a tapestry. On reflection Picard tells Counselor Troi, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”

I think that I can agree with that. All the things in my life, the good things and the bad, as well as the paths not taken have all been a part of the tapestry of my life. I would not be who I am without them; and that I cannot comprehend. I would rather be the flawed me that is me, than the perfect me that never existed. Thus, all of those threads of my tapestry are in a sense, precious and even holy.

I’ll keep all of them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Preciousness of Trust and Integrity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today, like so many days lately I’m just going to share a few short thoughts about the importance of truth and the importance of trust and integrity in public life.

My first class in seminary was an ethics class, of all things called Moral Problems. The course went into depth on various aspects of morality in public and private life. One of our texts was Sisella Bok’s book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. When I took the class I had no idea just how much it would influence me throughout seminary and in professional life. Bok wrote:

“The role that one assigns to truthfulness will always remain central in considering what kind of person one wants to be—how one wishes to treat, not only other people, but oneself.” 

It is essential to our wellbeing as individuals, in our relationships, and in public life. When I look at the words and actions of the Trump administration, as well as past administrations of both political parties I do get concerned when falsehood is openly promoted and called truth. Mistakes are one thing, but deliberate lies by leaders, and public institution, government or otherwise destroy public trust. As Bok noted: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.” 

That is why when in a democracy there are scandals involving deliberate lies and cover ups that have or are being perpetrated by government officials, business, military, or religious leaders, they are so destructive in terms of the trust of the public. Of course the leaders of totalitarian regimes have no need for truth as their propaganda is paraded as truth, even when it denies reality, even before they take complete power. Hannah Arendt wrote that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

To keep that from happening we as individuals must assign the highest importance to truthfulness even above expediency and the desire to win. It is to borrow the words of Sir Patrick Steward playing Captain Jean Luc Picard in Stat Trek the Next Generation, “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

And with that I will close for the day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Exercise in Exceptions: “Absolute” Truth, Faith and Justice

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“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” Alfred North Whitehead 

Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed as a state criminal.

That being said I see many of my fellow Christians, not to mention those of other faiths who attempt to use their interpretation of what they believe are absolute truths and attempt to impose them on others. Using their houses of worship they indoctrinate believers into believing the “truth” including the judgment on non-believers.

I remember going through classes in my previous denomination which were entitled “The Government of God” and utilized Robert Bork’s book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline as its primary text. Obviously the class had little to do with faith, but was a tool by which we were indoctrinated to believe the political-religious ideology of our church leaders. There were several more texts, which basically echoed Bork’s thought, but they were taught in a manner is if they were as important as the often contradictory Biblical tests or the writings of the church Fathers, the great saints, scholastics or Protestant Reformers. It was an exercise in political indoctrination based on religious ideology. At the time I had no idea that what the church leaders were appealing to was nothing more than a variation on Christian Dominionism. 

Such ideology is incredibly dangerous because when people in power take it to heart and act upon it, all pretense of fairness, justice and integrity is lost. Those who are simply different are persecuted, those who do not tow a particular party or religious line are suspect, and the innocent are presumed guilty. It has happened throughout human history in every corner of the world, and it still goes on today.

I ended up rejecting that view of faith and life after coming home from Iraq, and for voicing my disagreement on a number of issues was asked to leave that denomination in 2010.

I believe again, but my doubts are real. But even more I have a belief in justice, and I believe that that justice itself cannot be built on absolutes. As Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”

I have found that as Picard said, “that life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with those who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that are built on faith and treat them as fact, despite the fact that they are not provable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted the problem well when he talked of this problem and described the dilemma of so many believers:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Even so believers of all faiths wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that at best are humanity’s best attempts to describe a God that is infinitely bigger and more complex than they believe. The contest then becomes not about God himself, but the manner that the human being who interprets God espouses as incontrovertible doctrine. Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

That certitude and the belief that we absolutely know the mind of a God who claims that we cannot know is the height of arrogance and it ensures that when we speak in terms of absolutes that we do not understand God, nor do we believe in justice, because as Captain Picard so wisely noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Even the most devout of believers make exceptions, simply because they are human and can’t avoid it, unless they are sociopaths.

Henri Nouwen wrote something very profound that all who claim to know God’s absolute will or truth need to consider. Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

The fact is that no one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to are either hopelessly deluded b their ignorance, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those who pro port to know absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, posed by Commander Riker to Captain Picard when he talked about absolutes and life: “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” 

Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” 

Thus our human justice, as feeble as it often is must take this into account: It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided and if based on emotion, hatred, racism or vengeance all clothed in the language of righteousness can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct.

Does it matter if we are doing it the sake of law and order, or for love of country, or to defend the faith; if at the heart of it what we call justice, or moral absolutes is nothing more than the implementation of an agenda to crush the powerless under our heel and promote even more injustice? If we lean toward the view that we are implementing the absolute law and will of God then we had better be sure, as Nouwen so well noted we can be competent in many things, but we cannot, as much as we deceive ourselves, be competent in God.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. As Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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It’s the Apocalypse: A Papal Resignation, North Korean Nukes, LA Shooter, SOTU, the SOTU Response, the SOTU Response Response and Fat Tuesday

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“I do love America. And LA is a very short commute to America its like half an hour on the plane.” Craig Ferguson

What a crazy couple of days and I don’t know about you but my head is spinning like Linda Blair’s in the Exorcist. It almost felt like a Zombie Apocalypse was upon us. Then I remembered that Zombies are not real. However, it was a crazy couple of days in America and Los Angeles.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away then Pope Benedict XVI up and quit. Shortly thereafter the Vatican was struck by lightening twice. Coincidence….I think not.

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But that wan’t all, just before I went to bed Kim Jong Un number one son, the North Korean version of an inbred mountain man exploded a nuclear bomb and promised more. Not to be outdone the disgruntled former LA Cop bent on revenge got into another firefight and is now preempting the State of the Union Address which I wasn’t going to watch because I get tired of people giving the President the clap between every sentence. Now because there is murder and mayhem on live television I have to watch whether I want to or not because it is going to be a split screen like the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. I am a sucker for drama.

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And to think, that all of this was happening on or just before the day that people set aside to sin boldly before entering a 40 day period of fasting and abstinence for a reason that they have forgotten. Well, I haven’t forgotten the reason for the fasting and abstinence  but I did have a big hamburger and a few beers to tide me over until Easter. Well I don’t plan on doing hamburgers on Fridays during Lent, it is a sacrifice and since I generally don’t eat anything that swims in its own toilet seafood is out which reduces me to eating bean burritos on Fridays during Lent.

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Pope John Luc I?

So tonight with all of this going on we are waiting on a Papal election conclave which will begin in March. My money is on a long shot outsider for the post, Bono who I predict will take the name Pope Meatloaf I or perhaps Sir Patrick Stewart who I would think would be Pope John Luc I if elected. I actually think that a Pope John Luc the First would be a great move and cause the Papacy to boldly go where no Pope has gone before.

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Normally that would be enough drama for a week. A Pope resigning his office only happens on an average only once every 390 years, so that is news. But then the wily North Koreans explode another nuclear bomb shortly after launching an inter-continental ballistic missile against the opposition of everyone in the world including China and Iran and I say “that too is news.” I do think that Kim Jong Un number one has a case of missile envy but still, the thought of him having fingering the nuclear button is frightening. In fact thinking of Kim fingering anything is frightening.

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And speaking of frightening, a disgruntled former LA cop and Naval Reserve officer has been on a revenge motivated killing spree in which he has killed 4 people and wounded 2 more, none of whom were involved in his firing from LAPD. Say what you want about him but Khan went after Captain Kirk for his revenge in Star Trek II. Sure he killed innocents, but his goal was Kirk. Thankfully after a shootout today it looks like the shooter has been killed and the danger is averted, but for a time it was a surreal throwback to the split screen O.J. Simpson chase which coincided with the NBA Championship Game 5 between the Knicks and Rockets. For a moment tonight CNN and MSNBC had the split screen thing going. It made me proud. Where but in America could this happen? That is why we are such a great country.

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Tonight is also the State of the Union Address, the annual speech where the incumbent President gives his vision for the next year in the life of the Republic. It is punctuated by the applause of his partisan supporters and icy cold glares and stares of his opponents. This is the case regardless of who is in office and the only time the deadly partisanship is broken is during the photo ops before and after the ceremony as the President enters and exits the Well of the House. I even saw Eric Cantor kiss Sheila Jackson Lee, now that is bipartisanship at its best.

It has also become a tradition for the out of power party to have a leader make a speech after the SOTU address. Usually, regardless of the party doing this the man or woman that makes the speech looks like Kenneth the Paige on 30 Rock speaking outside a Motel 6 conference room. Most pundits and politicians see this as a thankless job. Tonight the Republican Party is sending out Senator Marco Rubio to make this speech in order let him peak early so that someone like Herman Cain can sabotage his candidacy in 2016.

But that is not enough. Three years ago the Tea Party put out a response to the Republican response in order to show America just how united they are in destroying each other. In 2011 it was Michelle Bachmann, in 2012 it was Herman Cain and this year it will be Senator Rand Paul who is supposed to be speaking in favor of the great sequester working to ensure a Democrat sweep in 2014 and a Hillary Clinton Presidency in 2016.

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Fat Tuesday

And all of this on Fat Tuesday, when people all over the country are drinking to excess and partying hard so they can have something to seriously repent about tomorrow and feel bad about until Easter. Now am rather tame. I went out, ate a big hamburger, drank a couple of beers with my friends and had two chocolate chip cookies. Then I came home to Molly my now blind dog, got her to chase some deer and wrote this little article while watching the SOTU address.

Tomorrow I will help lead our Ash Wednesday Service in our little Chapel. Hopefully in the process I will be a Priest that in his humanness and brokenness helps people experience the love, grace and reconciliation of God in Christ on the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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