Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Priorities: First, Promote. But Also Preserve and Protect Public Education.

For those of us who lose the thread of conversations on Facebook, and because I believe these discussions apply to issues being faced by other communities outside the Intermountain Area, I am posting my response more permanently to the blog here. I will try, when time allows, to condense it further, but for now…

Many in our local area will recognize the relationships involved here. Our respect and admiration for Shannon Carnegie are tangibly demonstrated in the long and mutually beneficial relationship between The Glenburn Community Church and Small Wonders Preschool, including Shannon’s very well-regarded (and fun, even for the old pastor who gets invited to most of the more exciting events and experiments) curriculum.

Recently, as I will let Shannon’s words explain, a number of families have suggested that they would support an expansion of her business to include all elementary grades as well. Already, two previous private schools in the area stand vacant, one having closed shortly before we arrived fourteen years ago, and the other closing more recently. I mention this because it figures in what I have written below. At the end of this post, I will append Shannon’s Facebook post addressing this discussion so that you can read her take on the challenges faced by our public schools in general. First, here is my latest contribution to the discussion.

Profile Pic of Small Wonders Preschool of Fall River
An awesome and important resource to our community.
For the sake of focusing on a key question, let’s presume for the moment that I would stipulate two things. First, that the research demonstrates that the symptoms you list are directly attributable to the public education system and are applicable to children in the range of ages five to twelve. Second, that parents who have not invested in making improvements to their community’s local public schools would adjust their priorities, schedules, and budgets sufficiently to experiment with “an alternative to the status quo.” (In order to proceed, I’ll assume you accept these stipulations.)

What I consider to be the key question is still being left unaddressed, though. Do we choose to work together toward providing the best possible education for all of our community’s children, or do the relatively few who have the means to pursue alternatives choose to further diminish the available resources for the remaining majority of those children?

The Glenburn Community Church
Small Wonders Preschool of Fall River
meets in The Schoolhouse on our campus
I will accept, again for the moment, that no one intends these efforts to be a direct attack. But the results are clearly inflicting more than collateral damage. We agree that there is a need for improvement. But how does conscience allow any of us to push “others’ kids” further from such improvements so that “our kids” can be subjects of yet another experimental alternative?

And the damage is not limited to diminishing our schools’ attendance-based funding. Encouraging greater dissatisfaction with the efforts of our educators actively discourages the kind of investment many of us are making—and promoting as a worthy pursuit for others, especially those who are critical of what they perceive to be a static status quo. Even if this latest experiment also fails, the focus is again being shifted away from actively improving our schools to imagining that there could be a school that will
meet every expectation of every dissatisfied parent. If your conversations are like mine, you know that we face not just conflicting expectations, but many that are mutually exclusive.

Once, my favorite radio station.
But I had to stop listening to it.
("What's In It...For Me.")
The damage to the majority of our community’s children may not result from a direct attack. But please consider whether the collateral damage is conscionable. We profess, together, our respect and admiration for our educators. I also believe we can, together, refocus on how that respect and admiration should motivate more than verbal encouragement and occasional support. What if we sought to persuade more within our community to make an active investment in overcoming the challenges you’ve noted?

No one can overlook the limitations of any real school in any real community providing real education to real children from real families. But even if we accept the most impossible dreams of an imagined school, why should that idea require a resource-diminishing alternative? Imagine instead that the schools we have are being enhanced, augmented, complemented, and improved in order to benefit the whole of our community. Imagine joining those already at work to accomplish these goals, and add your ideas, energy, and supporters into those efforts.

The alternative is to harm the majority for the sake of benefitting a few. I oppose that. Instead, I propose that we envision (and work to embody, together, as some of us already do) our local schools as places where some of the improvements you suggest would help to provide the best possible education for all the children in our community.

Here is Shannon’s post, to which the above is my response.

To be honest and fair...over 6 of the past 7 years of teaching preschool, parents have come to me, asking me to extend what I do at Small Wonders Preschool, to the elementary school age. Essentially, what they are asking is for a choice, an alternative to what is currently offered. So finally, (last year) in response to that request, I wrote down what I thought the ideal school environment would be, one that if I'd had a choice, it's what I would have wanted my own children to attend. Last year, the idea was tossed around and discussed, parents loved it, but felt it was an overwhelming project to undertake. It is and the idea faded. This year, several new parents heard about the idea and wanted to pursue it. So once again, we are looking at it. I do not believe it's an "attack" on public schools. It's an offering of an alternative for parents. Parents are comparing the options of having almost total autonomy over the education of their children by forming a private school, or having a little bit of autonomy and still remain a public school by forming a charter school. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the teachers in both the Fall River and Burney elementary schools. It is the "system" that is driving this need for an alternative. Parents come to me saying they want more outside time, more hands-on activities, more art, more music, more science and less testing, less assessments, less homework, and less tired, cranky, frustrated children. When teachers are required to divide their days into so many minutes of math and so many minutes of language arts, there's a problem. When schools have to spend their money on new curriculum every year, because the publishing contract they bought into requires them too, there's a problem. When the curriculum focus changes every time we elect a new president and our children become guinea pigs to an untested requirement, there's a problem. When research shows a direct link to bullying and bad behaviour to excessive screen time and a lack of time in nature, at the same time that schools are pushing little kids to use computers and there's a smart board in every classroom and mis-behaving kids lose their recess time, there's a problem. When doctors are finding an increase in childhood myopia (nearsightedness) and are linking it to too much indoor time because inside a classroom a child is only looking at things between 6 inches and 30 feet under harsh lighting, and not enough outside time where a child would need to see beyond 30 feet and use all their senses at the same time, there's a problem. When research shows that children who learn to write in cursive retain more information than children who type on computers, while cursive is not taught or not continued and computer use in encouraged, there's a problem. When class sizes exceed a teachable level and add stress and pressure onto the teachers, there's a problem. I can go on forever, but I'll spare you. Rumor has it that there are over 50 children in the Intermountain Area who are not attending the local schools. Many are instead being homeschooled through homeshooling programs out of the area. Thus, between this increase in homeschooled children and the continued interest and request from parents for an alternative, it appears, that a choice is needed. So, yes, I am taking my ideas for an alternative to the status quo, and guiding parents to see if a choice is possible. Sorry to ruffle anyone's feathers, but there is always another side to every story. And I felt I needed to tell at least part of that side.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Prioritize Public Schools!” – How Martin Niemöller would advise Bertrand Russell’s chicken.

"Why are they feeding us this?"
I want to tell you a different kind of chicken joke, followed by a more traditional chicken joke.

Joke the First
The first chicken joke expands on an analogy drawn by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. In chapter six of The Problems of Philosophy he discusses inductive reasoning—the idea that future events will continue a pattern we have observed in the past.

For example, because the sun has appeared each of the past 20,000+ mornings, I assume that it will appear yet again tomorrow. But however sure I am of that fact, Russell points out that there are limitations, even tragic limitations to my assumptions.

Bertrand Russell laughing at some joke or other.
To show these limitations he offers the observations of a particular chicken—about which I am about to make a rather gruesome joke, with apologies and the appropriate trigger-warnings to my chicken-raising sister, Dr. Rebecca Linger.

Our friend the chicken knows two things to be universally true. First, that every morning, the farmer appears and scatters feed before the assembled chickens. Second, that from time to time the farmer also appears again in the late afternoon and, from among the assembled chickens, she selects one, chops off its head, and eventually consumes its lifeless body.

But here is where our chicken friend’s inductive reasoning fails, according the Russell. The chicken’s observation each day of her life has been this: the farmer always selects some other chicken besides me. That has been true. And it will continue to be true…until the day on which it is no longer true.

Bertrand Russell’s chicken could use some advice from Pastor Martin Niemöller.

Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and held by Nazi officials in a series of prisons and concentration camps until 1945. Nevertheless, he is often criticized for having been slow to recognize the dangers posed to some of his fellow-citizens, then to his country, to the rest of Europe and, eventually, the nations engulfed in World War II. Yet, in retrospect, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum prominently quotes this version of his famous poem:
            First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Socialist.
            Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
            Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Jew.
            Then they came for me—
                        and there was no one left to speak for me.

Now that you know these things, let me tell you the joke.

What would Martin Niemöller say to Bertrand Russell’s chicken? “Ask yourself, ‘How many chickens does the farmer have left before she gets to you?’”

Why Joke the First matters:
Do we find this first joke funny? Probably not. And if not, what does that say about who and where we are in the chicken’s story?

Martin Niemoller, laughing,
probably at some other joke.
For Russell (and Niemöller), the joke is clearly on the chicken (and Niemöller)—fat and happy until the hatchet falls. Russell’s chicken and Niemöller’s advice combine to represent a mindset I am observing among the opponents of public education, primarily in the immediate context of our local community. (A similar attack is being mounted at the highest levels of our federal government, and the publicity surrounding those efforts certainly emboldens the efforts here. But so long as public education remains largely controlled by local school boards, I intend to focus on the children of the Fall River Joint Unified School District.)

Why I Am This Passionate:
Let me digress for a moment to make full disclosure of my passions in this matter.

My family has been involved in public education since long before my birth. I have been involved as a volunteer and donor in many aspects of public education throughout my life. I am married to a public school teacher. I count many public school teachers among my friends. Even so, my wife and I considered carefully the expectations of some within our faith tradition that we would be educating our children in private, Christian institutions, if not homeschooling them. I have frequently considered what have been offered as the “options” and “alternatives” to public schools. These “choices” are routinely offered in opposition to perceived (and, I admit, actual) failings in our public schools. But after more than three decades of involvement in this dialogue, my hackles are raised by every advocate for homeschooling, every “alternative educational opportunity” that is offered, and even the ignorant denial of truancy’s detrimental effects on our children—both the individual truant and those children whose educational resources are diminished as a result of these others’ absence. (Schools are paid on the basis of their average daily attendance. Each child’s every absence literally costs the school money that otherwise would be invested in local public education.)

So, as some recommend that we further diminish the enrollment of our public schools, and with that lower enrollment comes the lower funding for even the most essential elements of education, I object and will oppose their efforts. They may be sufficiently funded and organized, and possibly even competent to focus on their own family to the exclusion of others’. But on behalf of those outside the small number who might reap better benefits from others’ costs, I would ask that we instead apply Niemoller’s lesson. Ask yourself, “How many more students can be subtracted from our public schools before there are not enough resources available to educate those who remain?”

Our past observations, that every day of our lives there has been public education, do not support the assumption that, no matter what we do to damage it, there will always be public education. In fact, there has not always been public education. In many places, there currently is not public education. But I am not only asking that we consider the survival of public education. I am asking that we turn our attentions away from the options and alternatives that diminish the education received by the majority of our community’s children. Instead, let us turn toward the improvements and support, or at least encouragements deserved by those whose lives are committed to providing the best possible public schools we can.

Tim Madigan, St John Fisher College
Joke the Second
Tim Madigan of St. John Fisher College wrote “Mr. Russell’s Chicken: A New Symbol for Philosophy” for The Bertrand Russell Society Bulletin. After considering various other philosophers’ probable responses, Madigan imagines that Dr. Russell is asked the most famous of chicken-joke questions. I am choosing to clean up the language for my audience. (Who knew that philosophers were allowed to cuss?!) But according to Madigan, to the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Russell would answer, “Because he finally understood induction, and got…away from the farmer!”

There is a reason that we chickens get to make decisions, locally and directly, about how we want to educate our children…together. As a community, do we need to invest in one another’s children in order to enhance our public schools? Yes, of course. But I would take it a step further.

Special Bonus: Joke the Third
Even those of us who have no school-aged children need to recognize the benefits we all receive by means of our public education system, especially through our local public schools. More than merely recognizing those benefits, we need to invest ourselves in making our schools the best they can possibly be. This means volunteering, donating, and fund-raising. But it also means supporting and encouraging those who chose a career in public education.

"Who built this road across my path?"
That decision to be professional educators means that they receive far lesser returns than others would, given the same investment in college and graduate school education. It has been said that no sane person enters a career in public education with expectations of lucrative salaries. Some teachers respond to that statement with this joke: “No sane person enters a career in public education. Period.” The fact is, sadly, that some have been so wounded in the opposition’s constant attacks on public education that their initial passion is a distant memory. Yet even for the most tired, jaded, and discouraged of my acquaintances, there clearly remains a love for and devotion to the children they serve. These educators deserve our support and encouragement. These children deserve our involvement and assistance.

Let’s Try This:
Rather than imagining the alternatives and options (which some of us may, in fact, be sufficiently privileged to pursue), what if we imagined—and acted upon—a vision of what our public schools could be, if we the public—fellow members of our local community—were to invest ourselves in all our community’s children?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Green Lights Aplenty, Yet I Still Only Hope for Hope

 This morning a friend, who has played basketball at levels higher than I ever dreamed, likened my recent increase in ministry and employment opportunities to the momentum a team experiences when there has been even a brief series of successes on defense and/or offense. A few three-pointers, or a couple of steals in a row, or any number of other combinations can propel one side forward. What had been a close contest moves toward a seemingly inevitable victory. When one player is finding a great deal of that success, it has been said that they have a “green light” to take whatever shot they choose.

Eavesdropping on conversations in the publishing and motion picture production industries, I have also learned what it means to “green light” a project. Here are some of the green lights that have recently begun falling into place for me.

One of those green lights this week was the scheduling of my dissertation defense (also referred to by some as the presentation of my ministry project paper) for April 4. Because this really is a presentation, and not the kind of defense you can “lose,” I now know that I will, in fact, graduate from Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon on Friday, May 12. Four years of work will have culminated in being a Doctor of Ministry. (I’d use the abbreviation, but some enjoy pronouncing it “demon.” So, well…no.)

Any discussion of green lights has to
eventually get to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Right?
Another green light, in the sense of getting the go-ahead with other aspects of my ministry, is the invitation I have accepted to serve Multnomah Biblical Seminary as an adjunct professor this fall. I will be teaching one course, being on campus in Reno for just two Friday-Saturday face-to-face sessions with students, and covering the rest of those responsibilities from the internet-connection (which interestingly has failed yet again while I type this) here in my office at the house in Fall River Mills. That means I get to continue being pastor of The Glenburn Community Church, and be a seminary professor as well. Gravy!

Still another green light comes from being part of the faculty for Right On Mission Vocational Seminary. I accepted an invitation this week along with others from the faculty being funded (as in “all-expense-paid”) by Church United. We will be participating in a conference in Washington D.C. entitled “Watchmen on the Wall” late this May. This is a great opportunity to better understand some of the priorities and perspectives of those within our government and from within the Evangelical tradition’s church leadership.

The view from Jay's dock?
Finally, this last “green light” borders on irony, if not the sublimely ridiculous. As some of you may remember, there had been a number of hateful misrepresentations made about me to the faculty and staff of my three-time alma mater,[1] Simpson University, where I was serving at the time as an adjunct professor, preparing to teach “Old Testament: Kings and Prophets.” In short, the President, Provost, and Board Chairman had all suggested, recommended, and requested (though not respectively in that order) to the new dean of the seminary that I be relieved of my responsibilities. To shorten a long story, I did teach my class that following Spring. But I have not had a similar opportunity since. And yet, this past Thursday, I was blessed to guest-lecture in that dean’s Pastoral Care course on what I refer to as “pastoral thanatology”—encouraging and equipping our students to serve our dying and bereaved neighbor. Following that morning’s session, we discussed how we might go about getting similar training into the hands, hearts, and minds of others throughout the Central Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (my ordaining denomination).
Neil Hilborn - conveniently attired.

So, I am seeing a lot of green lights.

And that brings two others into view. Some of us who paid more attention in high school’s American Literature class may only need to Google the second reference. Others who are more attuned to social media may only need to Google the first reference. Those of you who immediately recognize both—well, you are doubly blessed, indeed! I do hope, though, that all of you take the time to fully understand what these last two green lights mean to me.

It has been nearly forty years since I first read about Jay Gatsby’s green light, and all the hopes for future success and satisfaction that distant glimmer represented. Gatsby’s green light, of course, never fell fully within his grasp. I have fears about that green light, and the attractive illusion that somehow there is a point of arrival, after which I can say, “I am done.”

Don't blame the fixture.
It's just letting you know it's there.
It has been a much shorter time since I became acquainted with the work of Neil Hilborn. Because the signs at each door of my office’s building glow green, I think of his “exit sign” as another kind of green light. I have fears about that green light as well. It is, for me, no illusion at all that there could be a point of arrival, after which I could say, “I am done,” even though, lately, in the words of Mr. Hilborn, the show has “never been quite bad enough to make me want to leave.”

So, for all those who imagine that all we need is for a few things to go well, to go right, or to go not-quite-so-badly, and we’ll be feeling much better shortly, I’ll tell you this. For all the other green lights I have seen so recently, it is my fear of these two others, Gatsby’s and Hilborn’s, that dominates my thoughts, even now.




[1] To refresh your memory: I hold a bachelor’s from Simpson College, a master’s of ministry in pastoral counseling from The Simpson Graduate School of Ministry, and a master’s of divinity from A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary. In total, the four members of my immediate family have earned four bachelor’s, three master’s, and two teaching credentials, and all four of us have been employees of the college/university/seminary, some among us on multiple occasions. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Common Question, Part Two: In a Joint and Unified Community, What Do We Do About It?

Once upon a time, there was just the one high school...
but perhaps not just this one bus. Still, a reminder of the
challenges of getting students from Point A to Point B,
even today.
     In part one, I posted a link to an Open Letter by Krista Taylor, discussing the inequities of our nation’s education system. Looking at her arguments, I was led to consider an oft-asked question about our local communities’ schools. Specifically, “Why is there such a difference in the perceived and measured effectiveness between our two elementaries in the Fall River Joint Unified School District?” After all, if we are both joint and unified, one would imagine the personnel, performance, and progress in each end of our district should be nearly identical. They are not.
     I closed that first post by noting that if we follow Ms. Taylor's logic, and I do, there appears to be one major contributor to the disparity: The rate of children living in poverty in Burney is 52.1% higher than the rate in Fall River Mills. (The stats are available at http://www.city-data.com/.)
Part of the heritage of Fall River Mills Elementary:
The Glenburn Schoolhouse was moved to Fall River Mills
to provide additional space...then repatriated to Glenburn
when there was no longer a need for it in FRM!
     The subsequent effects of the Adverse Childhood Experiences related to poverty (for more information on this, see here: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/) are among the best documented statistical factors affecting our communities. But the case-by-case, person-to-person evidence that is being lived out by our front-line educators needs to be heard, validated, and supported through greater community involvement—in both ends of the district.
     In sharing the link to Ms. Taylor’s letter, Fiona Hickey quoted this in part, but the rest bears repeating as well: "We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis."
     Some might be motivated by this to write their congressman, or other officials at the county, state, or federal level. Those measures are appropriate, and as with Ms. Taylor’s Open Letter, they may eventually be effective. In communities like ours, however, we have an opportunity to reallocate resources more flexibly and effectively within the district and the community.
Among the "signs" of improvement at
Burney Elementary School.
     But who can tell us what needs to go where and how? Here's what Ms. Taylor suggests (with which I wholeheartedly agree): "I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard."
     One organization that does seem to listen is the Burney-Fall River Education Foundation, which I regularly support and I would encourage you to do the same. But more of us need to listen to the answers from our educators—even if we are afraid to ask them, "What resources do you need?"
     Does asking that question frighten you a bit? Good. Because it terrifies me…especially being married to a teacher who regularly handles twenty-five transitional kindergartners—four and five year-olds—without a net (other than two very capable aides. One is available to her for an hour on most days. The other for twenty-five minutes). I think that we may share the same worries about asking this important question. I believe that you probably know what I know: that a big part of the answer to what our educators, families, and children need is:
      "You. And. Me."

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Common Question, Part One: In a Joint and Unified Community, Why Is There Such a Difference between Our Schools?

Krista Taylor
That’s the question I hear often. And there may finally be an answer. I am indebted to two friends, both educators, from families of educators, who shared the link to an Open Letter by educator Krista Taylor, the 2015 Dr. Lawrence C. Hawkins Educator of the Year. [accessed February 17, 2017,  http://angelsandsuperheroes.com/2017/01/09/1112/] My friends Fiona Hickey and Susan Tipton, shared a link to her letter, otherwise I would have been unaware of her excellent argument for improving our nation’s schools.
But I want to highlight a particular local factor to which Ms. Taylor’s letter led me. Even within the Intermountain Area, the disparities in both the perceived and measured effectiveness of our elementaries have been marked. Comparing many statistics between the Burney Basin and the Fall River Valley, some of us have struggled to determine what socio-economic factors contribute to such different outcomes. Most of the statistics are close enough between the two communities to suggest that there should be no appreciable difference between these similarly-sized schools, the only two elementaries, in the same district, drawing on the same pool of resources, and ostensibly led by the same administrative philosophies and personnel.
But Ms. Taylor's letter (well worth the long-ish read, in my opinion) addressed a statistic I had not specifically investigated. She noted the correlation in measured performance with the percentage of children living at or below the level of poverty. Where there are more children living in poverty, the measurements of the schools' effectiveness reflect poorly (pun intended) on the performance of educators in those schools.
There are, as Ms. Taylor points out, problems with the means by which "effectiveness" is being measured, and I agree with her on this. But there is another key point I believe merits consideration here, especially with regard to our educators in the Intermountain Area.
Her letter prompted me to reconsider my previous research. During my studies I have looked repeatedly into the statistics regarding the two ends of our district--specifically, the immediate Burney area and the Fall River Valley. Not only does each comprise roughly 3500 in population, almost all other statistics have been practically identical. But today, I realized that the statistics I had relied on applied to the entire population. Ms. Taylor's statistical focus, however, emphasized not the total number of people living in poverty (which I had studied and dismissed previously as a potential for such marked differences), but the percentage of children living in poverty.
So, I looked it up. The stats are available at http://www.city-data.com/.
Why is there such a difference in the perceived and measured effectiveness between our two elementaries? If we follow Ms. Taylor's logic, and I do, this is a major contributor to the disparity:
The poverty rate of children living in Burney is 52.1% higher than the rate in Fall River Mills.
Leave that statistic to sit before your mind for just a little bit.
Then, when you've let the faces and names and homes and jobs and other visions of the impoverished families you see every day within our diverse communities wash through you...come back for Part 2: What do we do about it?


Friday, November 18, 2016

Unifying Our Fragmenting Society – “Who Cares?”

In his recent blog post, “How Do You Get the U.S. off Life-Support?” (referring to the growing incivility in public discourse that has been exacerbated by the examples set before us during this most recent election cycle), Paul Louis Metzger (disclosure: Dr. Metzger is my faculty mentor in my doctoral program) notes the position taken by Dr. Robert Potter (again, disclosure: Dr. Potter is the other academician reader of my dissertation/ministry project paper). Drawing an analogy to palliative care (seeking to alleviate a patient’s symptoms and pain, separate from addressing curative measures), Dr. Potter seeks a solution to the pressing question, “What needs to be done?” by framing the questions “What am I missing?” and “Who am I missing?” These are essential questions. In pain management and end-of-life care, the holistic approach to the mental, emotional, spiritual, and social dynamics of the patient and their family can often be even more important than the physical processes being treated.

As I have written elsewhere, addressing these multiple areas of concern is difficult, requiring in hospice care an interdisciplinary team that (by law) must at least include a physician, a medical social worker, and a pastoral counselor/chaplain in addition to the hospice manager. The intensive and extensive level of care provided through hospice during the final weeks and months of life is nearly impossible to provide elsewhere. Likewise, it often may seem as though the answers to “What am I missing?” and “Who am I missing?” are not only daunting in the depths of their complexity, they may be endless in breadth. It may seem impossible to determine, much less include all that is missing, and all who are missing from the equation. In such cases, we may be tempted to take license to disengage from the process, allowing ourselves the escape clause: “We’ve done all that we can do.”

Why would I demand of us that we try any harder than that—either in treating a dying patient or in seeking to bring unity to a fragmenting society? Because I believe that beneath the questions “What am I missing?” and “Who am I missing?” lies a motivation that is, in my experience, so often unclear in both discussions. The question “Why is this pursuit so terribly important to you?” might be boiled down cynically to “Who cares?” But whether conservative or liberal, whether focused more exclusively on any few or encompassing all the “moral intuitions” that Dr. Potter cites (care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity), the answer is simply this: “You care.” For different reasons, at different levels, and from sometimes vastly divergent perspectives, it is impossible to deny that we have clear and passionate positions on most of the issues being discussed.

If you doubt whether you have such passions, simply put yourself in the place of those who are adversely affected by any of the issues. Start by asking yourself what levels of pain relief and symptom management (think uncontrollable nausea, for example) you would be willing to forego if your hospice team needed to cut back on their agency’s overtime. Questions of healthcare rationing may bore you. But faced with a decision on whether to pursue expensive treatments that have only the most miniscule chance of curing your disease? You may find yourself paying closer attention to the discussion.

The unifying issue for many participating in hospice care, as providers as well as for patients and their families, is that we generally acknowledge the reality of mortality. We not only provide care to the dying and bereaved, we number ourselves among them. Even when we are not among the most imminently dying, we willingly bereave ourselves, intentionally forming close personal friendships with people we know are going to die soon. The unity we find in that mutual mortality and shared grief allows us to discuss matters that nearly all others in our circles of influence work hard to avoid. (Most of them wish that we would avoid those topics, too.) But in caring about the issues, despite divergent positions, relative to hospice care, we are unified by our commitment to solidarity with and around the patient and their soon-to-be-bereaved family, knowing that we eventually will be one or the other or both.

So next, in the broader conversation about our national priorities, I would ask that you think about liberties you particularly enjoy. Would you care if they were being as maligned and restricted as those of others? Try considering your economic well-being threatened by those who would re-zone their neighborhoods to eradicate “your kind.” Imagine your religious affiliation (or lack thereof) as a reason to discredit and persecute you. And visualize yourself amidst the confrontation that would occur if armed authorities denied you your right to express your position on these or any other matters. You do care…if it’s your ox that’s being gored.

We all care. We merely subvert our engagement of these issues behind a pretense of apathy. Apathy, the lack of caring, is not what I find to be the cause of inaction. Instead, we choose not to engage on the basis of what I would call the economy of futility. We do not invest in solutions because we believe the problems to be insoluble. Therefore, we fail to recognize the undeniable unity of our concerns. At their core, our conflicts are universally compelling, if only we would admit how much we care about our own positions on the issues.


Will we agree on these positions? If you demand that I agree with your position, or I demand that you agree with mine, probably not. But we must agree, if we will admit that these are issues on which we each cannot help but have positions. Then, and perhaps only then, we might be willing to listen, understand, and collaborate in ways that resolve our conflicting positions on the issues themselves. Only then can we claim that “we’ve done all that we can do.”

Thursday, November 10, 2016

In the Face of Fear: An Opportunity To Serve

This morning I was party to what I hope will prove to be the first of several important meetings. I helped to arrange the meeting for two primary reasons. First, we met in response to the great anxiety being expressed by a number of friends over the threats inherent in Tuesday night’s election results. Second, though, we met to discuss the encouragement I am seeing among others. Some within my circle of colleagues are already recognizing the need to address not only the anxieties but the very real dangers and damages those friends are experiencing. More importantly, they had some concrete ideas about how to do so.
Why I Am Concerned
Let me take care not to prophesy. Others’ visions of the future are more bleak than my own pessimism can manage, though not unrealistically so. I do believe it is highly likely that the successful portion of our American electorate will not receive what they have been promised. Worse, I also believe it to be entirely probable that several segments of our population are at risk of receiving exactly what has been threatened. But even in the age of instant information, I believe we are a long way from our own Kristallnacht and the Muslim equivalent of a Wannsee Conference.
In fact, the policy, legislative, and judicial changes of these next few years may or may not occur, and may or may not exacerbate the plight of those who are already oppressed, marginalized, and depersonalized. But they are already oppressed, marginalized, and depersonalized. And the dangers and damages they already face have not required even one executive order.
Consider the many who clearly imagine they will benefit when some portion of our society “takes America back” to whatever era it is they nostalgically prefer to our own. When this retrograde culture fails to materialize as fully as they would like, primarily in that it fails to benefit them as fully as they would like, they are likely to be even more angry than they have shown themselves to be. And they are already angry. The rise in hate crimes that has correlated with this past election season is alarming enough. Even if none of the actions that have been threatened are actually implemented on the federal level, at the personal level there is a perceived license for more direct aggression by misogynists, racists, homophobes, xenophobes, and whatever we call those who feel empowered to mock and bully persons with disabilities.
So, even if the difficulties faced by parts of our community do not precipitously deepen, it is impossible to imagine that they will appreciably improve over the next few months and years. Unless, that is, we choose to improve those circumstances ourselves.
What I Hope To Do
At the end of this morning’s meeting, I read from the notes I took, categorizing my observations. I felt the need to divide the messages I was hearing by considering what would best benefit two specific audiences.
The first audience comprises the victorious electorate celebrating their soon-to-be-crowned champion. As with many pastors this Sunday, and for scores of Sundays following, I have opportunity to preach to and teach some who number themselves among those triumphant supporters. I would seek to remind them that any benefits they imagine will shortly begin to arrive at their doorsteps come with a commensurate cost—not only paid from within the lives of others, but in the consequences of their own disregard for The Great Commandment (demonstrate your love for God by loving your neighbor—Matthew 22:34-40), inseparable as it is from The Great Commission (make disciples of all the nations—Matthew 28:18-20). This morning, I even used the Latin phrase, “status confessionis.” What this means is that we find ourselves at one of those unenviable points at which the Church must again remind herself of our responsibility to the integrity of the gospel—which must be proclaimed as much in our concrete behavior as in our claimed beliefs.
The second audience comprises those who recognize the credible threat to their safety embodied in the priorities and promises of this new and very different administration. They already perceive the scarcity of resources. They already endure the suspicions and accusations of their neighbors. They already recognize how vulnerable their basic necessities are to even minor socio-economic changes. And, whether or not the threats expressed ever materialize, they know that some will act out, in perceived impunity, the attitudes behind the speeches and sound-bites from which it has been impossible to escape over these past months.
For the benefit of this second audience, those who met this morning are engaging initially in some rapid-response research. In other words, we need some answers, but we need them yesterday.
What I Need To Know
Through our contacts (and their contacts as well) among the various segments of our Inter-Mountain Area’s communities, especially among those already involved in Community Service Organizations, Public-Assistance Agencies, and parish-oriented ministries, we are seeking two sets of information.
First, we want to develop a clear and comprehensive understanding of both the breadth and depth of the specific needs we are facing. These include the simplest necessities. For example, I was trained in crisis and trauma intervention to initially evaluate four basic needs: air, warmth, water, and food. Here in the Inter-Mountain Area, of course, we are blessed with the first and third of those resources in natural abundance. But many of our families can afford roughly three weeks of food per month. And warmth quickly becomes a relative term during several months each year. Beyond those necessities, access to healthcare, physical and mental, continues to be a problem. We must address the interpersonal issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and the phobic tendency to bully anyone we find uncomfortably different from us. And remember that substance abuse, education and employment inequities, and the too-common experiences of prejudice and discrimination are only less visible because our society so successfully marginalizes those who endure them.
The second set of information involves the reason why many who read this will object that many of these needs are already being met. In fact, they are…for some, sometimes. But often, the needs of a few are being met by a few who have more than a few resources, and are yet unknown outside a relatively few in a small network of a few relationships. I do not want to overwhelm any one resource, of course. But I also recognize that there are many more resources available than are being utilized in the Inter-Mountain Area. Yet still, there are needs for which I am certain there are no resources currently available. Therefore, the second question, then, is this: What are the current resources available, and what are the gaps that need to be filled? It is that simple.
How You Can Help
If you know the answers to some of these questions, please answer them by emailing me: deathpastor@frontier.com. If you know of someone else who knows the answers to some of these questions, please forward them a link to this blog post.
For clarity’s sake, here are the questions:
1-What are the potentially unmet needs faced by the communities (and especially the oppressed, marginalized, and depersonalized) in the Inter-Mountain Area?
2-What are the potentially unknown resources available to the communities (and especially the oppressed, marginalized, and depersonalized) in the Inter-Mountain Area?
Thank you in advance for your assistance in determining both the needs and the resources of our communities.

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