Tuesday, August 18, 2020



I am not going to address the merits of any politicians, political ideologies, or policies. My question goes to the kind of lens through which we look at all of them. 


The Democratic National Convention began online last night. Its intent was explicitly to make a case for Biden/Harris against Trump/Pence. President Trump’s response was “it was a snooze.” In the face of a cascade of challenges to his leadership, he critiqued the Convention according to its quality as entertainment. This follows last week’s meeting of Jarrod Kushner with Kanye West to discuss his campaign. My concern is not that the President and his team think of politics as entertainment, but that they assume (rightly I suspect) that the electorate is primarily looking to be entertained. We have shown a growing tendency to choose our leaders from the entertainment industry. In a newspaper interview, one Bernie Sanders supporter last year said he liked Sanders because he was “loud and angry.” Quite a few Sanders supporters in the 2016 primaries voted for Trump in the general election. Hypothesis: they wanted “loud and angry” without caring overmuch about public policy. The journalistic response to last night’s convention has been more positive than the President’s but also somewhat similar, reviewing it as entertainment. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/analysis-hits-and-misses-from-monday-at-the-democratic-national-convention/ar-BB1857ov?li=BB141NW3


Statecraft is serious business. It’s as serious as a pandemic, serous as war and peace, serious as racial justice, gun violence, and hunger. But we are choosing our leaders based on how well they entertain us. I read somewhere a theory that people are fundamentally bored nowadays. Our desperate quest for diversion is a measure of our basic boredom with reality. If you will permit me a brief theological interpretation: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Swiss Jesuit theologian, argued that modern (post-Renaissance) Western civilization had lost a sense of the Transcendent, the height and depth of the human adventure that Dante portrayed in The Divine Comedy. Modern people have done well, he said, to discover the poignancy of personal experience; but we have reduced it to a flat road from birth to death, losing our sense that something of eternal significance is at play here. “If that’s all there is to a fire, then let’s keep dancing; let’s break out the booze.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNFe4nak-oM


There may be more mundane reasons politics has become shallow – I am not talking about our leaders. I am talking about us. Our leaders shape us a little, but they reflect us more. The mundane reasons include: Society is more complex, and we don’t want to make the greater effort now required to understand issues – better to have a passionate opinion than a thoughtful one because it takes less work. Another is that we are in a time of rapid change; change triggers anxiety; anxiety makes us regress out of our frontal lobes into our lower brain functions; so we feel more and think less. Another is that our current technology moves directly to triggering dopamine, etc., bypassing thought.   


I suspect there’s truth to all of that, but I want to hold onto the larger issue of whether our decisions, our morality, whether we are just or unjust, kind or unkind to each other now has real significance. Are our souls at stake? As a Christian, I believe they are. The political process is not a Constitutionally protected religion-free zone. (The Constitution to the contrary protects the right of Churches to speak and petition the state for “redress of grievance”. What it forbids is the State establishing and thereby controlling a Church.) Politics is an all too human process whereby we may be degraded but may also be sanctified. 


What then are the consequences for political rhetoric? Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, arose with the birth of democracy in Athens. Absent democracy, there was no real need for persuasion, only the power to command. But democracy, even a limited democracy like Athens, led to people needing to persuade people. It upped the ante of human communication. 


Ancient philosophy took rhetoric seriously because it was the means and method of something of deep importance, Justice. Aristotle wrote[i] Antiquity’s most famous study of rhetoric, cleverly titled, Rhetoric. Aristotle was interested in good rhetoric, which was not just effective persuasion, but rhetoric that contributed to justice. He gave us three simple elements of good rhetoric: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. As we enter the campaign season, those elements bear a little attention. 


Logos of course is the source of “logic.” But it isn’t just cold reasoning. Logos was a heavy and holy word for Ancient Greece. Remember the Prologue to John, In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. So Logos is first and foremost the Truth! As we see and hear messages about politics this Fall, paying close attention to Snopes and other fact checkers would be a good idea. We know foreign powers plan to sway our views with false reports. We recently had a meme about Portland protestors burning a stack of Bibles with an American flag on top. Entertaining. Outrageous. To the barricades, we feel. But actually one Portland protestor burned one Bible, no flag. It appears to be one of those interferences from beyond our borders. We should check the facts before getting overly excited. Logos is about Truth and Reason. As Anglicans, we believe in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. This isn’t just cold logic, but it does involve some thinking. Thinking is more sanctifying than fear and loathing. Good rhetoric thinks. Are the people speaking to us just entertaining or are they thinking? 


Now here’s a lesson I’ve learned all too well over the years. There’s the speech you give and there’s the speech they hear. Sometimes those speeches resemble each other. But here’s my point: one side of rhetoric is speaking but the other side is listening. So just as we’d like our leaders to think, not just entertain, we need to think too. Whether the speech or the meme is thoughtful or not, it is always an opportunity for us to be thoughtful and that is sanctifying. 


Pathos means feeling. It is the root of empathy. So it isn’t just any feeling. It’s caring. Pathos isn’t just emotional titillation like a reality tv show. It’s about the feeling level of being a community, a polis Aristotle called it. Too much political rhetoric today appeals to our baser emotions, our fear and loathing. Aristotle would not call that good rhetoric because it makes us worse instead of better. Good rhetoric is about caring for others. Again, we hope our leaders will speak out of caring hearts. But whether they do or not, whatever they say, it is an opportunity for us to care and that is sanctifying. 



Ethos, the root of “ethics,” means the character of the speaker. Aristotle’s definition of good rhetoric has been summed up as “a good person speaking well.” No matter who eloquent the speaker may be, it is phony and false unless it comes from a good character. Not only should the speaker be convincing because we trust his or her character, the speaker should be calling us to grow better characters, to become more prudent, strong, just, and temperate (the classical virtues). So, as we listen to our candidates, it is good to keep an eye on who they are inviting us to become. 


In the various responses to the Democratic Convention, positive and negative alike, I have heard little about Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. It’s been more of a question of how entertaining was it. If the test is entertainment, then let’s replace the debate with a singing, standup comedy, and tapdancing competition. But if we want to be community instead of an audience, we should attend to the Logos, Pathos, and Ethos of whatever we see and hear in a campaign season. My hope is not so much for who wins as for who we become. 


[i] Actually he gave a series of lectures. Aristotle’s Rhetoric is actually the notes taken by his students. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus

 I am the bread of life. 

Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness

         and they died . . . 

Whoever eats this bread will live forever.


John is more of a mystical poem than a biography. 

John skips the story of Jesus instituting the Eucharist

         at the Last Supper.

Instead he gives us this poetic account 

of what the Eucharist means.

It comes right after the feeding of the 5,000.


Jesus had spent a long, hot day in a loud, dirty crowd.

They were needy, demanding, and desperate for miracles.

By 3 o’clock, Jesus was like an exhausted ER nurse,

so he slipped away for a break.


No sooner had he reached his hideaway 

         than they were there again – 5,000 of them. 

He rolled up his sleeves and went back to teaching and healing 

         until dusk; then they were hungry.


Philip said to send them away, 

         but Jesus worked another miracle to feed the hungry masses.

Then he slipped away again and took a boat across the lake

to the little fishing village of Capernaum.


Next morning, the crowd was at the Capernaum synagogue

         trying to manipulate Jesus into doing 

        his food multiplication trick again. 

But instead, he answered the hungry miracle-mongers 

         with this discourse on bread. 


The healings and the feedings, Jesus said, 

are signs of something deeper and more lasting.

He could feed them breakfast alright 

         but by noon they’d be hungry again. 

He could heal their sick, but they’d get sick again.

He could raise their dead, but they’d die again. 

It’s the second law of thermodynamics:

         things fall apart. 

The miracles are just band aids unless we go deeper.


The crowd is like someone who gets flowers from a lover,         

         and enjoys the flowers but doesn’t read the card.

All life’s blessings are just cards 

         inviting us to something vastly better.

The healings, the miracles, and everyday blessings 

         are signs that Jesus is giving us himself.


Jesus offers us his heart, his soul, his life. 

That’s the gift that endures.

It doesn’t take away our hunger and thirst,

         but it satisfies us in the midst of hunger and thirst.

That’s the opposite of the story of the manna in the wilderness.

The people complained of hunger,

         so Moses called on God to rain down bread from heaven.

That’s what the crowd wanted Jesus to do.

But Jesus had read the story in Psalm 78.

It says, “but they did not stop their craving,  

         though the food was still in their mouths.”


Have you ever seen someone at the dinner table

         fork up more food when they haven’t finished chewing the last bite?

It’s like that with all our projects.

While we are in the midst of receiving what we want,

         our minds race ahead to what we want next.

That’s what Jesus means by food that perishes,

         not that it goes bad in the pantry,

         but that it vanishes in the fire of our craving nature. 


Isaiah asked,

         Why do you spend your money 

                  for that which is not bread,

         and you labor for that which does not satisfy?


We squander our lives on if only’s.”

If only I had this job, or that lover, or this house,

         or that friend.

But the instant we get what we want,

         our minds race on to the next if only.


It isn’t just possible – it’s normal – 

to be hungry in the midst of plenty.

But it is also possible – in Christ – to be satisfied

         without getting our if only’s. 


You have made us for yourself, O Lord,

         St Augustine prayed,

         and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.//

Instead of whipping up breakfast for the crowd,

         Jesus offered them himself. 

He offers us himself. 

So, how do we accept the gift of Christ?


Ritually, we accept him when we eat and drink

         his sacramental presence.

Spiritually, Jesus says, we accept him by believing in him.

But the original Greek verb translated as believe

         does not mean intellectual assent to an idea.

I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

Big deal. So do the demons of Satan.


This isn’t about believing that.

It’s about believing in.

It’s placing our faith in him, trusting in him.

As the old song says, Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. 


Job said, “Even though he slay me, I will trust in him.”

Back in my little church in Georgia,

         we had a World War II veteran in the pews.

He said, one day he was pinned down in a battle.

Mortar shells were landing closer and closer.

Needless to say, he was praying.

As he prayed, he received a deep assurance.

Not that the mortar shells wouldn’t blow him away

         but that whatever happened would be alright.

He accepted that.

Whatever happened would be alright.

Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. Only take him at his word.


That’s what it means to feed on him in our hearts by faith. 

When we receive Jesus through the blessed sacrament,

         we eat the bread that does not perish. 

We lay aside the perishing bread for the living bread.


We were made for this, made to have Christ in us.

If we try to fill our emptiness with anything less than Jesus,

         it leaves us still craving.

Why do you spend your labor for that which does not satisfy?

But with Christ in us, we can face anything.

St. Paul said,

         I know what it is to have little,

         and I know what it is to have much.

         I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry,

                  of having plenty and of being in need.

         I can do all things through him who strengthens me.


Paul had learned the secret.

In the end, nothing else matters,

         because to have Christ is everything.