Bullying of a different sort

There are bullies, and then there are bullies. I was reminded of two kinds in as many days. Today I was working out in our local gym, which had its three televisions running, each in different sections of the gym. A sports program was on at the far end and FOX News was running in another section. The program on the television near me was naff, so after determining that the middle-aged woman exercising nearby was not watching it, I found the remote and started surfing. When I landed on CNN News, I left it there and followed along using the “closed caption” option after I got back to my workout.

That was going along well until the middle-aged lady’s husband walked over from the other end of the gym. Nearly finished with his workout, he wanted to know when she would be done. They sorted that out, and he walked off to finish his workout, but not before he had made a rude remark about CNN. I hadn’t paid any attention to this man until the rude remark, which was impossible for me to miss. So I looked more closely and remembered him from the only conversation I ever had with him, in the gym a couple months ago. To each his own, but during that brief chat the guy really put me off with his Mr. Macho personality and hyper-aggressive patriotism. I was glad when he returned to the other end of the gym today. We did not speak this time, and I don’t know if he recognized me.

I kept watching CNN and working out. His wife moved to another nearby machine. Out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later I noticed the husband coming to talk to his wife again. He was done working out. I’ll be done soon, she explained. I got the feeling he was frustrated to wait. He looks up at the monitor, makes more rude remarks about CNN, and then plops himself down on the nearby couch and takes the remote and starts watching the History channel. He knows I’m watching CNN but he doesn’t consult me. Doesn’t even look at me.

Having had that previous distasteful encounter with him I decide to keep my mouth shut. Almost immediately the wife stops working out, walks past the couch, says, “Let’s go,” and heads for the door. This scene takes place about ten feet from me. It’s impossible not to notice some issues there, and I turn and look elsewhere. I’m not completely clear on what then occurred, but apparently the husband jumped off couch and took a few steps toward the door, but then stopped, retrieved the remote and changed the monitor back to CNN. He then spoke to me. “That’s what you were watching wasn’t it?” I look up and nod. He makes more rude remarks, complete with hand gestures, and then exits the building.

It’s annoying, that kind of soft bullying, and it is easily dismissed. Not so the hard-nosed bullying that yesterday strong-armed not only an adversary but also allies with its misguided foreign policy decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. When a child bullies, parents can step in. Who can step into this?

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by dhruvgpatel via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

It’s the Presidency Not the President

dominoes“The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

“If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

“Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.

“Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.”

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“Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office. It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat.

“Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. ‘I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me,’ he wrote his friend Edward Rutledge in 1789. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.”

Those are the opening and closing words of a significant essay by John Dickerson in The Atlantic Monthly. Significant to liberals and conservatives alike. In between those words, Dickerson thoughtfully moves back and forth through U.S. history to contrast what the Framers (and the Constitution) wanted the office of the President of the United States to be and how radically different the contemporary office has become today. And why that is a huge problem.

I have interrupted writing the next article I want to put on this blog in order to call our attention to this essay. Here’s why. My work on The Wisdom Project during the last fifteen years has of necessity included much research to try to get my mind around the U.S. presidency. Dickerson’s essay filled in an important area of my thinking. It scratched a deep itch that I have had for a long time. But that’s not why I offer the essay to you here.

After reading it I realized that its clear presentation of major changes to the office of the presidency (changes Dickerson identifies as beginning with the Great Depression and steadily increasing in complexity since then) would be very helpful to anyone who really wants to understand the contemporary U.S. presidency and why its ever-expanding job description does not bode well for the county or for the world. You may or may not agree with some of his equally thoughtful recommendations for the current and future presidents, but it is hard to gainsay his thesis: the problem might not be the president but the presidency.

NOTE: this is a topic that I would like to have some conversation about on this blog. If you’d like to get one going, please use the Comments area to share your thoughts. Using the Comments, rather than email, gives others who read this blog an opportunity to chime in. So we can learn wisdom from each other. Thank you.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by Great Beyond via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Like it or not, politics plays a key role in society

In his witty book The Devil’s Dictionary, the late nineteenth social critic and satirist Ambrose Bierce defined politics thusly: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” He being dead yet speaketh. Certainly, politics in America today would be similarly defined by many people.

I thought about Bierce’s definition recently, after a long conversation with someone who wanted nothing to do with politics. His final words on the subject, said with great conviction, were, “I don’t believe in politics.” End of conversation.

Not long afterward I ran into someone on the other end of the spectrum, who told me, “I’m running for political office.” That reminded me of Noah Webster’s definition. The language reformer famous for compiling a comprehensive dictionary, and a near-contemporary of Bierce, defined politics this way:

“The science and art of government; the science dealing with the organization and regulation of a state, in both its internal and external affairs. The theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties; hence political affairs, principles, convictions, opinions, sympathies.”

Seen that way, certainly politics has an essential role to play in the proper functioning of a city, country, state, or nation.

And yet we hear widespread disillusion of politics in sound bites across the land. “We need to fire this President and hire a new one.” “Government needs to be run like a business.” “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” “They just want your money.” “Government is the problem.”

James Skillen, the president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice (Washington, DC), and a leading political theologian of our time, has a lot of sympathy for people who are mad as a hornet at politics and want nothing to do with it. But he goes beyond sympathy to solutions. Skillen calls for us to rethink how we understand politics and government. This we can do, he says, if we take time to reflect on important, and often ignored, questions, such as what is government for and how should its responsibilities be properly exercised? And what responsibilities are we as citizens to have in political life?

Answers to such questions aid in discovering what government should be. If we don’t know what government should be, how will we be responsible citizens? How will we know what our politicians should be doing? This is true of all other areas of life as well. If we don’t know what families or businesses or schools are for, how will we know how to run them for the good of society? How would we know what parents or managers or educators should be doing?

As parents, managers, or educators, we don’t begin from scratch. From childhood we are situated in a cultural context and have absorbed, or been taught, ideas, values, and principles about parenting, managing, and teaching in that context. If we had lived in ancient Greece or feudal Europe we would have had quite a different view of these areas. In whatever age we are talking about, including in America today, we cannot avoid asking how should we responsibly engage in these areas?

human eyeOf political life, Skillen writes that one of our big problems is that we tend to think more in terms of what government can do, rather than what it should be. And he has thought long and hard about what government should be. His answer in The Good of Politics, his most recent book, is to understand politics and government as “political community.” And he goes further, offering a vision for developing “just political communities,” whether they are local, statewide, or national.

In a just political community, he writes, echoing Webster, not Bierce, “Those who would aspire to become governing officials should be trained in the art of governance, the art of public service, the art of statecraft. As in other spheres of life, officers of government should be servant leaders, that is, public servants. And the politics of such a political community must be organized around the participation and representation of citizens who bear a responsibility for the common good.”

It’s a good vision, worthy of developing and acting on, whether we are fed up with politics or running for office or somewhere on the spectrum between the two poles. Anyone who cares about the good of this country should take Webster and Skillen up on it.

Charles Strohmer writes about politics, religion, international relations, and diplomacy. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

This editorial originally published in The Mountain Press (Sunday, February 18, 2018).

Images: U.S. Capitol/AP Photo John Elswick. Human eye, via Creative Commons, (Cesar R).

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

A word about the following essay
The succor and largesse being given to those whose lives have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey turned my thoughts to five remarkable days when I was unexpectedly on the receiving end of it, with thousands of others. I share the following essay with you at this time in the hope that it inspires some good thoughts about what it means to be humans beings bearing witness to the image of God in us.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

Three hours out of London and flying uneventfully through florescent blue sky six miles above the Atlantic, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in laptops, or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), the only bother aboard the plane so far could now be heard in hushed buzz of passengers asking why all the video screens had suddenly gone blank. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess said over the intercom. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. My eyes adjusting to the blinding light, I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at that way for too long and I turned away. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. Still no movies. People fidgeted. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Your nightmare sprang from wherever you had stowed it before boarding. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down. Afterward, it seemed to me that a holy moment spread throughout the cabin.

It also seemed much longer than the actually millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? No, a nuclear bomb. Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of that made any sense to me. The important question was: why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to find out. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Daylight Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? That became an even more important question. What had happened, anyway?! And where? And who had been effected? Was I even going to get home? Someone must know.

inside delta planeAhh. Walking down the aisle toward me was the hostess whom I had befriended on the plane. I was traveling alone and no passengers were seated near me. I decided to try to take advantage of that privacy. From my aisle seat our eyes met and I motioned inconspicuously to flag her down, hoping she would stop. She did, and she crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand at the back of the plane. It was something, a least. A kindness. The first of many that was to come.

Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the long, asphalt service road jammed with cars, vans, and pick-ups filled with on-lookers. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing warehouse fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Later I realized it was more than that. It wasn’t just the stunning sight of landing dozens of huge commercial jets one after another after another that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny afternoon. They knew what had happened. We were still in the dark.

Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we slowly eased along past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Captain Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had been given of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. Hopefully we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We asked a thousand questions of the crew, but the only information they had was what Captain Williams had been given, and those details were sketchy. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions aboard. Later I realized that during the first couple of hours on the plane in Halifax we were living way behind the historic news curve. The pilots had tuned to an AM radio in the cockpit, a source of constant news about the attacks, ninety percent of it still rumor. “Another attack may be imminent.” “A plane may have crashed in Pennsylvania.” “Who had launched the attack?” It would be nearly 24 hours before our own imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayTwo long and perfectly executed lines of 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s were now parked side-by-side along the tarmac. None would be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future. Ten thousand stranded passengers – a small town, and all the problems that come with it – had suddenly arrived – a scene repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights had been ordered back to their departure cities.

That the extreme and unprecedented workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers across America went without incident is astonishing. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. An impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Now free to mill about the entire plane – a gracious gesture itself – I found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door to listen to the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax. But there were stories in this cockpit. I decided to put on my journalist’s hat, informally however. I listened closely as flight attendants came to the cockpit with reports from the cabin and as the two pilots and their navigator talked. And I chatted them up when they were free to do so. Personally for me, it was a akin to therapy to have the freedom to do this, and I think the pilots seemed glad to talk.

“Why did you make that kind of announcement over the Atlantic?” I asked Captain Williams during a break in the activity. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” He didn’t hedge. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he told me. “Personally, we’ve never been in this kind of a situation, but colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking.’ So we talked for a long time about the wisest language to use to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

As the hours passed, snacks and water ran low, it was getting stuffy in the cabin, a couple infants needed baby formula, the crew reported, and some passengers wanted a smoke. The main theme was the need for fresh air. Passengers were being deplaned and taken to stay overnight in Halifax in the order of their arrival. It would be many hours, we learned, before those of at the end of the queue would be breathing in fresh air.

Still squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem as it arose wisely resolve it. The Halifax ground crew was notified about our need snacks, bottled water, and infant formula. The rear starboard door would be opened for smokers. “But for those of you who need to smoke,” Captain Williams announced, “please take turns and don’t crowd the area. And try to keep the smoke from filtering into the cabin.”

The want of fresh air was solved when the front starboard door was opened to admit supplies. And then left open. Such gestures, including access to the pilots, made a world of difference in the social microcosm that had begun forming, and that would gain in largess, for the passengers of Flight 59. These seemingly small grace gifts defused the building tensions and made the confines bearable. I later learned that passengers on some of the other carriers had fared as favorably.

gobsmackedThe matter of reaching my wife was pressing in on me, so I surrendered my post near the cockpit and looked for someone who might lend me a phone. But getting as signal was still nearly impossible. Those with phones had been wearing down their fingerprints since landing, punching numbers robotically every few minutes gambling against a busy signal. Few won during those first hours. When the hostess I had befriended told me the battery in her phone had died, I stopped asking anyone for a try and instead struck up a conversation – not about phoning – with a friendly couple who, apparently, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia Matthews, from Memphis. A Christian minister, he explained that he had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. As I was explaining that I’d been traveling in England on a book tour, we heard the mic suddenly cue – everyone had become acutely attuned to that sound. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for a day or two,” he said.

The Matthews and I were digesting this development when Robert’s trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection with the outside world. Passengers around us were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, he handed me the phone and I gave her my wife’s name and number. An hour or two later she beat the odds again, to say that she had got hold of Linda and explained where I was and that I was okay.

Blessedly, our flight was only half full, which made the seventeen hours we spent on board more tolerable. Around midnight I copped three empty side-by-side seats at the rear of the cabin and stretched out as best I could and entered a fitful sleep. Around 3am, we were quickly deplaned on to the runway, shuttled to the terminal, and sped through customs. Outside the terminal we were immediately escorted through the street-lamp atmosphere to a yellow school bus where, after we had boarded, a local politician jumped in and, standing in the doorway, gave us a warm Canadian welcome to “our friends from the south.” He then announced that we were being taken to Shearwater Air Force Base in Dartmouth, ten miles away, where, “You will be well looked after as guests of Canada,” he concluded, promising with many promises. The persistent question of how long we would be there was met with, “We’re taking it a day at a time.”

Legends in their own time, forty-two winged ghost towns now awaited repopulation on the tarmac, the topic of talk radio, news coverage, and hourly conversations in every Halifax and Dartmouth home. The Shearwater encampment rose to about 750 stranded passengers – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air, and one Air Tours group from Scotland filled with partying vacationers to Florida. The remaining ten thousand strandeds, we discovered, had been housed across the area in houses, school gyms, and in what remained available of hotel rooms (it was the area’s busy tourist season). Some families who had queued in their cars and vans along the access road had not been there just to gawk but to receive us into their homes. Our time as guests of Canada would become the subject of the PBS documentary “Stranded Yanks,” which aired during the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

I awoke at 7am amid dim lighting and much snoring. My back ached from the stiff cot after only three hours of (broken) sleep. I slipped out from under the blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, bent over to touch my toes, stood to loosen other muscles, and then took in the unfamiliar surroundings of the massive gymnasium. From the cot I had procured near a hallway door, before me from wall-to-wall stretched the serried ranks of two hundred others curled up on cots or mattresses in various stages of sleep. A few military personnel and Canadian Red Cross workers were in the hallway, where I also saw two of the stranded carrying large white bath towels, evidently returning from the showers.

Where would I eat? How long would I be here? What would I do for clothes, underwear, a tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, a hair brush, my Norelco electric shaver? We had only been permitted to bring our carry-on bags to the Base. My contained a couple books, a yellow pad, pens, folders with the paperwork for my three-week UK itinerary, my phone book, and suchlike.

I grabbed a large white towel and asked directions to the showers. In the long hallway I heard a television blaring in the distance and remembered my wife cautioning me, when we were finally able to connect by phone, about the images I’d be seeing. “You’re going to be shocked.” I was. It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned.

What do strangers stuck in crisis do? Although the choice is a simple one, the effect differs as markedly as day from night. They can make their situation worse or they can try to improve it. Somehow we went for the latter. Later I realized, to use a Christian image, that we gave grace to onhelping hande another. It began aboard the 777 with the gestures of the pilots and crew and it spread exponentially at Shearwater. Military personnel had worked for hours to set up the cots, mattresses, and bedding. There were the hot showers, and even earplugs! We were given free roam of the huge Base and use of it televisions, recreational facilities, and movie hall. They fed us three superb meals a day from a large buffet-style restaurant. On our second day there some kind officer opened the officers’ mess to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken outside in a terraced courtyard.

Not to be outdone by the military, the Red Cross workers, teachers, and schoolchildren and their parents from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth joined forces. Throughout the night and into the morning of September 12 – in what I was sure was a combined effort to blow our minds – they had been arriving at the Base carrying many dozens of very large cardboard boxes, which were now arranged on long table in a huge lobby. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors. You name it. “Take what you need. It’s our gift to you.” This neighborly grace to strangers really got to me. I was going to write that it made life more normal. But it wasn’t that. Something else was taking place. Life in this world was enjoying a taste heaven.

Navy personnel, brought in just to open up more of the Base and help run it during our stay, gave lifts into town when they went off-duty to those stranded who wanted it. I copped a ride to WalMart to buy some tennis shoes when my feet began aching terribly from meandering around the large Base for hours a day. Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of a couple hours one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures helped keep our spirits up. I remember someone joking that “the service” here was so good that, if we were now offered a hotel room, we’d decline it and stay put.

We may have been strangers, but we were also good neighbors. Kathy _____from Salt Lake City told me: “It reminds me of Jesus saying, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in and fed me and clothed me.’” I thought about a time described in the Book of Acts, when communal Christian living was one of “great grace” because everything was shared and so no one lacked any needed thing. And Jesus’ Good Samaritan no longer seemed a mere story to me.

On Wednesday, I remembered that I had the phone number for Leslie McCurdy, a pastor in Halifax whom I had met a year earlier in Romania. I wondered if he was in town. He was. He asked if I needed anything. Are you kidding, I said, this place is like a four star hotel. The next day we met at the Base. He brought his Norelco electric shaver. Bless you, brother.

Afterward I had to admit that there had been a givingness among us that seemed so normal that it judged the way I did “normal” life back home. The community of Halifx-Dartmouth had expressed to us strandeds something durable of the image of God in human beings: the ability to give grace to defeat the deeds even of great evil. Well, we strandeds did our small bit as well. It may have only been to run some errand or carry some message, but we helped each other as we were able. And we struck up friendships with the officers. You may think I’m lying when I add that during our days on the Base, only one of the strandeds raised a stink. He did it so often, and for what most of us considered superficial reasons, that he failed to be taken seriously.

Halifax Nova Scotia AirportI also noticed that we seemed to have entered a curious new relationship to time. I’m tempted to say that time had stopped for us, but that’s too clichéd, besides being inaccurate. Time had not stopped but had somehow been altered. Yesterday, we were busy westerners on tight schedules. Deadlines to meet. Places to be. Lives to lead. Today we had time. Humanly speaking we could thank the FAA for part of this, as the days of our departure kept getting pushed into the future – each new day we were informed that “they” (the FAA) would not be flying us out “today,” or if we would fly “tomorrow.” There was no future beyond the present. There was just today. And within that novel existential period time seemed quite remarkable.

Here’s a for-instance. When people’s paths would cross on the Base, as repeatedly they did, we had time for one another. And you never knew who you were going to run into again, or when, or where. It might be in or outside the gym, in the mess hall or at a barbeque, in a lounge or by a shower locker, or on a path to and from the barracks. Wherever and whenever it occurred, there was time to stop and say with smile,“Oh, hello, again,” and then pick up a previous conversation as if we had all the time in the world. After all, what else was there to do but to get to know each other?

In this new relationship that we had been given with time, narrative abounded, often between the unlikeliest of persons. A shy 19-year old student from Oxford kneels beside the cot of a lonely 40-year old Kenyan woman, befriending her. A 25-year-old designer from Germany gets into an animated discussion with a 60-year-old CEO from England in the lunch queue. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twentysomething from France and learns what it’s like to be an au pair. Reverend Matthews and his wife comfort young newlyweds from England whose honeymoon had been interrupted. A knot of strangers from different nations and races share their histories with one another while seated on uncomfortable gray plastic chairs in the sun outside the gym. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food, but he’s been late to the queue and can’t spot an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and invite him over. Far beyond any powers of the FAA, however, was the power of heaven, which, I later concluded, must have been the giver of the new relationship with time that I had experienced.

Full disclosure: I noticed a mental habit that was at first hostile to the new time. It revealed itself this way. I would find myself pleasantly absorbed into someone a stranger-turned-neighbor narrative when I would suddenly think I’ve got to go now. But then it would hit me. I don’t have anyplace to go, nowhere to be, I’ve got time. Here was time to get to know the other. Where are you from? Where were you headed? How are you getting on here? Need anything? No? Okay. At the very least, heaven must be like this, as much time as you want to get to know all sorts of people. “Oh, there you are again. Remember when we were talking about….”

At Shearwater, selfish interest, disappointment, and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, mutual support, and common good among the different. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we were capable of expressing. It kicked out fear and renewed our faith in the better angels of our nature. When heaven broke in, walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities and human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.

There was no more stunning awareness of the transformation than the one that occurred when the FAA finally green-lighted Flight 59 to fly to Atlanta on September 15. During our three-hour flight that Saturday morning, the dark blue curtains that separate the economy seats from business and first class were never pulled. They remained opened for the entire flight.

Twin Towers smokingThe no-longer-strandeds had boarded to their previously assigned seats, but once the Fasten Seat Belt signs were clicked off, the neighborliness that had matured on the ground between people of all classes effortlessly continued in the air. People rose and moved about the plane. Without hint of reproof regarding status or class, people from economy walked into first class and picked up conversations that had been left hanging in the hustle from the Base to the airport. I watched the suits and the blue-jeaned exchanging phone numbers. I’m a frequent flyer and I’ve never seen the ritual “pulling of the veils” suspended before. I really believe that it just never occurred to anyone to revive the old barriers.

And so there I. Having slipped from economy to first class to talk to someone, I eventually sat down by myself and stared out a porthole. It was another gorgeous morning, bright and clear. Captain Williams took us down the Atlantic Coast. Time slowed to a crawl as we flew over New York City and saw, even five days on, plumes of smoke spiraling up toward us from the huge gray crater. Ground Zero; nee: the World Trade Center. I snapped a photo and then stared until I could no longer see the ascending trails of tears. So, it really had happened.

(Shorter versions of this essay were published for the first anniversary of 9/11 in Third Way, September, 2002, and in Crosspoint, Fall 2002, 9/11.)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images in order of appearance: Getty Images. Creative Commons. N/C. CBC News. Magdalena Roeseler. Creative Commons. Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

I’ll be brief

Have we Americans fallen into a condition in which it is now going to take catastrophic domestic events to bring us together? I don’t know. I hope not. What we can all see, however, is that the country pulled itself together to rush to rescue and aid tens of thousands who have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

I’m not talking only about government agencies but especially about the countless numbers of volunteers and groups, both those already in the region and those who came from around the country. People of all political persuasions and of all sizes, shapes, and colors are continuing to pitch in to help people of all political persuasions and all sizes, shapes, and colors. Apparently, the massive rescue and relief efforts have seemed so profound that even national news organizations that remain traumatized by the election of Donald Trump are putting out stories about “the greatness of America.”

But the succor and largesse we are witnessing in Texas and Louisiana, and that will continue, is not an exclusively American thing. It’s a human thing. It is a feature inherent in all of us as persons made in the image of God. It takes place around the world all the time, daily, and usually apart from tragedies and disasters.

Despite the bad and the ugly, the good in us is also on tap, and people everywhere listen to the better angels of their nature in acts of self-denial to serve others every day in ways large and small. We need to hear those stories all the time, whether they emerge from tragedies or from ordinary daily life.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the Way of the Wise How

joys of homeworkI have been thinking lately about “goals,” probably due to the sense of accomplishment I recently felt with the publication of a new book – one that had been a goal of mine for forty years!

I’ve also been thinking that we live in a time when the setting of goals has become a big thing. A career change. A post-grad degree. A wife. A husband. Two children. An adoption. A new car. Acquire three new clients. Start my own business. Publish an article or a book. Lose forty pounds. Create a website. Run for public office. Make that Olympic team (well, maybe just the college team). You get the picture. Any list of things to get or places to be would run as long and as varied as the people asked.

Leaving aside a discussion of whether a goal is dubious, or whether such and such a person ought to have set such and such a goal, I’m going to assume, here, that the goal is a good one, and doable, for the person in question. Even so, the question of how to reach the goal then becomes is crucial for anyone, especially for Christians, who serve a God who is certainly interested in the end result!

The ways we travel
The God of the end, however, is also the God of the way. God is keen not only about the omegas we seek but also with the ways we travel to get there. This is a huge theme of the book of Proverbs, especially in 3:17, which speaks of the “ways” and “paths” of wisdom. The decisive use of the plural must not be missed. Wisdom, here, is being presented not just as one way but as having many ways (paths). This use of the plural may seem counterintuitive because we Christians follow “the way” (John 14:6), Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Doesn’t Proverbs 3:17 contradict that? How can there be many paths of wisdom?

the better angels of our natureUnlike John 14:6, Proverbs 3:17 is not a soteriological passage. To put it another way, whereas John 14:6 is about God’s way of salvation, Proverbs 3:17 is about God’s ways for directing our travels through life’s daily grinds, which are many and varied. For different goals in this world are, and must be, reached via different methods. When three people have three different goals, or even if one person has several goals, they are reached via different methods. You don’t hunt for a house to rent, or to buy, in the same way you plant your garden or run for an elected office. You don’t use the same method to get your post-grad degree as you would to court your future spouse (I hope not!).

The book of Proverbs admonishes us to come under the discipline of the yoke of the wise how, to let wise ways, not foolish ways, direct our steps.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs, for instance, may be summarized as a test of wills between those who will choose to follow the wise ways of Lady Wisdom, which lead to life (Proverbs 3:18), or the foolish ways of Lady Folly, which lead to death: “Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths…. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:25-27).

So that is the first thing: choosing and then traveling a way, a path, of godly wisdom for reaching a particular goal we have set. The question then becomes: What is a way, a path, of godly wisdom toward a particular goal? How do we come under the discipline of the wise how?

I pose this question because a huge industry, populated with self-help gurus and ultra-achievers, among others,  has arisen devoted to offering many and varied methods for reaching goals.

When following a method, how do we discern if anything is biblically unacceptable in its ideas, values, means, strategies, and steps to fulfilment?

The answer will depend on how much time, effort, and resources we put into thinking biblically about how we will get to a goal and what is taking place along the way. Admittedly, discrimination of this kind – between the biblical and the unbiblical – can be a tricky business for any Christian. After all, how does one think biblically about choosing a PhD program or running for election or buying a new car? If the teaching arm of our church has not given us the tools for learning to think biblically about the importance of our methodologies, well then…. Non-biblical ideas, attitudes, and values will fill the vacuum.

I want to draw attention to what I call two inconspicuous essentials of God’s wisdom, which can help us recognize if our travels toward a goal has the feel of a wise how.

Peaceableness
One of these essentials is peaceableness. To return to Proverbs 3:17: The ways of wisdom are pleasant and her paths are paths of peace. The word “ways,” here, is about the means taken or the procedures followed to an end. In short, it is about method. The word “peace” is the venerable Hebrew word shalom (well-being; flourishing). And in the New Testament, the epistle of James (also at 3:17) indicates that the wisdom that comes from above is peace-loving, as well as considerate, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. That kind of wisdom is contrasted to the kind that is bitter, envious, and filled with selfish ambition, strife, and disorder (3:14-16).

I think the message, here, is that if God’s peace is setting the spirit and tone of whatever method we are applying to reach a goal, then patience, sympathy, mercy, good fruit, even-handedness, and sincerity are traveling with us along the way.

It would be a good practical exercise, then, to spend time answering questions about whether those qualities, or the ones James calls envy, selfish ambition, and strife, are refereeing a particular method we are relying on. It’s not that we will be perfectly consistent epistles of the qualities of a godly wisdom, but surely we ought to be making progress with them. Is their influence pretty strongly felt as we work toward fulfilling a goal?

It’s a personal thing
The other inconspicuous essential of God’s wisdom is its personal-relational quality. In Proverbs 8:25-31, wisdom is described as having some sort of personal, or personal-like, relationship with God, with the creation, and with human beings. Note also that this triune relationship is described as one of delight, of rejoicing, and of pulling together:

“I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind” (Proverbs 8:25-31).

Due to its ontological difficulties, this may be the most debated passage by scholars in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going to enter that debate here. I just want to underline the fact that wisdom is being presented here as having some sort of personal relational presence with God, with creation, and with human beings. (This is assumed repeatedly throughout the biblical wisdom literature in a wealth of images and contexts.)

skill in wisdomIn other words, wisdom is not presented in Scripture as any sort of abstract edifice of thought, such as an ideology or an -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714.)

Since our relationships with others give us a big clue as to whether the peace of God is present in them, the relationships we have with those who are assisting us toward our goals can help us discern if we are in the path of a wise how.

If the triune relationship that Lady Wisdom has with God, creation, and human beings is enjoyable, delightful, and pleasant, are those qualities present within biblical boundaries in our pursuit of a goal?

This is not to suggest that struggles, disappointments, setbacks, failures, and suchlike will not befall us. It is to suggest being conscious of what kind of fruit we are bearing through our relationships with those with whom we are traveling to reach a goal.

If your children are suffering due to your training schedule for running the marathon; if your marriage is falling apart because of the way you are pursuing that PhD; if your bull-in-a-china-shop method for getting a promotion is making enemies of fellow employees; if you’re running out of patience with your guitar instructor; if you have become chronically unhappy with your fiancé … You get the picture. Is it time to hit Pause and admit that a course correction is necessary?

This short article on a complicated topic probably evoked more questions than solutions. But maybe it’s a start.

When we mis-prioritize “goal” as being the main thing, it is easy to de-prioritze the essentiality of learning and applying a godly wisdom for getting there.

It is a governing theme of Scripture that God is particularly concerned with wisdom, and wisdom is to a large degree about method, about how we get somewhere. For the follower of Jesus – the supreme example of the peaceable, the personal, and relational – the way of wise how must be recognized and prioritized when traveling to get somewhere or something.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

When Our Wisdom Amounts to Nothing

human eyeA long time ago through the prophet Jeremiah, God gave a word to the people of Jerusalem about the condition of their social life. Even though that word was the result of a divine finding, it didn’t sit well for a people who had concluded that their social life was pretty darn good. But in the eyes of Yahweh, according to the prophet, the people’s social life had become generationally organized around deceit, dishonesty, and greed; from the top down they were a shameless, wayward community, a false witness to the law of the Lord:

“Why is this people–Jerusalem–rebellious
With a persistent rebellion?
They cling to deceit.
They refuse to return.
I have listened and heard;
They do not speak honestly.
No one regrets his wickedness
And says, ‘What have I done!’
They all persist in their wayward course
Like a steed dashing forward in the fray….
My people pay no heed
To the law of the Lord….
From the smallest to the greatest,
They are all greedy for gain;
Priest and prophet alike,
They all act falsely.”
(Jer. 8:4-10; JSB, Tanakh translation)

From the top down, the people had created and followed huge edifices of religious and political thought that justified sins that were not only tearing their social fabric apart but also making them so delirious that they could not see that they were about to face the death of their culture. The human capacity for self-deception being without limit, the people are not conscious of their movement toward the cliff. Instead, relying on edifices of thought based on distortions of the law of the Lord, they have a different way of seeing their social life. They believe all is well. But Yahweh sees things quite another way. And you would have to be pretty numb indeed not to hear the breaking heart of God for the people in a very intimate moment Yahweh has with Jeremiah:

“They dress the wound of my people
As though it were not serious.
‘Shalom, shalom,’ they say, where there is no shalom.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
They do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
They will be brought down when they are punished.”
(Jeremiah 8:11-12, NIV)

As one season of the year surely follows another, the word “wisdom” in Scripture is meant to put us in mind of the strong influence that our ideas and beliefs exert over our behaviors and our actions. In other words, “wisdom” in Scripture, among other things, denotes a way of seeing life and living in it. And of course St. Paul and St. James remind us that there are different kinds of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:9; James 3:13-18). Jeremiah is saying that at the heart of a culture’s social sins lies a bogus way of seeing life and living in it, a bankrupt wisdom. It becomes a way of life for the people, and it has been spread by both the writings and the speeches of religious authorities and political leaders in particular, as the following words of Jeremiah indicate.

In an age when our social life is so often associated with deceit, dishonesty, greed, and a lack of shame, from leadership right the way through the citizenry, maybe we ought to take to heart these words of Jeremiah about wisdom, that God may have mercy on us, that our social policies may be those of a godly wisdom, that we may be spared the death of our culture:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise,’
And we possess Instruction from the Lord?’
Assuredly, for naught has the pen labored,
For naught the scribes!
The wise shall be put to shame,
Shall be dismayed and caught;
See, they reject the word of the Lord,
So their wisdom amounts to nothing.”
(Jeremiah 8:8-9, JSB, Tanakh translation)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Cesar R, permission via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

“There Are No Ordinary People”

refugee tent city [Klaus Reisinger]These are demanding times for Christians who are committed to loving neighbor as they love themselves. It is becoming increasingly easy to slip into less exacting paths. I am glad that our pastor has been addressing this theme in various ways in a number of sermons in recent months. C. S. Lewis, a highly regarded Christian thinker and writer, also took it on. In a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis offered a stunning insight about loving neighbor, which he delivered during a period of world history when division, conflict, and war offered a steady diet of hate for the soul.

A similar diet is being dished out to our generation – and you know that what you eat you are. Having eaten enough to hate our enemy, we are now being fattened to ignore another of Jesus’ commands: love of neighbor. Why bother loving our neighbor and loving our enemy? Indeed, if we are not being loved I return, why bother? Lewis grappled with this during World War Two. Here, in that inimitable way he had, are his concluding remarks in “The Weight of Glory”:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Tent City by Klaus Reisinger via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.