The U.S. is showing itself to be worn at the seams, the bright muslin florals have faded. Cushions once springy and round are flattened with irregular wave patterns. The large coffee table can no longer be trusted to hold so much as a feather. Newer furniture scattered along the edges has yet to be intermingled and arranged within the space, it seems it doesn’t fit. These bold new styles and exotic finishes show some wear and tear themselves, though not necessarily from the ravages of time. A petition is going around for all new furnishings, but no one can agree on the details.

Inauguration Reflections
I witnessed the “peaceful transition of power” on Friday from a man who taught courses in Constitutional Law, to a man who uses Twitter as a primary communication channel for his rants; from one who is exemplary in family life to a man who abuses women; from a man who believes there is such a thing as the “common good,” to a man who, ultimately, only considers what is good for him and his sycophants. I watched the ceremony, and listened to that man set forth his “new vision [of] America First.” It seems that every presidential transition is a reaction to the previous administration, but this, this feels different.

The inaugural speech was as brutish as I expected, with all the fear-mongering imagery that raised this man to power. But from his bleak vision of a burned-out middle America, I heard one thing of interest. Apparently, ‘we the people’ have been granted permission to take ‘our’ country back. In other words, it is up to us to make this country as much for our Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, even atheist neighbors as it is for ourselves. Not every citizen is a Christian, so let’s drop the pretense. And while the men who delineated independence from England’s crown perhaps never imagined the diversity of population, nor the size of territory the United States would become, they nonetheless placed certain rights in writing. It has been and will continue to be up to we, the people, to affirm and reaffirm those rights for every person who lives from sea to shining sea, not just landholding white males.

The stated “new vision” for the nation is deceptive because it is not new at all. It is the same vision that men have desired and profited from for centuries; circle the wagons, keep the goods for ourselves, let them take care of themselves. Trump’s claim that ‘American’ wealth has been stripped from middle class homes and redistributed around the world leaves him and his ilk untouched. Blame is laid at government’s feet for somehow allowing all this wealth to fly away, when the mechanisms and means for money moving around the world lies squarely within large businesses and multinational corporations–all friends of the new administration. Who gets the goods when the wagons are circled?

What is most obvious and most disturbing for its power to occlude is the attack on free speech and the press that we are witnessing. There are numerous headlines about reductions in staff from newspapers around the country, the New York Times being among the most high profile. Journalism at a national level relies upon critical investigation from local sources. It is time to pay for our newspaper subscriptions again, especially if we’re reading online. News sources are no more free than they are unbiased, and the ads one sees speak volumes. And, let’s face it, if we’re going to “take our country back,” we need reliable information. Personally, while I deeply respect the writers of Mother Jones, Sojourners, and the Nation, I tend to read news more often from NPR, the Guardian, and BBC. I have, in the last year, added Indian Country Media Network to my list of sources as well.

This nation has been schlepping democracy around the world for some time now, using it as a weapon to enter conflicts abroad since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. It is time for us, the people, to understand a little better just how our democratic republic functions. Let’s start with a quick refresher from Schoolhouse Rock. Three branches of government, working together in a system of checks and balances. Will that continue with this administration? I don’t believe so, which means this is now becoming more of an audience participation kind of spectacle.

So, here are my initial thoughts on a brief survival guide for the next four years, or until someone torches the government curtains.

  • Read the news. As in, the critically vetted news that comes from the AP and Reuters. – Focus on the issues you care about–not just one, but at least a couple. Let’s not perpetuate the single-issue voter cop-out.
  • Read U.S. history. My personal favorite is Howard Zinn. Perhaps start with the period of “yellow journalism,” or, leading up to the first world war.
  • Read Scripture together. Read your own holy book and the holy books of others.
  • Do not do this on your own. Do not attempt to process the state of the world alone. Just don’t.
  • Add your local representatives to your contact list and moisten those pen tips.
  • Gather together regularly to do stuff for one another, for your community, for your city.

Where is God in our current context? God will be found when we meet with those who are cast outside the gates of ‘normal’ society. Let us go and meet God. Then, while we still can, let’s work to make this country as much for ‘them’ as for ‘us.’

I often forget there’s a lake. People reference it, and I see it every time I pull up Google maps. But to see it requires walking, all the way over there, across campus, beyond the tall shady trees. It isn’t like where I come from.

Where I come from, instead of saying that the clouds have lifted we say “the mountains are out,” as if they had been playing coy behind a mottled grey curtain, then decided to bless us with their majesty. When the mountains are out, all one has to do is look up to see them. Certain street corners are better than others, but it doesn’t take long before even a half-caffeinated gaze wakes up to the nature just there, peeking between the buildings: snowy peaks, rolling foothills, the salty water lapping at the piers below. You’re never out of earshot of a wailing gull, nor off their radar for lunch scraps. To be confronted by nature in my city is simply to look up.

Living in the Puget Sound region forms a kind of contemplative practice of perpetually seeing nature. You learn to look for the bald eagle sitting atop the highway light that overlooks the estuary. Or watch the waves for the round bump of a harbor seal’s head. Every season yields its own icons. As a kid, I remember thinking what a hot summer it’s been when the Olympic mountains lost their snowy shawl by August. We could count on one week of glorious sunshine and buttercups in May, before a late spring chilling rain set back in until the 5th of July. Backyards and roadsides processed like clergy with their entourage—February pussy willows, March scotchbroom, April daffodils, May azaleas.

In June the salmon start the inland return to spawn, then die. First the Chinook and Sockeye in June and July, then Coho and Chum in August and September. They are the blood of the region, the pulse of the rivers. The waterways and arteries swell with hoards of silver and ruddy scaled creatures following some mysterious internal compass that directs them back to the very stream from which they hatched. This year a total of 58,585 Sockeye salmon navigated the fish ladder at Ballard Locks in Seattle. In the last decade, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the numbers have ranged from 418,016 (2006), to 21,718 (2009).

Where the salmon run, there is life. When they are well, we are well. When they are in danger, we know it’s probably our fault. We move dams for them, provide ladders for them to jump. They feed our souls and our communities, blessing our tables and streams.

~~~

I moved from my city of Seattle to Chicago in 2015 for graduate school. While, technically, I remained within the same country, the landscapes and vegetative visual culture are utterly and completely different. There is no backdrop, but only foreground. Culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to.” In this new land of Chicago tree names escape me, the birds and creatures scampering over the branches whistle question marks at me. Walking through the park sets me in a dizzying state of nature shock.

But the worst is when I go to the lakefront. I’ve heard folks use the term “third coast” for Chicago’s waterfront areas and beaches. That’s cute. Where are the kelp beds, the endless tangles of seaweed? Where are the jelly fish, the barnacles clinging to rocks and muscles exposed on the pier at low tide? Do sea lions bark out of boredom on a ship lane buoy in Lake Michigan? Perhaps my sea otter friends at the Shedd Aquarium can speak words of comfort.

I know, biologically and theologically, that where there is water there is life. Yet it still shocked me one day to look down at the lake shore sand and see small, perfectly tear drop shaped shells. Suddenly I felt gripped to know more—what do people call these little darlings? Are they native to the waters or hitchhikers? Whose mouths do they feed? Shells mean mussels, and mussels are mother nature’s wondrous filtration system, and filtration draws in creatures great and small to breathe deep.

Lake Michigan at Grosse Point

Lake Michigan at Grosse Point

Looking up and out across the water, the clouds jostling one another atop the lake, I see a hint of the Olympics amid their cotton peaks.

 

This essay was originally written for the Zygon Center Fall Seminar in Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago. 

I know some amazing, compassionate, articulate and wise people; and this morning, my facebook feedback loop is filled with messages encouraging all to support one another, to mourn, and to participate in God’s work and love here on the earth. Our democracy has failed us. The nationalist religion of politics declared one candidate the winner while the other candidate is accruing more individual votes. How many of those votes were ‘simply’ because people could not vote for a woman?

This morning I am stunned, yet not surprised. One thing I see is that the anger and fear of change–social changes, economic disenfranchisement, cultural and technological upheaval–is out in the open. We have squirreled ourselves away long enough in our own little corners. It’s time to face our fears. God only knows what that will look like, but I think we have an idea from the gospel accounts.

American Christianity must change. In fact, it cannot be “American” any longer. To all persons of faith, it’s time to encounter the living God, to let the Spirit cleanse us from our idols of comfort, and to pray continually,

Abba, let your name be made holy
Let your Kingdom come, your will be done
Here on the earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.
Amen