Why I Am Not Writing About Which Lives Matter or Who Should Be President or The Weather

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When I was a kid there was an old proverb going around that I think had been going around for a good century.  It went something like this, “Do not talk about politics and religion in polite company.  Better to stick to sports and the weather.”

I’ll never forget the moment I realized the last sentence in that tidbit wasn’t true any more.  I had moved to a small town in Eastern Oregon from the Midwest.  I was sitting in the local sandwich shop that sat a block from my church.  I was trying to get to know the owner, a bright woman with an entrepreneurial spirit and fun personality.  Somehow we got to talking about the weather, probably because we were polite people.

I made some statement about the fact that I was glad that I wasn’t in tornado alley any more.

She stopped and stared at me and said, “Oh, we get tornadoes here” as if she was genuinely concerned that I had been misled.

I almost laughed out loud.  Northeast Oregon is surrounded by 9,000 foot tall mountains.  They do not get tornadoes.

“Well I suppose you get little dust funnels out on the farm fields but not like Missouri where people’s homes get destroyed.”

The tone of the conversation changed drastically.  Her concerned expression turned to a glare.

“No, you need to know here that the wind blows pretty hard.  In 1967 a tornado knocked a single wide trailer right off its cinder block foundation!”

I suddenly realized I was in an argument I didn’t even want to win and so back tracked and said, “Oh really?  Thanks for letting me know!” and changed the subject to sports which she gratefully knew nothing about.

I could list thirty more conversations I have had that are very similar to this.  When I started my current assignment I made the horrible mistake of asking my worship team to pray right before our worship service.  I thought, “Everybody loves prayer!”  I am still paying for that horrible request.  Right after that I suggested to the wrong person that we look into painting our fellowship hall.  He let me know in no small way that I was not to touch that fellowship hall and still, a year later, won’t meet with me outside of Sunday morning.  I can’t open my mouth about anything any more without some unexpected backlash.

This illustrates that keeping polite company any more is a brutal chore.  People don’t value civility any more.  Instead they value their own opinions and how right they think they are.

Some of my friends have given up entirely.  They seem to adore the national and theological arguments that are destroying politeness.  Every time something goes down regarding guns, the LGBTQ community, women’s rights, or national elections their Facebook profile is instantly water marked and their statuses hashtagged with activism.  Whether conservative or liberal, they seem to love the chance to post divisive cartoons, tired talking points, angry blogs and partisan articles.  They seem sincere in this, like they genuinely believe they are doing society some good.

You older, anti technology types should not be fooled.  This did not start with the invention of Facebook.  I know a lot of people I meet with face to face who are just as boisterous.  They yell and share their opinions with anyone who will listen and they want to bait you into the argument so they can drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.  They have succeeded to do that to me more times than I can count.

But don’t get me wrong, I am envious of their freedom.  I wish I felt like I had the freedom to just post whatever opinion I wanted to.  In fact sometimes I feel guilty for not chiming in and joining my “side” with my carefully informed and well formed opinions.  I bet I could even articulate them better than half the internet and that alone might do some good.

Or it definitely won’t.

Because every time I do chime in, whether online or in real life, I instantly feel guilty.  I cried for days that I had let the color of our fellowship hall come between me and a beloved parishioner.  I am still in mourning over insisting my worship team pray during a time that just would not work for them.  I should have reversed harder and quicker.  I definitely did learn my lessons though.

When I do chime in on my opinions, it is almost like I had just smoked my first cigarette.  There is a rush of rebellious satisfaction followed by nothing but guilt and a hacking cough as I wonder:

What will my church people think?

Will I lose my job over this?

Does that person still love me?

What will my liberal best friend or my conservative uncle think?

What if this new couple who has just started attending our church disagrees and decides our church isn’t right for them because of it?

Then I delete, delete, delete.  Or if it is in person, apologize, apologize, apologize.

In today’s world having and sharing opinions is just too costly.  The price is too high, especially for pastors.  In ages past you were allowed to think differently than someone without losing your salary, your position, even your ordination and definitely your friends.  This is not true any more.  People care more about the weather and what color their fellowship hall should be than they do about each other.  I don’t want to be one of them.

My friendship with you is far too important to me.  If you are going to terminate it because I think Oregon doesn’t get tornadoes than by all means, “watch out for those funnel clouds!”  If you want me to liberal, I will be liberal for you.  If you want me to be conservative,  I will be conservative for you.  If you love our fellowship hall just the way it is, than it is the most beautiful fellowship hall I have ever seen!

You can call me wishy-washy but know that I am not.  I know what I believe and I do act on it.   My best friends and wife will certainly attest to that!  I just try really hard not to let you know what I believe because I would rather keep being your friend.

Rather, you can say I am a coward because I am.  You can say I care too much about what people think because I do.  You can say I like having money to feed my family more than I like “the gospel.”  That is fair, though I would argue my opinions and your opinions about national affairs are NOT the gospel.

Ultimately we now live in a world where pride is alienating us from each other and I desperately crave true, civil, Christian friendship.  And if the price of my friendship with you is letting you have your opinions while thinking (most times wrongly) that I agree with you, than so be it.  I want to be your friend and that is worth the price of constantly biting my tongue and not clicking the “share” button.

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When Coin Flips Decide Presidents: Something’s Gone Wrong with Democracy

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I am not going to lie, I have spent a crazy amount of time over the last six months reading politics in preparation for Iowa.  And last night did not disappoint!  In fact, whether you hated or loved the results, you have to admit that Iowa is fascinating.  By law they get to have the very first turn at picking the President, but only because they caucus.  The candidates have to campaign in Iowa in very unique ways.  They have to go door to door like your average county commissioner.  They have to pretend to like ethanol and to talk to Jesus on a regular basis.  They have to open booths at county fairs right next to the free donkey rides and they have to shake hands outside of pizzerias.  It is a lot of fun to watch.

They do this all summer and autumn until it all culminates in one night where hundreds of local communities get together and try to decide which candidate to support.  I loved every minute of following Iowa these last few months, right up through the results last night.

Then I woke up this morning with a nasty hangover whose primary symptom was cynicism.  There was something wrong and fishy about this whole thing and I am not sure I like it.

First of all Iowa’s population is 3 million.  3 million people is actually less than %1 of the US population.  More than that, only a bit more than 300,000 people actually went to the caucuses last night.  That is about 10 percent of Iowa.  So we are letting 1/10th of 1% of our population have an incredible amount of say in how the nomination battles take place.  That makes me a little uncomfortable but I still understand that someone has to go first.  Might as well be Iowa.

But then another story broke.  Hillary only “won” the caucuses because of six coin tosses in six different places.  It seems that the caucus model doesn’t leave room for ties, so the local commissioners had to figure out a way to break it.  And what better than a coin flip?  This wouldn’t have been a story if the election had not been close.  If it had been a landslide, we would all be rolling our eyes at the silly Iowan hicks who flip coins.  But the election was a tie and six coins gave Clinton the “lead.”  So now those coins are headlines as is her incredibly arrogant press release at 3am this morning before the official results were in.

Some are using the coins to critique the caucus system.  Some are using it to critique Iowa’s over inflated importance.  And still others are using it to say something more critical and profound about the state of our democracy.  I am in that last group.

Because this whole thing disturbs me.

The caucuses are not to blame.  They are closer to representing what the founding fathers of the US envisioned.  To them, democracy was not a group of people sitting in private booths pushing out chads and pulling levers, or even worse sitting at home weeks before the election with 8 envelopes that must be folded and “enveloped” just so in order for the vote to count.  (I misfolded mine in 2012 and my presidential vote for “Stephen Colbert” went uncounted.)

No, to the founding fathers democracy was about getting everybody together in a room and forcing them to work together.  This is why we elect our President not through popular vote but through delegates.  The original idea was that communities would gather together and pick someone from their community that they respected and trusted.  That delegate would then go to Washington and meet with the other delegates from around the country.  They would all bicker and argue about who the President should be but then the majority would rally around someone and the delegate would report back to the constituents who the President was.

The hope was that if we chose someone we trusted, we could trust them to pick someone trustworthy to be President.  We hoped trust would trickle up to the high echelons of power.

We are very far removed from that system and I see no hope of going back.  In fact, what disturbs me most about the primary process is that I will not know one thing about my delegate to the national conventions.  There is a high chance this year that both conventions could be “brokered” which means that on the second vote the delegates will not have to vote for who I tell them to vote for.  This means someone I do not know or trust might pick my party’s nominee.  I should spend a lot more time figuring out who that person is than who the candidates are!

If that doesn’t disturb you, then this will.  There is absolutely nothing that guarantees your state delegate to Washington D.C. for the general Presidential election has to vote for who you tell them to vote for.  Every Presidential election has had at least one delegate jump ship and vote for someone different than who their state told them to.  I live in Utah which will almost certainly vote for a Republican President but that doesn’t mean the Utah delegate has to choose the Republican.  They might go Democrat or even abstain from voting.  This happens all the time but so far hasn’t changed the outcome of the election.  The minute it does (and that day is coming) the foundations of our shaky democracy will crumble.  Be that as it may, there is some more info on national delegates here.

We are a far cry from what the founding fathers envisioned.  Their vision was about people getting together in rooms and choosing trustworthy local leaders to represent them at the state and national levels.  Currently we do the opposite.  We isolate ourselves from our communities and climb into tiny little booths.  When we do so we are quite arrogant, assuming that we think we know everything about the candidates when in fact we know next to nothing other than their appearance and party.  You can’t really know someone until you have met them face to face.  But we assume we are little gods who know everything and we pull our lever of power and then spew vitriol at those who disagree but we do it from behind closed doors.

This is not democracy.  This is arrogance.

What we should be doing is far more humble.  It is gathering together with our neighbors and having honest but confrontational dialog.  We should sit in a room together until we can all agree on a delegate whom we know.  Then we should trust that delegate to make the right decision about who the President should be.

Therefore the reason the coin flips in Iowa bug me so much has nothing to do with the caucus format.  It has everything to do with the reality that the coins were the easy and lazy way out.  Those communities should have lived into the spirit of the Fathers and argued until there was a majority.  That is how democracy is supposed to work and I pray, without much hope, we can get there again.