The Last Cowboy and when Politics became Religion

As Americans, we entertain a romantic notion that we are a group of rugged individualists. We imagine ourselves as the cowboy sitting astride his horse in a driving blizzard, hat pulled low, coat collar turned high as he watches over the herd. We have visions of life on the prairie, the pioneer wife, busting through the sod to plant a crop to feed her family, or the rugged New Englander, launching his hand-made wooden craft into the stormy Atlantic in pursuit of lobster or cod.

That individualism may be a part of our national gene pool, but if we’re honest, we are mostly a nation of joiners. We join the Lions Club, Kiwanis or Masons, we become Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostals. We sign up for book clubs and knitting groups, identify ourselves as Cubs, Cardinals, Red Sox or Yankee fans. And of course we align ourselves as Democrats or Republicans.

There is value and comfort in joining with others of like interests. It provides a common bond, a baseline of communication and a sense of belonging. It allows us to relax, knowing that we are with others of same beliefs. That group becomes our community, more than our neighbors or the residents of the town we live in. They become our tribe.

But humans are an inherently flawed species, and all this joining carries with it a dark side. Somehow we understand that our tribe is made up of a collection of individuals, we are willing to cut each other some slack for our idiosyncrasies, for our differences, for our humanity. But that other tribe, the group that we don’t belong too, we paint with a broad brush. We use terms like, “those people.”

And then we have politics.

Somewhere along the way, politics ceased to be a preference of one policy over another. We no longer debate the merits of the New Deal or the Truman Doctrine. Economic and foreign policy issues have been relegated to lessor importance than social issues, and with the focus on social issues, political debate has become very personal and very divisive. National politics has become our national religion, an unholy alliance of church and state.

To know God’s love and grace is a wonderful thing.

To believe that God is aligned with your political party is a scary and dangerous thing.

Once you make the leap that God is on the side of your political party then there is just one answer as to who the other political party serves. If your party is good and the other party evil, then there is no reason to communicate, there is no need for compromise because who would want to compromise with evil. The result is vote after vote divided strictly along party lines.

Once you decide that God is on your side, then every action, every attitude, no matter how cruel or vicious is justified. We know that God hates evil, therefore it is perfectly permissible to hate members of the other party. We become crusaders, fighting a new holy war.

The irony is that this religion doesn’t even require a belief in God.

No matter, because we can make one in our own image. Sometimes he appears as a white, middle-aged, Republican living in the mid west. Other times she takes the image of an east coast Democrat, a vegan hipster, espousing radical environmentalist views. This is a God of our own construct, miraculously aligning with our party’s platform.

Our sacred texts are no longer delivered on tablets of stone, but flow daily in no more than 140 characters from Mount Hollywood or the white marble temples of Washington D. C.

If we need more motivation than tweets can provide, there is always Facebook. Our need for periodic outrage can be satisfied by selecting from an endless smorgasbord of questionable news sources.

The high priests and priestesses of these national religions tolerate no heresy within their own ranks, only true believers will be accepted.  Any Democrat who entertains thoughts of being pro-life or any Republican considering gun control is shunned and removed from meaningful committees.

Marie Newman, a long-time Democratic activist said in an recent interview. “No matter how you feel personally, you have to vote to support the Democratic Party values. We have all looked at the 90-page document that is the Democratic Party platform that was created last year.”

Individual thought is discouraged while “groupthink” is praised.

Wikipedia offers this description of groupthink: Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.


Somewhere on a high mountain sits a cowboy.  He looks down into the valleys below and sees a string of towns and cities, glittering in the night. He can see the twinkling lights, but they do not compete with the canopy of stars above him. He has been to the city. He knows that the lights they have created block from view the constellations and galaxies that form the roof over his head.

By their measure he is uneducated, but he can tell the weather by watching the skies, and knows when a storm is brewing. He is comfortable with himself, he needs no titles or trophies.

The cowboy appreciates that the constellations he now enjoys will slowly shift over the horizon as the seasons change and smiles knowingly that herdsman in other countries will soon view the same stars. The stars create a perspective that can’t be denied. The heavens above remind him that he is just one small person in God’s creation. God’s creation illuminates the slums of Haiti, the sidewalk cafes of Paris, the villages of China, the high-rise apartments in New York, around the globe the light of the stars and sun shine on all the world. God recognizes no political parties, no sports teams and no organizations, he only knows his children, which is to say, all of us.

The cowboy whistles softly to his dog and they trot slowly back to the herd, leaving the glitter behind.

Be the cowboy … Poppy

The Last Warm Day of the Year?

Like an episode of Seinfeld, this post isn’t about anything. Just some musings as I sit on the front porch in the middle of October, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, with a temperature in the 80’s at 9 o’clock. When Tate and I returned home with our pizza (another gourmet dinner), the digital gauge in the SUV of the external temperature read 88°. Global warming, I suppose. A cynical person might say the planet has been warming since the last ice age. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t know any cynical people.

Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the evening here in famous Ferguson. The katydids, crickets and tree frogs are in fine form, serenading me as I’m enjoying what may be the last warm day of the year. The forecast is calling for a low of 44° tomorrow, that’s quite a drop.

There is slight smell of ash in our 1890 house. I don’t know for sure, but I’m wondering if because the outside temperature is warmer  than the inside that  the air is not flowing down through the three chimneys on the first floor rather than up. Having said that, the entire summer would fit that description, so that doesn’t explain it. The smell is not so unpleasant as to spend any more time contemplating the cause and it is a reminder of fires to come. If winter has any redeeming value, it is the joy of a warm fire on a cold evening.

I know all to well, that it won’t be long before I step out on the front porch, and there will be silence. The tree-top musicians that are still providing the soundtrack of summer, tuned into the temperature rather than the calendar date will be dormant. Until then, I will enjoy their symphony.

Mrs. G, our semi-feral cat has decided to join me on the front porch. How we came by Mrs G is a whole different blog post, but I should at least explain the name. We simply tired of calling her, “that grey cat” and she became Mrs. G.

I spent most of the day working outside, rebuilding the fence around the pool, yes I know, a first world problem if there ever was one, but Mrs. G enjoyed the company. Like most cats she wants some attention, but not too much. A brave man would draw parallels to women about now. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t know any brave men.

Poppy

Funerals, Faith and Fog

The sun rose before Mrs. Poppy and myself. By the time we left Sikeston, Missouri the sun had been up an hour or more. We woke to a foggy landscape that would stay with us through most of the day. The fog was not so dense that it made driving dangerous. We had at least a half-mile of visibility down the road. At that point cars traveling in our direction, would abruptly disappear into the mist. On the opposite side of the highway, cars would suddenly appear as if emerging from an other-worldly portal.

Even knowing we were headed north, I could not locate the sun that bathed the landscape in a warm glow, softening the edges of everything it touched. The vista outside our windshield became an impressionistic painting as the fog settled into the valleys and low-lands that we passed, creating lakes and rivers of swirling grey mist.

I wrapped my fingers around a paper cup filled with hot coffee, courtesy of the motel we had stayed at the night before. It was better than expected for a complimentary cup of coffee, but mostly I appreciated its warmth.

The atmosphere outside the SUV fit the mood inside. Mrs. Poppy and I sat in a comfortable silence, each with our own introspective thoughts that required no conversation. The music of Leonard Cohen would have achieved the right level of melancholy for our frame of minds, but the situation required a level of purity that Leonard could not have provided. Perhaps a fugue by J.S. Bach would have been in order, as he slowly and mathematically created a musical world and then brought it crashing down, but that was not to be had, so we rolled on through the mist in silence.


We were returning home from a funeral. Funerals are always tough, but this one was particularly difficult. Dying is as much a part of life as being born. Intellectually  we know this, emotionally when it happens unexpectedly and at what we think is the wrong time, it’s a struggle.

This service was for a family friend, taken shortly after her 60th birthday and just a few weeks after her retirement. She had just started the next phase of life, devoting herself to her family, her art, her hobbies, and then unexpectedly in her sleep, she is gone. Her family and friends are left reeling and this huge question hangs over everyone’s head, … WHY?

I know there are people who think it’s wrong to question God. Personally, I think it’s a healthy thing to do. It is better to voice your concerns to God than to ignore him. He is not so fragile as to be wounded by our questions or diminished by our doubt. The Bible is littered with heroes of the faith, who have questioned God.

Every parent has experienced the questioning phase, where every other word from your child is, “why?” We do not disown our children for questioning, we understand this as a phase of learning. Neither does God disown his children for questioning.

Having said that, I have never received a direct answer when I question God and don’t know anyone who has. Instead I get the feeling that he’s saying, “Let’s continue this conversation as we walk along.”

Sometimes after a few miles and a few years, we look back and say, “Oh yeah, I get it now.”

Often though, we never get an answer and this is where faith enters the conversation. Faith enters because it is needed in times where there are tough questions but seemingly no answers.

Everyone understands faith is a virtue. How we come by that faith is a matter of debate. There are those of the belief that faith is something you make a decision to have, that if you concentrate hard enough, clench your jaw and are absolutely determined, than you will have faith. I have a suspicion that those who claim an absolute, unshakable faith are also proud of their humility.

I have a much more pessimistic view of myself and by extension, of humanity. I don’t see a lot of goodness naturally occurring within me. I’m not sure I want the type of faith that I can generate.

I believe faith, like grace, flows from God, measured out as we need it. Faith is not an anesthetic that numbs the pain that we are feeling, rather faith and its sibling, hope, walk with us, guiding us through the darkest times. Faith knows of paths that human logic can’t find.


We have driven an hour and the fog is still with us. I can’t see everything that lies ahead down the road. I can only see a short distance in front of me … but I can make the entire journey like this.

I have just enough faith to know that if I stay on this road, it will take me home.

Poppy

…………………………..

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” – C.S. Lewis

The Sun Also Sets

When Mimsy and I went for our walk tonight, you could tell the season was beginning to change. Sure it was October 1st, you would expect it by that date, but we’ve had a run of very hot days at the end of September. Tonight though you could believe in autumn. For a few moments the breeze picked up and the sound of rustling trees and fallen leaves skittering across the sidewalk drowned out the hum of distant cars and the rhythm of persistent nocturnal insects. Not only could you feel the change in the air, you could hear it.

We had just finished the quintessential Sunday dinner of pot-roast, potatoes, carrots and warm bread. When we returned home, I gave Mimsy the option of staying on the front porch with me as I finished my glass of wine, but the lingering smell of roast and activity inside the house was too much for her so I had the porch to myself.

The sun had set without fanfare, but the sky in the western horizon remained a brilliant blue. It silhouetted the trees and houses along Elizabeth Avenue. As it’s glow slowly faded,  I rewound the events of the previous hours. By any measure, it had been a wonderful day. The weather was perfect, we needed the rain, but today I don’t think anyone was willing to trade the weather we had for a rainy day. My grandson had spent the night before with us and stayed through most of the day. After I took him home, I stopped by to see my mother at the skilled nursing facility where she lives.

When I tell someone that my mother will be 102 in a few months, the usual response is, “Oh that’s wonderful.”

I nod in agreement, but inside I’m thinking, “No it’s not wonderful.”

It’s not that I want to lose my mother, but her quality of life has deteriorated so badly and Alzheimer’s has robbed her of most her memories, that I wish for her the peace she seeks.

As I talk to her, I search for events and places that she can recall. It’s as if her mind is being slowly wiped by a computer virus, starting with the most recent memories and proceeding relentlessly backwards. I speak of a town where she lived as a young girl, and for a moment her eyes will light up and she says, “I haven’t heard that name in a long time.”

After telling her multiple times, it bothers me slightly that she doesn’t know who I am. I console myself with the knowledge that she is grateful for any visitor. But what crushes me, is that she doesn’t remember my dad, her husband, at all.

They were married for 78 years and were inseparable. They set the standard for me of what a married couple should be, always faithful, always loving, and now she doesn’t remember him.

This is when I question God.

I search for answers, for knowledge … is there something I should be learning here?

No answers are forthcoming, so I resolve myself to do this:
I can’t bring back my mother’s memories but I can honor them. I can try to remember everything my parents gave me. Not the material things but the values, the principles, the love that was modeled before me everyday. I can do my best to pass down the memories to my children and grandchildren of the artist and pragmatic businessman who had 78 wonderful years together.

This I can do.

Poppy