Saturday, December 14, 2013




When I think about ministry, there are a few binary forces that I come back to again and again.  One is the tension between the prophetic role (railing against what is wrong as well as an impassioned plea to do what is right) and the pastoral role (expressing unconditional love as well as urging healing -- not “providing” it.  Everyone has to heal themselves.)

Another is the tension between the survival of the individual and the survival of the group.  If an individual threatens a group, that person will be expelled or destroyed.  Another puzzle is how to manage the three inevitable groups within any larger group: the one that wants to keep the group the same, the one that wants to go back to yesterday and the one that wants to explore the future.

An individual has addressed the listserv of a group I belong to that considers the environment, usually from a progressive and appreciative stance.

Members are mostly academic but not exclusively -- just print based and more mellow than they used to be.  They have never tried to push me out, though I’m quite different from most of them.  In the last few days they have been “challenged,” to use a euphemism, by a man in the grip of outrage and indignation whose subject seems to slide around a bit.  For a while I thought he was a young man, but now it appears he’s in late middle age and -- this is a technical term -- “thrashing.”  That is, to a stage where he has nothing to lose so has become profane, outrageous, reckless in his desperation.  The most obvious indicator of this is that this environmental group is simply not equipped to deal with any of the things he says he’s fighting:  unjust firing of teachers, low pay for adjunct faculty, the victimization of the weak by the powerful, and the rot of universities through athletics, money and the politics of the larger culture.  

An unjust society is a worthy cause and a classic one.  If one has the endurance and equity of Mandela, the world can be changed.  But if one is truly an isolated sorehead, one will be crushed and shoved aside.  The forces that come to bear on Obama -- contempt, false accusation, opposition even when accommodated, stigma -- are present everywhere.  The sources go deeply into the early evolution of patterns for survival, maybe pre-hominid.  Certainly the Abrahamic traditions preserve as many examples of this howling in the wilderness as of an alternative, which is seclusion.  (My choice.)

What IS a just society?  The problem is that justice cannot be “one size fits all.”  Justice for a child has to be different from that for an adult; justice for a scholar is different from justice for a soldier on the battlefield.  What the group thinks is justice may only mean death to the individual.  The most consistent understanding of prophesy is that somehow the prophet has access to a “higher” understanding of what will happen in the future, often based on communication with a higher power that solves the dilemmas of our given world by calling us to a sublime, transcendent reality where the terms of justice are entirely different.  What that transcendent world and the terms of that justice might look like is the problem, but they tend to involve the removal of limits, an abundance that erases competition.  

Our individual survival as creatures is dependent on niches and interdependence.  Much as vegans might long for a world where no animal eats another, the carnivores cannot be eliminated, the parasites must live on something, there cannot be birth without death, and change will always be destruction to those who are destroyed, either directly or through habitat.  There is only one planet, though today we chafe against that limit.

Barry Greer in happy days.

So this man, Barry Greer (you could buy his books on Amazon, is clearly intense by temperament and chooses “hot” topics.  He is a provocateur.  He argues that he is inspired (technical term meaning grasping a higher meaning not necessarily available to others) and has suffered for it, while tyrants have gone unchecked -- indeed rewarded.  His example is Graham Spanier.  Hard to argue.  The guy is currently facing trial for four felonies.

Graham Spanier

Barry's martyr is Bernard Malamud, fired by Spanier years ago.  I guess Barry thought that ASLE would be interested in the currently expanding split between university administration and faculty, esp. faculty with a creative skew.  

The inner gnawing of prophets is that the voice they hear from another world might simply be a symptom of schizophrenia.  Even Jesus was taunted by Satan.  So they tend to seek confirmation from others they respect or love.  Few are able to wander in the wilderness with no income, no safety, starving and ragged.  But their need can be interpreted -- esp. by those who are comfortable -- as just a racket, a pesky seeking of attention, an unjustified interruption.  They see the sky-wheels of Ezekiel’s chariot as really just sun-dogs, common this time of year.

But who can get any work done with some thunderer making wheel tracks back and forth across the sky?  Esp. if the prophet loses his balance and begin to insult those down there in the fields, patronizing them and berating them for not being more responsive, as though they were members of a bonehead English comp class.  The trouble with most prophets is that they have no strategy, and they are no good at seduction.  And they don’t think about sex as an academic third rail.  (Spanier’s upcoming trial is related to the Sandusky coverup.)  Mention sex and all the tenured faculty are outta there.   Greer was blocked from posting on the listserv. Maybe he expected that -- even wanted it to happen.  

This is a time when expanded awareness and rising expectations have thrown many people under the chariot wheels in an emotional sense.  How much can we hear about unjustified suffering and not be affected?  This means that the need for pastoral support is high, and yet to many people that feels like a compromise, a surrender to the control of others, a compromise of the vision.  Luckily, helpful pastoral people write books.  No one has to know you read them.  Still, that’s not as effective as someone simply noticing and listening -- isn’t that the best definition of intimacy?  

The person on this planet I most dearly love is also the most prophetic.  The friendship exists on both levels (includes the pastoral) and that’s the way it should be.  He performs the valuable service of jolting me out of any grandiose narcissistic notions I have of saving other people, which is often a paradoxical blindness to what needs to be done.  Human life is full of injustice and persecution.  It is also full of generosity and joy.  A million sermons on this topic at Winter Solstice.  We live the contradictions every day, esp. this far north on the prairie. 

Maybe we did the wrong thing when it came to Barry Greer.  On the other hand, he's a provocateur, a gamer.  (He says "satirist."  I say Napi.)  On the one hand, he says this reflection is merely a "nice try."  On the other hand, he's sent me four books of his for free.  So who won?


Preacher Dave said...

My son Sam fits your category, though I had not seen him this way before. He lives alone in a yurt on a mountain top in California with an ipad, with which he hurtles angry, pained Jeremiads denouncing the hypocrisy of the world, mostly on Facebook, all justified, all fruitless. It may do no good, but sometimes, like Ahab and Lear we have to rage at the storm. It is not what he meant exactly, but I think of Dylan Thomas: "rage rage rage against the dieing of the light."

Chas Clifton said...

" The trouble with most prophets is that they have no strategy, and they are no good at seduction."

True, too true.

But free books are always nice.