Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Travails of Aging Travelers, and More Weeping in Gethsemane

I spent yesterday in purgatory. Which is to say, we were flying—hither and yon on overheated airplanes whose seats grow smaller every time I fly. (I refuse to entertain the possibility that my posterior is growing larger . . . .)

And as we did so, I was struck by the aging of the flying population, yours truly included. I don’t know if the economic downturn has anything to do with this, or if it’s simply a demographic fact: the baby-boom generation is aging, and it’s noticeable as we travel.

First leg of our trip, it turned out that not one but multiple passengers ahead of us had chosen the wrong seats, causing a maddening comedy of errors as everyone tried to identify his/her correct seat and find it. All this was made more comic by the fact that these were all elderly Southern folk like me (headed to Atlanta, bien entendu), determined to out-polite everyone else. So first one and then another wrong-seater made offers to switch seats for the convenience of others, resulting in a down-the-rabbit-hole set of calculations about who should sit where, which not even an expert mathematician could have brought to an accurate conclusion.

All this as passengers waited patiently behind the politely haggling bunch to be seated, and the flight attendant bellowed over the microphone for people at least to stand inside their seating areas to let folks by until they had resolved the mess. Steve and I chuckled, but as we did so, I realized with a bit of shame: these folks are not so much older than I am. Where they walk today, I will walk tomorrow, God willing that I have tomorrow.

So it behooves me to muster a modicum of understanding.

And then the understanding I mustered just as quickly vanished, when a flight attendant who should have been at home with her feet up, bless her heart, served euphemistically named snacks and beverages. Her co-worker had announced that the scintillating array of beverages from which we might choose included spicy tomato juice.

I latched onto that choice, and repeated the alluring name proudly back to the attendant. Only to have her correct me by barking, “Bloody Mary mix.” Well, yes, I did know that was what the other attendant meant by spicy juice. But, good little boy that I am, I was only repeating what we had been told to ask for . . . .

Whereupon Steve asked for tomato juice (?!), and a can of it, if possible, only to be informed in another bark, “No tomato juice. Bloody Mary mix. And I can’t give you a can.” So when he muttered under his breath, “She should retire,” I could hardly disagree, attempts at understanding notwithstanding. I did wonder, watching the attendant dispense food and drink, how difficult it must be for any of us as we age to do this kind of work, especially in a tiny enclosed space hurtling through air at several hundred miles per hour.

I wouldn’t like to be doing such work, and I haven’t yet reached 60. If people have to continue shlepping beverages and snacks on airplanes after that age, surely it’s time for our society to offer our elders better work, better opportunities, in their aging years. And perhaps the airlines should be thinking about bigger posteriors, decrepit backs and legs, and muddled heads, as some of us age.

All of these reflections grew sharper as we sat next to a delightful elderly person on the next leg of the trip. I don’t believe she can have flown much recently, since she retained the manners of a bygone era of flyers, especially when offered that scintillating selection of euphemistically named snacks: peanuts or cinnamon cookies.

She responded to the choice with all the courtly dignity of a grande dame at a cordon bleu establishment: “And what do you recommend?” The flight attendant looked nonplussed, and well she might have: how often does she get a question like that? She hemmed and hawed and allowed as how she was partial to the biscuits.

Where our traveling companion sat yesterday, I may be in a year or so, hitting up the flight attendant for a recommendation regarding the “snack.” I hope that, if I do choose the package with three delicious peanuts in it, which invariably rips apart and sends said peanuts skittering, some kind soul might offer me an extra cinnamon biscuit—and perhaps a whole can of juice, wonder of wonders!, to wash down the wee dry snack.

+ + + + +

Because I’m so often critical of faith communities for their inability to welcome and affirm some of God’s children, I want to make a point of applauding an initiative of faith leaders in California in the wake of proposition 8. A report on Clerical Whispers blog yesterday noted that the California Council of Churches, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Unitarian Universalist Church have filed a writ, along with Episcopal Bishops J. Jon Bruno and Marc Andrus, to seek an injunction blocking the implementation of proposition 8

These faith leaders stress that removing rights from a targeted group of citizens endangers the rights of everyone, faith groups included. Once the precedent is set whereby a majority of citizens can vote away the rights of any group of citizens, what is to stop the majority from targeting a religious body and removing its rights?

As Rev. Edwin Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, observes, “Standing for marriage equality is just another opportunity for us to live out the gospel”—an opportunity that puts faith communities “on the right side of history on this important civil rights issue.”

It seems to me very important to keep in mind that human rights are the central issue with proposition 8: allowing a majority vote to remove rights protected by the Constitution from any group of citizens is a dangerous precedent. And it’s a troubling precedent, when some faith communities played a large role in this battle to target a minority community and remove a right from that community. It’s a precedent that ought to concern all people of faith in our nation.

Being a believer is, at its best, about protecting those on the margins and drawing them in; it is not about savaging and excluding those on the margins. When communities of faith engage in such savaging and excluding, they court similar behavior towards themselves.

+ + + + +

And in the “Weeping in Gethsemane” category, another story from Clerical Whispers catches my eye. This one is astonishing. Clerical Whispers notes that the controversial Catholic bishop of Motherwell, Scotland, Joseph Devine, recently had his episcopal mansion bulldozed and has begun the erection of a new mansion to the tune of £650,000

Bishop Devine did not, it goes without saying, consult his flock before he made this decision (albeit the flock pay his bills): he informed them in a newsletter that his former mansion was eaten up with damp and required demolition, and that he’d decided to build a new one. The snazzy new place will have three separate living quarters with each bedroom complete with an en suite bathroom. It will also have a private chapel.

The flock are, in some cases, understandably perturbed. Some church members note that the previous house was itself stately, and that it comes as a surprise that it was suddenly so consumed with damp that it had to be demolished. These church members ask how the good bishop cannot have seen the damp before it became so bad that he had no choice except to demolish and rebuild.

This is not the first time that Bishop Devine has gotten bad press for capricious use of church funds, according to Clerical Whispers. In 2005, he received criticism for using church money on a fireworks display at Carfin Pilgrimage Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland. And in 2000, the Sunday Mail reported that Devine had had a nose job with insurance paid for by his parishioners.

Why notice Bishop Devine’s dubious use of church funds? He belongs, after all, to a church (my church) in which bishops never have to account for their disposition of funds, and never have to consult those who donate those funds before making major financial decisions. He belongs to a church whose feudal system places absolute power in the hands of those at the top, who can use our donations to pay off and silence victims of clerical sexual abuse without informing us that this is how they choose to use our donations. Or who can use our donations to sponsor websites and publish ads that are thinly disguised advertisements for a particular political candidate or party, regardless of whether we approve of these political endorsements . . . .

I want to focus attention on Bishop Devine because he has taken it on himself several times in recent months to attach gay people. He has attracted international attention for his homophobic stands.

As a previous posting of mine notes, last March Bishop Devine informed the public that gay people have no right to regard ourselves as a persecuted minority or to ask for commemoration in Holocaust remembrance services—though gays were among the groups put into concentration camps and murdered in Nazi Germany (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/03/week-in-review-catholic-bishop-denies.html).

I am paying attention to Bishop Devine because we who are gay all too often have the experience of being lambasted by church figures whose moral foundation garments turn out to be rather akimbo, even as they ride moral high horses to denounce us. It often happens that faith leaders who make a name for themselves by targeting gay human beings turn out, on close inspection, to have houses that are not quite in order.

Perhaps if the churches are truly concerned about the moral fraying of our culture, they should be turning their attention to the Bishop Devines of the world and not to gay people. Perhaps they should be turning their attention to the shoddy stewardship of money donated by the faithful that has become so commonplace we are hardly shocked by it any longer. I suspect that wheeling and dealing with the donations of the faithful causes quite a bit more weeping in Gethsemane than do the lives of struggling gay human beings who are simply trying to live decently and uprightly in a world that places many obstacles in our way.

Some of us have been weeping in Gethsemane longer than Cardinal Stafford appears to realize (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/11/weeping-in-gethsemane-american-catholic.html).