Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Is our Brand so important?

A comment in an online discussion about the value of Immanuel Kant’s thought to the Christian tradition has raised a question about the way people of faith think about their religious traditions.

The comment came in response to my own reminder that his categorical imperatives in essence were restatements of the Golden Rule placed on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels.  My respondent asserted that Kant should be disregarded because he was a Deist, not a Theist. 

It seems to me that we Christians far too often tend to be inordinately self-focused and thus protective of their own intellectual property, i.e., doctrine, ecclesial structures, scriptures. I often get the sense that the affirmation of our own understandings of the sacred are far more important than the content of that which we would purport to understand.

In post-modern culture, we might call that a protectiveness of one’s Brand, a common means by which consumers, terrified of their own lack of depth and authentic identity, seek to find something outside themselves to fill that existential vacuum. What I observe in various conversations about our faith is that in our concern for our brand we often lose sight of the truth to which we believe our understandings point.

You could even be fighting against G-d!

There are two incidences in the Christian scriptures in which brands come directly into question which I believe ought to make us think twice about that approach. The first comes from the Gospel of St. Luke:

Luke 9 49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ 50 But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’

Jesus seems to be saying here that what is important is the brand under which the work of the kingdom is being done, the important thing is that it is being done. Indeed, from the perspective of the mentally ill now free of their demons, does it really make any difference whose name was invoked in their healing?


 The second verse also comes from Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. This verse features rabbinical sage Gamaliel addressing the high council of Jewish authorities intent on putting Peter and others to death for their teachings about Jesus. Gamaliel, a highly respected figure, intervenes with these words:

Acts 5 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’

Once again, the operative understanding seems to be that the deeds of the persons in question reveal their motivation if not their source. At a basic level, the tenor of the deeds and the results speak for themselves. The fact one does not operate under our brand doesn’t mean their ideas, words and deeds do not ultimately serve the will of the divine.

An Old Question….

Plato raised this dilemma in his work Euthypro when he poses the question “Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?” From our own perspective we might ask it this way: Does the holiness of a given understanding, statement or deed speak for itself or must we be given permission by our tradition to see it as holy?

Why does the Golden Rule appear in every ethical and religious system worldwide, some of the versions predating its appearance in the Hebrew Scripture by millennia? Is it any less true because it is stated by Confucius or in the second categorical imperative by Immanuel Kant? Is our brand what makes it valuable to human existence or might its value stand outside time, place and culture suggesting it is ultimately divine in itself? 

Moreover, is something true simply because Jesus is reported to have said it (albeit that many of those sayings may well never have been uttered by Jesus) or might Jesus have spoken those things in the first place because he knew they were true? Is something true simply because it appears in the Scriptures (recognizing that we do not as a tradition all agree on what actually constitutes the same nor do we value all of its contents equally) or might the truth we find there be the result of the transmitters, compilers and editors of scripture recognizing it to be true and insuring its preservation to posterity?

How important is our Brand? How much of our Brand consciousness ultimately translates to a lack of authentic identity of our own or to ego writ large in a tribal form? What might our defensiveness about our Brand reveal about that? And how much harm might actually be done to the truth our Brand would purport to defend by our perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately misguided protective and proprietary behaviors?

What think ye?

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Monday, December 26, 2016

The One Who Taught Us Those Values

He had dozed off in his chair when I arrived mid-day Wednesday to take him to his doctor’s appointment. He had all the curtains drawn and the whole house was dark. I really hated to wake him.

But we needed to go. His appointment was an hour and a half from then and we had at least a 45 minute ride ahead of us up a hopefully unclogged I-75 to Ocala.

He says he’s feeling tired these days. His sleep is interrupted at night by needs to dash to the bathroom. Sometimes he can go right back to sleep. Sometimes he’s up all night.
At nearly 90 years of age, none of this is terribly surprising. 

He hasn’t shaved this day. That’s pretty unusual for my Dad. He says his skin is so sensitive these days he hates to run a razor over it. “Do you think I should shave, Son?” he asks? It’s not that important, I tell him. I say that he can just tell folks it’s a fashion statement. “A fashion statement?” he says.  “A real slave to fashion, Daddy. That’s you.” 

 Fortunately, he finds that amusing. He’s lost so many things at this point in life but he still has his sense of humor. 

Good News from the Doctor 

He tells the doctor that his stomach is bothering him. Dr. Rama says it may be gall stones and perhaps he’s developed a little ulcer. Given all the chemo and radiation he’s endured, that’s hardly a surprise. She also tells him to go get some iron supplements to give him some energy. 

But, compared to the original presenting concern, the non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, these are small fish to fry. Wednesday, Daddy got good news: 

“There is no cancer in your body as of today.” 

He’s very happy about that. And he’ll feel a lot more like eating this night over at Aunt Fannie’s, the soul food restaurant favored by the locals across the major highway from his doctor’s office. He splurges on some fried eggplant in addition to his bowl of clam chowder. The fact his oldest son, his only daughter and two of his grandsons are there with him helps, no doubt. 

 Ten years ago when my Mother had died, Daddy sought to reassure the older grandson that he wasn’t leaving any time soon. He promised him that he’d be there to see him graduate from high school. 

One of the most joyful moments of my life was seeing my Dad standing on the sidelines of the arena where his grandson, graduating with honors, marched by in cap and gown enroute to receiving his diploma. A kid who rarely registers much of any emotion at all, he suddenly broke into a huge grin when he saw his grandfather waving and cheering. He pointed to his gold honor cords and waved back. 

Tears welled up in his uncle’s eyes. 

After the commencement the younger grandson quickly implored his grandfather to make him the same promise. He’s two years behind his older brother in school and now halfway through his junior year. Daddy had agreed to do his best. Wednesday, the once little one reminded him of that.

“Looks like you’re gonna be able to do it, Granddaddy,” he said. My Dad smiled. “It’s looking pretty good.” 

He keeps saying he doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone. He worries that we have to take time off from work and drive at least an hour from any of our homes to be with him. I remind him that we are his children and that he was the one who taught us our values – loving relationship, self-sacrifice for others, compassion for the less fortunate, and, oh yes, a sense of duty. 

“Where else would we be, Daddy?” I ask. He just smiles. 

But I know he still worries. 

Making Final Plans 

Thursday we attended a sales pitch for cremation services at the Red Lobster in Ocala. Daddy got a free meal and paid for mine and my sister’s. There is no small amount of surrealness to making decisions about Caesar or regular salad and what dressing after an hour’s presentation on embalming, cremation and burial. 

Nothing like the talk of charred bones and ashes in an urn to whet an appetite! 

But Daddy wants to have all this taken care of. Truth be told, he’s done a marvelous job of getting his papers together, listing his assets and liabilities, writing a will that should be easy to probate and laying out his directives for what little personal property he wants to give to his family. I wish half of my clients whose estates I handled as an attorney had been so easy to work with.  

He’s pretty clear about not having a funeral or memorial service. He wants his ashes interred just above my Mother’s casket in the VA National Cemetery in Bushnell. He will rest in peace in a stunningly beautiful place among rows of inscribed white stones interspersed among islands of pine, palmettos and scrub oaks. The deer, fox, owls and the occasional bobcat with whom he grew up will be his regular companions. 

The cemetery is about five miles down the road from the site of the house where he was born, just outside the town where he grew up and returned to after WWII. It’s where he served as the local high school driver’s education teacher for three decades teaching the southern half of the county’s children how to drive. 

He’s amazingly at peace with all this. No fear of death that I can tell. While he’s not anxious to go anytime soon, I don’t think he’ll be afraid when that time arrives. I now carry a copy of his living will with me to his appointments just in case we ever need it. 

The only time he shows any emotion at all is when he speaks of being laid to rest above our Mother. His voice cracks, his eyes well with tears. “That’s all I really want, to be with your Momma.” She has been gone 10 years now but for him, it seems like yesterday….and forever ago. 

The Good Fortune of Being his Oldest Child 

I have come to cherish the drive home through the rolling hills and horse farms south of Ocala where most of his doctors are located and where my Sister lives. The afternoon after his doctor’s appointment, we decided to avoid the interstate, taking the back road through the woods south to Bushnell. 

Periodically we would marvel at the orange and golds of the setting sun, the pastel pinks and lavenders of what few clouds dotted the horizon. The fading sunlight twinkled through the live oaks and pine trees as it set across pastures with piebald horses and the slightest hint of fog beginning to form around unseen watering holes. 

“Isn’t it beautiful, Daddy?” I ask? 

“It really is, Son.” 

And it is at that moment that I realize once again how very fortunate I have always been to be this wonderful man’s oldest child.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8