Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saying no to the false optimism of the elites...

At heart, I am a libertarian with decidedly socialist inclinations. Ok, I know that sounds like Kris Kristofferson's song (he's a a pilgrim and preacher - and a problem when he's stoned - he's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home) but I cherish what individuals can do for themselves. Not in the harsh Ayn Rand world of tooth and claw capitalism, but more like the jazz man Wynton Marsalis. He has noted that innovation, struggle, lots of wood-shedding, changing culture and the real but flawed possibilities for social transformation that exist side by side with trauma are a part of the reality in the  United States that gave birth to jazz. Individuals like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck and others are, of course, the proof. 

Not that some of their lives weren't hard - or oppressive and even broken - that is a given. But none of the geniuses of jazz were addicted to what Peter Theil calls the false optimism of the elite. Theil, the entrepreneur who helped bring us Pay Pal, Air BnB and worked on the financing of Facebook, is quick to point out that elites always assume that optimism and success is normative. They don't anticipate failure, they are unsettled with challenges and they assume that the problems of the world will always work out. In turn, their intellectual lethargy fosters a loss of initiative and creativity. Jazz would never have been born from the bayou, barrooms or brothels if their founders had accepted the optimism of the elites. Instead they first honed their gifts, then scoured the horizon for ways to thrive, refused to accept no as the final reality and were nurtured along the way by families, congregations and communities committed to their success.
When I think of jazz as a metaphor for the spiritual life, therefore, I am keenly attuned to both the individual players as well as the social/communal contexts that have shaped and encouraged these players, too. Their artistry is a both/and creation - a sophisticated albeit sometimes raw art form - that brings together tradition and innovation, spontaneity and hard work and beauty and emotional challenge. This is one of the ways jazz helps me accept the contradictions of my calling: congregational renewal must never settle for the optimism of the elites for that only fosters fear while feeding institutional stagnation. 

A clarification, however is in order because mistrusting the optimism of the
elites is different than trusting that God is God. The whole arch of the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany story suggests that God breaks through in places where we would never consider encountering the Holy. God shows up where God is least expected. In our story, the Divine takes up the form of the lowest not the elite and offers a tiny glimpse of hope rather than the whole kingdom of God. Our story tells us that the elites look the other way. They try to snuff out the surprises. But the light refused to be vanquished and overcome by the ever darkness. 

That is one of the reasons I am so grateful to the repeating cycle of the church calendar: whether I am ready for it or not, I am going to have to wrestle with the counter-cultural wisdom of God's grace. Taking the liturgical year seriously also gives me another chance at practicing God's way rather than the way of culture - and while I don't always understand the way of the Lord, Christ has been faithful in the past so I want to trust him now. Onward to the second Sunday of Advent.     


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