Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
April 2012 - Volume 12, No. 4
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Institution or Person

Just a few days ago, I attended a funeral; one of the more difficult ones in my experience. A young man in his early 30’s, a family man, and a teacher - college English. I knew him, as a friend, and he would tell me how he became a teacher because his spirit gave him no other choice. He was a man born to teach, and he was good, the kind of goodness that draws students to him like a magnet, and readily earns the admiration of his peers. Then a week ago, an automobile accident in central Michigan killed him instantly. At his funeral a number of his students gave witness to his special nature and gifts. There was much grief.

Vignette # 2:  A few years ago, a clergyman and I were having a discussion about the types of people who made good clergy. He shared he’d always liked the old term “parson” - which is a derivative of ‘person’ - representing in his or her being what it means to be a genuine human individual. The best kind of person to lead and nurture a spiritual community. I liked that, and have since held it as a high model - even though I have in my life suffered a number of clergy contacts and gatherings where that standard was woefully absent.  

Vignette# 3:  Another clergy friend recently asked to interview me for a seminary ethics class project. He introduced six pre-packaged categories for Christian ethical involvement, and then was to ask me how I lived my own life in response to them. My initial response was more from the pit of my stomach than my brain - I could readily feel that his categories were an institutional program list which some committee had formed. And I told him I refuse to have my life formed by a program or list! Even God finally got rid of the Ten Commandments. The Biblical Law of Love cannot become a program, or a list.  It cannot be institutionalized. It can only be lived by an alive person. I think I flunked the interview.  

My late teacher friend told me his superiors did not force on him the institutional instruments by which teaching is usually ‘measured’. They simply allowed him to teach. What joy! And he did.

How many teachers are forced to teach primarily toward standardized testing success! Just look at the institutional money trail.  The institution supersedes the person. Many students know or feel this, and become bored - except the ‘good‘ ones who buy into the measured success program. But then they often become boring adults. I’ve met many of them in my time.

How many churches set up rules to guard their precious gifts, which actually should be wide open for anyone to taste and cherish. Grace and Love (and in turn, Life) apparently must be protected by rules and fences.   

My own home town has ‘enjoyed’ a prosperity in recent decades, the by-product of which has made it nearly impossible for our own young couples to purchase a home, unless they each work full time in a professional level job. Only with the recent economic collapse have a number of my young client couples been able to afford a home and live here. The economy has generally trumped life for our new young families. Long live the economy. (Just ask the Chamber of Commerce.) 

It’s become a common awareness that insurance companies now run our medical institutions. The wealthy run the economy. (And we’ve almost forgotten that this should be wrong.) Much of the ethical program of religious institutions is now dictated by insurance companies. A friend shared the tongue-in-cheek opinion that the United States itself has become “an insurance company with an army.” 

Our political life is currently held captive by unfettered economic interests. (Remember back when we knew this was wrong?) The word ‘greed’ is much more commonly used than I recall in my earlier years; yet its use is accompanied by a perceived impotence to counter it.

It seems a law of human nature that the institution will always trump the individual person. But in turn it’s a law of destiny that the individual person will always find an ability to trump the power of the institution, and in so doing may even save the institution from its own idiopathic self-destruction. (I find this a recurrent pattern in Stephen King’s novels.) 

We know that our own national history involves the near annihilation of this land’s native peoples. Yet an ancient native prophesy foretells that a remnant will remain for the purpose of saving the White Man from his own indulgent self-destruction. 

I am a fortunate man. I don’t have or need to make a lot of money. And my work is to quietly, one by one, help real people become real people. I’m not an institution, I am one man. I do my best to embody the freedom of an individual person to remain and breathe free. And sometimes I fail miserably.  

But there is hope. I have known that one good teacher - even though he was recently stolen from us. I have known from time to time a good Parson, by whom my own life has been enriched. I know a few good psychotherapists, and endeavor to be one myself. In a quiet way, I determine to remain a free man. Yes, there is hope.

Pay attention

Comments (1)

  • Well written, Bill, and too true. I once heard Dominic Crosson tell the reason he left the RC priesthood: so that he could honestly do the writing and research he was called to without the imprimatur of Rome as an editor, “truth checker.” To the free man: Namaste.

    — Cynthia, 4/2/2012

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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