Madre Liz Simmons

Madre Liz Simmons

Were you out Monday at all? It was one of the glorious Kodiak days, when the sun is shining, the sky is brilliant blue and the ocean glisten as the sun's rays make waves and foam look alive.

If you were working, and looking outside enviously, at least you have a window. And a job. Many Saturdays, as I procrastinate on my sermon, I am envying people who have weekends off. Two days in a row. But I digress.

So, it was a perfect day for a hike out to Spruce Cape, where you can really see the sun and the ocean, and so much more. The dogs hadn't been out in too long, and they were living it up, racing up ahead to smell the evidence of the other dogs who had already been there that day, and all the other smells: the rotting logs, and moss and mud ... Theo was distracted from that one mucky area, thank goodness. Theo, whose real name is Theophilus, which means "God lover," but I call him God for short, has never met a stinky smell he doesn't love, and love to roll in, which is bad because he is white. Well, more off-white, or Wheaton, which is fault in Westies.

Allie, my cairn terrier whose real name is something I can't say in Lent, was busy barking up a tree, demanding that a squirrel come down. ("How's that working for you, Allie?")

With the dogs allowed to be dogs off leash on the beautiful trail, I am at my absolute mystical best: at one with God, or as at one as you can be this side of Eden. So when we get to the first beach, and the sea smell is at its strongest, it can't get much better. Even the rotting fish smell coming from those huge roots with bulbs that look like an alien species. Someone told me what they're called, but I prefer to think of them as rubber alien bulbs.

I am so grateful for Kodiak and its trails, and this opportunity to take my dogs out for exercise that doesn't involve my being impatient as they lag behind to smell everything, and all I get to see with my limited senses is houses and cars and cement, and the occasional yard. (Yes, I pick up after them! I have thousands of doggy bags!)

And I immediately followed that praise of Kodiak, asking God to bless those who had agreed to let the trail be an offleash one, with fear. What if this went away? I mean, what if rich people got ahold of this, and started building houses on every inch of shoreline, until we couldn't even see these views of ocean and bays and other bodies of water. Hey, it could happen. I've lived near a lot of bodies of water: Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, where the only people who have access to the water are the very wealthy, and industry, in the case of Lake Ontario. People are waking up to this fact, and protecting some public access, but it often seems too little, too late.

And I started thinking about the planning regulations proposed by the borough staff recently, and the comments by people both for and against the revisions. I have stayed out of it, because I am new to town, and my opinion wouldn't be very informed. But I have listened to very involved people, on the P&Z board, from the city, and residents who have lived here for many years, if not all their lives.

It's cool to see the democratic process in action. It's good to see that a group of concerned people can meet and organize their thoughts, and influence our elected officials. When it doesn't get mean. And when we're dealing with facts. Some of the ideas being tossed out there seem a little dubious, but I've got some more reading to do.

It got me thinking about the strengths of democracy, where people are given the most freedom of any other system of governance. A great conversation about the relationship between virtue and democracy with a longtime Kodiak resident steered me to the website for The Heritage Foundation.

Now, I can't vouch for him or anything else on the website, but he was quoting one of my favorite historic figures. Professor Messmore says, "Freedom relies on virtue for its survival. Government protects ordered liberty, but it is virtuous citizens taking personal responsibility for their actions and exercising mutual responsibility for the welfare of others who make ordered liberty possible. As Benjamin Franklin declared, 'Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.'"

I don't agree with the Heritage Foundation about how much is "too much government," but on this one point, we can agree. The disagreements begin, however, when we start asking who is supposed to help people behave at the most virtuous level. It is ironic that those people who tend to have the lowest view of human nature — often based in Calvinist theology that we are born into original sin, and only saved from our depraved natures through the atonement of Jesus' death (that's all I got on Calvinism; one of my protestant brethren can fill you in on the rest) — also tend to be anti-regulation and big government. Instead, we need to give people the freedom to regulate themselves, and trust that they will do so.

Equally ironic, however, is that liberal theologians and progressive people of faith, who tend to have a high view of human beings — based on the belief in the Creation story that all of creation and human beings were born "very good", and just because some human beings fell from grace doesn't mean we are hopeless, especially if we learn to be virtuous through Jesus or the prophets or great people throughout history — tend to mistrust human beings when it comes to regulating themselves. They tend to want more regulation, and protections for those who have the least amount of power from those with the most power.

I won't try to resolve these two ironies here, but I do want to raise the question about where we learn to be virtuous. Sunday School, which most people from mainline churches quit when they get confirmed? Philosophy in college? If you have that privilege, or aren't more confused than before you took the course. Parents? If they are that conscious and aware that the virtues need to be taught.

My bias is that some sort of faith, hopefully in the Creator, and in something greater than you has got to be a starting place. Humanists will argue that you can get to the virtues with faith. I'll let them believe that if they want, as long as they're doing their part to teach their fellow humanists.

My choice is to enjoy this life that I know my God has given me: with dogs who remind me that I'm just part of the animal world, surrounded by the beauty of creation and especially the ocean that no human being could ever manage to make, and this brain of mine that has just managed to ruin a perfectly good hike.

The Rev. Liz Simmons is rector of St. James The Fisherman Episcopal Church.

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