Friday, January 24, 2014

A Very Short Meditation on Dry Cleaners and Simplicity

In our small city we have one dry cleaner/laundry.  The interesting thing about Stewart’s French Dry Cleaners, apart from the fact than no one named Stewart works there, or that no one knows what a French dry cleaner is, but I digress, the interesting thing is that they succeed through basic simplicity.

They do good work, always the place to start.  They’re friendly.  They do not give you a receipt for your order.  You just drop your stuff off along with your name, and walk out.  They do not accept credit cards: cash or check only.  When you return and give your name, your clean clothes are brought out and that’s it.  If they are busy, you might write up your own order ticket, leave it on your pile of clothes and walk out.  If it’s that important to you, they’ll deliver.  After a while they’ll know your name and have things ready before you open the door.  

I wonder what it would be like to run a church like that.  Keep it simple.  Do good work.  Know names.  Be hospitable to everyone.  Use the best affordable technology behind the scenes, but stick to the basics out front, make home deliveries if needed.  Maybe we complicate things too much, not because they are complicated, but because making them complicated is a way to give the impression of hard work under tremendous pressure without actually having to accomplish much. 


Sometimes we get seduced by the latest gimmick or church management fad instead of keeping it simple.  Pay attention to the basics:  proclaim the gospel, celebrate the sacraments, and see that our gathering places function to build up the body of Christ and send them out to do the work God has given us to do.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Note To Those Who Suffer From RFA Syndrome

I have been particularly upset with myself the last few days for an outbreak of my tendency to occasionally make decisions in the order of ready, fire, aim, which I refer to as the RFA Syndrome.  It doesn’t happen that often, and the consequences are usually minimal, but they really get under my skin, producing a sort of anxious self irritation.  Maybe it goes along with my high J score on the MBTI.  It’s as good a guess as any.  Sometimes I need remind myself to slow down and ask myself if I have all the available facts, or at least enough to make a reasonably wise decision.  Time, brain cells, and money are wasted when I don’t do that. 

No doubt many otherwise normal people have some personality quirk that pops up now and then that makes them question their own competency.  At least it makes me feel better to believe that.  If you are among them, it can be a bit frustrating can’t it?  However, we are not alone, and the biblical record is filled with examples.

I was browsing through the story of Job this afternoon, and it occurred to me that his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, often suffer from RFA in their urgency to help Job understand why he is suffering.  For that matter, Job was not immune, as God rather harshly pointed out.  Elijah hightailed it for the desert without bothering to reflect on whether it was a good idea.  Joseph, David, and a host of other biblical characters also suffered from RFA, but no one compares to Peter, who appears to hold the RFA world championship.  Yet Jesus called him the Rock, and commissioned him to guide the disciples after the Ascension. 

It’s reassuring to know that God can do something worthwhile with those afflicted by RFA, although I imagine that even God has to cross her fingers in hopes that we lurch off in the right direction.  I also imagine him as something like a divine version of the constantly recalculating routing elf who lives inside my GPS, something for which I am very grateful.  In fact, one might say I am eternally grateful.  


“...It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be. The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you. The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace. The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities. In your name we pray.”  (A New Zealand Prayer Book)

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Pets

The suitcases are out.  Clothes are piled on beds in the guest room.  And Riley the Westy knows it.  He watches every move, and doesn’t like it one bit.  I know we are inclined to read human emotions into the lives of our pets, but some things are obvious.  He knows he is about to be left behind, and for some time.  He doesn’t like it.  Let me put it this way, I have heard him howl his long mournful howl for hours when my wife has left for a few days.  Nothing can stop him and nothing can comfort him.  One of his favorite people will stay in the house while we are gone, and he will settle down to decide that it’s not all that bad after all.  But it will take time. 

In the meantime, as we pull out of the driveway headed for a much longed for winter respite, we will be oddly sad and a little reluctant to go.  We too will get over it.  What is it about people and their pets, especially pets that display affection, intelligence, and loyalty?  I’ve been to farms where the dogs live outside and barn cats are tolerated as long as they keep the vermin down.  Yet, no matter how stoic they claim to be, farmers weep when one of them is sick, injured or dies, and the dogs and cats know who belongs on the property and who doesn’t.  I know, I know, it’s just territorial instinct, but it seems to go so much further than that.  

If we read human emotions into the lives of our pets, what do they read into our lives?  I have no doubt that it goes both ways.  Some years back we had a cat, Catmandu to be exact.  I had an accident one year that laid me up for several weeks sitting and sleeping in my chair.  She never left my side.  Was she comforting me, or was I just a handy place to nap?  I may never know, but her presence gave me comfort and peace, healing balms if there ever were any.  Did she read that need?  Paula the late church cat attended every AA meeting, greeting each person in turn.  Then she selected one, almost always the one who needed comfort the most, on whose lap she snuggled for the duration.  I suppose it was just coincidence, or maybe the lucky soul smelled like tunafish.


As for me, I continue to be amazed by these creatures for whom we care, and who care for us.  We may read into each other things that are not there, but just the same, it seems to work out well on both sides.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Playing God

The YMCA locker room remains my best source of inspiration for these occasional brief essays.  Today’s nugget was a snippet of conversation in the sauna.  Someone had read an article about transplanting wombs into infertile women.  I haven’t seen the article, so that’s as much as I know about it. That was enough to set another one off on, “The next thing you know they’ll want to use animal wombs, and then what’ll happen.  I tell you they just want to play God and that’s not right.”

I got to thinking about the playing God gambit, and it occurred to me that, at least around here, playing God is brought up only when it involves some aspect of science, especially biological science.  But is that what playing God is about?  The various attributes we assign to God include creator, and things related to creation, but the greater number have to do with redemption, judgment, salvation, election, healing, restoration, and the like.  

Maybe we should lay off the biological scientists for a while and look at our own inclinations to play God, perhaps not on a grand scale, but in the events of our daily lives.  We play God whenever we assign the terms and conditions by which another human being, or class of human beings, can live in our society.  We make judgments; we offer or withhold redemption; we give or take back second chances; we rule others in or out of the fullness of belonging; we curse, injure, kill, and sometimes heal; now and then we even restore that which we have taken away. 

To me, that is the far greater sin of playing God.  The problem is that it is so common, so much a part of everyday life, that it has become invisible.  Maybe it always has been.  Because we have each eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we feel compelled to make judgments that are not only beyond our competence, but we do so feeling justified that whatever condition we have imposed on another by virtue of our judgment is valid and deserved.  We tend to be quite self satisfied about the whole affair.  


This, of course, is your problem more than it is mine.  It’s plain to see that your ongoing acts of playing God are by far the more egregious.  Shame on you.  My judgments, on the other hand, are fair, well reasoned, and prayerfully given.  If only you could be more like me.  Oh, and in case you’re wondering, God has laid it on my heart to tell you that. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Our local member of Congress is a staunch believer that long term unemployment benefits induce dependency and lessen one’s initiative to go out and get a job.  She is also a fierce proponent of doing something to encourage domestic private sector job growth, something she is certain the current administration has failed to do.

I wonder about that.  It looks to me that job growth is not bad, especially considering the depth of the recession from which we are emerging.  I would like to know more about what kind of jobs are being created.  Are they full time, well paid, offering benefits?  In other words, do they contribute to the rebuilding of a robust middle class?  My member of Congress seems to think that keeping the minimum wage low, reducing taxes at the top end, and firing up environmentally questionable energy projects would do that.  I don’t see how.  Oddly enough, as a fundamentalist Christian she doesn’t believe in evolution, but she’s an ardent believer in Social Darwinism in which everyone can make it if they try, and if you don’t make it you didn’t try hard enough, and too bad for you.  Winners win, losers lose.

As for cutting off unemployment insurance, I suppose there are some who are content to live off unemployment as long as they can, and won’t get serious about looking for work until it runs out.  I don’t know any of them, but maybe you do.  I’m sure an anecdotal story or two will be all that is needed to form a general conclusion about the issue.  I hear some of those  stories in the Y locker room.  They are imaginary anecdotal stories since they are never about a particular known person, but about “those people” who won’t go out and get a job.  I usually ask, what job?  What jobs are available locally?  The well educated can generally find something with one of the hospitals, colleges, community organizations, and the like.  Pay is modest but adequate for basic middle class living.  Plumbers, electricians, and others with licensed technical skills, do pretty well.  Other skilled craftsmen can pick up well paid but inconsistent work in construction.  Benefits are problematic in both cases.  The rest are dependent on retail and low level personal service jobs that are rarely full time or pay above the minimum wage, and the competition for them is intense.  The rest, in other words, are added to the permanent underclass of cheap labor who have become the de facto servants of those of us who are well above them.  Hooray for us.  It’s good to be “rich.”

I hear a lot of complaining about the demand for field workers in agriculture.  Why can’t all those long term unemployed do that?  Are they too lazy?  It turns out that farmers and vintners need workers who, in fact, are quite skilled at what they do, and are able to work fast for long hours.  There are still a few who opt for something like modern slave labor provided through unprincipled labor contractors, but I don’t think they operate in our area.  Around here, vintners want full time workers who know about grapes and terroir..  Orchardists want full time and seasonal workers who understand cherry and apple farming.  Even the asparagus and onion growers need people who know what they’re doing, and are good at it.  Farm workers at the high end can make a decent middle class living.  Farm workers at the low end are seasonal, and, at least around here, have a variety of other jobs that parch together a living.  In both cases, farmers need employees who know what they are doing and are good at it. 

What troubles me most, when I look about the community, are the number of young people whose education and social maturity is so lacking that it’s hard to imagine how they can ever be anything other than members of the permanent underclass.  When I talk with them one on one, something I’m rarely able to do these days, it appears that they don’t know that, and that’s scary.


So, madam Congresswoman, if you really want to do something to benefit long term job and middle class growth, invest in education at all levels, and especially in the poorest neighborhoods.  Don’t be afraid to raise the national minimum wage.  Keep up the pressure to improve the efficiency of the federal bureaucracy.  Cut defense spending a lot.  Consider raising the marginal tax rate at the high end.  Take the cap off FICA taxes. Pass a farm bill that eliminates corporate welfare for industrial farms.  That would be a good start.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bearing the Light of Christ

John and  Paul sometimes get under my skin with their insistence that in Christ we are children of the light, not of the dark.  We walk in light, surrounded by light, and, thanks to God, the dark has been banished.  They can make it sound like Christians, real faithful ones at least, live in some kind of happy land where everything is light, goodness, and joy.  They know better of course, but it's not hard to pull that kind of understanding out of the Johannine and Pauline texts.

I understand the theology, but, as a practical matter even Christians, or maybe especially Christians, spend a lot of time wandering around in the dark.  I say especially because we may be more aware of the dark, more quick to realize its presence, and are better informed about what the light looks and feels like.  We know that the dark, which so often surrounds us, is not what God intends, and, that people, by their own human fault, choose to live in the shadows.

What I mean is that God has told us what living more into the light requires.  It is not beyond our reach, but it’s too much bother.  How hard is it to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?  Maybe not that hard for an hour in church once a week, but we are easily distracted by other things, mostly combinations and permutations of selfishness, and some have been so submerged in dark places that even to imagine what the light might be like is beyond comprehension.  It’s a form of spiritual blindness compounded by spiritual ignorance, sometimes aided and abetted by prejudice, stupidity, and laziness. 

I don’t think we are called to live in some fairy tale happy land of light, as if we had emigrated to a new and better place, leaving the old behind and forgotten.  Those who think they do suffer from their own form of naive spiritual blindness.  Rather, I think we are called to be bearers of Christ’s light, in whatever cracked pot we might carry it, in the real world as we find it, a world that is more often in darkness.  It is a light that cannot be extinguished if we are only willing to carry it.  Somehow or another it will always bring something of the Kingdom of God along with it. 

A few local pastors think that means building ramparts and fighting against the forces of evil as prayer warriors armed with God’s infallible Word.  It’s horrible imagery.  I think they’ve got it all wrong, and are using the tactics of darkness to fight darkness, a sort of Machiavellian form of superficially Christianized realpolitik.  They would be better off working on loving one another as Christ has loved us, and loving their enemies as well. 

Which brings up another question.  We spend a lot of time pondering the parable of the Good Samaritan and debating about who our neighbors are, but perhaps we should spend time pondering who our enemies are.  Who and what is it that stands against doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God?  Who and what is it that stands against loving one another as Christ loved us?  I don’t believe that the right answers will have anything to do with homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, or a host of other popular issues.  From my experience in the last few weeks, the symptoms that point toward right answers are flagged with self righteousness, violence, hatred, ignorance, bigotry, self loathing, cruelty, betrayal, and the like.  Of course, I’ve been ankle deep (not deeper than that) in suicide, homicide, drug abuse, spousal abuse, and gang mentality, so I might be a little prejudiced myself.