Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Those lunatics who want to control guns and trample the second amendment

The Sunday paper always brings out the best in looney letters to the editor.  They can go on for pages.  This week’s gem was from a man in a nearby town fulminating about the fringe lunatics and their rabidly hysterical demands for gun control legislation as they trample the second amendment underfoot.

So far as I can tell, the only rabid hysteria around here is coming from guys like him.  They appear to have been incited by a move underway in Washington (state, that is) to get an initiative on the ballot that would require mandatory background checks for all gun sales.  I’m not a fan of legislation by initiative, but It seems like a reasonable idea to me.  The gun lobby has reacted as if the sky is falling, the earth quaking, the volcanoes blowing, and the end of civilization as we know it on the horizon.  They could be right about that last point. 

When did guns become such a emotionally charged issue?  I grew up in the suburbs, not out on the farm or ranch.  Nevertheless, most every home had firearms of one kind or another.  They were used for sport, taken for granted, and not as items of worship - idols of self righteous defense and retribution.  My farming friends and relatives used theirs against varmints and livestock predators, as well as hunting.  Friends who spent time in the mountains often carried theirs for self protection against bears and cougars. The NRA provided firearms safety training, and probably a few other services, but that was the only one I knew about.  And all of this was during the height of the Red Scare tactics of Sen. McCarthy, and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, when war and the threat of internal insurrection was the hysteria of the day.  Even during the race, civil rights and anti-war riots of the sixties and early seventies, there were very few who felt the need to be armed for self protection.  

When and why have so many gone nuts about concealed carry, open carry, stand your ground, and the need to be armed for self protection against others who are armed for self protection, all shrouded in hyperbolic second amendment faux patriotism?  I have a couple of guesses.  The first has to do with the immediacy of repetitive sensationalized news coverage that brings every violent death into our field of awareness as if it happened next door, and then pummels us with it for twenty-four hours.  That same sensationalized coverage also gives the impression that half the world carries AK47s and bandoliers of ammunition while chanting death to Americans.  Persons inclined to be frightened of imaginary enemies behind every door can be spooked into a guns for self defense mentality by that kind of stuff.

Who would engineer such a thing?  Well, since conspiracy theories are all the rage these days, I’ll offer one possibility.  The gun industry saw a golden opportunity to prop up sagging domestic sales by taking advantage of sensationalizing news casts, tweaking the fear factor, and moving the NRA into the role of frontman for a campaign to arm every citizen.  Of course I have no facts or proof of such a thing, but good conspiracy theories don’t need them because they’re not really theories in any scientific sense of the word. 

My final guess is that the popularity of revenge movies,television episodes, and video games has something to do with it.  We learn our morality from something somewhere.  Movies and video games give strong, emotionally powerful, portrayals of morality in which vigilante justice and deadly revenge is celebrated.  That has to have some influence on what our personal moral values and standards are. 


For Christians, I wonder when the gospel will take over.  For all of us, I wonder when common sense will take over?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Another Bird Story to be read only if you have nothing better to do

A few weeks ago I wrote a short piece asking where all the birds had gone.  Our multitude of birds seemed to have vanished from the neighborhood.  This afternoon I came back from an errand to find one of them in our kitchen.  No doubt scouting for a new home with more to offer than the birdhouse.  It had flown in through the garage while my wife was unloading gear from the car - not an easy way to do it - showed real determination.  Apparently it did not like what it found and wanted out. 

That side of the house has walls of windows, so it tried all of them except the wide open patio doors.  We tried various forms of shooing that produced various forms of pooping, but little else.  Eventually, taking a breather on an orchid, it was tired enough for me to hold it, momentarily, just long enough to get close to the patio doors so that when it wriggled out of my not very tight grip, it made its escape.  

And that’s our shared adventure for the day.  Our individual adventures were less dramatic.


Using a  little allegory, you can make some decent theological points out of this if you want to.  I’ll leave that up to you.  I just enjoyed holding it for a few moments, and then watching it go free.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The VA, General Motors, and Human Nature

Problems in the VA health care system have prompted some to blame them on the inherent incompetency of big government.  Get rid of big government and things like this wouldn’t happen.  A few of the most rabid anti-big government voices in our area consider state, county, and city governments to be big government as well, so it’s a little hard to know where they are willing to draw the line.  In an odd contradiction, they believe the nation owes good medical care to veterans but don’t trust the government to provide it.  

They are not far from those who blame the General Motors ignition switch problems on the inherent incompetency of big corporations.  We should do away with big corporations but keep the economies of scale they bring to the market place.  I wonder how that would work?  It’s a little weird how the anti-Socialists and anti-Capitalists meet on the common ground of their imaginations.

Imagine it.  A nation of small governments and small businesses that, nonetheless, enjoys all the benefits of economies of scale, nationwide access to goods and services meeting high standards of health, safety, and value, and dependable infrastructure systems built and maintained without intrusive planning or oversight from big brother, whether governmental or corporate.

The problems at the VA are problems of the VA, not of big government.  They need to be addressed at that level.  In like manner, problems at General Motors are problems of General Motors, not of big corporations.  In both cases the problems have something to do with the efficacy of policy and procedures, and with organizational culture run amok.  One cannot be fixed without addressing the other, and neither can be fixed by blaming the existence of the generic institutions of government and business. 

On the other hand, and being Episcopalian there is always another hand, all human organizations, regardless of size, tend to fall into habits of performance in which people do what they can to insulate themselves against criticism and liability.  The larger the organization, the greater the opportunity and incentive to do so.  It’s a function of collective human nature.  Laws, rules and regulations help establish boundaries that mitigate against abuses.  An impartial legal system helps to resolve disputes.  Intentional management of organizational culture helps to promote more ethical behavior through the general acceptance of higher standards.  It’s never foolproof.  Conditions are always changing.  What is acceptable and what is not is always debatable.  Agents of misfeasance and malfeasance will always find a way to corrupt whatever system is in place.  Human greed, laziness, and incompetence will always fall into whatever cracks those agents open up.  That’s life.  It’s pretty well laid out in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, and it hasn’t changed much since then.


Perfection is not ours to have, at least not in this life.  But we can do better, and doing better begins not with blaming straw men or chasing after red herrings.  Nor does it begin with better managers.  It begins with better management.  I might suggest the Sermon on the Mount as a good place to begin the search for better management.  The problem with that is that too many competitive types would rather play “screw your neighbor” than do the hard work of managing well.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Gifts of the Spirit and Very Small Congregations

Gifts of the Spirit have been on my mind lately.  We find them mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in his letter to the Romans, and again in the letter to Ephesus.  I’m aware that some make a list of all the gifts mentioned in scripture as if they represent the entire catalogue.  Some favor the idea that they are gifts humans do not have but for the giving of them by the Spirit.  A few even sell tests to help one discover what his or her gifts are.  It’s all neatly packaged and priced.  

I’m of the opinion that every human being has some degree of the gifts mentioned in scripture, and many more besides, each according to the uniqueness of our individual humanity.  The Spirit comes into it not by conferring them, but by calling them into the light to be used for God’s purposes.  Many of us, for whatever reason, are reluctant to claim our particular areas of knowledge, skill, and ability in the service of the gospel.  It drives rectors and bishops nuts as they try to tease out the use of gifts so desperately needed for healthy congregational life.  It shouldn’t be surprising since many of us are equally reluctant to claim them in our secular lives as well.  No doubt it’s a question rich for mining by psychologists and sociologists, and I’ll let them get on with it.  If you’re interested, you might want to take a look at Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. 

What interests me right now is how spiritual gifts are called forth for employment in the congregational setting.  I imagine there is a critical mass of some number of active parishioners that assures one of a broad distribution of knowledge, skills and abilities so that most roles can be filled by qualified persons,  and no one person is expected to carry too heavy a burden or be saddled with unending responsibilities (not that it doesn’t happen).  From my own experience, I would put that critical mass at several hundred active parishioners.  Below that, things can get problematic.  Some desired gifts may be absent.  Some may find the demands on their gifts to be excessive.  It may be difficult to maintain a flow of persons in and out of needed roles.  

Very small congregations, such as the one I serve in retirement, are a special case.  With less than thirty, and often less than twenty, active parishioners, there is no possibility that all spiritual gifts will be present.  The knowledge and skills sets of those who are active may be limited.  Required roles may become permanent positions that end up driving the Spirit out of performance.  Moreover, some may experience a strong measure of guilt that they do not have the gifts needed for the congregation to flourish, and wonder if they are personally responsible for that failure.  It can create abrasive moments in the intimacy of life in very small congregations.  

The trick is to go with what you have as best you can, and not worry too much about what is left undone.  It really is a trick, especially when legal and denominational requirements assume an ability to do things one does not have, or when well meaning church consultants encourage greater development of gifts that are not present.   So what is the trick?   It begins with the recognition that while we can’t do or be everything, we can do and be something, and that something can be very good.  It is to do what one can to open the doors, that is; to engage the larger community as fully as possible while working against becoming a closed refuge for the few growing fewer.  It is to employ the gifts that are present by encouraging the greatest possible trust in the Spirit to guide, guard, and use whatever they are in unexpected ways, amplified by God’s power and presence, to accomplish what God purposes.   


Finally, because very small congregations are very small, it means that things will progress by fits and starts.  When someone gets tired, it’s time for them to rest, and there may not be anyone to take over.  When someone leaves or dies, their gifts depart with them.  When someone new arrives, their gifts may be unfamiliar and untested.  It also means finding ways to get along when something is not going well, and something is sure to be not going well.  All of that requires, perhaps, a little more trust in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit because without it our limitations and failures are more obvious to each other, and that can obscure the gifts and successes that we should be celebrating.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Need for Certainty

I’v noticed something as I’ve watched the ebb and flow of people moving between church traditions around here.  Those leaving a conservative evangelical tradition often gravitate to Rome, while departing Catholics often gravitate to conservative or fundamentalist evangelical churches.  The common thread, in this highly unscientific view of things, seems to be a movement between traditions that offer a high degree of certainty, with a claim of inerrancy about what the bible says and means.  One tradition claims that scripture is inerrant while the other claims that the Church is inerrant in its teaching of what scripture means.  

Whatever causes someone to move from one tradition to another, it seems to be important for them to be assured of certainty.  In confusing and uncertain times, when the news of political unrest, domestic violence, and changing standards about what is socially acceptable, is spread across the globe instantaneously, with networks doing everything they can to exploit and sensationalize it, it should not be surprising that many are hungry for certainty.  Some of it is supplied by intransigent polarizing politics.  Some is supplied by a contemporary Luddite rejection of science and Enlightenment rationality.  Some of it is supplied by religious traditions, old and new, that promise unchangeable, inerrant, absolute truth about God and humanity.  It can be very comforting. 

That’s especially true when mainline churches seem to be struggling to find a deeper truth through new, unsettling and controversial meanings in scripture.  They can appear to have an understanding of God who cannot be trusted to remain as he was, is now, and ever will be.  How often have you heard that the church is being corrupted by culture, and true believers must adhere to the absolute truth, even when it goes against popular culture?  Oddly, the certainty of absolute truth that is often at the center of conversation is only what was taught to them as culturally acceptable when they were young.  I wonder if it occurs to them that they are the dominant popular culture, or at least they have been.  No doubt they dislike seeing their dominance fade away, but more important, it’s very upsetting to witness the culturally acceptable truths on which one has always relied being challenged, undermined, and replaced by new standards of uncertain worth. 

Where can we go? To whom can we turn?  Polarized politics and church gatherings offering indisputable certainty are attractive possibilities.  I am convinced that neither is the path down which Jesus is leading me, nor do I believe it is a path down which he leads anyone.  When I get serious about following him, I find myself in a place where I must reject the self righteous and sometimes frightened certainty that, to me, represents contemporary cultural values overlaid with a very thin veneer of Christianity.  

Following Jesus requires me to walk in the way of the cross, which is not always a comfortable place to be.  It challenges what has been, is now, and entices me into an uncertain future.  It compels me to trust in the already but not yet presence of God’s kingdom.  I am instructed to go on with only the commandments to love God, love neighbors, and love others as Christ has love me as the unchangeable truths on which to depend.  I’m not very good at any of them.  

The Friday morning collect asks God to assure us that we may find walking in the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.  Life, maybe, but peace?  By my standards, there is not much of it.  The resurrected Christ has ignored my standards and given us his peace.  It is enough, at least for today.    

As a post script, I am not unaware of the exciting theology coming out of Roman circles these days, nor of the new life being breathed into the Vatican by the current pope.  Local bishops, some priests, and the catechism for new Catholics have a lot of catching up to do. 











Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Learning to be American

In decades past, I had a stock presentation to help local economic developers understand more clearly what was happening to their plans in the face of growing competition from abroad for the production of goods and services that had been an American monopoly.  When working with budding executives, I added a little something about what had happened to American management practices in the years following WWII.  It’s old stuff, but I think it still has some relevance because the lessons were never fully learned, or maybe never learned at all. 

It went something like this.  After WWII America had the only economy in the industrialized world that had not been bombed into ruins.  It was the only source for the large scale production of goods of a predictable quality.  We set the standard not because we were the best, but because we were the only.  It was one element of what became known as American exceptionalism.  As other industrialized nations recovered, they found new ways to improve efficiency, quality, and diversity of product that helped rebuild their economies while giving America competition it was unprepared to meet.  It took us several decades to recognize that we are just one among many industrialized nations, and must compete, as fairly as possible, without the stale old bromide of being Number One to prop it up.  In the meantime, large multinational corporations that once prided themselves on being American quietly dismissed all pretense of domestic patriotism except for that needed to protect their public image.  That’s another story.  

Meanwhile, about thirty years ago there was a stampede in American business education and consulting to discover how it was that the Japanese were able to be so efficient, and the idea of importing Japanese styles of management became vogue.  The curious thing was that the Japanese style of management was an American invention honed in the darkest hours of WWII.  It’s what enabled us to produce so much, so quickly, at such high quality with a workforce made up of older workers, women, and those not qualified for the draft.  Then we exported it to Japan to help them rebuild their economy.  We, on the other hand, abandoned all those lessons after the war so that men could return to work and women could return to the kitchen.  It made some sense at the time, but it returned us to an early 20th century business model while recovering nations moved forward using our own methods.  In one sense we have done much to catch up these last twenty years or so.  In another sense we have, as a people, been terribly reluctant to admit that we are in a different world than the one that existed briefly from 1945 to around 1970.

Sadly, many of us still think of America as the Greatest Nation on Earth, and shudder in disbelief whenever we hear that some other nation is better at something than we are.  The problem is compounded by the current popularity of a certain brand of Luddite thinking that drives down our collective intellectual, emotional, ethical, and political intelligence.  What will help, I think, is for us to stop worrying about being the world’s only super power, the greatest nation ever, and begin living more fully into what it means to be Americans committed to the best of what we claim to be as a nation of opportunity for all, celebrating our multicultural heritage, and dealing with other nations as partners in a partnership we do not always have to lead.  


Friday, June 6, 2014

The Minimum Wage Question

The morning news reports that we have finally reached the level of employment left behind in the Great Recession that began in 2007-08.  More needs to happen for job creation to accommodate those entering the workforce, or in it and looking for work.  But what bothers me more is the question of what kind of jobs are being created.  Most, it seems, are in the service sector, frequently part time, and without benefits.  Those are not the jobs we lost, and it means that real wage growth has not only stagnated but has been in stagnation for several decades.  At the same time we are told that we are a consumer driven economy that cannot flourish unless consumers are willing and able to buy, which they can’t do if they don’t have decent paying jobs.

Raising the minimum wage has been proposed as one part of the solution, only a part to be sure, but an important part.  Mere talk of it has generated predictable opposition from the usual suspects who claim that any raise will cost jobs.  That is undoubtedly true at some level, but experience shows that we are unlikely to reach that level, at least nationally.  The current national minimum of $7.25 has not been adjusted since 2009, and, according to the Congressional Research Service, it would have to rise to $10.69 to equal the purchasing power that it had in 1968, the high point in minimum wage purchasing power.  

What if we didn’t want to reach the high point?  For the twenty years between 1960 and 1980 the minimum wage tended to be between 45 and 50% of average private sector wages.  What if we aimed at that?  It would mean a current minimum of between $9.14 and $10.15, so it seems to me that a $10 minimum wage would be very reasonable, if not fair.  Washington State, where I live, is not far off with a statewide minimum of $9.32.

So here’s a question.  Can a $10 minimum wage worker in the service sector add enough value to the product or service offered to make them a better investment that a $7.25 worker?  I think the answer is yes given a couple of conditions.  First, management has to be good enough to figure that out, and there are enough cases of big box store and fast food outlets who have done it to make a good case for it.  Second, management that is good enough is something better than lazy, ignorant management that treats employees as disposable cogs in a disposable machine.  Third, some managers need to be more honest about whether they add enough value to be worth their own salary.  That’s not likely to happen, but it should. 

Since so many new jobs are part time or temporary, and not likely to offer benefits, the next problem has to be the two pronged need for health insurance and retirement savings.  For all of the public blathering about the ACA (Obamacare), it is a reasonable, affordable, and workable start to bring all Americans under some form of health insurance.  Retirement is another matter altogether.  The specter of a generation of part time minimum wage workers, with no retirement savings of their own, trying to survive on Social Security is not an attractive one.  It would help to take the cap off of FICA taxes. At least that would shore up the financial integrity of the system.  Beyond that, it might not be bad to borrow an idea from the right wing and encourage some small percent of income to be privately but securely invested.




Monday, June 2, 2014

Where have all the birds gone?

Where have all the birds gone?  At this time of year our yard should be teeming with nesting sparrows and their offspring, dozens of finches competing for the feeder, and a small variety of others passing through.  This year the birdhouses are empty, not a sparrow in sight.  Finches are absent, and so is almost every other kind of bird.  

We do have our resident squirrels, who are pleased to have the bird feeders to themselves, which is almost true.  A few magpies and a crow or two haunt them from time to time.  I wonder what’s going on?  

One possibility is that the city is tearing up our street to replace water and sewer mains.  Work starts by 7:00 a.m. as a variety of heavy equipment fires up.  Bulldozers, front-end loaders, jack hammers, dump trucks, pickups, they are all lumbering about making a lot of noise and stirring up dust that penetrates most everything around.  Maybe the sparrows and finches decided it was too much.  I hope that’s it, and that they come back next year. 

In the meantime I keep feeding the squirrels.  


I could make something theological out of this, but why?