An Easter Sermon for Christmas

I just came home from singing a very abridged sing-along version of Handel’s Messiah. It’s an annual event, accompanied by the Conservatory Orchestra of Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia (Washington state). The conductor remarked that the full Messiah is about three hours and that he’d conducted it once. I have sung the full version as a tenor chorus member at least ten times.

As I was singing tonight, I was remembering the last sermon I preached, at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Lacey, WA, during Easter season on Earth Day in 2010. Handel’s Messiah is the organizing illustration. It’s based on my recollection of singing the full version at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, MA during the 1990s

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 25, 2010

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23 (1)

Revelation 7:9-17

John 10:22-30

Good morning. My name is Paul, and I’m a sinner saved by God’s grace.

I’m standing dead center in the front row of the choir loft, surrounded by singers, the orchestra in front of me. We’re in a huge old church on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College in Qunicy, Massachusetts. Every pew is jammed with people, even in the wrap-around balcony. This is the third or fourth year; I’ve lost track. It’s the dead of dark winter, freezing and treacherous outside, near Christmas.

We’re nearly three hours into the concert. We’ve sung the entire gospel, from the tenor soloist’s proclamation of the words of Isaiah, “Comfort Ye, Comfort ye, my people,” and, “Every Valley shall be exalted.” We’ve gloried in the birth of Christ, we’ve sorrowed our way through his suffering and death. We’ve proclaimed the resurrection, and I have been careful not to allow the Hallelujah Chorus to shred my voice, because I know that in this piece the climax comes at the end. The musical genius, George Frederick Handel, follows the Hallelujah chorus with what now seems the only thing possible: the beautiful, lilting soprano melody of “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,” a verse from the book of Job, of all places, in which the devastated farmer, having lost family and fortune to a seemingly capricious act of God, answers his critics in the only way he knows how. The piccolo trumpet has flawlessly overshadowed the bass soloist in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” and we have struggled through the purposefully anticlimactic “But Thanks Be to God.” We’ve paper-clipped the soprano solo “If God Be for us, who can be against us?” because everyone knows that no one ever sings that.

So now, just having sung a resounding E-flat major chord, with the tenors on a B-flat, we’re trying to imagine what a D-major chord will sound like, because we have to pick it instantly from the air. Somehow, I and the other tenors pluck our F-sharp from the ether, and we begin the final movement, “singing with full voice”:

Worthy is the lamb that was slain,
and hath redeem-ed us to God by His blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength,
and honor, and glory, and blessing.

And we repeat this in the dominant key. Then the basses and tenors take over, in booming unison:

Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him, be unto him, that sit-teth upon the throne, and unto the lamb, for ever and ever, etc. etc. etc.

On the last Forever and ever we are blasting the five chord, A major, in a suddenly slow tempo with a great fermata (pause). As the basses begin one of the greatest Amens in all of music, followed in fugue fashion by the tenors, I’m still having to pace myself, because I know what’s coming. I have always been convinced that this was why my friend Lois kept hiring me to help out the Eastern Nazarene tenor section year after year. On page 252 of the choral score, eight measures before the end, the tenors have to sing a fortissimo A above middle C, matching the same pitch the altos have just sung. So I’m pacing myself, making sure that I have just enough left in the tank to direct every muscle in my body and all my breath and strength into that A. When it finally comes, miraculously, it’s there, and we soar through the last six amens of Handel’s Messiah.

The congregation, having dutifully sat on their hands for three hours, now leap to their feet with shouts and applause. And I and all the other musicians drink in this reward, physically and spiritually exhausted.

For singers and other musicians, this image of eternal bliss, with saints robed in white joining the angels in singing God’s praises, is not half bad. It’s one of the few heavenly things we get to do on earth. If you’re not particularly musically inclined, however, I can see how this might not be an image of heaven that works for you. It would be like me playing left tackle for the Seahawks. And although our translation says the heavenly host was “singing,” the Greek word is “saying.” So let’s lay aside for the moment the musical dimension of this vision from John of Patmos, and reflect on his message. Just what might it mean to proclaim blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might to God, to God-as-lamb? Now it’s not hard, for me at least, to attribute to the lamb ideas like blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, and honor.

John uses the humble image of the lamb as a symbol of Christ, who was slain for our sins. John is clearly referring to the ancient law of the Hebrews, in which a sinner is to take an unblemished lamb and offer it to God in payment for his or her sins. In that case, the lamb has little to do with the transaction. It’s bred, chosen, fattened, and slaughtered. But if the lamb is a person without sin, who willingly offers himself in sacrifice for the sins of others, surely such a person would be worthy of blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, and honor.

Where we might run into trouble is in the idea of attributing to such a person “power” and “might.” Yes, there is “power” in the forgiveness of sins, no question about that. But something even greater than this is in view here. This divine lamb-who-was-slain has the power of dominion, of rule, of governance. This vision of a governing lamb-who-was-slain is in full and utter contradiction to the world in which we find ourselves today. Here is cognitive dissonance, something that does not compute.

Our society is at war over power. To say that our society is divided is like pointing out that a nuclear bomb makes a loud noise. Our society is rent asunder, increasingly polarized, with the opposing poles of the magnet gaining in strength, drawing everyone further toward the extremes. As some of you are aware, I have political opinions, and from time to time I try to articulate them. I try to be reasonable. But what invariably happens is that I get drawn into the vortex. Trying to be calm and reasonable in our political climate is like trying to sail a paper airplane straight through a hurricane, or like trying to paddle a kayak up Niagra Falls. I try to remain calm, and pretty soon I’m raising my voice, even if it’s through a keyboard. My very highly educated friends say things that I think are infantile, and I HAVE TO RESPOND! And other people have the same reaction to my very reasonable, thoughtful observations.

The Internet comic strip XKCD has a panel in which a harried man is sitting at a computer. A voice from another room says to him, “Are you coming to bed?”

I can’t. This is important.”
What?”
Someone is wrong on the Internet!”

Fed up with my rants, a Facebook friend wrote to me: Paul, you are an intelligent and well informed man. Your recent status updates and posts are disappointing to me. This is a form of commentary well below your usual standards.

She appealed to my better nature, which is cheating. But this, along with Holy Week at St. Mark, began to bring me out of my trance of political polarization. So do you think you’re immune, completely reasonable? Let’s test this. I’ll say four names, and I’ll bet two of them make you uncomfortable. Ready? George W. Bush. Barack H. Obama. Sarah Palin. Nancy Pelosi. Still feeling calm and comfortable?

Here’s the problem: Rabbi Edwin Friedman once observed that there are three systems of salvation in America: Religion, politics, and therapy. Most of us can’t afford therapy, and we like to keep religion personal and concerned with the afterlife, so that leaves politics as our only practical system of salvation. We think we can save ourselves, the planet, and the human race, through politics. And because these are the stakes, the very salvation of humanity and the planet, we become very serious about our politics. We begin to imagine that there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” We portray our political opponents in terms of a nearly metaphysical evil, and we reject any suggestion that the people in our party have anything but the most noble and righteous aspirations. We lose the capacity to communicate; we paint “the others” with a broad brush, wiping out all nuance and difference, except that they are the enemy: the blues or the reds. And we hurl the most heinous accusations against them, often without a shred of evidence or a twinge of conscience. And when we do this, we are playing in the devil’s playground.

Remember the last temptation of Christ? “And the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

I believe that Friedman was wrong. Politics is not a system of salvation. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one has pure motivations. No one is good, said Jesus, except God alone. God does not identify with any human political ideology or party. No political or economic system or leader can save us. John writes in chapter seven verse 10, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb.” Only God can save us. If we think that the human exercise of worldly power can save us, then we have struck our bargain with the devil.

I have to laugh every year when, in the aftermath of great demonstrations in public parks across this nation in honor of Earth Day, the cleanup crews have to come in and haul away the mountains of trash, heaped over garbage cans and strewn across the flattened grass. I imagine that the portable toilets are in similar condition. This is so typical of us humans, that in spite of our best intentions we wind up wreaking havoc and destruction.

You want to honor the earth? Check out Revelation: 5:13:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing (or saying),
To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb-who-was-slain be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!

 I hope someone has the courage to stand before a microphone and proclaim this in an Earth Day celebration today.

The followers of Jesus were begging him to take the path toward the acquisition of earthly power. But this was not the path he chose. He chose the path of the lamb. He saw that the people were not responding to his teaching in the way that he had hoped. He set forth the catastrophic consequences for humanity should we continue to reject the reign of God. Seeing that the people were demanding a scapegoat, and refusing to be complicit in the sacrifice of another, he allowed himself to be led to the slaughter, so that through his resurrection he could finally undo the pretensions of the powerful. And we are the saints whose robes have been washed in his blood. It is our pretensions of power and our pretensions of righteousness that he has undone. Our righteousness is in him alone. When we hurl those accusations of communism, of hitlerism, of racism, and all the other -isms toward our political opponents, we only heap condemnation upon ourselves by rejecting the lamb-who-was-slain. And I confess that so doing, I have heaped mountains of condemnation upon myself. But thanks be to God, it takes but a sincere confession with repentance to cast this mountain of sin and condemnation into the sea.

The only way that the polarization of this country can be reversed is if the people of God will allow the power of the lamb-who-was-slain to disengage us from choosing among evils. The right, the left, the capitalists, the socialists, the pundits, the columnists, the spin-meisters, the talk-show-hosts, the newscasters, the politicians, are not worthy of our faith and our trust. It is the lamb-who-was-slain who is worthy to receive blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might! For that one rules with the greatest power in the universe: the love of God, which issues forth the forgiveness of sins, and live everlasting. Amen and Amen.

My Kennedy Recollections

I first became aware of John F. Kennedy when our family lived in Santa Fe, NM. We were walking down a city sidewalk in either Santa Fe or Albuquerque. There was a small knot of men, all in gray or black suits, attracting attention. There were about five or six of them. It must have been 1960. My mother whispered to me, 8 years old at the time, that that was John Kennedy, candidate for president. I don’t remember any TV cameras or microphones, just a group of men talking and walking down the street.

I remember the Nixon-Kennedy debate. I’m pretty sure we listened on the radio. What I remember is that it seemed to me that Nixon was the one articulating the ideas, especially about the threat of Communism, and my surprise that Kennedy mostly agreed with him and then elaborated.

After his election, I remember my parents having a mild disagreement about him. Dad was skeptical; mom was optimistic. She thought he was going to do some good for the country. The Kennedys were very entertaining. There was this fascinating mix of celebrities and politicians swirling about the White House. We had a comedy record album that lampooned the Kennedy Cape Cod accent and the first family. It wasn’t vicious like the comedians of today; it was just funny. A year later, it wasn’t funny anymore.

Of course the assassination was a total shock. I was in sixth grade, and we received the news toward the end of the school day. The kids had a lot of insane things to say about it, like kids do. We were glued to the TV for a week. There were only the three major networks; I don’t think we even had a PBS station yet. It was wall-to-wall coverage on all channels. Oswald was shot and killed in the Dallas police station on live TV. I can’t swear I was watching it live; but I do know the footage was shown over and over again. We watched the funeral, and John Jr.’s salute to his father’s flag-draped coffin.

That Thanksgiving holiday we traversed the mountains to Olympia to visit family. I remember finding my uncle Ernie drunk in his travel trailer. (They had a nice home, complete with nuclear bomb shelter.) He was despondent over the assassination. I never saw him drunk before or after. We later picked up my great aunt Aggie, who was by that time living in a nursing home, and brought her home. What was supposed to be a wonderful family time was completely overshadowed by the assassination, still dominating the TV.

Fast forward 24 years. I was in a seminar in my first week of graduate school at Harvard, 1987. The seminar was on the comparative study of religion, with three professors. One of them, John Carman, talked about the Kennedy assassination. He said that during the brief Kennedy administration Harvard became Camelot. Kennedy was a son of Massachusetts, a Harvard man, and a war hero. All was right with the world. Carman went on to say that the assassination destroyed all that. He said he had never recovered from it. The assassination seemed to have embittered him, to have removed from him all hope for the world. Mind you, this was a seminar on the comparative study of religion, not political science or US History.

Of course we’ve learned so much more about JFK in the years since. What I want to convey here is that for a child in 1963, the assassination of JFK was a profoundly disturbing experience. There was no escape from it. It was a riveting, horrible story, unfolding literally before our eyes on the relatively new medium of television. I suspect that this disturbance was directly related to the enormous turmoil of the remainder of the 1960s in the US: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. The riots. Kent state. The huge and costly expansion of the war in Vietnam. The emergence of drug culture. The transformation and ascendance of rock and roll. And on and on. It was a rupture in the psyche of the nation.

Can Christian churches learn from radical innovations in education?

Joshua Davis chronicles the astonishing transformation of an elementary school classroom in Matamoros, Mexico from the standard fare of “lectures, memorization, and busy work.”

Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.

Correa encountered the work of innovators like Sugata Mitra, who gave students in India a computer without any instruction and watched them organize their own learning. Correa brought this new approach to the classroom, posing questions to his students and allowing them to discover the answers. In the process, he discovered that one girl in his class had an extraordinary knack for mathematics, and at the end of the year she earned the top math score in the nation!

Davis observes that “the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else.” But the world has moved on into an era of unlimited access to knowledge and data, and a workplace that values “innovation, creativity, and independent thinking.” It simply doesn’t do any longer for a teacher to pose as the expert dispensing his or her wisdom to the sponge-like students. The teacher becomes a guide, a facilitator, but the students themselves discover knowledge and how to approach difficult problems.

I’ve been realizing this anew while playing with my toddler grandson, now nearly five months old. He is a dynamo of exploration. He is learning to manipulate his fingers, to grasp and move objects, to balance himself while sitting up, to communicate his happiness or dissatisfaction. He is driven, hard-wired to learn. I don’t have to show him how to grasp things. I just put something before him, and he figures out how to grasp it.

If education is hide-bound by authoritative models forged in the industrial revolution, Christian churches struggle inside a straight-jacket of much longer duration. Enter most any church worship service, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, liberal, conservative, or fundamentalist, and you will see the same pattern: an credentialed expert stands before a somnolent congregation lecturing, cajoling, hectoring, inspiring. What the expert will rarely do, certainly not in that weekly gathering called “worship,” is to take a question or allow a spontaneous response. No, the congregation’s response is either printed in the bulletin or displayed on the screen: words they are given to say or sing, or silence.

Not surprisingly, pastors and priests complain about the apathy of their congregants. Yes, they turn out for potlucks and certain service projects. Yes, they appear to provide one another spiritual and emotional support. But do they study the Bible? Do they pray? But what is the pastor modeling? He or she acts the expert. He/she claims the exclusive prerogative to proclaim Word of God. He/she selects the scriptural passages to be studied, the preferred translation, and most crucially, he/she supplies both the interpretation and application of these words. The congregation, like the traditional classroom, is to absorb the message and apply it in their own lives and in the world. But where is their incentive to figure anything out for themselves? The pastor has just handed the Word to them on the proverbial silver platter. And somehow that silver platter always seems to convey nourishment that feeds the needs of an institution and most importantly its budget.

It is also no surprise that so many churches are now populated by the aged, who are happy to treat the worship service in much the same way that they treat their favorite TV show: as an interesting or amusing occupier of their time. And the young mostly stay away, except in those churches fortunate enough to have a spiritual expert who knows how to hold their attention, like those charismatic star-but-still-traditional teachers.

Moreover, churches rarely ask this crucial question: on what basis does a person claim expertise in the knowledge of God? Generally the answer, if the question is asked, has to do with “apostolic succession” and education, as though the knowledge of God were of the same nature as the knowledge of fireflies or Jane Austin novels. As for apostolic succession, my daughter’s college drama teacher gave her a sort of Shakespearian genealogy: a list of successive colleagues in the craft of Shakespeare plays that goes back to the Bard himself. Does this make her an expert in Shakespeare? No. Take these courses, learn these languages, do an internship, get the approval of a committee, and voila: you are now God’s mouthpiece! Go forth and tell God’s people what to believe and how to behave! But God forbid that they should actually articulate what they learn from the Spirit who resides within them, without the pastor’s imprimatur.

The Apostle Paul, perhaps inadvertently, blows up the model of centralized pastoral authority in his first letter to the church at Corinth. They had been suffering some chaos in their worship gatherings, apparently due to what Paul perceived as a misuse of the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues. But his description of what ought to be happening in worship is instructive:

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

Now to be sure, Paul goes on to say that in order to maintain order the women should be silent. I think most today would agree that Paul was in error on that point. (I know, I just lost the inerrantists.) But note that throughout his discussion of Christian worship there is no mention of a central authority, and certainly none of a paid or credentialed clergy. And note that his expectation is that several people are going to speak in the service, as the spirit of God moves them.

Does this in itself invalidate the practice of having a credentialed, authoritative, paid clergy? No. But it does at least open the door to the notion that God might have more words for the congregation than those that spring from the pastor’s mouth, and other ways of organizing the congregation than those mandated by the denominational canon law, book of order, or confession.

What might happen if a pastor learned and applied the insights being gained from education innovations, not only in the Sunday School, but even in the worship service? What might happen if a pastor were to relinquish his/her absolute control over the service, and in particular the sermon? What might happen if the pastor were to refuse to provide the answer, admitting that the answer is difficult and perhaps beyond the comprehension of any one finite being? What if instead the pastor were to pose the question, and empower the congregation to discover, if not “the answer,” an answer, or a direction for further study?

Christian pastors proclaim that Christ relinquished his life in order to save humanity. But rare is the pastor who will relinquish the pulpit, except to someone equivalently credentialed or at least pre-approved.

Here’s what I think would happen: first, stoney silence. Then someone might venture a word, then sit back in expectation that the pastor would say yes, or no, that’s not the right answer, someone else? It would take time, weeks or months perhaps, for the congregation to trust that it isn’t a trick, that the pastor really expects them to speak up, to reveal the light they have been so long admonished not to hide under the bushel, as long as they keep it to themselves when the pastor is speaking.

If we are to believe the accounts of transformed classrooms, schools and students, perhaps we should expect to see a transformation of the congregation. Perhaps the congregation could learn to decide what it is they would like to learn in the spiritual realm, and how to go about learning and proclaiming it. Perhaps they would come to the next service armed with information and, more importantly, questions.

There are, of course, great risks for the clergy in such an approach. Questions will be asked for which they have no answer. People will bring scriptures and other writings not from the authorized canon. It would undoubtedly take considerable time and experimentation to develop a leadership style of facilitation rather than lecture. It would also take time and experimentation to open up the service in such a way that chaos does not ensue. People also might begin to ask what exactly it is about the spiritual gift of the pastor that justifies a salary and authority over all other gifts.

Still, I think the risk is worthwhile. The potential rewards could be great indeed: a congregation aroused from its somnolence into a hunger for learning. And the pastor might experience relief from several burdens: the need to protect denominational teaching (think standardized tests), the need to have all the answers, the need to control every aspect of the worship service. The pastor might come to his/her own worship service and actually learn, worship, and receive inspiration. Best of all, the pastor might observe a congregation weaning itself from the milk of pastoral feeding to the solid food of independent exploration.

God’s call and other bullshit

I mean no offense to bulls or their need to excrete. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about the over-worn concept that God “calls” professional ministers to ever greener, more lucrative pastures. How convenient for them! But for those left struggling (and paying) in the pews, it stinks to high heaven.

My mother, may she rest in peace, started me along this line of thought. When I was a teenager she worked in a small-town branch of a large regional bank. This afforded her lots of opportunities to pick up tidbits of information, usually provided by the customers. One of her customers self-identified as an evangelist. One day as winter approached Mom came home in a grumpy mood. “The evangelist came in today,” she said. “He said God is calling him to preach in Hawaii for the winter. I don’t think God calls people to go to Hawaii for the winter.” Huzzah Mom!

On another occasion years later, I attended a family member’s church. This pastor had a reputation for strolling the streets of his town praying. He announced from the pulpit, “I’m going to continue to walk the streets of this city praying until every last family is converted to Christ, or God calls me to go somewhere else.” I murmured to my wife, “Guess which of those things is going to happen.” As it turned out, he had an affair with the church secretary, which was only disqualifying because he wasn’t in Congress. But I digress.

In partial self-disclosure (full disclosure is a lie), I’ve had my own experiences with the idea of call. It hasn’t been pretty. I went to seminary and grad school (my resume is elsewhere on this blog). I went through the pastoral ordination process. In my denomination at the time, as in many others, ordination was a tedious committee process once you had satisfied the educational requirements, typically a Master of Divinity that includes indoctrination into your own denominational principles and procedures. A certain type of person tends to be attracted to ordination committees, a type I’ll call “God’s gate-keeper.” These people feel that they are defending God and God’s church from a horde of barbarians. There are certain words they need to hear you say, such as “I believe (or feel) that God is calling me into XYZ ministry.” They will resort to torture if you don’t say these words. I didn’t, and was assigned to supervision by a pastor who told me just that: “Tell them you feel called, that’s what they want to hear.”

A ministry to which I really did feel called was to teach biblical studies at a seminary in the Philippines. Unbeknownst to me, the missionary recruiter responsible to recruit candidates for consideration considered herself to be in the army of God’s gate-keepers. I was naive. I thought she was recruiting people. She saw her job as blocking the unworthy. I didn’t say the magic words, “God is calling me to teach theology in the Philippines.” Instead I asked uncomfortable questions like, “What are the educational resources there for my children?” She was not there to answer questions, she was there to throw blocks, and block she did.

After failing to land an academic job armed with a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard Divinity School, I put myself in the pastoral job market and was hired as a pastor. It didn’t go particularly well, especially when a building tenant decided to  build their own building and the church couldn’t afford to pay me any more. I tried to transition to half-time, but the controlling family in the church cried, “Then we’ll be a part-time church” (an absurd notion indeed) and started complaining about the presence of my four-year-old daughter in worship services. Apparently she occasionally made a sound or something. I resigned. I did not tell them, “God is calling me to go to XYZ.” I told them I couldn’t handle it, and I quit. It was ugly.

Since then I’ve been in the pews, with occasional part-time stints in support roles, mostly in music. God calls pastors to come, to retire, or to go to a bigger and wealthier church. God sure is fickle.

In many denominations the practice is for the pastor who wants to move to keep this an absolute secret from his or her flock. They cannot be allowed to know that the pastor has already decided to divorce them, because the flock might move pre-emptively and fire them. They might wind up just like 7.8 percent of their congregants: unemployed for a time. A denominational official once told me, “Never ever leave a church until you have another job in hand.” 

This is certainly standard advice in the business world. The difference is that a CEO or computer programmer typically does not tell the employer he is abandoning, “God is calling me to serve elsewhere.” His or her colleagues would rightly identify this as self-serving bullshit. But in the church it’s the expectation.

So the denominational hierarchy is complicit in enabling a pastor to abandon a church, leaving the church with no advance warning and no time to prepare for the tedious process of hiring a new pastor. Then, in full-employment-for-administrators fashion, denominational “experts” come in and lecture the congregation about the steps they must go through in order to “call” their next minister. In fact, I recently learned that one denomination actually demands payment of a 15-percent-of-compensation penalty for a congregation that does not  “call” their next pastor in a timely fashion! And all this money goes to feed the poor, right? HAHAHAHAHA!

Having discerned God’s call to escape from the current hell-hole of his or her own making, the departing pastor turns on the tears and other emotional manipulation, declaring the period of trial or bankruptcy facing the congregation their “wilderness experience.” He/she fondly recalls all the great and wonderful relationships he/she is now abandoning, wistfully supposing that an invitation to preach some time in the future will be forthcoming. It all invokes in me a feeling of revulsion, of nausea.

Things would be so much better if pastors just told the truth. After all, they regularly invest their personal opinions about God and what what God intends for human behavior with the appellations “Truth” or “Word of God.”  It would be nice to hear a pastor say, “I’ve failed to live up to your expectations and my own. I’m tired of working here, I want more money, more prestige, a better climate, etc.” Instead, they say, “God is calling me to Hawaii. I have no choice but to obey.” But then, none of us who works for an employer ever tells the full truth about our relationship with work, do we?

The Performance Principle

Forty-five years ago my best friend received an electric guitar for his birthday. Despite my disappointment in him (I was lobbying for golf clubs), I accepted his invitation to play keyboards in the band he assembled. This launched a lifetime of performance in music and drama. 

Perhaps because we were all beginners and struggling to figure out how to make music people would want to hear, I discovered a principle that has been guiding me ever since: My job as a performer is always to help those around me to perform at their peak.

If I’m playing the Hammond in a band, I don’t want the audience to say, “Wow! What a great organist!” I want them to say, “Wow! What a great band!” I want to provide maximum musical support for the vocalist when she’s singing, or for the guitarist when he’s ripping a solo, without getting in their way. When it’s my time to solo, I want to make the band shine still brighter.

If I’m in a pit orchestra, I don’t want the audience to say, “What a great pit orchestra!” I want them to say, “What a great production!” I want them to praise the actors for their performance and especially their singing. I don’t want the singers to have to strain themselves to be heard over the orchestra. And of course I want to play my part, whether on an instrument or as director, flawlessly (though I never quite achieve this).

If I’m directing a choir, I don’t want the audience to say, “How exquisitely the conductor waved his arms!” How ridiculous! No, I want the choir to present an exquisite sound, and if they can do that without my presence in front of them, so much the better.

If I am accompanying a soloist, it goes without saying that I want to shine the spotlight not on my accompanying, but on the soloist. I want to support her in every way possible. I’m certainly far from a great accompanist, but this is my goal. What about the soloist? As a soloist I want, in partnership with the accompanist, to give the audience the best possible presentation of a composer’s or a writer’s work as possible. If I want to take a passage faster than the accompanist can keep up, I don’t want to show up the accompanist, so I’ll slow it down. I want the audience to experience the full beauty of the musical or dramatical work being presented.

If I’m on stage, I don’t want the audience to say of me, “What a great actor!” Of course I love individual praise as much as the next person. But even better is when the people on stage with me get those compliments, in part because I have been reliable, on my spots, giving them the right cue lines, responding to them in the moment. When I performed in The Sound of Music as Captain von Trapp, the teenage girl playing Liesel and I had a walk on entrance, arm-in-arm, from stage left. The director hadn’t told us who should be downstage. I said to her, “You should be downstage; you’re prettier than I am.” She became my friend for life.

This is, I believe, a principle that transcends artistic performance. My job is always to help the people around me to succeed. When I do that, everyone is happier. It’s the best motivator I have to make myself perform to my own peak. And I don’t have to go looking for accolades. They will come.

Blocking Keystone Turns Out to Be a Win for Railroads

Robert Bryce dissects the recent protests and arrests in Washington D.C. over the Keystone Pipeline Project. Blocking the oil pipeline from Canada to the US hardly slows the flow of oil. Instead, oil traffic via rail has exploded over the past two years, and Canada is swiftly building  terminals for shipping their oil around the world, including to our Gulf Coast refineries, via oil tanker. 

While opponents of the pipeline have been rallying their supporters, U.S. and Canadian railroads have been hauling record amounts of oil. Last year, the volume of oil delivered by rail in the United States jumped by about 46 percent compared with 2011. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil-related rail traffic increased in Canada by 30 percent. In December, U.S. and Canadian railroads were hauling about 1.9 million barrels of oil and refined products per day, double the volume moved in 2009. Of that total, about 1 million barrels per day is being railed in the United States.

The Keystone XL is designed to transport 830,000 barrels per day. Over the past two years or so, domestic railroads have increased their transport capacity by an amount equal to about 55 percent of what Keystone is supposed to provide.

And that gap between potential Keystone capacity and rail transport will surely close in short order. So the question is not so much, “Should we allow more Canadian oil to flow to the US by building a pipeline?” but rather “What is the most efficient and environmentally friendly way to get it here?” Because it’s coming, and if not here, where environmental controls are in place, then to places in the world that care much less about damaging the environment.

The Rise of the Robots

Here’s a counterpoint to my previous post. We hear much about growing income equality, but generally in terms of greed and class warfare. We also hear much about the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US, but we rarely hear that our manufacturing output is actually increasing. What’s happening is that machines, including robots, are displacing human labor.

Christopher Mims has chronicled this process of displacement by machines in 

How robots are eating the last of America’s—and the world’s—traditional manufacturing jobs.

He describes the emergence of a new robot called Baxter that quickly learns to do simple tasks and costs only $22,000. Mims quotes Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT’s Center for Digital Business, who worries about the effect of increasing reliance of technology on the increasing income disparity that is emerging worldwide:

“As an economist, it’s not a bad thing when we get more stuff for less work,” says Brynjolfsson. “That’s what the system is designed to do. The issue is, can we reinvent and redesign our economic institutions to keep pace with this change so not all of the benefits accrue to a very small slice of people?”

Here’s an example of displacement of human labor by technology that everyone over the age of about 15 can remember. When we moved to our small town eleven years ago, there existed about 6 video rental stores. Each of these stores employed several people. I have no statistics, but let’s suppose the number was about 8 per store. That’s 48 jobs. 

None of these video stores remain. What happened? Principally, Netflix. Netflix exploited a number of weaknesses of the bricks-and-mortar approach to video distribution. First, they eliminated the need for travel entirely. Renting a video from a store required a trip there to pick it out (and usually not with the opportunity to browse availability online beforehand), and a trip to return it. Netflix disassociated travel from video rental.

Second, that return trip generated a great deal of revenue for the video stores due to late fees. I hated, loathed, and despised late fees. They often more than doubled the price. Netflix ingeniously exchanged this for a subscription. I could keep the video as long as I wanted. There was still a penalty; I couldn’t get the next video until I returned the one I had, and I still had to pay the subscription fee. But because the subscription happened automatically (i.e., by software robots rather than by an attendant swiping my card or my cash), it was less painful.

Not only did Netflix somehow figure out how to get the post office to deliver movies on time, they eventually eliminated the need for any wait at all for large swaths of their content via online streaming.

I got convenience and easy access to the world of fine video content, but it was at the cost of roughly forty-eight jobs locally, a number that must be astronomical when multiplied to every city and community across the country. We’ve seen this happen in many other retail fields; think Amazon.

What to do about this? All the cries about the evil one percent are doing nothing to slow the process. In fact, I don’t want to slow the process of technological innovation. But I also don’t want to see millions, perhaps billions of people robbed of the opportunity to do meaningful work, to be productive. I’m skeptical of governments’ redistributive policies. The benefits of these policies accrue mostly to government — the hiring of bureaucrats searching for ever-more-intrusive ways to restrict human liberty. Nor do direct payments to individuals lift them out of poverty, and certainly do not provide them with productive work, in most cases. Instead, they promote the development of generations of free riders. I’d like to believe that Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision of a future in which technology meets the basic needs of all people displaces the need for money, and people are free to pursue their interests. I can’t, however, see the pathway that gets us there.

The EBT Blues

Today on the way home from work I stopped by the local market to pick up a bottle of wine to share with my honey for a quiet Valentine’s Day evening. The fellow running the cash register was a newbie, and not a particularly young one. In front of me was a young mother wearing frayed sweats and flip-flops, with a toddler in a stroller. She was buying a pile of Valentine’s Day candy and cookies. Because the register screen faces the customer, I could see that her bill was $21. As I was pulling out my debit card, I heard the cashier say, “It says insufficient funds.” I glanced again at the screen: It said EBT card, foodstamps balance $9.20.

The customer began returning the couple of bags she had already stuffed into the stroller, and the cashier called for help. His trainer came and asked the lady, “Do you have cash to pay the balance?”

“No,” she replied, “just what’s on the card. My husband…” and her voice trailed away.

She returned most of her items, keeping just a couple packages of candy. The cashier, with the help of his trainer, cancelled the original transaction, and rang up the $2.58 for the remaining items, leaving a small balance on the EBT. When my turn came, the cashier apologized for the delay. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “It just makes me angry with the government. People have no idea that they’re being locked into poverty when they sign up for these programs.” The cashier, rightly, didn’t comment, efficiently processed my debit card, and I was on my way.

This got me to thinking about similar encounters I’ve had recently right here in town, some at the same store. A few weeks ago a couple, perhaps in their thirties, were trying to purchase a large can of beer. They apparently didn’t have an EBT, or it was already out of funds, because they were laboriously counting out coins. It took them an eternity to figure out how to make their pile of coins match the price on the screen.

A bit longer ago I was on my way into a take-and-bake pizza store. A disheveled woman, again thirty-ish, I suppose, placed herself between me and the door, and offered to use her EBT card to buy my pizza, if only I would give her cash. She was willing to take less cash than would have been drawn from her card. I rather huffily said “No.” Later I realized that this was a woman who needed rescuing, but that I didn’t know from what or how.

I sometimes get into arguments about these issues on Facebook. It’s a fascinating fact that the most vehement protestations come from people I don’t know… our only contact is a discussion on the timeline of a mutual friend. This one fellow was saying that it is always wrong to blame the poor, that the poor are always justified in receiving government benefits, and that it is cruel to suggest otherwise. The only problem is that we are too stingy with our benefits. We should guarantee everyone everything they need. Not surprisingly, this fellow never directly responded to any of my points or questions of him. He would just move on to the next talking point. But I wonder about such people. How is it that they don’t see what I see?

There was the couple I saw a few weeks ago in a local store. The woman had the EBT card. She paid for their stack of stuff until the card was depleted. Then he pulled out a wad of cash and paid the balance. She looked to me like she had never held a job. He looked like he had just gotten off work. I wondered whether they were married. I doubt it.

Just a couple weeks ago I learned that a girl I know was told by her mother that because the girl has turned 18 she will have to move out. This is because whatever government benefit the mother was receiving by virtue of raising her own daughter in her home expired when the girl turned 18. She hasn’t even graduated from high school. The girl approached a mutual friend, asking if she could move in, because if she could find a place to stay she could qualify for food stamps. The mutual friend, who has a good job, as does her husband, said, “No way!”

Though I know that this is a true story, I am still astonished. This is all your children mean to you, an opportunity to increase your welfare check? Really? When the money dries up you’re out of here? And you’ve trained your daughter that the way to survive in life is to leech off of other people?

One more story. A person I have known all my life has a mental illness. It is all the rage today to claim that the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has been disastrous. I’m here to tell you that the institutionalization of this person was disastrous. It absolutely sapped him of all sense of initiative. He came out much more disabled than when he went in. In his thirties he mustered the will and stamina to earn a bachelor’s degree. But that’s where his initiative and determination stopped. As far as I know he has never applied for a job. He got himself on Social Security disability, and is now approaching his seventies with a total income, provided by Uncle Sam, of $640 per month. He once said to me, “The last concern of the welfare system is customer service.”

This fellow has been locked into poverty his entire life. The government determines his standard of living. The government determines the nature and quality of his health care. He, and tens of millions of Americans like him, are locked into poverty by the very government benefits that purport to save him. He lives by very severe rules. He is not permitted to accumulate more than $2000 in financial assets. He is not permitted to supplement his government payments in any meaningful way. Even family members and friends cannot help pay for his rent or food, lest he lose his “benefits.”

Back now to tonight’s encounter with the EBT blues. I know nothing of this young lady’s history, or even of her present circumstances. All I know is that she has a child, some relationship with a man, and a tapped-out EBT card. I hope that tonight’s experience embarrassed her. I hope this for her sake, because she faces a crossroads. She can continue to submit herself to the government welfare grind, or she can cast it aside and become an independent, and possibly prosperous person. The first path guarantees that she will have some sort of roof over her head and money to spend on Valentine’s Day candy. It also guarantees that she will never own her own home, will never fulfill her potential as a human being, and will remain in the throes of poverty her entire life. This guarantee is good until the Congress decides it isn’t, or until the economy collapses, or both.

The other path does not carry this guarantee. It carries risk. She might find herself without income for a time. There is a possibility that she and her children could become homeless. A lot here depends on her ability to network, what is the nature and extent of her family, what communities she is connected to, etc. Still, the upside of NOT allowing herself to become permanently welfare-dependent is astronomical by comparison. She could discover the enormous psychological benefits of fending for herself, of making her own way in the world. She could discover her life’s vocation and do it. She could live free from all the rules and bureaucrats that now rule every corner of her existence. She could make a LOT of money. She could volunteer at the local food bank, and mutter, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And she could live free of the embarrassment of stopping a grocery line because her government dole had run out.

Benevolent Selfishness, or Why We Bought a New Car

My wife and I bought a new car. It’s the third new vehicle we have bought in our 31-year marriage, preceded by a 1991 Dodge van and a 2004 Dodge pickup. We still have the pickup. The latest addition is a 2013 Subaru.

I won’t go into the four-hour hell of actually purchasing the car, except to reiterate that it was four hours of hell. But apart from that, the purchase of a new car threw turmoil into my convictions.

First, we had decided awhile back that we were never going to take out a loan again for anything other than investment real estate (which so far has not happened). But we had decided to send our 2005 Prius with our daughter to college in the fall of 2013. (There are a number of sound reasons for this decision, which I won’t go into here.) We were not going to have the amount saved for the car we wanted by this fall. Plus, the dealer offered a 1.9% interest rate, lower than any of the financial institutions with which we do business. So we took out the loan.

Then there is the new-vs.-used decision. I’m aware that a new car loses a significant amount of value when it’s driven off the lot. The pundits of thrift advise that we let others absorb that depreciation, and go instead for the used car. This has worked well for us in the past. Still, there are nagging thoughts. How is there ever going to be a supply of used cars if no one ever buys new cars? Is it possible to know with any certainty how a used car was driven or maintained? (No.) What is the relative value of the longer time that we will drive a new car under warranty as opposed to a used car with little or no warranty? An important consideration was the steady improvement in fuel mileage year-over-year, as well as other incremental improvements.

The day after we bought the car, several of my Facebook friends posted quotes from people like Mother Theresa to the effect that we should always and only live for others, and that the life well-lived is one of self-sacrifice and giving. Of course, not one of them actually lives this way, but still: How did they know I had just bought a new car? Why were they hell-bent on making me feel guilty?

This conundrum returned me to an inner dialogue that I frequently suffer: What is the best way to help others? I was advised years ago by someone who ministers to the chronically homeless that the least effective way to help them is to give them cash. Surely they need to become self-sufficient, if this is at all possible. In other words, they need jobs. In our world, jobs, whether in the private or public sector, are created by the need for human productivity. At the base, someone  has to make something of value. The proceeds go to the worker, to the owners of capital, and to governments. We can argue until the next millennium whether the exact proportions of distribution are fair, but nonetheless productivity is the basis of employment.

Now I can either give money to a charitable institution or to government. Or I can use my money to buy stuff that I have persuaded myself that I need. When I give money to a charity, some of it gets skimmed off for administrative expenses, such as my pastor’s salary and the mortgage on the church building. Some of it will find its way to a person whom some earnest person has found deserving, who in turn will use it to buy stuff. By the way, the pastor will also buy stuff, and the mortgage institution will, I hope, lend some of the mortgage payment out to people who will buy stuff. Stuff is still bought, but in a diffuse and haphazard way.

If I donate to government, apart from certifying myself insane, I will be donating to an institution that engages in wars and in spying on its own citizens, making laws which are often irrational and counterproductive, and donating to people and causes that earnest people in government have found deserving. Eventually some of that money is used to buy stuff. It helps sustain government jobs, and government employees buy stuff. I get aggravation, the umbrella of military protection, and a society that is governed, however imperfectly, by law administered by generally reasonable people.

This is, apparently, the meaning of self-sacrifice: give your resources away so that others can buy stuff, or decide who is most worthy of buying stuff. And either don’t buy a car, or buy one that costs much less, i.e., an older used car.

But if I selfishly buy a new car for myself and my family, perhaps this is also helping others. It helps the manufacturer of the product, its employees, and the entire supply chain that goes into creating the product. It supports the dealership that has just put me through four hours of hell for the privilege. (No, I won’t fill out the survey that they pressured us to fill out with all tens while insisting that they weren’t pressuring us.) It supports my insurance company, its agents and employees. It supports jobs. These employees use some of their money to buy stuff. Some of the money goes to government. Some of it might even find its way to a charity. My purchase of a new car also eventually puts a well-maintained if not perfectly clean used car on the lot sometime down the line, so that someone of less means than I can get some further use and enjoyment out of it.

There was, ahem, another little conundrum. I had decided that I wanted to support one of the American car manufacturers, the one that didn’t want or receive any bailout money (although they benefitted from a supply chain that was almost certainly saved by bailout money). We looked at some of their vehicles. But there was a problem. My wife and I had two criteria (among others) that we wanted combined: a manual transmission and all-wheel drive. We wanted this combination in a sedan with decent fuel mileage. Unfortunately, my preferred manufacturer does not make such a car (as far as I could figure out), at least not in my price range. So we purchased a Subaru.

I love my country. Some of the proceeds of our purchase flowed toward people in the US. Some of it went to Japan, and some probably also to other countries. In all of these places jobs were supported, taxes were gleaned, governments supported. I love my country, but if my country doesn’t produce the product I want to buy for a price I am willing to pay, I will look elsewhere. It’s called the free market.

My admittedly self-serving conclusion: Although it may well be better to give than to receive, the purchase of a well-made product produces a lot of good in the world, helps a great many people, and supports governments, while also allowing us to enjoy some of the fruits of our labor. It’s not a zero-sum transaction.

Thoughts about Newtown

Two thoughts struck me today as the news remained saturated with speculation about how we might prevent ever having another mass killing again… more gun laws and regulation, better access to mental health care, armed guards in schools and shopping malls, less media and gaming violence. First, no one persuaded me that any of the measures being proposed could have stopped Adam Lanza. I suspect that those who interview these experts know this, because they never ask the obvious follow-up question: How would what you propose have stopped Adam Lanza?

Second was the thought that our desire to stop these disasters stems not only from our compassion for the victims. It is that we who have not been directly affected don’t want to have the news of these outbursts of the darkest side of our human nature interrupt our dreamlike faith in our own goodness. We know at some level that there is no way to stop some nut-case from going ballistic. Yet we want someone to do something to help us to feel better about ourselves: more access to mental health care, less access to guns. Thus we give up a little more freedom in order to keep the dream of our own goodness alive.

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