Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Looking Back and Forward: A Sermon for Advent III, Year C

Preached at Pleasant Hill Community Church (UCC) in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. If you'd like to see the service and sermon in context, you can see that here.

The Gospel lesson tells this story from Luke’s text. We also have it in Matthew, but today we’re looking at Luke. 

So, the people went to the Jordan to hear from John, the Baptizer. And when they arrived, this is what they heard:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Now, this is different from Matthew. In Matthew, John is speaking especially to the Scribes and the Pharisees. In Luke, John is speaking to everyone.

In either case, it seems a very familiar sermon. It’s an expanded version of what we’ve seen so often by the roadside: a cross-shaped sign emblazoned with, “Get Right With God!”

And what were they getting right for? 

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And avoiding the fire seems to have been on the minds of those who heard John. “What do we do?” they asked. 

“If you have two coats, share!” said John. 

If you have more than enough to eat, share!,” said John.

“If you have a job that gives room for theft, fraud or extortion, 

don’t!” said John. 

This is also different from Matthew. Matthew just left his listeners hanging. Luke at least gave them something to do.

Again, this seems a very familiar sermon. How many of us have experienced sermons with just this point: either you live right, or it’s fire! 

I have to imagine it was also familiar to most of John’s congregation. We sometimes speak of John as the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, largely in recognition that he proclaims the Lord’s intention of the New Covenant. That’s true; and it’s also true that among the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures this was a well known proclamation. The Jews in the congregation would have known that well. And even the soldiers would have had some idea. In the Roman Empire there were plenty of ethical teachers to remind folks that it’s wrong to steal or extort. They might have had different ideas of what the consequences would be, but they agreed that there were consequences for doing wrong. Everybody in the crowd would have had some opportunity to look forward to those consequences, and to look back at what they’d heard, what they’d learned, so as to avoid the fire.

And what a relief in what they heard! It was all familiar! There was something they could do! They could be in control!

But, then, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If it’s just about right behavior, then we’re in control. Oh, there’s lip service to God being in control. After all, it’s God that has the fire and knows how to use it. But, really, God’s not in control. We are! And, oh, how reassuring that is!

It’s how we are, really. There’s plenty of research that human beings are hardwired to fear losing in the present more than to hope for the future. That makes it really reassuring when we can look back to find the tactics to move forward. Indeed, it can lead us to the false conclusion that we can use the past to shape a future that doesn’t have to change. We’re in control, and what we see looking forward will look as familiar as the present.

But, what if we’re not in control? What if the future is being shaped in ways we don’t expect? What if God is in control, and not only in control, but free to do new, unexpected things?

It’s possible, you know. If God really is in control and we aren’t, doesn’t that mean we can’t just look back to see forward? 

Maybe, it means looking back to see when God has not been predictable. Maybe it means looking back to see God call, not just for a justice we can control, but for a hope that is beyond our shaping.

That theme is in the prophets, too. That’s what we see in the passage today from Isaiah. You can find some interesting parallels between Isaiah’s day and John’s. The province of Judea was under Roman domination. In Isaiah’s time, the nation of Judah was threatened by the large, powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire. And, while at the time of our passage Judah hadn’t fallen, Judah’s neighbors had or soon would. The Assyrians in their time were just as infamous as the Romans would be for imposing their laws and culture on conquered nations. Indeed, they were, if anything, worse, tearing conquered peoples from their homelands and settling them in the midst of strangers.

In the face of this, the prophets in Isaiah certainly call for righteous behavior, but they also call for trust: trust that God is in control, and trust that God can bring about a future that’s not just another round of the past we already know.

And so we have the hymn from Isaiah in today’s lessons.

Surely, it is God who saves me; *

  I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *

  and he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *

  from the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say, *

  Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples; *

  see that they remember that his Name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *

  and this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *

  for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Now, this is a very different proclamation, isn’t it! This is not about us getting right with God to escape the fire. This is about God making things right, and our joy in it. This is not about us doing what we’ve always done, hoping to get something no worse than we always got. This is about God being free to do new things, unexpected things, which we will recognize in faith and for which we will give thanks.

There is a turn this Third Sunday of Advent. Since August our lessons have, one way or another, spoken to the coming Reign of God. That peaked on the last Sunday of the Church year when the lessons reflected ideas of what the complete presence of God’s reign might look like; but even in the first Sundays of Advent, we have still been hearing about the promise of God’s reign. If we look back at how earthly empires appear, like John’s congregation we might expect God’s reign to look like any other conquering force.

If, on the other hand, we look back to see how God has surprised us, and how God has called for faith in hope, and not simply obedience in fear of fire, we might glimpse a different future, one that we don’t control but that offers so much promise; one where we live right, not to avoid the fire, but to participate in God’s grace. 

We might look forward, then, and recognize it when God does unexpected things - like, providing children to a woman long past her time and to a man near dead; or leading a people to freedom through the depths of the sea; or proclaiming promise in the midst of a frightened people; or sending an angel to talk to a young girl; or starting the restoration of the universe in a village shed.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Time to Suit Up: a Sermon for Proper 16, 8.22.2021

 Preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee, August 22, 2021.

You know, there is always a story. That used to be the bane of people I used to work with because it didn't matter what the topic was, there was always a story. The story this morning is actually not a teaching story. It's an experience out of my own life. Early in my ministry, I got asked to do a wedding and this was a great pleasure for me because the groom was a very good friend of mine from college, very close friend. And he was a little out of his element. He had grown up in the country in Tennessee, although he by this time had gone on and graduated from college and completed his law degree and was doing quite well. But there was that part of him that was still an East Tennessee country boy, and his wife was from a different culture: the reception took place at the James River Country Club in Newport News, Virginia.

It went very well: as interesting wedding, lots of fun stories, and a black tie reception. But, of course, I was working, so I was in clericals, not in black tie. And about, oh, 45 minutes into the reception, I realized there was somebody who was always at my elbow. It was my friend's cousin. My friend's cousin was interesting in and of himself. He had grown up in the country in west Tennessee, and decided he wanted to see the world. So he joined the Merchant Marine. And after serving a number of years in the Merchant Marine, he left the Merchant Marine, joined the Army, became a Ranger and served with honor in the Rangers. And he was at the wedding, not in black tie, but in full dress uniform. Now those of you that have served, understand that when I say full dress uniform, this was quite something. I looked at him and I said, “What's going on?” He said, “Well, you know, I see all these people around me and I'm just staying close to the guy who's in uniform.” 

When we talk about being in uniform in American culture and in American history, there's a certain expectation attached. Usually we talk about it as military service; but the fact is, is that we have a lot of different uniforms in our lives. And many of us have been in a uniform, if not in the armed services. Nurses still have uniforms. I mean, scrubs look a little bit different, but I can tell you that hospitals do things like have different colored scrubs on registered nurses versus licensed practical nurses versus nurse aides: a sense of a uniform. I served in a uniform for a number of years, not in the military, but because I was in marching band. And I remember my college uniform for the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band. Even more I remember my high school uniform because being a high school uniform - this was at Bearden in Knoxville - they had opted for a dual use uniform. It was basically a tux suit with a red vinyl overlay over it. And trust me, in late August and early September, there are a few things hotter than a red vinyl overlay laid over a wool suit.

So. I had my time in that uniform. Or,  you see me when I'm working Sunday mornings in clericals and that uniform. Many of us have some sense of what it is to be in a uniform, even if it's just a bowling shirt, because we want those things that being in uniform gives us. They identify us with a particular group. They give us a sense of solidarity with the other folks who are in uniform. Generally, they imply a certain skill or a certain training, even if it's just those highly visible t-shirts that the moms wear when they're the chaperones for the field trip. It’s for the people to be able to see them and come to them and ask them about things they are supposed to know about and be authorized and prepared to do - a lot of different kinds of uniforms. I miss actually when nurses wore caps, because most of you probably know each different educational institution for nurses had a distinctive cap. And back in the days when nurses wore caps, you could learn where a person got their education. A lot of things you got out of the uniform.

The author of Ephesians talks today about a uniform. I know it's armor, but if you think about it, it's a uniform. Those who wore armor didn't just wear armor when they were going into battle. They wore armor pretty much anytime they were on duty. And especially in Rome when so much of the work was civil unrest. You never knew when something was going to come up. They were in uniform and it was a uniform that would have been very familiar to Jesus's listeners. In fact, if you know much about armor or know much about the history of military service, you will remember that different groups at different times had different kinds of armor, different shapes of the breast plate, different shapes of the sword. You could identify who they fought for by what they wore, which in the middle of a crunch was really important. You wanted the right person at your shoulder, not the wrong person.

So the author of Ephesians, who, as I said last week, has been talking to us how to live in the presence of Christ in the world, talks about putting on armor to withstand the evil that besets us. And the evil that besets us, says the author of Ephesians, is not people. It’s not, as he said, enemies of flesh and blood. It's against rulers. It's against authorities. It's against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Some years ago there was an author, and I'll blank on his name for a few minutes, but the title of one of his book was The People of the Lie.It it was talking about demonic powers. I was a priest in Memphis at the time, and one of my colleagues did a book review of it for the other Episcopal clergy. And this colleague of mine said, “I’m much too educated and much too sophisticated to believe in demonic powers.” And I looked at a colleague of mine right next to me. He said, “I'm glad I'm not that sophisticated.” Depending on how you want to understand creation to be, you may or may not want to talk about personified expressions pursuing evil, but all of us will remember that there are forces that are a whole lot bigger than us, in the face of which we fear we have no control. And some of them seem to be doing people harm.

One of the commentators I listened to, a professor at Luther Seminary said that there are some people that say this is that idea of systemic problems. That is, the author of Ephesians is not just talking about - in fact, it's particularly not talking about - defending against individual sins, but against the waves of sinfulness that go through society, the waves that no one person is responsible for, but that we have some responsibility to meet. And that's one way to think about what this armor is about. It's about being prepared to meet, however you want to understand it, not just the wickedness of the person next door, (because as I used to say to nurses, I'll hear your confession. And if you're concerned about it, I'll match you sin for sin), but about, again, those things for which we trust in God’s support and work with God  because they certainly seem to be beyond us as individuals.

So we are called to be prepared for that. Not just thankfully on our own strength: the Greek of “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” Delmer Chilton says could be better understood as “be strengthened in the power of the Lord:” God working in us to do these things. And therefore God calls us to put on the uniform, to suit up, to put on the belt of truth and to be truthful, to put on the breastplate of righteousness, which means to do rightly. (That’s not an attitude of self righteousness. There's too blessed much of that around already.) To hold the shield of faith, to have on your feet whatever makes you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace - individually and as a community: St. Raphael's Episcopal Church. What is it that prepares us to proclaim the Gospel of peace? And then the sword, which is the Word. But note that again, this is about defending against evil. This is not about going out and beating anybody up. Being prepared, being in uniform, being in company, because all of these “you-s” are plural in the Greek -to take our place against those principalities and powers and authorities that on the one hand seem beyond our control and therefore we need God's strength for them; and on the other hand, we clearly see, they are doing harm.

The author of Ephesians calls us to put on the uniform and to become part of the company. Remember I said, that being in uniform is part of a team; part of being in a group; part of being identifiable in the group; and also part of being identifiable outside the group. The hardest part about putting on any uniform, not withstanding my experience in marching band, is not getting the suspenders. Those of you who served in the armed forces will appreciate, and  those of you who've ever been in marching band will appreciate the hardest part about being in uniform is the drill. It's the getting out and doing what you're supposed to do again and again and again and again, when you don't need it, so that you'll be prepared when you do need it. 

And that's a tough commitment. That's what we think people found tough about Jesus. He kept saying these odd things, and if you paid attention in the Gospel of John, with me preaching about it or somebody else, Jesus has a tendency in the Gospel of John to say some pretty interesting things. And scholars are not sure what it was that caused these people in this lesson to turn away; whether they were just at a gut level offended at Jesus's words, because remember I said in the Greek, Jesus is saying, “He who munches on my meat” when he says, “eat my flesh,” a very physical and tangible understanding of the Incarnation and also a very physical and tangible appreciation of what it means to be in Christ; or whether it got to them when he said, “Well, then what would it mean if you were to see the Son of Man returning to heaven?” That is, “Listen, I've been telling you all along: I'm God.” So I'm not sure which of those things or both of those things got those folks to say, “Who can keep this teaching,” because they weren't sure they were prepared to live with either of those things.

“That’s the drill,” Jesus said to the disciples. Now, you know there is a distinction here. We can think of the apostles as people that Jesus called versus the hangers on.  In John Jesus doesn't have a good opinion of the hangers on. He says, “You know, you're just here because I keep feeding people. You're just here because the miracles are exciting.” And when he says to the Twelve, “What about you,” they say something different. Peter says “There's no place else to go where we know there are the words of eternal life. We're willing to embrace you. We're willing to embrace that life.” They're willing. They commit to do the drill. 

So Ephesians calls us to this uniform that prepares us to be defended in the world against evil and, we hope, to help others in the world defend against evil, and not just our own individual sins, but against those things that are bigger than us, that we see doing harm. And Ephesians tells us that to do that, you take on a uniform, you take on a community, you take on a lifestyle, you take on the drill. We are those among those who say we're prepared to embrace that lifestyle and embrace that drill, to say with the Twelve that we know where are the words of eternal life. Very good. So, let's suit up!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wisdom: a Sermon for Proper 15, August 15, 2021

So, as I prepare my sermon for Proper 16, here is my sermon from last Sunday on Proper 15.

I am a big fan of teaching stories, especially middle Eastern Sufi and other teaching stories. This is one from the person I read most often, an Afghan Englishman named Idries Shah. He said that two men found themselves crossing a river on a ferry. This was an old ferry in an old country, and it was strung on ropes. And the ferrymen basically pulled the rope to get you from one side of the river to the other. So these two men were on the ferry. One of them was a professor of logic and rhetoric. And the other one, he was a local farmer. In the midst of their conversation, the rustic gentleman said, “Well, you know, if’n y'all were really prepared,” at which point the academic stopped him. He said, “Wait, no, there is only one of me. It has to be ‘you.’ And there is nothing to be added to ‘if. It’s not, ‘if’n,’ it’s just ‘if.’ If you haven't learned proper grammar, you've lost half your life.” At which point, the cables holding the ferry snapped, and the ferry began to rise on a rush of water and the head down river quickly. And the farmer said, “You know, professor, if’n y'all, hadn't learned how to swim, you've lost all your life.”

The theme today is wisdom. What is wisdom? And it's an interesting thing to think about, what we think of as wisdom or as wise. You know, we live in a time where a little owl appears on our TV screen and says that being wise has to do with taking the right antihistamine. (And as somebody with perpetual sinus issues, I pay attention.) Now, wisdom is something we talk about a lot in scripture. We say that there are portions of scripture that we speak about as “wisdom literature.” For example, that includes Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, or Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus is a favorite of mine.)

They are, as we say, about wisdom. And the wisdom they are about is how to live a proper and righteous life in the world. Now, granted, in all of this, walking before God, as it were, is assumed, but it's not really what they talk about very much. They talk about right relationship between one person and another, or right ways to fit in with the structures of society, or ways, if you can, to do well for yourself and others. You know, the, the content is somewhat different from Confucius, but the intent, if you will, is the same. This is how to live a righteous and sober and productive life in society. And, if you get the opportunities, to do well. 

We still talk about wisdom today. Unfortunately it seems to me to have a bit of a different edge. It’s more personal; it's more selfish. It's less about having a successful life and more about winning - and all too often winning at any and all costs: you know, weakest to the wall and the devil take the hindmost. “I've got mine, and you have to look after yours.” We're told by voices around us, that “wise” means, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

But in the lessons today, we have a different standard for what is “wise.” It's in Ephesians. We’ve been in Ephesians for the last few Sundays, and the last half of Ephesians is all about what it means to live in Christian community. And there's a bit of a summation, if you will, in today's lesson, because it says to be careful - or more accurately, be thoughtful, be attentive  - to live in the world as wise rather than unwise, That has to do, Ephesians tells us, with understanding what the will of the Lord is.

So, in Ephesians, it's clear that living wisely is understanding and participating what the will of the Lord is. And perhaps that shouldn't be that hard for us. I don't mean it's not hard to do. Sometimes it is. But I mean, it shouldn’t be hard for us to have a handle on this idea of living with what the will of the Lord is. That is because we are people who say the Lord is not just coming. We say the Lord is with us. That’s all through the Gospel of John, and I’ll get back to today’s lesson in a minute. But it is in John that Jesus keeps saying eternal life is now. This is not something you wait for. Life in the kingdom is already ongoing. And we are the spiritual descendants of that. To live by understanding what the will of the Lord is begins with understanding that the Lord is present here and now.

One of my favorite spiritual writers focused on that. Perhaps some of you will know of him, Brother Lawrence at the Incarnation whose collected works were published as The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was an interesting character. He was a Carmelite monk in Paris, and he was a sculler. You've heard of a scullery maid: He was a sculler brother. He worked in the kitchen. He cleaned vegetables. He hauled out the trash. He wasn't even the cook. And also, he was so recognized by his order as being wise, so wise that he was in a number of cases the ambassador of his order to the civil authorities or the ambassador of his chapter to other houses of the Carmelites. And in fact he was a famous spiritual director in his own time. And his focus was on practicing the presence of God. That is, “If I operate with the assumption that God is with me right now, then how should I behave in light of that?” You know, we have that old joke, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” But Brother Lawrence was really focused on the concept that Jesus is here; and it's not about looking busy, but it is about participating in what it is that Jesus and God and the Spirit have going on in the world around you.

In his way, that's exactly what Solomon asked for. David has died. By the way, I can't tell you how many commentaries and podcasts I listened to this week that said, “Let’s stop using a euphemism. David didn't sleep. He died.” However, to say “he slept with his ancestors” means that he died at peace. He didn't die in war. He didn't die because he was smitten. He died of old age. 

So, David died. And because Bathsheba who had been a victim had also learned how to be a sharp political person, Solomon, who was not the oldest son, becomes king. And so King Solomon is offering sacrifices. He’s offering sacrifice at Gibeon. And he has a vision, a dream, that’s really a message from God. God says, “How shall I equip you?” And Solomon says, “What I really need is the wisdom to lead, to lead this people who are yours.” Now, capture that. It's not that he's simply leading Israel, his kingdom, but he is leading the people who are God's people and is asking to be part of God's will for that people. So as with Brother Lawrence, Solomon is in the presence of God; and he’s thinking wisdom is about how does he, as king, participate in the will of God.

If you read the rest of Solomon's story, you'll discover that he's pretty spotty about actually doing that, but it's the right prayer. And God says it's the right prayer. And he says, “There will be no one of wisdom ever like you after nor has there been anyone before.”

 So we have clear guidance in our own tradition and in scripture about this idea that to be wise is to seek the will of the Lord. And it shouldn't be that hard for us to understand what the will of the Lord might be. Now, never claim perfection in this. I have this personal conceit. I believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven is certainty. Always hold a little bit of humility. I'm bad at that myself, but always hold a little bit of humility about one’s sense of what God is doing. 

But we have plenty of guidance in the Gospel of John. We know about God's commitment to God's people because the Word became flesh to live with us;  because the Word came, as in my favorite passage from John, John 3:17, God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved through him. That the Incarnation is about bringing salvation into and among all of creation. And Jesus in today's lesson brings that Incarnation home because what the Greek says is, “those who munch on my meat.” We don't like to translate it that way, but this is different in the Greek from other places where he talks about eating flesh. It's a different word for eat. It's a different word for flesh. It is those who are “those who are chewing my muscle tissue abide in me and I in them:” that God's will, is that all of us and all of creation be so intimately involved in God and in what God is doing that salvation embraces all. And when I worry about what "all" means, I always come back to another passage of John and the Good Shepherd where he says, “and remember that I've got sheep you won't recognize. But when I call them, they will come.” All, all, all.

So to be wise is to participate, as best we can, in our own circumstances and in our own moments, with the will of God; that the love of God should be so demonstrated in how we live, that we share that sense of God's purpose to embrace all people and all creation in salvation. That is what Ephesians tells us wisdom really is. 

So, we have that standard to live by. We are called, not to be careful because we're afraid, but to be observant and careful and particular about living wisely. We are committed to live in a world of wisdom where wisdom is to seek to understand and to seek to participate in what the will of the Lord is. That in and of itself will bring us sufficient joy that the alcohol won't be necessary; sufficient joy, that we will be singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs. If we are going to live, we are called to live as those who are wise which means we're seeking to understand and to participate as fully as we can in what the will of the Lord is.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Thought on Deferred Maintenance

As with the past few posts, this was first shared on Facebook.

Can we talk for a minute? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Let’s talk about Texas.

No? Not talk about Texas? Okay, let’s talk about Kansas City, where we used to live.

We moved to Kansas City in 1994. That was a year after one of the worst floods in the city’s history. There were signs everywhere of the water damage. In the Country Club Plaza, an historic and high value shopping district, stores still showed where the Brush Creek had risen to more than three feet in first floor rooms, having completely flooded the basements below.

There were several matters that contributed to the floods, and especially to the Plaza area and also to working class residential neighborhoods downstream. One that was recognized by the time we arrived was that the storm drainage system and the sanitary sewer system were linked. When these were installed in the 1920’s and ‘30’s the idea was that if there were unusually heavy rains the sanitary system would be able to absorb some of the excess.

It’s hard to deny that for decades that had worked, or at least worked well enough. However, after the 1993 floods it was recognized that some important things had changed. Our standards about treating the stuff in our sanitary sewers had changed. Our water quality concerns about our storm runoff and other waters had changed. Most important, there were now tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people living in the Brush Creek drainage, many of them miles upstream of the Country Club Plaza, and quite a number of them across the state line in Kansas. All those roads, driveways, homes, and people were adding to the storm runoff and to the sewage that went into the system. The problem was similar all over Kansas City, although it was especially visible in the Plaza district and downstream.

So, when we moved to Kansas City, the City Council was thinking about how to address the issue. The concern, and for a majority the stopping point, was that it would require an investment of $40 million. (I may be a bit off, but that’s my memory.) So, it was talked about and talked about, and a few small tweaks were accomplished, but the systemic problem was never addressed.

Of course, as it was talked about, you could see one consequence of delay, and I bet you can guess what it was. The cost kept going up. They were still talking about it when we left Kansas City, and over those almost 25 years the cost had grown to $4 billion - 100 times the initial requirement, more or less. Now, I’m sure about the last figure; but even if I’m really wrong about the first figure and it was $400 million, that’s still 10 times the cost. And while the tweaks had helped the Country Club Plaza, there had still been bad storms and significant flooding in the Brush Creek drainage above and below. People still died and people still lost a lot of money to flood damage.

So, there’s a very clear monetary example of the real cost of deferred maintenance - of putting off hard and expensive stuff until “better times.” Too often, though, it doesn’t really seem to be about “better times.” It seems to be about leaders who don’t want responsibility for the hard decisions, especially when those decisions include taxing citizens.

I know, I know: perhaps you thought I was just going to stop with “spending money.” For good and ill, though, the money that governments have to do the jobs we want of them comes from taxes. Now, my wife will tell you that I’ve never seen a tax I didn’t like, which isn’t true; but do understand that paying taxes is one of the responsibilities of having “government... by the people,” alongside voting. Sometimes we find other terms like “user fees” to avoid calling them taxes; or tools like municipal bonds to put off, perhaps for decades, paying the taxes (but, how do you think those bonds are paid off when they become due?) And, yes, we might disagree on how broad the scope should be of what we want government to do. I will tell you I’m really glad when my town can plow my street when the snow is deep. I’m glad my water district has laid mains well below the freeze line and has the resources to respond quickly to a break.

Many, many of us make decisions to tend to matters and avoid deferred maintenance. We keep our cars serviced, and we keep our houses in repair, and we see doctors and dentists regularly. We do those things because we know problems caught early are cheaper than crises caught too late; and that problems prevented are cheaper still. So, why shouldn’t we not only support but expect our leaders to address problems early, including the expectation that we’ll be paying for them?

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

How About Unity of Purpose Before Unity of Opinion?

 This was posted first on Facebook and has been copied here.

Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

I’m not anxious about conservatives. I’m not one, or at least not one in ways that would be acknowledged by most folks who call themselves “conservative” these days. But, the thought that someone presents as conservative doesn’t automatically put me off.

That takes me back to a conversation I had some years ago. I was at perhaps my first clergy conference in the Diocese of West Missouri. Being Episcopalians, there was social time after the evening activities. Being Episcopalians, there was beer. And, being clergy (pretty much of any tradition) there was a lot of conversation.

I found myself in conversation with a colleague from a congregation down around Springfield. Folks who know Missouri will know that the general environment around Springfield is notable more conservative than that in Kansas City. He was also more conservative than I. We have a long and thoughtful discussion about poverty and how to address it. We didn’t come to a conclusion (who could imagine we’d have enough time to talk that out in one evening!), but I do remember that we came to important agreement. We agreed that poverty in American society was a real problem; that it caused real suffering; and that it was worthwhile to work on ways to address it. 

And once we’d agreed on that, we had plenty of reasons to keep talking, and even to find common ground. He was definitely more conservative than I, but he did realize that there were some problems that should be addressed through government because only government involves, and also is accountable to, all of us. I was more progressive than he but I agreed that we needed to have some expectations and requirements of folks who were being helped. Sure, we didn’t come to a final conclusion, but we definitely found grounds on which we could work together.

As I still think about it, I still feel the most important thing about that conversation was that we agreed that there was a real problem and real value in addressing it. We have a number of problems like that. We’ve been talking about infrastructure problems for years. and roads and bridges have continued to age. We’ve seen all too clearly in the pandemic that the gaps of economic poverty vs stability, and of urban vs suburban vs rural make for tremendous issues in health care. It seems to me there is a lot we might do if we can first agree there is a problem that is worth fixing, so that we can then put our collective minds to how.

These days “unity” seems to be the theme of the day. A lot of folks want it, but some at different ends of the spectrum seem committed to the idea that “unity” can come only when it means “everybody comes around to my way of thinking.” To me that sounds like a pretty cerebral, pretty academic sense of “unity.” Maybe we would get more done if we started finding our unity in agreeing on the problem to be solved and in committing our efforts to solving it. To me that seems a pretty conservative idea, really, even coming from this progressive.

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Leadership and Focusing on Facts

This was posted first to Facebook and has been copied here.

 Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

So, you know I’m a preacher, right? When I was in seminary, we talked about a big change in how we do things (in Western culture) that took place in the 13th Century. With the teachings of Albertus Magnus and of Thomas Aquinas, European culture made the change from seeing the world based on the teachings of Plato to seeing the world based on the teachings of Aristotle. Without getting too deep in the weeds (but, please do invite me! I love the weeds!), the difference was about what you could know and how you could know it (and what follows is a clearly Christian way of using these categories). For followers of Plato, the truest truth was in the mind of God, and if you thought long and hard enough you could intuit the truth as God saw it, or as close as you could get. For Aristotle, you couldn’t know God’s mind directly but you could see what God had done in the world; and by carefully observing you could see that and from that deduce the truest truth, or as close as you could get.

My professor of Christian Thought and Systematic Theology (same professor, different classes) had a clear understanding of why Aristotle’s position quickly became dominant in Europe: “it built a better cannon.” It was by observing, trying, and adjusting that you improved useful and effective things were, and in those days better siege weapons were considered really important. Sure, cannon would not come to western Europe until the 14th Century, but in those days that was “quickly.” Still, they were clear that observing, trying, adjusting, and observing facts was more effective than simply imagining in making things work better.

We’ve come a long way with those principles, even if we don’t always use those terms. One shorthand we have for that approach is the scientific method. In keeping with our European cultural heritage, we’ve used it to make better bombs. We’ve also used it to make better medicines. The scientific method was critical with getting us to new vaccines for coronavirus that are going to help bring us out of this pandemic (along with mask wearing and social distancing, also supported by scientific method). 

We’ve used them in our industries. Whether we’ve heard of it as performance improvement or continuous quality improvement (CQI) or total quality management (TMQ), we’ve seen how it reformed the Japanese auto industry and then the American auto industry, and many other industries besides. They stopped just imagining what might work and started finding and focusing on facts of how things worked, and used those facts to make things work better.

With all that demonstration of the value of using facts for decisions, perhaps we should expect the same things of our leaders.  If our leaders focus on facts rather than simply on theories and principles, they should be able to offer better programs, better government. If we focus on facts rather than simply principles, or worse, rumors, we should be able to select better leaders who will then offer better programs, better government. Principles have a place because they can help us think about how to use facts. I am after all a Christian and that certainly informs how I might want to respond to the facts in front of me. But I can best apply my principles if I start with observing and testing facts.

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Accountability, Unity, and Voting

This was posted first on my Facebook stream and has been copied here. 

Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

I am thinking about unity and accountability. Actually, I’m thinking at the moment about unity and accountability and voting.

In most of these United States, at some points convicted felons receive again the right to vote. We heard a lot about that this past year in light of changes (before 2020) in Florida. Felons there could regain the right to vote, but only after completion of sentence, completion of any probation, and payment of any outstanding restitution and fees. Now, some think the requirements are too great, and that the system can be set up to make it practically impossible even it it’s theoretically possible. What I think we can agree on, though, is that this is unity that is possible, but only after accountability.

Unity after accountability is really pervasive in our culture. Kid misbehaves? Send said kid to bedroom or sit said kid in the corner, and only after that accountability can that child return to the community, to friends, to chosen activities. I was (rarely but occasionally) spanked as a child; and once I had endured that I was returned to my own (hopefully) better choices and behavior.

It makes sense, too, in so much that has shaped our culture. Since I’m a preacher, I can think particularly of our religious texts. All those sacrificial laws in the Hebrew Scriptures were about unity after accountability. I’m among those who has preached about atonement as “at-one-ment,” to emphasize that it was through accountability, and not without it, that one could return to right status in the community. Jesus in Matthew 18 gives a format for reconciliation when one member of the congregation sins against another. In that format, reconciliation requires accountability, even if there’s no punishment per se. The sinner has to own the sin - to be accountable - to be reconciled.

So, I think many of us would agree that there can be unity, but there has to be accountability first. Felons in Florida, and in most other states, can regain the right to vote after sentence is completed - accountability and then unity.

Which brings us to last Wednesday. After last Wednesday’s assault on elected leaders and a completed election, there are some who want to talk about unity. Well and good; and in our tradition, that should also require accountability. And if unity after accountability should apply to the drug user and also to the drug dealer, it should apply to the ones who stormed the Capital and also to any person whose rhetoric helped them think that was an acceptable thing to do. 

Of course, I can only speak for myself.