Thursday, June 21, 2018

Conservativism

In this age of instant communication, we have become exceedingly poor communicators. Outrage and condemnation are the default modes for public discourse. Only rarely do we find a fair, reasonable voice on today's issues.

We have to work on listening. With that in mind, I want to consider the term, conservative. As my pastor during my graduate school days said, right is right. And I agreed. I ascribed to conservative theology and conservative politics.

But if conservative means holding on tenaciously to the status quo, then I have to think again. There are clearly problems with the way things are. Women have been mistreated. Justice has been denied to large categories of citizens. Too many indulge their greed and take advantage of the poor or uninformed.

The term "conservative" sounds to a lot of people like, "defender of the status quo." So a conservative is one who wants nothing to change. The system is just fine. If the poor and disadvantaged would just get with the program, they would find their own slice of prosperity. The real world treats everyone the same, so deal with it. Stop whining.

I don't want to defend the status quo. I'm beginning to see the problems with our culture and society. I see injustice. I see my own privilege. I see how the good-old-boy culture has tainted politics, sports, and entertainment. I see the dark underside of capitalism.

Meanwhile, I do believe in small government, personal responsibility, traditional morality, compassion, and freedom.

It's hard to hear voices of reason now, because everyone is yelling. No one is listening. There is plenty of reason not to trust anyone, because everyone seems to be promoting some corrupt agenda. Maybe shedding the labels is a good place to begin. I'm not a defender of the status quo.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Money Economy

Watching a documentary about Wendell Berry (Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, available on Netflix), I heard him use a phrase that struck me: "a money economy."

The term almost seems redundant. What other kind of economy is there? When we talk about "the economy," of course we are talking about money and wealth. The word economy comes from the Greek words oikos (house) and nomos (law). So economy means the rule of the house, or how we do things.

Berry's phrase helped me see that there can be many kinds of economies. Relationship economy, reputation economy, moral economy, friendship economy, intellectual economy, compassion economy...

So, which economies do I pay attention to? In which economies am I investing? Am I learning about the economies that really matter?

In our society, we know which economy really matters. Economists believe that every resource will be used in whatever way will produce the most profit. So, you won't find a vegetable garden along the street in Manhattan...or virtually any other city. That prime real estate can make more money with retail, office, or housing. The pressures of the market force the property to be used for more lucrative purposes. If not now, some day that property will be used to make money--as opposed to food.

(And why would anyone grow food if not to make money. I don't know. . . maybe to eat.)

And that's the way we think. We just assume that money is everything.

Show me the money.
Follow the money.
Go and make money.
Live long and prosper.
Win the lottery.

What would our world be like if we paid more attention to other economies? How would I be different if I cared about the economies that really matter?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Rethinking Capitalism


I have heard a lot of criticisms of capitalism lately. Those evil capitalists are exploiting the masses.
All they care about is profit.



For those who criticize capitalism, I wonder if they know what capitalism is, and what the alternatives are. Dictionary.com defines capitalism as: an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.


Capitalism can also be described as free enterprise, free market, private enterprise. In this system, people who own things can use those things as they choose. They can use their property to produce something. Land can be used to produce food and fiber. Buildings can be used to store goods. Ships and trucks can be used to transport goods. Equipment can be used to manufacture goods. (And of course there is the exchange of information and services as well as goods.)


When people own things, they have the right to use those things to produce something worth selling. That's freedom. The theory of free enterprise was spelled out in The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith, published 1776. He goes into great detail about specialization of labor, means of production, and the labor force. Many European governments operated as monarchies at the time, so Smith advocated for a system driven by the marketplace, not the whims of a king.


One alternative to capitalism is socialism, as defined by Dictionary.com, a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. Typically in a socialist system t
he government makes all the business plans, determining what will be made, when, where, and by whom. It is all done for the common good, so everyone has to get with the plan to make it all work. Socialism tends to limit personal incentive to work, as the fruits of one's labor simply go into the collective pile of everything made by everyone. 


I found a list of other alternatives to capitalism, and they are esoteric and complex. Really, they are more like philosophies than economic systems. So, when people criticize capitalism, I wonder what they really want instead.


However.


We need to rethink the way capitalism works here today.


Government interference in the marketplace distorts the market. 

Lawmakers work with big industry to enhance private sector profits, favoring large corporations over small businesses. Small farms, for example, are squeezed out of existence as U.S. farm bills subsidize grain production. 

  •  Subsidies create artificially high prices, which keep farmers growing grain.
  • Struggling farmers, of whom there are many, seek to plant more and more grain, knowing they can turn a profit, thanks to the government.
  •  Government policy explicitly encourages large operations, giving the message, "Get big, or get out."
  • Large farm operations buy up the smaller ones and work their farms with huge, expensive equipment.
  •  Farm equipment manufacturers gladly sell bigger and bigger tractors and combines.
  •  Production of grain keeps increasing, yielding an overabundance of grain.
  • Meanwhile, the food industry has a growing, cheap supply of grain, which is processed into all sorts of food products. 

This crony capitalism forces small farmers out of business, results in a glut of grain, and allows food producers to create cheap processed foods. Cheap, abundant, unhealthy food then creates an obese, sickly population.


The pursuit of the dollar above all else harms society. 

Disregarding the health of the population, private industry markets foods that harm consumers. At some point, food companies need to consider public health above higher profit. 

  • Food companies give grants to universities to do food studies. Over and over, these studies find that people need to consume more of the foods produced by food companies. Ever wonder why the base of the government food pyramid is grain? Follow the money.
  • The health issues resulting from the American unhealthy diet provide great opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry. They make pills that fix the ills of unhealthy eating.
  • The public pays the price for the profits of big industry with diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and autoimmune diseases.

Today, capitalism in America is missing a key ingredient, emphasized by Adam Smith: morality. The free market system only functions well when capitalists care about consumers, when factory owners care about workers, when marketers care about truth.


I’m not ready to throw out capitalism. But it can do a whole lot better than this.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Revenge of the Fire Ants

Joseph made the Israelites promise to take his bones for burial in the Promised Land. It took 430 years, but his descendants finally made it happen.

I spent years destroying fire ant mounds in Fort Worth, Texas, and apparently they passed word along for generations to come get me. It took about 30 years. They caught up with me last week.

For those blessed with ignorance of fire ants, please enjoy your bliss. But they are aggressive, prolific, and angry. They are especially angry when you disturb their mounds, even accidentally. The first time I encountered a fire ant, I was delivering the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper along my paper route. I was walking through the grass of an apartment complex when a bagged newspaper slipped out of my hand. I picked it up from the turf, and moments later, I felt a searing pain on the back of my hand.

Ouch! It felt like fire! In just a moment I realized that I had been bitten by a fire ant. I learned to look for ants, and avoid them like I never needed to in NC.

A few months later I got a new job working for the landscaping crew at my graduate school. This put me in close, regular contact with those evil creatures. My job was mowing grass...not putting out insecticide. So I had to learn real well how to spot the signs of fire ants. When I was promoted from push mowers to riding mowers, I learned to take great delight in scalping those ant hives. I would go out of my way to scatter their six-legged bodies far and wide. I don't think I ever suffered a bite while rolling along in my 60 inch swath.

Now understand, fire ants live in the hot, dry sandy parts of North America, like Texas and along the Southeast coast. They have been migrating ever so persistently toward colder, less sandy realms.

Then last week. Last week came after last winter. Remember that cold winter that would never let go? Remember the first 7 days of 2018? It never got above freezing. I walked repeatedly across my farm pond. I felled trees on that frozen reservoir.

If ever cold weather would halt the march of the fire ant, this winter had to set them back. But they found me. Innocently I pushed my mower through the lush, front yard turf. I noticed some ant hills, of course as I casually paced along. Then I had this pain up near my knee. Ooh, what was that? Then another, another, another. Nearly a dozen of those sensations made me wonder if I was having some sort of neurological episode. I saw no creatures, and at first saw no evidence of bites.

It never occurred to me that I was fire ant lunch. We don't have fire ants in Rockingham Co. I had heard rumors of them in neighboring counties, but not this far north. When the welts showed up, I came to the sobering realization. They had found me. After all thee years they found their revenge.

From now on, I will have to watch my own yard for those hateful insects. I'm getting some Spectricide. Game on.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Consumerism and Capitalism

We live in a consumer-driven society. So much of life is driven by commerce. We are constantly buying or selling. The inescapable barrage of ads reminds us that life here is about making purchases. You can't even pump gas anymore without hearing some product pitch.

As soon as a new means of communication is created, someone harnesses it for advertising. We need people to consume, so that we can sell. We need people to consume so that we can earn a living. Consuming makes our world work.

Some products are necessary, like food and clothing. Some products aren't necessary, but potentially desirable for something other than survival. Those who produce unnecessary products have to create demand for those products. Go see this movie. Buy this car. Eat at this restaurant. Ask your doctor if [some drug] is right for you. The trick is to make you think you really need this product. We know that advertising works, because sellers keep advertising.

This consumer culture seems to be a necessary byproduct of capitalism. One makes a living by producing and selling a product or service. We receive pay for our work. We may provide a service to an employer, or we may sell our product directly to consumers. Our income depends on others spending money. And the better our products are marketed, the more we sell, and the more income we receive.

In a free market, we can sell our products or services to anyone who agrees to pay for them. And so a free market becomes driven by the art of persuading people to buy.

I like capitalism, for the most part, but I find consumerism repulsive. That's hard for me to reconcile.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dread

Attitude is everything.

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life, Proverbs 4:23.

The enemy wants to hijack my heart, making me expect and anticipate bad things. This world is evil, but the devil wants me to believe that I face this evil world alone and unprotected. Somehow, I fall for this trick over and over.

Jesus has promised us that he is with us always, even to the end of the age. Paul tells Timothy that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and of self-discipline.

It is up to me, with the help of God, to guard my heart, my attitude. When I believe that God has good things for me, even today, I trust him even when the going gets hard.

No trouble has ever come on me that God has not redeemed, either in the short run or the long run. I can trust him with my schedule, my conversations, my safety, my future. I'm not an orphan. I have a Father, and he walks with me through all the shadows of death.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday Brokenness

We call it "good," but that term never quite captures the spirit of the day. I can think of plenty of other names for it:
Sad Friday
Somber Friday
Justice Friday
Mercy Friday
Grace Friday
Holy Friday
Costly Friday
Atonement Friday
Agony Friday

But somehow the Church decided that this is Good Friday. On this day, I always feel like I should have done more to prepare for Easter. The occasion leaves me feeling like I have not done enough.

Clearly I am missing the point. Good Friday is the day when Jesus did it all. I will never do enough. Of course I am unworthy, sinful, needy, lacking.

For me, for us, Jesus willingly died on the cross and paid for our sin.

My responsibility is not to prove myself worthy of his sacrifice, but to receive the gift of his sacrifice.

I feel as though I need it now more than ever.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Weather or Not

It's snowing. Again. Sometimes here in NC we get enough snow to get tired of it, but never get enough to shrug it off. So, when snow comes, we hunker down. Only the brave souls with 4WD take their vehicles out...like I did today. I had to get a haircut, which surely qualifies as genuine, necessary travel.

All winter the 6:30 news has covered storm after storm, shutting down highways and airports. It is news because, well, we should not have to stop our plans for something as primitive as weather. After all, surely we have more than conquered nature, so that we can plan our lives without weather interruptions.

That seems to be our attitude today. "OMG, the weather was so bad that it changed our plans!" This must be a very new attitude for humanity, the belief that weather is a non-factor in most daily routines. I mean, we have to have everything planned out, don't we? And usually we can work around weather contingencies. Who plans an outdoor wedding without a Plan B?

But we have built an illusion that we have conquered weather for all intents and purposes. Only the most extreme meteorological event could impinge on us. And so we can be the masters of our supply chains and board meetings. We can plan out our lives and strategies without seriously believing that anything is outside our control.

But James reminds us,  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. (James 4:13-14)

When everything depends on us, we can control everything. Before we conquered nature so thoroughly, we had a little more humility. People actually let the weather dictate their schedules. Fishermen and farmers still do. Maybe we could learn a little from them.

It's still snowing.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Something is Wrong


We all knew it was coming. We knew there would be another shooting. At a school. Or a church. Or a concert. Or a nightclub. Or a post office. It was just a matter of time.



Sure, we are shocked. But are we surprised? This is just the world we live in. And the country we live in. What shocked me most was the number of school shootings this year. The year is barely six weeks old, and there have been eight school shootings resulting in death or injury in 2018. Eight.

Here we go again with the politics. We need more gun laws. We need better law enforcement. we need metal detectors…everywhere. We need more vigilance to catch unstable people. We need counselors to help troubled youth and troubled adults. We need to spend money on…something. But this is just the surface of the problem. There is something deeper.

Something is wrong.

Has there ever been a society in which innocent people were routinely targeted by member of that society? What leads people to be so depressed, angry, lonely, rejected, despondent, frustrated that they plot and carry out mass murder?

Something is wrong with the soul.

Too many people fail to see the value of human beings—others and themselves. Too many people have no hope. The mass shootings are only one example of the flagging American soul. The #MeToo movement reaches back decades with disturbing stories of abuse. Men have been objectifying and mistreating women for more than a generation. The rabid support for abortion in some circles stuns me. Laws must allow women to choose whether or not their fetus is a baby. It will have rights if I say it does.

Our society has been heading down this path for quite some time. It is not a problem of laws or politics or funding. 

Something is wrong with the soul of America.

Somehow we have strayed from the belief that “all men are created equal.” Along the way we have forgotten that “all men” includes Native Americans and Africans. It also includes all of mankind, not just the males. We have also forgotten that these equally created persons are all “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

In other words, we have forgotten that people matter. We so personalize our own rights that we forget the value of others. Our selfishness becomes magnified when we find likeminded people and stop listening to dissenting points of view. People who disagree with us are just stupid. Maybe they don’t deserve to live. The world would be better off without them. We can “otherize” people very effectively. Ask any hate group. 

The soul of America needs compassion, hope, forgiveness, love, justice, redemption. Our country needs the Good News.

God help us.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Stop me, Coach!

We forget to stop. Sometimes we choose not to stop. We know we should, but maybe we are addicted to action.

That's why we are doing a series called "Stop." Stopping is a lost art these days. How can you take a break? It seems like we only stop for a day or two when we have a good snow.

We were actually designed to take regular breaks. God made us that way. He even gives us one day out of seven to let go and remember that he's in charge. No one can live without rest. Life has natural rhythms. We function better when we work with those patterns.

Jesus tells us that we can know his rest. He even promises to rest us, if we will come to him. (Matthew 11:28) Think of a basketball or soccer coach. Why does he pull players out of the game and sit them on the bench?
  • For an attitude adjustment
  • For strategy instruction
  • To deal with an injury
  • To rest and prepare for a big moment
  • To remind the player to listen to the coach
  • To remind the player to be a team player
  • To give another player time to lead
God rests us for all the same reasons. But we choose to ignore that call to rest. And we become worn out, cynical, discouraged, selfish, preoccupied, dull. The world cannot possibly go on without us. We don't need to rest. We like to be busy. Rest won't work with our schedule. Rest really isn't necessary.

But is life without a break really life? Life with no rest fills us with all the shallow things. It leaves us wanting more value, more meaning, more depth. We only get that when we take a step back.

Wouldn't life be great if you knew that you were never more than 6 days away from laying down every burden? That cadence of rest gives you the drive and the depth you need for real living.

And what is life without real living?

Let's Stop. Join us for the last two messages in this series.
January 28: Stop and Receive
February 4: Stop and Give

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Need to Feed

Sometimes you notice something for the first time. I have read this passage countless times, but generally I have just blown past Jesus's question here.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. --Jesus (Matthew 24:45-46)

Yeah, yeah, be a good disciple, blah, blah, stay ready for Jesus's return.

But, have another look. There are some servants of the Lord who are charged with feeding the other servants. This is a huge responsibility. Surely those of us who have food also have a clear call to feed those who don't. We need to "give them their food at the proper time."

It's hard to miss the point here. Jesus expects his servants to take care of each other, specifically by providing food. So, let's get busy.
  • Food pantries
  • Famine relief
  • Help with healthy eating
  • Community gardens
  • Friends for dinner

Jesus uses food to communicate his love. So let's step up and share his love with heaping plate of spaghetti and a dozen glazed doughnuts!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Opioids and Hope

Seems like everywhere I hear about the opioid crisis. People are addicted. More people. This is a different kind of drug crisis. Two years ago I had never even heard the term opioid.

So yesterday I attended a meeting about addressing the opioid crisis. I'm beginning to learn what this is all about. The opioid crisis looks like the perfect storm of societal trends coming together to allow an epidemic of addiction like we have never seen.

Here's what I'm learning, and I haven't fact-checked this stuff, so don't quote me as an authoritative source. Some time in the 1990s pharmaceutical companies created a new type of drug that can be used to treat chronic pain. They said that it was not addictive. Boy were they wrong. But doctors began prescribing these drugs because, well, they don't want their patients to be in pain. If pain can be eliminated with a pill, then let's do it. And patients gave their doctors glowing evaluations because who knew that you could have *that procedure* so painlessly?

Meanwhile, the public buys into two dangerous beliefs:

  • No pain is profitable. All pain should be eliminated if possible.
  • Whatever your physical problem, there is a pill for that.
Well, now doctors are realizing that pain meds are causing too many problems. And new regulations limit the during for which a doctor can prescribe opioids. So people can't get their scripts for these pills, and have to look for the meds elsewhere. On the street the illegal stuff works just as well, and it's cheaper. Dope dealers see the growing market, and want to make sure the supply meets the demand.

Mix all these ingredients together, and you get something toxic. That's where we are. It will take a lot of cooperation to turn this around. We need help from law enforcement, drug companies, hospitals, doctors, community organizations, churches, and first responders. At least we are beginning to work together.
There is hope.

Today I saw a friend for the first time in about 15 years. He tells me that two of our mutual friends are dead from drug overdoses. This is hitting home.