Then, Now, & Forever - Part 1

“Henry Ford is belching forth like a volcanic eruption telling the world that in 1950 the industrial slaves will be paid at the rate of $35 per day. Well, half of that would go mighty nice right now and it would help a lot in solving the economic situation that the world is going through. When you accounted your $1.00 per day increase, Henry Ford, the higher-priced men were laid off and replaced with cheaper help, so if you are sincere and intend to give the works a little of the sunlight and this scheme is not another of your tricks to hog the front pages of the newspapers throughout the world, why send some of your expert investigators over to The Murray Cor’p of America and see for yourself the slavery conditions that exist there, where humans are building the bodies for your cars, where polishers work all day Sunday, eight hours, to be exact, and receive the glorious sum of sixty-two cents for a Sabbath of slavery.” (Fred Vogel, quoted in “The American Jitters” by Edmund Wilson, 1930).

“I spent a month in Detroit adjusting the settings on the automated systems. With the new software, some of the mechanical arms weren’t hitting right. My job was to train the chief guy what to watch for. He sat in a windowed room high above the production floor, in a leather chair—he’d curse you out for sitting in it—eating donuts and drinking coffee. The other day, we had to shut down the line. I ran the diagnostics and found the problem, readjusted the settlings, and reset the system. Everything was ready to go—everything, except that the one guy with permission to push the red “restart button” was on break. He was on break, eating a donut, or taking a dump, or smoking outside. No one else is supposed to push the button. I’d already made that mistake—pushed it the other day. Management had to come down and talk to the Union leaders who were threatening to call for a walkout. Management gave it to me for that, but what do I know. I’m not Union or Management. I’m on consultant pay. So the line was shut down while head-Union button-pushing guy was on break. A hundred people just standing there. They can’t sit down or that counts against their break. But they can’t take a break either, because that violates their labor agreements. So they just stand there, all 100 and more, making $50 and hour to stare at the dead production line. I’ve beat the h--l out of my rental car driving on the potholed roads of this industrial town—roads that are as run down as this antiquated system of self-promotion, manipulation by labor against management. I’m ready to get back home.” (A_____ T_____, in an email dated March, 17, 1999, after spending a month on consultation of an automated system in a car-parts plant in Detroit).

“It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.” Ayn Rand


Evaluation of St. Louis County Propositions / Ballot Initiatives

Proposition I
Proposes to authorize the incurring of indebtedness and the issuance of general obligation bonds of said County in the amount of One Hundred Twenty Million Dollars ($120,000,000.00) for the purpose of constructing various capital improvements to County buildings and facilities, and making improvements to County safety/security and communication facilities

Background – The county raised taxes—20-40%—on property in the last two years. And yet the reduction of resources through the decline in the stock market and broader economic conditions has left the county in need of resources. These new funds are not going toward paying new employees (like some of the taxes of Proposition H), and municipal bonds are a good way to raise cash.

Issues / Implications – The implications of this are a leveraging of future earnings of St. Louis County residents. Dependent upon how sever the recession ends up being, this could be a costly decision. Consider that the city of Birmingham, in attempting to implement social health and welfare programs, teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Still, there appears to be a lot of health in St. Louis County. And short of raising taxes, bond initiatives are the primary means of raising funds to pay existing accounts. The purpose and intended use of these funds, all things considered, makes a lot of sense.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote YES for this bill.

Proposition H

Background – this is a hard one to judge. St. Louis County has three initiatives to raise taxes on residents in this voting cycle. We have already seen a county wide increase of property taxes by 20-40% (last Fall). The $2000 out-of-state tax is going to hit small businesses hardest. Many small businesses have already stopped spending in the area of R&D, technology, and are seeing cutbacks in payroll. This tax is going to hit them hard and potentially force a reduction of payroll (i.e. layoffs). On the parks aspect, St Louis county has hundreds of little parks—due to a stipulation that allows private individuals to donate their property to the state for “parks use.” These cost a ton on upkeep.

Issues / Implications – It’s hard to swallow. Individuals and businesses getting taxed for out of state purchases. This amounts to double taxation. And with two other county wide tax increases on the books, this is too much.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote NO for this bill.

Proposition M

Background – While public transportation may not be desired for many of the affluent West County citizens, the fact remains that the expenses related to transportation for the less affluent, poorer segments of the population is enough to make car ownership / insurance-ship / maintenance accessible. Removing / reducing the obstacle of transportation for poorer segments of society—in a highly mobile society—increases their ability to find stable work, and support themselves. The City has expanded the tram and bus routes as best they can with current funds. Public transportation will never be for everybody, and yet—because of the mobility of our society—public transportation will forever be a necessity for those who make use of it.

Issues / Implications – Other than what is mentioned previously, there is an unconscious fear that the expansion of public transit somehow allows for the bussing in-and-out of crime to more “stable areas.” This notion, not only unfounded, assumes a “safety” in suburban areas that is facadistic and artificial.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote YES for this bill.

Evaluation of Missouri Propositions: Proposition C

Language - Shall Missouri law be amended to require investor-owned electric utilities to generate or purchase electricity from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and hydropower with the renewable energy sources equaling at least 2% of retail sales by 2011 increasing incrementally to at least 15% by 2021, including at least 2% from solar energy; and restricting to no more than 1% any rate increase to consumers for this renewable energy? The estimated direct cost to state governmental entities is $395,183. It is estimated there are no direct costs or savings to local governmental entities. However, indirect costs may be incurred by state and local governmental entities if the proposal results in increased electricity retail rates.

A "yes" vote will amend Missouri law to require investor-owned electric utilities to generate or purchase electricity from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass (including ethanol) and hydropower. The required renewable energy sources must equal the following percentages of retail sales: 2% by 2011; 5% by 2014; 10% by 2018; 15% by 2021. Of the total renewable energy sources required to be sold, at least 2% shall be solar sources. Also, any rate increase to consumers resulting from this measure must be no more than 1%.

Background – When oil hit $125 per barrel, the EU and the US Congress rushed to mandate ethanol be included in gasoline. The effects—the price of corn shot up. Keep in mind, the US has had a surplus of corn for many years. Government buys up this corn to keep the price up. Then they sell this corn to third-world countries at a loss. The effect is that the local agricultural industry is devastated. When the ethanol became mandated, this meant the US and other countries stopped exporting excess corn. Riots occurred in many African countries. Since then, the EU has backed off its mandate, and changed the language to prevent “food commodities” being substituted for energy.

Issues / Implications – The problem is, most renewable energy loses money. Solar, wind, etc. all costs significantly more. Many renewable energy companies are existing from one government-rebate to the next. While this seems to help wean us off coal and oil, it does so at the expense of capitalism. Think about it—the energy companies (AmerenUE, Laclede Gas) are already regulated. They can’t increase rates without approval from the state. Now they have to find other energy sources without raising rates. Long-term they become unable to compete. Government ends up having to take over more of the industry, or begins competing against the private sector, in a step toward further nationalization of corporations. If the State would just lay off, renewable energy is going to become cheaper as it becomes cost-effective. Mandating it will only hurt us economically. And with 7.2% unemployment in Missouri—and how many thousands of others teetering on bankruptcy (because they can gamble everything away without limits, and because many are barely making mortgage payments as is it)—this initiative will hit taxpayers because it is the government who will end up subsidizing these measures with taxpayer’s money.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote NO for this bill.

Evaluation of Missouri Propositions: Proposition B

Language - Shall Missouri law be amended to enable the elderly and Missourians with disabilities to continue living independently in their homes by creating the Missouri Quality Homecare Council to ensure the availability of quality home care services under the Medicaid program by recruiting, training, and stabilizing the home care workforce?

The exact cost of this proposal to state governmental entities is unknown, but is estimated to exceed $510,560 annually. Additional costs for training are possible. Matching federal funds, if available, could reduce state costs. It is estimated there would be no costs or savings to local governmental entities.

Background – This all sounds good. We all want people to live in their homes longer. That isn’t the issue here. The issue is the creation of the Council which to oversee, employ, assign, and manage a home care workforce. Currently, there are dozens of private-sector (non-government) home, healthcare providers. Deacon Barth Holohan (Covenant Pres) runs a company called Continuum. STL Business Journal reported, “As founder and CEO of Continuum in St. Louis, Holohan’s No. 1 mission has remained helping those who have difficulty caring for themselves” (read the full report here) Continuum provides services at fraction the cost of government provision. But the Medicaid program isn’t happy about that—and so they hope by passing this bill to create such a barrier for companies like Barth’s, that they have to shut down. Then the government run health segments can control more of the money and all of the providers.

Issues / Implications – This is a horrible solution for elderly people. Some of them don’t need much—and the rest have numerous private-sector options. Notice this Proposition doesn’t say how much this will cost, only that it will cost more than half a Million Dollars. The reality is that these costs could exceed multi-millions within 2-5 years. Once the private companies have been put out of business, the cost to taxpayers and the elderly is likely to skyrocket.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote NO for this bill.

Evaluation of Missouri Propositions: Proposition A

Language: Shall Missouri law be amended to:
• repeal the current individual maximum loss limit for gambling;
• prohibit any future loss limits; require identification to enter the gambling area only if necessary to establish that an individual is at least 21 years old;
• restrict the number of casinos to those already built or being built;
• increase the casino gambling tax from 20% to 21%;
• create a new specific education fund from gambling tax proceeds generated as a result of this measure called the "Schools First Elementary and Secondary Education Improvement Fund"; and
• require annual audits of this new fund?

State governmental entities will receive an estimated $105.1 to $130.0 million annually for elementary and secondary education, and $5.0 to $7.0 million annually for higher education, early childhood development, veterans, and other programs. Local governmental entities receiving gambling boat tax and fee revenues will receive an estimated $18.1 to $19.0 million annually.

Background – In an economic downturn, more than in any other time, drinking, gambling, and general “sin taxable” items increase. With the current unemployment rate of Missouri at 7.2%, and other layoffs coming from Chrysler (and maybe Boeing), the temptation to escape “reality” through gambling is likely to increase. Add in that those most tempted (most likely to engage) are those least able to afford it—the aged, the abandoned, the poor, the oppressed. With this in mind, when Missouri made gambling legal—there was the concern that someone would stay and gamble away their entire life in the time of a few hours. So they set caps, limiting the loss of one individual in a given time frame.

Issues / Implications – This amendment would remove all caps on loss limits. Without these, someone could walk into a casino and gamble away their entire life and nobody would stop them. 10,000? 100,000? Whatever. Gone. It would prevent the state from ever setting loss limits again (bullet point 2). Then in the third bullet point, the “restriction on casinos built” is just a way of giving a monopoly to existing Casinos. Harrah’s wants to get more money with no limitation on the people gambling with less competition. At what benefit to the people? A meager 1% higher taxes. This is corruption at its worst—set to take advantage of the propensity of people toward addiction, their escape mechanism, and the poor.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote NO for this bill.

Evaluation of Missouri Propositions: Amendement 4

Language: Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to change provisions relating to the financing of stormwater control projects by:
• limiting availability of grants and loans to public water and sewer districts only;
• removing the cap on available funding and existing restrictions on disbursements;
• requiring loan repayments to be used only for stormwater control projects?

It is estimated the cost to state governmental entities is $0 to $236,000 annually. It is estimated state governmental entities will save approximately $7,500 for each bond issuance. It is estimated local governmental entities participating in this program may experience savings, however the amount is unknown.

Issues / Implications – When you read “public water and sewer districts” this should be understood as “municipality run districts.” This bill would eliminate any other private companies (aka, publically traded companies) to come in and compete against “public districts” (aka, government run entities) for water and sewer contacts in the state. This elimination of competition would create monopolies among the (government run) public works. Costs would not be checked by fair competition from the private sector. Furthermore, bullet point two would allow the government to raise as much money as they want—removing the current caps that prevent wasteful spending. In short, this measure would make government providers a monopoly, eliminate competition, and remove all limits on the amount of money they could spend: more money but only for the Governmental (public work) entities.

CONCLUSION: I will vote NO on this bill.

Evaluation of Missouri Propositions: Amendment 1

Language: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to add a statement that English shall be the language of all governmental meetings at which any public business is discussed, decided, or public policy is formulated whether conducted in person or by communication equipment including conference calls, video conferences, or Internet chat or message board?"

History – For more than 200 years, Americans have gotten by without declaring English their official language. English Only legislation first appeared in 1981 as a constitutional English Language Amendment but the measure never came to Congressional vote. Since 1981, 22 states have adopted various forms of Official English legislation, in addition to four that had already done so. Subtracting Hawaii (which is officially bilingual with English and Hawaiian being the official languages) and Alaska (whose English-only initiative has been declared unconstitutional) leaves a total of 24 states with active Official English laws. My mother reflected, “At the time, I thought it was so stupid.” The initiative could never pass today—with 17.9% of the US (6.26 million Americans) and many illegal immigrants (approx. 12 million) not speaking English fluently.

Issues / Implications – Those who are against this ballot say that English is already the “default” language and so any change is unnecessary. Also, such a change might discourage immigration. Both were cases made in 1981 and time has proven that English is not necessarily the default language. What this does guarantee is that there would be integration of communities that might be prone to stick together and “not integrate” as has happened in places like France in 2005. The opposite danger is that some proletariat would come to power in future generations, and use this as a reason to discriminate against the bourgeoisie (or middle class). However, as globalization proves the greater threat—and the rise of a proletariat (in the form of some oligarchy) is less likely; with legal and illegal immigration on the rise, it is more likely that no passing this amendment would, in the future, require all governmental functions to be bi- or tri-lingual, encouraging tribalism and non-integration. It is also worth noting that a bill mandating that voters have a valid ID card issued to them failed to make the ballot. This issue runs parallel to the issue on language.

CONCLUSION: I plan to vote YES for this bill.


Vote for Change...beginning with you

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. –Colossians 4:5

When better to examine one’s fundamental beliefs concerning government than during a Presidential campaign year? With current debates centering on the economy, the housing market, health care, national security, and immigration, we have the perfect opportunity to reflect on each of these issues and to ask ourselves the biblical question: Have we pursued, insofar as it depends upon us, peace with others, justice for the oppressed, and the honor of our King, Jesus Christ?

--the rest of this article can be accessed here


One Good Turn: the Preponderance of Myopia

With the brokered sale of Bear Stearns, the nationalization of the GSE, and now the $2,000,000,000,000 bailout of financial US firms—good things must come in threes. So here is my list of the top three myopic myths of the financial times:

1. Myth One: History is 50 years old.
It must be, because every life-long financial analyst, advisor, and investor is quick to quip how his life-time of experience explains away the potential woes of governmental involvement in our free-no-longer market. These “experts” explain how the Harry-Potter like magic used to create upwards of $2,000,000,000,000 from nowhere probably won’t cause inflation, how the Fed is too smart for that, how tax payers likely aren’t going to lose money, and might even make money as the Fed sells off these assets. (If they could be sold for more than what someone is currently willing to invest in them, wouldn’t someone want to invest in them?). Note the repetitive use of the subjunctive—might, could, would, should, may, possible, likely, probable. And in defense, these “experts” can point back to what? Well, to 50 or 60 years in the lifespan of their experience.

Where is the long-term historian among these experts—who looks back over a period of 500 years and says, “Once Government takes over an area of society, it never relinquishes it back; never—short of a revolution. Never. “ Never. Read my lips, “NEVER.” The myopic blindness that resulted in this financial crisis was caused by the very same approach that says, “In my experience, as an expert…”

While we can justly say that the governing bodies of these financial institutions were stupid, we cannot say they were dumb—and they drew from their experience as experts. And now we are to trust that the Fed is “smarter than that” or “too smart” to cause inflation?

It is the lesson of history, for those willing to learn it—that there are opportunities to avoid disaster that lie far beyond the scope of our years and experience—beyond the last 50 (even 100) years.

2. Myth Two: Governments—like God and magicians—can make things from nothing.
We have allowed ourselves to be reclassified. No longer are we Countrymen, or Citizens—humans as imago dei. We are now consumers. As such, our status is not dependent upon a common participation in a common society. Instead, we have been monetized in a fiat system for political means. No longer neighbors in communities—more often we are residences of subdivisions. No longer husbands and wives—more often we have become cohabitating civil unions. No longer fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends—we are only consumers, workers, and the struggling Middle Class. (Thanks to constant government entitlements, we don’t have to call ourselves lower class.)

Having allowed ourselves to be so redefined in relationship to country and government—we become Gnostic believers in a pagan state whose god is money—in this God we trust. Gnostic—because, far from owing our personal responsibility in a government “by the people,” we plead ignorance and demand recompense, allowing the elite (those highly trained and educated experts in the secret formations of higher governance) to rule “for the people.”

We hear it every time a community suffers some disaster—some neighbor says to the camera, “Something has to be done! This isn’t right! If it was a terrorist attack, the government would be here! Why aren’t they here now?”

In a word—entitlement, expectation…or some other people might say, comeuppance.

3. Myth Three: The US is Saving the World by this Bailout.
Having been reduced to the struggling masses of a recent history and Gnostic approach to governance—it is only natural that we would see the actions of our government (and our nation) as “saving” the world. In the past, in some wars, tragedies, and the financial woes of other nations, we have done just that.

Not so today. In fact, this problem is ours. We caused it, and the culmination—of a consumption-driven economy (vs. a production driven economy), the abuse of monetary production (inflation) and the willingness of neighboring countries to buy and hold our debt—is all on us. Though the US news agencies don’t report it in so many words—the rest of the world knows this is our problem.

Moreover, they are taking steps to protect themselves from the impact of our fiat, financial tomfoolery. That is why Russia, China, and Iran (whose own Oil Bourse will not accept US dollars) are meeting regularly—in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia and the EU are meeting in what has been dubbed EATO, or the “Euro-Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Japan has entered into closer bilateral ties to China than with any other nation (including the US)—revealed after Japan’s Emperor Akihito met with Chinese President Hu Jintao three times in the month of May. Even Latin American countries have begun to take the same steps.

Friends, Countrymen, we are not saving anybody—not ourselves and, least of all, the rest of the world.

Media talks about the historic presidency, but I suggest that in 100 years that we had a black president or that we had a female vice president will be little discussed. Of much remembrance will be what was done today—whether we allow the separation of powers between private and governmental realms to safeguard the continuance of our fundamental and Constitutional (not entitlements) freedoms; or whether, in our rush to ensure the status quo of comfort, lulling us toward totalitarianism, we sacrifice what cost us (personally and individually) very little but is of inestimable value.

Either way, a century from now, someone will be able to say of this period what Paul Johnson wrote concerning the shift in Asian powers leading up to World War II, “There now followed one of those decisive historical turning-points which, though clear enough in retrospect, were complicated and confused at the time” (Modern Times, 194).


A Momentary Reflection on History

“History shows us the truly amazing extent to which intelligent, well-informed and resolute men, in the pursuit of economy or in an altruistic passion for disarmament, will delude themselves about realities.” (Modern Times, Paul Johnson, p175)

Nothing has come so close to capturing the heart of our current financial situation as this statement written—not primarily about markets and economies—about the regional instability and political blindness that led to the rise of Japan as a global threat in the 1930s and, ultimately, World War II.

It is easy to say that the housing bubble was predictable, easy to call “blind” the men (and women) at the helm of stations like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, IndyMac, Countrywide, and a thousand other banks. Everybody loves being a sidelines quarterback—silent when wrong, but multi-active on the blogsphere (and Fool boards) when right. “I called it!”

I’m not saying these leaders didn’t make bad decisions, nor had lapses in judgment. But eventually, alterations in models force all of us to reexamine our fundamental principles and, at times, cause us to radically change long-held suppositions. For example, how long would the rise of oil have to increase (recognizing we are currently in a commodity pullback), before even the “bubble bears” would have to say, “Something has fundamentally changed and so too must my model.”

In fact, that is the reality of investing. Otherwise, we’d all be piling in to Corel, Hotmail, and Altavista. These each were leaders in their areas at one point. As late as 1990, Wordperfect (not yet owned by Corel) was the de facto standard for word processing. Corel Draw owned a market unfamiliar with the name of Adobe. Altavista was one of the lead search engines a decade before anyone would use the term Google (despite the “misspelling”) for anything but a mathematical formula. What changed? Fundamental trends which, over an ever-lengthening period of time completely adjusted fundamental application of core principles. No, “we” didn’t stop buying value, or looking for growth. But how this was applied—that changed.

So here are 10 questions to think about over the weekend:
1. Did the rise in the dollar (by 4 points in the last 3 months) cause the fall in commodities, or vice versa? Or was there any correlation whatsoever?
2. Was the flight from commodities due to fear over being overbought and, if so, are they now oversold? Or was the flight from commodities due to the cash crunch that many banks, funds, and individuals find themselves in?
3. For the first half of the year, equities and commodities reacted inversely, but now are tracking in parallel? What does that mean for investors?
4. Will the Fed bail Lehman Brothers over the weekend? With what equity backing? And what will that ultimately do to the value of the dollar internationally?
5. China and Russia are the largest holders of the US Dollar. Relationships with both are…less than optimal. China continues to be the leader in energy growth consumption, while Russia remains the leader in Natural Gas. How does this bode for the US, especially in light of our continued printing of fiat money to back failing investment banks?
6. Will Russia seek to acquire once-held segments of Ukraine, just as it now is holding sections of Georgia? Will NATO respond, and how?
7. What long-term impact will the Iranian Oil Bourse have on dollar stability and oil prices?
8. McCain wants to extend our military imperialism (think Brittan, 1920)—and pay for it with what?
9. Obama wants to tax the heck out of big oil and the top 20%—and do what when these entities are in their waning seasons? He also wants to make healthcare free to all (think France in the last 30 years)—what will this ultimately do to the healthcare industry?
10. What will be the global consequences of either a) pulling our extended military out of Iraq and Afghanistan or b) actually getting one or both of these nations to a place of (some semblance of) stability?

These are global questions, intricate in their implications, complex in their development, massive in their scope, but altered often by nuanced decisions—a condition ripe for “intelligent, well-informed and resolute men, in the pursuit of economy or in an altruistic passion for disarmament” (of which many of us claim to be!) to delude ourselves about reality—to make mistakes, have lapses of judgment, and let a truly-changing global politico-economic environment affect long-held beliefs.


Remembering 9/11 – Le Sauveur est Mort! Vive le Sauveur

It seems we’ve arrived—that moment when we can definitely acknowledge understanding and claim a cognitive victory over the once unknown. I’m talking about 9/11. Now on the seventh anniversary of the tragic, deadly attacks—we remember… by declaring victory. The documentaries of a dozen channels have moved from the now too-familiar footage of the collapsing World Trade Centers…to explaining—all explaining: why one building fell sooner than the other, why the planes disintegrated on impact, why the black box at the Pentagon was found near the nose, why, why, whywhywhywhy. We are good at explaining.

And we are good at explaining away. As such, we become victims of a false sense of self-security which creeps into our living. It is almost as though when—having explained, having found satisfactory (though never complete) understanding—we become the exception. Consequences need not apply. Explanation has set us free.

Have you ever noticed that it is the people who regularly smoke who know the statistics about lung cancer better than anyone (just look at the nurses lined up on the sidewalk at St. John’s hospital along Ballas Road)? How it’s the guys who actively trade stocks that take the biggest risks—believing somehow that their “experience” and their “knowledge” make them immune to the dangers of excessive loses.

Enron, K-Mart, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Freddy Mac, Fanny Mae. Most of the leaders in these collapses or corruptions (or both) made the same (wrong) judgment calls as people before them—believing, somehow, they were different, exempt. That some secret knowledge or “insiders’ insight” would protect them from the law, bankruptcy, ridicule, and prison. Then there are the pastors who sacrifice the entirety of their families, reputations, ministries, and vocations. There are the union workers who entrench themselves into a work-ethic of complacency. And there are the democratic nations that embark upon socialistic and fascist pathways. “We’ve studied the past. We understand it. We have a secret knowledge. And we will avoid those consequences.”

Ironically, Western nations thought they understood what gave birth to the Great War and so—in that time between wars—they made decisions with improved “knowledge” and heightened “insight” that offered certain confidence in the prevention of future such happenings. Less than a generation later, another great war ravaged the world. NASA, having studied the destruction of the Challenger, took steps to ensure it would not happen again…until the Discovery exploded on landing. On the same day that I watched the “9/11 Documentary” on why we are better prepared, I heard report of a study that found the US almost unchanged in its preparedness against biological and chemical attack as on September 11, 2001.

As with all pride born from knowledge, naming, and discovery—we forget what matters most: The children who are growing up without parents killed in the 9/11 attacks. The husbands and wives who lost their partner. The parents who lost children. The friends who lost friends. The nation…that lost its ability to reflect long on the cry for deliverance. The cry—that died so soon after the attacks—for deliverance, for salvation, for…God.

Today is like that first 9/11—the weather and the world, I mean. The only thing missing is the silence—the silence born from confusion, unanswered questions, sadness, fears. And from the humility that comes with the momentary reflection that knowledge, information, and understanding cannot deliver us, cannot defend us, cannot save.

Seven years later, there is no room for silence. We have filled up all the silent places with explanations, comforted with the self-certain belief that our knowledge will makes us exempt, safe. John Bright might have said it this way, “We are a self-saved people and oh, how we love our savior.” Or in the words of Pogo, “We have seen the savior, and he is us.”


In Remembrance: Dr. Wilbur Wallis

(Wilbur and Marie Wallis on their Wedding Day)

Wilbur Wallis is dead. A week has passed since his memorial service, but his memory still hangs on me like an albatross on the neck of the Ancient Mariner. I think, how unremarkable is the passing of great believers. It almost seems the greater the impact, the longer the faithful service, the deeper the Christian commitment and love—the more silently they pass into the night. How even the passing of CS Lewis was shrouded by the death of a President—and he slipped, that great man, beyond the curtain of glory, while all eyes were elsewhere. NPR tells me that two died in fighting on some distant plain, or that seven died with some new storm front. But the passing of one such as these gains what—the emptying of some nursing home room, the forwarding of last pieces of mail, and the disposal of papers kept for some reason unbeknownst to the living.

The white administration building is likewise on its final days, and stands now—more often than not—an empty shell of inactivity. I walk her empty hallways knowing that Dr. Wallis spent the better part of a dozen years in the confines of her walls—knowing that if I could just gather up the dust and decay from every decrepit crack, and regenerate that waste by science or speculation, I could birth again the ghosts of yesterday. But death has come, and mites have feasted upon the stray hairs of passed-away saints. Like the noble elephant in David’s memories (from Hemingway’s Garden of Eden)—it is a glorious thing in its massive size and animal defiance. But when the gun it put to its ear, and the repeating shots ring out in the surrounding forest, the elephant is gone—and only an empty mass of wrinkles remains. So too—whether in caskets or cracks—Wilbur is not here. The nobility resides elsewhere, and only wrinkles remain. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

His brothers and sisters were there. They told stories about childhood—about Wilbur’s dance with death, and bare escape from Phenomena; how he walked 6 miles a day, alone, lumbering his 6-foot height with an easy gait. He was known for years afterwards to walk from Des Peres to the Seminary campus. I’ve walked that stretch of Ballas many times, and see how little the passing cars note my existence. Did they note his? In life, was he granted—at the least—that passing driving queried at this tall man of the disheveled hair, taken so often to the wayside? Or was he just another obstacle to avoid, something not to hit, to miss but not regard; to avoid but not acknowledge?

I remember my last visit with him—now nearly two years ago. He was praying when I came in. Dr. Wallis explained to me that there was a fellow resident at Friendship Village who mocked him whenever he spoke about Jesus. Here—this great saint of faithful years and heavy sacrifice, of theological battles and exegetical comprehension, treated by caretakers as little more than a needy geriatric—was untiring in his prayer for the lost, his compassion for their salvation; such that—when the rest of us had forgotten him—he had never forgotten his mission. Like the abandoned robotic WALL-E—faithful in his unending directive—this man was about the work of the King, the advance of His Kingdom, and the building and strengthening of His Bride.

To be like that. To be remembered like that—remembered for faithfulness when the faculties of body have failed, and the ability of recollection weakened; remembered for remembering even when I have been forgotten. God, let it be so.

The ancient mariner waits for the wind to blow again, and the empty administration building waits to see what redemption will bring. The grave stands ready to receive another—in that cry that never says, “Enough!”—and yet, with every fleeting soul to the side of the Savior, the curtain of heaven closes a little bit less. The glory shines out a little bit more. Glimpses of eternity pierce more regularly the monotony of days that, one upon another, fall. We will all fall. And while the world is distracted, looking left, I look right and see there another saint slip behind the curtain. Eventually, I think, heaven will be so full of those who have gone ahead that the sound and sight of it cannot be hidden from this world—and those who remain will walk a season as if in-between worlds—till Christ reclaims His own.

Soli Deo Gloria


Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway

Hunger—that nagging, empty, gut-tugging, bone aching, heavy, and exhausting insatiability. That is the unsatisfying hunger of Hemmingway’s The Garden of Eden. It is the story of a newlywed couple, David and Catherine Bourne, insatiable in their hunger—famished for breakfast, dying for lunch, starving for dinner. And a drink—always some alcoholic drink: whisky, beer, wine (of a thousand brands), Armagnac, and absinthe. And the sexuality of their marriage bed.

But it is a dark hunger—unsatisfied. A hunger that finds hinted-at expressions of the unnatural. Catherine longs to be the boy. She longs David to be the girl. And they make the game of it—in the dark of their room. But what is done in secret will be revealed. It is—and she is discontent. There is one more secret yet to be had by the unsatisfied Catherine, one more desire to find fulfillment, one more experience to try, one more mores to break. Always one more attempt at happiness.

But the loneliness of the empty soul is a dark hunger satisfied only with great difficulty, by an ancient love. Catherine seeks to be as dark as an African, with hair so white that it becomes almost colorless when wet. And in her pursuit of darkness, she never finds the end of those troubled ways. Contentment remains a handbreadth away—while the darkness is always closer than that.

“…Now there is this disregard of the established rules which can very well be the salvation of the whole coast. We are pioneers in opening up the summer season which is still regarded as madness.” Human salvation never is. The trust of wealth promises. The lure of the siren raises echoes of brokenness not to be healed in the pursuit of the vain. And the empty heart, like an empty bottle, is all that remains after drinking the vanity of the earth.

“I thought you might be lonely,” David says to his wife of three months—after they have ventured too far down the roads of marital contentment.
“I was.”
“Everybody ‘s lonely,” David said.
“It’s terrible to be in bed together and lonely.”
“There isn’t any solution,” David said. “All your plans and schemes are worthless.”
“I didn’t give it a chance.”
“It was all crazy anyway. I’m sick of crazy things. You’re not the only one gets broken up.”
“I know. But can’t we try it again just once more and I really be good? I can. I nearly was.”
“I’m sick of all of it, Devil. Sick all the way through me.”
“Wouldn’t you try it just once more for her and for me both?”
“It doesn’t work and I’m sick of it”
“She said you had a fine day and that you were really cheerful and not depressed. Won’t you try it once more for both us? I want it so much.”
“You want everything so much and when you get it it’s over and you don’t give a damn.”

Brokenness is empty. This kind of soul hunger will not be filled with the ordinary kinds of food and drink. Hemmingway drew long from the draughts of promise—till in the end there was nothing, for him, for David, for Catherine…for any who set upon such paths. Vanity? Yes. And the revelation of a modernity now nearing the exhaustion of age and waste and trying.

“All your plans and schemes are worthless,” the heart says.
And with a desperate voice we hear ourselves reply, “Oh, but to give it one more chance.”


UK-1920, US-2010: Slouching in Kind

I'm reading Paul Johnson's "Modern Times"—particularly, the section on the cultural shifts of Brittan in the time between the wars (1919-1935). How like today it was then—a nagging consumption with inopportunity more than injustice. About license and freedom, bound almost unexplainably by boredom, weakness, and exhaustion—an image captured in the airport gambler that I noted during a recent trip through Utah. Surrounded by flashing lights and happy sounds—communicating energy and excitement—this shell-of-a-man sat slumped in his chair, mindlessly pushing buttons and pulling the switch with a unhindered fervor. And yet his eyes wandered aimlessly about the room—never on the screen before him—scanning the passing faces with as much disinterest as one man can present.

The current administration has been criticized for its policy on Iraq. Accused of neo-colonialism (echoing from the 1920s Brittan) the rhetoric has been touted, “The advance of democracy” (where 100 years ago it was the "Advance of Industrialism"). And yet that rhetoric has only come in the past four year. Prior to that—as one op-ed in the WSJ noted—our foreign policy on Iraq was framed around a Hussein that regularly ignored UN resolutions (nearly 15 of them all told).

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)? Certainly—the biochemical nerve agent known to exist (and documented by UN forces) in Iraq prior to a US invasion were never found. Could other weapons have gone the way of these unaccounted-for means of aggression (think Kuwait)? Probably—given the continued soft-border policy Iran has held to date with the Taliban. So, the US tenor of war changed from “international threat” and “failure to abide by UN resolutions” to “advancing freedom and democracy” around the world.

But to the point—why this change(again, a question asked by the WSJ op-ed writer)? Someone in the administration recognized that the heart of the people—that is, us: you and me—rested on the issues of inopportunity than with objections to injustice. Resolutions? Threats? WMD? Whatever!

It was supposed than an appeal to our carnivorous fascination with licentious freedom might spark a glimmer of compassion for Iraqis. Alas, no. And in this—we see ourselves laid bare—that nagging consumption with opportunity (how quickly heath care has become “a right” and not “a privilege.”); exhausted (despite our national—and my personal—addition to caffeine); and the extremes of perfection and destruction. Best noted in the lives of high school students of affluent communities—as pointed out by a friend of mine—they pursue perfection for the maximum advance (on the one end) or total and absolute rebellious, self-destruction (on the other). Straight A's or straight F's. Everything in the middle is mediocrity—and the guarantee of being forgotten—a lonely gambler in some corner of an airport. When every gate around him offers the opportunity to take him somewhere else, he remains in the in-between, nowhere; not going; not coming; just barely hanging on to existence: bored, witless, weak, and exhausted.

We do not travel unfamiliar roads—“there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). The invitation remains—“Take the blue pill…and you wake up in your bed believing what you want to.” Contrary to Morpheus-ology, the story doesn’t end. The narratives of history are either our tour guides or else our bedfellows. Ecc. 1:9 is the blue pill. Ecclesiastes 12 is the red pill.

The only question is—do we have the strength to take it?


Pathways In My Garden

Too long the desires of the world have traveled through my garden lot,
and trampled down the flowers planted, broken limbs and every pot,
left worn the ways meant for grass, left bare the places saved for life
and made a joke of Godly peace, and made a home of trouble strife.

But no more—for I take anew to patch the breach of walls
to fill those holes left blank by every stone which falls
with the inclination of invading thoughts; my captains,
my captives—I know not which: to bring me joys, or bring me pains.

I till the ground and break it up, and feed it seed and water drink,
and tend these hopes against vain guests that make me think
more of this life—and her every glistening gem—than the one to come.
Still a stranger, I have a home.

I cannot keep all invaders from this plot—nor is it mine to try,
but is mine to care to hold the breach and fix it by and by
perchance in time, my foolish thoughts will be to weak
to tarry here much longer. With delight, my soul the stronger—
That is what I seek.


Fathers & Sons—Retreat or Defeat?

I am typing with one hand and two fingers of another. No, nothing is broken—just sore from a 24 hour father-and-son retreat, sponsored by my local congregation www.cpcstl.org. And, from the air conditioning of my office I peck out these insights:

Insight 1: Machines that claim a “full-body workout” weren’t meant to simulate throwing children five feet through the air into a pool.
Yes—and that is why my shoulders feel like an eighty pound weight is hanging on them. There is a big difference between…say, a sixty lb. dumbbell and…well, sixty lbs of pre-pubescent boys. Dumbbells don’t squirm, twist, jump right on top of you, or claw you with finger nails in a desperate attempt to increase pre-launch balance. I was accused of being the youngest father there (clocking in at 35 years). Then again, none of the other fathers was in the pool throwing children.

Insight 2: The way to earn the title “The Jerk” is to be the dad striving the hardest to WIN!
Hey, I’m an INFJ—I would rather let other people win than deal with the emotional vomit that they exude when they lose. Not so my ISFJ son who loves to win. (Granted—Jonah has more sports ability in his pinky than I have in my entire body.) None of the other dads had to listen to their son cry the entire way home last year because they didn’t win a single event. So yes, did I practice for these “father-son Olympics”? Sure I did. A regimented diet of Clif bars, rock-climbing at Ridge Haven, bringing down a 40 foot tree (piece-by-piece) in my own front yard…and a rowing machine. Yea—I caught the ball and tagged out the 7 year old who was first up to bat for the other team. Then again, he leveled me at third base, clawed my back in the pool, and “inadvertently” dripped scalding S’mores on me. (All’s fair in love, war, and Father-Son Retreats). At least I didn't dope up! (A guy has to have limits.)

Insight 3: Earplugs don’t come standard.
Snoring is the most underutilized energy source on the planet. If a presidential candidate could tap that—we’d be able to laugh off Brazil’s biofuel, the Middle East’s oil, and Vladimir Putin’s natural gas. Pillow? Check. Towel? Check. Sheets? Check. Earplugs? Earplugs? Blast it, why didn’t I check? Long nights in the wide unexplored wilderness of Camp Trinity do offer one thing—an opportunity to practice the Hebrew alphabet. Strangely, I kept getting stuck at Lamed.

Insight 4: There are benefits to having grown up in Mississippi.
Honestly, I thought archery would be a great event for the retreat. After all—when compared to the Cannonball Splash, the “Child Press,” and the Football Throw—at least Archery is in the real Olympics. I’m amazed at how few people have never picked up a bow, who don’t know why one feather is a different color, and somehow miss that the word “ARCH” is the first part of Archery for a reason. At least the 53 year old—who frowned on my record time in the father-son relay event—not only know how to shoot but also had his own bows and arrows. Good thing people from West County aren’t dependent upon the ability to shoot in order to survive. If so, Darwin would, sadly, be proved right on one point: the weak don’t survive.

Insight 5: A father who misses the Olympics at the Father-Son Retreat can justifiably be feathered.
Granted—he was tired and I don’t know what all he’s had going on. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. And when I told his son I’d be the stand-in dad and bench-press him 20 times—I did it with the knowledge that he weighed a full 2.5 times my own son. There should still be a clause—somewhere in the Camp Kiwanas Guide to Retreats, or the Boy Scout’s Survival Guide—that outlines the judgment of “tar and feathering for failure to actively participate.” I guess it is enough to know that the Crackberry’s that were there suffered their own self-induced fate.

Insight 6: Father-Son Retreats are anything but a Retreat
A call to arms—yes. The opportunity to pretend to be younger than you are, sacrifice your quickly aging body for a moment of glory in your son’s eyes—absolutely. Now I know why the women always have a “Lock-In Hobby Night.” The term Hobby excludes—by definition—strenuous, physical, exertion. (And my wife wonders why I’m so tired!). If I ever become and Elder, I am going to vote for the Full-Contact WIC Tea. “Come On, girls. Let’s see some broken China!” “Ouch—a box of Earl Gray to the forehead! That’s got’ta hurt!”


A New Economic Stimulus: In Search of an Indenture

So my wife and decided it’s time to replace that old fence. We called the county to find out what stipulations there were—and imagine my delight at being told I could get copies of my subdivision indentures via mail (that was six months ago). I guess I wasn’t that surprised when the rejection letter came—“We’re sorry, but these indentures are on public record at the Records and Deeds Office.”

Lesson 1: “Public Record” is not the same as “Available to the Public.”

Making use of a long lunch break, I drove the 10 miles to the country records department where the first lady I spoke with told me I needed the third floor. Three flights of steps later, another lady told me I was only just on the second floor.

Lesson 2: The FIRST floor you enter may not well be the First Floor—maybe the G(round), E(ntry), E(xit), S(treet), G(arage), B(asement), S(ubfloor A), or any other of the 26 letters in the alphabet.

On the third floor a gentlemen ushered me to a long line of ancient looking books. “Ah,” I thought. “Now I understand.” Then—rather to my surprise—he took me to the computer that sat in the middle of this archaic library. A few clicks took him to a very familiar page (it was the page I started on at home, six months ago, when I first wanted to find out my building permits). He pulled up my address and then clicked a link. “Oh,” I said with surprise. “I could have done this from home?”

“Oh, no,” he assured me—with a nod that told me my journey was just beginning, “this is an in-house link only.” He wrote down the number of a map that was stored…no, not in the dusty old books…but in another computer where three ladies talked. I waited nearly five minutes before one broke out of the conversation to assist me. I gave her the slip of paper, she typed, and then somewhere nearby a printer clicked out a large—very old, very antiquated, very ancient and dust- looking—image.

Lesson 3 – Technology can graphically age people, but cannot graphically un-age old government documents.

After conceding my check for $2.50, she told me that I then needed to proceed to the sixth floor to the Public Works department. Thinking that was only a place in Monopoly—and knowing I couldn’t trust my ability to count flights of steps—I took the elevator.

On the sixth floor and very friendly woman sent me to talk to a very unfriendly woman about my “corner lot.” Friendly woman said, “If you didn’t have a corner lot, it wouldn’t matter.” Unfriendly woman said, “What’s your plat number?” She again visited the webpage-that-looks-like-the-webpage-I-can-view-from-home-but-ISN’T, this time pulling up…no not a dusty book…a computer image of my property. Pointing to the corner side of the lot, “As long as you don’t build here, we don’t care what you do.”

Lesson 4 – When a government office says, “WE don’t care what you do”—it is a royal use of the pronoun.

“You don’t?” I asked.

“WE don’t,” she said, “But your subdivision might have more rigorous stipulations that we don’t acknowledge or enforce…but which you have to abide by.” Pondering this conundrum, I made may way (via elevator) to the Fourth Floor where, yes indeed, I entered another office. I don’t know what this one was called, but another woman met me, sent me to a station where another woman met me, who wrote down some numbers (her phone number maybe?) and sent me to another woman who said, “Print or view?”

Lession 5 – Viewing is cheaper than Printing.

“View please,” I said. Hoping (beyond hope) this time for a ancient, archaic, worn-out-and-dust-covered book that could have been used in a Harry Potter movie (in which I might even have found an original copy of the Declaration of Independence)—I was introduced to another computer. This one had a electronic images of anything relating to my subdivision—though with all the WHEREASES  and WHATFORTHS and WHEREWITHALLS and THEREFORES, I decided to print the images.

Lesson 6 – Printing is easier on the cognition.

Ironically, I noticed that these files were in a format which could have—emphasis upon COULD—been (future, perfect, subjunctive) emailed to me as attachments (theoretically speaking of course) if only I had know whom to email…and that individual had the permission—because, after all, the GOVENRMENT CREATED EMAIL back in the late 1980s (I believe Al Gore was instrumental in that endeavor).

I was sent by woman #10 to woman #11 where I paid another $15.00 for scans of images that I will in turn take home, rescan and save in my computer. Only now, I’m $17.50, 4 gallons, and 1.25 hours poorer.

Then again—I helped keep 11 women and 1 man employed today.

Lesson 7 – There is a reason government is considered a bureaucratic.

PS. All that to find out that I need to get written permission from the Trustees of my subdivision before I can actually make any changes to my fence.



In Pursuit of Profundity

In the urgent-now of anticipation and anxiety rooted in nostalgia, I pursue profundity, supposing to find escape in intellectualism and philosophy. So I walk the woods of Emerson and muse over the shavings of Aristotle. I turn over this stone or that to see what life lives beneath; and crumble dry leaves within my hand to see what comes of a thing at death; I peel back the bark of ancient trees and touch my tongue to taste the sap of a forgotten world; I walk the traveled paths in hopes that I might find the road less traveled and say, when it has come to an end, “Yes, that has made all the difference.”

But profundity eludes the searcher, the philosopher, the intellect—for he looks outside and beyond the common supposing that something great lies just there, just at that place where human eye once ventured, but gave up venture in despair: one man sought, but gave up seeking…or so it seems. He supposes—or should I more honestly say, I—that I suppose insight may be found, like gold, in a place too little searched, too long ago.

Weary, I lay upon the living room floor. Speckles of crumbs lie scattered as feed for non-existent bird. The labors of the day bore no sight of the profound, no vision of introspective glory too great for simple articulation. I nearly sleep while my children play nearby. They play common games with common toys: this one races cars while that one lines up figures in some comedy of movie characterization: Batman is friend to Mr. Incredible, and he to Chewbacca, and he to an oversized Care Bear. Darth Vader barks commands at Buzz Lightyear and a Lego Indiana Jones trades heads with a Clone Trooper—an orchestration of such contradiction that it stretches the imagination beyond breaking—or, at least, the imagination of the old.

I am old, if proved only by the declaration of the preponderance of my observation. In ages past, I brought the jungle of Africa to the planets of far off adventure and waged war on alien creatures with a Six Million Dollar Man. And all was right with the world.

In my half awakened state, these characters of play grow large as life. Dreams overtake reality as they engaged for prominence on the battlefield of imagination. And in their haste, they pause and wonder at the sleeping giant—the figure of a man more out of place than adventures in space and aliens in the Amazon. And I find in that too-oft searched, neglected space—gold. It glitters with the glint of imagination, captured in child’s play.

This is profundity.


The Wane of Influence

Influence: Different From Power
When conflict rises within a church—often involving the pastor and some segment of the congregation—we are quick to talk about “power struggles.” And rightly so—a misuse (or at best, a misunderstanding) of a biblical view of power is a major factor in most church conflicts. But far too often, we quickly lump all conflict into the bucket of “power struggles” when a far more basic, human tension is involved. Namely—influence.

By influence, I mean the prominence that an individual (or a group) has gained in the normal course of institutional, organizational, and communal life. Influence involves power—in technical terms “the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions etc., of another or others.” (Dictionary.com) But power is only one part of influence. At a much more basic level, influence affects identity, significance, and purpose.

Influence, for anyone, comes about through the normal act of living. Parents have great influence over their children. A small-business owner has great influence over the direction of his company. And certain individuals within a church setting gain influence as they live—usually as they counsel, advise, serve, and eventually, lead. The very act of seeking wise counsel entails the granting of influence to some: “instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still” (Prov. 9:9), “the wise heart accepts commands” (Prov. 10:8), “a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15). In each case, wisdom influences an individual. Wisdom is never impersonal (even the Proverbs compare it to a woman)—it comes to us through people: fellow believers, a spouse, a parent, and the Holy Spirit as he is at work in these people.

When we seek someone’s advice or counsel, we are granting him or her a level of influence over us. The degree to which the advice and counsel of that person has proved wise in the past is the level to which his or her influence increases (or should). This illustrates one of the key differences between power and influence (as it pertains to conflict)—namely, that power is sought while influence is granted. People may have power over us in some regard or another without our consent, but they only have influence over us insofar as we have granted it to them. That is why the sought-out counsel of a mentor is of much greater value than the persistent (and unsolicited) recommendations by an over-involved parent, older sibling, or nagging friend. And who among us is not encouraged when we are sought out for counsel, when we are perceived by others as wise?

Because of these realities, the loss of power—while threatening and undermining—is very different from the loss of influence. Loss of influence deeply affects us. When power is sought and obtained, it is done so with the knowledge that it can also be lost (such is the fear of every dictator). But when we are granted influence—slowly, incrementally, in the day-to-day interactions of advice sought and counsel given—it affirms a much deeper human reality: who we are as individuals, our purpose, and the significance of our lives. A parent who controls the actions of a child primarily by the threat of discipline is never as fulfilled as the parent who finally has the satisfaction of having a child say, “Dad, can I get your advice on something?” A husband who dominates his wife into submission will never have the satisfaction of experiencing the respect that comes from “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Influence: The Story of John the Baptist
A scan of Scripture reveals passages aimed at the misuse of power. Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25–28). (As an aside, the term “authority” is significant in how it functions throughout the book of Matthew, demonstrating the Kingship of Jesus.)

We are a little slower in being able to identify passages that deal with the idea of waning influence. Consider how many passages call us to submission, obedience, and humility (“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” Rom. 12:3). Such calls instruct us to allow Christ’s Spirit—through the Word and through fellow believers—to influence us.

And yet, the life and testimony of John the Baptist illustrates the nature and impact of influence gained and forfeited. John 3:25–30 recounts:

Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Now compare that to the events of Matthew 11:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (11:2–6)

What prompts John to send his disciples to Jesus? This is John, remember—who must have known from his mother Elizabeth and his relative Mary the story of his and Jesus’ conceptions—who was reluctant to baptize Jesus, and who declared, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7).

At the very least we are safe in seeing John’s actions as expressive of uncertainty and doubt. John is in prison, and many of his disciples are now following Jesus. John’s waning influence is clear—and even self declared: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Ironically, what can be confessed with humility at the apex of influence can nevertheless be doubted (and painful) in the valley of irrelevance.

While influence is often gained incrementally (perhaps over a lifetime), it can be lost in a very short time. Consider the elder who, over the course of 20 years and three pastors—perhaps through internal conflicts and external challenges—faithfully sought to serve and lead the flock under his care. At some point, perhaps in the later years of his eldership, he honestly acknowledges the church’s need for new and younger leadership. But the influence that he has gained through the seasons of church life, he may lose in as little as five years, to a new, young pastor. And with waning influence comes a deep questioning of personal significance—doubt, fear, insecurity, loneliness, sadness, and a profound sense of loss.

I believe John’s actions—sending his disciples to question Jesus—reveal these emotions. At one point, John confidently declared, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20; 3:28). It was declared of him at another point, “Among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Talk about honor! What kind of significance should such a man feel? Yet there remains an uncertainty, a doubt—and not a doubt expressed by John that is not “concern for others,” but expressed in a very visceral, personal way.

Jesus doesn’t reprove John or his disciples, nor does he send back the rebuke, “John, come on. You know better. This is me, your cousin. You baptized me. You saw the Spirit descend upon me. You heard the voice from heaven. You know better than to doubt.” For John, imprisoned and waning in influence, ending a life of ministry in a most undignified fashion—his fears, loneliness, and sadness are personal. Jesus’ answer is personal—oriented toward his Kingdom. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5–6). This is the promise of redemption, of salvation, and of a Kingdom that dignifies every member—with value, significance, and certain love. With waning influence comes fear and uncertainty, but the answer of God is Kingdom.

Influence: Systems and Organizations
An elder and his wife who have gained influence slowly, over years of faithful service, and who are first to advocate a new pastor, will often begin to express doubts and uncertainty as the scales of influence tip away from them. Where at first they can say, “He is the pastor: ask him,” (e.g., “I am not the Christ”) and later say, “I could not bear it all,” (e.g., “I must decrease)—later, they may well express fear, uncertainty, doubt, sadness, and loneliness in the face of waning influence.

And this applies not just to faithful elders, but to faithful parents as well. How do parents feel when—having raised their children to be equals in the Lord—Mom and Dad find their influence waning in the eyes and lives of their adult children? How does a small-business owner feel when—after a season of great success, and “going public with the company”—he is slowly excluded from any discussion of the company’s vision and direction? In fact, I can think of no relationship save one where influence does not diminish naturally over the course of the relationship. That one relationship is—marriage. Presidents, chancellors, vice-presidence, CEOs, CFOs, elders, deacons, pastors, parents, businessmen, politicians, and dignitaries alike will wane in their influence. Only in a healthy marriage does the influence between a husband and wife continue to grow deeper and more pronounced over the life of the relationship.

Studies show that conflict in the local church follows predictable patterns—three years, seven years, and twenty years. At three years, a pastor will begin to have influence over smaller (or more minor) decisions people make in their own lives. He will be sought out for counsel on decisions of occupation or education, and maybe family dynamics—Where should I go to college? What should I do about this relationship or that? What should I consider before accepting this job?
At about seven years, he will begin to have influence over the course of the congregation as a whole—direction, dynamics, vision, budget, etc. Up to this point, power has either remained with those who held it before, or else has become a power-sharing arrangement (think balanced scales). But around year seven, there is a tipping point of influence from those who have historically shouldered those responsibilities to the “new pastor.” And if a pastor and church leadership survive that tip in influence (without capsizing), there will often follow a great period of growth lasting ten years or so, until a new tip in influence comes with the rise of new, younger leadership (driven by some crisis).

These periods of shifting influence need not capsize a congregation or organization—though sadly, they often do. The question is, what will we do when we begin to wane in influence? The model of John the Baptist is for us, “I am not the Christ.” I am not the Christ. I am not the Christ. I am not the Christ! It behooves us to say this aloud to ourselves at least daily. Regardless of the level of influence that the Lord has brought us to, we must ever remember that we are not the Christ. There is but one Christ, one head of the Church, and we are not him.

For the young pastor, the encouragement is to consider the great “identity crisis” that may well be going in the lives of certain members as their influence wanes. Such crises often arise over seemingly insignificant issues—starting worship 10 minutes earlier, moving the women’s Bible study to the evening instead of mid-morning, whether or not a guitar is used in worship, or building a cypress fence to hide the unsightly plot adjacent to the church property. Not that these issues always point to crises of identity, but they often do. These ultimately are expressions of influence on the wane—a loss of a deeper sense of purpose, meaning, and significance.

Had Jesus answered John’s doubts (could we say challenges?) as I did above (i.e., “Come on John!”), it would only have served to create further insecurity for the struggling disciple—for now he is rebuked in the midst of his doubt. That response is a recipe for disaster. And here, Christ is the model for the pastor—gentleness, compassion, understanding, and a directing of one’s eyes toward the Kingdom. A wise pastor will pay attention to those times when influence shifts from those faithful saints who have led the congregation to himself (earlier in a ministry), or from him to others (later in a ministry)—and he will react accordingly. A wise pastor will continue to seek every opportunity to encourage, support, praise, and ask advice (e.g., seek counsel—and according to Proverbs, only a fool does not seek counsel) of those longtime faithful servants of the congregation. He will seek avenues for their continued influence—discipleship, service, and continued leadership in appropriate areas. But even when the opportunity for these have passed—a wise pastor will direct the eyes of all toward the Kingdom: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” This will look somewhat different today—those with AIDS are loved, those who are shut-in are cared for, those who are ill are treated, those who are orphans are adopted, those who are widows are served, and those who did not know the good news receive it and believe.

And a pastor will also recognize: I am not the Christ. There is often a fear in young pastors, an insecurity that expresses itself as insistence and over-confidence—a bristling at being called “the new pastor” after ten years, or the calling of “unspiritual” those members who seem tangled up over what the church grounds look like on Sunday morning. Fear in older pastors expresses itself similarly—bristling over some “new idea” for outreach and evangelism, unwillingness to change some long-standing tradition of the congregation to accommodate ministry, or suspicion of a younger pastor who himself is beginning to grow in influence with a younger, more vocal portion of the congregation.

Two Responses: Offense or Union With Christ
I believe this is why Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6). When a man or a woman begins to see the effects of lost influence—her counsel is sought less by the younger women of the church, or his input is less often included in decisions regarding the upkeep of the grounds and expansion plans—there is the risk of offense. We are offended, aren’t we, when someone “plays” in our areas of responsibility? But as influence shifts so does responsibility, and during such times we are called not to be offended.

No new people can know the full history of an organization or institution. No new pastor will ever have enough “information” about the events that have shaped the church. And yet we are offended—when newcomers show up with ideas, suggestions, and dreams that don’t fit our own; or when leaders come in and make changes that go against our sense of prudence. We take offense when we grow bitter about waning influence. This is why Jesus says that we are blessed when we are not offended by him. He must increase.

If our response is to be other than “offense”—we must look to the Person of Christ. One way this can be done in the life of a congregation is by regularly focusing on our union with Christ. Through repeated emphasis on our unique relationship in and with Christ, the fibers of our being—made up of our experiences and beliefs—find fullness in our union with the Divine (by the Spirit). Far from the loss of influence resulting in a rending of our sense of identity, as we hold before us our great union with Christ, we are empowered to risk the loss of everything, even our influence.

The challenge for the pastor in this is great, because it involves both high self-awareness and others-awareness—an ability to name his own fears and intuit and perceive the fears of others. The wisdom of Proverbs gives guidelines of grace for us in these endeavors. Likewise the constant proclamation, “I am not the Christ.” For as we recognize the full extent of that truth, our blind eyes do receive sight, and far from being offended, we are delighted to see how the influence of Christ is conveyed through all members of his Body.

There may yet be sorrow and tears—as the tears of a father giving away his daughter, all grown, for marriage; tears as of a mother at the moving out of her last child, and the echoes of an empty nest; even the tears of the aged at bitter-sweet memories of bygone days, or opportunities missed. There must always be a place for tears within the reaches of the Body of Christ. In this life, there will be sorrow and tears—but the Lord is the one who wept even when we could not, and who promises to greet us at the gates of heaven to “wipe away our tears” (Isa. 25:8).



Is it me—this chasm void
that hangs in shadowed clouds
like distance folded, folds again
and makes this little space
a distance none of us can bridge?

The guarded silence in your eyes
tells more than all the bolstered words
poured out, and pouring
fuel the contradiction in your voice.

It’s not the skeletons I fear—
buried in the self-defense
of systems laid and structures made—
the untold truths you wear
in smiles free of doubt.

It’s that—in pouring—I talk the shape
of every feeling never felt
and wear the trappings of your heart
cast off like clothes asunder.

Taking every smile when you depart,
all the words of confidence—there remains
the echo of words that never
should have gone unspoken,
and I am left to weep these bitter tears alone.

But in the night, when even moths have given o’re
I scrape the barnacles of shale
that—leaching—haunt my gentle sleep
till scale-like fall and leave untroubled:
I rest, content, alone.


Waiting and Sand

At dawn, the world seems small, and I seem big. Not so the day when the fullness of trouble breaks in upon me, and I am small and frail. The hopeful possibility of those early moments fade—I consider the cry of injustice, war, hunger, and loneliness. What great a response is required?

But a look at the moments of my days, and no such greatness is found among them—moments of an encouraging note, the occasional prayer, and fleeting laughter intermingled with the making of meals and beds, gathering of dust, removal of spider webs, and the hand-washing of a cup. These cumulative acts of my day are sand, sand in a flood of need that cries for a Rock to stem the flowing tide of tears.

And what do we get when we add up all the moments of Jesus’ life in the Gospels—stacking miracle against miracle like some stack of cards—unbroken (like some sleepless never-ending “final’s week”) by fatigue or food. What do we get of all his words and works? Two months? Three? Half a year? And what of the other 35.5 years of Jesus’ life—where are they? We have no record of long walks from this town to that, or the hours passed in fervent labor of textiles in his carpentry shop. Rumor has it that there remained in use—for nearly a hundred years after his death—plows made by the Carpenter Jesus. Never to be gathered by relic-seeking followers, they continued to break the ground year after year in hopes that once again life might come from the barren soil.

The world is full of the unexpected—like the clump of Fescue growing from the top of a slatted moon-gate, planted no doubt by some nest-building bird. Like the doe in Queeny Park, too unawake in her morning breakfast to be started by me. She watches, only half interested in my passing. And there is the man, just standing at the crossroads of two paths in the park—standing, and waiting, as though he had nothing else to do. He gestures a wavy finger at me as I pass, and whether his intention is greeting or warning, I cannot tell. Looking back, I could see him still standing there, as though certain that 5:30 AM in a mist-covered path in some city park was exact place of his arranged waiting. Perhaps he is still waiting now.

I think of Geronimo, the 40-something Belizean who looks 60, oblivious to the mosquitoes that covered him, the silly grin on his face at having killed a deadly Coral snake with one blow of his machete. And he is frozen in the picture I took—waiting. And I think of the Esmeralda, working with the children that live on the streets in Mexico, and how she waits every day for them to come to the shelter. Sometimes they come, and sometimes she just waits. And I think of orphaned children of Peru waiting for adoption, and the widowed Babushkee of Ukraine—just waiting. Waiting for Jesus.

And I think of Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. They waited and in the end what did they get? Frodo got to board the last westward bound ship. Sam got a wife and children and the Shire. But what if someone can’t pick—what if he wants to go west and still have the Shire? Like Paul—wanting to leave and wanting to stay and not being able to choose between. He was waiting.

Maybe that is what heaven is—on that day when men don’t have to stand in early morning parks waiting, on that day when Jesus returns—that we will not have to choose. Maybe the leaving and the staying, the coming and the going will all be the same thing. Maybe it will be like the children of Narnia who—on that last great day when they saw the sun go out and the world grow cold, and watched as Aslan shut the door on Narnia—only to turn and find that in here (that is, in the bigness of the stable-turned-world) is all the true beauty of Narnia retained. Maybe we will climb aboard the last westward bound ship and arrive on the other shore to find it is everything we have left behind. Maybe every goodbye will be a greeting. Maybe, in heaven, every journey out will lead us home again, and we will say to one another, “All roads lead home.”

Until then, we wait, and choose between this or that decision and knowing that all our best actions are sand—sand when what the world needs is a Rock, a Fortress, a Stronghold and Deliverer.

Day ends—I think of the man waiting in the park. Is he still waiting? I have begun to wonder what God will do with all this sand and—with a sigh—take up another cup to wash.


What Good is Hospitality?

The world is falling apart. Sexual promiscuity, personal indulgence, greed, gluttony, and irresponsible choice are rampant—and that’s just our culture. Elsewhere, political and religious wars rage, while scandal and corruption abound. With so much at stake, what good is a little hospitality?

The consumption of food is an intrinsically communal act—relationship is an ingredient, not the accidental occasion of a common hunger. Consider the presentation of 10 different kinds of bread and grains to the Pope on his most recent US visit, presented not to curb his hunger or satisfy his needs but to communicate a relationship, some shared appreciation—human, but more than a bestial satiation. Nearly all sacrifices of the Old Testament Jewish world were edible in nature—demonstrating more the basic necessities of the worshiper than the worshipped.

Whereas some want to make the case that healthy and unhealthy dietary patterns begin with the food, I would suggest that it beings with the company and conversation. People who eat alone are more prone to unhealthy dietary habits. They eat too much (no one to share with), they eat too fast (no conversation to break up speed of consumption), they eat too little (no one else to serve or pace with), or they eat the wrong kinds of food (no one to encourage otherwise).

In fact, much evidence points to a deeper human hunger which, when absent from our meals, lends to patterns of neglect and abuse (of food, that is). It isn’t a vitamin or mineral or ingredient—something to be printed on the side of packaging. Simply speaking—it is the hunger of relationship.

Lonely, we feed ourselves for comfort. Disgusted, we punish ourselves with denial. Angry, we abuse without consideration of consequences—“a moment on the lips…” In each, food is but symptom—in each case some deeper need remains unsatisfied.

The link between the physical realities of food—the body’s need for nutrients—and the non-physical, spiritual (mystical if you prefer) qualities is inseparable. In most religions, patterns of feasting and fasting portray the posture of the adherent before his divine. Somehow, that humanity’s first parents fell from grace over food; somehow—in some way utterly absent in other animals as they consume food—our consumption of food is linked to the condition of our emotional and spiritual needs. Like the birds that mysteriously fly back to a long-abandoned birthplace in order to hatch another generation—we, men and women, in our eating somehow taste the longing and bitterness of those first human parents; and our connection with them.

We may silence the voice of certain understanding with a second helping of dessert, or dismiss the hope of a joyful, full-family meal as some antiquated practice that lives on only in black and white movies. But in our dreams, in our longing for food, we find that satisfaction is fleeting when the fellowship of good company is the absent ingredient of our daily meals.

What good is hospitality? An opportunity to unfold the wrinkles of dismality and partake of a meal of care, of fellowship, of love—like a walk in a garden, in the cool of the day.


Another Take on the New Adventures of Old Indiana Jones

Enterprise Software & the "Specialization-Conglomeration Pendulum"

In generations past—information was linked to relationship. Communities were software—urgency and use are often in tension with expediency in what I commonly call the “specialization-conglomeration pendulum.” Software—like corporations, hospitals, educational institutions, etc.—goes from specializing in a given area—word processing, data management, contact management, spreadsheets, etc.—to conglomeration—multifunctional or by- and tri-functional programs (I’m not talking about packages).

As a user in the early ‘90s, we used a database, word processor, and spreadsheet creator. Then came the presentation software—Powerpoint—and then e-mail (or was that vice versa) and browsers, and then viewers—Acrobat—and now a whole wave of editors—photo, video, web, etc. Who says the classic “processor-database-presenter model” is the right one. Why can’t one program do all of these things?

Therein lies the problem. Microsoft tries to incorporate various features into their growing batch of basic software. MS Word functions as an HTML editor. My most recent version of Outlook links to a self-contained database. But I still go to Zoho.com to create forms and “surveys” for alumni. Why? Because Zoho is in a specialization area. They have some of the generalized features listed above, but they are focusing development on areas where the “Conglomerations” fail. In the end, such specialized companies will be a) acquired or b) copycatted by the Conglomerates. This in turn makes the Conglomerates less able to specialize on the development of a specific feature—like why I can’t right-click on a table in my possessor and have the option there of converting it “from table to text” right there (despite this being the most utilized function on my Table toolbar. This in turn creates new pockets of development and specialization.

As a user, I agree that buyers—e.g. IT departments —don’t understand the needs of users. Then again, they are often stuck trying to “patch” existing software for immediate use while waiting for the release of a newer version. It is why IT departments, when they can live in the tension between the “specialization-conglomeration pendulum” are one of the greatest resources of productivity that an institution or company can have. Then again, when the IT department doesn’t like tension, they actually perpetuate the problem.

Which is why so many companies are outsourcing their IT services. It’s easier to walk away from someone when they don’t fill an office in your company.


The Cost of Inconsistency

“If it's ethically acceptable to use up and destroy fully human embryos with all the potential they have, how is it right to provide for hybrid embryos, with less potential of viability, greater protection?."British MP Liberal Democrat Evan Harris.

Good question. If the potential for human life doesn’t have value, then neither does the potential for less-than human life? And so the birds come home to roost. For over 15 years, the West has legalized abortion. Should it surprise any of us that cross-species dabbling should seem anything but normal?

Harris is at the very least consistent—in a world where most people live in the center of contradiction. Ultimately, it will not be the legislators of permissibility who change the downward course devaluing human life—but rather people like Evan Harris and Peter Singer (with his applied ethics). Those who want to hold in tension some sense of moral rightness and practical contradictions, create the issues we now face. Give voice to Singer and Evans—let them yell that our contradictions are unacceptable and if human embryos can be mutilated for science, then why not mingled, mixed, and mutated?

It was Nietzsche who argued that the anti-Semitism of post-WW I Germany was a trapping of the old religion of man. Ironic that the most outspoken critics are those most radical in their position....


Wall Street is Main Street

To hear some presidential candidates tell it, it’s time for the US Government to offer the same buyout for home-owners as for Bear Stearns. Forget for a moment the utter complexity and real danger of that action—the suggestion makes a distinction between Wall Street and Main Street that is completely false. We only have to look to the Northrock collapse in Brittan a few months earlier to see that.

Consider: March 17, 2008 – America wakes up to find that Bear Stearns finds itself crippled with illiquid assets. The company is finished; business ends. Everybody goes home—okay, so lots of them do—and they take their belongings with them. Bear Stearns' call upon its existing credit lines puts stress upon the banking industry. Bank of America (BAC) and a dozen other national banks find themselves unable to respond to the call. The downward spiral of layoffs, (further) delinquencies and foreclosures, and stress on the credit market would certainly create a run on the bank not unlike what we witnessed with Northrock. Wall Street would go home to Main Street and call it a day—only to wake up to a sheer fall in the stock market, paralleled by an equally steep rise in unemployment and personal bankruptcy (remember, Americans carry personal debt—not counting primary or secondary mortgages) of nearly $10,000 per family). Rise in available labor creates downward pressure on salaries. But many Americans are just getting by—their income matches (if that) their expenses. A reduction in salaries—caused by an increase in available labor, caused by a steep rise in unemployment—tips the scales. A sudden need for cash by individuals in turn means the liquidating of market holdings at the best available rates (at a loss). The sudden decline in stock values reduces the book value of companies who have collateralized their company against lines of credit (not to mention existing debt). Worth less, they borrow less, grow less, hire less, pay less, and the cycle repeats.

Like George Bailey said in It’s a Wonderful Life, Wall Street can say today, “I don’t have your money here. Your money is invested in the Wal-Mart and the local hardware store. And they don’t have your money either. They have soap and bolts respectively.” Bank of American has invested my money in Bear Stears—and I let them do it. In return, they give me interest.

Folks—Wall Street is Main Street. The fact that some don’t think it is—the fact that these prospective leaders somehow suppose the Government can ad hoc the deliverance of poor, personal, financial decisions, with fiat money—is grossly na├»ve and laced with ignorance (def. lack of knowledge).

But then again, it’s what we have come to expect from some segments of the political realm.


Because…(for Dr. Wilber Wallace)

Because a man is more than what years reduce him to:
more than age and indignity,
more than wrinkles and time,
more than the ability to speak, laugh, sing,
or smile;

Because the frailty of body fails to capture:
the spirit of a man unbound,
his dreamy days and hopeful nights
his greatest glories
earth has never known;

Because the heart and mind are more than flesh and blood:
more the organs of music than of life,
greater vessels of adventure than of blood
more the vehicle of divine glory
than the mode of articulation.

What is man that God is mindful of Him:
a little lower than the angels,
crowned with glory and honor,
ruler over the works of creation?

O Lord, our God, how Majestic is Your name
in all the Earth!

Because this pettiness and vile derision is not the end:
you stand upon the banks of the Jordan,
heaven anxious to receive you
in the hands of a Savior
who has redeemed you, body…
body and