30 December 2011

So THIS is what I have

Sciatica is the name, and I was not sure until I started having radiating pain to my foot. Remember how I mentioned a back ache? Well, that is gone now, but before that I had a groin pull and now I think the result of that groin pain was sciatica. You can find out about it from the folks at Mayo. Go to Sciatica - MayoClinic.com

The good news is that I can do most everything. The bad news is that pain killers are little help. About the only time I have no pain at all is lying down. Having been a gym rat for so many years, a modicum of daily pain is normal for me. What I dislike is that it takes a moment or two in the morning (or after extended sitting) to get going again.

Of course, it did not help that I decided to jog a lap or two on Tuesday. Because I slightly favor my right side (where the pain is) I landed poorly on my left foot and felt a jolt to the Achilles tendon. That means I hobble on both legs in early the morning. What a picture that is, I can assure you. Walter Brennan had nothing on me. (He had a distinct walk associated with his grampa McCoy character, in case you don’t get the reference.)

I read that unless the pain is debilitating it will likely go away over time. I have endured sore elbows and strained rotator cuffs before, so this is not news. But it is annoying, so if you have any suggestions about how to hasten my healing let me know.

Yoga? Massage? Acupuncture? All three? If this takes a while one or more could be in my future.

What really nags at me, though, is wondering what I injure next. Wanna start a pool?

24 December 2011

A Precious Sadness

At long last, Christmas Eve is a day of calm (even if the evening is full of work).  Our children are grown, so the mystery play of Santa is no longer necessary.  Our material needs and wants are few, so the task of buying and wrapping is smaller.  As the morning moves toward noon I have an island of serenity that allows me to write this. 

So why am I sad?  Not heaving sorrow, mind you, but a sort of bruised tenderness.  Maybe it was catching a movie on cable TV by accident early this morning, “October Sky,” which was ok enough as a story.  The plot and theme are commonplaces now among ‘inspiring movies.’  What might have stayed with me, though, was the setting, West Virginia. 

At various times I have traveled through that place.  Each time I felt a profound sadness amid the stirring beauty of the land.  Nothing quite explains it, but there are notes of resignation and regret in it, caught in the aroma of decaying trees and coal.  Something about the hardscrabble landscape tears right through my eyes and into my heart, a reality that gets covered over by civilization and its false contents.  To be that real, that true, even if it hurts, feels right to me. 

This sort of sadness, born of my visits there and to other portions of the Appalachian hills, is precious.  I do not want it to go away.  Most of the time we want to get rid of sadness, but this kind is precious, somehow to be treasured.

My Facebook page this morning is dotted with people wanting and feeling that magical Christmas sensation, perhaps as a way to connect with a remembered childhood time when the world shimmered with a kind of intensity that tarnishes to dull predictability as we age.  For me, though, the usual Christmas magic feels more false than real.  Angels and shepherds and stars and flying sleighs obscure the shimmer of the world as it truly is. 

Give me young women with rough hands and old men with sparkling eyes, the terrible swift beauty of mountain streams and the smell of pine and hickory smoke.  Keep your angelic choirs and let me hear the sound of the baby cry and the song of the mother soothing it.  Is this not magic, that in a world so hard we still believe life is worth it? 

I crave the broken hearted tenderness that old hills and tired houses and worn lives call up, the sort of world my ancestors knew, the sort of world Galilean peasants two thousand years long ago lived in and through. 

15 December 2011

Worker-Owners of America, Unite! - NYTimes.com

Hmmm, I sorta like this.  I sorta like this a lot.  Will comment later, but thought you oughta see it now. 

Worker-Owners of America, Unite! - NYTimes.com

11 December 2011

Oh, My Aching Back

That's right, I have a backache. Started with a weird twinge yesterday as I bent slightly down, very slightly, to fetch something from the seat of a chair in the hall. The sensation was odd, definitely distressing. And ever since I have had a pain along my upper right pelvis in the back. It's not unbearable, but it is annoying and does cause me to rise and sit more carefully.

My theory of why I got it involves a prior pain, from a groin pull about a month ago. I was at the gym doing less presses, and quite honestly pushing my limit - 450 lbs in fact - and felt the pain as I was doing that weight, but it was not immense so did not stop. On the next day was I sore in a new and unfamiliar way that said, "stop doing that." So I did stop. Didn't do another one for the next month, and only resumed on Friday with a maximum of 50 pounds.

(To assuage my sagging masculinity in admitting this I will boast of improved bench presses, though. After a long time I have finally gotten back to 225, a weight not seen more than once or twice in almost 20 years.)

But it was a slight movement, one not involving either my right adductor (groin) or my right pectoral (chest) that sent my lower back into painful protest. Methinks it is simply age, wear and tear. That, more than anything, is what bothers me.

You see, I am a late bloomer. Far from the wunderkinds and prodigies that often enthrall us, I was always the last to succeed. I was the last of my seminary colleagues to get a church, and when I did it was the smallest and poorest of them all. I arrived at my current church, a large and prosperous one, far later than most who get that honor.

For a long time this bothered me, feeling like the last and all, and then I realized that maybe I was on a longer arc than others. Mozart never lived to see forty, or Schubert. Those who did brilliantly in youth rarely outperformed themselves in age.

My nature, I told myself, was the tortoise not the hare - invoking a story that rewards plodding and unexciting work. My best days were still ahead of me!

So I told myself until this week. Then I thought of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and and other 'elders' who rose to their peak long after youth, who manage to be both impressive and aged. That's a pretty good goal, now that I think about it.

But if I could avoid a cane a little longer, that would be nice, too.

26 November 2011

It’s Not Personal

Here in our corner of the country the news was captured by this story:

Fred Meijer, West Michigan billionaire grocery magnate, dies at 91 | MLive.com

As a fellow “Fred” I was disposed to like him, and his reputation for personal modesty and kindness seemed to me quite authentic.  We met socially several times, you see.  He attended a memorial I conducted for a member who was a devoted volunteer at the eponymous Meijer Gardens.  If not part of his circle, I was not far from it.

But as someone else wrote, Fred was part of the wealthiest 1/10th of 1% in the country.  Jeff Smith says, “According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Meijer Inc. spent over $300,000 in each of the past 2 years with their state Political Action Committee. According to Opensecrets.org.”

Good guy?  Bad guy? 

Long ago I had a moral epiphany - It’s not personal.  No one person in society can be held responsible for creating or fixing the wrongs in that society.  The very rich are not naturally superior any more than the poor are naturally inferior.  We each make good choices and bad ones, are both generous and selfish.  Our big problems (racism, sexism, etc.) thus cannot be random results of people making good and bad choices.  If that were, then the fortunate and the unfortunate would be randomly spread around – irrespective of race or gender and so on. 

But they are not because societies are like rivers not oceans.  They flow through channels, and those channels, cut and reinforced over generations, privilege some parts of society over others. 

Focusing on the individual, whether to explain her poverty or to criticize his wealth, ignores this reality.  Privilege is always part of the equation, as much as pluck or luck.  The left is no more righteous in condemning a rich person than the right in criticizing a poor person.  Doing so, distracts us from the pervasive (if largely invisible) effects of privilege.

Let’s be honest and admit that if we were in Fred Meijer’s position, or any other rich person, we would probably make the same sort of decisions they would.  Rich or poor, we would try to keep what we have and get even more because that is what imperfect beings like us do. 

Valorizing Fred Meijer is wrong, but so is condemning him.  If privilege is wrong, one drop, even a rich drop in that river, is not enough to cut a new channel.  That will take the 99%. 

20 November 2011

Hopeless But Not Serious

 

Hope is a big deal to me. Because I find it easy to lose it. In two weeks I am going to preach on it, as part of the quartet of themes that have defined advent at my church for half a century – faith, hope, love, and joy. And I find myself wondering where it comes from.

Maybe it is the early sunset and the encroaching cold, but a wind of hopelessness found me this evening. It is not rational, but it is there.

This is no existential state, understand. I do not despair of the world, which might actually be rational with all that is going on. I feel hopeless about me. To be specific, I am more and more certain that I have less and less to offer.

Not many years ago I felt pretty good about my preaching powers, for example. There are some people who remember when I could chisel some stunning sentences, but in the last few years I have been unable or unwilling to carve those words as I once did. Words and phrases that came readily, delighting me with their pith and point, scurry into corners when I spy them now. More and more I find myself hemming and hawing, knowing there is a good word or a powerful phrase and unable to snag it.

Four or so years ago or so I started a manuscript, a spiritual autobiography prompted by encouragement from a few friends. It took most of two years to draft, and another year to revise. Some friends helped and it is better, but judging from the ‘no thank you’ letters from publishers and my own gimlet eye, it is still far from publication, if ever. I look at it and see a ponderous tome that has little to offer.

Which is how I feel about myself this evening. This is the state at which sinners often turn to God. If there is no good hope in oneself, then turn to a higher source. Let’s call it the neurotic’s version of the second of the twelve steps. I understand this and even feel it.  But for me hope has to be honest, whether placed in me or some deity.

I suppose what I can hope for is that despite my limited and diminishing powers there might still be a moment or a place where what I have can be of lasting use. But how will I know?

Fortunately, one of the side effects of humility is less-self involvement.

16 November 2011

Long time no write

But lots of wrong.


Since last time I have was in NYC for a few days to reconnect with friends and family not seen for many months. While there I took time to visit the late great Zuccotti Park encampment. My interest was not simply curiosity.

Before leaving, our local Occupy Grand Rapids group was searching for a place to camp out, unwilling to squat on parkland that was clearly illegal. Without thinking, I offered them night use of our parking. (We are a downtown church which is where Occupy folks like to be for maximum visibility and access.)


Just before leaving we moved them from the parking lot, where they had to pack up every morning to allow cars in, to under our portico which means they can unpack and stay. The picture gives you an idea.


Why are we doing this? Because they are a voice that has not been heard for a long time. In these troubled times, the focus has been on debt and government overreach, which are important but not the whole story. Occupy has made us look at other angles of the economic issues that have been dismissed or just ignored by most of the media and the country.


Agree or not, they are asking that we pay attention to the disparity of income, the persistence of unemployment, the cost of student indebtedness, the influence of money on government. As I say it to those who ask, it can be summarized in fifteen words:


Too few have too much. Too many have too little. We need to change this.


Precisely how and to what extent is highly debatable, but the issue is real and I think even more crucial than deficits and government overreach. Their number and anger and persistence demand our attention. And they succeeded.


Oakland, Portland, Salt Lake City, New York City, have all rousted and demolished the encampments. The reasons were reasonable – sanitation, drug use, sexual assault – but I suspect these were no more than the pretext, somewhat the way some police stop black drivers for broken tail lights much more than white drivers.


I have written, without much success, that the next step in this movement is for houses of worship to become the sanctuaries for Occupy, as we have. I see no reason why any Christian, Jewish or Islamic building should not shelter these people who are living the demands for justice found in Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an. My guests in Grand Rapids are a gift to me and my church. Not without effort of course, but my members feel they are actually doing something and not just saying something. We are blessed.


Why is this not happening everywhere?

29 October 2011

Imagine I Am Running for Congress - 7

Back to Taxes.  SInce the dueling tubas of the Republican Party (Cain and Perry) are making much noise about taxes again – reviving the flat tax notion (does this make it a zombie tax?  And does this mean their taxes will eat all the other taxes?  I am thinking yes to both) it seems I must once again inject some reason into the system.  Beware, though.  As someone who finds neither ideological camps to be wholly wise, even my progressive/liberal friends may find this strange.

Start with this conversation between two very young pundits.  Bloggingheads: Tax the Poor! - Video Library - The New York Times  Forget that I am jealous of their precocious fame (even if I can’t) and ask whether or not so many people in the country should not be paying income tax. 

I believe this is a bad state of affairs, that half the country is not paying income taxes.  For two reasons. 

One, is that it means too many people are making too little.  A recent study reported that half the wage earners in the country make $26k or less.  When the federal poverty level for 1-3 people is between $10k - $18K (allowing for a single wager earner who has up to two dependents) that means the median income is about twice the poverty level.  I take this to mean that half the wage earners in the country live just barely above poverty wages.  Ok, that’s a bit strong, but it helps explain why so few are paying income taxes.  They simply do not have a lot of income to tax. 

Two, is that so many not paying income taxes means those who do pay income taxes can rationally feel they are ‘carrying’ the rest of the country, paying more than their share.  Perversely, forgiving income tax altogether at the bottom actually preserves income inequality by

- relieving our guilt over poverty by forgiving their tax burden (how charitable of us!)

- and allowing those with more to feel they are supporting them by paying more taxes.

The best policy would be to have everyone pay in, even if those at the bottom (meaning those ‘technically’ above the poverty line) pay a very small amount. 

Conservative politicians always talk about making taxes fairer and flatter, but I say make them fairer but not flatter.  That would mean, using information from UC Santa Cruz, that the top 1% should pay 21.3% of the income taxes, the next 19% would pay 40.1% and the the remaining 80% would pay 38.6%. 

Now, spread that 38.6% of taxes proportionally over the 80%, and I think those at the bottom would not pay very much.  And no one could claim they were not paying their share. 

Yes, everyone can and should pay income tax, and we should pay as pay as we reap, to turn a phrase. 

26 October 2011

Deja You

So, I went to my 40th high school reunion last week. That meant traveling back to where my wife and I grew up, because we were classmates. (To be precise, we go back to grade school years, but our romance waited until college).

We went to the 30th back in 2001, and I expected this to be like that. Boy, was I wrong.

That time, back in 2001, we were in our late forties, old youngsters. Even with added weight and grayer/lesser hair, the faces and forms were that of our youth. This time, we were verging on sixty, making us young oldsters. In those ten years we were not just a little heavier still, or more bald, or even more wrinkled, we looked less like who we were in the past and more like who will will be in the future.

Now, I could go on about how the fifties are when all our misdeeds show up. Those who had loved the sun or smoked or did both looked far older than others. Lord knows that menopause changes women in all sorts of ways. And some just got a set of genes that put them on the fast track to geezerdom.

But what struck me is that we are done with youth. In some ways that is a bit sad, but in fact it is a great gift. The cliques and claques that were so important back then are gone now. The girls who would never have looked at me forty years ago were delighted to see me this time, and the boys who strutted and smirked now lumbered and smiled.

A tenderness pervaded the place, as we all tried to recognize faces we once adored or feared, cupped our ears against the din of the DJ, adjusted our glasses, or otherwise accommodated our age. No one had any advantage over another. No status or prestige was at stake. For four hours we forgave what we had not already forgot.

We think life a struggle, and in some ways it is - from finding a mate, to finding a job, to climbing the economic ladder as far as we can. But like boxers who finally tire out, we eventually stop punching at life and find ourselves clinging to it just to stand up. The adversary becomes the intimate.

We leaned upon each other that night, remembering our youth and bidding it farewell. We realized these were the only ones left who knew us then, in all our glory and shame. And without words, we fell in love with who we are more than who we were.


18 October 2011

Too Much about Too Few Who Have Too Much

Well, it turns out I was hardly alone in talking about the Occupy folks this past Sunday. So just for the record, below is what I said. Or more accurately, here is the written version of my message from October 16th. (You can listen to it as well, but probably tomorrow. So here's the Youtube Channel if you want to find it: http://www.youtube.com/user/fountainstreetchurch)

Which Deeds?

Readings:

from Leviticus, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.”

“You ask me why I do not write something… I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results.” - Florence Nightingale

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” - Shirley Chisholm

“Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.” - Barbara Jordan

“What the people want is very simple - they want an America as good as its promise.” - Barbara Jordan

“Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.” - Barbara Jordan

Summer finally gave up. Like the Spartan defensive line, autumn charged over the line and sacked the summer like weather. Even those who love fall were enjoying its delayed appearance. Now it is all business, with wind and leaves and deadlines looming. The reality show of electoral politics is already deafening and dumbing, and yet experts ridicule the Occupy movement for being naïve. Who is naïve - those who believe things can be better or those who think things are fine? I look forward to my 40th high reunion next weekend, though I wrap that in ‘quotes.’ It will be good, and sad, and everything that makes us wise. I pray this time we share can be wise as well. May the words of my mouth…

Occupy Grand Rapids happened this past week. Or let’s say it began, for it continues like others around the country. We are giving them sanctuary of a sort. They need a place to camp out, because that’s what occupying means, after all. The law prohibits sleeping in parks, so we are donating our parking lot during nighttime hours. Doing that took effort because they are not well defined. There was lots of talk, and little clarity despite all that.

That made me think of two clichés:

- ‘Talk is cheap,’ which is perhaps why there so much of it.

- And ‘actions speak louder than words,’ even when those actions are not flattering.

We know the truth of both these sayings, and that it indicts organized religion as much as anyone. Religion does like to talk – with its creeds, doctrine, books, synods and councils. But liberal religion does too. We came into being because we disagreed with their words, and our worship is mostly words and what do we stand for but the power of words and ideas.

A famous joke about Unitarians applies equally to us. A religious liberal walks down a road and comes to a fork. The left side is marked, “to heaven,” the right “to a discussion about heaven” and so the liberal turns right. We say deeds mean more than creeds, but somehow we still talk more than act.

Then I remembered something attributed to St. Francis - “Always preach the gospel. When necessary use words.” Maybe the gospel, good news, is not abstract ideas, but concrete actions. Maybe the truth is not something we hear in words that then leads to action, but that truth is actions that lead us to describe it in words.

I know this sounds esoteric, so let me tell some stories that might help.

All this fall I am sharing Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky, and I invite you eagerly to find it and read it yourself. (I am also proud that he was here in person, speaking from this chancel.) It is about women’s issues today but they also referred something in US History, the Shepherd-Towner Act of 1921. I did a little research, which is the story I am telling.

In 1918 the United States was eleventh in infant mortality, and seventeenth in maternal deaths, among industrialized nations. Eighty percent of all pregnant women received no prenatal advice or trained care. About 20% of children in the United States died in their first year and about 33% in their first five years. Efforts to do something were small, despite a US Children’s Bureau which was created in 1912 to study and report on such things.

Then the 20th amendment happened. Women got the vote, and despite cries of communism and socialized medicine, the Shepherd-Towner act passed in 1921 which funded nurses and clinics and other forms of prenatal education. And it worked, but opposition continued, chiefly from the AMA for intruding on the doctor-patient relationship, with continued implications of socialism and socialized medicine, so that by 1929 the law was not renewed.

Looking at our times, just as women demanded the vote not just for themselves but for their families – we sang “Bread and Roses” last week, remember – the Occupy Wall Street movement is not about those in the street but about the great majority who have paid for the economic slump with lost homes, lost investments, and especially lost jobs. They are saying, in essence “Too few have too much, and too many have too little.”

Like women a century ago who marched in the streets for the vote, or the Bonus Marchers of 1932, or the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City of 1968, they use their presence to say - quoting Arthur Miller now - “attention must be paid.” Their presence is their power. That’s why they camp out. After all, when you do not have enough money or status to get political attention, what you have is your body, your presence.

The power of people massed together is very old. A lovely coincidence is that Sukkoth is happening this week – the ancient feast of booths or huts. Jews today create a shelter in which they live part of each day, to re-enact the commandment to come to the temple for seven days. Over time the act of camping out there reminded them also of the time in the wilderness. Now, one part of this ancient ritual was to bring an etrog, which is a lemon like fruit, as an offering.

Once, during the corrupt reign of the Hasmoneans, something happened after the writing of the Torah. The high priest and king showed contempt for the people assembled by pouring a sacred libation of water onto the ground instead of into a golden flagon. They people were so incensed at this insult that they pelted him with citrons. Sadly, this was precisely what the king Alexander Yannai wanted, and used the reaction as a reason to order in the troops to stop the riot, slaughtering 6000 Judeans. Ultimately, it started a civil war.

I am not playing the grim prophet here as much as saying that actions – rituals and protests and such – can and do speak more loudly than words.

When multitudes act, we want to know what they mean, or we dismiss the actions as meaningless when there are no words. I think of Melville’s innocent hero Billy Budd who reacted to the cruel and evil words of Claggart by striking him. When asked why he cannot find words to explain it.

What do we do that is louder than words? Last week I asked how many of us could be ‘convicted’ of being religious liberals based on the evidence, on our deeds. I ask myself that question, often. What do I do that lives and proclaims my faith?

Black Americans used their churches to organize boycotted Montgomery Alabama buses for a year. The Roman Catholic mothers of the plaza major marched in Buenos Aires every week for ten years and brought down a government. Others act, why not us? In the Christian lectionary this week, Paul says, “in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.” (I Thess.) What can we do that speaks so loudly and clearly that no one has to explain it?

Yes, it is pledge time and you can give money, for we certainly need it to sustain this church. Yes, we need members to lead and serve because that is how we get things done around here. But I am asking a deeper, harder question: which deeds should we be doing that preach our gospel?

Here’s a hint. James Luther Adams, a fundamentalist turned Unitarian taught generations of seminarians including me. He coined something called The Tmperature Test of Faith. Whenever your moral heat rises in resistance or protest, something sacred to you is at stake. When you do it for others and not yourself, it is even more likely. American women did it in 1920 to save their children’s lives. The women in Half The Sky did it as much for their children as themselves. Occupy Grand Rapids and Occupy Wall Street is doing it to demand attention for those who are being left out in the grand debates about debts and deficits and taxes.

When Occupy Grand Rapids came to me for help I felt my moral temperature rising. I knew it was right, even if I could not explain it at that moment. I have since reflected on what I felt was at stake.

It is not that they are right, but what they say needs to be said because it is not being heard as loud as the more powerful voices that have the ear of power. My duty was and is to lend my support to those who are overlooked or ignored or dismissed by those in power. You and I are among those who have much. Not all of us, but many of us. We have power that the poor, dark, female, gay, immigrant, infant, old, the unemployed and the disabled do not have. We also know that liberty and justice belong to everyone in equal measure because that’s what democracy means; and it is religious because we know that all of us are precious, everyone, for we are all needed to save this world.

Closing the distance between what is now and what ought to be is our duty, our mission, our task, the work we must do. Whenever we witness power being used to suppress, deny, ignore, exploit, we cannot remain silent or still. Whenever we see people demanding their voice and place, we cannot remain silent or still. Because it violates our core belief in spiritual, moral, and political equality.

Every week our welcome says, “we seek to be what Isaiah called ‘a house of prayer for all people,’” something Jesus quoted when he chased the corrupt money changers in the temple. Occupy Wall Street is saying the same thing. They are challenging the corruption of the public temple of justice, the universal temple of equality, by those who wish to be more equal than others. Their presence - Occupy - is a scourge and a thorn, a rain of etrogim.

They are doing what we should do, and our duty is to stand up with them as well as we can. This is our gospel, after all, and when others preach it we should do so with them, with our lives more than our words.

15 October 2011

Becoming the Bogeyman

As you can tell by reading Around the World, Protests Against Economic Policies - NYTimes.com, a few million people are a little annoyed.

I spent time last Saturday and this with our local Occupy outpost. They are far from the size or shape or impact of the Wall Street bunch, but the assortment ranges from Young Adults who can’t get decent work to Seniors who see their retirement dissolving, to aging denizens of the 1960’s, and those who just cannot shake the sense that the status quo is just wrong.

While it is loose and shaggy and anything but coherent in form, it is not what some of those on Wall Street think. There is an article about what the bankers and such are saying when no one is taking names.. Click on the photo (I hope).

For a lot of years you could call someone a socialist or communist and that would scare others and them. I think that may be changing. The disparity of wealth and power, and the arrogance of those on the powerful side (note how one of those quoted in the article chided senators for not listening to their ‘constituents’ meaning contributors) may make the label socialist or communist less odious than capitalist.

Some years ago, the late John Rechy reported on a bunch of homophobes who decided to scare some gay men by riding by calling them F**s and Queers. It was after Stonewall though. The men looked back and sneered, “Yeah’ we’re queers. So what?”

If things keep going the way they are, the bankers and their followers may one day find out that socialist and communist are no longer scary names. “Yeah we’re commies. So what?” And that, rich friends, will really be scary.

29 September 2011

As The Worm Turns

So I ‘m transferring a bunch of files between computers this morning, a long a tedious process that nonetheless requires regular attention.  In short, a numbing chore.  Between checks I scan the NYTimes of course, and find this article:

Bill Buckner Strikes Again - NYTimes.com by Nate Silver

Anyone who follows baseball even a little knows that it is enthralled by numbers.  The new movie, Moneyball, is all about a chapter in that story.  Nat Silver’s charts and calculations are impressive, especially as that pertain to a sport.  Would that many Americans were as devoted to such calculations applied to the national debt and other economic questions.  Politics would be the better, perhaps.

Anyway, as someone not gifted with numbers or using the principles of algebra, I slogged through Silver’s article until I saw a reference to Bayes’ Theorem.  This took me to an article (hyperlinked for your convenience) that took me to new levels of algebraic esoterica. 

But I was hooked now, and worked my way down the article to where it cites Richard Price, 18th century English clergyman and philosopher, to wit:

“Richard Price discovered Bayes' essay and its now-famous theorem in Bayes' papers after Bayes' death. He believed that Bayes' Theorem helped prove the existence of God ("the Deity") and wrote the following in his introduction to the essay:

"The purpose I mean is, to shew what reason we have for believing that there are in the constitution of things fixt laws according to which things happen, and that, therefore, the frame of the world must be the effect of the wisdom and power of an intelligent cause; and thus to confirm the argument taken from final causes for the existence of the Deity. It will be easy to see that the converse problem solved in this essay is more directly applicable to this purpose; for it shews us, with distinctness and precision, in every case of any particular order or recurrency of events, what reason there is to think that such recurrency or order is derived from stable causes or regulations in nature, and not from any irregularities of chance." (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1763) [3]

In modern terms this is an instance of the teleological argument.”

Of course, I had to read about that.  And so I found myself reading that article, which to my delight ended up citing my friend, the late philosopher,Charles Hartshorne on panentheism. 

So between file transfers and other tedia, I took a walk from the collapse of the Red Sox to the arguments for and against God.  They connect on the matter of chance and probability. 

At the end of it all I think the chances of the the Red Sox failing to make the playoffs is less than the chances there is some sort of divine entity in the universe.  But if that’s so, how can a piece of the universe that we know is true be less likely that a force in the universe that we can’t know is true? 

Let me see, maybe I should click on ontological argument

22 September 2011

Fair is Fair

What is fair?  John Rawls devoted a career to fairness as a political concept (even as he was notably less than fair in his private life I have heard).  It is clearly hard to pin down, and yet like Potter Stewart (or what is Byron White?) who could not define obscenity but knew it when he saw it, fairness is something even five year olds grasp in the negative.  They and we know when something it unfair.

The president has finally, in my opinion, grasped a solid moral handhold in the economic wrestling match over taxes and debts.  His commitment to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire rests on the idea of fairness. 

This fairness, though, is not financial but moral.  In a time when a nation must sacrifice current comforts in order regain strength in the future, everyone must be perceived to be giving up something that matters.  14 million citizens are searching for work and cannot find it.  More have simply stopped looking.  Almost one of five Americans are at or below the poverty level.  And many many more are making do by spending less because incomes are flat and the future is uncertain.  For some, though few, to be not only safe and sound but to be prospering as much as ever, appears to be unfair.

Thus to ask that those who have prospered also sacrifice - as those who are unemployed and uninsured and less secure because of reduced government programs to mitigate those struggles – seems eminently fair.  A nation that places the burdens of nationhood on some and the benefits on others is precisely the moral peril of slavery 150 years ago. 

“The[re] are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

That was Abraham Lincoln in October of 1858.  When 400 families have more wealth than 150,000,000 Americans (half the country) we either do not have a democracy or we do not have a country. 

I say America is a democracy or it is not America.  As all must share in the political task, so all must share in the economic task.  “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  Let those with eyes see, as the man said. 

Taxes, the Deficit and the Economy - NYTimes.com

17 September 2011

Hey, That Was My Idea!

Only I did not do anything about, so all I can do is mope. But the short version is that I have been saying the same thing as this fellow from DC:

Separation of church and state in marriage? - The Washington Post

Why should religion be in the legal marriage business at all? In a nation with an established religion, this makes sense (to the extent that established religions make sense at all). But when religion is separate from the state, formally and legally, then why should clergy have the power to do legal marriages?

As the article says, other nations do this without falling into ruin. A brief study about why such historically religious states as France and Germany now actually prohibit clergy from legally marrying people is a great case study in why separating church and state makes sense. A deeper study of how marriage got to be a religious concession is also informative. Let’s just say that practice existed before theory and law came after that. My DC colleague begs the question of why we should have the legal power at all, and I agree with him.

Now, it was fun when I was a baby clergyman to sign licenses, because it meant I was a ‘real’ clergyman. Now, a credit card and an internet connection can make you as ‘legal’ as any bishop, and in some states anyone can preside over a particular ceremony with the consent of those getting married. The coolness has has been completely lost.

The only reason, theologically that is, for clergy to retain the right to marry people legally is to make that religion’s notion of marriage legal. It is to enlist the state to support with the law a particular religious point of view. If it were not so well established by history it would not pass scrupulous constitutional muster.

I do not expect things to change because one or two folks like me exist. But it may be time to start thinking about why we do it this way, and whether it is wise in lots of ways.

15 September 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 6

So, last time I started talking about taxes, about which everyone has strong feelings and often inchoate reasons for said feelings. 

My idea was to begin over with a simple notion – that people should pay in federal tax in proportion to what they receive of the national income. 

Not hard to understand, but tricky to implement because it means knowing the combined national income and the combined national income tax.  Fortunately, we can know previous national income and federal tax.  All we need do is use those figures.  To make it simple, I say divide the national income into percentiles.  Those at the top will be few, so they will have to pay more per person.  Those at the bottom will be many, so they will be less. 

According to Prof. Wm. Domhoff (citing E.N. Wolff) the top 1% earned 21.3% of the national income in 2006.  The next 19% earned 40.1% of the national income, the remaining 80%, earned 38.6% of the national income.  No doubt if you broke those latter groups out by percentiles the amounts would be even more disparate. 

Now, those at the bottom edge of the 1% are actually closer to the bottom 80% (in income) than they are to the top of the 1%  That’s how steep the curve is.  So we would have to subdivide the top 1% into tenths at least. 

It all sounds very elaborate, but if you presume that there would be no ‘adjustments to income’ or ‘deductions’ because we are being asked to pay our share of taxes based on our share of the income, then all one would need would be W2s and 1099s and other records.  Add them up, plug in the right number that is your position in the national income, and out comes your tax. 

This obviously means we no longer use the tax code to accomplish political purposes, like charitable giving, home ownership, child rearing, and so on.  As a clergyman, homeowner and parent I am a little nervous about this, but the end cost to me will likely be but a little higher than it is now, not vastly.  And it would truly be my share of the common burden. 

With so many feeling so little connection to community and country, one way to remedy that would be to make sure taxes truly exemplify the idea of universal, equitable, responsibility.  If we knew our taxes expected equitable, not equal but equitable, shares from everyone it would be a step, a big one, in the right direction.

So it seems to me. 

09 September 2011

Already Tired…

… of the September 11 coverage that is.  Mostly because all they show is imager of the burning towers, the smoldering pentagon, the collapse, the fire, etc.

This both numbs me and nauseates me.  So I sent the national news networks the following message.  I doubt it will have an effect. 

“Greetings,

Instead of showing footage of burning towers and pentagons over and over, why not show pictures of those who perished? Not only is watching them all the time unnecessary, it sends the implicit message that the attack is more important than those who died in it.

(Rev.) Fred Wooden
Fountain Street Church,
Grand Rapids MI”

Just a thought. 

03 September 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 5

Taxes!

Is there anything that inspires more emotion these days, even more than terrorism. The whole tea party phenomenon is about taxes, as the name Tea Party says. Of course the original Tea Party was not about excessive taxes but unjust taxes, the whole 'no taxation without representation' thing. Which does not mean people like paying taxes, as evasion is as old as taxation itself. I am only saying that the current 'Tea Party' is anti-tax because taxes are the fuel of government, and government is their true adversary.

Fervent anti-taxers like Chief Justice John Marshall's famous observation in 1819 that "the power to tax is the power to destroy," is a touchstone. Those who like the libertarian implications of this notion ought to review the context in which it was said, as it was directed against a state (Maryland) that sought to tax the US Government and thus impede its work. In short, the decision (McCulloch v. Maryland) in which that famous phrase was written actually defends the supremacy of the federal government over the states. Ironic, isn't it?

But in my imaginary campaign the issue of taxes is very real. Who can get elected on a platform of higher taxes and stronger government? Fortunately, this is an imaginary campaign so I can be truly honest. Yes, we need higher taxes and we also need stronger government. Let me tell you why and how.

The debt crisis involved two things - expenditures and revenues. The provisional solution only employed one of them. To pay off the entire debt only by reducing expenditures would require all but closing the government, which in some quarters would prompt thunderous applause, but would in other quarters prompt riots and insurrections. I guarantee that at best it would last only as long as one congress, two years, four years at the most. That's because the costs in human terms would be unbearable to so many that they would choose those who would reverse course. Then the anger would be on the other side, and so it would go.

Sound familiar? We are already there in some ways. So the only path available (aside from suspending democracy entirely in a federal Emergency Financial Manager act that would be essentially a dictatorship) is the 'half a loaf' option. Some expenses get cut. Some taxes get raised. Higher revenues are inevitable. The only question is how much for whom for how long.

I have an answer. And it comes from Adam Smith, the father of free market thinkers. (Surprise!) He wrote:

(Book V. chapter 2) The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expence of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expence of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate.

Proportionality is a ratio, not a number. the tax we pay should be based on where we stand in relation to others in terms of income and wealth, not merely on how much we have.

But we already do that, you say. To an extent. Progressivity is way we do this, asking from those who have more. BUT IS THE CURRENT PROGRESSIVITY PROPORTIONAL TO WEALTH AND INCOME?

No. At the very highest and lowest levels taxes are way out of proportion, and ironically in the same fashion. Those who have very little pay nothing at all in income taxes, which is unwise, but those who have a very great deal pay far too little in income taxes which is also unwise.

I say, let's create a tax code in which we tax people based on how much they have of the national income they have. According to Wikipedia, which is not authoritative but neither is it ideological,

The aggregate income measures the combined income earned by all persons in a particular income group. In 2007, all households in the United States earned roughly $7.723 trillion. One half, 49.98%, of all income in the US was earned by households with an income over $100,000, the top twenty percent. Over one quarter, 28.5%, of all income was earned by the top 8%, those households earning more than $150,000 a year. The top 3.65%, with incomes over $200,000, earned 17.5%. Households with annual incomes from $50,000 to $75,000, 18.2% of households, earned 16.5% of all income. Households with annual incomes from $50,000 to $95,000, 28.1% of households, earned 28.8% of all income. The bottom 10.3% earned 1.06% of all income.
In other words, we should ask for 50 % of taxes from those who had 50% of the income, meaning those with incomes above $100,000, which is 20% of households. So we should ask 20% to pay 50%, $3.86 trillion, that would be proportional. But the top 20% are more spread out in come than the bottom eighty percent so to be really fair in Smith's sense, we have to further divide that 20%.

The top 8% of earners, those who earned more the $150,000, actually got 28.5% of all income, meaning they earned significantly more than the 12% just below them. Their share should reflect their income which would be $2.20 trillion, well more than half of the $3.85, which would be fair. Within THAT group, those earning $200,000 or more earned 17.5% of the national income, which would make their share (in 2007 dollars) 1.31 trillion.

This sound complicated, but the principal is not. You share of federal taxes is exactly your share of the national income. The more you make the more you pay, not based on marginal tax rates or other arbitrary lines, but on your share of the wealth.

Think about how simple this would be, and how objective. You would pay what you make. I know the devil is in the details, and politicians can make a camel from a mouse with their hands tied behind their backs. But this principle has the appeal of the flat tax in simplicity and the fairness a flat tax lacks.

I have some libertarian readers who doubtless will chime in. Please do. But join me in thinking outside the tax box as it now exists, with its awful choice between fairness and simplicity. And yes, I have not considered Social Security or Medicare, or state levies. This I know. Focus on this for now and tell me what you think. But please think. That, it seems to me is most missing in our politics at the moment.

28 August 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 4

Much of the sturm und drang of modern politics comes from unspoken but fundamental differences about what government is for. What if someone, an imaginary candidate like me, were to say what those differences are. Would that help? As the lady once said about the power of chicken soup, “It couldn’t hurt.”


The real divide in American politics is not democrat and republican or even liberal and conservative, but libertarian and communitarian. Five years ago I wrote about this elsewhere, but in a nutshell (always a dangerous place because a nut lives there) it comes down to this:


Libertarians see individuality as primary and community as secondary and subordinate to it. Communitarians see community as primary and individuality and secondary and subordinate to it.


The more fervently one is about either, the more intensely the belief that individual or community is fundamental. This morning I happened upon Sam Harris’s blog. He is the notorious atheist, about as libertarian as one could imagine, or at least you might think so. But look what happened when he suggested that community has value even to individuals: The Blog : How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying) : Sam Harris


America swings from one to the other, and like a pendulum, when it gets far to one side it begins to be drawn back to the center, swinging off to the other side and so on, back and forth.


Right now, we are swinging past individuality, toward individualism; that is, toward an ideological belief that the individual is “sacred.” The logical end of this thinking is that community is at best immaterial, but at worst is destructive of individuality, making it virtually “demonic.”


America has succeeded, though, by embracing both. The tension between individual and community is not bad but good, and ultimately healthy. Too much of either is what is really demonic. Half a century ago we were coming out of a time of excessive community, which was the springboard of the beats, the hippies, and the sexual revolution. A half century earlier unions and others fought for social welfare in response to the fabled ‘robber barons.’ Look back and roughly every fifty years we are at the far end of one or the other idea of America.


I believe government exists to preserve the healthy tension between libertarian and communitarian ideas of America. The function of government in a democratic society, therefore, is to mitigate volatility and inequity. Too much of either makes for chaos, too little of either makes for tyranny. And a healthy government will consist of people who may prefer one but recognize the need for both.


This was precisely the reason why we have the Constitution and not the original Articles of Confederation. And we should elect people who understand this tension even as they may prefer one or the other notion.

25 August 2011

Stumbling

So I was interviewed today by a local TV station for a 9/11 retrospective.  I actually pitched the story and got three good bites.  Locals can watch the news tomorrow evening, Friday Aug 26.  Tell me what you think.

Because I am not watching.  I am having a little pity party this evening because I was not happy with my interview.  Nothing embarrassing or bad, just not good enough. 

I thought I was pretty good at words – speaking and writing.  Of late, however, I am far less certain.  Written sermons from months back look pretty lame, and judging by my blog readership (check those stats lately?) I lack the zip or snazz or eloquence that makes for major readership. 

What’s really missing is the great phrase, that satisfying burst of words that really captures something.  I see them all the time while reading others in magazines and books (who are published after all, which only proves how ham handed my writing is, right?)

My grownup self knows that this is a common writer/preacher goblin.  And it also knows that eloquence is a false god in the end.  But right now I am willing to sacrifice something to propitiate it  (animal, vegetable, mineral?) on the chance that it might exist and is po’d at me for some reason.

22 August 2011

Scared?

Me too.  Actually, not scared.  Worried that everyone else is.  Let me pause in my neo-federalist manifesto to make a short observation about our times.

A whole lot of what is making our times tough is the virus of fear.  Stock markets gyrate,  war rages, famines prosper, and that makes us all uncertain about the immediate future.  Who can be blamed for feeling scared? 

But fear is also a fuel to what already frightens us.  As hokey and clichéd as it sounds, FDR was right when he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. 

Meanwhile, our leaders fall into two groups – those who accuse other leaders of not being leaderly, and those who place blame on others for making us afraid.  In both cases, they abrogate their own leadership because the one sure fact I know about leadership is that all leadership is emotional leadership.  If leaders are afraid or angry, the people they lead will be frightened and angry. 

The only answer to fear is hope. What people are asking for is a reason to hope and a way to act on that hope.  Notice, I did not say ‘hope’ by itself. They need a reason, something more than wishful thinking, to be hopeful. 

There is reason for hope.  Everything we need, as a nation, we already have.  We have the land, the people, the means, the liberty, even the money.  None of our problems are due to something we lack. Except one thing. The commitment to do it. 

Why?  Because we see quite clearly what we would lose personally, but not what we would gain collectively.  And that’s because we have lost our collective vision, our sense of sharing in something worth living and sacrificing for. 

The answer to our fear is a hope so strong that we all willingly sacrifice to make happen;  like parents who sacrifice their own desires for the sake of their children. 

This fall, my church will again ask for pledges to fund its ministry.  For the fourth year in a row I will lower my compensation and raise my pledge.  Not the Ayn Rand sort of thing to do.  But I do it because these are my people, and their strength and health are as important to me as my own.  Is there a vision of America that can do that for you? 

Tell me.  If we wait for our leaders we will wait a very long time.  The president said “we really are the people we have been waiting for.”  Perhaps we should take him up on that.

20 August 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 3

Money. The mother’s milk of politics, the real third rail of politicians.  Without it a politician is powerless, and the more one has the more power one has as well.  Sort of.

By now it is obvious that inflation is rising, at least in political campaigns.  The price only gets higher with each election.  And so does the need to raise more money.  Inevitably this means asking for big checks from big people, who (business people that the are, regardless of their formal business) expect something in return.  The politician in turn pays a double price – the promise made to the giver and the betrayal of the actual voters whose interests are not served by the politician who elected him/her.

Money is also the lifeblood of government, which is why it is so important to both liberals and conservatives.  Liberals want government to do things, and that requires money.  Conservatives want government to stop doing things, and that requires depriving it of money.  Ironically, each confirms the dread of the other.  Any wonder we are stuck?

How to get unstuck then?  Here are three ideas.

1. Take the money out of campaigns, or at least make it less powerful.  I mentioned this last time, suggesting that we limit campaign length and the amount of media time it consumes. 

Wait!  Doesn’t that constrain free speech?  Yes, but so does Robert’s Rules or just raising your hand in school.  When groups deliberate, and an election is a deliberation, there need to be ground rules like taking turns and sharing time and answering questions and so on.  The right to speak does not extend to the right to do all the speaking, or even a majority of it, or to speak anonymously or unaccountably.  Whenever the president makes a speech, be it a Saturday radio address or the State of the Union, the other party gets to respond.  That’s fair.  Why should campaigns to win those offices be any less fair?

2. Publish tax returns of all federal and state elected officials, including the year they first run for that office.  Those who ask for the people’s confidence should be will to show they are worthy of it.  We think it acceptable to poke around in their sex lives, but in reality their financial lives are more germane. 

Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great power power comes great responsibility,” and that means being held responsible.  Between elections how shall the citizens know their officials are being honest?  Showing their stake, their relative wealth and poverty, is part of being accountable for their actions.  If you can’t explain your tax return to the voters, chances are that you are not someone they would elect if they knew. 

3. Make all advocacy groups and other PAC-like objects reveal who supports them and how much.  No anonymous politicking.  Democracy requires sunlight to live.  When campaigns are being funded and aided by groups with innocuous names (Americans for Progress, for example) that conceal both their mission and their supporters, democracy becomes impossible. 

Texas Governor Perry has made much of his Boy Scout experience, which I celebrate as a former Boy Scout and the father of two scouts including an Eagle Scout.  The first word of the Scout Law is ‘Trustworthy.’  American politicians have lost the trust of the people.  To regain it requires making amends by being more accountable, more transparent. 

These are three easy steps.  Let’s see a show of hands.

17 August 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 2

 

If, as we so often hear, insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the American voter is insane because every two years we hold elections and think things will be different. 

As I said last time, until we do politics differently we will have the same old politics.  And if we think those in office now will make those changes we are truly insane, because those in power now got there because of the current ‘system.’  Nobody voted themselves out of power.

That means the problem is not ‘in the stars’ as Shakespeare said, but in ourselves, we the voters.  And only we can change the system.  It is we who approve of the current political mess by colluding with it.  Why?

Because we have forgotten how to be citizens.  The only effective and lasting way to change politics and politicians is to change the citizenry.  That’s what I would stake my candidacy on, for without an informed, engaged, and committed citizenry we are not a democracy. 

But how? 

1.  Make civics and history as important as reading and mathematics.  Schools are not primarily vocational schools to train us for work.  They are foremost citizenship schools to prepare us for taking part in our a democracy.  That’s why we have publicly funded schools in the first place. 

I remember learning about the Constitution – even memorizing the Preamble (which I assert is the mission statement of the federal government).  How many even know there is a Preamble, or that the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation (which a lot of Tea Party folks would approve in principle but which was a failure as effective government)? 

Lack of knowledge about our government means people honestly think the President passes bills and declares war, which are congressional tasks.  Lack of knowledge therefore means voters make uninformed decisions, unable as they are to tell fact and from opinion and polls from truths. 

NCLB “No Child Left Behind” should yield NCLB, “No Citizen Left Behind.” 

2.  Make news organizations non-profits.  The era of newspapers is ending, we all know, and now our news comes largely from entertainment corporations who are primarily interested in making money by getting readers and watchers to whom they can advertise.  They are innately compromised because their purpose (to make money) is at odds with their mission (to inform the public). 

I believe news organizations, print or electronic, ought to be non-profit corporations that serve the mission of a free press first and the need to make money second.  We already have two examples in NPR and PBS.  Their news systems are superior to every other network in breadth, length, and depth.  Despite what some say, they are scrupulously non-partisan.  But there is nothing like it on the local level. 

The press alone has the power to call government to account, but if the press abrogates that task because it is not profitable, then government goes unchallenged.  Inevitably government becomes corrupt, and ultimately can become tyrannical.  Laws will not prevent it, not even constitutions.  Only a press that champions the whole truth no matter who it offends or what it costs, can do this.

3. Campaigns must be shorter and fairer.  I know that this rankles libertarians, but the market is not the forum.  The candidate with the deepest pockets wins because he/she can buy more ads and the other fellow.  If you go to a debate, we don’t allow the candidate with more money more time to speak?  Why?  Because voters need to hear from all sides equally.  How can we make a sound decision if one side dominates the election? 

But this is the way things are, so parties and candidates raise enormous sums from very deep pockets so they can dominate the airwaves.  To raise that money they make promises to those who can write large checks, further compromising their integrity.  But that’s the price of politics.

Only if we let it continue.  the SCOTUS ruling called ‘Citizens United’ is not immutable.  We can say, ‘only a month before the elections,’ ‘only 20% of advertising time,’ ‘no more than 50% for any candidate or party,’ ‘all donors made public.’  These are all possible.

4.  National Service.  If I fought for any one thing this would be it.  We have lost a sense of common cause and common good, replaced with a wild west individualism that makes any notion of civic responsibility naïve.  But a free society utterly depends on the citizens taking responsibility for the common good, by voting, paying taxes, obeying the law, and taking part in the larger service of country.

I say everyone owes their country 2 years of service.  In the past it has been military, and should still be but not only that.  Americorps and Peace Corps, and Teach For America also produce people who have sacrificed for the common good.  They are better people and better citizens.

If everyone, no exceptions now, gave the nation 2 years of service we would have an immensely richer country in many ways.  First, we would be better informed.  Experience is a great teacher. We would be more connected, as meeting new people expands our circle of involvement.  We would be more competent, as the skills we acquired then, often life skills like patience fortitude and other ‘lions,’ last a lifetime.  We would be more grounded, as serving others keeps us humble. 

Youth is a great time to do this, but what if we could also do it later?  Retired people have wisdom to share.  How better than in service to one’s nation.  And imagine the benefit of CEOs and garbage collectors working side by side as cafeteria aids in a school. 

That’s my vision of what I would try to do if I were a candidate for Congress, and if for some reason I actually got elected.  Put simply, I would focus on forming “a more perfect union.”  We have not been so disunited since the years before the Civil War.  The sense of common cause and common hope and common commitment is getting smaller every day.  Without this nothing else can be done. 

That’s what I think at least.  What do you think?

(Next time: Follow the Money)

Waiting for Mr. Obama - We Need a Jobs Agenda - NYTimes.com

14 August 2011

Imagine That I Am Running For Congress

 

Now, imagine that I am an idiot.  But I repeat myself.

Paraphrasing Twain is important, dear reader, because this is a truly imaginary exercise. I am going to pretend I am a candidate because what I want to hear from a candidate is not remotely likely to emerge. 

That’s because these days no one in politics is anywhere near honest or sensible when it comes to the task of governing.  They do, say, whatever it takes to win, because It is all a game, a very expensive game, and the prize is power. 

It is also an industry.  Like baseball, politics may be a game, but in the end it is a for profit industry and we, the citizens are at most means to the power not an end in ourselves.  And that’s precisely the problem.  The usual suspects are engaged in a perpetual boxing match, which we the citizens watch and yell about.  In this prizefight, though, when they hit each other we bleed.

Do I sound angry?  Well, who isn’t these days?  Anger is a great motivator, of course, as the Tea Party proves.  But it is not wholly owned by conservatives or libertarians.  These days, everyone is angry at politics and politicians.  What I also know is that anger may get you moving, but hope keeps you going.  Right now, there is no vision of hope out there that makes people want to do the hard work – and I mean citizens not politicians.  For this much I am sure about: we get the leaders we earn, and for some time we the people have been phoning it in when it comes to doing our civic duty. 

That’s why my imaginary campaign begins with a call to citizenship.  If we want better politicians we need better citizens.  Sure, we could elect new folks, and we will, but until we expect more and better from those we elect, we will just be drinking the same political kool-aid from different color cups.  Real change in DC or Lansing requires real change from us.

Step One:  End the Game.  Politics is a business, an industry, which does not care who is elected and long as the operatives, advisors, pollsters, media consultants, and so on get work. 

Joe Nocera shared an idea from his column recently, not his own.  Howard Schultz says we the people ought to sign a pledge – no more campaign contributions.  Great idea, I have my doubts.  Those who leave the field leave it to whoever remains.  It amounts to resignation. 

Find people worth supporting.  America Elect is another idea, that seeks to nominate a president without parties at all.  This has a flaw, too,  Even if it worked, a president without a party would be even more powerless than the current president, as I have noted before.  Like it or not parties are how votes are gathered and laws made. 

What we need are people willing to run for congress and legislature who are worth supporting with our money because they are not packaged by the election industry.  But to that means they do not stand a chance of winning.

Exactly my point.  We need people who reject the horse race, prizefight, sports industry culture of politics.  Such people are not interested in winning but in serving. 

That’s why I am doing this.  I am such a person.  The idea of actually being elected gives me the willies.  But the idea of campaigning for ideas, for visions, for hope, in honest words not massaged by pollsters or scripted by consultants, just telling people what you think and hope, that appeals to me.

I did some research.  The game is rigged in many ways.  Getting onto a ballot takes money and work, like gathering signatures. What sort of person has that kind of time and money on his/her own?  You could run for one of the smaller parties.  That takes less personal work, but they have lots of baggage, often being rather marginal and weird.  That means working within the two major parties, who helped create the game. 

We need people who are willing to stand for hopeless races – political Don Quixotes, St. Judes, Jonathan Kennedy O’Tooles – to be candidates for positions the other party has locked up (which is how the game works, remember) and then refuse to play by the rules.

A mentor of mine (via his writings) Edwin Friedman, said that the best way to change a stuck system was to ‘defect in place.’  That is, be part of the system but refuse to collaborate with it. 

That’s what we need.  We need Democrats who are fiscally sensible and Republicans who are genuinely compassionate, people who know the other side is not the adversary but the other partner, who know that democracy presumes that no ideology is perfect and no party is infallible, who see elections are choices people make about America and not about who is right or wrong.

That’s not all we need to do to end the game of course, but without that nothing else will happen. 

Next time: creating a nation of citizens not customers or even taxpayers. 

12 August 2011

Mirror, Mirror

Dear Reader,

Were you pretty?  I mean back in high school when how you looked began to matter?  I wasn’t.  Still not for that matter.  Not that it does matter, but this morning as I was walking back from the gym, my glasses down my nose so I can read as I go, I see a remarkably pretty woman coming the other way.  She did not see me. 

After she passed, I thought, “She’s pretty and she knows it.”  Her clothes, face, attitude radiated the knowledge that she was attractive, very attractive.  And I wondered what that felt like.

To explain why I wondered. I was very aware of my unattractiveness.  At best I could be called rugged. At best, means if the light was right and I did not smile too widely. if I spoke, my broken glass voice would ruin any hint of visual appeal. 

Forty years later, I have not changed all that much.  Thanks to years of healthy living, mostly, I am thinner than I was then.  Since most of the good looking boys then have added a few pounds, lost some fair or otherwise decayed, this means I am more attractive for my age than some originally handsomer fellows. That feels good, and I get some moral advantage, because whatever appeal I have now is the result of effort not nature.  My ultimate goal is to have the coroner look down and say “best looking 100 man you’ll ever see.”

But youth lingers in the mind long after it vanishes in body.  I can readily decay into self pitiful adolescent pouting.  How about you?

So humor my neurosis and tell me: Does knowing you are attractive (male or female) affect you the way knowing you are unattractive affects you?  Yes, I know that some of you who are attractive did not know it or believe it.  But some of you did.  You seemed so confident, so sure, so powerful. 

Tell me what it was or is like to have people attracted to you and that you can or could choose from an array of romantic or personal or sexual partners.  Tell me truly,  was it, is it cool? 

Because now, forty years later, when I see pictures from my youth, I still cringe.  And I wonder what it would be like not to feel that way.

08 August 2011

What Ocean Is This?

Dear Reader,

If a rising ride lifts all boats, an ebbing tide should lower all boats. But despite a very ragged economic week it seems that the larger boats are still afloat while the smaller ones are swamped and tipping.

The trouble with analogies is that they rarely work under all circumstances. Yes, we 'recovered' from the Great Recession, technically, but most of that recovery landed on those who were already employed (including me) and those with abundant resources beyond employment (less true of me).

Such an uneven, lopsided recovery meant that when the tide went out again, as it has done this past week, it turns out we actually had two oceans - one for big boats and another for small ones. The big boats were in a deeper ocean; they dipped but did not go aground. The smaller ones were in the shallower ocean; when the tide fled again they landed on the mudflats.

The cost for the latest market contraction will mean more unemployment. True, those who have much will lose much, but it is unlikely they will lose it all. For those, however, whose $30k job is all they have, losing a job means losing everything. The good news, as only a cynic would call it, is that they won't be lonely.

At some point, if nothing changes for a while, the folks in the smaller boats will climb onto the big boats. They will not be "asking" for help.

So you guys in the big boats, think hard about what would be worse: sharing the tide, or losing the boat.



06 August 2011

Count Your Tomatoes

Yes, Dear Reader...

More from the lazy garden. Neglected the weeds all week, being quite humid and having a lot of work to do. The first week of every month some church folk go down and lift a few signs for marital justice. Our new "honk if you support gay marriage" got some honks, too. More than one from a garbage truck, which must mean something but I am not sure what.

Attacked weeds this morning before the rains came, and harvested some tomatoes and lettuce and a respectable green pepper. Not bad for doing almost nothing. Truly, nature does most of the work. The trick is working out exactly how much I need to add.

This helps stave off the easy despair of a wretched political week. It would be easy for most of us to just give up. And perhaps that is what some would wish. The less likely ordinary people are to exercise their role and power, the more likely the few with intense agendas will exercise theirs.

Therefore I conclude I must be involved. But compassed about as I am by so great a cloud political gnats, each one buzzing their story or analysis or agenda or platform, it is hard both to stand it or to get one's bearings.

Amid all the posturing and posing and blaming I have come to believe that anger and fear are powerful forces but not lasting ones. We don't like feeling that way and so we cannot sustain them long term. Hope lasts, but is less powerful.

The first is like weeding, quick and violent and brutal. In one hour I can undo a week's growth. But even I have to sleep. Hope is like nature, slow, even weak, but relentless. I do not see the grass growing in the hour I am out there, but it is growing and never stops.

Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called "God Bless The Grass," which helps me at times like these. Here they are and may they strengthen your soul for the work we have to do:

God bless the grass that grows through the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that's gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man's door,
And God bless the grass.

01 August 2011

Time For Another Episode...

of The Lazy Gardener!

Dear Reader,

Things are growing well in my goofy garden. Not because I am so attentive, as you well know. I visit my patch only now and then, because it has been quite reliably hot this summer. And guess what? That seems to be the new normal.

( Though conservative pols say it ain't so, it's officially warmer now. Yes, our own West Michigan Weather Service has revised normal temps upward. Not based on biased vice presidential opinion though, but on local facts. The whole climate change thing reminds me of a story about a state legislature that officially made 'pi' 3.14. I suppose the lesson of King Canute must be learned over and over.)

Anyway, my neighbors are away for the weekend, and they asked us to water their flowers and vegetables, and to help ourselves as well. Which I did a little while ago.

I am humbled. Their beets have leaves like palm fronds, as does their chard. Good thing I don't like them, but still it is impressive. They have two varieties of basil that are all but quivering with growth - glossy green and black/purple leaves. Tomatoes are growing above the 6 foot tall cages so that they loomed over me. While down below the broccoli and squash spread in fat abandon.

I thought of my little yard, identical to theirs in size, and how we have one determined basil, some half-hearted peas, a sprawly lazy tomato that refuses to climb the trellis I set out. You can tell I am jealous.

What is it about us that we so readily compare and compete? Of course, they would have a better garden. They work at it more. (And they use plant food which we don't)

If I had beets I wouldn't eat them anyway, and what little we have is plenty for us in our whirlwind life of pressing indolence. But even so I felt the twinge of competition.

I know that in the purity of a free market defined world everything is a market and everything is competitive. But I just don't like it. It reminds me of a friend our elder son had 20 years ago when they were little boys. He made everything a competition, even boasting that his bowl of chicken noodle soup had more noodles and that he could eat his faster.

Who said that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Fundamentalisms of all kinds tell us everything can be reduced to one thing - Bible, Constitution, Markets, Oppression, Sex. Even if one of them is right, which seems very unlikely, it would make for a very unhappy life I think.

Kind of like a vegetable garden that only had beets.

30 July 2011

Looking For My Political 'Zen'

Dear Reader.

Once again I am seeing the truth of Oscar Wilde's observation, to wit, "They whom the gods would punish are granted their prayers." For some time I have lamented the lack of interest most people have in civic matters. Oh, they rouse for elections but in general (I muttered smugly to myself) but for the most part they are uninterested in civic questions.

Then came the debt ceiling debacle. People are aroused all right, but mostly (according to NPR at least) in sympathy with the "tea party" notion that compares national fiscal circumstances with a family budget. I believe this is a bad comparison, though understandably attractive. For one, governments can raise or lower their income at will, through taxes, while families can only spend what they can earn. Families in tough straights generally make sure the kids are fed and clothed, but the conservative plan to limit spending would cut back on education and such rather than ask more from the grownups.

I could go on, but the point is that people are engaged but not as I naively hoped. Hence Wilde's insight.

And that makes me crazy. Anyone (intelligent, of course) can see that I am right and they are wrong, that cutting budgets and not raising revenues is not only simplistic but draconian, and that the nation will be the worse for it. Right?

Then I remember two things.

1) I am still a human being, and thus just as likely to be wrong as anyone else. Yes, I believe in my values and principles and therefore think they would work for others, but even if they are I am far from perfect in living them or understanding them. My duty is not to teach others how right or wrong they are but to live more thoroughly by the principles I espouse and let my life teach more than my words.

2) I should not mistake my hopes and dreams for that of the nation or the world. Certainly I hope they overlap, a lot in fact, but no one died and made me the leader of the world. Whatever good I can do is not mine to define. Sure, I can stand up and speak out, and should, but whether others listen or care is up to them. And if they do, it is not due to my excellence and if they do not it is not due to their intransigence.

In other words, I need a more 'zen' attitude, to use a poor term. Buddhism teaches us to live with integrity by freeing ourselves from attachments to the world. Do good because it is good, not because people will approve. Speak and live with integrity for its own sake, not because you are right and want others to follow you.

In this contentious time, when it seems that success goes to those who believe in their own rightness and are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, it is tempting to do just that. But my gut tells me that this is the wrong path. What, though, is the right way? I confess I am not sure.


24 July 2011

A Little Outrage On Your Sundae?

Dear Reader,

This is been a tough week for those who are believe in democracy. Our ‘best and brightest’ stomp about like cheated children, more worried about what they will lose than what we will lose. But the week started out badly when in my local newspaper, the only major daily we have, the following letter appeared. I shorten it only to save time and space. Reacting to the effort of some local politicians to pass an equal access ordinance for LGBT people in a nearby city, J. B. Wright said, in the July 17th edition,

“This immoral and dysfunctional behavior should not be validated by any city official or clergyman, since it only helps preserve this sordid and unnatural sexual conduct by recognizing it as normal. The four council members and clergyman (not yours truly btw, but a colleague I know) wish to preserve and celebrate the essence of this most decadent and perverted lifestyle… by patronizing these misguided deviants. This behavior must be interpreted as abnormal and socially revolting. I am not suggesting that we expel them to a remote island, but neither do we need to excuse and accept this perverted, vulgar lifestyle.”

I would like to direct you to the online version to verify this but when I asked the webmaster for the newspaper where to find it she replied, I was told they do not post letters to the editor.

You need to see this to understand my response, which I sent to the newspaper on Monday, July 18th. Here it is:

“To the Editors,

I am sorely disappointed in you, the editors the GR Press, for ignoring your responsibility to maintain a civil public discourse in the Public Pulse. While wide and passionate differences are both inevitable and tolerable, the letter from J. B. Wright in the July 17the Pulse went beyond stating a point to character assassination and outright bigotry.

I am sure, and fervently hope I am right, that a letter speaking in similar ways of African-Americans or Catholics or Muslims or Jews would not be published (“Immoral, dysfunctional, sordid, unnatural, deviant, decadent” and “perverse” all appeared in Wright’s letter.) That you permit such letters when they speak of LGBT citizens distresses me. Indeed, I sincerely doubt that the other organs of the local press such as radio or television would allow such vitriolic language to be shared in their forums, knowing it would be roundly condemned. Is it only the absence of outrage that allows this?

If so, I call upon my colleague clergy to join me and demand that the GR Press refuse to publish letters that insult, inflame and belittle any fellow citizens. Differences of political opinion that cannot be expressed without character assassination are unacceptable in a free society. If the GR Press will not say so, then I do and ask others to speak up too. The local press in all forms needs to model respect for all our citizens, and that includes demanding that those who speak out through their publications are themselves respectful of others. A free nation and a free press must do this or we lose the mutual respect citizens must for a free society to live.

To J. B. Wright who I surmise founds his antipathy on religious bases, if the entirety of the Bible is authoritative, then Matthew 7 and 18 are as incumbent as Leviticus 18 and Romans 1. When you have mastered the former, then you may be qualified to speak on the latter.

Yours Truly,

W. Frederick Wooden, Senior Minister
Fountain Street Church
Chair, GR Urban League
member, West Michigan ACLU Advisory Board”

The Press declined to publish my letter. Hence this post. I suspect it will take more than one inconsequential pastor to get their attention.

Maybe you would like to try. The email address for the managing editor is: pkeep@grpress.com