Archive for November, 2009

Thanksgiving Humbug

November 26, 2009

As I prepare to go to bed and wake up to Thanksgiving Day, I realize what a curmudgeon I must appear to many folks.  I don’t preach to secular holidays (which means Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, etc.).  And being the introvert that I am (or is it the emotionally cauterized person that I am?  I can never remember when to use which one!) , my experience of these holidays is on the – well, how shall I put it – subdued side.

I’m thankful, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been blessed far beyond my deserving of blessing.  Far beyond what I could ever have dreamed, or earned, or deserved, or merited.  I am woefully inadequately expressive of my thanks for these blessings more often than not.  But I am grateful.  Upon occasion, demonstrably so.  But as I prepare to begin Advent this Sunday, and as I prepare to share Thanksgiving tomorrow with my wife and children and my parents, I can’t help but feel that we all miss the boat.  Not that we’re wrong to be grateful for the things we typically think about on this day.  Not that we shouldn’t be grateful for family, for religious freedom, for house and home and food on the table and yipping dogs at the heels.  Not that we shouldn’t give thanks for closets of clothes and vehicles (even damaged ones awaiting the laborious process of insurance claims).  It’s just that all of these things, well, pale

That rowdy Reformation rocker Martin Luther once penned some of the most true – and least comforting – lyrics ever to be warbled and suffered through by successive generations.  When writing about the attacks that a Christian might have to endure by the enemy Satan, Luther wrote:

And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife.
Let these all be gone.  They yet have nothing won.
The kingdom ours remaineth.

Luther probably was a bit of a killjoy around the homestead, but he hits the nail on the head.  Not that I’m not grateful for all of these things, but whether I have them or lose them, what matters most of all, the deepest thing for which I am bound to be eternally grateful, is the salvation that I have through the grace of God by faith in Jesus Christ. 

Oh yes, well.  Certainly so.  Definitely need to remember to be thankful for that as well.  Just makes a bit of an awkward Hallmark card, is all.

We all mouth it.  We all tack it on when we remember or are reminded about what matters most of all.  And that’s just the problem.  It’s so rarely forefront in our minds.  When the turkey is cooking and the family is chattering away (or occupied elsewhere giving us a moment of peace and quiet!), when the football game is on or the Macy’s Day Parade, when all of these beautiful, wonderful things surround us, it’s so easy to forget, or to at least focus less on the gift that we receive in Jesus Christ.  A gift that we anticipate next week with the arrival of Advent, and which we’ll celebrate in full on December 25. 

Anything I have or enjoy or treasure or appreciate is only possible through Him.  Without Him, it doesn’t matter what else I have.  With Him, I could lose everything and still find a peace and strength to carry on.  Thanks requires an object, it requires someone or something to whom we give thanks – something our culture tries very hard to avoid thinking about.  Without that grounding, we might as well celebrate Pat-Yourself-On-the-Back Day.  Or Pretend-That-Life-Is-Good-Day.  Or Imagine-Your-Life-Has-Meaning-Because-Your-Philosophy-Says-It-Doesn’t-Day.  We could celebrate a lot of things, but not thankfulness in the traditional sense of the word. 

So this Thanksgiving, my prayer for myself and my family and for you and your family is that you enjoy that turkey or tofu or gluten-free roll or organic cranberry loaf or whatever it is that is special and delicious and wonderful to you.  That you be genuinely grateful for all of these things.  But that you also remember very clearly, distinctly, perhaps even verbally during the prayer around the table – the One whom we thank, the One who makes all joy possible not just in the here and now but for eternity.  Give thanks for the greatest gift of all – the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Road Risk

November 25, 2009

Thanks to Marie for another very helpful prompt for thinking and rethinking things I take for granted.  This time, driving.  In response to an earlier post of mine mentioning my wife being hit by a drunk driver, Marie had this (in part) to say:

We all take a chance when we drive. I often wonder about how we’ve distanced ourselves from that. Sure, some driving is necessary, but let’s say (and I don’t know the numbers) there’s a one in a thousand chance of getting in an accident each time we get in the car. Would it not make sense that we would structure our lives to minimize time in a vehicle? Each time we get in, should we consider whether the reason we are doing so is worth the risk? When we take jobs or sign up at schools, etc., that require daily commutes, should we factor that in as being as dangerous a health choice as smoking? Especially when you look at populations with low illness and death rates — children are more likely to die in car crashes than of heart attacks, frankly — by driving kids around, we are actually dramatically increasing their chances of being seriously hurt or killed unnaturally early in their lives, and little other in our world has that effect.

I think that there is some really valuable things to think about here.   I know that I take driving for granted, it’s an extension of my personality in some ways, an expression of my independence.  But as you point out, it’s also a documented, statistically verified risk.  I who pride myself on never having smoked think nothing of jumping in the car for a drive, or taking the long way home or to a given destination.  Driving is pitched as a fundamental part of being American, a coming of age rite and right.  But it’s not very effectively talked about in terms of risk, of danger, of the very real potential for lost life or mobility. 

The dangers of driving are often mitigated.  Driving is dangerous if you’re under 25.  Driving is dangerous if you’re drunk.  Driving is dangerous if you’re tired or on prescription medication.  Driving is dangerous if you’re on the cell phone or texting or even just deeply involved in conversation with your passengers.  But driving itself – under normal conditions and situations – is never really talked about as inherently dangerous.  As though hurtling down the road in a hunk of metal that has very real limitations in terms of stopping ability or even control abilities is no big deal.  And as though, even if you’re in the perfect and most focused state of mind and body, you aren’t still at risk from myriad people who are texting, who are talking, who have been drinking, who are on prescription medications, who are too tired. 

I suspect that if the auto industry and all of the associated support industries were not so integral to the US economy, we’d be more open to talking about these very real dangers, and looking for alternate transportation options.  We might look at subways and trains not as options for the less fortunate or others who can’t or shouldn’t drive, but rather viable options for safely getting our spouses and children from one destination to another.  We might see the benefits of designing our cities for transportation options other than just cars and motorcycles.

I’m guilty of ignoring these risks, and guilty of forgetting them all too quickly once the shock of an accident has worn off.  I tremble to think of what it would take to keep me more permanently mindful. 

Fairness and Justice 3

November 20, 2009

All of this talk about fairness and justice leads well into something that I had intended to blog about last week.  A colleague of mine recently sent out a link to this organization – Charter for Compassion – asking myself and some others to critique it theologically.  What is useful?  What is beneficial?  What needs to be challenged or defended against?  You can watch the video, or the text of the video is what is printed on the left-hand side of the page. 

The responses were varied and interesting.  We all recognized that there were theological issues here, but for me the issue was one of determining exactly what was going on.  This kind of stuff plays well.  It sounds good when we first hear it.  We’re inclined to agree with it.  But is it as good as what it sounds?  Here are the observations that came out of this discussion, in no particular order.

1.  This video attempts to redefine compassion.  While asserting that “the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions“, this video makes it clear that not everybody has got it right, and therefore people need to be brought into a common alignment on compassion, as defined and dictated by this group.  This group will be the one to determine what is and isn’t compassion.  Which means that other interpretations which conflict with theirs will be rejected as inappropriate or inadequate.  Hardly what I’d call compassionate.  But then again, what I would call compassion doesn’t matter.  Unless it agrees with them.

2.  This group is attempting to redefine more than simply compassion.  Their definition of compassion will be the standard by which Truth in general is measured.  Being compassionate folks, they aren’t going to tell you that your religion is irrelevant or wrong.  But they will insist that you adhere to interpretations of your religion that agree with their definition of religion.  “We therefore call upon all men and women…to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate“. 

3.  This group seems to be more concerned with religion and morality than compassion. 

4.  Ultimately, this group is not concerned with compassion at all.  I make the argument that compassion is an individual response to another individual and situation, that compassion rightly consists of an initial emotional response, followed by an appropriate action that is  intended to alleviate the suffering of the person we have been moved to compassion for.  Action without emotional impetus may be proper, but not necessarily originating out of compassion.  Emotional response without appropriate action is inadequate and stunted compassion.  I also argue that compassion is an individual rather than corporate experience/emotion.  An organization can be engaged in actions that alleviate suffering, but that organization is not compassionate per se.  The founder may have been moved by compassion, and every individual in the organization may be moved by compassion, but the organization itself is not compassionate.  I also argue that compassion is a specific emotion – a specific emotional/action response to a specific individual in a specific situation.  I may be motivated to work from an incident of compassion, but my work probably is not wholly and completely done in compassion.  As an emotion, it can’t be sustained over periods of time, and what remains is a conviction that what I’m doing has value and purpose and meaning, and is right in some sense of the word, but it probably isn’t compassion any longer.  This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just how we are built. 

With this definition of compassion, what this group is advocating is not compassion, but rather policy designed to help ensure that compassion is the ruling norm.  They aren’t addressing the specific act of compassion, but rather would seek to enforce policy that would make prevent actions or beliefs that they perceive as potentially causing damage that would necessitate compassion.  They aren’t interested in us being compassionate, but in attempting to eliminate the need for compassion at all.  Their language is not the language of responsive love, but the language of policy – “to refrain” from saying certain things.  To make certain beliefs or understandings “illegitimate”.  To “ensure” approved educational materials and processes.  To “cultivate” a desired and predictable response.  To “make” compassion the overriding principle in our world. 

None of this has to do with being compassionate, and everything to do with eliminating undesired behavior that this group believes leads to suffering which may prompt compassion – whether legitimately or illegitimately.  This group is actually focused on issues of justice and fairness – attempting to prevent beliefs and actions which might cause suffering, which would then necessitate some sort of compassion.  But justice and fairness are sticky topics – who can argue with compassion, right?

5.  Having read a fair amount of Ayn Rand at an early age, I’m sensitive to the concept of using need and pity as bludgeons for forcing people to do what someone wants them to do.  And this group states this so very clearly that it could have been ripped right out of
Atlas Shrugged.  While setting themselves up to decide upon the legitimacy of any particular god, this group makes themselves and those they claim to represent into gods.  “Compassion impels us to…dethrone ourselves from the center of our world, and put another there.”  Unless that other is Jesus Christ, nothing good can come of this. 

6.  Theologically, the group clearly has some dangerous attitudes.  They determine what religious interpretations are legitimate or not, based on their definition of compassion – even though they’re arguing that their definition is based in the religious traditions that they’re going to set themselves up as judges over.  Logically inconsistent, and theologically blasphemous.  They set themselves up as gods to judge other gods, effectively displacing any other god in favor of themselves. 


All that being said, I’m all for compassion.  But I’m not for anyone telling me what I need to do to be compassionate (other than God), nor do I trust anyone who insists that I not only accept their definitions and characterizations of compassion, but follow their dictates for attempting to eliminate the need for compassion.  What this group does is make me aware that I’m not compassionate enough, and that my life needs to be more compassionate.  But that this compassion needs to be in line with my overall understanding of truth and the universe.  If my concepts of compassion are not grounded in something beyond myself, then there’s nothing to stop someone else from coming in and telling me that my concepts are wrong and their’s are better because they have celebrity endorsements. 

My understanding of compassion, and my emotional and action responses to the needs of others are guided by God, not by some arbitrary group of people.  My life as a Christian should indeed be characterized by compassion for others.  I’d encourage Charter for Compassion to focus their efforts on encouraging actual compassion and compassionate responses, rather than attempting to demand that people behave in ways and on terms that this group thinks will alleviate suffering.

Fairness and Justice 2

November 20, 2009

My last post had to do with how people instinctively move to minimize their losses, to seek a scapegoat, to even out the experience of reality so that there are no nasty bumps or surprises.  However this is not to say that we are not right to expect a certain modicum of fairness and justice in our interactions with the world.  We may expect it, but we also may be disappointed in it when it isn’t there.

Last night my wife was struck by a drunk driver as she was driving home.  She’s ok, and she was the only one in the minivan at the time.  Without a doubt, this is the most important thing of all.  She’s safe.  Uninjured.   The drunk driver was attempting to make a turn when they apparently lost control, struck and jumped the media separating my wife’s vehicle from theirs, slammed into the side of our minivan and bounced off and down into the car behind her.  The driver immediately leapt out of the car and ran on foot.  He was too fast for anyone to see him, since everyone was still in shock at the accident.  He left behind a passenger in the car who was quite drunk. 

When the police arrived to being sorting things out, it wasn’t long before they indicated that they had found the owner of the car about a block away at a 7-11, extremely intoxicated.  However, since nobody was able to positively identify him as the driver, they couldn’t charge him with anything.  They couldn’t prove that he was the driver, because nobody was able to assert that he was the driver.  Conveniently enough, his passenger refused to identify who was driving the vehicle either.  Which means that the person responsible – while their vehicle may be mangled – has no other legal encumbrances upon them.

Firstly, for the purposes of this post  I’m assuming that the owner of the vehicle who was found at 7-11 shortly after the accident was the driver.  I’m assuming that the passenger knows that this person is the driver, and is intentionally withholding information that might incriminate the driver.

This means that the driver – despite being too drunk to drive safely – was savvy enough to know that if he fled the scene and nobody could identify him as the driver, he wouldn’t be held responsible for the accident.  He was coherent enough to know how to evade responsibility for his actions.  He was coherent enough to understand what was necessary for the preservation of his own well-being. 

He had no idea if there had been anyone else in our minivan.  The other car he struck had only minor damage, but our van was hit pretty solidly.  The driver was more concerned with his own situation than with seeing whether or not his negligence had caused anyone serious injury or worse.  The fact that he was able to engage in the necessary thought processes to get him out of his car and away from the scene of the accident before he could be positively identified tends to demonstrate not simply remarkable mental acuity under pressure, but more likely a conditioned response.  He’s been in this situation before, and has internalized the appropriate actions to preserve his own well being so thoroughly that he can execute them even while extremely inebriated, and even though there are potentially injured people nearby. 

More astounding still, is the fact that the passenger, though also very drunk, was coherent enough of what was necessary to save his buddy that he refused to say anything to the police, despite himself being in handcuffs after the accident – at least briefly.  He didn’t simply refuse to identify the driver, he was so drunk and belligerent that he nearly got himself into an altercation with the officer questioning him.  Again, clearly this guy has internalized the right things to do so thoroughly that he can do them even while drunk, even while under pressure, and even though several other people have been severely impacted by his complicity. 

This certainly is not fair.  And most people would see as legitimate the desire to have the appropriate party held accountable, that restitution be made, that this person be held responsible for their negligence in driving drunk, if only so that they don’t do the same thing tonight. 

What’s the difference between my congregation being stuck with a financial loss for a seminar we hosted, and my family being stuck with a financial loss because of the willful negligence of two other people?  Focus on the Family didn’t intend to hurt my church financially.  And I’m willing to bet that the driver and passenger didn’t set out on their drinking last night, or on their trip during or after their drinking, with the intent to get into an accident.  Intentionality is the same in both these situations, yet in the first situation I don’t see any unfairness, but in the second situation I do.

If the difference isn’t the actual loss, or the intent of the other party, what is the difference?  Is there one?  Is it simply a matter of whether or not the loss is corporate vs. personal?  Do I see unfairness at play only when my pocketbook is directly affected, instead of indirectly affected? 

Or is it a matter of my role in the situation?  In the congregational situation, I entered into the arrangement knowing that there was financial risk involved.  Ought we be held accountable to the same level of active involvement every time we get behind the wheel of a car?  After all, we know there are risks.  We know that we could get into an accident every time we get into a vehicle.  The odds are truly frightening that we will get into an accident not just once in our lives, but multiple times.  This is the third time in less than three years that my wife has been struck by another driver while she was at a complete stop or otherwise not at fault.  The first time totaled a beloved Toyota Echo.  The second time damaged the car we got to replace the Echo.  And this time, our minivan – which is the replacement for that intermediate second vehicle – was damaged. 

So we ought to realize that there are very real risks when we choose to ride or drive a vehicle.  Does this mean that we shouldn’t view being struck by someone else who evades responsibility for their actions as unfair?  What constitutes fairness or unfairness, and what is our appropriate response? 

Hopefully this makes you pause to think about this issue.  It seems like a  no-brainer, and yet it’s difficult once we start examining it to accurately identify what stands out and makes one situation different from another – if indeed there is any difference at all. 

Fairness and Justice 1

November 20, 2009

Our church was a host site for a nationwide live simulcast from Focus on the Family this past weekend.  We participated in another one of these in February.  Being a pretty small congregation, we were tickled pink when 100 people showed up for the event.  For the event this past weekend, only 20 people showed up.  We were disappointed with the turnout, but what can you do? 

Apparently, you can complain.

Which, starting yesterday and Wednesday, is what people began doing.  Other host congregations around the country started chiming in via e-mail, complaining about the low turnouts that they experienced as well, and – in some, but not all cases – wondering whether Focus on the Family could have done something differently, and ought to do something now.  Because these churches paid over $1000 for the right to host the event, not including marketing costs, and the costs of hosting the event in terms of equipment, refreshments, etc.  The idea is that the hosting fee can be recouped by selling tickets.  If this actually works out, then it’s a really good situation for congregations to offer something to the community that they couldn’t on their own. 

If it doesn’t work, you’re out a good chunk of change.  Of course, you’ve still offered something to the community, but that’s easily lost in the shock of a negative bottom line. 

So some folks were complaining and hinting that some sort of restitution might be in order.  Others were defending Focus on the Family, and placing the blame on themselves.  We didn’t pray enough for the event.  While the logic is never explicitly spelled out, the idea is that if they had prayed enough (where enough is pretty much impossible to define, since I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to ever have prayed enough) then things would have turned out differently. 

I finally had to speak my peace, knowing that my theological bent would probably be at a decidedly different angle than most of these other churches.  I pointed out the obvious first – that it’s November, and that nine months of layoffs, cutbacks, foreclosures and other economic mayhem has been at play.  Also, that this is November, and Christmas is breathing down our necks, and if we weren’t worried about money from the recession, we’re worried about how we’re going to make this a Christmas to remember through massive buying of presents. 

In other words, there are lots of very good reasons why people may have decided to take a pass on this event.  It’s not Focus on the Family’s fault for this.   There were no guaranteed attendance levels.  No guarantee that we would recoup our down payments.  They put together a program that they thought would be appealing and helpful to people.  We as churches decided that it looked appealing to us.  You pays your money and you takes your chances.

And, I reminded folks, I undoubtedly could have prayed more for the event.  However, my prayers are not some sort of incantation or silver bullet or whatever other metaphor you’d like to mix.  My prayers may alter reality in some way, but they are not guaranteed to.  God remains God.  I can pray very earnestly and at great length for something, but God decides what to do, or what to let happen.  Assuming that we’re to blame because of a lack of prayer is rather presumptuous – even as I can commend people for the desire to pray more. 

Life isn’t fair.  Life isn’t just.  Life isn’t predictable or scripted or otherwise knowable in the way that investors and stockbrokers and even congregations would like it to be.  Sometimes we try to do good things and suffer for it.  Sometimes we try to do good things and bad things happen instead.  Sometimes we try to do good things and good things happen.  We aren’t in control of the big picture.  All we can do is act faithfully to the best of our ability. 

I trust that the 20 people who showed up on Saturday enjoyed themselves and that they heard the love of Jesus Christ expressed through the simulcast.  I can still wish that more folks had showed up to benefit.  And I can take responsibility for allowing our church to do something that didn’t pan out.  But it’s the responsibility of knowing that this is how things go sometimes, and that when they don’t work out the way I want, it’s not appropriate to immediately go out looking for someone to blame.  In fact, it’s completely inappropriate.  The verse I referenced at the end of my e-mail response to this group was 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, particularly verse 7:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.  Why not  rather be wronged?  Why not rather be cheated? 

Drawing the Line

November 17, 2009

I’ve been convicted over the past year of giving that I impose too many preconditions upon the act of giving.  Essentially, the person has to measure up to some sort of ill-defined set of criteria in order for me to give them a dollar or ten dollars or whatever.  I’ve been convicted that this is more often than not, a means of justifying not giving them something.  A means of validating that decision to myself, or making me feel better about the fact that I turned away from another person in need.

And yet Scripture doesn’t tell us to unplug our brain, either.  Perhaps that’s part of what it means to be as “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  We aren’t to waste what has been entrusted to us, any more than we are to hoard it.  This makes for an interesting tension – one that the Biblical witness doesn’t do a lot to clarify.  It’s something that each of us has to work out for ourselves, in each instance where we are presented with someone asking for our help.

I was confronted by a man a little over a week ago.  He arrived at my office at wits end.  No job. No car.  No home.  His wife and children had left him.  He couldn’t find work.  Nobody else could help him.  As I try to do in these cases, I sought to clarify his situation.  No friends, no relatives, no support structure.  No prospects for work, nothing that needed to be sustained or jump started.  He had nothing, and that included prospects.  He was hoping to get money to rent a room from someone for a month. 

Despite misgivings and bad vibes, I agreed to help him.  What ensued over the next few days was a constant shifting of what he wanted or needed, and who he had found to provide it for him – assuming that I could provide the cash.  I think the problem was that I was demanding to see the vehicle or the room and to ensure the deal was on the up and up as much as I could.   

After a few days of shenanigans, I was sick.  Sick that I had given this guy my word that I would help him.  Sick that I felt like he was not on the up and up.  Sick to think of the young family I had helped the week before who had been so kind and grateful, who had volunteered to come down to the church and help out in our garden for a bit.  Sick to think of other people like that who wouldn’t get this money, and what this guy was likely to do with this money and whomever he was paying to pose as his future landlord.   But I had given my word.  I felt trapped.  I was on my way to take him the check and be done with it – even though once again he had failed to ensure that the guy he was going to rent from would be there to meet me when I showed up with the check. 

I pulled off the freeway.  I couldn’t do it.  I was torn between giving my word to this guy, and being convinced in my gut that my word was being used against me.  He hadn’t done anything that I had asked to try and demonstrate the need of his situation, or the legitimacy of his need.  I felt guilty for setting up hoops, but we were talking about a sizable amount of money, and given my misgivings, it seemed like the best option.  I was trying to be faithful to not judging when being asked, but was also being convinced that perhaps I didn’t understand all the nuances of the Biblical injunctions in terms of giving.  And if all that wasn’t enough, I decided that I had an obligation to the people that had entrusted these monies to my church, and that perhaps in some situations, that obligation had to be weighed just as equally as the obligation to a particular person asking for help.  

I felt good about the situation almost immediately.  I turned around on the freeway and headed back to town.  I had just pulled off the road to call and let him know I wasn’t coming, when he called me.  He was shocked when I told him.  And suddenly, despite the fact that 30 minutes earlier he had told me his landlord couldn’t make the meeting, he was telling me that he was there with him, and they were waiting for me.   He pleaded, but there was no point, and eventually I wished him well and hung up.  No hesitation.  No second-thoughts.  No nagging uncertainties or latent guilt.  Just a feeling of relief, as though a bullet had been dodged.  

Being a steward means that you have to constantly weigh the options in front of you.  Simply giving without any thought of the giving doesn’t seem to be the type of steward we are called to be, just as finding excuses not to give in order to make yourself feel better about it is not the type of steward we are called to be.  I’ve tried to give the benefit of the doubt, to bend over backwards to meet people where they are and honestly attempt to help them.  But at some point, I think I’m also called to say this just doesn’t seem right.  If it was a few bucks, maybe I go through with it regardless of misgivings.  But when it’s a substantial amount of money, then it seems as though a greater level of oversight is warranted.  

I keep thinking about this situation.  I don’t spend a lot of time second guessing my final decision.  But there are always those nagging doubts.  Perhaps that’s good.  Perhaps that’s a sign that there is some small amount of innocent dove at play in this situation, as well as a healthy dose of serpentine shrewdness.


Book Title?

November 17, 2009

I think I have an idea of a short book I’d like to write – a collection of essays related around my experiences this past year in helping people out monetarily thanks to the donation of a very generous party. 

Preliminary title ideas – based on Matthew 6:3:

  • What Has My Right Hand Been Up To?

  • What Is My Right Hand Doing?

Thoughts?  Preferences?  Too weird?

Getting Old

November 11, 2009

Motivation has been low of late, in case you haven’t noticed. 

Yesterday I was in the dentist’s chair for the second time in ten years or more – the first time having been about a month ago when I was informed that my otherwise untouched-by-dental-arts mouth needed to be invaded by a root canal on one of my molars.  I put it off for a while, after having suffered a fair amount of discomfort and headaches.  Then the pain started up again, and I finally decided not to pull the tooth and have the work done, despite what I consider to be an outrageous price tag for about three hours worth of work.

Once I was comfortably numb, the dentist began to work.  I hadn’t really thought a lot about what was involved with a root canal and a crown.  But by the time the smoke and the acrid scent of ground enamel and tooth started to fill my mouth and then my nose, it was really too late to pause to ask for enlightenment.  Soon enough, and with surprisingly little pain, my molar had been ground down and he was filing away at each of the four roots.  He informed me as the nerve was “half-gone” and then finally completely removed.

It was an odd feeling.

My mother is a collector of things, things with sentimental value.  Clothes, toys, mementos big and small, a life of memories that she can look at as she walks through their home.  I’ve inherited a certain amount of that sentimentality.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised then, to feel this twinge of sorrow as I sat drooling under the dentist’s drill.  I still have my appendix.  I still have my tonsils.  Beyond hair cuts and the occasional nail trimming, I haven’t lost a part of me since my baby teeth.  And here in the space of a few hours I’ve lost half of a tooth that has been with me for 30 years or so, and a nerve that was there before I was born, mapped out and outlined at conception.

It was saddening.

It has been said – by whom I can’t recall – that we spend the first half of our lives acquiring things, and we spend the second half of our lives having things taken away from us.  Little by little.  Imperceptibly at first, and then with increasing obviousness and impact.  A tooth here, a nerve there, then a driver’s license, then perhaps even the ability to live on our own, in our own home. 

I am privileged to serve people who are at least a few years – if not quite a few years – older than myself.  I am amazed at their resilience.  Their quiet strength and determination.  The way they handle adversity and the challenges of having things taken from them.  But perhaps until yesterday, as I sat in the dentist chair with the faint whoops and hollers of contestants on Deal or No Deal? in the television in the background, I couldn’t really relate.  My life has been by and large thus far a series of transitions into larger arenas, acquiring new skills, new abilities, new responsibilities. 

But as I feel the tenderness of my jaw in my tentative chewing on a temporary crown, I think I understand a little better what they go through.  Only a little better, of course.  A root canal is not the loss of a spouse or the freedom to go where you want when you want.  But it was a first – and permanent – reminder that I am not getting any younger.  That I may have lived more than half of my life already. 

That I am mortal

Not mortal in the hypothetical way that one is aware of mortality from reading John Donne or Shakespeare or presiding over a funeral or visiting someone in the hospital.  Mortal in the bones.  My bones.  Mortal in the sense that more and more frequently I will be stopping in to visit with sickness and death as they take time to visit not just parishioners, but family, and friends.  Mortal in the mirror.  Mortal in the second’s hesitation where before there was only the crass fluidity of thought and movement of youth.  It’s a little thing, losing a tooth, a nerve, and in the process to gain a crown.  Because as much as I would like to rage against the dying of the light, my rage is not what sustains that light or causes it to ebb. 

I give thanks in these moments that I know in Whose hand I rest.  That the maker that called me forth, designed me at the start of all creation and brought me to fruition and has sustained me lo these 40 years, holds also in His hand the day of my passing.  That when it is my turn to remind others not to weep for me, it will be an honest enjoinder, because the tendrils of my mortality that covered my eyes in death, will in that same instant be torn away from me for eternity, and I will look out clearly on the peace of my Lord which has – and perhaps always will – pass all of my understanding. 

You’ve Got it Coming To You

November 3, 2009

Another article from a back issue of The Economist was interesting to me.  This was  from the October 17th issue, and had to do with inheritance laws in Europe as opposed to Great Britain.  It was written by the Economist’s commentator on European politics, Charlemagne (not the Roman Emperor, I’m pretty certain – though that would be pretty cool, for a variety of reasons).  His article highlighted the gulf between the UK and the rest of Europe in terms of inheritance laws. 

In the UK, like the USA, people are free to dispose of their property pretty much however they like – and that doesn’t change at death.  The exception are some relatively recent laws that ensure that widows and other dependents living in poverty can receive maintenance payments from the estate.

In most of Europe, however, there are rather strict laws that limit how someone disposes of their estate.  In some countries, these rules kick in actually before the person dies.  Charlemagne notes that in laws restricting how much of a person’s wealth can be given away are retroactive to two years from the date of death in Austria, and ten years from the date of death in Germany.  In other countries, there are no time limits, meaning that heirs could conceivably litigate to have estate assets returned that were given to anyone else, at any point in the deceased’s lifetime.  At least 50% of an estate has to be divided equally between inheritors.

The presenting issue for this little treatise on inheritance treatment is the fact that the EU is trying to put together a comprehensive legal framework for dealing with inheritance issues that span multiple countries – each potentially with their own unique laws.  Amongst the well to do, this is hardly an unusual situation – owning property in multiple countries or being a citizen of one country while choosing to reside in another (and potentially die in yet another!). 

Charlemagne points out how this difference in the treatment of estates reflects an underlying, fundamental difference between the mindsets of the UK (and by extension the United States), and continental Europe.  The UK and the US are concerned with individual freedom, and from the motivation that arises in people who know that they are free to do with their wealth as they pretty much please.  Europeans, however, are more concerned with “solidarity within the family”.  Never mind if the family is composed of some fairly irresponsible or even dangerously self-obsessed folks.  It’s more important that they all get an equal amount, rather than face some sort of divisiveness that could result from a more deserving child receiving a greater bulk of the inheritance than a less responsible child.  This approach is intended to help even out or eliminate the uncertainties of life that could be encountered if a dying person was free to distribute their assets as they saw fit.  This way, people know what they’ve got coming, so to speak – even if they don’t deserve it.  The UK/American approach seems to acknowledge that there are no guarantees in life – and this extends to the inheritance that one might receive (or not receive) from a rich uncle or a well-to-do mother. 

Charlemagne also noted how both the Europeans and the UKers were equally baffled by the other’s solution.  Neither side could understand the logic behind the other side’s way of handling things.   This makes perfect sense.  On the one hand, you have an option that not only acknowledges the unpredictability of life, it seems to celebrate it.  On the other side, you have an insistence that such unpredictability be eliminated.  An insistence that people be buffered and cushioned from the blows of life that might otherwise befall them – sometimes deservedly so.  It’s an interesting difference in attitude, one that runs not simply through politics and economics, but at least at some level, through theology as well.

Democratically Yours

November 3, 2009

A friend of mine is kind enough to pass along his copies of The Economist  when he’s done with them.  I generally skim through them, since most of the current events-type stuff is a bit out of date by the time I get them (a similar complaint I now have of newspapers, tragically).  Most of all I enjoy those opportunities to read something not strictly related to international economics or politics – at least within the limited scope of current events.  I enjoy thoughtful articles that stimulate thought on topics that folks are not generally aware of.  Someday, I may even author something like that.

One article that caught my eye was from the October 3rd issue of the magazine, and was an update on the situation in Honduras between deposed president  Manuel Zelaya and his temporary replacement, President Roberto Micheletti.  Mr. Zelaya had been ousted for ignoring calls from his own government to curtail his activities towards undoing the Constitution to allow him to hold office as president for a second term.  Mr. Zelaya had snuck back into Honduras against government orders, and was holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Honduras, hoping, it is assumed, for a groundswell of public support to sweep him back into office.   

The article highlights the abuses that Zelaya’s selfish behavior in returning to Honduras had pushed President Micheletti into (abuses that The Economist clearly deplored) such as declaring martial law and silencing opposition media outlets.  It was clear from the article (as from other articles The Economist has run on the situation) that the magazine feels that the expulsion of Zelaya was inappropriate, and that the only possible appropriate course of action is for him to be reinstated as President immediately.

I continue to find this strange, but not necessarily surprising.  We’ve passed well beyond the time when people in the US truly believed that government is of, by, or for the people.  The government now simply is.  It has been around for a while, and it isn’t likely to be going anywhere.  The job of the people is not to seek substantive change to the government, but rather to trust that the government is always acting in their best interests, and to trust the government regardless of what experience or common sense or any other form of knowledge might tell them would be a better course of action.  We’re told this, because we are not experts.  We are not consultants.  We are not lobbyists.  We really don’t know what is best.  So just vote this particular way – never mind that it won’t really change the outcome of things one bit.  Our duty is simply to cast votes, and then let the judges and bureaucrats decide what those votes ought to mean.

The dangerous thing is that our government firmly believes this as well.

So the most frightening thing in the world to a government that wishes to espouse democratic principles and freedoms, while counting on the fact that nobody will exercise them, is an example of a nation taking the principles of democracy very seriously – seriously enough to drive out of town a president who ignored those principles, and was intent on violating Constitutional law in order to further his own personal political agenda (another term in office).  In other words, it’s fine for a government to ride rough shot over it’s people, but the reverse sure as hell better never happen, because that is incompatible with democratic principles.  Government does not exist for the people – not even a democratic government.  Democratic government exists for itself.

Of course, a certain level of this is endemic in any ruling organization or population.  People are self-interested, and seek to preserve what they have against change.  Groups of people acting under Constitutional guidelines are very much the same.  And so, after time, it seems inevitable that even the wisest and most benevolent efforts to govern will become diluted – or worse, polluted.  Eventually, even when clear benefit to the people has dissipated, the expectation that the government will remain as it is stays in effect.   But those who feel that radical change to the status quo is illegal or illicit would do well to revisit the Declaration of Independence.  It’s very clear that our founding fathers recognized that what they were undertaking to do was an option that remained open to any people of any time.  The first two paragraphs are general statements of the right of people to insist on proper government.  This wasn’t a one time option, in other words.  And it’s not surprising that in a more recent democracy such as Honduras, these principles would be taken more seriously. 

Yes, there is considerable debate about the objectivity of both the congressional and judicial branches of the government.  But it would seem to be illogical to cite the illegitimacy of the government as a grounds for insisting on the continuation of the government.  Perhaps it’s all corrupt, in which case, hopefully the ousting of Zelaya will be just the first step in broader reforms.  Or perhaps this situation will provoke a crisis wherein officials will be called to account through existing systems.  This would of course be the preferred route.  But history has shown that such efforts are also rarely successful. 

I find the situation in Honduras to be lamentable, but not for the same reasons that The Economist or the US Government appears to.  I find it lamentable that an elected leader could be so crass about pursuing his own goals against the goals of his people and the very government that he is elected to administer.  I think the eviction of Mr. Zelaya was done remarkably smoothly and efficiently, with practically no bloodshed.  The interim President made it very clear that he was there only to ensure that legal elections would proceed on time (this month). 

It is lamentable that this goal was complicated by Mr. Zelaya’s behavior, and I’m encouraged by recent turns of event that demonstrate that things appear to be getting back on track.  A provisional agreement is being decided upon today as to whether or not Mr. Zelaya can be reinstated as President to serve out his term through January, with a scheduled November 29 election still on the calendar.  Neither Mr. Zelaya or Mr. Micheletti can be candidates in this election.  I pray that if Mr. Zelaya is reinstated, he won’t revert to his former shenanigans.  And I pray that Mr. Micheletti will remain true to his word, rather than  attempting to seize power or delay the election for the protection of the country.

But I don’t think that the Hondurans acted inappropriately in ousting Mr. Zelaya in the first place.  I think it will be admirable if he has learned his lesson about Democracy well enough to be reinstated.  But this should serve as a strong reminder to all democratic governments that they exist of and by and for the people, and that when they cease to acknowledge that the people retain the right to decide if they are fulfilling their obligations in this light or not, they are subject to dismissal – and not necessarily on the terms that they set.