Inventing God

I have a friend who washes windows for a living.  I don’t know what he used to do.  According to him he raised horses, made a lot of money, owned everything he wanted and drank heavily.  He more or less stumbled into Jesus through an introduction from another friend of mine, an Adventist pastor.  Now he and Jesus are tight, he’s been sober for five or six years, and he washes windows for a living.  But I digress.
We got to talking the other day, and he wondered what we would do if we didn’t have God.  Together we decided that we would have to invent a god, which, of course, is precisely what people do all the time.  I think the best inventors of god are atheists.  They are very creative in inventing the god in whom they do not believe.  Sometimes they stitch together a god out of bits and pieces of scriptural remnants with a trim of Greek, Egyptian or Nordic myth for decoration.  Sometimes they invent a god out of the whole cloth of fertile imaginations.  In either case credit is due for creativity. 
By the way, accolades for creativity do not accrue to would be atheists whose only talent is caustic sarcasm.  That takes very little creativity.  Consider some of my own writing as a case in point.  But again I digress.
Sadly, it’s true that we Christians are also fond of creating a god or gods and giving them the name of Christ or God.  J.B. Phillips’ 1953 classic, Your God is too Small, or Philip Yancey’s 1995, The Jesus I Never Knew, make that point well.  We take limited Sunday school teaching carried into adulthood, combine it with sloppy lessons gained from half listened to sermons, and mix in popularized trash theology to create, for us Christians, a trinity of gods neatly packaged in little boxes from which they are allowed to emerge for the limited purposes we have assigned to them. 
Why do you suppose that is?  Are we afraid to let God be God?  Is there something threatening about allowing our own limits of knowledge and ignorance be transcended by that which is not under our control?
I wrote earlier about my friend the Rev. Gretchen Rehberg who, when asked if prayer works, says no.  No, if by prayer you mean asking or telling God what to do and then sitting back to see if God does it.  God desires conversation, communion, even arguing it out, but how scary is that?  Maybe God will have something to say that I don’t want to hear.  Maybe God will want to hear something I don’t want to say.  Maybe I’ll be forced to see something in me I don’t want to see.  Better to keep God in a box for occasional display.

We’re Number One!!!

One of our onboard lectures was devoted to an overview of changes brought to the life of the South Pacific through successive waves of exploration and settlement, with an emphasis on the impact of Europeans and Americans.  That raised some questions about the ebb and flow of civilizations and empires in general.  Toward the end, one man rose to ask his question in the form of an extended comment.  It concerned what would happen to America in the years to come.
The Chinese, he opined, had taken all of our technology and were now using it to gain global supremacy over us.  How could we stay Number One?  What would happen to us if we were not Number One?  Why don’t we wake up and see this as threat to our very way of life?  Why don’t we do something about it, and do it now?
He reminded me, in part, of conversations I heard from my elders when I was a young adult.  Prior to WWII, the Japanese, they said, had stolen all of our technology.  They said the Japanese were not capable of invention, only of copying.  The fact that we had to reverse engineer a captured Zero to find out why it was so superior to anything we had going at the time was either unknown or disbelieved.  But I digress.
What would happen if we found ourselves no longer the only superpower in the world, nor the world’s largest economy, nor the dominant voice in world economic decision making?  I think it might be a very good thing for us.  “We’re Number One” is a chant best left to sporting events, and as we all know, this year’s number one crown is an ephemeral thing of no lasting value.  It’s good only for a moment of happy, childlike celebration, then it must be set aside.  
Losing the title would give us the opportunity to focus more on what it means to be American, to seriously examine the critical threads that make up the fabric of our society: education, health care, equitable justice, taxes fair to all, economic opportunity and the like.  Serious questions about what is needed for national defense would become more important than mindless funding of the military.  A more pragmatic engagement with the rest of the world would make possible agreements balancing free trade with fair trade.   Without the pressure of being Number One, we could get on with the hard work of being better people in a better society.
There is one other advantage to losing the crown to China.  They would be the ones everyone loves to hate.  Think of what a relief that would be.

Reflections on Poverty vs. Abject Poverty

Fanning Island is an atoll about midway between Hawaii and Tahiti with a population of a couple of thousand.  Its highest point is around ten feet.  Once upon a time it may have had strategic value as a cable relay station, but those years are ancient history now. The people who live on Fanning, in the island nation of Kiribati, are impoverished.   They have no running water, no electricity, no roads and no other nearby islands with which to engage in routine intercourse.  We know about Fanning Island because we stopped there for a day.  There is nothing quite like dumping a thousand tourists into a place like that for a day.  Thankfully we came and left in waves of several hundred each.  The ship we sailed on is the only passenger liner that stops there, and it does so three or four times a year.  For a few years a Norwegian liner called each week, but that did not last long.  Inter-island freighters also stop by from time to time to make a delivery or perhaps pick up some copra.  
Friends have asked us, what do they live on?  Mostly it’s fruit such as coconut, mango, papaya, and banana; fish from the lagoon; pork from the pigs that every family raises and feral chickens.  Schooling of some kind is offered through secondary levels.  A local clinic is staffed by a nurse, supplemented by visiting ship’s doctors.  Yes, our friends say, but what do they do for a living, how do they earn money?  Since there is only one store with not much to sell, earning money to buy things is not something that must have a high priority.  However, they do make money from cruise tourists who buy trinkets and make donations to groups of singers, dancers and cute little kids strategically placed along the most common pathways.  That money goes to pay for fuel for the island’s half dozen vehicles, two or three small portable generators used to power things that need power on the occasions they need to be used, and a few western goods as well as the makings for trinkets they will sell to the next batch of tourists.  A well paid government bureaucrat assigned to the island might make $4.50 a day and be one of the richest men in the place.  Otherwise most money is pooled by clan or village. 
What keeps them from living in what we know as abject poverty is isolation.  If they lived in the midst of an urbanized society, they would be in abject poverty.  As it is, they are poor but not needy.  Life on Fanning cannot be romanticized.  It is not a tropical Eden, but each family does have a home to live in.  Food, though simple, is adequate, even abundant at times.  Clothing brought in by missionary groups is enough for an equatorial climate.  Water can be a problem since it depends on rain, but it does rain.  The biggest threat is global warming that may submerge Fanning Island in decades to come.  
So what are they missing?  Well, health care could be improved.  Other than that they seem to be missing television, traffic jams, road rage, Holiday spending binges, martinis, smog, Facebook, etc.  Do they have problems?  Of course they do.  They have teenagers who find ways to do what teenagers do no matter where they are.  They are educated. They know there is a wider world out there, and no doubt want to see it.  They see the rich tourists come and go, and no doubt would like to find that magic place where all that money and stuff exists for the taking.  Just the same, it might do each of us some good to live on Fanning Island for a few months to learn what we don’t need, or even want, and to learn also a greater appreciation for what we have.

Reflections on Individualism

Individualism, if not rugged individualism, is the publicly dominant theme of today’s American ethos.  It goes beyond the apparent popularity of the Tea Party movement with its “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Let Freedom Ring” placards.  There is a common grumbling attitude of “I’m not gonna let anyone tell me what to do” that seems to be prevalent among those over fifty and certainly over sixty, especially if they are white, middle class and up.  Combine that with an affection for limited government at all levels, a dislike of taxes for any purpose that does not have an immediate selfish benefit, and a sense that “I’ve worked hard for what I have, no thanks to anyone else, and no one is going to take it from me,” and you have a recipe for social chaos.  
Put enough of those people on a relatively small ship for a month and it becomes a fascinating experiment in social psychology.   For one thing, none of them seemed to be aware of the irony of boldly asserting their self-sufficient individualism while living in the womb of a ship dedicated to anticipating and serving their every need in abundance and to perfection.   I was struck by some, a relative few, who assumed the mantle of entitlement, and, like lords of the manor, engaged with staff as if they were their downstairs servants.  We were amused by the lady who complained that having spent so much money for the trip she did not expect it to rain.  Another person demanded that the ship be smoothed out in rough seas, which, obviously, this captain did not know how to do.  A couple we called the Teutonic Duo issued their daily orders for the improved management of everything.  Getting into the swing of things, I pulled out my Garmin and said that I must rush to the bridge to let the captain know where we were and where we were headed.  Apparently there was no humor in that.
A far greater number acted out their Tea Party independence in another way.  Many of our stops required tendering into shore one boat at a time.  The ship had a well designed process for doing that quickly and efficiently.  Each person going ashore was assigned a ticket for a specific tender.  As soon as that tender was available, the ticket number was called over the P.A. so that its passengers could make their way to the  gangway on a lower deck.  General announcements asked that everyone wait in the theater, lounge or other public space until their number was called, and above all not to congregate in the stairways leading to the gangway.  Simple, right?  Simple unless enough people decide that they will not be told what to do by anyone, hold themselves exempt from rules they don’t like, and are determined to assume a place of advantage over everyone else.  Then, with stairways and the gangway clogged, the entire process grinds to a slow crawl of unhappy old people complaining that the crew does not know what they are doing.  It all worked out, and later in the day, after a few drinks, most everyone was happy again.
I suspect that among a majority of passengers there was a blind unawareness of the complex infrastructure, logistical planning and management required to make it all happen.  For me, it had metaphorical application to society as a whole, and the complexity of systems needed for modern society to work at all, and for the privileged to enjoy their privileges (I include myself among the privileged).  That is particularly true for a republican democracy such as ours with its emphasis on private enterprise as the national pivot point.  Individualism, rugged or otherwise, has a certain value and should not be dismissed, but it must live alongside of an equally strong appreciation for the role of community and cooperation.  That seems to be missing.