Harland Miller

It’s Memorial Day once again, and once again I put flowers on Harland Miller’s grave and an American flag near his modest headstone.  I’ve told Harland’s story before, but it bears repeating.  He was a farm boy, largely self educated in the classics, who was seriously wounded in North Africa, spent several years in hospital recovery, and eventually returned home to live out his life as an impoverished, eccentric hermit.  He had no living relatives when he died in 2004, save a distant cousin who had little to do with him.  The church was his family.  Iris bulbs, some fancy tea and a few pennies each week made up his tithe.  We were the executor of his “estate.”  We buried him.  His tightly folded flag, given by a grateful nation, or so the card said, has its place of honor on the bookshelf in the rector’s office.  A few of his iris bulbs flourish in a small garden on church property. 
I thought about irises for his grave.  They do him more honor and give God greater glory growing where they are.  Normally it would be roses from our garden, but an unusually cool spring kept that from happening.  He had to settle for azaleas this year.  I don’t think Harland would go for the popular talk about remembering and honoring American heroes.  He didn’t see that there was anything heroic about being blown up by a German shell.  On the other hand, I do think he would be pleased to know that men and women such as he have been remembered and honored for doing their duty, for persevering in the face of fear, for doing what they had to do in a place they didn’t want to be.
I wonder if someone has put a flag near my dad’s plaque in the memorial garden where his ashes have become soil for flowers to grow?  He wasn’t a hero either.  He loved to tell how he had served as a private in the Army and officer in the Navy at the same time.  It seemed farfetched, but always entertaining.  After he died we found his discharge papers, one from each service.  

St. Matthew was a repentant tax collector. This one isn’t.

Somehow I got on the mailing list for St. Matthew’s Churches of Tulsa.  I tried to get off to no avail, but now find myself curious about what crackpot scheme will be sent to me next.  No doubt many of you are familiar with it, but if not, it’s one of the scam operations that separates the gullible from their money on a promise that God wants financial prosperity for them, which will be theirs for a penny and a prayer.  Well, actually, lots of pennies.  An Internet search reveals quite a story behind their operation.
A mailing from them appears every few weeks, an envelope stuffed with tacky flyers promising a better life, health and, above all, financial success.  Today’s was very special; it contained two blessed pennies (see above), one to be worn in each shoe for a few paces and then placed on the inside and outside of a front door in order to complete the promised blessing of Deuteronomy 28:6.  Apparently Deuteronomy 28:6 is unrelated to the first portion of the chapter in which the promised blessings are contingent on obeying the voice of God, being careful to follow all the commandments.  Of course the magic doesn’t fully work until you send the pennies back with a report on your blessings and a nice thank offering as well.  No blessings?  Try a larger thank offering.  Maybe that will help. 
I wonder what the hustlers running this thing will have to say for themselves on Judgment Day, which, as rumor has it, may come as soon as this October according to one of their competitors.  I don’t think God will be amused.  A solid atheist at least takes God seriously enough to argue about her existence with anyone.  These people make God into a joke.  I suspect that God has some degree of respect for the former, but the latter may be committing the unforgivable sin.

Camping Got Something Right, but only by accident

Before we permanently assign Harold Camping to the theological kook bin, we might want to consider what made his prophecy so compelling to so many people, including, or maybe mostly, those who dismissed or ridiculed it.
Camping’s true believers are not of much interest to me.  But I am interested in what made the media fall all over themselves to cover the story, and what inspired such interest in it from the religious establishment, annoyed atheists, and amused onlookers.
My guess is this.  Camping touched a nerve that triggered a certain anxious fear that maybe there is some truth in all this last judgment stuff.  However much one may boldly proclaim that God does not exist, Camping exposed the raw underside of nervous doubt about that.  The jokes, ridicule and party planning sounded more than a little like so much whistling in the dark against the hobgoblins in which one claims not to believe.  I suspect that on Saturday night a large number of people who have claimed to be spiritual but not religious seriously intended to go to church on Sunday morning.  I wonder if they did?
What I think is demonstrated by all this is an underlying hunger for spiritual truth gnawing at the souls of all people, and especially those who have never heard the good news proclaimed in any helpful way.  I’m not sure what to do about that except to say that I think it’s time that we quit moaning over the decline of main line Christianity and begin proclaiming that Good News with pride and confidence.  I’d like to hear more about what you might think about it.

Federally Underwritten Rugged Individualism

Eastern Washington has a reputation as politically conservative, a repository of hard core small government types who are thrilled at the prospect of slashing the federal government and its “creeping socialism.”  Congressional Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers reigns with an attractive smile, bland platitudes about veterans and farmers, and floor votes as instructed by Cantor and Boehner.  
What I find curious about this mythology of prideful, self reliant individualism is the amount of federal investment that created and sustains the way of life in the intermountain Pacific Northwest.  The Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads opened the region to large scale commerce.  Neither of them could have been built without enormous federal land grants, subsidies and armed protection.  Paved highways and rural electrification were financed mostly by eastern taxpayers.  The taming of the Columbia and Snake rivers with scores of locks and dams provided water to turn desert into cropland, barging for grain shipments to the coast, and an overabundance of relatively inexpensive hydropower.  Recent half hearted thoughts about taking down some of the dams to improve fish habitat have been met with outrage, and signs posted on buildings declaring “SAVE OUR DAMS” along side posters for ultra conservative political candidates.
Farmers, proud of their rugged individualism, are suspended above the roughest market forces by crop insurance, set asides, subsidies, conversion of cropland to prairie grass, expert counsel from county agents, research funded through land grant universities, and dozens of other programs all financed through the federal government.  Most of our grain crops are marketed overseas helped, in part, by aggressive trade negotiating at the federal level.  It doesn’t keep farming from being a risky business, physically and emotionally demanding in every way.  There is nothing easy about making one’s living on the farm or ranch.  Yet the farm community is the strongest supporter of small government thinking.  I don’t understand how one can be both dependent on the work of an active federal government and dismissive of it.  
What else do we depend on?  A big Air Force base near Spokane just happens to use many Boeing made products, each the result of a government contract.  Boeing, of course, is on the other side of the mountains, the wet side, where all the liberals live, but we like the money, airplanes and software that come from over there, and we don’t complain about them paying most of the taxes.   Speaking of planes, air transportation is important to us, so we fight hard for funding of rural air service subsidies.  Our paved highways are wearing out.  They need to be replaced.
You get the point.  I would not call any of this hypocrisy because I don’t think it is intentional.  On the contrary, the work of an active federal government has been so tightly woven into the fabric of daily life that I think it has become invisible.  The very real need to manage our public spending in a more responsible way is well known and vigorously supported.  What is not known, or remotely understood, is that some of the cost, the pain, will have to be borne by those who do not even know how dependent and indebted they have become on the largesse of federal spending.

Bluebirds

Small delights can be gifts beyond measure.  Our yard has long been a haven for sparrows, and we love them.  More recently the gold finches have blessed us with their year long presence at the feeder.  Several crows use the bird bath for a drink with dinner.  That’s about it.  We used to get quails but dogs and fences took care of that.  Now and then a turkey struts through.  
About two weeks ago we began to get morning and evening flights of western bluebirds flashing in for a bite at the feeder and quickly flashing away.  Maybe western bluebirds are not special to you, but to us they are such amazing delights, sapphires on the wing.  We sit at the kitchen table mesmerized by them.  We have seen them before, rarely, but we have seen them, at a friend’s place up a nearby canyon.  Never have we seen them in our area, or in our yard.  
Birding is not our thing.  We are content to be hoteliers to sparrows, restauranteurs to finches and bartenders to crows.   The squirrels and birds have reached a mutually satisfactory accommodation of each other.  Even the dogs have managed to fit in, in their own barkey way.  It’s all rather normal.  And then the bluebirds came.  These beautiful jewels of the air decorating our surroundings for a moment.  What a gift!
KInd of silly isn’t it?  So much of my writing addresses the difficult issues of human life, and then a little blue bird flits by and makes it all seem so trivial.

Evidence Based Decisions? Not Likely!

I wonder what it is that keeps us from using verifiable information at hand to guide our thinking and decisions.  I also wonder what it is that keeps us from even seeking available information in preference to applying our assumptions and prejudices.  For that matter, I wonder if the previous sentences and this one require a period or a question mark?
Our annual clergy conference is ended. It was centered on five sessions with Russ Crabtree of Holy Cow Consulting who demonstrated a variety of simple techniques to develop and analyze congregational profiles.  Some of what we learned is best provided through professional help that small congregations cannot afford.  Just the same, most of them can handle the basics on their own if they are willing.  Will they?  Probably not.  We are far more inclined to forge ahead, or tread water, based on assumptions and prejudices rather than doing the hard work of looking for verifiable evidence.  After all, it might force us to change our minds, and who would want to do that?  
It might be tempting to accuse churches and church leaders of being especially susceptible, but I think it’s a broader human trait.  A couple of years ago I was part of a committee that, with the help of a local university, put together a website offering summaries of hard data on the economic and social health of our valley.  It’s kept up to date and out there in the public domain for anyone to use.  Is it used by public opinion leaders and policy decision makers?  Not as far as I can tell.  Why is that?
I think we can blame part of it on the complexity of our world.  We are overwhelmed by streams of information, some verifiable, some not, assaulting us on every side.  Sorting it all out is impossible.  It’s just easier to go with decisions based on values that are tightly held but seldom examined.  Having said that, history suggests that people at all times and in all places have behaved the same way.  It indicates to me that, even in so called simpler times, the exigencies of daily life appeared too overwhelming or complex to make it easy to make important decisions based on facts rather than assumptions.  
I recall a study done many years ago by the Club of Rome, an organization not well known for its accuracy, that claimed the huge majority of the world’s population did not think in terms any other than of concrete decisions required for day to day living.  It was not only true of people living at subsistence levels, but also of those living in the luxury and ease of economically advanced nations.  Now and then I stumble across other studies that claim the same for some particular population.  If they are true then making decisions based on verifiable evidence is not all that common.  Maybe that is what marketing and advertising people have been counting on all along.  
Can we change that?  I have my doubts.  However, one by one I believe we can begin to exercise more care in the decisions we make.  Is it true? Can I verify it?  On what moral foundations does it rest?  Am I, in the words of the classic Steven Kerr essay, engaging in the “[f]olly of rewarding A while hoping for B.”

Medicating the Elderly

It has been said that the elderly are too often over medicated and too easily get their meds mixed up.  How does that happen?  I’m beginning to learn – first hand.  At 68 I hardly consider myself elderly, but, after a brief encounter with a wee little heart problem a few years ago, I find myself on a regimen of six medications, some taken once a day and some twice.  
For convenience, I count them out and put them in one of those little plastic boxes with seven compartments, one for each day of the week.  Now and then a pill ends up in the wrong compartment.  The little buggers have a mind of their own it seems.  I never forget to take the morning dose, but if the evening gets complicated by this or that, I sometimes overlook the nighttime pills.  Moreover, my insurance requires that I get my meds from a mail order pharmacy that sends a three month supplies of each.   To make sure I don’t run out, they renew the supply several weeks before the three months is up. The net result is a growing cache of meds.
It’s not a big problem.  My primary care physician keeps everything coordinated and simple.  My memory is just fine.  I’m not on anything narcotic.  An occasional missed dose is not fatal, and my growing supply of pills is more a storage problem than anything else.  But it brings to mind the last few years of my mother’s life.  A variety of doctors treating a variety of illnesses and conditions had tanked her up with an uncontrollable number of prescriptions.  This slight, frail woman was on doses of narcotic pain meds that would have knocked out a large man.  Her accumulation of three month supplies and old prescriptions added up to a huge number of pills lying around.  It was not possible for her to keep all that straight, and I have no doubt that it contributed as much to her death as did the conditions they were intended to address.
I suspect that mom was not an isolated case, but common and symptomatic of a problem that needs to be addressed by the larger community.  I’m not sure what that would involve, but a part of it has to be a way to teach elderly patients how to understand and manage their own medications.  I believe that physicians and pharmacies are too ready to patronize the elderly as incompetent consumers, and too many elderly find it very easy, even convenient, to let that happen.  Old does not mean stupid or incompetent, nor does it mean that one cannot learn new habits and be held accountable for them.