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.


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.  

The Meaning of Family

Starting in my childhood, at that unknown age when I began to pay attention to sermons, and continuing through the majority of my adulthood, the passage in Acts about how the early Jerusalem community of believers held all things in common and spent a great deal of time together in worship and the breaking of bread, was held up as one of two things.  First, it was proof that the early Christians modeled the ideal of socialism that we must regain.  Second, it was proof that socialism is inherently unstable, easily disintegrating under the burden of its own weaknesses.  I cannot remember a sermon or bible class that did not begin with one view or the other.  
I think they both miss the point by a huge distance.  The story in Acts has nothing to do with socialism or anything like it.  It has everything to do with redefining family.  Families in Jesus’ day, as with traditional families of the region yet today, held all things in common, joining three generations or more in one household, often including various uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.  The abiding symbol of family was the sharing of bread, the family meal.  The story in Acts, building on the episode recorded in Mark 3, Matthew 12 and Luke 8, illustrates Jesus’ own meaning of family as the gathering of his followers living in communion with one another.   
It wasn’t perfect.  It was beset by betrayal.  Israelites and Hellenists didn’t get along with each other. Theological differences arose between leaders who experienced Jesus through different lenses.  Nevertheless, the breaking of bread, the sharing of the family meal, in Christ’s name, in Christ’s presence, remained the center of life and the core definition of family. It was communion, Holy Communion.
The ritualized nature of our own Holy Eucharist retained the power of its symbolism as long as the ideal of the family meal was embraced by society, but I think it’s more difficult in America today where so many rarely sit down to a family meal, and there is little sense of it as an ideal.  I’m reminded of my own childhood.   Every Sunday we sat down to a Sunday supper of a roast, potatoes, vegetable, small salad and bread.  There were two iron clad rules.  Grace would be said, and bread would be broken.  There were only the five of us: mom, dad, my two younger sisters and me.  My parents had moved as far away from rural Kansas as they could get, leaving the extended family behind.  But the grace we said was the same grace they said.  The menu we ate was the same menu they ate.  The ritual of breaking bread was the same ritual they observed.  Most often, the meal would be followed by a hurried, loudly voiced long distance phone call to Kansas.  In that context it was not hard to understand the parish as family, and the Eucharist as the shared meal that bound us together, no matter what our differences were or what the preacher said about socialism.  
My guess is that that sort of family ritual is uncommon today, which makes it all the harder to understand the symbolism of Acts 2 as an illustration of Christ’s call to a new understanding of family.  A few years ago, some popular church consultant, I don’t remember who, even railed against the language of congregation as family.  It was, he said, just the sort of language that too easily excluded strangers and seekers.  OK, that’s a danger, but it seems to me one that we can live with if we are to be serious about following where Jesus has led: “ Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”” (Luke 8:19-21)

In that family no one is without brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles.  How precious the gift of family so gathered in Christ’s name.

Deserving and Desiring

I’ve been thinking about the question of deserving for some time now, but it came to a head with the pundits falling all over each other asserting that Americans deserve to know the details of the raid on Osama bin Laden, that they deserve to see the photos of his body.  That’s only the latest take on what Americans deserve.  It comes up as everything from deserving to pay lower taxes to deserving to own a flat screen TV.  Not long ago a young newly minted real estate agent complained that he worked so hard for his license, he deserved to make some sales.  Apparently there is nothing we cannot or do not deserve.  We deserve slim bodies, great sex, more money, better education, healthier lives, and exotic trips.  Corporate mouthpieces can be heard muttering about how business deserves tax breaks, tax funded investment incentives, nonunion shops, lower pay for workers, and reduced pension costs.
What a world we live in with so much deserving.  At funerals we hear the bereaved explain how their late beloved deserves heaven even though he/she neither believed in nor observed any known religion.  Apparently deserving flows into eternity with ease.
Deserve is a word commonly used by almost every one about almost everything, but on what can the assertion of deserving be based?  What does it mean to deserve something?  Apart from its dictionary definition, it seems to fall into two categories.  One has to do with the idea of contract.  I agree to do something for you in exchange for some kind of payment.  If I perform as promised then I deserve my payment; I’ve earned it.  The Enlightenment expanded the concept of personal contracts and gave us the idea of social contracts.  Government is said to be a contract between the people and the government in which each side deserves to be well served by the terms and conditions of that contract.  Moreover, the theory holds that the social contract is derived from the people, not from the government.  We deserve our civil rights only because they are the part of the social contract that is recognized, granted and guaranteed by law.  From time to time various societies will rewrite a portion of the social contract to recognize new civil rights, but those rights do not exist outside of the law that recognizes them.
There are rights that all people deserve, and that exist whether a law recognizes them or not.  The other category of what it means to deserve falls under the idea of human rights.  Human rights are a fungible commodity.  The definition of them is always changing, and again, in their modern form they spring from the Enlightenment.  Our Declaration of Independence used Enlightenment thinking to declare that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These human rights are not defined by contract but are what persons deserve simply because they are persons.  What those human rights are have been debated and the list expanded century by century.  It’s always changing, and it differs widely from culture to culture.  The result is that anyone can claim anything on behalf of an individual, group of people or an entire nation as being something they deserve because it is their human right.
In an odd twist, I think we Americans have added a verb to the definition.  We have rights that are ours not simply because we are human, or even American humans, but because we are human consumers.
It is exactly at this point that critical thinking needs to step in.  The question must be, do we mean deserve in any classical way, or do we mean desire?  My niece, for instance, recently got her drivers license and has been heard to say that she deserves a car.  What she really meant was that she desires a car, and there is a huge difference between desiring something and deserving it.  Therein lies the heart of the issue.  It is not only that we Americans often say that we deserve something when we mean that we desire it, I think we really believe that desiring leads to deserving.  What we desire to consume we deserve to consume as a human right.
As for the news pundits, when they assert that the American public deserves to see the photos or know the details, what they really mean is that they desire to see and know those things and are projecting their desires onto a vaguely defined public under the guise that a public of news consumers deserves to consume whatever they desire to consume.  
Desiring and deserving.  Two ‘D’ words with enormous differences in meaning, yet sometimes they can merge.  What do you think about that?  What do you desire as opposed to what you deserve?  Where do deserving and desiring come together for you?  What has led to the uncritical conflation of deserving and desiring?  I demand an answer.  I deserve to know!

Rational Cosumers

Paul Ryan’s budget has been on my mind mostly because I keep hearing supporters and pundits claiming that privatizing Medicare will unleash the forces of competition thus driving down premiums.  Apart from the fact that we have seen no evidence of that happening in the existing private medical insurance markets, the argument’s basic assumption is that consumers will make rational buying decisions.  That simply is not true.
Our mailbox was stuffed with ads, flyers and detailed monographs touting Medicare Advantage and supplemental insurance plans a few years ago as I approached the magic age.  I consider myself a reasonably sophisticated buyer.  I am able to read most financial reports.  I understand the basics of economic theory.  But the materials in our mailbox were almost impossible to fully comprehend or compare.  Extravagant promises  made in cover letters were shredded by dozens of limitations and exceptions in the small print.  Terms and conditions varied between companies not only by what they said but also by the words used to say them so that comparisons were difficult to make.  I did work up a few spread sheets to do what I could to compare a few plans, but in the end I simply trusted the Church Pension Fund to be more interested in my welfare than any of the other sources.  That was my rational decision.  
More likely than not, the vast majority of buyers would simply throw up their hands and be persuaded by whatever piece of advertising appealed most to them, or, if they were lucky, by an insurance agent who proved to be trustworthy.  Economic rationality based on analysis and understanding would have little to do with it.
The Ryan proposal does more than transfer costs from the collective purchasing power of all retired persons represented by the existing Medicare program to the individual purchasing power of irrational buyers.  Whether intentionally or not, it sets up the conditions under which funds that would otherwise be dedicated to health care will be dedicated to marketing and bureaucratic overhead (including those wonderful top end salaries).  In other words, it’s a rip-off.
All of this reminds me of the 1970s when the idea of consumer rationality was touted by a number of economists.  Coming out of one presentation I thought how good it felt to hear someone give a little credit to consumers about their ability to make rational choices.  I was not a pawn in a corporate game of chess. I was a decision maker to whom sellers had to cater because my decisions were what kept them in business.  There is some truth to that in the local market place of small retailers and service providers.  In the larger world of major corporations it is not true.  It took me several years to recognize that the whole theory of rationality, as presented, was little more than a gigantic con in which the marks were softened up with flattery to give buyers the illusion of making sound purchasing decisions that were, in reality, heavily influenced by skillful marketing.