Art Collecting and Human Being

I heard a piece on NPR not long ago about the rebounding market in fine art that has collectors and investors pouring enormous amounts of cash into art auctions throughout the western world.  Some of them have no intention of displaying what they bought, or even pretending to like it.  It’s just an investment, and they’re hoping to flip it quickly before the bubble bursts.  Others are wanna-be collectors with more money than they know what to do with, and a yen for owning the work of a famous artist as a stamp of cultural authenticity for their good taste.  Reminds me of the old “Sorry Charlie” canned tuna ads. 
So I’m reluctant to admit that we are collectors.  Over the last thirty years we have haunted art museums, galleries and studios in nearly every place we have visited, have fallen in love with pieces here and there, and have bought what we could afford.  Friends smirk that we live in an art gallery with bedrooms and a  kitchen.  You are not going to find any of the greats of the last several centuries hanging on our walls, but you will find some outstanding examples of art, mostly abstract or post-impressionist, produced by gifted artists whose reputations are largely local from various regions of the country.  There are also a few pieces bought for sentimental reasons.
Is our collection worth anything?  Should it be insured?  Is it an investment?  It’s worth a lot to us.  We look at it every day, and find pleasure in what each piece has to say, something that is always changing.  We’ve asked our kids not to sell it in a garage sale after we’ve gone because it’s worth more than that.  Should we insure it?  A piece of art is, by definition, irreplaceable.  What would insurance accomplish?  No piece could ever be replaced.  Insurance agents always want to know what the base cost was, how much each piece has appreciated, and what the future value might be.  How can you explain that their base cost was delight,  they have appreciated in depth of appreciation, and their future value is irrelevant?  So are they an investment?  Not a chance.  No way.  They will never be worth in cash what they have given to the enjoyment of our lives.
Art, in that way, is like you and me, and each of us.  Our family and friends to be sure, but all of humanity, indeed creation itself.  We are imperfect works of art created in the complex web of nature and nurture, yet bearing in our souls the image of God Almighty.  For some of us that imago dei seems to float almost to the surface.  In others it appears to have sunk so deep that it can no longer be seen at all.  In most of us it’s a bystander, always hanging around but mostly ignored.  The point is that each of us is a gift of fine art that, each in our own way, can bring pleasure into the lives of others.  What we are and what we have to say is always changing.  It never stands still.  Even one’s constant, intimate presence in the life of another will offer something new each day.  
We, you and I, were not woven in whatever web we were hatched, nor developed by our own hard work, nor made in God’s image, to become objects of speculative investment that someone else can buy and sell for their own profit.  We are not made to become stamps of cultural authenticity used to validate someone else’s status.  We have no intrinsic future cash value to be insured.  Indeed, “…no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave.” (Ps. 49).  We, you and I, are marvelously unique works of art cherished by God.

Needless to say, I can easily see that in you and hope that you might see that in me also.  But that’s not enough.  A few days ago I sat with a meth addicted mother as her meth addicted baby died.  Could she also be a work of art bearing the image of God?  The web of nature and nurture that formed her was an evil one; about that there is no doubt.  But had she, herself, become evil?  Or did her tears of anguish and self recrimination force open, at least for a moment, the door behind which the image of God had been locked away?  It isn’t easy.  I don’t think one has to love every kind of art, or even like it at all.  But I do think one has to acknowledge that it is art, and that it does have something to say to somebody.  I don’t think I have to love (in human terms) every human being, or even like some of them, but I do have to respect and honor the dignity of every human being.  It is easier for me to see that young mother as work of art in which the image of God may yet shine through, than it was for me to see it in a former parishioner who was a life long abuser of his wife, whom he kept in virtual prison, albeit a luxurious one, for over fifty years.  I once said he was a despicable person about whom I had nothing good to say.  Was he also a work of art in which one might find the image of God?  Maybe, but I’m going to have to work on that one.

The Worst of Times

A few days ago a friend of mine observed that things are bad and getting worse, and what on earth is going on around here?  He reminded me of a front porch conversation with some Witnesses who proclaimed that the end times are imminent because things have never been so bad.  
The fear mongering that characterizes so much of talk radio and twenty-four hour television news would certainly lead one to believe that.  At its worst it is racist and xenophobic slathered in jingoistic patriotism.  At its best it tries to maintain a high state of anxiety so you won’t change the channel.  Social media contributes through comment threads that reinforce each others’ worst prejudices.
Local conditions can add more muck to the swamp.  For instance, we’ve had a rotten summer of drought, high temperatures, mediocre harvests, and way too many wild-land fires.  Throw in problems with gangs and shootings that are fairly new to us, and it can look bad.  But wait, there’s more.   Thanks to television, talk radio, and the internet, we have instantaneous but superficial knowledge of what’s going on in other localities, and so it looks like a huge spider web or grand conspiracy of a bad news tsunami sweeping over all of us good, peaceable, gentle folk.
On the other hand, and there is one, it might be a good idea to take a look at some historical moments.  Are we in the worst of times?  That would seem a ridiculous question to the victims of The Black Death that swept across 14th century Europe.  The horrific slaughters of our own Civil War signaled a new kind of Black Death that reached even greater heights in WWI and WWII.  In between, Americans, and especially Americans in the Dust Bowl, suffered through the Great Depression in ways that are hardly imaginable today.  Blacks who faced the very real danger of lynching, the likelihood of beatings, and the certainty of oppressive persecution during most of the 20th century might not have much sympathy for those who are anxious about today’s problems. 
It would be foolish to go to the other extreme and claim with Dr. Pangloss that we now live in the best of all possible worlds.  Clearly we don’t, but we are not without hope on at least two levels.  The first is the hope that we have provided for ourselves through technologies, programs, laws and changing social mores that have given us longer, healthier lives; better education; greater opportunities for a greater diversity of peoples; and broader, deeper commitments to human and civil rights.
The second, and to my mind more important, is that this is not our world.  It is God’s world.  We are a part of God’s world, and made responsible for tending it as a sacred trust.  In the scheme of things, the time each of us has to do our share is brief, a mere blink of the eyes.  We do not live in the worst of times or the best of times.  We live in our time, a broken time, a violent time, but perhaps not quite as broken or violent as it once was.  Maybe we could see that if we weren’t so egocentric, or so easily affected by unreliable, deliberately misleading sources of communication.
I take solace in Jesus’ words as John recorded them: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
To put it another way, as God said through the pen of Isaiah:
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

I am not a fan of the Initiative Process

There is a guy in Washington State that makes his living by thinking up anti-tax initiatives and getting them on the ballot.  He has cooked up another one for this fall’s election, and the local paper’s editorial board has opined that it should be allowed to go ahead, even though it is undoubtedly unconstitutional, because it would be a test of the will of the people.
No, it would not!
Consider that, roughly speaking, about 74% of eligible voters are actually registered to vote.  Voter turnout tends to be a tad under 50% of registered voters, often a good deal less.  That means that about 37% of eligible voters will take the time to vote, and about 18% will be on the wining side.  You can argue with me on the numbers, but they won’t be too far off.  The point is, that’s not much of a test of the will of the people.
Add to those dismal numbers the fact that most who do vote will not have read the voter information packet sent out by the state.  Indeed they will have read little or nothing about the initiative.  Their votes will be driven by emotional reactions to what they have heard from others, or possibly by who had the most persuasive ad on television. 
Let’s face it.  The electorate tends to be lazy, uninformed, and easily distracted by shiny objects and squirrels.  I wish that wasn’t true, but for the time being it is.
I want my public policy decisions made by elected representatives who, hopefully, have read, studied, and understood the consequences of legislative proposals.  If not directly, at least they have a chance of being guided by competent staff.  To be sure, paid and citizen lobbyists will hound them from every side, but those lobbyists are also well informed, having studied the issues in depth on behalf of their clients.  In the end, the whole thing gets hammered out through vigorous debates in committee, between committees, in the houses, and between the houses.

It doesn’t always work well.  It’s a messy business fraught with opportunities for misfeasance.  There are enough stories to go around to prove the point.  Yet, it is more sound than decisions made by an emotionally driven poorly informed minority of voters.  And that’s the reason I am not a fan of the initiative process.

Let’s talk about Heroes

Let’s talk about heroes.  Our region has been attacked by wild-land fires this summer.  Many papers and social media postings have lauded the firefighters as heroes.  Every living veteran of WWII has been called a hero.  Everyone returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq has already been given that status.  It may yet happen that veterans of Korea and Vietnam will be hailed en masse as heroes.
We are, it seems, submerged in a sea of heroes, so what is a hero?  That’s a question that each may have to answer for him or her self.  However, there are some starting points to consider.  From Greek mythology on, a hero was someone of virtue who exhibited extraordinary courage in the face of overwhelming odds.  Sometimes the hero was an adventurer seeking fame and fortune.  Sometimes he, and it was usually a he, displayed heroic courage in defense of some worthy cause.  In any case, the hero stood out in virtuous courage from among all others who found themselves in the same situation.
In our time heroes have typically been persons who have stood out in the relatively few fields of endeavor that offered opportunity for heroism.  It’s hard, for instance, to imagine  the stellar best of the generation of musicians, artists, or scholars as heroes.  What’s missing is the element of danger: the very real possibility that they might be injured or lose their lives.  Nobel Prize winners may be lauded as the best in their fields, but never as heroes.  War,on the other hand, is an environment rich in the possibility for heroism to emerge.  War heroes are those singular individuals whose exploits gained public visibility well beyond the courage and perseverance of their comrades. 
For some reason I don’t fully understand, we humans seem to require the presence of heroes.  Maybe that’s why war, and war like games, have been important characteristics of nearly every culture and civilization.  If we can’t have real war, what’s the next best thing for raising up heroes.  Sports, but only sports where the possibility of physical danger is always present, albeit with a large measure of uncertainty, even mystery.  Boxing would be an unlikely place to discover a hero because the probability of injury is almost certain, and the only question is which boxer can inflict the most injury.  Football, on the other hand, is fraught with uncertainty, and so there is opportunity for the hero to emerge as he faces overwhelming odds.  Moreover, there cannot be an entire team of heroes.  There can only be a small handful, maybe three at most and usually just one.  Baseball and basketball can sometimes produce heroes, but not often, and it would be wrong to confuse Hall of Fame calibre performance as heroism.  Scholars can find themselves marked as heroes only if they are of the Indiana Jones ilk, something exceedingly rare outside of fiction.  “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” is the herald of an impending opportunity for heroism to arise.
I suspect that sports heroism is such a commonly celebrated form of the heroic genre, not because sports produce true heroes, but because it produces living metaphors for the truly heroic that is embedded in American culture.  Sports heroes are known for ‘taking one for the team’, which I think is a cultural metaphor for the greater heroism prominent in American myth where the hero willingly puts him or herself in mortal danger to protect the welfare of others.  We see that expressed in the stories told about great American heroes.  Our history books are packed with heroes: George Washington, David Farragut, John Paul Jones, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Cochise, and Geronimo, among others.  For some it may be the heroism of a firefighter saving someone from a burning building, or a police officer putting his life on the line to protect another.  It might be a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Rosa Parks.  
The point is that heroes are singular persons who rise above all the others about them when when faced with physical danger and the outcome is uncertain, but there is one thing more.  What heroes do to be noticed beyond others must be wrapped in the cloak of moral virtue. Bonnie and Clyde, for example, showed a unique sort of courage in the face of physical danger the outcome of which was uncertain, but no reasonable person would call them heroic because their cause lacked moral virtue.  For that matter, NFL football seems to be sliding down the slope of losing whatever moral virtue it was supposed to represent, and could soon enter the ranks of professional wrestling as an icon of moral turpitude, except, of course, for the Seahawks, but I digress.
Heroes are recognized by the virtuous acts of courage that set them apart from all others.  They are singular people experiencing singular events in which the heroic act is both possible and recognized by others.  The opportunity for heroism comes and goes. The hero of today may never again do anything heroic.  And thus it seems unlikely that all firefighters are heroes, and it is not especially helpful to say that they are.  Most are simply doing their job in the best way they know how, showing considerable courage in the face of imminent danger, but no more than anyone else who is there on the line with them.  Are all returning military veterans heroes?  No, nor, I suspect, do they want to be.  Most never have seen combat and intend to keep it that way.  Others have simply done their duty in the best way they knew how, watching out for their buddies, and hoping not to get killed.  Do they deserve respect, honor and thanks for the service they have rendered to their country?  Yes by all means, and in abundance!
Heroes?  Heroes need to be a limited species.

Why do I write Country Parson? That’s a good question. I wonder if there is a good answer?

I write Country Parson for my own pleasure, but I’m always pleased when others read it, and even more when they comment on it.  My chosen subjects are theology, politics, and economics, with a little nonsense thrown in from time to time.  Country Parson is part of the Christian Century blog network, and I like it very much when one of my pieces gets chosen for broader exposure as a featured article.  Probably like others, I check my reader statistics every day or two, so maybe I treasure a secret desire to be a well known writer of editorial opinion.
That brings up the question of what editorial opinion is.  As I see it, the purpose of editorial writing is to influence public opinion.  It isn’t the same as reporting that intends to inform as objectively as possible.  Editorial writing acknowledges the political and moral implications of important issues, and does what it can to illuminate them while staking out a defensible position on them.  
There is a saying that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts.  Well written editorial opinion will always reflect a point of view, but one that is based on a careful examination of the issues and the verifiable data associated with them.  That seems to be missing in most of what I read on the editorial pages of our local paper, and often in the national media as well.  When I think of nationally known writers whose opinions I value for their thoughtfulness, i.e., for the amount of analytical thinking that goes into them, there are a few names that come to mind: E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson, David Brooks, and Frank Bruni, among others.  On the other hand are writers like Rich Lowry who has only one emotionally charged opinion that he forces onto every issue he encounters; the facts be damned if they can’t be made to agree.  What’s missing are nationally known writers on matters theological, although there are a number who write for religious journals of fairly limited circulation.  
But I digress.  We need to talk more about me.  As a late vocation priest, I didn’t go to seminary until I was fifty.  Obviously I brought a lot of life experiences with me that included a successful career, one failed marriage, one spectacularly wonderful marriage, and a lifetime of poking my nose into almost every corner of American communities, businesses, and industries.  When I write on matters theological, it’s as an Episcopalian from a more progressive perspective influenced by people such as Niebuhr, Gerard, Stackhouse, Taylor, Yoder, and the like.  My politics have been shaped by thirty years of working in and around the political arena.  I’ve worked on and led campaigns, done a lot of public policy analysis and consulting, and engaged in a little lobbying.  Most of it was on behalf of business interests, especially big business, which may have something to do with why I am not a Republican.  I’m a center left realist, if there is such a thing.  As for economics, one cannot wade into public policy analysis without taking on economic issues, and over the years I have found myself comfortable in a camp that aligns not too far away from Paul Krugman.  That gives you an idea of “where I’m coming from.”
Having said all of that, I cannot think of one good reason why anyone should attribute greater value to what I have to say than what anyone else has to say.  There are dozens of gifted journalists who have set themselves apart from the swamp of pundits who mill about Washington and New York.  There are thousands of blogs expounding from every possible point of view on every conceivable issue.  So adding my offerings to the mix may seem almost pointless, and maybe it is.  That’s why I say that I write for my own pleasure, but with the hope that there are others here and there who find it worth their time to read it along with me.

Climate Change and Teeter-Totters

There are several regular letter writers to our local paper who are convinced that human activity has nothing to do with global warming, climate change, or anything like that.  There are several other regulars who are intent on instructing them so that they finally agree that human activity does have something to do with it.  It’s like a perpetual motion teeter-totter.  If nothing else, it provides a certain level of entertainment to readers of letters to the editor.  It does, however, get a bit tedious.  Teeter-totters involve a lot of vertical motion, but they never go anywhere. 
I wonder if it would be possible for them to move in another pdirection altogether?  For instance, most of us, I think, wonder how some people can live like pigs.  They appear to show little respect for themselves, their property, neighbors, and others in general.  There are timeless adages about how birds don’t dirty their own nests that are supposed to teach us basic rules of self respect and respect for our surroundings.  I think I got that lecture a few times in my youth, and I know my children did.  
If these are personal virtues, held in common by most of us, are they not also public virtues?  Why would we, as a society, tolerate abuse of our water, land and air that leaves it more fouled than we found it?  Why would we tolerate such poor stewardship of our resources that future generations would have to work hard to clean up our messes if they hope to survive with any sense of well being?  Being good stewards for ourselves and for the generations that will follow is not only good common sense, it’s the morally, ethically right thing to do.  
We are not without progress.  Farming practices are far more respectful of the land and the need to preserve its sustainability than they were a century ago.  It may have taken strong legislation, but we have cleaner water and air than we did fifty years ago.  There are less destructive and more restorative practices in mining and drilling than there were in decades past.  We are more respectful of wildlife habitat, and more aware of how disruptive water diversion projects can be.  Despite a few glitches here and there, these are all good things, and most of us would not want to go back to the way it used to be. 

Clearly there is more to be done.  Individually and as a society we need to make pragmatically workable decisions about how we can do better as stewards of this fragile earth, our island home, not only for ourselves, but for the generations that will follow us.  Some of those decisions are ones we can each make on our own.  Some require coordinated voluntary action.  And some require formal legislation.  It all needs to be done, and my guess is that our regular letter writers on both sides probably have some good ideas about what needs to be done, and what can be done.  Maybe they’ll share them with us if they ever get off their teeter-totter.

Labor Day Thoughts about Labor Unions

Labor unions were at their peak in the years following WWII.  A little less that 50% of the workforce was unionized back then.  Today it’s around 10% nation wide, with wide variation from state to state.  Some part of the decline is their own fault.  Overly aggressive demands for higher pay and benefits combined with stringently inflexible work rules reached their zenith at the same time that a recovering world economy opened up opportunities for industry to invest where labor was cheaper and less demanding.  The trend was abetted by civil rights legislation that enabled industrial employment in states that were vehemently anti-union to a population that had been chained to the field.  To put it another way, the New South was built on cheaper, non-union labor.
Labor’s strategy sometimes seemed to defy common sense.  I recall several strikes at a tractor factory in my home town in the 1960s.  The factory was owned by a company teetering on the edge of failure, and the strikes did what was needed to push them over.  Auto worker strikes in Detroit boosted pay and benefits beyond what bumbling, slow moving management could afford.  Even today, Washingtonians have witnessed recent strikes against Boeing by a recalcitrant, pugnacious machinists union that have brought them close to losing everything.  I suspect that the union grossly overestimated the competency of management, but that’s another issue.  In any case, the Cold War style of brinksmanship negotiating was a failure.
Having said that, you have seen testimonies to what organized labor has accomplished for ordinary Americans: the eight hour day, five day week, paid vacation, sick leave, safer work places, and so much more.  We owe a lot to the courage of those who were willing to put their jobs on the line to get decent pay and working conditions.  We are now seeing strikes and hard nosed negotiating for other things.  Teachers in a neighboring city are on strike partly for pay, which they deserve, but even more for adequate classroom supplies, texts, and the funds needed for learning to take place.  The union representing our local firefighters negotiated hard all the way through arbitration.  For what?  For the equipment and training needed to keep our community safe.  Here and there are examples of organizing where workers are most mistreated: hotel housekeeping, fast food, big box retailing, etc.  It hasn’t been very successful, but it has shined the light of public awareness into dark places in desperate need of illumination.
I still hear old codgers grumbling in their morning coffee groups about the unbridled power of big labor and how they hate unions.  There isn’t any big labor anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time.  It may be that big labor played a big role in its own demise, but the price now being paid for the lack of responsible union representation is growth in employment at the lowest possible level of compensation, stagnation of wages, and the enormous gap between the top and everyone else.  It may be time for unions to make a comeback, but in a more sophisticated and responsible way.