Monday, July 28, 2014

$1 Beer Night

It seems like I am not the only one who thought $1 beer night at the ballpark sounded like such a good idea.  The line to get tot the place is really, really long.

The average age of the "baseball fans" tonight seems to be about 21 1/2, roughly, or in more personally relevant terms, less than half my age and not that much older than my daughter, who I love dearly, but with whom, 9 innings of progressive intoxication is no longer my cup of tea.

But, after all, it is $1 beer night.  How bad could it get?  Where do you draw the not-worth-it line on $1 beer night?  How about a band consisting of a drunken trombone player, an asthmatic bagpiper and one of those wind-

up monkey toys that klanks away at a drum and a symbol?

What about too-loud karaoke in a too-small bar - and not the Japanese kind, the American kind?

The natural follow-up to these questions, is of course:  What kind of beer is $1?

Alas, my body turned around and walked away while I considered these things as well as other life mysteries such as whether a trombone player is a "trombonist" or a "tromboner".

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong

There is an existential argument raging in and about the industry in which I am employed that both in form and in substance is disheartening me.

Both sides have their arguments down almost to the point of cliche.  It is either good, without room for critical reflection and certainly without room for dramatic improvement; or it is bad categorically and should be scrapped and started over from scratch.

Having been around this crowd for 20+ years, I can tell you in factual terms that they are both right, and they are both wrong.  In making their arguments, both sides can wander from intentionally misleading to mindful (or mindless) blindness to the merits of the other's arguments.

Unfortunately for everyone else, the dualistic, polarized shouting matches of this sort have become the norm.  Discourse doesn't happen much these days.  Discourse has been left to loud displays of categorical, unyielding, and - it would seem - intentionally confrontational side-choosing. It just seems that in more and more critically important societal conversations, the only voices we get to hear are the unyielding ones.

The argument going on in my industry is societally relevant, and I would say critical.  To make it into something that can be yelled about, it has been turned into simplistic black-and-white components, leaving non-specialist stake holders and observers feeling the primal urge to chose from black or white, failing to consider the grays because those voices are drowned out.

Compromise is not always a good thing, but the complete absence of compromise can be equally destructive.  At least compromise follows discourse.  Winner-take-dualism is killing discourse. 

As a society, we wander along, declaring a "winner" and swiftly moving along to the next loudest topic, failing to reflect on the effect of our decision.  Governance becomes not much more than a jousting match with the prize of prudent governance being replaced with victory laps for the "winners".  Those governed end up the innocent bystanders.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Superman Effect

It seems that in every town, in every county in every state, some time around this time of year, a few kids - out "just being kids" - die in some seemingly pointless, probably at least partly self-induced tragedy.
It happened to me just a month out of high school.  One of my friends, seemingly out of nowhere killed himself and another was killed by the reckless driving of her boyfriend.

Was she experiencing a thrill as they came down that hill and slammed into that retention wall?  We never found out.  

This week, it was my town's turn.  My freshman daughter knew the kids, even hung out with them.  When you see the site of the tragedy, a seasoned driver knows that something isn't quite right.  It seems impossible to accidentally hit  that tree, so far from the road.

But, alas, another passage of summer. For some, a devastatingly permanent passage.  The pain is palpable.  And yet, the teenage years seem to inevitably be a time of life for most people when we, groping for the boundaries of our own independence, are able to raise the stakes without yet understanding the contra side of the trade.

This phenomenon of being adult-sized in body but still kid-sized in mind and experience seems to be addressed mostly - in of all places - driving schools.  There, they call it the "Superman Effect". 

The "Superman Effect's" can't-happen-to-me definition make it painfully and unfortunately circular and cuts it off from external intervention.  The only person who can shut down the "Superman Effect" is the individual.  I can't shut down yours, you can't shut down mine. 

Meanwhile, another summer, in another town, in another county, in every state passes by.  I guess the freedom we like to talk about here really does have its price. It is truly tragic that no matter the age, that price is so often paid by people who don't understand the trade they're in.

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Independence Day Prayer

Freedom is a funny thing.  We all want it for ourselves, but we’re a little less keen on it for others.  Truth is, we like to restrict other people's access to activities that bother us.  We’ve even been known to stretch safety concerns to get our way. 

We embody this conflict in our language.  The difference between a “freedom fighter” and a “terrorist” all depends on where you stand.  The party is either “rockin” or “disturbing the peace”, again all based on perception.

It gets pretty mellow and fuzzy when you’re dealing with people one-on-one.  Where is the line between compassionately wrestling self-destructive freedom from someone and anxiously standing around and watching them be freely self-destructive? 

Is freedom really as sacrosanct as our ideology needs it to be?  

In Southern Africa, there is a philosophy of community called Ubuntu.  You may call it a theology.  Roughly translated, it means “I am because We are.”   That would seem to fly in the face of disengaged anxiety that seems to be the response to watching self-destructive freedom.  Uncritically prizing individual freedom over collective freedom the general welfare at higher risk.

I am left feeling that we all we can do is engaged compassion.  The truth is, you can’t make anyone do or think or say anything that’s meaningful or sustainable, no matter their age or physical status.  All you can do is support them, even when they use their freedom to attack themselves.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Great, Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals

If you have accommodated yourself to have low expectations, then the only thing that will happen is that expectations will get lower.  

What you focus on, does in fact, truly grow.  It is a goofy little Buddist matra, but that doesn't make it any less true. 

A focus on getting by; avoiding poor results really only has two possible outcomes, both negative.  The first is the desire of avoiding the negative takes over the desire to attain the spectacular.  When poor results occur, the focus will shift on making sure to avoid those same results, thus, creating a more myopic focus on the dodging the pain.  The second possible outcome is a redefinition of success.  If negative outcomes can be avoided easily, the bar should be lowered.  Can these low expectations be attained cheaper? Faster? Easier?

The antidote is to focus on Great, Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals.  GBHAG's create the opportunity for more distributed success.

GBHAG's should always be the first thought when the welfare of others in at stake.  In fact, if you have any capacity at all to do so, you have a moral imperative to always keep GBHAG's as a target and walk away from an ethic that thrives by avoiding bad things. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thank Goodness Good People Die Every Day

I was reading an obituary last night.  I didn’t know the person, a friend posted it on Facebook.  Out of some vague source of concern, I read it.

Turned out it was an former high school teacher of my friend’s.  There were several posts of praise for this teacher.  I found myself thinking:  “Its too bad that good people die every day.”  The thought came and went and I didn't think too much more of it.

A little later, that thought came back to me.  Apparently, it wasn't done with me yet.  I realized that in fact, it is not too bad that good people die every day, rather, it’s thank goodness that good people die every day.  That means that we have a lot of good people.  The more good people who die every day, the more that means that people have lived their fullest life, touched the most people and made the most of their time here with us.
I remember waking up the next moring to learn that Maya Angelou had died the previous day.

It’s not that they die, its that they lived.  Fully.  That’s why I’ll say “Thank goodness good people die every day.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Good Question...

My 16 year old daughter, in a discussion about socialism and communism:

"The first time it came up in class, the teacher read the definition 'an economic system which favors equality and insures everyone has access to the resources they need' or something like that.  I laughed because I thought the teacher was making a joke.  What's so bad about that?"

Good question.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Environments of Trust 4

My last three posts have addressed my feelings and experiences regarding trust characteristics in groups of individuals. To summarize:

Trust environments are recognizable;
Trust environments are definable based on the behavior patterns of individual members of the group;
Trust environments are self-sustaining and self-enhancing;
Trust environments can be changed.

As lame as this may sound, I think effecting a movement toward trust in an environment is so important that it means having to make personal sacrifice.  Avoding low-trust behaviors the spring up from time to time in high-trust environments is a matter of calling out the unwanted behavior.  In strong, high-trust environments, this process is natural and is often facilitated by the offending party:  "Oh, gosh, that was terrible for me to say, I'm sorry."

But in low-trust environments where apologizing can be dangerous, self-correction is rarely the case.  It takes an individual effort, often at individual peril (not to physical harm, but to group membership).  Small, intentional personal shifts are the only beginning point as trust cannot be legistlated.

Self-awareness is the key to these smaller personal shifts.  Someone who may have survived in a low-trust environment/relationship will be able to make a transition into functioning in a high-trust environment.  However it is really, really hard to get someone whose senses are trained to a high-trust environment to get comfortable in a low –trust one.   High-trust environments are like bells – they are very hard to unring.  Friends who all of a sudden get “bossy” and ultimatums are both examples of breeches of trust.  That’s why we’re so offended by them.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Environments of Trust 3

My last two posts have addressed my feelings and experiences regarding trust characteristics in groups of individuals.    To summarize:

Trust environments are recognizable;
Trust environments are definable based on the behavior patterns of individual members of the group;
Trust environments are self-sustaining and self-enhancing.

This time, I'd like to address where I personally get stuck and am currently stuck:  effecting change in low trust groups.

I have found that shifting environments starts with smaller personal shifts and personal choices.  A propensity toward a low-trust behavior such as judgment (a common behavior in low-trust environments), will become “uncool” if there is no buy in from the group and therefore no trend.
Conversely, acting as though you are in a high-trust environment when you're really in a low-trust environment can make you appear to be out of touch, and loose credibility. Breeches of trust are easy to recognize and in a high-trust environment, but breeches of non-trust in a low-trust enviornment are hard to pick up on, especially by people surrounded by an atmosphere of low-trust.
Next time...effecting change...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Environments of Trust 2

Last time, I wrote about my feelings and experiences regarding observations of group activities and their indications of trust.

I have found that activities I mentioned as either characteristics of low-trust or high-trust environments tend to lead to more activity in the same column. Essentially, among otherwise healthy individuals, trust breeds trust and the lack of trust breeds a continuation or acceleration of the lack of trust. 

So environments in which bragging is a common practice also tend to also favor blaming.  Conversely, environments that celebrate success also tend to be much more collaborative when it comes to fixing problems. 

Next time...breaking patterns....

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Environments of Trust 1

One of the characteristics of high-trust environments/relationships is an ability to talk both positively and negatively in a group setting in balanced and beneficial ways.  Doing this makes many people uncomfortable. 
Books such as Crucial Conversations give each of us more tools to engage in ways that increase the probability of positive results – how to function in high-trust environments/relationships.  Here are some characteristics of high- and low-trust environments/relationships:

High Trust Environment                                          Low Trust Environment
Celebrating success                                                     Bragging
Fixing sources of failures                                            Finding blame
Asking for help                                                           Suffering in silence
Understanding                                                             Judging
Power-with                                                                  Power-over
Offensive/progressive                                                 Defensive/protecting
Collaboration                                                              Independent Decision-making

Each environment has its proper place.  For so, for example, when the ship is sinking, power-over (Get on the darn life boat!) is preferable to power-with (Do we all agree that  getting on the life boats is a good idea?).  When danger isn’t quite so imminent, such as in business or social groups, I have found that sustainable success will more predictably come from high-trust functioning environments.
Next time...Benefits of Self-Awareness

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Funny how we all see things so differently

Going about my daily activities, I happened to be in the vicinity of a young woman who was struggling to put a lid on a cup of soda.  The lid apparently broke in the process and she made a small-ish mess.  I felt sorry for her, but didn't think much of it as she seemed to have the situation under control, albiet slightly frazzled by the inconvenience.

Then, she said this (explicatives deleted):   “This is all because the environmentalists make them have to make the plastic lids so flimsy.  I wish those environmentalists would just mind their own business.”

She was considering the useable life of a paper cup, lid and straw that would probably span about 10 minutes and complaining about quality.  I'm assuming that the reaction was brought out by frustration over the incident, but I was just not expecting the consideration that the manufacturer of the cup had been mandated to make the utensils flimsy because of pressure from environmentalists.

I was so happy to have been able to get that unexpected refresher of just how wide ranging viewpoints can be on even the very most simple of matters.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz (or maybe a Tesla), or maybe just a Budweiser

I find it is so very easy in our consumption-driven world to affirm our love for something.  Do you feel the same way?

People "love" beer, muscle cars and rock bands, which is all find and dandy. But for Budweiser to affirm its love for me by printing up a shirt that tells the world that I am loved, now that might have some value for me.

I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes this week with a lovely person, who I had not previously met.  She was going through a bit of a tough time, so we struck up a conversation about it. 

In the process of the conversation, she made a point about her house, which she described as “not exactly a mansion, but we’re comfortable.”  She went on to say that if God had wanted her to have a mansion, then he would have given her a mansion.

This whole God-the-great-donor-of-material-things is, to put it mildly, a foreign thought to me, and normally I wouldn’t have said anything.  But in this instance, some little demon in me said to her “Well, God didn’t give his own son a mansion, so what does that tell you about what God thinks about mansions.”

I don’t know where that came from, but it hit home base with my new friend and it hit home base with me.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

I ♥ My Church

There is a new t-shirt in town where I live.   I am seeing them everywhere.  It says “I ♥ My Church.”  I’m wondering why I find that offensive.

It took me while, but I think I’m onto something, finally.  I think the thing is that people don’t go out and make t-shirts.  I myself have never made myself a t-shirt, but I have bought a few, which infers that someone else made them.  I think what is rubbing me the wrong way is a church manufacturing t-shirts for people to wear.  Advertising is one thing, but advertising by manufactured affirmation seems a little icky for a church.

This made me feel like a prude, so I considered what would make me feel warmer.  I think it would be perfectly valid and actually wonderful if the church had manufactured t-shirts that said:  “My church ♥’s me.”  To me, that seems like a much greater affirmation.  Still weird, but not as weird to me as the other way around.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


I was walking through a small group at a large event when my own ears heard a woman utter these very words:

"I love Richmond.  Of course, there are parts of it that would be better if we could exterminate some of the people who live there."

Not making it up.  Not being dramatic.  Not misunderstanding, I heard it clear as a bell.  Actually, it was pretty easy to hear.  The woman didn't make much effort to conceal the statement.  What's more, her friends agreed.  I'll say it again in case you missed it.  They agreed.

I am at a complete loss of what to think.  Should I have done something?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Shame, Atonement and Worthiness

What I have found is that the opposite of shame is worthiness.  The pathway from shame to worthiness is atonement.  Atonement with those you have directly let down or injured.  Atonement with yourself.  If you believe so, atonement with God.  I have found that atonement takes work and is not easy. I realized that I don't really have a choice.  I can postpone it, delay it, or deny it, but eventually, the call to worthiness is too great to ignore.  

The good news is that unfulfilled atonement is what we call guilt and it is an entirely preventable syndrome.  Universalism tell me that God is alright with me, and for that matter all of us.  It's up to us to decide if we're alright with him, with our friends and family, with our community.  The other thing I realized is that you can't vicariously atone.  You can't be alright with yourself by getting right with everyone else.  You have to do that too.  Probably first.  People say that it's not all about you.  With atonement, it actually is.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What is our primacy worth to us?

I am reading the recent Doris Kearns-Goodwin book about the people in the Lincoln administration and I am in awe of the similarities between those times and ours.  It's so easy to fall into a bias of thinking that what is going on right now, whenever that is, is so novel that the seemingly accidental solutions that eventually render themselves are equally novel.

But is there any risk in looking at history and finding comfort that our situations (personal, interpersonal or global) will work themselves out because history repeats itself?  Can we become complacent?

Has there ever been a period of time when a declining empire like ours has been coupled with such immense global destructive military power?  We can start a war just about anywhere in just a matter of months and if we get seriously threatened we have the capability of destroying millions of souls without ever setting foot on the lands of the people we aim to destroy.

What is our primacy worth to us?  This is the operative question.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

We’re all addicted to something, aren’t we?

The easy ones to pick out are the ones that facilitate some additional dysfunction that has been identified by society.  Alcohol and narcotics abuse are the big two in this category.

Others are harder to put your finger on.  Food, sex, money, power.  You can mask being egomaniacal to your friends a lot easier than you can mask being stoned at work, for example.

The subtlest are the ones that are most common.  We are addicted to being safe or loved.  We crave and can’t live without hearing that we’re pretty/handsome or smart/creative or fast/strong or generally superior.

So by its pervasivness, being addicted to something is completely “normal”, the societal concern isn’t necessarily the addiction itself, but rather its affects. For example, it is in society’s best interest to curb things like chronic excessive alcohol consumption because the affect of such addictions is often unexpected, unpredictable or unpleasant results and behavior.  Some addictions are almost guaranteed to cause unpleasant results.  Nicotine addiction, for example is conjoined with cancer and other ill-health.

As is nearly uniformly the case, what is in society’s best interest is in conflict with what is in our individual best interests.  Collective efforts to empower individual wholeheartedness would be far preferable to the current model, which is to react to addictions on an individual basis and then deploy the fastest possible deterrent/cure to insulate ourselves from unpredictable or unpleasant results.

I wonder if that is even possible.  Do we actually infuse each other and ourselves with the self-doubt that fuels the addictions, or are we hard-wired to feel these cravings?  It’s the nature or nurture question in reverse, I guess.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Prayer for the Epiphany

It is not a testament to our lives to say that we have succeeded, because life (despite the current and loud admonition to the contrary) is not a business in which there are winners and losers. Life  is about the trying, business is about the succeeding.

The only sure way to fail is to avoid the risk by never trying.  But success is incumbent upon our own efforts not in a vacuum, but in an atmosphere in which multiple contributions to success, some small and unnamable hold up the attempt and give it a head start.  Failure after effort is dismissed as a manifestation of personal faults, not a reflection on the lack of a suitable atmosphere.  This personal attachment to failure and success diminishes the value of the effort itself, scaring people away for fear of failure.  This imposition of economic measurement on life is one of our greatest failings and here laid bare for the world to witness.

Many shudder at the thought of on their death bed, sitting in self-judgement reviewing their accounts in some giant ledger.  We live our days in this under the assumption that this accounting (or reckoning) will occur, but for some reason, in the end we regret that our lives are not much more than a compilation of our days.  Living each day makes for living a meaningful life.

Monday, December 31, 2012

A Prayer for a New Year

My beloved America is transitioning from de-facto superpower to vital member of a world community, presumably making a stop at "first among equals" along the way.

This transitions being fought by Americans of resources through their government.  Loathsome of falling out of a place of primacy, the fight is on.  The recent Presidential election gave us a birds-eye view of the fight, with both major candidates waxing rhetorically about the necessity of America to "be out front", "lead the world", "support democracy" and generally to be the alpha-dog on the block.

The incumbent was often criticized for having on occasion "lead from behind" which was a strongly understood euphemism for "weakness".

The American Empire is here and we are beginning to recognize it.  Our financial interests run very, very deep and very, very wide, and the cost to insure these interests will only grow more expensive if we continue to play the role of enforcer.

This new years's day, I pray that as this transition comes into clearer view, it is not met combatively, but rather welcomed and managed.  Without proper recognition and management, this transition will become violent.  We know this for watching any such struggle and we already have a view of this with the September 11, 2011 attacks which we clearly interpreted as a challenge to our primacy.  Had we rather chosen to interpret these attacks and all the attacks since as a tap on the shoulder to let us know that our primacy may not be working for everyone,  we may have learned more about ourselves and our role in this world.  Instead, we quite possibly began our trip down the bumpy road to membership in a world community by denying the trip and the bumps.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Prayer for a Merry Christmas

Peace has come to me this Christmas season. My family is away and I am working nearly non-stop on personal thing to prepare for what should be my penultimate classes on my masters degree.  I have had the additional blessing of becoming stark-raving sick, confining me first to a hotel room (I was traveling for work) and then home for the vast majority of a week.  I have ventured out of my shell only four times during that time (five times if you count the three hour drive home) and two of those were to the doctor's office.  I have two presents, one from my mother, one from my daughter and her boyfriend sitting on the kitchen table.  I am blissfully peaceful - I even found and lit some incense, something I haven't done in years.  I wish you could have the same, whatever that means to you.

I also have received the gift of prophetic words from over a century ago.  These words came packed in (what seems like) thousands of pages of required reading, most of which borders on incomprehensible babble.  Rising above the babble like a chinese bottle rocket, William Ellery Channing said:

"To live in the truth or divine spirit of Christ is to be freed from the always-evil desire to dominate any other human being."

Print that, wrap it up, put it under your tree or in your stocking, and when you open it, it's me, wishing you a Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thank you, St. Anselm

I am coming to a clearer understanding of how people interpret or use the word "faith", and it is quite different than the way I use it in a rather disconcerting way.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury was a Anglican archbishop, an academic theologian and philosopher.   He proposed the notion that G/god is that which exceeds our knowledge.  To put it in simpler terms, think of numbers.  A young student will probably eventually ask what the largest number is.  To this, the teacher would respond that there is no largest number, because you can always add one to the prior number, and so numbers are infinite.

The universe is also infinite, but unlike numbers, it's infinite-ness transcends our ability to understand it all.  Reason, evidence and science can advance our understanding, but we will never understand it all.

And we arrive at faith.  I am learning that one understanding is that faith is a tool used by people to believe the unbelievable, which puts faith in conflict with reason.  For me, that is not a definition of faith, but rather a definition of imagination.  Like reason, faith has a strong relationship with imagination because imagination forms the foundation upon which learning occurs.  But faith is fundamentally different than imagination because faith emerges from an experience.  Properly understood, neither faith nor reason attempt to prove or disprove the unbelievable, they just both attempt to articulate an understanding of the world using different forms of measurement.

Faith and reason are co-dependent.  Faith forms the backbone of reason, for you must have some faith in reason's potential benefit to undertake it in the first place.  Without faith in humanity, reason would eliminate itself and without reason, faith would be indistinguishable from imagination.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What is sympathy?

I am reflecting on yet another gruesome manifestation of brokenness in our lives that intersects with freedom and the result is 26 people who will never come home for dinner again.

When these things come up, I think about sympathy. If one loved one dies or is gravely ill due to disease or accident, sympathy comes from interpersonal compassion and is a way of communicating that our hearts and minds are with those living with the change. Through sympathy, we simultaneously express our love, our concern and that if we knew what we could do to provide any support, we would.

In cases like Sandy Hook, sympathy can seem both self-indulgent and inadequate. How do we meaningfully express sympathy to strangers from across the country? We can promise to them that we will do better to see that things like this don't happen anymore. We can promise to tell the parents of the kids who hurt animals that their kid might need some help. We can promise to live as a community, not as isolated "free" individuals. We can promise to develop ways or devices to enter into and maintain the crucial conversations that we avoid out of discomfort or embarrassment, standing behind some ill-conceived notion that individual freedom trumps community well being.

Signing a sympathy card on Facebook makes us feel better. It might make the community at Sandy Hook feel better, but mostly it just tells them that we have access to mass media. True sympathy that originates with compassion means promising real, tangible change about yourself that will make this better. Stationing an armed guard at the door of every classroom - like we did with the airports - just makes us feel better, acknowledges our ideological-driven blind-sides and shifts responsibility back onto the nameless, faceless government. We can do better than that.

Friday, December 14, 2012

If faut casser des oeufs pour faire d'omelette, baby.

The increasing tension between ideology and results is beginning to cause some tension in me.

More and more, or maybe just more apparently to me, the focus of decision-making is on loyalty to an ideology rather than the projected results.

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When decisions based on ideology result unfavorably, causation lines are deftly redrawn to protect the ideology from blame.  That's what suffering is for, if it wasn't meant to be, than it wasn't meant to be.  We even have language to institutionalize the primacy of ideology: "The ends can't justify the means!" is one of my personal favorites.

People who actually do justify the means by at least considering the ends are considered immoral.  We call them "Machiavellian" after a misunderstood Medieval philosopher, meaning that ethics are purely situational - a concept surely threatening to the powerful.

Why is it socially or culturally acceptable to scrutinize the ethics of a process that had positive results and intentions but required bending of rules or questionable tactics?  Or the flip of that question, why are the ethics and intentions of someone who cased harm but "stuck to their guns" beyond reproach?

Surely, the ends can't universally justify the means, but the opposite is also true, the means can't justify the ends, either.

We need a balance and that comes only leadership.  There is an old French saying - you have to break a few eggs if you're going to make an omelette.  For ethics based on ideology to evolve, they have to change and that means at some point, someone, somewhere must break them with positive intentions to gain positive results.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Ethic of Community

Liberty University, a private Christian school has lodged a legal challenge to the universal health insurance plan (the Affordable Care Act, or ACA) being implemented right now. Its complaint is founded on the notion that its forced participation in the plan would cause the university, as an employer, to provide benefits for medical services that conflict with its religious beliefs. The focal point of its concern is that the university would (indirectly, through the plan) offer to pay for abortions and birth control.

The complaint is obviously based on an assumption that a corporation has its own civil rights to religious freedom. If it does, can its rights legally trump individual civil rights by association? Liberty is so convinced of this ideology and in its religious convictions that it has chosen to risk the embarrassment associated with disclosing that it knows that its employees’ morals aren’t uniformly aligned with its own. [If it were confident in this uniformity, it would not be so aggressively opposed to offering a benefit which would effectively go unused by individual choice.]

As someone whose religious beliefs are nearly uniformly in some degree of moral conflict with the current manifestation of Western culture, I am bombarded by violations of my morality. Maybe I should stop paying my taxes until I am free from the things that assault my morality. Off the top of my head, I can think of that death penalty thing, corporate personhood, concentration of media ownership (especially radio) and the use of government resources to transfer corporate risk onto individuals.

The true test here is between an ethic of community and an ethic of individual.

An ethic of community prioritizes the welfare of the community over the welfare of the individual. This means that by choosing to live in a community, we are incented to ensure the welfare of each other first and from that individual success, preference and convenience will be possible. The natural resting place for authority in an ethic of community is in a system of “power-with”, or stewardship of each other for the purpose of empowering individual happiness (success).

An ethic of individualism assumes that for the community to succeed, it must first be populated by successful individuals and therefore prioritizes the welfare of the individual as a path to community success. The natural resting place for authority in an ethic of individualism resides then in a system of “power over” to ensure that individuals are empowered to attain their own success and therefore ensure community success. As it evolves, individuals are incented to influence authority using a system created and curated by the powerful. In an ethic of individualism, authority can become a self-serving cycle in which power and influence feed off each other with only casual and gradually reducing attention paid to the welfare of the community.

The Liberty complaint is an experiment in testing which ethic is authentic. Will the result of this complaint confirm that true authority means stewardship under an ethic of community, or will it rather authenticate and possibly formalize an ethic of individualism?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Kids (already) are religious.

I had the honor of serving as a chaperone at a religious retreat for high school aged kids.  Watching them together participating in their own formal worship and fellowship, I came to a realization that these are very religious people, it's just that their religion looks different than adult worship.

As I considered what I was witnessing, I was reminded that babies are a manifestation of God, their path to adulthood is often a drifting away from their inner deity which too infrequently they manage to find again later in life.

These kids seemed to me to be deeply connected to each other.  Adult worship is oriented primarily to the individual and produces collective by-products.  These kids' worship was primarily collective with individual by-products.  It is we adults who force divisive notions of right and wrong into their heads.  For us, religion is a math equation.  For them, its an exploration of each other and the rest of things.  They fight it at first, but eventually, they give up and we win.  I guess.

Maybe, at church, the real worship is done by the youth while we adults sit in a row and face forward.  Maybe we don't send them out of our services to get a little peace and quiet, they send us out of theirs to get rid of our silliness.  And then when we take that away from them, they disappear, never to be seen again.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

'Tis the season for sharing, after all, dammit!

The sign above the donut case at the coffee shop this morning read:

“’Tis the season for sharing!”

As I waited, I considered what that makes all the other seasons. 

Abruptly, the patron on line behind me demanded faster service from the haggard soul working behind the counter. The patron who was wearing expensive business clothes demanded that the worker who was covered in powdered sugar pay due respect and honor people’s time constraints. (PS, it didn’t quite come out that way, but that was the jist).

When the worker handed over the long overdue coffee, instead of “Thank you”, the patron said “finally”.
The worker responded “have a good day”, but I’m pretty sure that the words didn’t match the thoughts at that moment.

Maybe a bigger sign would help?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fallen Soldier Tribute

A young man from my South Carolina town, Sgt. "Bo" Hicks died while serving with the US Army in Afghanistan

I stopped by the side of the road to watch the procession that came before and after the hearse that carried his bones to their final resting place.

The procession was probably larger than most, but probably not out of the ordinary in size or other characteristics for someone who died with honor at a young age.    That funeral procession personalized the Afganistan war for me, even though I hadn't know Sgt. Hicks at all.  Sitting there, in my car, I felt a deep sense of grief.  Was this whole procession possibly a collective confession of our guilt for having sent the young man out to fight a war in the first place?

Many of us go through deliberate decision process prior to making decisions that carry far less weight than the life or death of a third party.  Have we short-changed these men and women  who are out fighting our silent war?  Is our decision process at least as robust as it can be? 

Sgt. Hicks was only 24 when his life ended.  I almost can't say that out loud without wanting to cry about it.  It will go in the record books that he was killed by a bomb that had been hidden.  But is that really the reason?  If that bomb had been hidden in Greer, I would think there would be an inquiry to find out why it was there.   Who had hidden it?  What would drive someone to be so angry as to hide a bomb?  Clearly someone must have seen the bomb being hidden or known it was there?  Why didn't anyone say something?

But, alas the bomb was not in Greer, it was in Paktika province, Afganistan.  How did he get there?  What really was the reason he was there?  Was the bomb intended to harm specifically him, or was it more of a random act of hatred and anger?  Why was it there?  People don't hide bombs for no reason.  What kind of desperation or hate causes someone to hide a bomb?

I just hope we're not collectively avoiding asking these questions becuase we're afraid of the answers.  If we are, then that funeral procession really was was a confession of guilt and collectively, we owe a debt to Sgt. Hicks that we can't ever repay.

We like to say that we are honoring a fallen soldier.  I don't know.  Personally, I would trade the comfort of having finalized Osama bin Laden and all of Afganistan for just his life.  I wish he were still alive.  He probably does too. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Black Monday

Today was not a good day for me.

Recently, my employer decided to terminate a formerly key employee. This decision was reached after considerable reflection on the part of my employer. This employee had decided to invest heavily in the past and forego sharing the vision of the future that our employer had hoped for. After this formerly key employee purposeefully making life miserable for all around the situation, our employer, after realizing through evidence that the situation was uncomfortably past the point of reconciliation, decided to formally part ways.

I suppose that it is not surprising to learn that this black soul is now about town saying bad things about us and damaging our business and our reputation by his actions. Amazingly, this employee is managing to profit from the very incompetence and other unhealthy behaviours that led to our employer seeking out new avenues for affecting its business plan.

Under attack from self-centered greed and competence based on income and ideology rather than success and results, I am once again dismayed at the state of capitalism in our buyer-beware society.

Black Friday followed, at least for me, directly by Black Monday. I could get so much more done if I didn’t have to unravel mistruths, lies and blasphemy. It takes a black soul to see into the mind of a black soul. I realize that I just don’t have that and I don’t want it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Minimalist Definition of "Christian"

Recently, I had the wonderful chance to come across a minimalist definition of "Christian".  There are just a couple provisions:

1.  You believe that Jesus was both divine and human;
2.  You believe that Jesus' divinity was somehow unique;
3.  You believe that the mere possibility for salvation is due exclusively to Jesus' death.

I have commented before here that I have been told I am not Christian.  I'm still not clear on who has the authority to make those sorts of decisions, but I guess I agree with them.  Now, I'm pretty sure I agree.  If this definition is universally applied by Christians everywhere, I surely don't fit the mold.

1.  Jesus was both divine and human.  On this we agree.
2.  Jesus' divinity was somehow unique to him.  Nope.  We're all divine.  Jesus just knew it.
3.  Salvation comes from Jesus's death. Nope again.  Salvation comes from Jesus' life.

You see, Jesus' life told us a story of our misunderstanding of what had transpired before.  We misunderstood when we thought that we were sinners and by virtue of our "original" sin, (or as Buddhist/Christians tell it, "original suffering") we were unsaved.  We misread the message there.  Being imperfect is what distinguishes us from divinity.  It's what makes us human. It's not something that needs to be fixed, like a flat tire, it is part of the deal.  We read into this that our flaws meant that we would be punished for them.  That was never true, Jesus just helped to clarify that.

What it all comes down to is when you look into your own soul, do you see something that you're in love with, or do you see something you despise?  Jesus' life told you its OK to see something you love.  Jesus' death reminded us that we've got a ways to go yet.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cliff Diving

The next couple weeks here in the United States should be very interesting to watch.

The European Union, which is a union of financial resources, but not political resources, is facing a questionable future as several of its member nations have fallen on hard economic times.  Those member nations who are currently less financially vulnerable have been allowed to control the conversation and are insisting that the financially vulnerable member nations “tighten their belts”.  By their influence these financially more stable nations have chosen to obligate the citizens of the less stable nations to take up a position of austerity, or self-denial by insisting that these citizens inject their own personal cash (by way of taxation, reduction in government spending or currency manipulation) to support the financial solvency of their governments.
What will be interesting is watching how this proceeds here in the United States.  Although we have not been directly involved in the European Union’s crisis of financial identity, we have officially concurred with the “belt-tightening” recommendations in Europe.  

Meanwhile, interestingly now coming into fuller view is our own tenuous financial condition.  Our own austerity measures have been built in as a default that is being referred to as the “fiscal cliff”, imagery of destruction intended.  Funny how for Greece and Portugal, it’s prudent and necessary “belt-tightening” but when it happens to us, it’s cliff-diving gone terribly wrong.

It will be interesting to see if at some point we recognize our conflicted opinions in public.

Technically, is it still "cliff diving" if you've been pushed?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Historically Indifferent

Contrary to common wisdom, I've come to the conclusion that history is mostly irrelevant. Personally, I am for the most part completely disinterested in it.

Of course, this conversation is an uphill battle.  Most times when I have taken the leap and engaged in a discussion on the subject, the people who take the opposing viewpoint consider themselves to have won the discussion based mostly on being on the popular side of the argument.

For me, history is like watching cooking tv.  You get the general gist of how to do it, but the details you lose in watching versus doing make the watching almost entirely useless.  

History's value for me has three insurmountable problems:

First is that life is lived forwards, but studied backwards.   This means that the results of time invariably tarnish our investigation of history's events.  This goes beyond "the victors write the history". Intention aside, objectivity is nearly impossible after the fact.

Second is that we can study what did happen, but is it possible to study what didn't happen?  The variables that go into any action are so many that understanding them all; the logical ones, the illogical ones is nearly impossible as they happen.  After the fact, they need to be considered irrelevant by objective standards.  Would you perform life-threatening surgery based on evidence collected by the using the same standards?

Lastly is the availability of information.  Do you write done everything you think?  If you are under duress or stress, do you write, say or do the truth, or would you possible disguise your intent?  Would someone years later be able to know the difference?

History doesn't really repeat itself.  Human patterns of brokenness reoccur under different circumstances and we in retrospect recognize those patterns. We recognize them going forward, too, we just fail to fix them based on the acquisition of worldly value.

In retrospect, that gives my nod to cooking shows. The would appear to hold more social value.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Only $7B? Such a deal!

This may be information to you as it was to me.  With the 2012 US Presidential election finally here, I just learned that the total cost of electing the President this time around will exceed USD$5 billion, and like a tip at the Waffle House, the cost of the congressional election was USD$2B.

Has there ever been a more embarrassing bit of news than this?   

Yes.  When you consider the incredible amount of resources that the losers will spend to ensure that none of the winner's initiatives are ever enacted, it's easy to come tot the conclusion that as a nation, apparently, our plan is to spend billions of billions of our own borrowed dollars to ensure that nothing ever happens.

The only upside to this is at least now we know who the enemy is.  It's not "militant Islam"; it's not the Chinese or the Russians.  It's us, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Soul's Rules

The writer of the Gospel of Luke attributes a story to Jesus in chapter 10 that communicates to us through time that there is an awareness of societal rules that thinking souls are free to, and should critically analyze and implement. 

In this story, Jesus is reprimanded for healing a long-suffering soul on the Sabbath.  The temple leaders tell him to knock that off and to just heal folks on the other six days.  Jesus points out to them that the temple leaders themselves water their livestock on the Sabbath as to avoid causing suffering to the innocents.  He then draws that story back, saying that if they should water their livestock, then how is healing the sick on the Sabbath unjust?

It is a good question.  By what rules are we living that comfort us while causing harm to others?  Are we justified in benefitting from this arrangement, or is it our duty to rebel against our own comfort in favor of justice.

It is so hard to deal with these things, especially after knowing they are there.  The brokenness in the world begins with me whether I like it or not, but it is my choice whether or not it ends with me.  How hard to remember that the soul does not need to be captive to the rules under which the body lives.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fear could be an excuse

I never thought of it quite this way, but the appearance of fear might mask actual reasons someone may be averse to change.  In other words, if I'm afraid or appear to be afraid people will go soft.   So, like a baby who learns the value of crying, have we learned that fear can be used as a shield.

This raised its face recently when someone asked me about the currents state of the economy.  I responded that if we eliminated the tax benefit of owning a home (and borrowing a mortgage to buy that home) and saving for retirement the government revenue would snap back.  My point was that saying that we can't pay for a fundamental benefit like health, is disengnuous.  We can, we just choose not to.

This person objected and painted a picture of a future in my scenario in which home prices collapse, people stop saving for retirement and hospitals explode with services being gobbled up by free-loaders.

Really? First! Forget insensitivity of the "free-loader" comment, I will agree on this point that the way we currently ration healthcare has created a large population who have a backlog in need.

But on the other two points, I am not sold.  Does this mean that I would immediately stop saving for retirement and sell my house?

No.  This is fear talking and I'm not buying it anymore.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Out Front of it

Even the most progressive of individuals is relutant to try new things. By this, I'm not necessarily talking about trying a new menu item or style of clothing, I'm talking about things with more risk.  There is comfort in numbers.  

Being a little ahead of the curve in my professional career, many people hear innovative ideas for the very first time from me.  I would prefer to be the fourth or fifth time people hear things. This way what may be new, exciting and different (read: scary) would be more welcomed.

I wish I had the time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Good Hearted Attempts that Made no Difference

I was asked a serious question this week in a serious format.  The question was:  Social justice, does it work or is it just “good hearted attempts that make no difference”.  The question depressed me.  I answered it something like this:

Make no difference to whom?  Societally, do social justice efforts move the needle, even one bit?  We’ll never really know, but that’s asking the wrong question.  If the entire effort of the entire Salvation Army moved one soul toward building or re-building whole-hearted and healthy relationships (with others, God, the universe, family, friends), is that making a difference?  Its good enough for me. Even if the entire effort of the entire YMCA/YWCA through its whole history just gave one soul one meal that allowed that soul to recognize that their oppression was not their doing and free that one soul to live genuinely, it would have been enough.

True social despair is when you realize that you are participating in your own defeat.  To quote Jimmy Buffett, “We are the People our Parents Warned Us About”.   A more accurate title would be “We Continually Choose to be the People our Parents Warned Us About.”  Coming to this realization is true social despair. 

The facts are these: We Continually Choose to be apart from the other.  That is true of all of us collectively, but certainly not of all of us individually.  But if you count the wins and ignore the losses and all is well.  Its not a game because at the beginning, there already is a loser, so a win is a win and the loss is a push. Social justice may not be “right” but that doesn’t make its wrong.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


We had a yard sale today.  What a joy.

It was for a good cause, a young girl whose family situation makes it financially difficult for her to participate in an activity for which she has enthusiasm and potential talent.  Even that made the pain of realizing that I was about to give away things that I had worked months to buy.  I had bought what was now effectively trash.

This self-loathing that I always experience when I prepare for a yard sale was met with even more profound sadness when I sat and really, really observed the people who came to the yard sale.

I don't know about you, but when I go to yard sales (as infrequent as that may be) I'm looking for something in particular.  I park.  I walk around.  If I don't see it, I'm out of there.

Not these folks.  They shopped.  They were looking for something they could buy with whatever money they felt comfortable telling me they had.

Would you take $1 for this?

My heart broke.  "Sure", I said, but what I thought was "what they heck do you want that piece of junk for?"  I could only pray that the reason they were buying it was something deeper and more profound than they only had $1 and wanted to buy something.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An Alien at your Mailbox

Let’s say – hypothetically, of course - an alien were to land on earth and the very first thing s/he were to see was you getting you mail out of your mailbox.  He asks you what the purpose of the mailbox is.

Interesting question, isn’t it?

Impartial, empirical observation of my interaction with my mailbox, speaking from purely personal anecdotal viewpoint would lead me to offer this answer:

“A mailbox is the termination of a large, complex and costly system of interconnected service providers whereby one person or group sends small pieces of trash or recycling materials to a distant second person or group.”

To which, of course the alien (fluent in English and our cultural norms) would squint and wince and ask you if what you really said was that you send each other trash.

To which, I would have to respond:  “Yes.” Which would be followed by a reflective pause, after which I would add:  “And other stuff.”

To which the alien would be begged to ask:  “What kinds of other stuff?”

The only answer to which would be:  “I guess other stuff that is slightly more significant than the original stuff I mentioned.  This stuff we would hold onto for a few days or maybe weeks before recycling.”

Totally perplexed, the alien would – after a long pause – ask:  “Does the mailbox serve any other purpose?”

“Nope.  Well, yes.  You have to take out the weedwacker if you want to finish the lawnmowing process.  I don’t know if that’s a purpose, but weedwacking is the second most useful thing that a mailbox demands.”

“Oh, thank goodness.”  The alien would say.  “For a minute there, I thought it was completely obsolete.  What is ‘lawnmowing’”?

“Ok, now, let’s not get into that.  If you can’t understand the mailbox, you’re never going to understand  the lawnmowing”.

Monday, October 8, 2012

$4 Coffee

My wife and I were recently participating in a charity effort and were asked to do the grocery shopping.  We were given a list and a budget.

My wife, of course, took control and sent me off into the abyss of the local Bi-Lo with specific assignments that she thought I could handle.  One was to get coffee.

In my world, coffee is about $12 per pound.  I buy it from local roasters for specific reasons.   I'll go out of my way to get it.  I can articulate why this coffee is good tasting or good for the world (free/direct trade, sustainably grown for example).

How surprised was I to find that the Bi-Lo coffee was about $4 per pound!  I felt embarrassed by my elitist affluence.

I felt like Barbara Bush there for a minute.