Monday, January 31, 2005

Abandoned, Not Hijacked

Luke 7:31-35 (New International Version)

31“To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ 33For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ’ 35But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

In today’s Kansas City Star Ellen Goodman made the following observation about the president’s inaugural address:

“But in editorials, blogs, and e-mails, many to the left of Bush have declared themselves either skeptical or cynical. They question the reality behind the rhetoric, the devil in the details, or the devil in the deliverer. Counting the number of times the word ‘freedom’ was used – 27 – those who distrust the president sounded like defenders of the status quo.”

“Do they actually disagree with the ‘ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world?’ Or do they just mind that the president took words out of their mouths? Again.”

It’s a good question. As a Democrat I’m mystified by my party’s stance on issues these days. For example, on yesterday’s Meet the Press Senator John Kerry had these interesting answers to questions about the Iraqi elections:

“MR. RUSSERT: Election day, Iraq. Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of State, has just told the United States and the world, "It has gone better than expected." What is your sense?
SEN. KERRY: I think it's gone as expected. I think it was a good report by Brian. I think it starkly lays out the challenges, Tim. Let me begin, if I can, by saying first of all I was just there a few weeks ago. I think our troops today deserve yet again a thanks and a word of praise from everybody. They are at extraordinary risk. They're doing a remarkable job, and I want to give them that credit.
Secondly, it is significant that there is a vote in Iraq. But no one in the United States or in the world-- and I'm confident of what the world response will be. No one in the United States should try to over-hype this election. This election is a sort of demarcation point, and what really counts now is the effort to have a legitimate political reconciliation, and it's going to take a massive diplomatic effort and a much more significant outreach to the international community than this administration has been willing to engage in. Absent that, we will not be successful in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe this election will be seen by the world community as legitimate?
SEN. KERRY: A kind of legitimacy--I mean, it's hard to say that something is legitimate when a whole portion of the country can't vote and doesn't vote.”

Good Lord in Heaven, what is wrong with the party of my youth? Something wonderful, extraordinary has happened and we can’t celebrate, we can’t “over-hype.” Senator Kerry, we know there is a long way to go in Iraq, but the president’s insistence that the people of Iraq would choose democracy and freedom over tyranny has proven true. Celebrate, for God’s sake, don’t demagogue!

Unfortunately it’s not just John Kerry who’s demagoguing. A couple of editorial pieces, one from the Washington Post and one from the Christian Science Monitor will illustrate my point. First, this from the Washington Post:

“In his 1998 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton waved his pen at the assembled Congress and declared that we must "save Social Security first." Democrats have since generally clung to that vision.”

“But now, in an ill-conceived effort to derail President Bush's privatization initiative, many prominent Democrats are suddenly dismissing the notion of a Social Security crisis or even a Social Security problem. Instead of offering sensible alternatives to the president's flawed proposals, Democrats are devoting their energies to attacking both the president's ideas and any notion of altering the Social Security construct.”

And this from the Christian Science Monitor:

“Senate Democrats, for instance, elected a new minority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who's anti-abortion but who also vows to be as persistently tough in opposing Republican bills as his predecessor, Tom Daschle, who lost his seat in November. And last week, 12 Senate Democrats voted against the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State following the party's decision to stage a two-day floor debate over her role in the Iraq war. Not since 1825 have so many senators voted against a president's nominee for that position.”

“Both moves reflect a worrisome belief among Democrats that attacking the Republicans is the best way to victory.”

Please, please, let’s stop the insanity! As a Democrat I’m not asking my party to become Republicans, nor am I asking that we abandon our role as the loyal opposition. But what I am asking is this – has the party of my youth become so blind and so partisan that it has now abandoned its principles? Has the party of my youth become so focused on raw political power that it no longer seeks, nor desires to do “the people’s business?”

We Democrats are supposed to be the party of “The Fourteen Points.” We’re supposed to be the party of the “Four Freedoms.” We’re supposed to be the party that risked American life and treasure to make “the world safe for democracy.” We’re supposed to be the party of “the new frontier.” We’re supposed to be the party of initiatives, ideas, and principles.

I find it sad that we’ve now become all the things we’ve stood against. The party of my youth has become the party of obstruction. The party of my youth has become that party where the demagogues rule. The party of my youth has become the party that endorses raw power and eschews service.

In this morning’s Star editorial Ellen Goodman lamented that the Republican Party has hijacked words like “life” and “God.” Now she’s worried that the G.O.P has hijacked the word “liberty.”

Well, Ms. Goodman, I wish it was that simple. The sad reality as far as this Democrat is concerned, though, is that the words and principles haven’t been hijacked, they’ve been abandoned. The party of my youth is not bankrupt yet, but the fuel gauge is perilously close to empty. If someone doesn’t correct the free-fall soon the “party of the people” will be running on fumes, sputtering its way into oblivion.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The People Have Spoken

Isaiah 58:6-7 (King James Version)

“6Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”

The people of Iraq have spoken! From the oil fields of Kirkuk in the north to the salt marshes in the south, from Baghdad to Basrah, from Al Hillah to Karbala, from Nasiriyah to Baqubah, millions of Iraqis spoke through the ballot box today and told the world community that freedom and democracy are Iraq’s future.

The message could not be clearer. The evil practitioners of fear, repression, intimidation, and terror will not prevail. It will take time, but the foundation of democracy has today been laid in Iraq. This historic election, purchased in blood by Americans, Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, Britons, Danes, Dutch, Estonians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Kazakhs, Salvadorans, Slovaks, Latvians, Spaniards, and Thais, has now been sealed by the blood of the brave men and women of Iraq.

I watched this morning and shed a tear as I saw old men, their faces weathered and worn by the years of oppression under Saddam Hussein proudly cast their ballots. I shed a tear as old women who had lost sons and daughters and grandchildren to terror cast their ballots, saying, in essence, “No more, no more! Our children and grandchildren will have a future with hope.” I sat transfixed as I watched young men dance for joy and young women’s faces light up as they waited patiently in line to vote. I felt a deep sense of vindication as I watched those who had voted proclaim their collective victory over terror, with purple thumbs and fingers raised. Perhaps history will record their gestures as the first great symbol of the new millennium.

Democracy and freedom dealt a heavy, heavy blow to terror today. While there are still battles to come, the people of Iraq have won. Victory is just as certain now for these brave people as it was for the world when free men stormed the Normandy beaches three generations ago.

President Bush’s congratulatory statement, I believe, spoke for all Americans, regardless of political ideology:

“In great numbers, and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy. By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. They have refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins. And they have demonstrated the kind of courage that is always the foundation of self-government.”

It seems that even the “mainstream media” have seen what so many of us witnessed today.
In a report titled “Iraqi Voters Defy Insurgents” CBS News put it this way:

“The voting appears to be the best moment for America’s mission in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad and the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussein, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.”

Among other things, Fox News had this to report on the Iraqi elections:

"Am I scared? Of course I'm not (my emphasis added) scared. This is my country," said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, wearing a head-to-toe abaya."

"At one polling place in Baghdad, soldiers and voters joined hands in a dance, and in Baqouba, voters jumped and clapped to celebrate the historic day. At another, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and took the hand of an elderly blind woman, guiding her to the polls."

The introduction to MSNBC’s report spoke volumes:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Some came on crutches, others walked for miles then struggled to read the ballot, but across most of Iraq millions turned out to vote on Sunday, defying insurgent threats of a bloodbath.”

And there was this from ABC News:

“Women in black abayas whispered prayers at the sound of a nearby explosion as they waited to vote at one Baghdad polling station. But the mood for many was upbeat: Civilians and policemen danced with joy at one of the five polling stations where photographers were allowed, and some streets were packed with voters walking shoulder-to-shoulder to vote. The elderly made their way, hobbling on canes or riding wheelchairs; one elderly woman was pushed along on a wooden cart, another man carried a disabled 80-year-old on his back."

"This is democracy," said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.”

Yes, the people of Iraq have spoken. I salute them for their courage. I pray that God will bless them richly as they move onward in the journey to fulfilled hope and freedom.

I salute the members of the coalition and their families who have given so much to make this day a reality. The seeds of democracy that you have sown and plowed in blood and hope will one day spring up and flourish, one day becoming a treasured member in the family of nations.

And, most of all, I salute the God of Heaven and earth, for making this day possible.

Sunday Morning Thoughts from Oswald Chambers

1 Samuel 3:1-15 (New International Version)

1 Samuel 3

The LORD Calls Samuel

“1 The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple [
a] of the LORD , where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called Samuel.
Samuel answered, "Here I am." 5 And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down.
6 Again the LORD called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
"My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down."
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD : The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
8 The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, LORD , for your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!"
Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
11 And the LORD said to Samuel: "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family-from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, [
b] and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, 'The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.' "
15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the LORD . He was afraid to tell Eli the vision”

I’ve always found the dialogue between Eli and Samuel fascinating. Twice in the fog of his growing weakness and sleep Eli has told the young boy, “Go back to bed.” The third time, though, he realizes that God may be speaking to the boy and tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again to say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” The Lord does again speak and Samuel obediently responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I think about Samuel’s response and wonder what it would have been if he had lived in today’s climate of self appointed importance. His response might have been something like this – “Listen Lord, for your ‘anointed one’ is speaking.”

Oswald Chambers looked at another aspect of the account. In the aftermath of the dialogues Samuel becomes fearful to speak the words he has been told to speak. Chambers’ thoughts on the passage follow for your Sunday edification:

The Dilemma of Obedience

“God never speaks to us in startling ways, but in ways that are easy to misunderstand, and we say, “I wonder if that is God’s voice?” Isaiah said that the Lord spake to him “with a strong hand,” that is, by the pressure of circumstances. Nothing touches our lives but it is God Himself speaking. Do we discern His hand or only a mere occurrence?

Get into the habit of saying, “Speak, Lord,” and life will become a romance. Every time circumstances press, say, “Speak, Lord”; make time to listen. Chastening is more than a means of discipline, it is meant to get me to the place of saying, “Speak, Lord.” Recall the time when God did speak to you. Have you forgotten what He said? Was it
Luke 11:13 or was it I Thessalonians 5:23? As we listen, our ears get acute and, like Jesus, we shall hear God all the time.

Shall I tell my ‘Eli” what God has shown to me? That is where the dilemma of obedience comes in. We disobey God by becoming amateur providences – I must shield ‘Eli,’ the best people we know. God did not tell Samuel to tell Eli, he had to decide that for himself. God’s call to you may hurt your ‘Eli,’ but if you try to prevent the suffering in another life, it will prove an obstruction between your soul and God. It is at your own peril that you prevent the cutting off of the right hand or the plucking out of the eye.

Never ask the advice of another about anything God makes you decide before Him. If you ask advice, you will almost always side with Satan. “
Immediately I conferred with no flesh and blood.”

Have a great Sunday, dear reader!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ranchers, Rednecks, and Rowdies

Psalm 118:23-24 (King James Version)

“23This is the LORD's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
24This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning here in Emporia, Kansas. Last night we had about an inch or two of snow and now the town has the look of Bedford Falls.

Nancy and I spent the early part of the morning reading the Kansas City Star and talking about the movie we saw last night. If you haven’t seen it, we highly recommend “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The language isn’t pristine, but the theme more than makes up for the gritty language. It’s the story of a relationship, about a man and woman who want to erase each other from their memories. Through the use of technology they almost succeed, but they find that while their minds can be purged their hearts can’t. They love each other and nothing can change that. It’s well worth seeing.

I also did a bit of reading. I’m slowly plowing my way through Mark Edmundson’s “Why Read.” This morning’s little snippet was very interesting:

“To disdain TV now is bad form; it signifies that you take yourself far too seriously. TV is a tranquilizing medium, a soporific, inducing in its devotees a light narcosis. It reduces anxiety, steadies and quiets the nerves. But it also deadens. Like every narcotic, it will, consumed in certain doses, produce something like a hangover, the habitual watcher’s irritable languor that persists after the TV is off. It’s been said that the illusion of knowing and control that heroin engenders isn’t entirely unlike the TV consumer’s habitual smug-torpor, and that seems about right.”

Having read that, it only seemed right that the Weather Channel was more than enough for one day. To make sure we wouldn’t fall into a torpor we turned off the TV and decided to take a walk downtown to have some breakfast at the Commercial Street Diner.

I was ready in about three minutes and spent the next ten after than waiting for Nancy. At one point she was almost ready, but then noticed that she still had her slippers on. Another five or so for her to find her boots, the “right” hat to go with the rest of her outfit and we were on our way.

As we walked hand in hand in the snow I thought some of the odd thoughts that often drift their way through my mind. I was struck by how amazing the human hand is. It’s incredibly functional. It can grasp a monkey wrench; it can pound out words on a computer keyboard. It can show us which way to go; it can sometimes show someone where we think they ought to go. It can do amazing feats of sleight of hand; it can squeeze the trigger of a gun. But there on Ninth Street, as I walked hand in hand with Nancy, I realized that more than anything else the human hand was made for holding another human hand. Beyond any other function this amazing instrument can perform, there is nothing quite like what happens when one human hand slips into another human hand. I believe it’s because it seems to link entire beings together. It doesn’t just twist nuts and bolts. It unites hearts.

It was about 8:00 when we arrived at the diner. The place was already crowded with an assortment of ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies, Emporia’s prevailing demographic. We got ourselves seated and started looking at our menus. I don’t know why I even looked at it at all since I already knew what I wanted, a ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast, and a glass of apple juice. But I pretended to browse through it. At the top right hand corner of the menu I saw the diner’s slogan – “Home cookin’ so good you’ll think we stole your mama.”

Only in Emporia! Garrison Keillor may have his Lake Woebegone where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average,” but we in Emporia have our distinctive. The Commercial Street Diner is filled with ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies, our counterpart to the good citizens of Lake Woebegone. Here in the center of it all the design chic is a pair of bib overalls, a feed lot baseball cap, and a pair of Nike’s. The men here are strong, I believe custom built to brand cattle or tear an engine down. The women are pleasant to the eye, and yet sturdy enough to brand the cows along with their men (that’s about as descriptive as I care to be without getting myself into trouble with the Emporia Chamber of Commerce.). The children, well I think they’re average, maybe high C’s. But they seem good enough.

Right after the food arrived Nancy asked one of those curious questions she seems to reserve for special breakfasts like today’s. “I don’t think we Christians really rejoice in the Lord anymore, do you?” Now time has taught me that these are important moments, so I reflected for a moment to give her my best response. My response was absolutely brilliant. “Maybe yes, maybe no…..Actually I’m not sure.”
Nancy clarified. “Well I mean it just seems that we Christians spend all of our time consuming or defending the faith. We just don’t seem very happy or well adjusted these days.”
My mind wandered as she clarified. “How should the “Prairie Apologist” respond?” How could I admit that there was a lot of truth in what she was saying and save face? There was no escape. I had to voice my mea culpa. “You’re right.”
“Do you remember what it was like before we got so sophisticated? We used to sing “This is the day that the Lord has made” and mean it. Do you remember?”
“I do.”

Then the conversation changed directions. I think it was based on what Nancy took from watching the movie last night. She asked, “What would you do if you knew you were going to die at the end of the day today?"
“I don’t think I’d want to know,” I responded, “It would be more than I’d want to deal with.”

This was all reminiscent of discussions we’ve had over breakfast before, much like the one we had in New Jersey years ago. I looked around the café at the assortment of rogues in bib overalls gathered for breakfast and then looked back at Nancy. She was deep in thought. “I think it wouldn’t bother me. It would be a real signal for me to make the most of the day. Am I getting through? You know…..being able to sing “this is the day that the Lord has made” in spite of knowing it was going to be my last day here on earth.”

I didn’t respond at first. I looked around the café one more time to gather my composure. I’m not sure but I think it took a few minutes for me to respond. “I guess most of us would be franticly looking for some way to stave it off, wouldn’t we?” was about as profound a response as I could muster.

We sat tinkering with the remnants of our breakfast for a few more minutes and then noticed that Curtis McCauley had joined the crowd of rogues for breakfast. We called him over to the table and spent a few minutes getting caught up with one another. Doc, as I know him, is an interesting fellow. I first met him on a trip to a men’s retreat close to five years ago now. As we wandered the back roads of Kansas on the way to the retreat I recall the conversation he was having with Clint Longacre, a professor at Emporia State. They were kidding with one another about credentials. As they conversation progressed Clint would mention a degree he had received. Curtis would respond to each that Clint mentioned in his gravelly country brogue, “I got one of them too.” Not knowing him I suspected this might be a bit of Flint Hills hyperbole. I’ve since found that it wasn’t. Curtis looks every bit like the rest of the ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies that gather at the Commercial Street Diner in the morning, but his mind is as refined as any professor’s at any Ivy League school on the east coast.

The conversation meandered and somehow we got on the subject of stubborn people. Curtis excluded himself from “such folks” and I just rolled my eyes. “We know for sure you’re not the least bit stubborn, Doc,” I said. “It’s the other “folks” we were talking about.” Doc laughed and said that his wife Ann certainly knew he wasn’t stubborn. As we left he made me “promise” not to bring the subject up with Ann. I chuckled as I “promised” not to tell. “My lips are sealed Doc.”

Of course Ann may be reading this post in the next day or so. Ann, if you are reading this, I wanted to let you know that we all know, as you do, that your husband is not the least bit stubborn.

As we left the café I was feeling the effects of our conversations. The snow, which was beautiful before, seemed even whiter now. As we walked down Commercial Street hand in hand I noticed that the Granada Theatre had taken even more of a glow than it had as we passed it on our way to breakfast.

We turned onto Ninth Street and as we got to Congress Street we noticed Robbie Ruehlen driving toward us. We stopped and spent a few minutes talking with her. Robbie has become a good friend. We met her when we decided to find someone to clean our house once a week. I’m not sure whether or not Nancy found her through an ad or by way of referral, but however it happened it was an arrangement made in heaven.

Robbie’s been coming to our house weekly for a couple of years now. The best way to describe her work is that it’s the work of a whirling dervish. On the appointed day everything is moved to the center and the cleaning ensues. I’ve learned that the best thing to do while she’s working is to stay out of her way. That keeps me from getting Endust or Pledge or Murphy’s Oil Soap all over me.

But there’s more to Robbie’s relationship with us than that. Robbie came to us at a time when she needed some real confidence boosting. In the course of time she shared with us that she would like to go to school to study nursing but was afraid to go any further than just liking the idea. She had never graduated from high school and had somehow convinced herself that she could never succeed at something as difficult as higher education. Nancy started encouraging her to take the risk and in time she did. I think now that Robbie wasn’t sure that she would succeed, but with Nancy’s prompting and encouragement she somehow sensed that even if she didn’t make the grade she would still have a friend in Nancy to encourage her and love her.

Well Robbie succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. She got her degree, grading out at or near the top in all of her classes. I’ll bet she tackled the classroom like she does our house once a week.

She still comes to our place once a week and is also looking for a job in nursing. There’s some frustration in that search. Nursing “experience,” which Robbie doesn’t have, now seems to be the hang-up. So if there are any medical professionals out there that need a top-notch L.P.N., Nancy and I highly recommend Robbie Ruehlen.

We stood and talked there on the corner for a while and found out that Robbie’s doing better now. She’s just gotten over the virus that seems to be plaguing lots of folks around here and her energy level is back to her normal whirling dervish mode.

The brief conversation with Robbie ended and we pressed on toward home. At the corner of Ninth and Neosho a neighbor who was shoveling snow greeted us. “How you doin?”
“Not bad at all,” I responded. “My brother up in Boston’s diggin’ out from about three feet of this stuff right now.” Nancy chimed in, “And they only have one lane going into and out of their house.”
The neighbor acknowledged by saying that he had relatives up in the Boston area too. As we turned the corner on to Neosho we wished each other “good days.”

These moments we spent on the way home had a joy about them, a quiet sense of joy. I’m home now and I hope as I write what I’m feeling that you are feeling it too. This is “the day that the Lord has made.” Knowing that seems to make the snow whiter, our friends more treasured, our neighbors more neighborly, and the quiet life more meaningful. We haven’t solved any great problems; we haven’t argued any great theological questions. We’ve just lived knowing that this is “the day that the Lord has made.”

That makes us, in our quiet way this Saturday, rejoice. I hope, dear reader, that in your quiet way that you too will “know and enjoy.”

Friday, January 28, 2005

Wally World II - Commentary Response

“(Adam) Smith’s argument that capitalism orients the energies of entrepreneurs toward serving others is vindicated by many examples from the contemporary business world. At Wal-Mart, for instance, Sam Walton worked tirelessly to develop an efficient inventory control system so that he could monitor consumer preferences and satisfy them as promptly and cheaply as possible. Customers flocked to Wal-Mart, and Walton profited handsomely.”

Dinesh D’Souza – “The Virtue of Prosperity”

I received some very interesting comments in response to my post about Wal-Mart. I’d like to take a few minutes to respond to some of them, especially those that did not agree with my views.

First, there was this from “Anonymous:”

“I was told well with Walmart there are opportunities for advancement to obtain a managment position where you can make better money!Sorry but not all of us can be managers.So they have climbed the corporate ladder while steping on a lot of little people on the way up.You see with them you are just another number not a real person.Its what you can do for them not what they can do for you.If you dont play the game by thier rules then they will find another player who will its just that simple.After 3 years I walked away with nothing to show for it.Also its a hard place to work because you have to deal with the public and because it is Walmart customers think that what ever they dish out you have to take they are rude inconsiderate and thankless.”

I have a couple of responses. The first comes from Holy Writ:

Matthew 20:1-15 (New Living Translation)

Matthew 20

Story of the Vineyard Workers

“1"For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay the normal daily wage[
a] and sent them out to work.
3"At nine o'clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5At noon and again around three o'clock he did the same thing. 6At five o'clock that evening he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, `Why haven't you been working today?'
7"They replied, `Because no one hired us.'
"The owner of the estate told them, `Then go on out and join the others in my vineyard.'
8"That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9When those hired at five o'clock were paid, each received a full day's wage. 10When those hired earlier came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day's wage. 11When they received their pay, they protested, 12`Those people worked only one hour, and yet you've paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.'
13"He answered one of them, `Friend, I haven't been unfair! Didn't you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14Take it and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be angry because I am kind?'”

I took the comment to mean that Wal-Mart is unfair in almost every regard. Their wages are low, their management practices are not friendly to workers, the jobs available are “dead end” jobs, and that their customer base is “inconsiderate and thankless.”

I think that about covers it.

I offer a couple of exhibits in defense of capitalism and its fairness as an enterprise and Wal-Mart as one of its successful practitioners.

First I offer this from James Madison, one of this nation’s founding fathers. Like the other founders he saw that liberty often produces situations that seem to be unfair. But he reasoned (I believe correctly) that any form of government that spent inordinate amounts of time fixing these “problems” was guilty of “erroneous thinking:”

“Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
James Madison, The Federalist Papers, #10

Next I offer my son, Michael Dillon. When he was attending college in Springfield, Missouri he decided that working part time at a Mcdonald’s “flipping burgers” was a dead end job, so he didn’t work and expected Nancy and me to provide occasional support. Now Nancy and I love Michael very deeply, but that love didn’t mean that we were required to support him if he was able to work. Call us mean, call us capitalists if you will, but we knew that Michael had to face the reality that this is how free market systems work. We took a drive over from Memphis to Springfield to explain the workings of this “evil system.” Fortunately for us there was an object lesson at the restaurant we ate at that Michael has never forgotten. About halfway through our meal one of the busboys caught my eye. He was a man about my age. I didn’t know him, but from his appearance he seemed to be a very nice man. One of the things that was clear to me was that he wasn’t bussing tables for his own amusement. He needed the money. I leaned over the table to Michael and whispered, “Michael, do you see that man. He’s probably a very nice man. Now he’s my age and he’s bussing tables. I need to explain something to you. If that’s all you want to do with your life and you wind up being a busboy Nancy and I will love you just as much as if you become the next Bill Gates. It’s your decision. You can either work at Mcdonald’s short term or do it long term. Those are the options you’re looking at.”

Well, Michael got the point. He graduated from college and now owns a small insurance agency in the Kansas City area. He’s learning more about capitalism and free markets every day and he’s finding that it has its ups and it has its downs, it has its rewards and it has its penalties.

As for “Anonymous’s” feeling about customers, I don’t know what to say other than they are cranky at times. They’re a microcosm of America.

Another anonymous commenter had this to say:

“Do you think a senior in high school has any future working for a living in America anymore?”

“Do you think Wal-Mart is a free market standard that can continue to be aided by taxing American workers income while lowering their living wage?”

“The fact is, you have robbed God and do not know it.”

In response to question number one I offer Corina Nour. Corina is a young citizen from the Republic of Moldova who lived with us as an exchange student from August of 2003 to June of 2004.

One of the things about her that Nancy and I found so refreshing was, that at age seventeen, living in a former Soviet Republic, she was well versed on the noble idea of freedom. In fact, in her biographical sketch she quoted at length from Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man.” I knew the minute I saw that in her bio that her stay with us would be interesting and challenging.

Her language skills were outstanding. Her English was better than about seventy percent of the American students she went to school with. We learned that she also speaks Romanian, Russian, German, and French. While she was in Emporia she also learned Spanish.

Another of the things about her that was so refreshing was her respect and dedication to learning. Here was a student who came from a country with a multitude of disadvantages. Moldova is economically poor, militarily weak, and not fully integrated into the new world marketplace. But her great advantage over American students was her willingness to learn and apply herself diligently to the task before her. She turned out to be one of the top students in her classes here in Emporia. She did so well that she actually spent some of her spare time tutoring American students. Her American Government teacher told me every time we’d get together that he needed more students like her.

She was asked once by an interviewer from a local media outlet what she thought of homecoming and all the other events at the high school. She didn’t seem too interested so the interviewer asked her what types of counterparts they had to these things in Moldova. She said that the young people of Moldova understand that their task is to build a new future for the emerging democracy and that in turn meant that they were going to have to prepare to compete in a global economy. The interviewer didn’t find out about homecoming in Moldova, but he did find out what the young people of Moldova are thinking about.

Now I don’t want to indict America’s high schoolers, but all too often our educational system is grinding out students who are neither academically sound nor mature enough to compete. It’s even become a cliché – Johnny can’t read, Johnny can’t write, Johnny thinks the American Revolution started when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Far too many know more about “Eminem” than they do about free market economics.

Regarding the issue of taxes, I’ve gone through some of my recent receipts and have found that it was the State of Kansas that imposed the taxes, not Wal-Mart.

Regarding the robbery, my wife handles our books and she very scrupulously gives to charities in addition to paying our taxes. We have given to colleges, a local theatre restoration project, several para-church ministries, the Red Cross (tsunami relief), and our local church. Our giving is a matter of public record. We count it a privilege to do so. God has been very gracious to us.

A commenter named “Aldon” had the following to say:

“Then, there is the issue of whether local ownership of stores is a good thing. Part of Walmart's efficiency is by having large centrally located stores. It means that everyone has to drive a little further to a store that isn't owned locally. According to a study by Iowa State University, in the first decade after Wal-Mart arrived in Iowa, the state lost 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety stores, 158 women's apparel stores, 153 shoe stores, 116 drugstores, and 111 men's and boys' apparel stores.”

“Speaking about our country, many people dislike Walmart because of their relationship to China. According to the Washington Post, every year Wal-Mart purchases $15 billion worth of products from China. The L.A. Times goes on to note that Walmart uses 3000 factories in China to produce its goods, which is nearly as many as the 3600 stores that Walmart has in this country.”

Like Aldon I want small businesses to succeed in small town America. I certainly don’t want to see them fail. And I think he and I might even agree that Wal-Mart has contributed to the failure of some of the businesses he mentioned. The problem lies in the “statistics” though. I don’t believe that there’s a one hundred percent correlation between the failure of 298 hardware stores and 555 grocery stores and Wal-Mart’s arrival in Iowa or any other state. If someone were to dig into the statistics they would find a myriad of reasons for the failures, from under-capitalization to poor business practices.

Now I do find great affinity with his comments about China. Wal-Mart does an enormous amount of business with China. The question that needs to be answered about China is what the impact of free trade and commerce will have on liberalization over the long term.

In today’s New York Times Robert Wright made the following observation about the impact of capitalism and freedom on China that I believe addresses Aldon’s question:

“This link between economic and political liberty has been extolled by conservative thinkers for centuries, but the microelectronic age has strengthened it. Even China's deftly capitalist-yet-authoritarian government - which embraces technology while blocking Web sites and censoring chat groups - is doomed to fail in the long run. China is increasingly porous to news and ideas, and its high-tech political ferment goes beyond online debates. Last year a government official treated a blue-collar worker high-handedly in a sidewalk encounter and set off a riot - after news of the incident spread by cell phones and text messaging.”

In other words, free market economics may well do to China what all the saber rattling in the world could never do. It will bring more and more demands for freedom and free expression of ideas. China has seen what free markets have done for Japan and South Korea. They haven’t tasted the fruits of politicalfreedom yet, but they will one day, and Wal-Mart may have a hand in it.

I appreciate the comments and feedback. I realize that I’m not an economist or a trained scientist. But hopefully my anecdotal evidence and our short little trip from Emporia to Moldova to our country’s founding have given you more insight into why I still plan to buy my mission figs at Wal-Mart. Now if someone finds a way to get them to me more efficiently and cheaper I’ll reconsider.

Square Wheels

Ezekiel 26:9 (King James Version)

“9And he shall set engines of war against thy walls, and with his axes he shall break down thy towers.”

We had some very interesting discussions at our church’s men’s group last night. We’re still working our way through John Eldridge’s “Wild at Heart.”

The real show stopper came when we got to page 88 and read these words:

“First and foremost, we still need to know what we never heard, or heard so badly, from our fathers. We need to know who we are and if we have what it takes.”

Most of the guys had something to say here, but I just listened. Then I worked up the courage to speak. “I guess I had an advantage over you guys. My dad died before I can ever remember him so I never heard anything either good or bad from him. I didn’t have anywhere to go to get that affirmation, so I just moved into a world of ideas.”

I really believe that’s been a great advantage for me in life. I was pretty close to being a clean slate and in my world I had the freedom to develop my own outlook on life.

Maybe I’ll share more about that in some later post. But I need to move on to the meat of what’s on my mind.

The great fun in our discussions is that we wander around from here to there, much like the children of Israel, picking up manna as we do.

About half way through our discussions one of the guys said that a friend of his looked back on his life and said that he wouldn’t change a thing. I expressed surprise. Now I’ve heard people say that before, but in looking back at my life there are things I would change if I could. I expressed my surprise rather politely, with a modestly skeptical tone in my voice. “Ohhhhh…….reaaaallllly?” He returned the compliment. “You mean you would change some things in yours?”
“You betcha. There are a lot of things that I’ve regretted doing.”
“I understand, but those things made you who you are. You wouldn’t be who you are without them.”
“Well there are some I can think of that, if I changed them, wouldn’t change the essence of who I am today.”

I talked to my brother this morning and after hearing from him I think that what my friend was describing is what some folks call the “butterfly effect.” That’s the idea that a butterfly flapping his wings in Brazil has an impact on events in New England or somewhere else in the world. It’s an interesting notion, a bit to me like the idea that says that my body is actually a flea on a dog, and that if I were to look inward or outward far enough I’d find myself being one with the cosmos. I don’t confess any great insight into the idea, but I don’t think I need to. I’m relatively certain that I’m not a flea on a dog and I’m relatively certain that butterflies flapping their wings in Brazil three years ago didn’t cause three feet of snow to fall last week around my brother’s house in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Well, we debated the idea for a while and my friend asked me to give him some examples of things I would change without changing the essence of who I am today. I gave him two, both light-hearted, but one is a bit more substantial than the other.

The first one I thought of happened to me when I was a teenager working at a summer camp in New Hampshire. One of the weekly “treats” for the younger guys on the staff was to put on a water show for the campers. It usually amounted to some of the harmless, silly things that teenagers often do. My usual role in these events was to be one of the camp clowns. On this particular day one of the other guys came up with an inspiration. We would soak a towel in gasoline, stuff it into the back of my swimming trucks, and then set the towel on fire. Once that was done my job was to run toward the water as fast as I could with the other clowns, the Sandy Island fire department, in hot pursuit. Well it all seems so stupid now, but it was seemed absolutely inspired almost fifty years ago. I remember the whoosh as the match hit the gasoline. The next sensation I remember was HEAT. There was something uninspired in our inspiration; the towel started burning its way toward my hind most parts. Seeing that I ran as fast as I could toward the lake. My buddies thought it was hilarious. They laughed as they followed me. And the campers? They thought it was quite hilarious too. I finally made it to the water and it wasn’t a second too soon. As I came up from the water I could hear everyone applauding my performance.

Inspired? Of course not. Avoidable? Absolutely!

I told my friend that it was a performance the rest of my life could have done without. After hearing it I think he began to understand. But it took the second story to convince him that I was right.

The second came at an interesting point in my life. I had just become a Christian and everything in my life was changing. Old things were passing away and all things were becoming new. But there were times, the oddest of times, when the old man would find his way back into the equations of my life and create problems for me.

I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time. I was going to school and working full time at a trucking company. In the three months I’d been working I’d done quite well, getting a big promotion to become the terminal’s “chief dispatcher.” But I was intent on not getting the “big head.” My life was quite modest. My ex-wife and I lived in a small duplex and settled into there to live a quiet life. I drove an old fifty-seven Ford Fairline that my ex had gotten from her dad. It was more than adequate transportation.

Now I should have been happy with it all. But all it took was for one of the guys who reported directly to me at work to do one thing that got my competitive juices flowing. He came into work one night and pronounced proudly, “I bought a new car today, why don’t you come out to the parking lot to take a look at it.” So I did. I walked out with him and looked at the car. It was a metallic green Plymouth Satellite Regent station wagon. I saw it and it was lust at first sight. I rationalized my lust instantly. “Think about it. This guy works for you, Dillon. You can’t drive around in a beat up old Ford while one of your employees is driving around in a BRAND NEW Plymouth. You need to get one for yourself.”

And so I did. Within two days I showed up at work and made my own pronouncement. “Well guys I went down to Bill Swad’s today and I got myself a royal blue Satellite Regent wagon.” Everyone was suitably impressed. We went outside and surveyed the “beauty.” Everyone “oohed” and aahhed.”

For a few weeks I felt that I was on top of the world. But the glory was short lived. Two months after I bought the car the starter went out. Fortunately the car was under warranty so the dealer replaced it. Two weeks later the starter went out again. The dealer said it was an odd circumstance, but assured me that sometimes even new starters go bad. Next I noticed a rumbling sound as I drove around. And accompanying the rumbling was a shimmy. I called the dealer and explained as best I could what was happening. “It feels like I’m driving around on square wheels,” I said. He seemed to know what the problem was as soon as I told him. “Yup…..Tires are out of round.”
“You mean they can actually go from round to square?”
“Well no, they’re just out of balance. Just bring ‘er in and we’ll make it right.”
Well, sure enough, they made it right. But then something else started to happen. The car began to squeal as I turned corners. Another trip to the dealer revealed that there was a crimped something or other that was pinching off the air supply to some other ‘somethinorother’ that made the car whistle like a tea kettle.

And so it went. I owned the car for a little more than two years and learned anything that could go wrong with a machine found its way to my doorstep. It coughed. It sputtered. It squealed. It hissed. It belched. But for the first year and a half I convinced myself these were just minor inconveniences. I would look at the car in the driveway and see it in all its regal blue splendor and tell myself that it was a carriage fit for a mean of my means. It was blue and it cost more than the car my direct report’s. That was enough rationale for me to keep it.

In time, though, the minor inconveniences became bigger. The grace period was over. The transmission began to leak fluid. The dealer fixed it once…..And he fixed the same problem a second time. Then the engine developed a clicking sound. Then the flywheel had to be replaced. We’d come a long way from square wheels to an engine that was about to die an agonizing death. Yes, this regal blue beauty only had about thirty five thousand miles on it. It still looked beautiful. But it was dying a slow death.

The coup de grace came right on the heels of the onset of the clicking sound. I was on the way to a Pizza Hut with my kids. As the got about half way up one of the hills on the 7th Street Expressway I saw a plume of blue smoke in my rear view mirror. Then the car began to screech…..”Eeeeeeehhhhhhh!” My regal blue beauty was emitting its death rattle.

We managed to get the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. I don’t know how, but we did. By the time we got inside the “revelation” that had been escaping me for two and a half years hit me a freight train. My regal blue carriage was actually an albatross that had been hanging around my neck. I sat the kids down for their pizza and called the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. I started by explaining to the service department that I needed to have my blue beauty towed. “Do you need it fixed?” the service manager asked.
“No, just come and get it, that’s all I need.”
“I don’t understand. You say you don’t want us to fix it?”
“Well I don’t care if you fix it or not. I just want you to come and get it.”
“Are you sure? Are you alright?”
“You bet I’m sure. This is between God and me and I think he’s won out, I’m really fine now. I’ve had a revelation.”
There was a long, pregnant pause. I sensed that the good man at the dealer didn’t quite grasp what was going on. “Trust me,” I said one last time. “Just come get the car and I’ll never bother you guys at Chrysler-Plymouth again as long as I live.”
“Are you saying you got a lemon?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, let me put it this way. If you come and get this thing and squeeze the hell out of it you’ll have enough lemonade to start a very large concession.”

I think by now you know the moral of my tale of woe. I never needed that car to begin with. The only thing that got me behind the wheel was lust, pure and simple. God knew it all along and He was tinkering with the object of my lust. “Now, Dillon,” you say. “He’s gracious and loving; He would never do something like that to someone He loves.” I don’t want to go crossways with you, dear reader, but I’ve found that Jesus was not only a master carpenter, but He is also an outstanding mechanic. I think He knows how to saw off a tooth or two on a flywheel or crimp a hose or make the valves rattle. I learned from the experience that lust is not a solid lifestyle foundation.

When I was done I think my friend grasped what I was trying to tell him. This was something I could have learned some other way without changing the essence of who I am today. I think the contest of wills I had for those two and a half years could have been over in no time if I’d only been wise enough to confront the problem early on. Read the following account from Jacob’s life and substitute my name for his and you’ll see what I mean:

Genesis 32:24-28 (New International Version)

“24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
27 The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.
28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, [
a] because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

In the end I told my friend I would gladly exchange those two and a half years of grief for two out of three falls with the Almighty and a sixty minute time limit. I’d have settled for cauliflower ears or a pug nose or a limp if I could make it happen. And I don’t think that in doing it that I’d corrupt the whole world or cause a whirlwind in Kansas. I think I would have still met Nancy and I’ll still be living here in Emporia, Kansas. I’d have still been telling a story with the same point last night. The lesson learned would still be the same. The only difference would be that I’d have been talking about a one hour ‘whoopin’ rather than a two and a half year struggle.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Pastor's Cat

Matthew 7:11 (New International Version)

“11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

I received an e-mail with the following story from Scott Rochat, ace reporter at the Emporia Gazette.

It’s an absolutely delightful account of how God answered a little girl’s prayer for a cat. And, according to its author, it’s true. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

After you read it you’ll find yourself wondering how God is going to answer the prayers of your children or your grandchildren.
I hope it does something to make your day brighter.

"This particular story just made me laugh. Every time I think about it, the vision of that poor cat just amuses me. Hope the story leaves a bright spot in your day. Whoever said the Creator doesn't have a sense of humor? Dwight Nelson recently told a true story about the pastor of his church. He had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and then was afraid to come down. The pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc. The kitty would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb,so the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and drove away so that the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten. That's what he did, all the while checking his progress in the car. He then figured if he went just a little bit further, the tree would be bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But as he moved the car a little further forward, the rope broke. The tree went "boing!" and the kitten instantly sailed through the air-out of sight. The pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking people if they'd seen a little kitten. No. Nobody had seen a stray kitten. So he prayed, "Lord, I just commit this kitten to your keeping," and went on about his business. A few days later he was at the grocery store, and met one of his church members. He happened to look into her shopping cart and was amazed to see cat food. This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it, so he asked her, "Why are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?" She replied, "You won't believe this," and then told him how her little girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing. Then a few days before, the child had begged again, so the Mom finally told her little girl, "Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it." She told the pastor, "I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her knees, and ask God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out of the blue sky, with its paws outspread, and landed right in front of her." Never underestimate the Power of God and His unique sense of humor!"

Wally World

Proverbs 23:23 (King James Version)

“23Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.”

I read an interesting piece titled “Ill Wind for Wal-Mart” in the business section of today’s Kansas City Star. The subtitle of the piece read “As managers meet in KC, retail giant faces angry squall.”

The gist of the story is this. Wal-Mart’s management has been meeting in Kansas City strategizing for the year ahead. Outside Bartle Hall, where the meeting was being held, “dozens” of protesters carried signs that read “Wal-Mart Hurts America.”

After reading the piece I’m now feeling a tinge of guilt as I get ready to go to our local Wal-Mart and do some shopping. After all who would want to shop in a store that Mary Lindsay, organizer of the protest for “Reclaim,” described to the press as follows, "But there’s a downside to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart hurts people, communities, and democracy. It’s more than just low prices.”

I wonder now whether or not I’m just some small town rube who, by shopping at Wally World, is missing something that Ms. Lindsay and her cohorts have discovered through superior reasoning. The last thing I would want to do in the face of an evil corporate entity would be to support their efforts to dismantle democracy and people. I’m far too American and far too patriotic for that.

I’m torn. I need some toothpaste and some deodorant. I need some cat litter and some cat food. I need some mission figs and some cheese. I’ve checked other stores here in town and not only is Wal-Mart cheaper than the rest, it’s substantially cheaper. Take the mission figs for example. At most local stores a package costs a little bit under three bucks. At Wal-Mart the same item, the same brand, costs about a buck seventy. I’m not great with math, but I feel safe in saying that Wal-Mart’s price is clearly better.

Now this isn’t the first I’ve heard of the controversy surrounding Wal-Mart. There are folks who say that “the evil giant” is destroying small-town America. There are others who say that they underpay and mistreat their employees.

And yet, in the face of all this evil, I am considering a trip up to Wal-Mart as I write. How can I even call myself a patriotic American?

Well, fellow Americans, I hate to say it but I find it very easy.

I can’t speak for the rest of small-town America, but I can tell you that Wal-Mart has done anything but destroy Emporia, Kansas. We’re doing quite well here, thank you.

The economic climate seems to be quite good for most businesses here. There are exceptions, I’ll admit. There’s a wine and art gallery that opened a few months ago near the downtown district. The person who opened the business had good intentions, but I don’t think that he or she studied the demographics of the Flint Hills well enough. Cowboys and ranchers aren’t likely candidates to be seen sitting around sipping zinfandel discussing impressionism or realism. The folks who cut cows at Tyson Foods aren’t going to be found at the gallery sitting around drinking port and smoking Cuban cigars. Where are the cowboys and cow cutters all shopping? Wal-Mart, of course.

But there are many other businesses that are thriving here. Bluestem Farm and Ranch Supply is selling saddles, jeans, and sundries at a decent pace. The Commercial Street Diner is always crowded at breakfast time and their lunch specials are “to die for.” And Wal-Mart’s direct competitors also seem to be doing at least okay.

The long and the short of it is that the businesses that are doing well here have found their niche and have priced their goods so that we rubes can afford them.

Now I hope the gallery makes it, but I have my doubts. If or when it does close I don’t believe it will be Wal-Mart’s fault either. But I have a hunch that the business owner will find some way to blame the demise on the evil corporate giant.

There was something else about the Star’s piece that intrigued me. Wal-Mart’s latest annual revenues were reported at 256 billion big ones. Their net profits for the same period were nine billion. The Star calculated the evil giant’s profit margin at 3.52 percent. That margin hardly suggests an evil giant to me. In fact, that margin seems quite small in comparison to the bottom lines of a lot of corporations I’ve seen. Three point five-two seems very modest indeed.

Ms.Lindsay says that this is all about more than “just low prices.” I think there’s some merit in what she’s said. But methinks her assertion that Wal-Mart is dangerous for people, communities, and democracy proceeds from a “heat oppressed brow.” Contrary to what I read this morning, the barbarians aren’t storming the gates of the city here in this corner of small-town America. I was in Wal-Mart just two days ago and did notice that the greeters (retirees like me) weren’t sporting assault rifles or strong-arming their customer base. About all I heard from then was “Can I get you a shopping cart?” when I entered the store and a cordial “Thank you!” when I left. Yes, even with Wal-Mart, the evil giant planted on the west side of town, Emporia is safe, the sun is shining, and democracy is running rampant.

In the five years I’ve lived here in Emporia I’ve learned that Wal-Mart is an acquired taste. I’m sure that there are “shoppers” out there who have found that Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue are acquired tastes in their little corner of the world. I doubt that thee marketing groups from Saks or Neiman Marcus are considering coming to Emporia to compete with Wal-Mart. And if they did and then branched out into food I doubt that the price of their mission figs would come close to beating the evil giant’s.

Consider this, dear reader. I am absolutely certain that Wal-Mart has its share of flaws and problems. I worked for one of the best corporations in the world for close to seventeen years and found that it, too, had its flaws. My guess is that the men and women of Wal-Mart are trying to fix theirs as quickly as FedEx, my former employer, did theirs.

Having written this post, I now feel better. I’ve got my list and I’m on my way. My guilt is purged and my good sense has been retrieved. I’m going to Wally World. Let me check the list one more time – toothpaste…..shaving cream… litter… food…..figs…..cheese. Yup…..That’s everything I need today. No zinfandel, no Bill Blass shirts, no Bally’s for my feet. I’m going to Wally World and there it’s just the basics.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Things That Go Bump in the Day

I received an e-mail this morning from Michelle Malkin concerning some really serious issues with our Department of Homeland Security.

It seems that they recently sent a green card approval notice to Eugueni Kniazev. That seems innocent enough. But the problem with the approval was that Mr. Kniazev, unfortunately, has been deceased for over three years. And worse yet, Mr. Kniazev was one of victims who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Ms.Malkin expressed the outrage that I believe we all ought to feel. She put it this way:

“Despite billions spent on restructuring and new technology, our homeland security system is still unable to prevent a green card approval notice from being sent to a dead person. The fact that the letter recipient is a murdered Sept. 11 victim adds unconscionable insult to bureaucratic injury. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told me it's up to family members to notify the government when an applicant dies. "It's unfortunate," he said, but there is no mechanism in place to prevent this from happening again.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this almost beyond belief.

It makes me also wonder who else is getting green cards these days. I shudder to think of what might be happening right now because the agency that was born in the wake of a great tragedy is nothing more than an empty bureaucracy.

To find out more, especially what folks like you and I can do, link to Ms. Malkin's site, then scroll down to her piece in honor of Mr. Kniazev that was posted earlier today.

Let’s let the right people in Washington know that we will not subsidize stupidity and that we expect them to do the job they were commissioned to do.

You Can't Have the Fire Without the Water

1 Kings 18:16-39 (New International Version)

Elijah on Mount Carmel

“16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. 17 When he saw Elijah, he said to him, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?"
18 "I have not made trouble for Israel," Elijah replied. "But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the LORD's commands and have followed the Baals. 19 Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."
20 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah went before the people and said, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him."
But the people said nothing.
22 Then Elijah said to them, "I am the only one of the LORD's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD . The god who answers by fire-he is God."
Then all the people said, "What you say is good."
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire." 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come here to me." They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD , which was in ruins. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, "Your name shall be Israel." 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD , and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs [
a] of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, "Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood."
34 "Do it again," he said, and they did it again.
"Do it a third time," he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: "O LORD , God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, O LORD , answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD , are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again."
38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The LORD -he is God! The LORD -he is God!"

This is one of the most fascinating confrontations in all of Holy Writ. Ahab the king has called Israel’s prophet Elijah and four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites to Mt. Carmel. There is a question to be decided – whose god is the only true God. The prophets of Baal are to take a bull, cut it into pieces and lay them on wood prepared for fire. Elijah is to do the same thing. The question before the people will be answered by the god who consumes the sacrifice by fire.

The prophets of Baal begin the contest. They set the wood on an altar. They prepare the bull for sacrifice. Now they are to call on their god, but they are not to set the fire themselves. From early morning till noon they cry out and pray to their god with all the earnestness they can muster. There is no reply. Elijah taunts them. “Maybe he’s sleeping or maybe he’s hunting.” He knows his opponent well. Baal is a notoriously lazy deity. He loves to sleep and he loves to hunt. “Pray louder,” Elijah says. So they do. Not only do they begin to shout, but they begin to cut themselves with swords and knives. Maybe Baal will see their acts of self-flagellation and answer. This grisly scene continues until the time for evening sacrifice. But Baal is silent.

Now it’s Elijah’s turn. He has an altar prepared and stacks wood on it. Then he does something that boggles the imagination. He has the people pour four jars of water on the wood. He has the process repeated two more times. Now the water even fills the trench around the altar.

It seems impossible. How can wood that is completely doused with water be set on fire?

I’ve always heard that God was doing the impossible that day when He answered by fire. But I look at the incident from a different angle. On that day the only way that it was possible to start the fire was to douse it with water. In essence, you couldn’t have the fire without the water.

The impossibility was what the prophets of Baal were engaged it, not Elijah.

I believe the story has a lesson for us today. God isn’t looking for people who equate acts of self-flagellation with faith. He’s not looking for people to “crawl across cut class to make a deal.” He’s looking for people who would be willing to pour water on the wood, hay, and stubble of their lives.

The lesson of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is this. If we truly want God to answer by fire in our lives today then we must not engage in the types of pyrotechnics that the prophets of a false god demanded. That god is much like the gods of our age, demanding that we scar ourselves in order to meet their demands. It’s a relationship in which its adherents lose their humanity, their dignity, and in the end, their lives. Our God, the God who answers by fire only asks us to pour out the water. He’s not asking us to do the impossible. He’s asking us to do the only thing that is possible and sensible, to walk by faith.

Read the account, dear reader, and reflect on the words. You’ll see that they are trustworthy and true

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Volunteers for Jesus

Sandy Brunson, who is a member of the church Nancy and I attend, has a website bylined “Volunteers for Jesus.”

It’s a great site, very interactive. I highly recommend it.

One of today’s posts was titled “Awesome God.” For Sandy it was a repost of something she had received a year ago. Sandy put it this way:

“A year ago this week....a list member and good friend sent this to me, and because "a picture IS worth a thousand words"...I wanted to share it with you, again, and for those who were not on this list at that need to see it! What a demonstration of our AWESOME GOD! It "blew me away" revealing again the "height, breadth, width, and depth" of our Almighty God! Many will want to forward it to their friends...for it is absolutely amazing....worth the time to view it!!!”

I linked to the site Sandy referred to and saw what she meant. What an awesome God!

Link to the site and see what Sandy meant.

A Word is a Word is a Word

Psalm 19:14 (New International Version)

“14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

Yesterday afternoon I received the following comment on Blogspot:

“PLEASE change the title of this blog, unless you intentionally mean for it to be so gay.Another Man's Meat! Come on! That is just too much!”

The person, who was commenting anonymously, clearly doesn’t like my byline.

I sent a short comment in response, but felt that I needed to comment further in a post.

The primary objection, I assume, was not the words “another” or “man.” It was the word meat that the commenter felt was “just too much.”

Since the person who commented was anonymous I don’t know which side of the cultural divide he or she lives on. It could have been a fellow Christian upset that the word might draw some from a “different” audience to my site. Or it could have been someone who is gay and did not find what he was expecting to find. I just don’t know.

In response I’d like to begin by outlining the definition(s) of the word:


1. The edible flesh of animals, especially that of mammals as opposed to that of fish or poultry.
2. The edible part, as of a piece of fruit or a nut.
3. The essence, substance, or gist: the meat of the editorial.
4. Slang. Something that one enjoys or excels in; a forte: Tennis is his meat.
5. Nourishment; food: “Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink” (Edna St. Vincent Millay).
6. Vulgar Slang.
The human body regarded as an object of sexual desire.
The genitals.

Once one even casually reads anything I post I believe it should be clear that the byline falls under definitions three and five– “The essence, substance, or gist” or “Nourishment, food.”

I started this blog in July of last year with one intention – to look at the world through the prism of my Christian faith and the serenity of the Kansas Flint Hills. The byline and its subtitle couldn’t make my worldview and my intent in writing any clearer:

John 4:34 (King James Version)

“34Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.”

Now I recognize that I cannot control the connotations that some might derive from a word or words I’ve written. People are free moral agents.

However, no one community has the power to appropriate words in the English language that have had clear understandings for centuries. Words are powerful tools, too powerful for communities within the fabric of society to appropriate for use other than what they were intended. This is especially true if the context in which the word or words was originally penned is clear from their entire framework from which they stand as a byline. “Another Man’s Meat” is a statement of my faith in Jesus Christ.

The person who commented was clearly injecting his or her own meaning to the word meat when the context and the totality of what I’ve written since July should obviously suggest otherwise.

I understand the power of words. It’s good that they do carry power. But it’s dangerous for one to assume that one community has the power to redefine or twist those words to suit their interests. The Nazis did just that with devastating effect just a few generations ago. Jews and other non-desirables became “vermin” instead of human beings. The definition of compassion was turned on its head to mean forced sterilization and forced euthanasia. I’d like to think that we’ve come farther than that since the 1940’s.

Words can wound or they can heal. The intent of “Another Man’s Meat” is that they bring healing, in keeping with Solomon’s words:

Proverbs 18:4 (King James Version)

“4The words of a man's mouth are as deep waters, and the wellspring of wisdom as a flowing brook”.

That’s been my vision since I started seven months ago. That vision has not changed, nor will it be changed now based on the whim of someone who misappropriates the meaning and intent of what I’ve said.

I want to be clear. I have no personal axes to grind with anyone in the gay community or a fellow Christian. I have no political axes to grind with people who are politically conservative or those who are politically liberal. I’ve said what I’ve said since July to advance the tenets of my Christian faith. I have not written to offend anyone. I haven’t written to shock anyone.

I am certain that almost anyone reading my blog can see this. To them I say “thank you” for reading “Another Man’s Meat” and your support. For the ones who cannot I have a request. Please keep the dialogue elevated. In so doing, this blog can continue to be what it’s meant to be, a vehicle for understanding, the expression of faith, and healing.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Broomstick Cowboys

1 Corinthians 3:11-14 (New International Version)

“11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. 14If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.”

After writing about my experiences in Louisville I’m now giving thought to the days that preceded those experiences. In retrospect I see that the wanderlust I developed then was one of the roots of the dissatisfaction that led me to the decision to leave Kansas City.

As I have before, I want to be careful to explain that while I can see the mistakes that I made in those days, I want to resoundingly affirm that God was not distant. In fact I’ve come to see that God has an incredible way of taking our flaws, weaknesses and mistakes and redeeming them. With that said, I’d like now to briefly reminisce about those times and draw what I believe are some important lessons I’ve learned in looking back.

While I was attending seminary I also was receiving an education of sorts at Evangelistic Center Church in downtown Kansas City. At that time it was one of the best known and attended Charismatic churches in the area. If anything important was happening in the “movement” E.C .C. was going to be on the leading edge.

I was living in two worlds, the academic world which I really loved and the “rubber met the road” world of Evangelistic Center which I loved just as much. In one world I was learning about the “how to’s,” the history, the sacred text. In the other it was “nuts and bolts,” doing the work of a “minister.”

While by and large things were working well, there were problems coming to the surface. I was anxious to serve. I had taken a battery of tests prior to entering seminary that revealed that I had a very strong sense of mission. In fact, according to the faculty I had the highest sense of purpose in the student body. While this should have been a great positive I turned out to be the melting pot where problems simmered within me.

How could a deep sense of purpose create a problem? In a word, it was time.

About half way through my first semester I started getting wanderlust. The daily tasks at school became important to me only in that they were going to be the foundation for my being a “minister.” That thinking, in turn, created a daydreamer’s mentality in me. I spent inordinate amounts of time focusing on the future, giving little thought to the day at hand, to the “here and now.”

Things at E.C.C. paralleled what was going on in the classroom. I would observe the “ministers” doing the work. As with seminary I spent a good deal of my time daydreaming about a “ministry” in the future that would rival David Wilkerson’s or Billy Graham’s.

I was not alone in either world. While students I knew had to do the daily work in the classrooms, their heads were just as much in the future as mine. And my fellow “ministers in waiting” at E.C.C. daydreamed at least as much as I did. I came to see that in both worlds we were all broomstick cowboys, waiting for the future, for our day, to come. We were like Miniver Cheevy, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “child of scorn,” who had grown “lean while he assailed the seasons.” You remember Miniver from your literature classes, don’t you? He was the man who spent his time daydreaming about the past, lamenting the fact that he had been born when he was:

Miniver Cheevy
Edwin Arlington Robinson

"MINIVER CHEEVY, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking."

In dark, sobering verse I believe Robinson was describing many of us who dreamed of one day becoming “ministers.” The only difference between us and Miniver was that while he focused on the past we focused on the future.

How could we not see what we were doing? I believe it was a mix of our dreams, flawed as they were, and the institutional divide that says that “ministry” is for a special, set apart class of people. In one setting, the academic, I was preparing to be a man clad in vestments. In the other I was being groomed to wear a rumpled suit. In one I was being polished, refined. In the other I was learning how to “play in the traffic.”

There was a class of people that I wanted to be a part of – the “clergy,” the “body of people ordained for religious service.” I did not want to be part of the “laity,” those people defined as “everyone except the clergy.”

The distinction between the two classes of people was stark. One seemed to me to be elevated; the other seemed to me to unimportant, something more worthy of a pejorative than praise. From there it didn’t take me long to believe (incorrectly) that one class was the true working class and the other was a class of observers.

That definition and the societal view of what constituted “ministry” and “ministers” had powerful impacts on me. I think it did on others I knew as well.

That’s why I used the term “broomstick cowboys” to describe us. By way of confession I’ll use myself as my own sermon illustration here. I developed a refined disdain for the common, ordinary life and began to see that “ministry” might be a way out. It was all as simple as that.

Now to my points. I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t any “broomstick cowboys” reading this post today, lamenting the “fact” that service and the work of the “ministry” for you are in the future. And I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t others now reading who lament the “fact” that they were never “called to the ministry,” that you’re lot in life is to be an observer rather than a doer.

I’ll put it to both groups plainly. “Ministry” is here and “ministry” is now. “Ministry” is not just for a distinct group of professionals. “Ministry” is the role for the true laity, the people of God. The role is, or should be, all-inclusive, and the work should also be all-inclusive as well. It’s a “ministry” that engineers can be involved in. It’s a “ministry” well suited to the butcher and baker and candlestick maker.

“Ministry” is not for the broomstick cowboy; it’s for the person whose feet are firmly planted on the ground, the person who sees his or her work as work that needs to be accomplished today. Holy Writ describes that person this way:

1 Corinthians 15:58 (New International Version)

“58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

I’ll close with this. If you’re serious about “ministry” you need to begin your work by throwing out the broomstick. Once you do you’ll see the window of “ministry” opened wide. Your focus will change from tomorrow to today. You will be, in the truest sense of the word, a “minister.”