Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Johnny Verbeck's Machine

A few days ago, during one of those moments pregnant with hope on one hand and cynicism/anxiety on the other, the words to an old campfire tune came to mind. The song was about a man named Johnny Verbeck, a butcher by trade, who had invented a very special sausage making machine. The refrain went something like this:

“Oh, Mr. Johnny Verbeck, how could you be so mean?
I told you you’d be sorry for inventin’ that machine
Now all the neighbors’ cats and dogs will never more be seen
They’ll all be ground to sausages in Johnny Verbeck’s machine.”

Here in Emporia and the rest of America it’s the season of hope. Or, put more appropriately, it’s supposed to be the season of hope. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the mood in America right now. Cynicism and anxiety seem to be the prevailing realities. I think we may be suffering from Johnny Verbeck syndrome. We have a nagging sense that we’re being ground to sausages in some machine not of our own making. I think we want to escape its clutches, but it seems to cast some Svengali-like spell over us. We feel, simultaneously, terrorized, mesmerized, and hypnotized.

I read a report from Reuters this morning that we Americans no longer live in the world’s biggest houses. The Australians have overtaken us, by two hundred square feet per house. I’m not sure why Reuters reported the sad statistics. Was it to demonstrate that we Americans are losing our grip on the world? That things are bad and getting worse? If so, what should we do about it? Declare war on Australia, perhaps? Could it be that this is just another of those small gears in Johnny Verbeck’s machine?

A while back the Chinese shipped tainted baby formula to this country, about the same time AIG and the other big banks were on the verge of collapse. Two administrations fired shots at the Chinese across the diplomatic bow. One of the Chinese executives involved in the scandal committed suicide and two were recently executed. The AIG and bank executives got billions in taxpayer money and handsome bonuses to boot. It looks a lot like Johnny Verbeck’s machine to me.

The President recently criticized the Chinese for unfair trade practices and using monetary policy to keep the value of their currency artificially low. Here in America the Federal Reserve is furiously printing money, then giving it away while our politicians slap tariffs on goods shipped from China. The Chinese are awash in money and getting flusher by the day. America, the bastion of free markets and worldly wealth, seems to be sinking under the weight of debt and creeping protectionism, all being ground out like sausage in that infernal machine. Those who seem to know are telling us that within a generation we may owe more than we can produce or pay for.

I skipped the President’s address last night. This morning I read the transcript and the media reports. I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Are we sending our sons and daughters to win or to fight to a draw? And, where’s Hamid Karzai going to be in eighteen months? In Vienna, sipping coffee and munching on apple strudel, with millions of U.S. foreign aid dollars to spend? In the Congress some are proposing a war tax to pay for the billions needed for this surge. Does that mean the families sending their loved one’s into harm’s way may have to pay for the privilege of offering up the husbands, wives, children, and loved ones? Is that the price they must pay for their loyalty, honor, and patriotism? Are they the ones who might well wind up in the teeth of Johnny Verbeck’s machine?

My principle reason for skipping the President’s speech was to go downtown and watch the Christmas parade (or the Seasonal parade if that’s your pleasure). It seemed to be an appropriate diversion in the light of world events and Emporia’s annual debate about whether we should have a “seasonal” or a “Christmas” celebration.” I left my house hoping that in an hour or so downtown I could find someplace in America where Johnny Verbeck’s machine wasn’t going full bore. I got back home a bit after eight, tired and disappointed. The procession started pleasantly enough, with marching bands, kids on floats waving to the spectators, fire trucks festooned with Christmas lights, and old veterans still strutting their stuff, albeit occasionally out of step. Then, Johnny Verbeck seemed to take over. There was a long string of commercial floats hawking cookers, replacement windows, lawn services, and so forth, followed by politicians pressing the flesh. The subliminal messages seemed to be either the right vote or the right purchase would bring Christmas its true meaning. The piece de resistance was a small group of marchers under a hand written banner reading “ABATE,” the acronym for an organization called “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.” As soon as I saw that I sensed someone had put the last dog or cat in the sausage machine. I felt helpless against the tides of the times. It was time to go home.

My wife and I have frequent discussions about how to counter-balance all of this. Lately we’ve been reading the work of C.S. Lewis and talking about a sense of longing; the type of longing that doesn’t attach itself to some past joy in life, nor is it contingent on some worldly bauble. It’s a longing for something we haven’t seen yet, the place where moth and rust don’t corrupt.

A couple of thousand years ago, Johnny Verbeck’s machine was going full tilt in the once magnificent kingdom of Israel. Hope was in short supply. The price of temple sacrifices was skyrocketing. The glory of the Babylonian empire, one of Israel’s early conquerors, had long since faded. Alexander the Great, who was purported to have wept because “there were no more worlds to conquer,” was only a memory, as was the empire he established. Rome now ruled the world with an iron fist. People, quite naturally, felt oppressed. The voices of Israel’s prophets and sages had been silent for three hundred years. Then, a child was born. Some believed he was the fulfillment of a Divine promise. Others scoffed at the idea, as many do today. Some just went about their business. A few, in high places, felt threatened enough to attempt to kill him. He grew up in relative obscurity. He never owned much, other than his robe, which Roman soldiers cast lots for as they watched him die. He once told his followers, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

There’s not much need to go into great detail now. You know the story – wonderful sermons, profound stories, miracles, misunderstandings about the nature of his kingdom, a criminal’s death, followed by a resurrection. It was a life offered up as proof that the wonderful “treasures laid up somewhere beyond the blue” were far more than wisps and figments of overactive imaginations.

The older I get the more I sense that longing for the things I haven’t seen yet, the things promised and embodied by this one Man. I know they’re there and I know they’re good. I also know that in the current national climate my sense of hope and what/who it rests on must seem quite foolish to those who prefer the pleasure of being ground to pieces. And, that’s alright; we’re all free moral agents. I’ll continue in my foolishness; they can continue in their “superior wisdom”

I guess this brings it all full circle. I’m not going to spend my time this year looking for a forty six inch flat screen or some political messiah in the manger to replace baby Jesus. I want to find myself focusing on what the scoffers call pie in the sky. That probably makes me more a dreamer than a realist, again grist for the scoffer’s mill. I have no clever defense. I’m guilty on both counts. Once again, that’s alright. I’m at a place in life where I far prefer pie in the sky over Johnny Verbeck’s machine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog. You have company that shares the same thoughts.
I am finding that the "bible believing, evangelical" Christians I know are also coming to the same focus. Jesus Christ.
Many people are scoffing at His coming, even Christians.
The Holy Spirit is moving over His people, He is calling them. He is witnessing to Jesus coming. That is our focus. We are here to witness & be a witness. We do not have to persuade, that's the Holy Spirits place. Be prepared to stand in the evil day, wear the whole armor of God. Ephs 6:10-
We shall over come, through Christ Jesus, our Redeemer, Lord & Saviour.
Come, Lord come.