Sunday, January 31, 2010

Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?

“When a land transgresses, it has many rulers,
but with a man of understanding and knowledge,
its stability will long endure.
” (Pr. 28:2)

On the first of every month a “Dow 30” company, call it “Very Big Conglomerate” (VBC) makes pension payments to tens of thousands of its retirees. One of them goes to me. Much of the payment is used to cover the premium on the retiree medical insurance policy that VBC makes available to Mrs. Presbyter and me.

So VBC, “bless its heart”, is an important one of my “cash cows”.

A condition for supplying that retiree medical insurance policy was that, when I turned 65, I was required to enroll in Medicare, Parts A and B, and, when Mrs. Presbyter turns 65, she will be required to do the same. So VBC has an emphatic interest in government policy towards “senior citizens”: If the government did not supply us with medical insurance, we could cost VBC a lot more.

But this is by no means the end of the VBC interest in government: When I worked for them, our division supplied “process measurement and control” systems to various industries. A purely economic argument can be made in favor of these systems, since more efficient process control saves material and energy. But government imposes extra constraints that also incline industry toward buying these systems, some very defensible (like cleaning up the emissions that once denuded nearby hillsides) and some less so. Among the less defensible constraints will be the one currently being debated to impose very substantial energy taxes under the guise of restricting carbon dioxide emissions. Taxes like these would greatly tilt the economic argument for the systems VBC sells by making savings in energy much more attractive. So we can expect VBC to be all in favor of these taxes (but not for calling them that!) and to issue occasional press releases stressing their corporate concern for polar bears.

So large, intrusive, regulatory government, “bless its heart”, is an important one of VBC’s “cash cows”, and so, once removed, it is one of mine.

It’s at this point that we come to the catalyst for this post, the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down some constraints on issue advocacy by corporate entities. The letters column of our local newspaper has been filled with indignation about this, and the following quotation can be taken as representative: “Who gets to make the laws? Citizens or corporations? Duh!” If this sentiment had any validity, then it would follow that VBC should be elated at the ruling. Is it? I haven’t seen any press releases yet, but I doubt they’re very happy. The sort of activity that the ruling now legitimizes simply isn’t their style, nor that of most other large organizations. Indeed it’s more the style of a number of lesser players in the government-manipulation game that VBC probably would rather see driven out. They’re annoying competition.

This isn’t to say that VBC wouldn’t encourage its employees to form Political Action Committees and give to various candidates that have a reasonable chance of being elected. Of course they do that and have ways of making sure that winning candidates are aware of their sympathy. But their principal means for influencing public policy is surely the same one that other large organizations use: They form relationships - at substantial expense! - with various entities, of which there are hundreds, and which make it their business to form relationships with various government officials and use those relationships to influence policy. These organizations (“lobbyists”) would say that they simply “inform” the officials, but it’s also the case that they provide them with various “perks”, including jobs for the officials’ friends and relatives, and, should the official be constrained (say by losing an election) to leave government, even, after a decent interval, a job for the official himself. None of this was affected in the least by the recent ruling and, even had it been, everyone involved would have quickly figured out how to effect the same sort of results with suitably-adjusted means. None of this is easy. It all costs money, a lot of money, and only organizations like VBC can afford it. And, if the truth were to be told, this state of affairs probably suits them just fine.

A quick reaction to all this might be that, “There ought’a be a law!’ But the awful truth is that laws are a large part of the reason that things are as tangled and opaque as they are. VBC is very well adapted to manipulating government regulation through a process that is itself highly regulated. Indeed, the more regulation of elections and lobbying we have, the better for VBC and so too, to the extent that my welfare depends on VBC, the better for me. It’s a distasteful thought, but “full disclosure” demands it.

Still, it is a distasteful thought and the question rises as to “What can be done about it all?” An obvious answer is “limited government”, since, with less influence to peddle, there’d be less influence peddling. But is this a likely outcome? The verse cited at the top of this post (Pr. 28:2) would seem to indicate that, in a democracy at least, it’s very unlikely, and that “many rulers” is associated with “transgression”. This seems to be consistent with the opinion that Plato ascribes to Socrates in his “Republic” (sections 557 and following). There democracy is described as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike”. But, Socrates then maintains, the appetites aroused, along with the disorder, lead in the end to tyranny.

Does Scripture lend any support to that picture? Consider the following two verses from Proverbs 29:

“By justice a king builds up the land,
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.”
(Pr. 29:4)

What is true for a king is also true for a democratic electorate, and experience seems to teach us that these have a substantial penchant for “exacting gifts” (or “taxing heavily” - ESV margin). But, surely, we might argue, won’t the electorate’s common sense tend to arrest the destructive process of treating itself to more and more “benefits” that, in the end, lead to ruin and tyranny? At this point, the second verse comes in:

“If a ruler listens to falsehood,
all his officials will be wicked.”
(Pr. 29:12)

Democratic electorates certainly have a history of listening to attractive lies, and a companion history of rule by scoundrels.

I’m purposely painting a gloomy picture here in order to raise the question, “Is the gloom warranted?” Or can we see any signs of hope in Scripture that the country where I live will be, for my grandchildren, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Or will it be just a tangled web of “cash cows” and those who milk them, sinking into a “soft tyranny” and poverty? And what can - or should! - our churches do about all of this?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Grandkiddie Chronicles - Episode 3471: “The S Word”

“ Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but he who hates reproof is like a cow.”
(Pr. 12:1, Berkeley Version)

One of the “perks” of being a grandparent is that one gets to star in the sit-coms scripted by the grandchildren. A favorite story of mine along those lines took place some months ago, when some grandchildren were playing in one part of our back yard, while I was gardening in another. One of them rushed up and accused his cousin of using “the s word”.

Not too surprisingly, I was incensed and let his cousin know that, under no circumstances was she to use that word. She was young, and not too articulate, but she made it clear that the word was not on the forbidden list, and refused to budge from that stance. We parted with the very stern warning on my part that use of that word was out. I went back to my gardening, wondering at her stubbornness (and she can be stubborn!) and then, after a while, “the nickel dropped”: I called her cousin over and asked if, when he had said “the s word”, he had meant “stupid”. “Yeah”, he replied (in a “what else?” tone).

There is a verse from Proverbs that speaks to my predicament at this point in the story:

“If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame.”
(Pr. 18:13)

However, bad as things were, they did recover a bit: I went to his cousin and confessed to her that I had wronged her, and told her I was sorry. It had a good effect.

Still, my heart wasn’t really right. There were internal grumblings about “political correctness” and all that for a while. In addition, I took pains to let her cousin know that he was not to use the phrase “the s word” in that sense again. Just to reinforce the point, I introduced him to Proverbs 12:1, in my bible:

“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but he who hates reproof is stupid.”

On reflection, that was a “stupid” thing to do and I doubt he was helped by it. While it does make the point that, as “s words” go, “stupid” is hardly down at the bottom of the scale, it doesn’t really tell us what to do with the word. When should we use it?

One can gain some insight by comparing Pr. 12:1 in different versions of the bible: “Stupid” is by far the most common rendering (NIV, NASB, NKJV, CEV). But the King James rendering, “brutish” is sometimes found (KJV, ASV, YLT). As for what is meant by “brutish”, my favorite rendering is in the Berkeley Bible: “like a cow”. For those of us who have limited experience with cows, take a look at this link. If the intent of the Berkeley version had had to do with intelligence only, they might have chosen “like a sheep”. Instead, they chose “like a cow”. Perhaps the intent was to say that someone who resents being reproved has reduced themselves to acting no better than a cow, a donkey, or any other “brute beast” that is particularly stubborn and stupid.

So perhaps the following lessons as to what to do with the word “stupid”, at least in the sense that it’s used here, can be drawn:
1. It’s meaning here is very emphatically moral: It’s a type of wickedness in this context, not a measure of someone’s IQ.
2. Because of that, there definitely will be times when it will be appropriate to confront someone over “stupid” behavior, but one has the responsibility to be ready to explain the sense in which it’s being used: We need to be able explain that, in terms that aren’t needlessly offensive, “You’re acting like a cow.”

I doubt that my little granddaughter meant it that way. Instead, she probably meant it as simply an insult or put-down. (I imagine her cousins had made her angry - and she does anger easily.) So, had I thought all that through at the time, instead of “acting like a cow”, we might have been able to sit down together and work the issue through in terms of the loving conduct toward one another to which we are called in Christ. Young as they were, I think they could have understood the meaning of another verse from the same chapter of Proverbs:

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
(Pr. 12:18)

Instead, I reacted as I did and “a teachable moment” was lost (though asking her to forgive me did recover some good from the affair).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rejoice Always ... even from a Wheelchair!

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word
.” (Ps. 119:67)

Rejoice always, ...” (1 Th. 5:16)

This post is something of a follow-up to Jailer’s post “Doesn’t God Want Me to be Happy?” and my own post “Hard, but Amazing Grace”:

The second post deals with the fact that many come to Christ only after having made a real mess of their lives - and many relationships. Others, despite real faith, may persist in “simplicity” and likewise make that sort of mess, before finally humbling themselves before the Lord and submitting to Him. But then, while the Lord does “lift them up” (1 Pt. 5:6), rather than snatching them out of all that and into earthly bliss, the Lord puts them to work living with that mess, making it better where they can, and letting their faith glorify Him in the midst of it all.

Jailer’s post deals with the refusal of many Christians to accept that there may be things in this life that they simply may not have, at least not for their good. The two posts are connected in that this refusal is “simplistic”, in the sense of some of my earlier posts, and so is an important mechanism in the process many “little ones” in the church use to make that mess of their lives. One thinks, for instance, of the role that “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” plays in so many of God’s little ones entering into relationships that will cause them lifelong heartache.

The subject of this post is a story of that sort, of one of His children, a dear friend, who came back to Him, only after many years of ignoring Him, and who, having left Him as a vital young woman, came back to Him much older, and as a stroke victim in a wheelchair. I think of her whenever I think of the subject of a “life verse”. Hers was Psalm 119, verse 67:

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.

Before she was stricken, my friend would have been seen by the world as a bright, effective, energetic and successful professional. But, though raised in the church, she had long since decided to live apart from God. Of course she did not altogether despise His precepts. Even in this “crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15), it’s hard to succeed doing that. But still, she did “what was wise in her own eyes” (Pr. 3:7). To her eventual dismay, she let that mindset also affect her response to her doctor’s warnings about being careful to take her blood pressure medicine. The result was a major stroke, which left her paralyzed on one side of her body. In addition to the purely physical effects, while she was by no means left mentally incompetent, she testified often to being slower in grasping things than she had been.

As another consequence, she was left with medical expenses that all too quickly gobbled up all her assets and left her supported only by Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income. That situation, in turn, left her in a nursing home near our church, where the arrangement was that the government check went to the nursing home provider, except for $35 which was left for her to spend each month on odds and ends. Along with that, life in the nursing home had many frustrations, including the fact that any valuables which the patients might have were often stolen. Many of them became quite bitter over all this, and the bitterness often seemed to harden them. My friend wrestled with these feelings.

Then, one day, just as we were closing up after a morning worship service, there she was: We were a presbyterian church and she had been raised in a presbyterian church, and so asked about worshipping with us. We straightened matters out where worship times were concerned and she began to attend. After a while, she asked about joining the congregation, and satisfied the elders that her profession was genuine. I won’t go into the details about my subsequent involvement in the life of this dear sister, or of that of several others in our congregation, but we were an important part of her life, and she of ours, up until the time of her death.

As I indicated above, when we knew her, she was not nearly as quick mentally as she had been while in the world, and so there is no dazzling story about books written, or classes taught, or anything of that sort. There’s just the story of a simple life of faith in a wheelchair, lived before - and encouraging - a few of her brothers and sisters in Christ. But, in the essential sense, she was able to “rejoice always” (1 Th. 5:16), and she helped all of us to do so too.