Category Archives: Economics
I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now. Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess. I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.
Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around. They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote. Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of
diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion. We have to run for election every year. It’s called “the budget.” A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long. Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.
So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before. He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?” And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”
A little unsolicited advice:
- You have to learn how to build consensus. Winning 51-49 is not winning. You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
- You will learn humility willingly or eventually. Willingly is much less painful.
- Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one: “Learn to tell a story. Keep it simple. Tell the truth. Truth doesn’t need help.”
- The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end. They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
- It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement. Even if you and your mother think so. God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
- Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
- You have to trust others to make real changes. Nobody does it by themselves.
- Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
- Forgive and move on. It’s just that simple. Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
- Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall. There are worse things than losing your job.
- Believe in Someone or Something larger than you. Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
- It’s not your church. It’s not their church. It’s God’s church. Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
- If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it. It’s not rocket science.
- Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
- A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
- Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular. Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
- No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
- Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
- Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
- As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
- Love really is the great truth of life. Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.
Corporations are not necessarily evil in and of themselves, but the net effect can be the disappearance of everything that makes the place where you live distinctive.
Got a notice from my friend Steve Norris that our friend Dale Short put us on his “Music From Home” radio program yesterday. (LISTEN) (SMA is on the first program)
Thanks, Dale! “Music From Home” is local artists. I appreciate that there are still programs here and there in a world in which globalized corporate mass culture (which is short for “controlled by a few people who are not always interested in the music”) threatens to gobble up everything. Music and making money have a long and unhappy marriage. They love one another and need each other but they can’t make each other happy. Their families were so different. They hurt each other and use each other all the time. Sometimes they have to separate to get on with life.
The internet and programs like Dale’s provide hope that artists, musical worlds and songwriters can collaborate and pursue their craft in different ways. The web is already having a salutary effect on music. It is possible to skip the narrow funnel of corporate mass marketing that has produced some great stuff but also turned away some great music that people would like. This is why listening rooms like Keith Harrelson’s Moonlight On the Mountain and other great places struggle to make it and deserve our support.
These changes will be painful for a while, as they are in publishing and in every field. But as with all things human, there is also possibility for many good things, too. Hope you’ll support local artists, internet radio and local radio programs, and local venues and businesses. Corporations are not necessarily evil in and of themselves, but the net effect can be the disappearance of everything that makes the place where you live distinctive. Supporting local life (which means “I am willing to pay more for what I like’) is a way to protest the gobble ‘em up and kill ‘em off so I can have a house in Santa Fe culture.
We need to pay attention–how we spend our money, what we listen to, and where we direct time has massive implications for our future. Be purposeful in your life. It matters.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.
Life-giving leadership is not being in control so much as persuasion of others to offer their best selves to that which matters the most.
I got an email from former classmate, Vicki Butler, now in the Advancement Office of my old college, Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee. She was in town and wanted to visit with us. I do this in my work as a Pastor, so I know that institutions need money. I have moved from being a disdainful idealist as a teen to a reluctant fundraiser to a committed realist.
So my wife Vickie and I met Vickie in the lobby of her hotel. She told us what Carson-Newman College is facing and how they hoped alumni would help out. I was preparing my protests: (“Do you know how much I gave last year? The TaxCut preparer always flags my giving. Americans don’t give this much!”) But our conversation moved on to how things are going, how the school has adjusted to hard times, and to what a great mission it has.
We were at Carson Newman from 1972-1976. Vickie and I married early—Christmas of our sophomore year. I was 19, she 18, and in love. That this did not pay bills had not yet occurred to us. We lived in the little house right behind the infirmary in 1973 Read the rest of this entry
So it is Thanksgiving Eve. If Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) can be an elaborate anticipation of the solemnity of All Saints’ Day and Fat Tuesday a wild and wooly welcome to the austerity of Lent, there should be a similar welcome mat to Turkey Day, something to usher it in, not stomp it out a la “Black Friday.”
Thanksgiving Eve should be something of an antonym to carry true to “Eve-ness” (Christmas Eve, naturally, being the all-time great, with it’s dark sense of Herodian murder plots, shivering shepherds, and wandering wise men). It should be a day of shameful reminders of ingratitude, self-absorption and congratulations that can be followed with humble rejoicing and remembering the next day that nothing was deserved in the first place.
Any holiday that began with Europeans almost starving to death and depending on the kindness of the poor natives they would eventually wipe out or addict to alcohol on reservations should not be one in which the self-congratulating is mixed with feasts and football. It just doesn’t seem right. Better to blow out the egotism and delusions on the eve and then wake up to something like, “My gosh, we don’t have anything to eat. How will we make it?” Then have your neighbors bring something over and re-enact the whole helplessness. How did it get to be, “Boy, are we ever BLESSED.”
There is something about powerlessness, helplessness, vulnerability and fear that drive you to important truths. I think about the Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw’s book, having endured a childhood in the Great Depression and Coming of Age on Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. No wonder they came home and were glad just to have a little house in a new suburb and work the same job for 45 years and retire still married to the same woman. And maybe this same absence of profound deprivation has left us unable to genuinely “feel” Thanksgiving as it is meant to be.
Could be, of course, that the past few years are getting us a little closer to the truth. 9% unemployment has unleashed predictable politics–all we need is a new president, throw the bums out of congress, shoot lobbyists, and so on. What I never hear is, “Life is hard. We better pull together and help one another. Hey, I don’t have to have my whole bonus this year. Let’s figure out how to keep Jim employed–he’s got three kids at home.”
We’ve got a grand opportunity to remember something that we seem determined to forget. I think about this while I hold my nine-month-old granddaughter. She is so precious and full of life, and I am terrified for the world she is growing up into, terrified into prayers and more prayers. I am helpless to prevent that world or fix it, so I am humbled terribly on this day. I won’t be here for her whole life, God willing, so it will go beyond me. You love a grandbaby this much, and suddenly you feel this helplessness again, like you haven’t felt in forever. It drives you to a different gratitude, one not rooted in your importance or competence or being the World’s Latest Big Deal. It is purely, powerfully helplessness that does it.
So let’s consider the Wednesday Before Thanksgiving as Self-Reliance Day. We can wear giant inflated heads and have Big Shot Parades, football games and overeating as though it was our destiny. Then, as is appropriate, consider a day of forgiveness, humble gratitude, reconciliation and remembering that without the rest of us, none of us is worth a dime, and don’t forget it. So while there are some hours left in Wednesday, put on you Big Head. Thanksgiving is coming. Act like a selfish jerk for a few more hours. Then come to yourself and remember what your life is really about.
I don’t understand the debates going on about wealth and taxes. People aren’t asking THE question–am I one of the 1% and why not? If you want a seriously disturbing thought about this, listen to the NPR story yesterday by Tim Dickinson. If you want an unseriously disturbing thought, stay with me.
I don’twant to be one of the 99%, because even in the Bible, the only 99 mentioned is sheep left in the sheepfold. And, as we know, all we like sheep have gone astray. I want to be a 1% if they get all the good stuff. But I have a sinking feeling–since my entire ancestry, W-2s and resume would indicate otherwise, I thought I would help us 99 per centers know when we’re about to get to THE worst place–the 1% on the BOTTOM. Signs to look for:
- Your get Christmas cards from a local bail-bondsman, two social workers, a psychiatrist and a debt specialist. You have never met any of them.
- Occupy Wall Street protesters create a new hand signal during your presentation to the group about your concerns that means, “Take down his tent and get him outta here–NOW!”
- You keep getting advance discount coupons from the local funeral home with a hand-penned note from the director that says, “Saw you at Rotary Club Monday and it reminded me I had meant to send these to you.”
- You walk into work and everyone turns and looks at you with their heads turned slightly sideways and sad smiles on their faces. The last time you saw that look, your mom and dad came back from taking Old Yeller to the vet and didn’t bring him home. Someone says, “The boss wants to see you.”
- Your neighbor stops telling you about his militia meetings, saying they have a certain image to maintain.
- Your string of investments are clipped up on the bulletin board at the investment firm next to the Dilbert cartoons.
- Your auto mechanic always talks to you like he’s your oncologist. He always starts off by saying, “Gary, you just don’t know how much I hate to tell you this, but we tried replacing the fan belt. We were sooo hoping that would do it. But no. I’m as upset to tell you this as you are to hear it…”
- The Tea Party returned your membership application, citing that your views are too far out of the mainstream.
- Steve Croft of 60 minutes leaves a message on your phone and asks if you happen to have the cell number of your mortgage broker for a story he’s doing on the foreclosure crisis.
- Your children were foreclosed and laid off so you offered to let them come back home to live and they declined, saying they already had a nice arrangement with the Salvation Army.
So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State? An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger
every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning. Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.
The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago. I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis. The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days. After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order. “What will that do?” I asked. “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.” So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.
Things have changed for the better. But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought. There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals. In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.
There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here. College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too. When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere. Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.
There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves. It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young? Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently. In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.
Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy. The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs. According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,
Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.
Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.
As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners
to be so modest. They nearly always say, “I just did my job.” The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success. Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on. He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle. A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died. The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”
At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers. It is that trust in each other on which lives depend. Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life. Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?
Duty is not always glamorous. It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification. Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world. It’s all about the money, too often, for us. Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside. We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness. We reap bitterly from this harvest.
Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable. Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it. So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile. Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.
Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era. He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.” His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides. He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day, not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us. Without doing our duty, can we long survive?
So I went to a party for a friend recently and the Alabama immigration bill came up. My friend, who is a business owner whose work is connected to the legal world, listened to the conversation, then said, “Look, there’s a simple solution to this. If you’re an immigrant in this state and undocumented, you have six months to come forward and get registered, and after that we kick you out.” But why would you do that, I asked, knowing you’d be thrown directly in jail, do not pass go or collect anything?
“Easy,” he said, “You give them a temporary worker status. They pay taxes and social security and contribute to the economy.” So it’s not citizenship? “No, of course not. You go to the back of the line for that. You can’t vote, you’re just a guest worker, and it’s a temporary status. But at least we know who you are and you contribute to the tax coffers.” Well, that sounded pretty good to me.
Seems to me that the point of law is compliance, not just punishment. If farmers need workers and immigrants can answer that need, that’s letting the marketplace and competition take care of it, not government quotas. Alabama’s farms and employer determine the number of immigrants by who they hire, not by Washington telling them we can only have this or that number. That’s conservative, and you have to announce that you’re conservative to even be elected dogcatcher in Alabama.
Furthermore, that’s smaller government. We don’t spend more money on jails, police, and bureaucracy. We keep the operation in Alabama rather than letting the federal government tell us what Alabama needs. That’s conservative, seems to me. More jails? More agencies from Washington?
But what about national security? Well, since 27 million people visit the US every year on a temporary basis for vacations, seems to me we can come up with a computerized fingerprinted criminal background check system.
Getting people registered lets us know who they are. Hiding in the shadows is more dangerous, not less. If they have a job, pay taxes, we have their fingerprints and know their name, we’re a lot safer than letting huge numbers of unknown people slink around unaccounted for. And that’s just the Canadians.
Of course, I can imagine the conversation in the Legislature, but since it’s my dream, maybe it would go like this:
“Well, if we do this, it’ll look like we’re backing off our promise to kick all those people out of Alabama. We’d look weak.”
“Yeah? Well, it might keep our tomato farmers and construction companies from kicking us out of Montgomery. Besides, the churches get off our backs, we calm the thing down and don’t look like hateful jerks to the world.”
“Hey, you know, you might have something there. We’d get sued, though, this time by the Feds for usurping their power to regulate immigration.”
“Of course, That’s our point. They’re not doing their job. Somebody needs to embarrass them into doing it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean forever, PR-wise, conservatives get painted as heartless, racist, uncaring and all of those other things that smear our state’s image. They always go back to the sixties and the race issue.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, here we are again, clobbering mostly helpless people with a law that makes us look mean, even if we’re just mirroring federal law. What if we went BEYOND federal law, but this time in a positive direction? We wouldn’t be giving them citizenship, we’d be granting temporary status. It could be based on having a job and references from our citizens. Local counties could administer the records, they pay a reasonable fee for the annual guest worker license, which we use to hire people to run those offices. They come out of the shadows and register. They pay taxes on their cars, income, and possessions like everybody else. They rent our apartments and houses, they work. They buy things.”
“Look, the Attorney General is going to sue us that this isn’t our right as a state.”
“Don’t you see the brilliance of this? Alabama gets sued by the Federal Government for being too compassionate and sane toward immigrants? When is the last time THAT happened?”
“Wow. Didn’t see that one coming. Brilliant!”
Not likely, I know. But it’s my dream. It COULD happen. I had never lived in Alabama until 18 years ago. The people are generous, kind, good to their neighbors, hard-working and always willing to do the right thing. They are conservative, but most are not the stereotypical meanies in the movies. Yes, we have our racists and plenty of them. And we have our fears. But mostly we just want things to be fair. So when my Senator said in the paper recently that they were going to tweak the bill and fix some things, I hoped once more. Alabama could do it. We could show the rest of the nation how polite, religious, caring neighbors treat strangers and fix a broken system. Let Eric Holder sue us for that. It would be a delight.
I have committed, as a writer, to undertake the serious discipline of writing during the month of July each year. This is a little confusing, because I write all the time in my work, as a songwriter, just about everyday as a facebook citizen (won’t find me with those loathsome mundanities like how much mustard was on my sandwich or my farmville situation. I try to write something short and worthwhile, except when i don’t, of course. Which is why I like “like.” Cuts to the chase, and you can “unlike.”). I mean, though, that I have committed to myself to use my gift, whether anyone reads it or not. Writing, the very act of committing words to sequence, has a power.
Anyway, I have dozens of book ideas, but most of them are still in my computer. I’m one of those people Dorothy Sayers talked about in The Mind of the Maker when she said that all artistic failures correspond to defects in trinitarian theology. All artistic work begins as idea, “becomes flesh” in the act of writing (or painting, or making music) and then achieves fulness in becoming an experienced reality by those who read it, watch it or listen to it. A work of art is not complete without this fullness of being–it’s fine that you have an idea, and many people, she said, say “My book is finished. I have only to write it down.” But until you write it, it is not complete. So, if you are a writer, you don’t wait for a contract or just think about ideas. You write.
I have pondered about three projects I have in various stages of completion (whatever I do with them), but the one I have strong feelings about is “stewardship.” It’s an odd phrase, usually associated in churches with fundraising and subscribing the budget, but it has an interesting history as a word. According to the website “word origins” (http://www.word-origins.com/definition/steward.html), in Old English, where this word originated in about the 15th century, a steward was literally “in charge of a sty.” This was either connected with the word “stigweard,” a compound from “stig” (hall or house) and “weard,” meaning a guardian or keeper, thus, “keeper of the hall.” It may have been from the word “sty,”, the place where the pigs were kept. I will admit that in the current political moment someone who takes care of something dirty and unglamorous without credit is indeed, “Weard.”
Was a steward originally the guy who took care of the hogs? Interesting thought. Stewardship has a lowly dimension to it. “Taking care” of things is not glamorous, appreciated, or always understood by much of our throwaway culture. Our children may be changed by the recession we seem to be still in the midst of, but we are yet to see if it makes our children more fearful about wasting things or more attentive to taking care of what they have.
Where stewardship matters is its sense of one being responsible for many things and, presumably many other people. If the steward doesn’t do his or her job, the hogs get out, money is lost, the house runs down, and chaos results.
Stewardship has relevance to all aspects of life. It is the most powerful image I can think of for where we are in our current global situation. We sit on a fragile planet with abundant resources, but finite ones. How we treat that planet will not affect its survival in the universe, but it may have a lot to say about whether we’ll be on it for a long time. Politics, relationships, economic life, culture, food and water, all are affected by our sense of (or lack thereof) of a sense of “stewardship.”
We watch the global economy halted by our politicians’ endless manipulations, who can never seem to answer each direct question with a simple “Yes” or “No”, posturing, accusing, projecting, blaming, offering excuses, and generally carrying on what sometimes feels like the old “bull sessions” in the dorm late at night in college. Except their bull sessions affect people’s lives. And in it all, the sense of stewardship can be lost amid the tantalizing seductions of power, fame and money, the Unholy Trinity of our particular moment win out.
It is a very dangerous time, a time that more than ever asks for servants but always gives in to seducers, wasters, magicians and promisers of fantasy. Yet if they did tell the truth, give us the bad news, admit the pain that it would take to fix it, would we accept it? It costs to be a steward. No fame, no vast fortune, just this unrelenting sense of taking care of something that someone entrusted to us, because that responsibility is more important than all the pleasures to be immediately had by turning from it.
My prayer is for the rebirth of stewardship in the world–parents, families, stockbrokers, bankers, neighbors, policemen, company presidents and CEOs, workers, teachers, artists, politicians. Without that sense that something is always asked of me for the sake of the other, that something that says, “It can never be only about you,” this ship will sink. Every good ship has an officer called a “steward.” The steward is not the captain. No ship can sail with all captains. The ship steward looks after the passengers’ comfort and wellbeing, and sees after the supplies and food.
Long live the stewards. May their tribe increase. But if we merely delegate this to certain poor souls who are left to tend the hogs while we all watch cable, we will sink. As a steward of writing gifts, however small they might be, I must reject my own excuses and write as though the world depended on me. Mothering, fathering, taking care of someone else’s money, churches, schools, neighborhoods, aging parents, the poor among us–we are all called to some great and unavoidable stewardships. And if we evade them, not only might the ship run out of food or sink, we will never once before we die manage to be who we came here to become. And that is a loss of incalculable measure.