Category Archives: life in the world

O Radiant Dawn — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

I’m a morning person. It’s my best time of the day. I live in the woods and in these short days and long nights here in the north, I get up in the dark. I make a cup of coffee and go to my desk, surrounded by windows and sit in the quiet. It’s my prayer time, my quiet time, my thinking time. And it’s also a time to watch the day gradually dawn.

The day doesn’t explode into light. It’s a gradual transition from darkness to light. Even though the weather app on my phone tells me the precise time of the sunrise, in actual experience, there’s not a precise time when I say, “ok, the night is gone and the day is here.” Gradually the light overtakes the darkness and almost imperceptibly, the day is here.

During these days of advent, we have stood with the prophets who waited patiently for the coming of the Morningstar, the One which today’s O Antiphon calls the Radiant Dawn.

In the darknesses of my own life, the Light has come. Often slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, but always relentlessly, irrepressibly, the light comes. Into the dark corners of my heart, my life, and into the dark corners of a fear-ridden world, the Light comes.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O Key of David — December 20

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, there’s a scene in which Barrister Jaggers’ clerk, John Wemmick, walks through a London prison. “Wemmick walked among the prisoners much as a gardener walked among his plants.” Wemmick was highly popular among the prisoners, personally recognized each of Mr. Jaggers’ clients. Wemmick inquired about each of them, taking note of their condition since his last visit.  But it was clear that he was not there to bring them the deliverance the prisoners were hoping for. When a prisoner might ask for something that Wemmick could not deliver, his reply was, “It’s no use, my boy; I’m only a subordinate. . .don’t go on that way with a subordinate.” At the end of the scene Pip and the clerk come to the end of their walk through the jail, they come to a man known only as the Colonel; the Colonel speculates that he’ll be out of jail by Monday. As they leave the jail, Wemmick instead reports that the Colonel is to be executed on Monday.

The Key of David is no subordinate. Indeed he cares about those locked in their deathly prisons, those of us — all of us — sentenced for our rebellion. The One whose birth is near, was born to die and in his death and resurrection he has opened the prison doors, set the prisoners free, and invited all into Life and Freedom.

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Leader of Israel — December 18

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In the O Antiphon for December 18, Christ is called the Leader of the House of Israel.

Call to mind the great leaders of the nation of Israel: Moses, who let God’s people out of slavery, through the long wilderness wandering, and into the promised land. Deborah, the prophetess who masterminded the assault against Jabin, king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera. David, the great warrior king who got his start as a young shepherd boy who slew the giant. Esther, the Jewish queen of Persian who foiled the plans of Haman to have all the Jews in the land killed.

The Messiah was to be the great leader of God’s people all rolled into one. “He will lead his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah proclaimed.

The shepherd who himself was led to slaughter. The shepherd who became the Lamb. The shepherd who was stripped, beaten, crowned with thorns, and led outside the gates of Jerusalem to the place of the skull where in his mighty cruciform power he rescued all creation.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

O Wisdom — December 17

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

They say that wisdom comes with age and experience. I wonder.

While I hope that my blunders are fewer and that have learned a few things along the way, I still manage to do some things that in hindsight are pretty dumb. And with age and experience comes the possibility (the probability?) of making mistakes that are more costly, both economically and relationally, and have deeper lasting consequences.

In the O Antiphon for December 17, Christ is called the Wisdom from on high, the one who brings divine knowledge.

Throughout the gospel of John, the gospel writer is nearly obsessed with the theme of Christ as the one who has come so that we might know God. Except contrary to the way western theology has typically been ordered, the truth about God that Christ came to bring is not propositional truth; it is relational truth. God comes to us, dwells with us, takes up residence with us, hangs out with us, so that we might know God in God’s unimaginable, never-ending, limitless love.

Certainly there is a certain practical, utilitarian wisdom that smooths the skids of daily life; it may or may not come with age and experience. The greater Wisdom comes to bring life; that wisdom is rooted not in facts and figures or the school of hard knocks, but in divine love, Love Incarnate. Only when we acknowledge that we cannot know God — and therefore, cannot know real Life — except by God’s grace, God’s invitation, and God’s enlightenment, do we begin to know true wisdom.

Muscle Memory

Most Wednesday evenings, I momentarily plunge into a tunnel of darkness.

Thursday is the day they pick up the garbage at our place.  By 6 am on Thursday morning, the two big plastic garbage cans on wheels have to be rolled down our long driveway to the road. Usually, it’s after dark on Wednesday before I get around to it. Close to the house, the sky is open; the same at the road. But in between, there’s a section of driveway that is covered by a canopy of thick cedar branches. So, even when the moon is bright or the stars are out, it is completely dark. I’ve walked it enough times now that I can get through just on muscle memory. Still, for those few moments and those 50 or so steps, I’m putting one foot in front of the other with no visual confirmation that I’m going in the right direction.

I gathered with some of my people earlier this week for bible class. There was a heaviness in the room. We had been together on Sunday morning; there and then we acknowledged the violent week we had just lived through — the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the spate of mailed pipe bombs, the shooting at the Kroger store — but no one was able to give voice to their grief. At bible class, we took time for that. Ironically, we were scheduled to study John 6 that morning and began with John’s account of Jesus walking on the water (vs. 16-21). As John tells the story, he does his best to paint a picture of the proverbial dark and stormy night. There’s darkness, a sudden and strong wind, an angry sea, and an absent Jesus. I can’t help but picture John writing to his people for whom the experience of the world was dark and stormy. And the message is clear. In the midst of all that, Jesus comes.

I believe that. I believe that in the midst of all the darkness — and believe me, I feel the darkness. As we run up towards next week’s election, the fear-mongering rhetoric is getting ramped up even more. I wish we could have a break from all of that. But my experience over the past two years tells me that we will not get a break, even after the election. That’s the new normal.

Yet, we live in hope. That’s part of my calling as pastor to remind people that we live in hope. Part of that hope is knowing that as a community of the called, gathered, and enlightened people of God, we know what to do, even when it’s dark. In the darkness, we live from muscle memory. Even when we can’t see the way forward, we know what to do. When we can’t see, we still put one foot in front of the other. We know what to do. It’s the little, common, ordinary things. Love those around us, and love them fiercely. Look out for our neighbor, especially the vulnerable ones. Reach out to the stranger. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

Five Recommendations for Black History Month

As we continue to observe Black History month, here are 5 histories that have been the among the most compelling that I have read.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson, tells the history of the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the Industrial North in the decades following the Civil War. While full of well-documented history, she structures that history around the stories of three different individuals who migrated at different times to different places. Those family stories bring the history to life and make for a compelling chronicle of the northern migration, both the opportunities and the pitfalls.

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist. Baptist writes a history of chattel slavery in the US from the perspective of economics and argues that the emergence of the US as a world economic power was only possible because of the tortuous institution of slavery. The expanding production of cotton in the 19th century brought prosperity not only to the owners of the land and production, but to northerners who invested in that production, not to mention others who benefited indirectly from the rippling effects of cotton production. Even the Industrial Revolution of 19th century England, centered in the milling of cotton and the production of clothing, would not have been possible without the whip-induced productivity of black slaves. “For what was done in the fields — specifically what was done to force enslaved people to create new ways to accelerate the pace of their own labor — shaped what was possible in the factory, the bank, the marketplace, and the halls of state. Invisible new financial wires bound the bodies of enslaved people to the dreams and desires of whose whose measuring eyes stared down women and men on the auction block and to those of investors around the world. Slavery rendered the United States powerful, its white citizens richer and more equal.” (p. 421)

Family Properties by Beryl Satter. Here you’ll find the well-documented history of the contract housing crisis in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960’s. Satter, who teaches history at Rutgers, does not, however, tell the story in the cold, distant tones of an historian. Her father was an attorney who represented many of the African Americans in their fights to keep their home. The dysfunction of the City of Chicago, is exposed, along with the realtors and property owners whose motive was money over people. Satter chronicles the breakdown of whole sections of the city. One of the chapters that I found particularly compelling was the one that told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to the Chicago. He attempted to import strategies that were successful in the South to Chicago and got buried by the Daley machine.

White Rage, by Carol Anderson. I first learned of Carol Anderson through a powerful op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post following the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. In this book, Anderson examines each historical era in the US since the Civil War and tells the story of how the white privileged, institutional structures of oppression have denied economic opportunity to our African-American citizens. She terms “white rage” that reaction of white people to the advancement of people of color and in that reaction, the inevitable move to derail their advancement. This book was compelling in laying out the ongoing systematic structures of oppression.

The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. On its surface this seems like an odd choice for Black History month, but stay with me for a moment. Here, Painter documents the development of race theory as a real thing, and in particular the notion of American whiteness. Race is not based on biology, but on a sociological construct that is meant to privilege white people and oppress people of color. She provides numerous illustrations through history of how white people have constructed notions of race for a variety of social, economic, and political gains. Read this book for a full scale debunking of the myth of race and of the devastation that such myths have unleashed on those whose skin is not white.

What books of Black History would you recommend?

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

I Have Been to Haiti

I wonder if Donald Trump has ever been to Haiti. I guess it’s not impossible; still, I’m gonna put it in the category of unlikely. It would not be a pleasant place for a reported germaphobe; I doubt if Port-au-Prince is in the running for a Trump luxury hotel.

I have been to Haiti. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It’s tough.

I immediately knew I had entered a different world when the jet that I boarded in Miami landed in Port-au-Prince and stopped in the middle of the tarmac; we climbed a stairway to the ground and walked to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, the luggage conveyors weren’t working; I later learned that they had never, ever worked, even on the day the terminal opened. Instead, the baggage handlers opened the double glass doors on one wall and stacked all the luggage right there. We were on our own to sift through the luggage to find what belonged to us.

In the several trips I made to Haiti, our drivers always carried extra cash. Seeing white people in the car dramatically increased the chance that our car would be pulled over. The only way to avoid a ticket or arrest was to have ready cash to pay off the police officer.

Driving around Port-au-Prince makes one appreciate the stop signs and traffic lights in the states. At least there is some order to all of it. In Port-au-Prince when one approaches a major intersection, it takes forever to get through it, because all 4 cars approaching the intersection play a game of chicken to see who can get through the intersection quickest. And don’t even think of trying to make a left turn at one of those intersections.

I heard a story — apocryphal perhaps — that once Mother Teresa was asked what it’s like to work in the worst slums in the world. The interviewer, of course, was referring to the Calcutta slums where Mother Teresa was doing her work. Reportedly, she replied, “I don’t know. Ask those who are working in Cite’ Soleil.”  Cite’ Soleil is a densely populated, extremely impoverished commune in Port-au-Prince. Estimates of the population range from 200,000 to 400,000. The shacks — one is hard pressed to call them homes, though they serve as homes to these poorest of the poor — are made of whatever can be scrounged, plywood, cardboard boxes, scrap tin. The dense population means that there aren’t enough beds for everyone, and people sleep in shifts, which means that at any given time, day or night, someone is sleeping and someone is out on the dirt alleys that run through Cite’ Soleil. On the day I visited Cite’ Soleil, children were bathing in what I would generously call a big mud puddle. 

I could go on, but you get the idea. Haiti is a poor country, the vast majority of whose people barely eke out a living. Corruption and dysfunction are the primary descriptors of the basic structures and institutions.   

But to acknowledge that reality is very different than saying Haiti is a shithole country.

First, let’s acknowledge how they got there. Haiti was a French colony. The French imported slaves from Africa to work the sugar cane fields that supplied Europe with their 18th century newfound obsession with sugar. The French colonialists and plantation owners were making money hand over fist, not because the cultivation and production of sugar cane was so inherently profitable, but because it was profitable when you didn’t have to pay the workers who were doing the hard, grunt work in the fields. Slave labor wins again.

In the closing years of the 18th century into the dawn of the 19th century, the Haitian/African slaves launched what historians describe as the only successful slave rebellion that led to the formation of a sovereign state governed by those who had formerly been enslaved. Over the next few hundred years their relationship with Europe and the Americas demonstrated that the white colonial powers were determined to insure that what happened in Haiti, would never happen again. Haiti became a pariah in international relations.

Here’s a little known tidbit of the United States relationship with Haiti: President Thomas Jefferson’s deal with the French government that is popularly known as the Louisiana Purchase likely would never have happened without the successful slave rebellion in Haiti. Jefferson wanted to purchase the territory, but the US was experiencing its own economic and political instability. Jefferson was ready to offer the French an amount that his entire administration had little hope would be accepted. At the same time, Napoleon sent three armadas of ships and soldiers across the Atlantic. One was intended to retake Haiti for France, and the other two were headed for New Orleans to reinforce the French presence in the New World. When the Haitians repelled the first wave of French soldiers, Napoleon redirected the other two to Haiti to finish the job the others failed at. As it turns out, the Haitians repelled all three French offensives. Napoleon, desperate for cash, offered Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase at a cost far below the lowball offer Jefferson had intended to make. (I learned that story in chapter 3 of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. I’m sure you can also find it elsewhere.)

The relationship between the US and Haiti is complicated and open to interpretation. I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge the brutality of the father and son Duvalier regimes. Still, the US is not without blood on its hands. Most historians agree that US policy with regard to Haiti has been more about politics than about improving conditions for the common Haitian citizen. The various economic embargoes through the years may have served to make a political statement, but they did not bring improved economic and social conditions.

Here’s the other thing I want to say, and maybe the most important thing I want to say. The Haitian people who I met and with whom I interacted have touched me deeply with their faith, resilience, and generosity.

For much of the time I was involved in work in Haiti, we partnered with a woman who ran an orphanage and school that she had built with her own savings from her work as a domestic in the US. Marie had moved to Miami as a young woman and worked for a wealthy family as their housecleaner and occasionally providing child care. She saved money and eventually bought a modest home. On a trip back to Port-au-Prince to visit her brother, she was walking down an alley and heard whimpering which she at first thought was from puppies inside a nearby garage. What she found when she looked in the window was a family of children who had been abandoned by their parents.

Marie never went back to her home and job in Miami. Instead she bought a home in a Port-au-Prince suburb where she cared for those children. In the meantime, she began taking in other abandoned children from the neighborhood. She eventually built another building so that her orphan children could go to school, a building that quickly became a school for the entire neighborhood.

Until my congregation became involved in supporting her school, Marie did this all with her own money, her own savings, along with the proceeds from the house she sold in Miami. I don’t want to sugarcoat Marie’s work. She made mistakes and so did we. We learned as we went along. I would do things differently now, knowing what I know. But Marie did the best she could with what she had, all with the laser sharp focus to care for children who had no one else.

Marie is an icon for what I found consistently in the Haitian people I met. She was a person of deep faith, believing that she had no choice but to care for her neighbor and that somehow God would provide. She was generous to a point that Americans might say she was reckless. She did not hesitate to pour her own resources into the preservation and thriving of children that she had never met, with whom she had no biological connection, children for whom she might reasonably had said were someone else’s responsibility.  She was incredibly resilient and resourceful, oftentimes making silk purses out of sow’s ears.

It is shamefully easy to call Haiti a shithole country. It’s also shamefully shallow, racist, arrogant, and woefully ignorant of our complicated history.

I wish for a more compassionate response that would acknowledge the human suffering of our neighbor and our own complicity in the brokenness of Haitian institutions. I wish for a Haitian/American partnership that could bring real improvement for the extraordinary Haitian people. At the least, I wish for simple respect.

Something to Chew on with Your Hot Dogs and Potato Salad

I was driving back home from Chicago yesterday afternoon, alternating my listening between NPR, James Taylor, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Wisconsin Public Radio reported that this year it costs six cents less than last year for the Fourth of July cookout of hot dogs and potato salad for you and 9 of your best friends.  Good to know.

The Hamilton soundtrack was a good reminder the precarious beginning of this aging republic. Few contemporaries gave those colonial revolutionaries much of a chance. The ragtag continental army was outmanned and out-resourced. No way they should have won. Yet they did.

The end of the war was not the end of the teetering on the edge of the cliff. If winning the revolution was hard, figuring out how to govern was even more difficult. It took nearly 5 years for all 13 colonies to ratify the Articles of Confederation.  That first constitution was a flawed document, and in 1787 they came back together for contentious debate that gave birth to our present constitution. I suppose we are still fighting that same battle between the power of the states and the power of the federal government.

Those men were trying to find the best governmental structure to make possible the grand democratic ideals they had written into the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

They are grand ideals, to be sure, ideals which we still struggle to put into practice. It’s still true that some are more equal to others. While we have made progress, there is still much work to be done.

NPR also ran a story yesterday afternoon about the current status of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the founders talked about the difficulty of sustaining the movement when victories are so rare and when the struggles of minority communities are multiplying.

My whiteness gives me the privilege of not having to think about that. I have the luxury of not having to think about the racism, xenophobia, sexism, et. al. that has come to the surface in the campaign season and first months of the new  administration. They can be  abstractions for me.

And my little annual ritual of remembrance on this Independence Day gives me an opportunity to recommit myself not to give up and not to settle into the comfort of my privilege. There is still work to do. The American republic assumes assumes citizen engagement. We form relationships and build networks of bonds with our neighbors and other fellow citizens. We engage in our communities to discover the struggles and concerns we share, and when something is wrong, we engage to make it better. We bring to the table the power of ordinary people who care enough to take action. Then we act. There may be no more patriotic thing to do. 

It feels to me like these are politically dark times for this 241 year old republic. I’ve decided I’m not going to dwell on the things I can’t do anything about. I can’t do anything about the petulant tweets of our adolescent in chief, or about the representatives on both sides of the aisle whose loyalty is primarily to the big money that put them there and whose primary goal is to hold onto their power.

Here’s what I can do.  I can work to build a better community where I live. I can work with others to enact the ideals that we celebrate today, the virtues of an informed citizenry that works together for the common good. In the preamble to the constitution that was eventually ratified, the founding fathers had a vision that in this land we would work together to “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Still sounds pretty good to me.  Happy Independence Day!

“I’m Going to Have to Charge You Ten Bucks for That”

A few weeks ago, I picked up one of my parishioners at his house to accompany him on a visit to his wife in a care center so he could  properly introduce her to the new pastor. He’s lived nearly 30 years as a retiree in Door County and knows his way around pretty well, I’ve discovered.

As he stepped into the passenger seat and got situated, I apologized in advance. “You’re going to hear a rattle in the exhaust system. I’m sorry for it. It will probably drive you nuts; I know it does me, but it started a few days ago, and I haven’t had a chance to get it fixed.”

We drove down his long driveway and onto the paved road. “Yup. There it is. I can hear it,” he said. “You should take it in to see Kenny. He runs the gas station in Ellison Bay. When you pull in to Kenny’s, he comes out and pumps the gas for you, washes your windshield, and even checks your oil if you ask.”

“And he does car repair?”

“Yeah, as long as it’s not too complicated.”

“Oil changes?”

“Sure. It’s a good place to get your oil changed.”

An hour later, we were on our way back home. As we approached Ellison Bay, he said, “Why don’t you stop in and see if Kenny can take a look at it?”

“Right now? Without an appointment?”

“Sure. He’s probably not doing anything else.”

We pulled in to the 1960’s style gas station with two pumps outside and the black rubber hoses on the pavement that made a “ding-ding” when you drive over them. Kenny looked up from his chair inside as if we had awoken him from a nap.

I walked inside. “I’m Jim. I’m the new pastor at Shepherd of the Bay.”

“Ah. I heard they finally got one.”

“I have a rattle in my exhaust system and my friend here thought you might be able to take a look at it.”

“Sure, I can take a look at it.  I’ll have to put it up on the lift.”

He drove the car into the service bay and put it up on one of the old-fashioned lifts that I haven’t seen since I was a kid. From the lobby area, I could  hear him as he walked around banging on the exhaust system with his leather-gloved fist, talking to himself all the way. “Nothing here. It’s gotta be a heat shield. Nothing here.” Before long his banging reproduced the annoying rattle. 

“Come on out here,” he yelled.

I pushed through the wood framed screen door from the counter area to the garage and stood under my car next to Kenny. “See this here heat shield? It’s loose. I can’t really take it off. These bolts are all rusted. Not sure what I can do.”  As he talked, he began to poke a big screwdriver in the seam between the top and bottom of the heat shield prying things back and forth. Then he stuck the screwdriver in his pocket and started banging again; the rattle was gone. “There. I think that might be better.”

I walked back inside and waited for Kenny to lower my car and back it out of the bay.

Back inside behind the cash register, he said, “I’m going to have to charge you $10 for that.”   I couldn’t tell whether he was apologizing for charging me or was afraid I was going to put up a fuss about $10.  I was happy to pay that sum and was trying to figure out a way to tell him I’d be happy to pay more. But we left it at that.

Contrast that with an experience I had at a dealer several years ago. I hadn’t had the car very long and the check engine light came on. The car didn’t seem to be running poorly, so I was tempted to ignore it. But I also worried that to do so might be foolhardy. Plus, when the check engine light is on, the cruise control is automatically deactivated. So, I took it in. They hooked it up to their diagnostic computer. Within five minutes, the technician came back and said, “The good news is that there isn’t anything wrong with your car.” Then he walked me around to the rear passenger side of the car where the access door to the gas tank was open. He took the gas cap in his hand and screwed it on, and with a little drama, tightened the gas cap.  “Your gas cap wasn’t tight. It lets too much oxygen in. Just make sure that whenever you get gas, you turn the lid on tight.”  And the bill was $125. For five minutes. No work, no repair except to tighten the gas cap. Their policy was that whenever they had to hook the car up to the diagnostic machine, the minimum charge was $125. (I since learned that there are many places that will do that for no charge.) I tried to complain that the charge was outlandish and unreasonable. To no avail. “I’m sorry sir, but this is our company policy.”  That was the last time I went to that dealer. It was clear to me that they weren’t interested in a relationship with me as a customer other than a purely economic transaction in which they could enact their policies to insure a profitable bottom line.

I don’t even know exactly why I’m writing this except to lament the loss of a time when an economic transaction often was more than that. It was also embedded in a personal, human to human relationship.

The globalization of the economy has clearly brought benefits to millions of people. It has provided access to low cost goods from around the world. It has made some Americans more aware of people of different cultures and has for them fostered a sense of the common humanity across cultural divides. It has provided developing countries with access to capital that has increased production and provided jobs.

It has not, however, been a universal benefit. To a large degree, the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs in the US can be traced to companies moving their factories to locations around the globe where the cost of labor is much lower. And while it has provided jobs in those countries, the lack of regulation has made possible deplorable working conditions and wages that do not allow the workers to really move out of subsistence living.

But we’ve lost something more subtle, more fundamental, more valuable. We’ve lost that mediating human presence between me as a consumer and the large corporation with whom I am forced to do business. Kenny doesn’t refine the oil that he pumps as gasoline into his customers’ cars. But he is a real person who is a comforting and knowledgeable middleman between big oil and me. Kenny wasn’t afraid to tell me that he thinks my clutch is adjusted a little too close to the floor. I appreciate that. How else would I know?

I know we can’t and won’t go back to the way things used to be. In spite of the promise of politicians that they will bring back American manufacturing jobs, that isn’t going to happen. We’re way beyond that.

But I wonder if we can look for places to embed economic transactions within a relationship. When it’s possible to have some kind of human to human relationship with the person with whom I am making an economic transaction, doing business is for more than making a profit. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit. A person in business should be able to earn a living, even a comfortable living, for their work. But when there is a relationship, it is more than an economic transaction. It is an expression of community. And at least in the way I understand things, we were created to be in community.

There’s a movement to buy local, a movement which I wholeheartedly support. The thought behind it is to keep money in the local economy and provide jobs for local people. For me, it goes deeper than that. Making an economic transaction with someone with whom I have a relationship strengthens the essential fabric of community. Relationships, far more than transactions, build, maintain, and strengthen the places we live and make them into good, thriving communities. Good, thriving community is good for all of us.