Friday, October 28, 2011

Tax Increase: Schools

I was asked recently whether I'll vote in favor of or against Colorado Proposition 103.  Colorado Proposition 103, if passed, will increase both sales tax and income tax in the state of Colorado for the next five years, with the additional revenue going to fund schools.  

I almost always vote in favor of tax increases, especially those that will benefit schools ~ and I'll probably vote yes on this one, too. 

As I understand it, though, there's disagreement about whether the proposition is well-constructed, though.  Part of the trouble may be that the tax increases might impact poor people the hardest.  Poor people won't be affected by the increase in state income tax (since they don't have enough income to have to pay that tax), but they will be hit harder by the increase in sales tax than richer people. 

We're talking about two different issues, though.  There is certainly a question as to which income bracket ought to bear the greatest brunt of the tax increase.   But before that, the question is whether schools have adequate funding. 

There are certainly some who say that increased funding has never produced better results.  Obviously more money does not necessarily equal better schools.  However, it seems to me that better results are much more difficult without increased funding.  One is not a direct result of the other, but the one is impossible without the other.  If it were true that lowered funding had no effect on performance, we could run schools for free ... which is (I hope) obviously absurd. 

Now, some people also say that the schools don't need increased revenue ~ we just need to get rid of teachers unions.  The extension seems to be that if we get rid of unions, we could balance the schools' budgets by lowering teachers' salaries (or firing teachers who are too expensive).  I have to take issue, though, with the opinion that an average salary of less than $50,000 is too expensive. 

(Of course, any time anyone mentions labor unions, there's bound to be strong differences of opinion about the efficacy of those groups.  Obviously they aren't the favorite entities of business owners, since they have a tendency to cut into profits.  At the same time, unions are certainly necessary, since without the power of collective bargaining, many business owners would succumb to the pull of greed at the expense of workers.  Plus, just like any institution, both unions and business owners have the potential to become corrupt.) 

At the end of the day, it comes down to a question of values ... particularly, what do we value?  Do we value more highly our ability to increase our bank accounts?  Do we value more highly our ability to buy things right now?  Do we value more highly ourselves and our present circumstance? 

Or are we willing to be a couple percentage points less well-off right now in order to invest in schools; in order to invest in our future? Because I'm afraid that if we're not willing to invest in schools now, we're condemning the future to tremendous desperation and hardship, which our national ancestors did their best not inflict on us.  And that, I believe, is ridiculous and wrong.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Financial Collapse

Europe's leaders are meeting to further discuss the Euro-zone debt crisis.  In USAmerica, we still have not worked our way out of our own economic woes.  Sure, they tell us the market is rebounding, but that seems to be only in the market ~ regular people are still struggling to find work, while the purchasing power of their paycheck continues to diminish.  Governmental leaders aren't actually doing anything other than yelling at each other about the best way forward, while bankers' and CEOs' paychecks are through the roof and corporations rake in record profits. 

A couple years ago, the government (read: taxpayers) bailed out the banks that were on the verge of implosion, because (the way I understand it in my feeble mind) if they were to fail, the whole financial system would collapse.

So, it seems to me that this is where we stand:  banks took big risks with money that belonged to regular people; the risks didn't pay off; the banks, who took the risk, are punished by being given loans so they can stay afloat; the bailed-out-risk-takers, as a result of their punishment, are now making more money than they were before the crisis.  At the same time, those of us who didn't take huge risks (those of us who actually funded the bail-out) are rewarded with stagnated wages, a poor job market, and huge concerns about an economic future that doesn't seem to be improving for anyone besides the tremendously wealthy. 

More than a couple times in recent weeks, I've heard the maxim 'greater risk results in greater rewards'.  What I haven't heard is anyone reminding us of the flip side, which is that with the potential for greater reward comes the danger of greater loss.  Maybe it's because if we believe that financial institutions are too big to fail, they don't actually take on any risk of loss.  If we continue to be willing to cover their losses, they will continue to manufacture bigger and bigger risk.  But it's our risk for their reward.  They're not a danger of loss ~ it's the taxpayers and regular people on whom they put that risk. 

The thing is, if I've made an investment, I don't mind taking a loss (it doesn't make me happy, but I understood the risk when I made the investment).  What I don't like is when I have to take a loss because someone else made a bad investment. 

What I continue to wonder is what would actually happen if those banks had been allowed to fail?  I hear that our financial system would collapse.  OK, this would probably result in a period of panic and chaos. 

But it wouldn't last forever ~ so, then what?  We'd start over, with something new.  And maybe, at least for a while, it wouldn't be so disproportionately unjust. 

Meanwhile, in the wake of banks' collapse and financial distress in Iceland, the people have kicked the government to the curb ~ real democracy seems to have momentarily reared its head.  


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

diner conversation

alone in a diner
surrounded by conversations ~
new lovers behind me; and
at that business meeting
over there,
a ceo's quiet confidence
belies middle school taunts
which surface every time she
smells chalk - but it doesn't
stop her from closing the deal
while the waiter ignores the
lovers, who never notice him
sneak into the kitchen to
pour black coffee over
his hangover ~
but they're not my conversations ...
I've been talking with eggs and
tortillas; but they're gone, their
interest having waned long ago.
now I'm left to wander, still alone,
out into the continued
anonymity of the city street.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sappy Seasonal Poem ~ Autumn

autumn infuses everything,
assaulting all my senses
like retail christmas ~
starting in september, but
unnoticed after a couple months

autumn's colors, though, appear
both more brilliant and more muted
than the red and green of fake holly

the wind blows leaves to crunch
underfoot, as well as the
warmth from my ears

soon enough the ground will be
covered with fallen frozen flakes

for now, though, the lightest frost
burning off at the first hint of sunlight
is enough to take us
gently toward winter

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stop Light

It was after I got a bike ~ a real bike, that would travel quickly down the road a long distance, not just a kid-riding-around-bike ~ that I saw something notable as I was riding as a passenger in a car. 

The first bike I had was a single speed, bmx-style, coaster brake equipped bike that I loved riding around the gravel and dirt where I grew up.  But eventually I began to covet other bikes ~ 10-speed bikes, with more than one gear, and brakes on the handlebars.  One year I got one, which was very exciting.  Before long, I was watching Connie Carpenter and the 7-Eleven cycling team on tv.  And I wanted to start cycling.

I upgraded from the department store special to a real road bike ~ lighter and sleeker, with a phenomenally understated paint job.  I got cycling gloves and cycling shorts, a cycling jersey and a campagnolo cycling hat; and I started spending time on the two-lane country road at the end of our quarter-mile gravel driveway.

Of course, once I started riding, I started noticing other cyclists on the roads.  One day, as I was observing cyclists, I saw in front of us in the left-turn lane, a notable guy on a bike.  The light was red, traffic was stopped, and so was he.  But his feet were still on the pedals ~ and knowing what I had recently learned about toe clips, I could see upon closer inspection that he hadn't even bothered to loosen the straps.  His feet were tightly affixed to the pedals as he stood still, balancing behind one car and ahead of the one I rode in.

When the light moved to green, off he went, leaving us behind, stuck in traffic. 

That was 25 years ago; but I hope that guy is still riding through Austin traffic, trackstanding his way into some other teenager's imagination.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bishop Election ~ some initial and scattered thoughts

My synod is entering a process of preparing to elect a new bishop.

* pause *

I'm not sure how many of my seven readers are familiar with the intricacies of the polity of the church I'm part of, so I want to briefly explain.  I'm a pastor in the denomination known as the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).  Our denomination is divided up into geographical areas known as synods.  (This use of the word 'synod' may cause confusion, because there are two other Lutheran denominations in this country that are known as synods.  In those cases, 'synod' is used to refer to the entire denomination.)

There is a bishop in each of the 65 synods of the ELCA.  The role of bishop is filled by a pastor who, upon election takes on the title 'Bishop'; and who, upon vacating the office of bishop (literally and ecclesiastically), takes again the title 'Pastor'. 

The only requirement to be elected bishop is that a person should be a pastor in good standing in the ELCA.


The process of electing a new bishop is, appropriately, bringing up the question, 'What kind of pastor should we elect to be bishop?' ~ which leads to, 'What role should the bishop serve?', or 'What does a bishop do?', and then, 'What functions should the office of the bishop prioritize?'

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that if ten Lutherans got together in a room to respond to those questions, they would probably come up with a dozen different answers.  What most of us naturally will do is to look at previous bishops we've known, consider how they functioned compared with how they could have functioned better with regard to congregational life, and look for someone to serve as bishop who would fill the roles the previous bishop did not.

I wonder, though, if it helps to look back without also looking forward.  What if, instead of finding a bishop who will be what the previous bishop was not, we look for the best bishop for the future (instead of a bishop who would have been good in the past)? 

What's going on in the world that our election of a bishop ought to take into consideration?  Among other things, the world we move through is much less hierarchical, and much more interconnected, than it was when our denominational structure was established. We seem to be suited to make this denominational shift, since our polity never allowed for a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure ~ bishops, in our tradition, really have very little 'power over' congregations.  But will we embrace a newer worldview, or will it smack us in the ecclesiastical face as we try to hold on to an old model that doesn't work practically in the midst of a newer worldview?

Then, to consider function.  I have to say that I don't believe much actual ministry happens through the synod office.  This is certainly not a critique ~ rather, it is a statement of fact, and a recognition of reality.  Synod offices ought not be trying everything they can to do ministry ~ that is best left to congregations.  The synod office would better serve the Gospel, I believe, by actively equipping congregations in their role of living the Gospel in the particular communities where they find themselves. 

What would it be like for the bishop and the office of the bishop to actually act like most of the significant ministry in our synod is happening in congregations?  What would it be like for the (office of the) bishop to function as a clearinghouse for stories of good news, a place for congregations to search for resources, and a conduit for connecting people and congregations with one another?  

In short, what if the (office of the) bishop would become a real-life, ecclesiastical combination of Google and Facebook and Twitter? 

Some initial thoughts ~ I'm sure there will be more as the election nears.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Public Theology

I was first captivated by the academic pursuit of religion in a course I took my first year of college. The course was Religion, Literature, and Film. I was astounded to learn that religion could break out of the church building in ways that didn't involve mission or conversion. Further, it was eye-opening to learn that religion could critique society, and that the arts could critique religion. (Yes, I know this seems naïve ~ I guess I was somewhat sheltered in small town Texas.) Beyond that, we got to read novels and watch movies in class.

I've come to appreciate the discipline of noticing the intersection of religion and art. Digging into this conversation between religion and art strengthens my faith, especially when the artist is obviously communicating a criticism of my own tradition.

But maybe more than looking for the obvious, I like to decipher theological and religious themes in artwork even when the artist is not (obviously) working those into their work. For this reason, I've always been excited when I've had the opportunity to participate in Theater and Theology. Theater and Theology is a monthly event which brings people from different local Lutheran congregations to the theater (along with whoever else bought tickets for the show that night) to see a play. That's the theater part. The theology part is after the play, when the audience is invited to stay in the theater and the cast invited back onto the stage for a theological talkback.

This seems like a prime opportunity for someone who is relatively fluent in theological language to lead a conversation where moral and ethical and sociological and theological themes in the production ~ especially those themes that many people might not have noticed, or might not have language to understand or articulate ~ can be highlighted and investigated. Unfortunately, though (and this may be because people are interested in the logistics of the production more than the theology), this kind of deeper theological conversation has never happened at the Theater and Theology events I've participated in.

Recently I went to see the Theater and Theology production of To Kill A Mockingbird. The play was fantastic. Unfortunately, though, in the talkback we got caught up in talking about racism and bullying; about the differences between the book and the play; about how much school the child actors were missing. These are great topics for conversation, but they none of them were taken into theological depths, or articulated within a theological framework, which was disappointing for me.

In particular, I would have loved to hear the actors respond to questions of how justice in the face of hatred (which are obvious in the play) might be related to original sin. See, injustice pervades all of our society, all of our lives ~ is this way, it is the same as original sin. How would the actors respond to the question, 'Are we stuck with it?' or “Are our attempts to right societal wrongs futile, because we all sin and fall short of the glory of G-d?” I would have loved to hear the actors, especially those who played Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, reflect on the difference between their character and themselves as actors, particularly as related to our Lutheran Christian articulation of simil justus et peccator (at the same time sinner and saint).

I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm something of a theological geek, and I stipulate that not everyone gravitates toward this kind of conversation like I do. At the same time, though, it seems to me like people are longing for theological conversation, for ways to make religious sense of the world outside the church building ~ and this kind of event seems like a prime opportunity to explore those topics as a community.

Which, I believe, is part of the job of pastors ~ to publicly make theological and religious sense of the world. And if we who are part of mainline and progressive threads of Christianity don't do this more obviously, we relinquish the public voice of Christianity to the evangelical fundamentalists.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

everything disappears

in the high country
everything disappears
except the route ahead,
dirt or rock underfoot
and the contour of
the next ridge

laundry at home is
still in piles
waiting alongside the
office inbox

yardwork and meetings
will wait; though
the phone in my pack
may buzz, picking up
a tower down the valley
let it buzz ~ i only
brought it accidentally

so unless it's
on the next cairn
it's disappeared

Friday, October 14, 2011

eyes in the face of death

life, sometimes, feels like
punctuated by moments of
and, for the lucky,
under-girded by
deep satisfaction

for some, though
satisfaction is elusive;
then, joy is nothing more
than fleeting happiness

we see it when
faced with death
our own, imminent,
or briefly glimpsed
reveals quickly
what's underneath:
terror, or contentment;
regret, or deep satisfaction

in our own experience
and in the eyes of one
who sees,
(as if having read
the last pages of a mystery)
the way their life will end

in their eyes,
desperation is desolate
while satisfaction
is nothing but
beautifully hopeful

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Microwave, Part Two

Here's the thing about making assumptions and presumptions about the Body of Christ ... the Church ~ I'm almost always and inevitably proved wrong.  Yes, the microwave had a sign on it for a couple weeks.  Yes, in the corporate world, a CEO or other manager would have directed an underling to take the broken appliance out right away ... or would have praised and promoted a mid-level manager who took the initiative to take care of that issue without any instruction.  And yes, I could have directed someone to take care of it, putting myself in the role of congregational CEO.

But church is not (or, maybe, ought not be) corporate.  It may take a little longer, but in a healthy church system, those who are called to a particular responsibility will take on their job at the appropriate and proper time. At the end of the day, the microwave was disposed of by the team who had, long ago, accepted the responsibility of maintaining the congregational facilities. 

Sometimes, obviously, corporate life is more efficient than life in the church.  But I prefer the (ideally) egalitarian, though much slower and messier, life that the Church (Body of Christ) models and embodies.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Smoking Man on Skates

a shirtless guy
just went by;
I saw him beside the
edge of my eyes;

I turned to see
what seemed to be
a man on skates,
and in this scene

he cupped his hands
around his face ~
then all that remains
in the place

he left behind
as he flew by
the cafe window
where I pass time

is (disappearing more
slowly than his
skates roll)
cigarette smoke

Monday, October 3, 2011

Health Care Rant

I have to say, I'm baffled by the health care conversation in our country (USAmerica) these days.  It looks like the Supreme Court will eventually take up the issue of whether the government can mandate that everyone have health insurance. 

I think we're asking the wrong question.  The essential question, the essential divide in this country that I don't hear many people talking about (and I recognize that I might not be listening in the right places) is the question of whether each person deserves to receive health care as a basic right. 

If we say 'no' ~ if we say that health care is a privilege, and not a basic right ~ then the government has no business being in the health care management business.  The extension of this position is that hospitals should not be required to provide emergency room care to individuals who are not able to pay.  The extension of this argument is that we should require everyone to pay for their care, either out of pocket or through insurance. 

In this case, everyone who is not able to afford (or chooses not to obtain) health insurance, and gets sick, will either lose all their money and be forced to the street, or will chose not to get treated and possibly die of a treatable disease. 

On the other hand, if we say 'yes' ~ if we agree that health care is a right, and that everyone deserves access to medical treatment ~ then it is incumbent on us as a society to provide medical care for everyone in a manner which does not force a choice between food and medicine, or between treatment and housing.

In this case, some will be treated unfairly.  Those of us who are healthy will end up paying more in order that those who are more unhealthy do not become worse-off because of an overwhelming financial burden.  

I, as a Christian, am forced to take the latter position.  It is immoral, and more importantly it is sinful, that we are more concerned about paying less in taxes in order to pad our own bank accounts than we are about our neighbor. 

But even from a purely capitalistic and conservative perspective, corporations providing health insurance (and care) makes no sense.  Right now, I pay for health insurance.  I also pay taxes that eventually go to care for sick and injured and homeless persons who do not have health insurance.  My taxes pay for police officers and fire departments, for social workers and hospitals who care for those without insurance. 

Right now, I'm paying for my own health care and for the health care of those who can't afford it.  But I'm making payments in two different directions ~ one, to the government for taxes; and the other, to insurance and drug companies which seem to report record profits each year. 

So, if we say that health care is not a basic right, then we as a society are saying that the wealthier are more important than the poorer ... we are saying that all people are not created equal.  

If on the other hand, we say that everyone deserves equal access to health care as a right, then the government should be in the business of providing everyone health care.  Sure, it may cost each of us a little more in taxes.  At the same time, we'll no longer need to pay for private insurance.  Plus, when society has access to health care, we end up with a healthier society ~ and that's good for everyone. 


rambling post about a non-functional microwave

A church kitchen that I'm familiar with has, among other things, a microwave oven.  Obviously this, in itself, is unremarkable.  However, the reason I'm remarking is because, apparently, this particular microwave oven isn't working.  I make this assumption because it has a sign on the door which says something like, "Do Not Use: Microwave Smokes when in Use"

Now, church buildings have, by and large, been non-smoking for many years, so that's not the unusual part.  What grabs my attention is the fact that the microwave oven has been sitting there, on the kitchen counter, with the same sign on its door, for probably a couple weeks. 

The closest I really ever got to working in the corporate was as a temporary factory worker a long time ago; so I can only imagine that, in the corporate world, a broken microwave oven would probably be gone pretty quickly. 

I do, however, work in the church; and in the church, it seems to me that it's extremely difficult to ever get rid of anything.  Every congregation I've ever been a part of has this same issue.  If I were to take a walk around most church buildings, I imagine I'd find storage rooms and closets and file cabinets and bookshelves filled with items that haven't been used for years and that really aren't worth anything to anyone. 

Why is it that we, the church, are so reluctant to get rid of anything? 

Is it because we find value in what's old?  Maybe ~ we certainly do turn regularly to the old writings of scripture, and we often participate in rites that have been in use for many decades, if not centuries. 

Is it because we shy away from conflict?  Perhaps we're concerned that if one person gets rid of something, they'll discover later that the thing they got rid of was highly valued by someone else in the congregation. 

I think, though, that there's more going on.  It may not have always been true (and I don't know if, 150 years ago, most church buildings were as cluttered as they are now), but I think members of congregations are reluctant to throw stuff out because we don't like to take responsibility ~ which again, like most things, boils down to money.  

Here's the thing.  Our society has become so very consumer-oriented, that I think we don't even know how to talk about anything other than a contractual exchange.  What I mean is that, when I go to the movie, a semi-contractual exchange takes place. I pay my money, and the theater provides me with entertainment.  When I go to a restaurant, I exchange money for food. 

In church, though, we enter into a covenental relationship with one another.  We agree to participate in a faith life together, within a community.  There may be money involved, but money given should be as a response to the action of the divine ~ G-d's grace ~ rather than as a payment for whatever a person feels they've received. 

The trouble is that there are so few covenental relationships extant in our society.  We don't know how to talk, or think, about these other than as contractual ~ I pay money to the church, and the church provides me a religious service. 

I believe that we are so steeped in contractual capitalism that we don't know how to think differently about the covenental relationship necessary in a faith community.  And this, at least to some degree, is why there's still a non-functional microwave in the kitchen ~ because many people, deep within the depths of their being (and without realizing it) think that since they've paid, someone else should do the work of deciding and throwing away. 

I'm probably wrong, but that's what I think today.