Economy: Relational Economics

We’re taking a giant step into the future
And turning into a thousand other towns
I heard today the news that they are
Closing the bookstore down.

Some big concern comes in and yanks
Our jobs, our shops, our hometown banks,
Then they expect our grateful thanks
It happens every day.
I guess I just prefer to see
Success serve our community
Not just some wealthy VIP
Who lives a thousand miles away.

So take a minute and look around,
There are corner shops in every town
Squeezed and pushed and hunkered down
And battered by the blows
No, they might not be shiny or bright or new
But they’re run by folks like me and you
Now, I can’t tell you what to do
But me?…I’m going to shop at those.

John McCutcheon, “Closing the Bookstore Down” Rounder Records

It was an ironic situation. I was standing in Fairley’s Pharmacy, a locally owned and operated drug store when my cell phone rang. It was my wife telling me that I’d gotten a call at home from the Safeway Pharmacy—corporate mega-drug powerhouse—about the over-the-counter medication that I was trying to find. I had just left there and stopped by its tiny competitor, tucked into a pie-shaped building about a block away where Sandy Boulevard angled into Fremont Street. Fairley had opened back in the 1920’s long before Safeway was built.

I called Safeway back and got a recorded voice, the first of several… “For store location and business hours, press ‘1’, for the floral department, press…” Eventually, I got the pharmacy and another recording: “For pharmacy hours, press ‘1’. If you are a doctors office, press ‘2’. If you need information about insurance or medicare…”

At last I got a human voice. I talked to it as the pharmacist at Fairley’s—a living, breathing pharmacist—stood at the counter waiting to talk to me. He had been waiting about five minutes for me to finish navigating the electronic labyrinth. Safeway said that the medication I was looking for had been discontinued. I hung up. I turned to the man at the counter. He told me the same thing.

I left the little drug store considering the contrast between the information I got from the corporate store and the information I got from the little guy. The difference was relationship.

Now, here’s just the right place to insert the obligatory diatribe about the impersonal world with its electronic customer service and volume pricing. This would the time to slam the capitalist juggernaut and lament the lack of locally sustainable economies. But I think there is a different issue for Christ-followers, the issue of relationship. As citizens of the commonwealth of faith, relationship becomes the relevant issue. Jesus taught us to value human interaction and charitable service. He taught us to love one another, and along the way, love the world, which was what the Father had done by sending Jesus in the first place. None of that is possible without relationship and placing high value on the personal. Our issue with corporate America isn’t raw economics, it’s relationship; it’s losing the personal interaction, the human, voice and the human face—the window into the soul, which is where the Spirit of God jealously yearns to dwell. If we choose the small and local it’s because relationships are lying right there on the surface and not buried beneath a media-drenched infrastructure or a constantly shifting bureaucracy. If we choose “humongo mart” it’s usually in pursuit of the less expensive or convenient—the sacrifice of the personal.

Still, it’s fairly difficult these days to avoid the maelstrom of the humongous. When it isn’t practical or possible to support a local economy, we can at least make relationships a priority as best we can. Down at Safeway we know a few people. Bret asks about my son; Sharydon knows my last name. I try to go through their checkout line—when they’re working, and until they get transferred to another store—then I drive home, passing Fairley’s on the way. I intend get my prescriptions there from now on. Shun the corporate monolith and trade locally…hang the cost!

So give me slow food and a hometown team
Spencer’s, Bodo’s, Chap’s Ice Cream
Gleason Hardware and that corner store
With the dust on the shelves and the bell on the door
I swear I’d love to hear that sound once more
Since they closed the bookstore down. (McCutcheon)

Community: Leadership Breathes

A friend of mine once said, “In the church, leadership is like breathing. It happens or the body dies.”

Other thoughts:
Leaders don’t create communities. Communities raise up leaders to express and manifest the character of the community.

In its infancy a vision is shaped by people, but in its maturity people are shaped by the vision.
Leadership is not for the assertive but for the submissive.

Grapes and elders are much the same. They both must be crushed, aged and poured out before they are set before the people of God. They are also like bread, the must be crushed, mixed with oil and passed through the fire.

We may follow the direction of a leader and find that the leader is no more than a “benefactor.” In the church, we are to follow the example of a servant. It is from such examples that elders are recognized.

True leadership is worthy to be followed not because it bears a title, but because it bears a burden.

Economy: Emerging and Engaging

Indigenous faith communities ought to emerge from all this interaction with the host subculture. While it is noble and, indeed, a godly activity for a Christian businessman to run a shoe shop and to try to be Christ to his customers, something is missing if a Christian faith community isn’t part of the equation. The Christian businessperson can engage colleagues, clients, and customers in a discussion of faith questions, but the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a community of Christians living it out.

~Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, Hendrickson. p. 27.

I remember the sixties. Quite a decade! They even bubbled over into the decade after, presenting the nation with a whole generation of newly minted progressives. We stepped into the seventies wearing “love beads” and smelling of patchouli oil and marijuana. We were loathed for our impropriety and rejected for our impertinence. We figured that was proof enough that we’d thrown off the constraints of the system. Yet, as the decades have come and gone my generation finds itself looking more and more like our parents and grandparents than we ever thought—hoped—we would. God forbid that our children and grandchildren follow in our footsteps!

What’s needed now is a new generation that steps out of the stream and walks according to the tradition of the Christ followers. Such a generation will not emerge as a reaction to the culture (people drive cars, therefore let us walk slowly), rather from a careful consideration of our faith and calling. From a clear understanding of who we are as Christ followers we can respond rather than react to the culture around us. Must we react to materialism by becoming definitively poor? Perhaps not. Perhaps the issue isn’t how much we have, but how we go about having much. Using mammon and serving mammon are different, but crossing the line that separates them is easier than we wish it were.

We are called to new life, but in what way is the life we live so much different from those around us? If the life we have chosen has not blossomed with new fruit—distinctive fruit—we should probably wonder why and set out to bloom afresh.

Society: Are Ideas Like Mutual Funds?

There is much to be said, socially and intellectually, for bringing together people of different outlooks and beliefs; but there is not rational basis for the notion that by mixing a number of conflicting views you are likely to arrive at the truth. You cannot construct truth from a mass of dissonant and disparate material. You cannot construct truth at all: you can only discover it. And the more noisily opinionated people intervene with their contributions, the less likely you are to discover it.
~Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind. Servant Publications, p.112.

Jody and I have been away for a couple of weeks to the Midwest. The first week we facilitated Prayer Summits for pastors—Jody in Chicago, and I in Wisconsin. After that was done we slipped away to the Door Peninsula in northern Wisconsin for a little R&R. We had a restful time. The weather was windy, cold, and sometimes rainy. It even snowed lightly. No matter. The weather was a good excuse to sit by the fire and read a book, browse the gift shops or hang out in a local Internet café.

I’m thinking about a conversation at the Internet café.

Chit-chat with the owner of the shop turns toward the war in Iraq. Since Caleb just spent a year there (it seemed like a hundred) I know something about it; I even have some opinions. As we talk, another guy comes into the store. He buys a coffee, sits down behind me next to the door, and quietly ponders his Americano. He listens to the discussion as the topics flow: the insurgency…the shaky Saudi monarchy and how handy it might be to create a friendly government with reliable oil reserves …troop strength and long-term prospects for withdrawal…equipment needs and pressure on industrial output…spent uranium war materials on the Iraqi landscape.

I pick up on that last subject. Not qualitatively different than the danger of landmines in other war-torn regions, I suggest. Mr. Americano, the guy behind me, chimes in with observations about the CIA and clandestine operations. The subject takes a left turn into the Viet Nam war. He wonders how many guys died in Viet Nam, and then suggests an estimate that doesn’t seem right.

“I’ll find out,” says the owner and turns to his keyboard—tappity, tappity, tap. “Uhhmm—uhh …says here, around 58,000…Says it’s a myth that most of the guys over there were drafted. Says two thirds were volunteers.”

Mr. Americano: “What web site are you lookin’ at? Sounds like it’s right-wing. You need to get a different web site.”

It turns out the web site was sponsored by an association of Viet Nam helicopter flight crews, but that’s beside the point. It was Mr. Americano’s response that intrigued me: find a different web site. He hears information that doesn’t square with his point of view—get a new web site; get another source, one that matches my leftward idea of the world. The thing is, I’ve heard the similar things said by the right leaners. “Where’d you hear that? NPR?” say my conservative friends. “That’s liberal. Get another source.” Whether right or left, blue or red, liberal or conservative, it’s about staking out the territory of truth and standing with the lot that agrees.

I don’t know who coined the phrase, “the marketplace of ideas,” but the term seems particularly appropriate. Actually, we live in a world that is more than a marketplace of ideas; it is a supermarket—ideas for every preference, worldview, and ideology; for every opinion, position, and point of view. The search for truth has been all but abandoned and replaced by a quest for validation.

Where is the Christian mind in all of this?

In the dominant American culture ideas are often like mutual funds. They come bundled together, marketed and managed. Property rights and pro-life are a package deal that comes in the same portfolio with second amendment rights, privatizing social security, and welfare reform. The environment, abortion rights and gun control come packaged with subsidized housing, stem cell research and the welfare state. But are ideas like mutual funds? If we buy one do we have to buy the rest? Is it really up to the idea mavens to decide our agenda? I think not. As Christ followers our task should be to discern what is relevant to our Master and to us and then live consistently with that regardless of the direction of the market. That will require abandoning the crowd and sifting through the prospectus of society—the dominant culture and the sub-cultures, even the evangelical one.

I don’t think we can afford to let our ideas be managed by the spin masters and pundits any more than we can afford to protect those pre-packaged worldviews by seeking out only sources that agree with them. We have to demonstrate more independence and certainty than that. We have to live the reality of “human life held in the hands of God…the whole universe sustained by his power and his love…the natural order dependent upon the supernatural order, time contained within eternity…this life as an inconclusive experience, preparing us for another; this world as a temporary place of refuge, not our true and final home.” (Blamires, p.67)

Economy: The Soul of Generations

There is a rhythm of global dominance. No country remains the first player forever. Maybe this American hour will not last. And who will be the next leading player? Maybe next will be China. But more probably, before China, it will be the united Europe. Europe’s time is almost here. In fact, there are many areas of world affairs where the objective conclusion would have to be that Europe is already the superpower, and the United States must follow our lead.

~Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission.

I’ve been reading “The United States of Europe” by T.R. Reid. I was intrigued by the post-war largesse of the United States to rebuild Europe and Japan after the Second World War. What has changed since the Marshall Plan? It seems like the generous heart of America’s “greatest generation” is being forgotten in Europe by the generations that followed. New generations in Europe are now ready to move ahead, unwilling to look back.

But new generations have emerged in America, too. Now, America is seen in many parts of the world as a bully and a consumer nation-greedy for the resources of the world. Has the generous heart of the greatest generation been supplanted by the greed of the boomers, and the detachment of the generations that followed? Worse, are we the last of all to know it? Certainly there is much generosity expressed by our nation. Still, we have to own up to the charge of rampant consumerism, accumulation, and waste.

Jesus told the parable of the rich man who had decided to gather his riches into barns and take his ease when, that very night, his soul was required of him. It may well be that Jesus’ story may be applied to nations as easily as to persons. Do nations and their constituent generations have a corporate soul?

So, what of the followers of Jesus, the nation within the nation? Are we taking our cues from our national culture or from our spiritual Father? I’m going to need to think about my own heart in these matters. I am a consumer. I am attracted by the lure of stuff. I am wasteful. I’m bombarded daily with the call to accumulate. Jesus warned people like me to keep my vision clear and to accumulate treasure in heaven.

I remember a song by John McCutcheon called “Vultures.” Here’s one of the verses. I’ll close with it, at least for now.

Like a fish in a river bitin’ on a fly
They’re tryin’ to make us want stuff we can’t buy,
It’s the worst kind of treachery, the worst kind of taunt
Tryin’ to make us buy stuff that we don’t want.

Random Thoughts: The Price of Neglect

(from Acts 2:42)
If we neglect…
The Lord’s Table, which is the revelation of His truth,
The teaching of the apostles, the application of His truth,
Prayer, the reflection of His truth,
Fellowship, the expression of His truth,
Or the persistent conveyance of redemption outside the community of the saints, which is the translation of His truth,
Then we will never wholly embrace our Lord.

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