Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Spoonful of Fear: A Prescription for Lousy Leadership

*This article was initially written following the first year of Donald Trump's presidency. While this article is still timely, it now appears that climate change and COVID-19 have taken the place of abortion and immigration in the spoon feeding habit of political leadership.  Like the quote below, fear is a poor motivator to do anything, especially something that needs to be done well.  SJD

The old professor was short and wiry.  He leaned on the lectern with a stance perfected over years of marathon talks in front of uninterested students.  His voice was terse and unforgiving. His manner was not one of disinterest or routine but frustration from trying to impress on the young that there was much to learn from the past.  I was taking Western Civilization to 1900 in summer school in 1977.  While the grade I earned would do nothing for my grade point average, this course would leave me with lessons that have served me well over the years.

I remember very few dates and names, but I remember well the images that the old scribe placed in my head - how it felt, even smelled, to be in battle, how clueless different segments of the population could be to reality and, with no nonsense clarity, how leaders manipulated those around them through a steady diet of fear. A spoonful a day kept constituents at bay.

In simple terms, if you are an unpopular or incompetent leader, all you needed to do was create a threat to divert attention from the real problems. In return, the populus will solidify behind you and they would love you as you took them to war or economic ruin.  It was that simple and he recounted example after example of just such blind loyalty. Surely, it could not be that simple, I have thought over the years.  But as I age and have seen more than a few administrations come and go, I am beginning to see what he tried to tell us would happen..

Fear is a powerful force and can be used to hide a multitude of problem. No person is completely immune to its effects. One person fears gun violence and another fears taking away one's Second Amendment rights. When was the last time citizens were asked by their local government to band together to repel an invading group of people? That was the reason the Second Amendment was added to the constitution – because communities needed to protect themselves against warring tribes, and British and French forces seeking to conquer neighboring lands. How many will vote for a candidate who proclaims protection of gun rights when that person has no experience whatsoever in government? Are Americans not willing to spend millions of dollars to protect those around to fight any and every war to feel safe at home?
Abortion, infidelity, and sexual orientation are also great diverters of attention.. Abortion did not start with Roe vs. Wade. Women have been practicing the terminantion of pregnancy since early civilization. Natural herbs as well as dangerous semi-surgical procedures were used long before the Church became involved. If abortion has taken place for thousands of years, how can one argue that society will fail if it isn't banned. In the same way, sexual preference and infidelity are considered major issues but have been around as long as man (or woman).

So what should the American public fear? Take the national debt for instance. According to government sources, it is now over $20 trillion dollars. Such a big number is so hard to understand. It is the equivalent of running the entire Federal Government for 5 years. An individual or even a company that owed five times its annual income would be considered a poor risk by most lending institution. What is truly scary though, is that, unlike a bank loan our government does not really make payments on this debt? Two thirds of this debt is held by individuals, companies and foreign governments and repayment can be demanded at a moment's notice. The other one third, about 7 trillion dollars, is borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund. Ever wonder why Congress never seems willing to increase Social Security pay to seniors. The answer is very simple – because it would mean that the national debt would need to be reduced and the only way to do that is to raise taxes or cut defense spending. At this point, Americans fear rising taxes and giving up protecting the world more than its leaders' choice to live beyond its means.

Fear is great for business as well. No one expects a pay raise when America is threatened at the very core of its being by illegal immigration. Business knows that as long as this issue looms in the wings, Americans will gladly tighten the belt and ask for nothing in return. It worked when the Scots-Irish came to the factories and the mines and when the Chinese were brought in to build the railroads. It works just as well in today's economy. And yet, it is the very programs that increase jobs and give companies tax breaks that entice immigrants to come to this country. Without the fear of losing jobs, would employees be so willing to make pennies on the dollar while profits were funneled into corporate bonuses and expensive retreats?

Maybe the time has come for Americans to see how their fear has been keeping them in their place for too long. Certainly, there has been enough questionable news over the last two years to feel a change in the direction of the wind of public opinion. More and more people are standing up to the rhetoric and expecting real action. They feel the need to call out “fake news” and “alternative facts” regardless of which side of the aisle is responsible. Americans may not be as divided as portrayed. A simple Low-Fear Diet may bring about the concensus that the media says doesn't exist.

I still think back to how much I learned that summer, how little it had to do with the past and how much it has to do with the present. Thank you Professor. I did listen in class and it did make an impression.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Gun Violence: And It Continues

**Originally Posted in February 2018, this brief comment was about the Parkland High School Shooting in Florida. As a former high school teacher who had often worried about violence on campus, I was grateful to be safely at home that day. In 2007, I had experienced the Virginia Tech mass shooting (my daughter worked on campus at the time) through my computer messages while trying to remain focused on a clasroom of talkative young women.  It, now,  seems unbelievable that these words are just a applicable now as they were then. Sadly, this was only one of four school shootings that would lead up to Valentine's Day that year.  (See addition in RED)

There is already one post about the senseless shooting of young people on this blog and it would be better for all if that were the extent of it.  But the country is dealing with yet another act of violence on school grounds. (2021-Wikipedia now documents the vast number of school shootings in multiple lists. The first school related shooting took place in 1853 according to those lists) There will be much blame spread around and many excuses like every event before it.  The one thing that may be different about this time, is the anger of the victims themselves.  Instead of mourning and moving on. these young people have decided that their voices will be heard.  Unlike their parents and grandparents who, for the last 20 years, have tried to work within the system to make things better, these young people will join with hundreds - if not thousands- and they will take their fight public.  They will expect those in charge to explain how the rights of one person to own a gun can outweigh the lives of all those who have been killed by them.  Instead of watching the ineffective government stand by the constitution to protect them from making decisions that might be unpopular to gun owners and lobbies, they will vote for those who see that the world is a different place and one in need of change.  They will be heard and with any luck, this WILL be the last time a school shooting occurs.

Parkland High School Students Protest Gun Violence On Campus

****As hard as the Parkland High School students worked and as creative as they were with their approach, the majority of state and local governments, still, permit guns to be readily carried.  While the COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed shootings at public events, the toll on individuals and families has been high.  This week, two gun violence trials will further highlight the use of firearms in inappropriate settings.  Is our Constitution right to protect ourselves more important than the safely of innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sheep Ministry?

Religion: Does Your Church Have a Sheep Ministry? It Should

I am a city kid. Until I married a farmer, my experience with sheep had been limited to my attendance at the county fair. In school, I had learned that lanolin, an ingredient in hand cream, came from sheep, that the meat was called mutton - which would never be found on our dinner table, and that sheep produced wool so I could have those itchy jumpers my mother thought were so practical in the late sixties. But in the mid-1980s, I found myself the owner of 60 head of cross bred sheep and I quickly understood why there were so many stories comparing shepherds to ministers.

As strange as it may sound, humans could be sheep version 2.0. Certainly, humans are in a more attractive package and the opposable thumb thing, speech and critical thinking skills were great improvements but on the inside, similarities between these two are too close for comfort.

Sheep have been domesticated for as long as humans have a history. In the Middle East, during biblical times, humans and sheep had a symbiotic relationship that exists even today. Sheep provided milk and meat for food and skins that could be made into clothing, drums for music or storage containers for wine and water. Eventually, the wool fiber was traded for other supplies and woven into tapestries and fabric. The abiliy to survive on weeds as well as grass and its steady footing and compact frame meant sheep could use pastures not suited to larger animals. All a human had to do was be observant and take care of the sheep. That's all.

In reality, though, sheep are not the doe-eyed visions of Easter cards and sleep-aid advertisements. They are smelly, simple minded beings that can exhibit every one of the Seven Deadly Sins before lunchtime. Carrying a bucket of feed and having nothing between you and three and a half tons of charging flesh supported by 240 sharp hooves gives a new perspective to the concept “to lust after”. Rams (the males) will fight until one kills the other over ownership of a single female. A lamb turned out onto Spring grazing can die within hours if not vaccinated against overeating. Hobbies include sleeping 20 hours a day and finding a hole in the fence so they can see if the grass is really greener on the other side. Their curiosity makes them a danger to themselves and their high metabolism translates into quick death if preventative measures are not the norm, Being a shepherd is not the dull, boring job seen through today's impressions of CEOs and positions of authority. A skilled shepherd held the fate of the family in his hands since the flock was both the main food and income source of the family. Losing even a single animal was a tragedy.

So is the role of minister and shepherd the same? Should they be compared litterally? A review of the scriptures finds such figures as Moses and David being called by God during their time as a shepherd as if it were the skills of the shepherd that each needed before they could be successful as God's messenger. God and Jesus are also referred to as a shepherd of men/Israel. The Parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10) has a ring of truth for every modern flock owner and speaks to the relationship between sheep and shepherd that is well documented in farming. The shepherd mentions that he not only knows each animal in his flock but they, in return, know him. There is a level of trust, dedication and awareness that shows the investment he has for his chosen profession. Along with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, these scriptures lay out a clear picture of what is expected from anyone choosing to be a servant of God.

In much the same way as farmers study what contributes to the decline of their flocks, churches study the reasons some fail and others thrive. In both, positive results are based on more than numbers and accomplishments. The building of relationships is a key but the concept of a group that functions as one is also present. Some might say a church needs to act like a flock as well as be treated like one in order to be successful.  As a flock, shepherd and animals move together as one toward a better understanding of God and his plan.

Today's clergy are an important resource for any church. While, perhaps the image of a minister is changing, he/she is still vital to the mission of the church. To keep from over-spiritualizing this, it might be best to think “sheep” rather than attendance. Short of spending a few months of intensive training with real sheep here are a few tips from one shepherd to another to help establish your Sheep Ministry

  1. Be the Shepherd - Even if you have others who are committed to pastoral care, make sure your first purpose is to be the “good shepherd” (John 10). Know each and every person attending your church (not just members) and continue to learn about them. Make the contact personal and more than the handshake you give before or after Sunday Service.
  2. Remember the Nasty Ones - Every farmer has one or two nasty old mamas that they would not part with for any amount of money. While they can be a pain to work with, they can also give great support for you in your ministry.
  3. Keep records – No one can remember everything. Keeping notes on your pastoral flock can be an excellent tool in building a foundation of trust. But a word of caution – This is not a place to 'fake-it-until-you-make-it'. Do your own homework. Sooner or later insincerity always finds its way into the light and is difficult to repair.
  4. Expect to work for it – Paul doesn't sugar coat the job in his many letters to the early Christians. The salary and benefit package may be better than it was in Paul's time but the job is still 24/7/365 if you follow Paul's example. There will be the easy days and there will be days that nothing goes right. Even if you have structures in place that allow you to take time off, recognize that regularly missing out on the daily life of the church hinders your ability to connect and influence those in your care..
  5. Don't expect Thank yous – Sheep, and humans, are hungry and thirsty every single day. It is only if you expect nothing and open yourself up personally that you will see the signs of true gratitude. A first-time volunter, an increase in giving even if the coffers are full, or a quick email can be far more rewarding than a spoken one.
  6. Lead without Force - This is where a shepherd reaps the rewards of his/her efforts. As it says in John 10, a flock that trusts its shepherd will follow him/her. Save yourself some trouble and before you try to take your flock on a new journey of faith, get to know them and let them get to know you. Trust is a lot easier on the Shepherd than constantly wielding the Shepherd's crook.

Accepting the ministry is not an easy job and just as in Paul's day it can mean hard work and few accolades. Yet, a minister (layman or professional) has the potential to give the greatest gift the church has - a connection with each other based on God's grace and teachings. What better way to spend one's days than to be like Christ – A Shepherd of Men.