Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page

A Wildfire on Wall Street

The nation—and perhaps the world—is the on the brink of an economic meltdown. The only solution is an infusion of cash from the federal government. This is what we are being told by the economic deciders in New York and Washington.

Not so fast, say observers on main streets and college streets around the country. These are poorly managed companies; their suffering is the result of bad decisions; let them reap the whirlwind.

I am not an economist so I am not in a position to judge.

But it does remind me of another debate that rages under the radar of public interest and media attention: federal policy on wildfires.

Two years ago I spent several days in Yellowstone National Park. It is the oldest and arguably the most famous national park in the world. Standing at Gibbon Falls I studied the lingering signs of a forest fire that swept through the Yellowstone in 1988.

“It burned a million acres,” a ranger later said, “and thousands of fighters from all corners of the nation came to help.”

“I am fascinated by the blackened trees,” I said. Most were mere poles, charred all around, with short, barren limbs poking out all the way up. No tree had any greenery.

“What we discovered is this,” the ranger continued. “Burning the green canopy that the trees provided opened up the wilderness floor. Not only has the ground cover returned in full force and with renewed vigor, there are species of plants that never would have grown under the old conditions.”

“And what about the wildlife?” I asked.

“Slightly different,” he responded, “but as rich and varied as before.”

He was spouting, I later learned, national policy shaped by the modern environmental movement. Not everybody agrees, and there are a million websites to assert and attack almost any proposed policy on management of the wilderness trees and their periodic fires.

What exactly is the long term effect of a wildfire? Does it clear off dead material and make way for the new? Or does it destroy good timber and habitat, demanding decades to recover?

Exactly the question that faces citizens around these United States. A wildfire is racing down Wall Street. Should be put it out, taking resources that could be used to better advantage elsewhere—or should we let it burn, clearing dead wood and making space for new ideas, new investors, new institutions, new experiments?

I am not an economist, but after visiting Yellowstone, I am not afraid to let her burn!


Where has all the singing gone?

I went to church yesterday and was again struck by the decibel difference between the contemporary and traditional services of this congregation. I do not refer to guitars and drums versus organs and pianos; I actually enjoy both kinds of instrumental accompaniment and think they can be integrated into the same service of worship.

No: I am writing about singing—again, not vocalists or choirs or professional musicians, but about ordinary people standing to sing an familiar song with a Christian message.

Simply put: in contemporary worship, people hardly sing; in traditional worship, there is more participation and more sound.

I pointed this out to the pastor of the church and he responded: “Yes, our staff talks about it all the time.”

Singing is important: not only does it release endorphins and make a person feel better, it exercises the brain and stretches the lungs; it pushes us out of our comfort zone and into the realm of art and creativity. All of this is good.

But singing is participatory worship. Otherwise worship is most passive: listening to prayers, scriptures, and sermons—and these days, watching videos and sometimes a baptism. The only participatory elements of most worship services are the right hand of Christian fellowship, the passing of the collection basket, and eating and drinking in communion.

And singing.

With singing we confess our sins and acknowledge our dark moods; we tell the story of Jesus and invited others to follow him; we celebrate the wonder of creation and the love of God; we give a witness when most of the time we have no words of our own to express how we feel about God and what we think about Jesus.

But in too many contemporary churches a disproportionate percentage of the sound and energy comes from the stage and through the speakers. Most in the audience are happy to let those with instruments and microphones provide all the sound. Congregational singing is under-valued. People simply stand and watch.

I recall the lyrics of a song from Les Miserable that addresses the point I wish to make. “Can you here the people sing? Singing the song of angry men? This is the music of the people who will not be slaves again!” The context here is political discontent, few of us are angry, and our cause is no longer economic bondage; but the use of singing to stir emotions, confess a creed, and mobilize an congregation to the cause of justice, peace, holiness and generosity—in other words, the rule of God—is very much in need of attention in all forms of worship, but especially those that use more contemporary forms.

See also:

Taking a Break from Wall Street

The earthquake that is shaking Wall Street has preempted news in the world of religion, some pretty interesting stuff, for sure, including one amazing, and perhaps troubling, video.

First, the Episcopal Church in America removed the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan. Rev. Duncan has been an outspoken opponent of trends in the Anglican Communion, such as the ordination of women and homosexuals. His defrocking will accelerate the movement in the United States toward two Anglican networks, one more liberal and the other more conservative.

Historic Anglican policy allows for only one Episcopal bishop or diocese in a given region; so, as conservative Episcopal congregations in the United States pulled out of the national organization, they affiliated with another national organization, often in Africa where the churches and their bishops are much more conservative.

Second, conservative preachers across the country—some 36 ministers in 20 states—have formed a pact to use their church pulpits this weekend—September 26-27, 2008—to endorse a candidate for political office. According to the news reports, all are planning to declare for John McCain. We have a constitutional right, they claim, to speak their minds without restrictions. The restrictions they speak of are those of the Internal Revenue Service which does not permit non-profit and tax-exempt organizations to endorse candidates for public office.

The effort is being organized and promoted by the Alliance Defense fund. They have declared the event as Pulpit Freedom Sunday. “We’re not encouraging any congregation to violate the law,” a representative said. “What we’re encouraging them to do is exercise their constitutional right in the face of an unconstitutional law.”

Third, and more to the point of living, this Saturday is Angel Food day at our Church, Rosemont Baptist. Volunteers will gather before 7am to unload a large truck of food. About 10am the first of six hundred local families will come to pick up the food they have ordered. The purchase price is about a third of what they would pay in the grocery store.

Angel Food Ministries is the brainchild and passion of a ministerial couple in Georgia, Revs Joe and Linda Wingo. The program now feeds 575,000 people in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Rosemont is the epicenter of this ministry in central Kentucky and more information is available on our web site:

And last, but it should have been first, this video: the most amazing episode of preaching that I have ever witnessed, and I wager you will say the same.

How to Spend a Trillion Dollars

Our nation needs a more extensive health care system, one that provides medical assistance to everyone, not just to those who have money or insurance. But, critics say, we cannot afford such a system. The Institute of Medicine projects that universal healthcare would cost $70 billion a year. Over ten years that totals $700 billion dollars.

There was no political will to invest $700 billion in universal health care.

But now an epidemic has swept down Wall Street. Large wealthy companies are suffering from an economic disease for which there is no insurance. What to do?

Experts tell us it will take $700 billion dollars to treat these patients. And suddenly the very people—national leaders, no less—who have been telling us that the American system can not afford such a massive government subsidy are crying for governmental help.

The President of the United States took to the airwaves to plead for help for his friends on Wall Street. “There has been a wide-spread loss of confidence,” he said. He meant, of course, a loss of confidence in the markets. But I suspect there has been a far greater loss of confidence in those people—like the President—who lead the nation and manage the markets.

It is not the markets that have mis-behaved, it is the marketers!

The very people who have resisted corporate taxes are now coming to Uncle Sam with their hand out, asking for $700 billion dollars of tax money. Many claim the tab will be closer to one trillion dollars.

What else could we do with a trillion dollars?

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost $1.6 trillion dollars over ten years to rebuild the infrastructure of the country: bridges, canals, railroads, highways, airports, sewers, dams, sea walls, water lines, and power grids. The collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis, the destruction of New Orleans and Galveston, and the dramatic need to be energy independent all illustrate the urgency of this situation.

The AFL-CIO estimates that every billion spent on rebuilding the infrastructure would create 42,000 jobs. People with jobs buy houses, make mortgage payments, and pay taxes.

But instead of investing a trillion dollars in the common welfare—providing universal health care or rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure—our leaders want to help their friends on Wall Street.

When the emergency is all over, the executives in New York will resume their $100 million dollar salaries while 50 million common people live without health insurance and the crumbling infrastructure of the nation threatens the welfare of the citizens.

The Axis of Incompetence

There is an axis of incompetence that runs from New York to Washington, from Wall Street to the White House. All they know how to manage are elections.

The administrators, bankers, and consultants who, along with the generals and diplomats, handle the affairs of state have bungled everything given into their hands. They mismanaged the war in Iraq; they mismanaged the response to Katrina; they mismanaged the mortgage business; and now we know they mismanaged the investment business.

I predict that, in the years ahead, we will discover that other elements of our national affairs are hopelessly crippled and corrupt. Tuesday, the FBI announced that they have launched criminal investigations into 24 financial institutions. Who is surprised?

Tuesday these same men came before elected representatives of the people. They described in dire terms the economic threat facing the world. They presented a plan to bail out these under-investigation companies. They warned the Senators: “Unless you do what we say, recession is certain.

Do you believe them?

Why should we put any confidence in what they say and the proposals they make?

Even if we concur with their diagnosis, why would we trust them to manage this international economic crisis?

Think about the war. White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, in a September 2002 interview with the Wall Street Journal, estimated the war in Iraq would cost $100 billion to $200 billion. He argued the cost was small in comparison to the Gross National Product, adding, “The successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy.”

Most estimates now put the cost of our “shock and awe” at one trillion dollars. Dollar estimates do not include the tragic displacement and disabling of millions of people or the enormous damage our policy has done to American influence in the world (to say nothing of relations between Christians and Muslims—but that is another day’s blog).

Give us representatives who will not be stampeded into surrendering their responsibility to think for themselves and serve all of us. And give us a leader—Democrat or Republican or Independent—who will stand up to these “experts” and call their bluff—he will be the next President of the United States.

Thursday: How to Spend a Trillion Dollars