Thursday, April 26, 2007

Drifting Along

A couple of years ago, I don't remember exactly when, I read something in a article on the 'Net that has stuck in my mind. Don't even remember how to find it now, but this is pretty close to the writer's words: "There is nothing inherently wrong with building an organization to do God's work; the problem is that, over time, building an organization to do God's work becomes an intoxicating substitute for doing God's work."

This is a profound idea. It also expresses, in a religious context, a principle that I came up with over many years that applies to almost all organizations. Since I haven't seen it expounded by anyone else, for the purposes of this blog I'll call it "Phil's Law of Institutional Drift." What is this law? "Over time, the natural tendency of institutions and organizations is to drift towards being run to suit the convenience and benefit of the staff rather than the clientele."

This principle applies to just about all human organizations. It sheds a little light on why the hospital staff will wake you up at a pre-set time--to give you a sleeping pill. It is why minor-level bueaucrats (BMV employees, IRS clerks, local government people, you name it) will sometimes convey the impression that you are an interruption to their work rather than the reason for it. Lower-level employees of large corporations are no better in this, nor are labor union leaders. All too often schools illustrate the principle too. Even religious organizations are not exempt; Francis Schaeffer once commented "One of the official titles of the Pope is 'Servant of the servants of God'--but when he is in Rome, he is carried about on the shoulders of men." (Don't mean to bash this particular church or any particular man in that office--just another example of the drift at work--Protestant denominations just haven't had as much time for the drift to work on them.)

I admit it is possible for a particular organization to resist this drift. But it takes a conscious effort, continued over time. And the larger the organization becomes, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the resistance. And the drift goes on....

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Gifts and Fruit

In my years in the church (fifty-seven of 'em--no, I'm not a "young whippersnapper" any more), I've seen many times when after teaching on "spiritual gifts" and talk about "discovering your gifts" and so on, a lot of people, often young but not always, get excited about them and want to start exercising them. (Especially the ones that put you up front--I have some thoughts on this, but it will have to be another post.) But what I have come to understand from reading the NT passages on spiritual gifts is that they are not given to us as individuals; they are given to the church--we are not the recipients, we are the delivery truck drivers. They are given to meet the needs of the church body in this life, and as such, they are temporary. Some may be lifelong, but by God's standards that is still temporary. And there have been times in my life when something was given through me, to meet the needs of the moment, and that particular type of gift was not given through me again--sort of a one-shot deal. (And if God wants to work that way, I'm okay with it.)

Now the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control--are a different matter. We have to develop these in our lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit. (If it was up to us to generate them on our own, the church would be in a sorry mess--come to think of it, sometimes it does get like that!) But these are character qualities, not functions. So whatever we can acquire of them really does become ours, not only for life, but for eternity. In fact, acquiring these is what turns us into the kind of people who can enjoy Heaven.

I'm not saying the gifts are unimportant, but that they are God's business. If He wants me to help with some delivery now and then, I'll do what I can to oblige. But my real concern--my day job, you might say-- is developing the fruit of the Spirit in my own walk. Can't say the mission is fully accomplished, but I haven't given up yet either.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Postmodern Process

I just finished reading "A New Kind of Christian" by Brian Maclaren. (Yeah, I know, I'm late getting around to it.) I have already read a couple of his books; in fact, it was Maclaren who helped me realize I've been postmodern for years. And after that, I went back and re-read some of Francis Schaeffer's books that I acquired in the 1970s; I found that he was dealing with postmodern issues before anybody had come up with the name for it. But unlike some, he didn't start ranting "Postmodernism must be stopped--it destroys our apologetic!" He just quietly adapted and found ways to talk to people where they were. He understood that all people are created in God's image, even if they themselves do not believe it, and should be treated with love for that reason. Because he believed that, he was able to reach out to all kinds of people, from teenagers to middle-aged ultra-liberal church bishops like James Pike. He was not always successful in bringing them to Christian faith, but he still did not "write them off" or indulge in hate.

Maclaren had a quote from a C.S. Lewis book that I had never read (it was a book on medieval literature, his professional field, not one of his "Christian" works). In this quote Lewis seems to note the differences between modern thinking and the medieval patterns, but then acknowledged that someday the modern pattern would be replaced itself. Whether he was aware that the process had already begun is hard to say, but at least he could distance himself from modernity enough to see the possibility.

And the change IS a process, not an event. The change from medieval to modern was a process too. The date Maclaren sets, 1500 A.D., is only a convenient approximation, just as 2000 is for postmodernism. (I would say that the first crack in the fortress of modern science was Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in 1927--the first hint scientists had that they could not nail everything down; even Einstein didn't like it.)

Some complain that postmoderns are too negative, but that was true of the first moderns as they broke with the medieval traditions, too. Schaeffer was as aware of the faults of modernism as anyone--he had some negative things to say about it. In order to replace something, you've got to recognize its defects; then you can look for something better (or at least different).

I have to get to work--probably more on this later.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


It seems to me that the 20th century was the age of the institution, especially the big institution. In recent decades, it got so all of life was governed by institutions. You're born in a hospital, sent to day care and pre-school as soon as possible, then to public school (preferably in a big, "consolidated" district), then college, then off to a job with some big corporation, or else a big government agency or maybe a big non-profit organization. Then you retire, live in a "retirement community" until they ship you to a nursing home, and then back to the hospital to die.

Is it any wonder that people want some opportunities for personal contact, maybe some handmade art objects for their homes, some things that aren't mediated by big institutions? And I guess I've been sort of counter-cultural in this respect for a long time. In the 1980s there was some buzz in the media about self-employment and being an entrepeneur--I started my first business in 1975. When we started home schooling our kids in the early 80s, the HS community in the Cincinnati area where we lived was just seven families. And our church life had centered around small groups for several years before that. Our second child was born at home, and the third would have been if we could have arranged it. (He's now 19 and getting ready to move out. Meanwhile, our daughter--the child who was born at home--has kept the tradition going; her third daughter was born at home this winter.)

Back in the 90s I read a book called "Megatrends" by John Naisbitt. One of the things he predicted was that with all the high-tech stuff in our society, people were going to want what he called "high touch" things to balance it--hand-made pottery and other art (music is still on CDs, but there's been a drift away from synthesizers to acoustic instruments in the last few years), anything where they can feel they touch real live people. I don't recall him saying anything about the Internet. It may not have taken off at the time he was writing. And it's sort of a paradox--obviously high-tech, but a tool for touching people--and it has made it possible to find kindred souls all over the world, even if there are none in your own location.

I don't think institutions are going to completely disappear from the landscape for a long while yet. But their dominance is fading--hospital costs are skyrocketing, public schools are facing increasing criticism of their results (Biblical term, "fruit"), the auto industry is hemorrhaging (I'm real glad I didn't follow my Dad's advice to get a foreman's job at Ford), and the house church movement and other emerging church forms are pioneering less-institutional forms of church life. It's an interesting, if sometimes scary, time to be alive.

Redneck Authenticity

Postmoderns put great value on "authenticity"--being real, not putting up a facade, or a mask, not play-acting (which is the original meaning of the Greek word that became our English word "hypocrite"). They don't like it when people seem all right but are actually pushing a "hidden agenda."

Rednecks share some of the same attitudes, they just express it differently. They might say a certain person is "puttin' on airs" and even issue the warning "Don't git above your raisin'."

When I was thinking about starting my own blog and the idea for its title hit me, I googled the term "postmodern redneck" to see if anyone was already using it. Found various places where the two words were in the same sentence or paragraph, a few people who did refer to themselves in that way, but no one with the blog title at that point. The other thing that came up was a Wikipedia article about "rednecks"--yes, there really is one. It included material about the origin of the term--one theory is that it goes back to red scarves worn around the neck by 17th-century Scottish Covenanters, and was brought over to America by Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers (my mother's maiden name is Burns, by the way). The article also included a quote from a Professor James C. Cobb of the University of Georgia, essentially regarding a redneck as a man "who is what he is and doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks."

If that ain't authenticity, what is?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Authority and Respect

I mentioned in my last post that postmoderns and rednecks both have some issues with authority. While that's still fresh I decided put out some of the things I've learned over the years in this area.

To me, authority and respect are two sides of the same coin. If people respect you, you will have a lot of authority with them. If they don't respect you, you'll have the bare minimum they can get away with giving you. There are also two kinds of respect/authority: positional and relational. Positional respect goes with some kind of position--teacher, boss, doctor, pastor, cop, etc. Its big drawback is that it is only temporary--maybe a life of 2 weeks to 2 months in most cases, as little as 5 minutes in a few. Its main value is to give the authority figure time to develop relational respect, which is the respect you earn. But once earned, it lasts much longer, maybe even for life. (Unless, of course, you manage to blow it badly.) The more of it you earn over time, the more authority you have. Even rednecks generally know which of the cops in their small town is firm but fair, and who is the jerk who likes to throw his weight around.

During my senior year of college and for a couple of years after I worked for a franchise organization in two different cities, for two different managers. The first never asked anyone else to work as hard as he did, genuinely cared about his employees and customers, built good relationships with both as much as he could. He had tremendous authority with his people, because he had earned it. The second was a former Air Force captain--not a pilot or combat officer, he finished college with a metallurgy degree and spent his military service in a laboratory. His military background turned out to be a liability--he did not have a clue how to deal with employees who could legally quit--and did they ever quit!! It was a constant struggle just to maintain a minimal staff level, let alone any growth. Finally I quit too, largely because my future with the organization depended on his success, and he wasn't going anywhere until he learned to earn respect. Even our best employees had little respect for him and many of our customers had less. It took me a couple of years to process that experience and really understand what was wrong.

Couple of other lessons I've learned on this: The people who have earned the most authority generally wear it very lightly--they'll rely on other methods most of the time, rather than using raw authority. The people who are most enamoured with their authority and position usually have the least. Also, authority is like a bar of soap--the more you use it, the less remains (can't remember where I read that, but I agree).

That's all for this one.

Why "postmodern redneck?"

To put it simply, 'cause I are one. I figured out several years ago that I'm part of the approximately one-third of Baby Boomers who are or lean toward postmodern thinking. And my redneck credentials are impeccable (might be peckable too, if your taste runs that way.) From 1998 to 2006 we lived in a trailer on 4-1/2 acres, with a pole barn and assorted sheds (Don't ever buy a spread with a storage building bigger than the dwelling--junk DOES expand to fill the space available). There was a time when of the half-dozen cars in our driveway the only one that actually ran was not only the worst clunker of the lot (the driver's door was latched with a bungee cord), it wasn't even ours--just on loan till I could get one of the others fixed. It's my heritage, too. My maternal grandfather died of injuries from a coal-mine accident near Hazard, Ky. My uncles worked in the mines until they came north to work in the factories, with the exception of Uncle Junior, who made up for it by being the family jailbird (a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it).

The terms "postmodern" and "redneck" aren't as incompatible as you might think, either. Postmoderns aren't real respectful of authority--neither are rednecks, they just show it in different ways. Both live with uncertainties, just different uncertainties (is this car going to make it home, or do I have to rummage around for the baling wire?).

So the point of this particular blog is to look at life (at least those parts of it I find interesting) from these two perspectives. Sometimes it may get a bit philosophical, sometimes a little "down home". I do plan to generally avoid political discussion, not because I don't care about it but because there are already so many political blogs out there. And, as you may have noticed by now, there may at times be a little bit of humor--for me, the Eleventh Commandment is "Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously."