Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Liberal Policies Don't Work

I was born five years after the end of World War II, and was in high school when Lyndon Johnson announced his "Great Society" and "War on Poverty" plans.  Around that time my grandfather retired and started collecting Social Security.  But over the years, it seems that many of these ambitious social programs (and economic programs as well) have fallen far short of the promises made when they began.  War on Poverty?  We lost!  We seem to have just as many poor as we did before Johnson declared war on it; they may be the richest "poor" in the world's history, with more consumer goodies and better lifestyle than the middle class had when I was born, but they are still dependent on government handouts.  Social Security?  The shrinkage in the pool of workers paying the taxes compared to the number of beneficiaries is bringing the world's largest Ponzi scheme to bankruptcy.

But why?  As Charley Brown kept asking during baseball season, "How can we lose when we're so sincere?"  At the root of these liberal failures is a basic misconception that ruins everything they try to do:  liberal policies are based on a view of human nature that is inaccurate and therefore everything they prescribe does not work well in the real world (Remember what I put in my last post--The Real World Always Wins).  Liberal policies of all kinds are based on the idea that people--all people--are basically good, and that if we can just eliminate war, poverty and ignorance all will be very well and we can create a Heaven on Earth.

But are all people basically good?  Is this true--does what they are saying correspond to what we see in the real world, now and throughout history?  I am a lifelong student of history, American, British, European, world, and often less-commonly studied cultures, and I would have to say that this view is not true to the world we live in.  In terms of "goodness" human nature has a rather broad spectrum.  There are a few people who are in fact very good; a larger number who try to be as good as they can.  There are a much larger number who are as good as they think they have to be, and another substantial number who are as bad as they think they can get away with.  And there are some people who simply are Evil, and have no intention of changing.  And I think a strong case can be made that this description fits the Real World we live in better than the liberal view.

The idea that all people are basically good has been around for a long time, but seldom widely held.  Of the American "Founding Fathers" only Thomas Jefferson seemed to express any form of it.  It definitely was not held by the men who wrote the Constitution in 1787 (Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time, and was not part of the effort, and was not sure whether he even liked it); that is why the Constitution included all those "checks and balances."  It was the "Victorian Optimism" of the 1800s that brought it into style, first in England and Europe, but much later in the U.S.--it did not take hold here until well after the Civil War.  It was widely but not universally adopted by the "elites" by the 1920s, but its greatest popularity came in the growth of prosperity after WW2.

But why should this assumption about human nature matter so much?  It matters because if one of your basic assumptions is wrong, every thing you try to do based on that assumption will turn out badly.  It would be like trying to balance your checkbook or fill out your tax return, when you are absolutely convinced that 2+2=6 (and therefore 4+4=12, and so on--everything you add up, all the way through, is tainted and ruined by that basic misconception).

Looking at the history of the last century alone, this wrong view of human nature is why British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain could not deal effectively with Adolph Hitler in 1938, why FDR could not handle Josef Stalin, why Jimmy Carter could not handle Ayatollah Khomeini.  And it is why liberal policies and enactments keep running afoul of "the Law of Unintended Consequences."  No matter what they prescribe, it either does not work as they thought it would, or people find ways to game the system or get around their new rules that they did not foresee.  All too often, the policy they implement makes things worse instead of better, either by failing to cure the problem or causing new problems worse than the original ones.

The final proof that the liberal view of human nature is wrong is that they do not stick to it consistently themselves.  A liberal will act on it, even with enemies of his own country (as Chamberlain tried to do with Hitler).  But let a liberal politician run into one of his own countrymen who dares to disagree with him, and he quickly drops the pretense--these opponents are EVIL!  He treats them with contempt, tries any dirty trick available to overcome the opposition.  He totally drops the "all people are basically good" "schtick" when he meets opposition in his own country, even if he still applies it to the enemies of his country.

In contrast, there is the historic Christian view of man:  that man was created good, but having free will, chose to disobey his Creator and has ever since been flawed.  The all-out version of this teaching is that man is now flawed in all areas:  morally and spiritually, of course, but also physically (the long lives of the earliest patriarchs in Genesis express the idea that man was created to live forever and took a while to decline and die at first--the Babylonians preserved a similar tradition about their ancestors' long lifespans), and intellectually (meaning, nobody is ever as smart as he thinks he is--no matter how many degrees he has) [And yes, this does include me; and sometimes I even remember it...].  This teaching of traditional Christianity is compatible with the spectrum of human nature that does exist in the real world.  It is not compatible with the liberal idea of human nature.  But it does work in the Real World we actually live in, and the liberal view on human nature does not.  And as I said before, no matter how attractive the theory, The Real World Always Wins.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Interlude

I am going to interrupt the series I've been writing on politics to interject some things that bear on posts to follow.   These are important principles that apply to all of life, including politics.  One of them I have blogged about before, but I wanted to bring it up again rather than have to include it in the next post.  The other is somewhat related to the first, but still important in its own right.

The one I've written about before is a working definition of truth, as given by a professor I studied under in college.  " a degree of correspondence between what is, and what is said about what is."  No matter how high up you are in the ivory towers of academe, or how elevated in political stature, sooner or later what you have said is going to be compared by others to reality; and if it does not match up, you will suffer for it one way or another.

The second one is also very important to remember.  It does not matter how pretty your theory is, how tidily it fits with your other opinions, or with your desires.  It does not matter how much government research money is available to back you up, how many degrees you and your friends have, or what the consensus among scientists is, or how many and how elaborate computer models are made....The Real World Always Wins!  Memorize that...The. Real. World. Always. Wins.!!!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Redneck's Politics, Part 2: A Historical Comparison

I've been having an occasional email discussion with a friend about the political situation lately.  My friend is bothered by all the name-calling, noise and general nastiness of the political discourse lately, and would prefer not to accept any label or be too closely associated with either side.  I can understand that view, but my knowledge of American history tells me that the vision she has, of people discussing things, disagreeing, but still getting along, has been rather rare in this country.  There was a time that the historians call "The Era of Good Feelings" from 1816 to 1824, when partisan bickering was almost minimal; but it did not last.  At the best of times, American democracy has a tendency to get messy.

But I do think that the U.S. today is more sharply divided than it has ever been in my lifetime, possibly more divided than at any time since the Civil War.  And this time the division is not along any geographic regions, as with the Southern Cotton states and the manufacturing North, but is much more spread out.  Even the Red State/Blue State maps of the last few presidential elections do not show the real gravity of the situation:  if you look at the first map on this site , you see the electoral vote by states, and it looks like one side controls the coasts, the Great Lakes area, and a few scattered states elsewhere.  But farther down the page, there is a map of the electoral results by counties, and the picture changes dramatically; many of the solidly "blue" states turn out to be dominated by a small highly populated area surrounded by a land mass less densely populated--of the opposite opinion.  There are no neat geographic dividing lines between Left and Right.  Even if we wanted to, we can not just split the land up and go separate ways as the South tried to in 1861.  (Reminder:  these maps at the link are of the 2008 election results; there is a strong possibility that a map for 2012 will not look as blue.)  The South, as a contiguous defined region, had at least some chance of making it as a nation; the Blue cities have no such chance--they are too dependent on the surrounding Red counties to survive without them.  The disagreements, which really are fundamental, are going to have to be worked out over time.  It may be some states will be divided into two or more new units, as West Virginia, a mountainous region of small towns and small farms, separated from the Virginia of Tidewater plantations during the Civil War.  Most of Illinois would likely be happier without Chicago, and much of upstate New York would not really miss New York City.  There has even been a proposal voiced to break California up into five states, because of the cultural differences in that state's regions.

So far, the rhetoric, and actual violence, has not been as bad as in the years leading up to the Civil War.  In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor, when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina walked up behind him and started beating Sumner with a cane.  He kept it up until the cane broke.  Sumner took several years to recover from the beating, and Brooks received donations to pay the fine the court assessed him--and a lot of canes from all over the South to replace his broken one.  The territory of Kansas was being settled in this period, and the violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions got so bad it was called "Bleeding Kansas."

But why did these things get out of hand so badly?  Overall, there is some case to be made that the South escalated the rhetoric, and later the violence, and the North responded in kind.  And the South escalated the rhetoric because they saw they were beginning to lose the long-term struggle.  During the early years of the nineteenth century, the Southern states and the Northern states were equal in number; while the North's greater population gave it an advantage in the House of Representatives, the South maintained an equality in the Senate that would allow it to stop any legislation it disliked.  In 1820, the "Missouri Compromise" brought in two new states, Missouri (slave) and Maine (free)--the equilibrium was maintained.  But as new territories were acquired by the United States in the 1840s, this equilibrium was about to end.  Most of the new land would not have been suited to growing cotton, and would likely be settled primarily by anti-slavery people from the North.  The South did not really have the population to fill up these new states-to-be.  And as their long-term prospects dimmed, the voices in the South got louder, angrier, and more inclined to violence.  I am not saying the North was blameless in the march to violence, but I do think the South led the way in starting the rhetoric and in ratcheting it up.  And of course, it was the South that first resorted to arms.  They did win the battle at Fort Sumter (and quite a few more) but they lost the war.

I also think one of the major factors leading to the Civil War was that too many people in the South, among the leaders and the ordinary citizens, fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda.  They had to learn the hard way that their slogan "One Southerner can whip any five Yankees!" was mistaken:  Midwestern farm boys turned out to be as tough, man for man, as any Southerner.  And that discovery itself pointed out another of their big mistakes:  many in the South assumed the Midwest would side with them against the industrial Northeast; they totally underestimated the anti-slavery sentiment among the small farmers of the Midwestern states.  (Another change they had not noticed:  in the early 1800s, much produce from Ohio and Indiana was shipped down the Mississippi to market, but by 1860 the railroads provided an alternate route to market.)  Another mistaken assumption by the South was that the British would come in on their side to keep the flow of cotton going to their factories.  As it turned out, many British politicians were inclined to favor the South, but the mass of the British people was so firmly anti-slavery that it would have been political suicide to intervene.

How does this compare to our situation today?  I have heard quite a bit of what comes from both sides, and I think the Left is in the position of the South in the late 1840s.  The handwriting is on the wall, and they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people.

In the 1930s the Democrats backed the industrial unions and helped them gain legitimacy; now only six or seven percent of private sector workers belong to unions.  Now the main strength of unions is among government employees, but their successes in the past in negotiating lavish pensions and other benefits is threatening to bankrupt cities and states across the country.  There was a lot of commotion in Wisconsin earlier this year when a new Republican governor and legislature took steps to curtail union power and benefits; steps in the same direction by the Democrat governor of New York did not attract nearly as much attention.

For many years the public school systems across the country have been a bastion of liberalism.  Yet as many have noted, the more tax money is spent on education, the lower the quality of the results.  The causes are too many to go into here.  But one result is the cracking of the monopoly on education.  In the 1920s efforts to shut down the Roman Catholic school systems failed.  In the 1980s a new wave of private Christian schools began to appear, followed by the phenomenon of home schooling (my own family was part of this, and our daughter is now teaching her own children).  Now charter schools are cropping up all over the landscape, and voucher programs are starting to get past the legal challenges and gain ground.  The educators' unions are still fighting, but it is definitely a rear-guard action.

Another albatross around the Democrats' neck is the social welfare programs; people are realizing they cannot be sustained.  When Social Security began in the 1930s, there were over 150 people working for each one collecting its benefits; by last year there were three workers per retiree.  In the '30s, many who retired at 65 drew benefits for a year or two.  My grandfather died in 1973, nine years after retiring.  My own father died last year at the age of 90, after 35 years of collecting both Social Security and his pension from Ford Motor Company.

And then there is the regulatory mess.  When the Federal government started regulating businesses in the early twentieth century, there was some need for it.  But they have kept adding, and adding and adding...the Federal Register shows 81,000 pages of new regulations--just for the past year!  Add to that the state government regulations, county and city enactments, zoning boards, and even homeowners' associations that want to tell you what color you can paint your house....A few months ago the President of the US admitted that there hadn't been as many "shovel ready" jobs as expected when Congress passed his stimulus bill.  Just this week he voiced concern that we are no longer building great things like the Golden Gate Bridge.  Well, they did not have Environmental Impact Statements to file back then!  As I mentioned in the last post, it took a year and a half to build the Empire State Building in the early 1930s; a few months ago in an online article, the writer was telling of his co-op association's ten-year effort to get a permit from the city to repair the building they live in.

This is just a sampling.  But the point is, whether you call it Progressivism, Liberalism, or just the Democrat Party, it is failing, and a large part of the American people are getting soured on it.  And the "Blue States", "liberals" or just "Democrats", whatever you choose to call them, showing signs of getting scared, just as the South did.  They cannot bring themselves to admit it, any more than the South could, but they are scared, and they are reacting the same way, by making more noise and getting nastier.

Some may say there is little to choose from in rhetoric between the two sides, but I do not agree.  It is one thing to call a politician a "Marxist" or "socialist"--one might argue whether the label is accurate in a particular case, but these are at least terms that indicate a political philosophy  by the way, there is a socialist caucus in the US Congress, and a 2009 newsletter from the American Socialist Party claimed it had 70 members--I looked at the list, and a lot of them are still there, and many of them are quite well-known).  [I tried to link to Gateway Pundit's post on this, but either the computer or Blogger would not cooperate].  But on Labor Day of this year, Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union, referred to Tea Partiers as "sons of bitches"; President Obama spoke after him, and did not then and has not since done anything to show disapproval of that language.  That was not a description of a political philosophy, it was a coarsening and degrading of our political discourse.  And, I think, it is a sign of decline and failure of liberalism in this country.

Monday, October 24, 2011

One Redneck's Politics

I said when I began blogging that there were other blogs on politics and I did not plan to write on that topic.  But lately the things rattling around my head are more in that direction, and I have a few posts taking shape that bear on current politics.  I am not going to endorse any particular candidates, but I do have some things I have been thinking concerning the intersection of politics, faith, and general culture.  If it goes on too long and gets too specific I may have to set it up as a separate blog, but for now I'll keep it under the Postmodern Redneck schtick.

Before I start in, I should say a bit about my own journey up to now.  I've called myself Postmodern Redneck because, as I said at the start, I Are One!  On one side of my family I had (until the Depression) small farmers and some small businessmen, primarily of English ancestry, at the western edge of Ohio's part of Appalachia.  On the other, mountain folk from eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, of Scotch-Irish extraction (my grandfather was a Burns, my grandmother a Webb--both good Scottish names, but the family tradition is that they came to America from Ireland.  There were major settlements of Protestant Scots in Ireland in the 1600s, and a quarter of a million of them moved on to America during the 1700s).  My grandfather and his sons spent some time working in the coal mines; otherwise, it was likely, as the old saying goes, "Whatever it takes to get the coon."

I was born in 1950, brought up in a UAW household.  My parents revered FDR, and between them and my schoolteachers, I was brought up to be a good little liberal.  (There was one incident, though:  sometime when I was two they got too close to an Eisenhower rally, and I picked up the catchy slogan "I like Ike!"  It apparently took a few spankings after I got home to get me to shut up....)  Of course, back in the '50s and early '60s, even the Republicans were liberal, primarily from the Northeast like Nelson Rockefeller.

There were a number of things that moved me away from my liberal upbringing.  One is my love of history--all periods, most places, but American history especially.  Another was when I started studying theology in Bible college and learned something about "liberal" theology, which has always been hand-in-glove with liberal politics (there will be a post on that in this series, I suspect).  Then, after college, as I drifted away from pulpit ministry I found myself making a living for my family in small business (my great-grandfather Hawkins, who died before I was born, had owned a bus company in his small town and an electrical contracting firm).

But probably the biggest factor was the drift of the Democrat Party itself.  There's a saying around, "Not your grandfather's Democrat Party."  It's true; the Democrats have traveled a long way from the time when I was born.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was totally opposed to the unionization of Federal employees; now government employee unions are a mainstay of the Democrat Party.  I grew up during the Cold War; there would be no room among today's Democrats for men like Harry Truman, John Kennedy, or "Scoop" Jackson.  It was JFK who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."  Today's Democrats are all about what they are going to do for us (and to us!).

The change in me had already taken place when I read "Modern Times," an account of the years from the end of World War I to the Reagan/Thatcher years by the English historian Paul Johnson.  One thing he wrote in that book has always stayed with me.  He said the real divide, in Britain and America, was not between liberal and conservative, Tory and Labour, or Republican and Democrat; it was between those who see the state and its power as the answer to every problem, and those who believe in individual freedom.  You can have liberal or conservative statists; they may want to use the power of the state for different problems, but they both see the state as the ultimate answer.

This resonated with me because of something C.S. Lewis had written, I think in "Mere Christianity"--that if an individual man is a creature who lives for seventy years or so and dies and is ended, then a state that can last for hundreds of years is more important; but if man is a spiritual being who can live for eternity, then a state is a transient, passing thing, and the individual is much more important than the State.

At this point, I could probably be described as a "libertarian" (small "L"--my older son has considered being a precinct officer for the Libertarian Party, but I'm not into that).  I think we as a nation have reached the point where we have too much government regulation, at all levels:  not just the EPA and OSHA, but state  regulations, county licenses and boards, zoning rules that go beyond sense, and even homeowners' associations.  (At least I finally got free of those where I live now.)  The busybodies have been allowed too much control and are strangling us!  As a remodeling contractor, I have had experience with the building codes and electrical codes.  The basics of these are sensible and necessary; but the revisions every few years have gone far beyond the basics.  I would say that most of the revisions are trivial, made to justify the bureaucrats who write them staying on the payroll; a few are important; and once in a while they make a change that I look at and think, "They had the technology to do this forty years ago!  Why did it take them this long to figure it out?"  This regulatory mindset is a large part of why there were no "shovel ready" jobs a couple of years ago.  It took less than a year and a half to build the Empire State Building in New York City in the 1930s; it took ten years to build the 911 memorial on the World Trade Center site, and one of the neighboring churches destroyed at the time still has not been rebuilt, because of bureaucratic dithering!

So this is where I've come from, and a bit of what has shaped my thinking over the years.  In my next few posts, I hope to discuss how some of these things apply to what is going on today.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Religious Conflict

The political activity is heating up, on both sides.  In some quarters, the rhetoric is heating up to the point that I'm beginning to think there are only two things left that could tone it down effectively:  one would be a major religious revival (it would probably have to be bigger than the 1700s Great Awakening and the 1800s Second Great Awakening combined), the other a revival of the practice of dueling.  It would be nice to see a lot of our politicians get religion and turn into nicer people; the redneck in me thinks many of our politicians deserve to be used as targets, and reducing the numbers of the political class might well be beneficial.  Dueling in this country had a long history, and died out relatively recently.  Even Abe Lincoln was once challenged to a duel.  As the challenged party, Abe chose the weapons; and he picked sledgehammers in six feet of water.  His much shorter opponent nearly died of laughter, patched it up with Abe and they became good friends.

But the discussion is getting heated, and I think one of the reasons is that this is in part a religious conflict.  And I am not referring to the Christian Right, but about the Left side of the issues.  Years ago, probably in the early 1990s or possibly in the 1980s, James Dobson, despite his reputation in some circles as an intolerant bigot, had a couple of Orthodox Jews as guests on his program.  One was Dennis Prager, a columnist and talk show host, the other was Rabbi Daniel Lapin.  During their discussion, Lapin was asked why so many Jews were so liberal in their politics.  His response was that when a Jew drifts away from his ancestral religion, often he takes up a new one--liberal politics.  (G.K. Chesterton once remarked that when a man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing, he believes anything.)

In recent years there have been some who commented on the religious frenzy associated with the global warming debate, but I think a case can be made that liberal politics is a type of religious system.  It has its dogmas:  "The poor" are always virtuous, and  "the rich" and "profits" (and those who receive them) are evil...Any problem requires government action to solve it, usually by spending money or passing a new law, or both (which is why the IRS Code is now past 60,000 pages--most Bibles are something like 1,200 pages or so)....  They have their various sorts of clergy:  politicians, academics, media figures, kind of like the various "orders" in the Roman Catholic church....And they have informal systems of penance and atonement, so that people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates who have made a lot of money can absolve themselves by supporting liberal politicians and causes....And if you look at how they operate, they try to use guilt and shame to control people's actions, just like any other religious system--talking about what's "fair" (without giving any objective definition of "fair"), calling their opponents ugly names, and accusing them of wanting to bring back slavery and lynching and other nasty motives.  And like the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels, they have their ways of overlooking certain sins of their own and harping on the sins of others.  (There's a local talk-show host who says he will believe in human-caused Global Warming when Al Gore sells his mansions, quits flying by private jet, and starts living like he says we all ought to live.)

Now I am sure someone out there who reads this will be thinking "But many of these people are Christians!"  And my question in return is "Are they Christians or just churchgoers?"  Just going to church is not guaranteed to make a person a Christian.  In my life I have known many people who were Baptists or Roman Catholics first, and Christians second; I have known some who were Christians first and Baptists or Catholics second.  I think some people need to decide whether they are Christians first and liberals second, or liberals first and Christians second.  The Ten Commandments starts out, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."  And Jesus said, "No man can serve two masters."

I do think it is possible for a person to be both a Christian and a liberal.  Back in the Nixon years, there was a Minnesota Congressman named Al Quie, who was a committed Christian.  He was also a liberal.  When he heard the news that Charles Colson had become a Christian in the middle of the Watergate scandal, at first he could not believe it.  But through a mutual friend he met Colson, became convinced his conversion was genuine, and stood by him as a friend through Colson's trial and imprisonment. They were on opposite sides of the political divide, but they became Christian brothers.

It is possible; but that incident was nearly forty years ago, and I'm afraid such things are both harder and rarer now.  There is a passage in C.S. Lewis' "That Hideous Strength" where Professor Dimble is explaining to his wife:  "If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family--anything you like--at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp;and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous.  Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse:  the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing.  The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."  This "sorting out" is still going on, and there are some of us, on both sides of the political divide, who are going to have to choose whether our Christian faith or our political "faith" takes priority.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Following the Holy Spirit

I know I haven't posted anything for a long time, but I got into a Facebook discussion the other night and apparently the software did not allow enough room for what I was trying to say, so I am going to put it here for whatever good it may do. Some of the things I will say I have said in various places, maybe even in the archives of this blog, but I don't think they have all been said in one place at one time. So here it is.

The discussion didn't start there, but it ended up in a debate over following the Bible vs. following the Holy Spirit. The obvious answer is that we need both. In practice, it is never that easy. The sad truth is, through much of history, the Church at large has neglected and ignored the Holy Spirit. For hundreds of years the Christian world was dominated by a doctrine that the Holy Spirit works only through the written Word. Even Pentecostals and Charismatics have over time declined into a tendency to focus on what the Holy Spirit says through "anointed" preachers, teachers, and "prophets'' rather than each Christian learning to hear what the Holy Spirit has to say themselves. In sixty-one years of life, all but the last two spent in local congregations, I have only seen one local church that made any kind of serious effort to teach ordinary church members how to hear from the Holy Spirit themselves. And I have seen all too many members of the clergy who seem to prefer being the spokesman for the Holy Spirit rather than having Him at work among their people without their supervision. (That's about the kindest way I can put it.)

I am not trying to say we should not read the Bible. We do need a good working knowledge of it: the basic drift of the overall Old Testament story, the life and teachings of Jesus, His death and Resurrection, the life of the early Church from Acts and the Epistles, and so on. But knowledge of the Bible is not the end in itself; it is a means to the real end, knowing its Author. The Jews had hundreds of years to figure out the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah; yet when He came, the ones who had the most trouble recognizing him were the "scribes and Pharisees", the Bible scholars of the day. They had focused on the means so much they missed the real purpose of all their study.

I hate to say it, but human beings are too lazy for their own good. Our fallen human nature does not want to take the time to develop a close personal relationship with the Creator. Left to itself, human nature wants a set of hoops to jump through, so it can feel good about what it has done and then go on and live like it wants to. In church leaders, that fallen human nature tends to look around for hoops to give the members. (After all, it's easier to evaluate how many hoops a given church member has racked up than to get close enough to the person to find out how they actually live.) Read the Bible all the way through in a year? Chalk up a hoop. Memorize the most verses in a contest? Another hoop. Get a pin for a year's perfect attendance at Sunday School? One more hoop.

The problem here is the assumption that knowledge of the Bible is equal to spiritual growth. What if it isn't? One thing that has stuck with me over the years from a college class in Christian education is this quote: "Learning has not taken place until there is change in the life of the learner." If all the Bible you have absorbed does not change the way you live, you haven't really learned it. Or as Jesus Himself advised, "You will know them by their fruit." He is more interested in results in our lives than in credentials from programs and classes.

So far, I've edited out about half of what I had above this line, because I want to focus on the real point: it is possible to follow the Holy Spirit, and learn to hear Him (Yes, "Him," not "it"--the New Testament uses the masculine pronoun, not the neuter). It can be done. But it is not easy. The religious hoops seem to be the easy way, at least at first; but they only lead you to either great frustration, or self-righteousness and pride.

The first step in learning to hear and follow the Holy Spirit is the hardest for us fallen human beings. It can be summed up as "Sit down and shut up!" We want to do things; we want to be leaders; we want to have our say; we want to be in control of the situation. These desires go back to the original temptation that caused Eve and Adam to fall: "You shall be as God." We want to be autonomous; we want to be master of our fate.

And the key to learning to follow the Holy Spirit is to give all that up. "Sit down"--quit doing things on your own and in your own way. "Shut up"--because as long as you are talking, you are not listening to Him. The first thing we must do is surrender our desire to be in control and yield the control to Him. It is hard for us to do, and has to be done again and again, day by day until we learn the habit. We want so much to be in control. But as a very wise pastor I once knew liked to say, "If you can see where you're going, you aren't walking by faith." But when you give up control, you have to trust the One who is in control. The "religious" word for this is "faith." In fact, "trust" is the literal meaning of the Greek word that is usually translated "faith" in the New Testament.

When you trust someone you don't rush in and do things your way; you wait for the one you trust to do it. But most of us rush in and do things and say things without waiting to hear from the Holy Spirit what we should do and say. We have not learned to trust Him. And being what we are, it does take time to learn this pattern of doing things.

I'm going to use an example from my own life for how this can work. I have always been musical; I learned to play guitar as a teenager, I sang in choirs in high school and in church. I started "leading the singing," as we called it back then, when I was seventeen (this was still in the days of organ and piano). And I have led worship in small churches and small groups over the years. At first, I planned it all my way. I might ask the preacher what he was talking about, then sit down with the hymnal and pick songs that worked with his topic if I could. I would have some rousing stuff first, then quieter as the service went on to communion.

But in a small group we were in at the Cincinnati Vineyard, I began to learn a new way. The group met on Thursday evenings. I would start praying for the music on Friday, and keep it up for a few days. Around Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest, songs would start spontaneously popping into my mind, sometimes three or four in sequence. All I had to do was write down the list, maybe put one group of songs in front of another. And they worked as well, often better, than what I planned myself. The oddest thing of all was the occasional week when the songs did not come. If I didn't receive the music by Wednesday, I would sit down and work it out the old human away, or pull out a list from a few months ago. And invariably the same thing happened: late Wednesday night or sometime Thursday the phone would ring, and the group leader would tell me something had come up and we would not be meeting that week. The Holy Spirit didn't give me the music because we did not need it. If we needed it, He gave it. In a later group, I reached the point where I did not plan anything ahead; I just sat down with my guitar, strummed a few seconds, and the song came into my head and I played and sang as He gave it to me. (It helps if the group has a good-sized body of music they all know--this one did.)

At one time during our years at that Vineyard, my wife and I went through their training to serve on the Prayer Teams, praying for individuals at the end of the services. One of the things we were taught was not to start praying as soon as the person told us their need, but to wait a few moments and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to pray for the matter. It felt awkward at first (remember what I said above about how we want to rush in and do) but it worked very well as we learned to rely on the Spirit.

This fits with what Jesus told the disciples: "When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say." Luke 12:11-12, NASB Two things: (1) That was not just for them--we are all supposed to be "filled with the Holy Spirit." (2) It is not just for the big "life-and-death" matters; we need to learn it on the little things. If you decide to take up mountain climbing, you do not start by heading for Mt. Everest; you start with smaller mountains closer to home. When you have learned to trust Him in the little things, you will be able to trust Him when the "life-and-death" matters come up.

What about the Bible, then? For starters, it is where we begin to learn about the Holy Spirit. And it can be a way to check what we think we are hearing from the Spirit, especially in the beginning; if what we think we are hearing is at odds with the precepts of the Bible, then we need to wait for Him to clarify the matter. He inspired the human writers of the Bible, and He is available to guide us; but He will not contradict Himself. If there is an apparent contradiction, either we are hearing something else other than the Holy Spirit, or there is something wrong in our understanding of the words of the Bible at that point. Wait and see which it is. And as time goes on, you will come to walk in the reality of what Jesus said, "My sheep know my voice." It becomes easier over time. The real barrier that most of us never pass is to "Sit down and shut up" in the beginning.