Life After Elections

Friends, I have voted. It is a precious opportunity we never miss. And tomorrow, I want you all to know that I will STILL be your neighbor and fellow countryman. I will still do all in my might for good.

Vickie and I watched Henry Louis Gates’ series “Finding Your Roots” recently. In 2021 he did a show for singer and music producer Pharrell Williams. As he discovered the pain of his slavery past he was emotionally overwhelmed.

Then he said something that knocked me over. “I love America. I just want America to love me back.” That was a powerful insight. We are a country that has been filled with glorious and terrible truths. But we keep stumbling along.

That comment touched me. I want, I wish, I hope, I pray…that we can “love each other back.” That might be a way through. We have so much to be grateful for, so much possibility, such prosperity. But it will lie unrealized unless we love each other back.

See you tomorrow. Come what may.

Waiting to vote, 7 am

Responsibility, Freedom and Uvalde

It’s incomprehensible that 325 million people can’t figure out how to keep their 18-year-old males from killing us and our children and grandchildren. We will hear a barrage of excuses, arguments, high-minded rationalizations and fatuous fears in the days ahead. I am feeling the despair I had after the massacre of babies that happened at Sandy Hook. We will pit gun rights versus safety for children, argue about paranoid conspiracy theories and generally avoid doing anything. Because that’s how we’ve turned away from the crisis.

Here’s the deal for me. You let an 18-year-old stroll in and buy body armor, unlimited ammunition, and long guns designed to kill masses of people legally. Now, would not let a five-year-old do the same. Guns are already regulated. We just debate how. You can’t buy nuclear bombs legally or bazookas or hellfire drones, so we’re simply dithering about the line.

To me, regulation and freedom cannot be separated because it is really about responsibility and freedom. Freedom can only be entrusted to people responsible enough to have it. You have to prove you’re responsible enough to borrow money to buy a house, drive a car and fly a plane. Politically we simply decide how hard or easy that is.

Cars don’t kill people, people in cars do. But we still require that you take Driver’s Ed to know what your’re doing, understand the laws, demonstrate ability to handle it and have insurance to cover liability for it. You can’t drive drunk or you will go to jail. Yes, people can ignore the law, but at least the police have the teeth to get you off the road.

When any 18-year-old male (I haven’t noticed masses of 18-year-old women doing many of these killings) strolls into a gun store and buys these weapons, I’d say red flags should go up. What to do? Ban or limit the purchases of mass-killing weapons? Limit ammo? Strengthen enforcement? Universal registration? Raise the age of ownership or put limits on it? There are hundreds of ideas out there. What isn’t out there is real leadership that refuses to do nothing yet again.

This isn’t insanity. It’s cynical and cowardly calculation. The people who can deal with this won’t. And we put up with it. And that’s it in a nutshell.

The funerals in Buffalo aren’t even finished. And now we have to bury teachers and sweet children and grandchildren. The right to life counts, too. I believe in the right to own a weapon. But I also believe in the requirement that you be responsible enough to operate it safely, with training and accountability and liability that goes with it. Until we come to terms with that, we’ll just continue offering lamentations and grief and sit helplessly by in the richest and most powerful nation on earth and wring our hands helplessly and tell our children, “That’s just the way it is.” Otherwise, Senators and Representatives, and governors and mayors and state representatives, do something new. This isn’t working.

Your Bag of Wedges: A Commencement Address

I was invited by President Beck Taylor to give the afternoon Commencement Address for Samford University’s winter graduation on Saturday, December 18, 2021 2 p.m. This is my text.. This reflection was originally part of a sermon that appears in my forthcoming book, Shadow Prayers. it will be out soon through Mossy Creek Press.

Congratulations, graduates! What an accomplishment! We are proud of you today and you should be, too. Let me share the three measures of maturity that I gave my three daughters years ago: You’re out of the house, out of school and out of my money. My middle daughter, a Samford grad, came up to me and said, “Two out of three isn’t bad, Dad.”

I know you go out into an odd world. I feel for you. I grew up in such a different time. I graduated college in 1972. We didn’t have these problems. 

Of course, we had witnessed the assassination of a President, his brother, and Martin Luther King, jr. There were protests over the war in Vietnam and racism. Oh, and we were arguing about communism and fascists. And radical groups were setting off bombs weekly. We were also fighting over women’s place in the world, sexuality, and the environment. Inflation was a problem. Drug abuse was out of control. Political corruption took out another President. But like I said, it was a different time. Simpler. Of course, we were pretty sure that the world was falling apart. Global hunger worried us. Time was short, and preachers said it was the end of the world. Hal Lindsay wrote a book and set the Rapture in the 1980s. But you live in a very different time.

Anyway, I got married during college. For three years I worked every spare moment for the McKinnon Bridge company building bridges on Interstate 40 in East Tennessee. My co-workers were a distinguished group—including Wise Owl, the crane operator, who did time for murder, and Elmer, a moonshiner who never wore teeth at work and rolled his own cigarettes. 

A fellow carpenter was nicknamed Love. That came from the tattoos on his knuckles. On one hand was L-O-V-E and on the other, H-A-T-E. One day, two of us college boys were trying to decide whether to ask for a promotion or not. He said, “Boys, I’m going to give you some advice. You got to start at the top and work yer way down.” We got the promotion. Good advice. Kind of a reverse Peter Principle.

Now to build a bridge we erected huge logs and set steel beams from one row of logs to another. 

Before setting the steel beams down, we laid down wooden boards, maybe two feet long, on top of each log. Then we put a row of wooden wedges, as many as 8 on each block facing one way. Then we put an equal number of wedges facing the other direction and laid another board on top of that. Then you set one edge of the steel beam on top of the boards, a kind of wedge sandwich. Then we would build plywood forms and put steel reinforcement bars inside and pour concrete. 

Then, when the concrete was dry on the new bridge, we climbed up with sledgehammers and put a hydraulic jack up to the beam and tightened it. Then we started knocking the wedges out. The weight of those forty-foot steel beams settled on the jack instead of the wedges, which fell to the ground. Then we lowered the beam until it could be pulled out and down to the ground.

It was dangerous work at every stage. Think of this—hundreds and hundreds of those wedges, facing toward one another, held thousands of pounds of steel and wood and concrete and a crew of men until the bridge was done. The wedges had one purpose—to point toward one another and hold in place and then, its work done, be knocked aside. The purpose of the bridge was not the wedges. It was to enable people to travel and get across the river or a valley or a low place.

Think about the lowly wedge. It is a lowly task, having people kick you over and over just so you can hold the door for them. They hold open doors for elderly people on their walkers and canes or while funeral directors wheel the body of someone out to the hearse for the procession to the cemetery.

Chisels are metal wedges. An axe head or a hatchet is essentially a metal wedge with a handle to multiply the force while you drive it into a limb or a log. The purpose is simple—to sever and split. Occasionally humans even kill each other with them. 

So, wedges are powerful little things. As such, they have to be wielded with care. But also, they lift something up, little by little. A wedge can divide, split, destroy. It can lift a steel beam or prevent a car from rolling downhill

Wedges are like human words. And words have the capacity to lift up and build, or to destroy and divide. Now we live in a time that is unlike any other.  Our information age has brought with it disinformation and rumors, anarchists and conspiracy theorists. 

Social media and the internet, our own news media across the spectrum from left to right, have been driving the wedges, harder and harder. Our differences are deep and out there to see. And we have pounded them into our common life, harder and harder, and anger drives them deeper than we normally would. 

It would be worthwhile to note what wedges cannot do. They cannot tie things together or bond that which is separated. Wedges don’t heal the sick or feed the hungry. They are not useful for wiping tears and I cannot think of a single joke about wedges that would lift my spirits. They are lowly, mostly limited things. I mean, how many logs do you have to split? And how much of your day should be spent propping doors open?

And all of this brings me to a few words from Jesus. Jesus knew about words. In the Bible, words are everything. God created by His word. Words can bless or curse. Because you can’t just fling them out there indiscriminately. They have power, words do. The Hebrews understood this. Jesus is, in fact, Himself the Word of God, by which the world was made, according to the first chapter of John. The late William Barclay said calling Jesus the Word meant Jesus is himself an expression of Godself to us. If you want to know what God is like, look here. Be like him. Listen to him. Study his words. The order and purpose of the universe is displayed in him. 

Wedges work by pushing apart. The Apostle Paul declared “God was in Christ reconciling the world closer to God.” 

You have been given an extraordinary gift, these four years (I know some of you have probably done a few victory laps, so it may be more). If you are getting an advanced degree, you have even more privileged—you have been gifted with many tools. And you have worked as an advanced student in bridge building, as I see it. You have the gifts that could make ways for humanity to get across the rivers and ravines and deep places and obstacles built by nature, fear, and ignorance.

All of this brings us to this truth—human words, at best, are a sack of wedges. For four years, words have been your central preoccupation. By them you’ve been instructed, learned, been challenged, grown and argued with others and yourselves. Now you take your toolbox and your sack of words and out you go. 

I hope you know this: the highest purposes of a life of learning are not about driving apart but bringing closer, lifting, and bringing all things into great purposes. Our words have all kinds of uses, but they are not necessarily what is the deepest intention of life. Higher education, to me, like the church, is about building bridges, not splitting logs, hairs, or someone else’s skull. 

I do not know what is up ahead. It is a time unlike any other. Maybe it’s time to face the wedges toward one another and lift something up together for the common good. Raise up good families and children. Lift spirits. Raise up the fallen. Build up others. Lift someone else’s burden. Build hospitals and universities and good causes. Our world needs some bridge-builders. Jesus said our words tell who we are. For good or bad. And on the day of judgment, how we deployed our bag of wedges and hatchets, and axes will be brought into the light. It’s a terrifying image. 

But another way to see it is this—we who are trained in the power of words and ideas have the great opportunity to use them for truth and life and reconciliation 

Here are three ways I’d aim my wedges if I were launching out now. First, I’d understand that I have a personal responsibility sometimes that no one else can do. One day, while wrecking out the wedges, a co-worker accidentally lowered one of the steel beams onto the end of his thumb. He started screaming for someone to help him. Unfortunately, he was down in a tight spot. The boss said, “Son, you’re the only one who can do it.”  Take what’s yours and shoulder the responsibility. Don’t be afraid of it. Some things are yours alone to do.

Second, build a bridge wherever you can. Our call is to see the larger blueprint that makes a way where there is no way, as Martin Luther King once put it. Not to accept excuses or to selfishly live for how much stuff you can accumulate. At the end that all comes to nothing. Bridges last. Build across suspicion, find solutions, contribute to institutions and the larger good. 

Finally, remember my friend Love’s advice: “Start at the top and work your way down, boys.” It wasn’t what he meant, but I think of the teaching of Jesus, and that brilliant exposition in the letter to the Philippians 2: “Have this mind in you that was in him: he laid aside all privilege and honor and position and took on the form of a suffering servant, even unto death.” This is the way—the servant leader, who finds contentment not in fame, or power, or dancing on TikTok, or making Forbes Magazine’s Richest list, but in what you plant deep into the soil of hope and goodness and your relationships.  This is the heart of all that matters in life.

Pay attention to what you do with your wedges. This will bring you life amid the busyness. Someone has said, “Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.” Take your diploma. You earned it, whether you graduated Summa Cum Laude , Magna cum laude, or Laude How Cum, and bless. It’s your time. We need you. It’s a great time to be alive. An important time. Your time.  

Thank you.

Michael Lewis’ Premonition: A Cautionary Tale

REVIEW of Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story W. W. Norton & Company (May 4, 2021).

After retirement I am deeply enjoying reading again at a level that I could not do when I was so busy. I just finished The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, The Undoing Project, and The Fifth Risk.

Rather than an exhaustive overview of the pandemic, Lewis tells us from the viewpoint of individuals—a state public health officer, an epidemiologist, IT entrepreneurs and medical researchers racing to understand what was coming and sounding the alarm amid the complexity and disconnect that is American healthcare and politics.

It is a great read, as all of Michael’s books are, but it is focused on the puzzle of how our society was felled by the virus by our incompetence and inability to move quickly and unified, of deep distrust bred over decades, the politicization of the CDC (for example, it’s director ceased being a civil servant in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan errand instead became a political appointee, thus dooming any independence and functioned less to act and more to discuss and recommend.)

A quote That stood out to me was this one: 

One day some historian will look back and say how remarkable it was that these strange folk who called themselves “Americans” ever governed themselves at all, given how they went about it. Inside the United States government were all these little boxes. The boxes had been created to address specific problems as they arose. “How to ensure our food is safe to eat,” for instance, or “how to avoid a run on the banks,” or “how to prevent another terrorist attack.” Each box was given to people with knowledge and talent and expertise useful to its assigned problem, and, over time, those people created a culture around the problem, distinct from the cultures in the other little boxes. Each box became its own small, frozen world, with little ability to adapt and little interest in whatever might be going on inside the other boxes. People who complained about “government waste” usually fixated on the ways taxpayer money got spent. But here was the real waste. One box might contain the solution to a problem in another box, or the person who might find that solution, and that second box would never know about it. (p. 77)

He tells multiple stories about individuals who saw it coming or had extraordinary insight into how we might act and yet ran into wall after wall when action was of the essence. There really isn’t much about the usual Democrat or Republican politicizing for what followed.  Rather, it was the perfect storm of human inertia, oblivion, and bureaucratic lethargy.  His insight is that some of the problems came about because the solution of some earlier generation became a problem for the next one. 

I have seen this in the institutional church in my life experience. The hardest thing in the world is to kill off something that three people started 70 years ago and only two people are keeping going now. Rather than celebrate what it did and give it a proper burial, we perpetuate something because of our inability to say that it no longer is the best thing we could do. 

Michael Lewis

Perhaps part of the problem is our constant rushing past “endings” in life—to say, “This was a very good thing once, and we honor it.” Our style as humans is generally either to worship the mythical past as perfect or destroy it as the worst that ever was. It may be why we keep trying to turn genuine history into something else—control of the so-called “narrative.” Instead, our best efforts might be letting history speak to us completely rather than only hearing what we want to hear.

Another issue is our inability to think and act on the long view. The first real effort to build a pandemic response plan began not with President Obama but President George W. Bush. The problem, though, is that that it only became an interest during crises and then other issues would push it aside once more. The bureaucratic and political problems of the CDC and other health entities stretch back all the way to the 1970s and Gerald Ford’s administration. In our rush to the future, Lewis warns, we continue to sustain our prior lessons.

Some critics have debated the heroes he chose and that his portrayal of lonely and persistent people against the wave of indifference or hesitance is not fair.  Still, it is easy to see how what he says is true.  I came away with sympathy for all those who were struggling to come to grips with this—even understanding the tendencies of those who hesitated. Nothing is the same in real time. For those of us in leadership of institutions, it is a familiar pressure. It is incredibly difficult under pressure to recognize and galvanize others to respond to a crisis in a timely way. In these kinds of moments, you can never wait for all the information before you can act. That’s what makes these kinds of decisions so much harder than more routine ones.

For me it also brought up the challenge of community building. America has been tearing itself into tribal warfare for a long time, but while pressure is necessary for pushing us into solutions, it ultimately must be turned into actual concrete actions. For that reason, the deepening of genuine citizenship, enlarging our tents, and continuing the good fight to get one another engaged and involved rather than analyzing and posting might be the great challenge of our day.

I love everything Michael Lewis writes, and this is no exception. I would suggest that his prior book, The Fifth Risk is a great companion read with this one. It focuses (and genuinely sets the stage for Premonition) on the disruption of transition from one administration to another, looking at 2016-17 in particular, but more directly on the issue of “competence” as one of the great threats to our current existence. This is a book that takes a complicated story and serves it up well. It’s worth your time to read it, because this will not likely be the last pandemic we face. Will we learn?

We are, I believe, in a crisis, and the needs of this moment are for competence, cooperation, and authentic leadership. This is why authoritarianism is appealing to so many. The great temptation in our anxiety is to turn to the safety of giving responsibility to someone else. Far harder is stepping up to our own part.

Michael Lewis stirs all these thoughts and more. You ought to read this book. It is not so much a comprehensive look at the pandemic as a larger reflection on the costs of inaction and bureaucratic insulation that cripple us when institutional wisdom and clear leadership are needed most.