Sunday, April 27, 2008

Look out! Here comes money!

Oh! Hard times, come again no more©

By George Epp

Yesterday’s Saskatoon StarPhoenix carried a bold, front-page article with the headline: Making money hand over fist. Record oil and potash prices mean that royalties paid to the provincial government will bring in some 265 - 475 million in unexpected revenues. That’s roughly 250-450 dollars for every man, woman and child in the Saskatchewan. That’s additional; not total.

In the words of song writer Ian Tyson, it looks like we may be “Alberta Bound.”

But looking at these indicators means different things to different people. The “additional” hundreds of dollars obviously won’t be handed back to the citizens in greeting cards that say, “We didn’t plan on this money in the budget; we don’t need it; it’s rightfully yours so we have enclosed a cheque. Be happy!” (Ralph Klein’s Alberta Conservatives actually did this at least once; the Bush administration is planning something similar to kick-start the economy in the USA.)

And it might not be a bad idea. We are certainly paying-in the additional amount: not in taxes, but in gasoline, diesel and food price increases. What to our finance minister looks like a lottery-winnings windfall, looks like trouble to all but the few for whom an increase of, say, 20% in the cost of living isn’t threatening.

The other, sad part of the news involves the crush on urban housing. Landlords eager to cash in on the record-breaking real estate prices in Saskatoon are evicting tenants, slapping a coat of paint on the apartments and selling them as condominium units at horribly inflated prices. People on social assistance, small fixed incomes of other kinds and the working poor and the labourer/waitress/McJob class in our culture can no longer find accommodation they can afford.

A story on page 3 of the same paper is headlined, Priced out of the market. It’s about a grandmother raising three grandchildren on social assistance cheques and child tax credits. The rent on the house they live in is going from $550 to $900. If the provincial government were to share their windfall with the grandmother, she could actually afford to stay in her home for at least another month.

She claims she’s cut her personal meal portions in half to trim what she can from her escalating grocery bills. The article goes on to tell us that food bank use has jumped by nearly 10% . . . in the last month!

Around the world, the rising cost of grains, fuel and fertilizer is creating a crisis: poorer countries can no longer afford our food commodities, period.

How can it be that prosperity can cause such hardship? Why are we so elated to see the housing boom, the rising population in the province, the overflowing government coffers?

Maybe we’ve been conditioned over time to measure our security by the pronouncements of those to whom prosperity does mean a great deal, i.e. the investors in the stock market, the holders of commodity shares, the political culture, etc. For the working stiffs, the seniors on fixed incomes and the poor, good times can be hard times.

Prepare yourselves; you’re going to be fleeced again of the little you may have, while the shearers who don’t need it will be laughing all the way to their brokers’ offices!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lions prefer bureaucrats

Babylon Post

April 29, 492 B.C.

Babylon: 120 Innocents Slain by lions as Darius avenges bureaucrats’ Treachery

Every Sunday—from September through May—a group of adults meet on the front pews of the Eigenheim Mennonite Church and converse about a scripture passage chosen by a committee somewhere in the USA and delivered to us along with commentary and background information in quarterly booklets. Three of us take a month in turn to prepare and lead the discussion and to render it pertinent to the group in this time, in this place.

It’s not always easy.

This quarter, the committee has “strayed” into the book of Daniel. I say “strayed” because that book itself begins with a mythology under girding the need to be faithful in exile (Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lions den are two) and then “strays” into the highly coded and apocalyptic visions of Daniel. End times theology often chooses to relate these visions of Daniel to modern times and to the second coming, a field in which most of us are decidedly uncomfortable, particularly since the interpretation of that book and the Revelation of John have resulted in false predictions leading many, many people into horrifying ventures in anticipation of an immanent apocalypse.

Today, we’ll be discussing the lions' den story. Daniel is a Jew who has been educated in the royal household of Babylon and through astute dealings, honesty and his ability to interpret kings’ dreams has risen above the functionaries in the kings’ civil service. The Persian bureaucrats are jealous, and they plot to do Daniel harm by urging the king to issue an order that, for 30 days, all citizens must pay homage to no god whatsoever, but only to Darius the king, on penalty of being fed to the lions. They then catch Daniel at his ritual prayer, rat on him and remind Darius that his decrees are binding. Daniel spends the night in the lion’s den but the lions aren’t interested—and anyway, God has tied their mouths shut.

The upshot. Darius is so impressed with Daniel’s rescue by his God that he sends a decree to all in the kingdom ordering everyone to convert to Daniel’s religion. And he has Daniel’s accusers thrown in with the lions—along with all their wives and children—and the lions feast on them; bones and all are devoured.

The lesson writers are focused on the faithfulness of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. And they rightly should be; that’s what the stories are apparently meant to convey.

I don’t know how a rabbi would deal with the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Neither do I know what Gerry has decided to do with it. I’ll find out in a few hours. But there’s something almost bizarre about a group of Christians in 2008 focusing for discussion on this type of material belonging to people of Jewish faith in antiquity. Granted, there’s an obvious continuity from the Old Testament to the New and neglecting that important aspect raises as many problems as it solves. But we in our discussions may again be horrified with much of this particular story. I don’t know, for instance, how many bureaucrats Darius had thrown to the lions as punishment. Let’s say 10. Because polygamy was the norm, let’s assume for argument's sake that together they had 30 wives. Let’s further assume that each wife had an average of 3 children; that would make 10 men, 30 adult women and 90 children who were thrown to the lions and eaten to avenge the husband-bureaucrats’ treachery against one of the king’s favourites.

Oh, I know that the book of Daniel doesn’t justify that enraged act by Darius. But neither does it question it. That these 30 women and 90 innocent children should be horribly and brutally killed by lions as a response to the victory of Daniel’s God over the treachery of some bureaucrats really sticks in my craw. Except that I recognize it to be a story-telling device as opposed to historical data.

When I was a child hearing this story in Sunday school so many years ago, that avenging aspect of the story was never mentioned. I wonder why? Not.

At the same time, there is a core to this story that shouldn’t be lost in the puzzlement over its peripherals, I guess. Daniel was a political functionary who remained faithful to his principles—and was rewarded by God for it. In our world as well, it’s apparent how difficult it is to work in the seats of power without compromising basic values.

Maybe that bit is enough “lesson” for a wintry spring morning.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Make the world a better place. . . .

Rosthern elevator

To make the world a better place. . . .

If Joan Chittister is right in concluding that the improvement of the world makes sense as a platform for discussing purpose and meaning, then I have to ask, “what do I do to further that cause?”

First, define for me what constitutes improvement. In Saskatchewan at this time, a lot of politicians and entrepreneurs are ecstatic over the economic picture. People are moving into the province, the oil and gas industry is thriving, grain prices are up, we’re going to build a huge ethanol plant, we have an agreement with the federal government to refit a coal-burning power plant so that CO2 emissions are safely sequestered underground, etc., etc. We’re on a roll; our world is getting better and better. We’re on the road to happiness, at least by the economic growth measurement.

Some time ago, CBC’s Ideas program on radio featured an interview with David Sanborn Scott, author of Smelling Land and founder of the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria. That institution is all about improving the world—environmentally. As I listened to the interview, I noted the following startling assertions by Scott (in my words).

  1. The threat of global warming and the resulting upheavals cannot be reversed; it’s too late.
  2. If we are to mitigate its effects, we will have to look at the whole energy picture as an integrated system and stop treating it as a bunch of disconnected bits (ethanol, earth hours, hybrid cars, windmills).
  3. We must stop burning fossil fuels to obtain energy; this is not negotiable if we are to save all we can for the next generations.
  4. All energy of the future—and the sooner the better—will have to come from non-CO2 emitting sources, primarily nuclear energy augmented by wind, solar and tidal technologies.
  5. In order to deliver the energy to trucks, trains, cars, ships, factories and homes, hydrogen will be the medium. (Energy will be harnessed to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen will be burned to produce water again while giving back the energy it has stored, that is 2H2O + energy→2H2 + O2→2H2O + energy). Did I get that right, students of chemistry?
  6. Burning of ethanol, sequestering of CO2 and so on represent a piecemeal approach which does not address the real issues at all. Reduction is not the goal; elimination is.

If I as a Christian want to contribute to God’s creative process—assuming that that involves an earth on which people can live well—then I will have to do more than recycle my newspaper. I will have to engage in the battle against the forces determined to maintain the status quo because they want to continue reaping the economic harvest that destroying the environment is providing for them.

By what measure do you and I define the “better world?” There are certainly other measures than economic and population growth. Most of us Christians are signaling by our acquiescence to the standards of our world that we don’t give a damn. While scientists are struggling to clue us in to the peril our consumption represents, we nod in agreement, and go out and buy another polluting SUV, or snowmobile, or quad-runner, or we fly in airplanes, drive nearly empty cars, shun the bicycle and public transit.

Our words are Christian, but our actions are decidedly not. If we are to authentically sway the world to disengage from its fossil fuel gluttony, we will need to shed a lot of our own baggage at the same time—or first.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The meaning of life - finally

(At Cameron Trading Post, Arizona)

The meaning of life – a reflection©

by George Epp

“The purpose of life, the philanthropist knows, is to make the world better. The only question is, Why?” (Joan Chittister, Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, p. 130)

There are, of course, many stories and anecdotes that contain the question of “the meaning (or purpose) of life.” One such is a spoof on Kahlil Gibran and goes something like this:

A disciple climbed the high mountain to the place where the great guru sat in meditation. “What is the meaning of fate?” the acolyte asked. The teacher was silent for a moment, in deep thought. “It is what causes great ships to embark on stormy seas to carry goods to those who need them. It is what causes trucks and trains to travel many, many miles in the dead of night with a worthy purpose in mind.” “And that is the meaning of fate?” said the puzzled supplicant. “Fate?” exclaimed the master. “I thought you said ‘freight.’”

One of Chittisters chapters is titled, “What is the purpose of life?” In a few pages, she—in a manner that some would call ‘audacious’—proceeds to answer the question. It got me thinking, though, about the role this question plays in the way I see the world, and live in it. Like you, I don’t go around asking the question; it smacks of junior high debate, doesn’t it.

And yet, I realize that virtually all my choices are, in effect, an answer to that question. Why did I become a teacher? Because I believed that teachers have a role to play in “making the world a better place” through the education of the next generation. I didn’t say that, but I must have believed it or I would never have let myself in for the low salary (they’re better now), the hours and hours of preparation and grading, the struggles with motivation, discipline, etc., etc.

In retirement, I have chosen to do a number of things, including these:

  • I cook meals for my wife and me on days when she works in the local library. I might say that I’m making the world a better place by nourishing her when she’s tired, and helping her to do the important work of providing educational resources to the community without distraction.
  • I write this blog, which makes the world a better place because a few people will read this paragraph and think about how their choices represent their answer to the question of purpose and meaning.
  • I chair the Eigenheim Mennonite Church council, because I believe that that institution has a role to play in making the world a better place.
  • I edit a provincial newsletter for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan because I believe that what the Mennonite Churches of Saskatchewan do together makes the province a better place, and to do those things more and better, people need to be informed and motivated.
  • I participate in the local Writers Group because I believe that a world in which people formulate and write their thoughts and share their knowledge and wisdom is a better place than a world without “literature.”

(Some days, I want to pitch all of it and move to a place where “nobody knows my name.” Other days, the activities reward and energize me.)

A behaviourist would smile and say that I do these things precisely because they bring rewards to me personally, and that what I ‘choose’ to do is motivated not by philanthropy, but by selfishness. I know what people around me will reward me for, in other words, so that’s what I ‘choose’ to do.

That may be closer to the truth than my list of activities above. Maybe I just-can’t-say-no to a lot of stuff because I don’t want to risk a loss of positive regard.

I occasionally write adult Bible study material. For that I get paid. It works out—probably—to about five dollars an hour or less. Would I do it without the pay? That would be another test of my version of the meaning and the purpose of my life.

Here’s Chittister again: “God did not finish creation. We are put here to do our part in completing the project. What else can possibly be worth a life?” (p.132)

I don’t think I’d describe it that way. I think my fellow church members—on average—would. What about you?

If you know the purpose and meaning of life, write to me at and I’ll pass your wisdom on to all my readers. (Or should I have said ‘both?’)