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Business Needs to Fire PowerPoint

Posted by on Mar 15th, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

Social media is where fingers usually point when critics lament the decline of reading and attention span.  And Facebook and Twitter definitely deserve their bad reputations as attention-span killers.  But in the business world, I think there is another culprit.  I think business needs to fire PowerPoint. 

As a middle manager, a lot of my job had to do with communicating, both up and down.  The people above me absolutely would not tolerate lengthy texts.  Whatever I had to say must be said in 2-3 PowerPoint slides and conveyed in a 30-minute meeting.  And, on this basis, executives made decisions about staffing, spending, and strategies. 

Working in that environment 40+ hours per week, for many years, conditioned me to think that the bullet-point style of communication, because it is efficient, is the best.  I’m starting to question that.  We are awash in information, but lacking in knowledge and wisdom.

Look, I get it: executives are really, really busy.  I agree that they should expect to receive proposals and reports in the format that they dictate.  Their precious time and mental resources shouldn’t be wasted on listening to an employee ramble or having to pick through his idiosyncratic presentation for the key information that they need.  And, a summary in graphic and/or bullet-point format can help to focus attention on the key points. 

Problems with PowerPoint

But there are problems with using PowerPoint exclusively in delivering reports or pitching ideas.

First, the brain doesn’t listen and read at the same time.  Your audience will either be reading the slides or listening to you speak, not both. 

Second, all too often, the winning idea is the one that had the most dazzling graphics and the coolest visuals.  Appearance wins out over content. 

Most important, executives make decisions that impact how millions of dollars are spent, what a company’s strategy will be in critical areas like information security, and – not incidentally – people’s employment and lives.  It’s not reasonable to assume that correct decisions on critical issues can be made on the basis of a 30-minute meeting and 3 slides.  When important decisions must be made, PowerPoint should be, at most, a starting point.  There is no substitute for additional background information and serious deliberation. 

In Aristotle’s Way, Edith Hall describes Aristotle’s 8 steps for making decisions.  The very first one is:  Don’t decide in haste.  Others include verifying the information you have, considering precedents, considering possible outcomes and their likelihoods, and taking into account the perspectives of all impacted parties.  Could you do that in 30 minutes, after looking at 3 pages of graphics?  Do you think anyone can? 

Finally, we do ourselves no favors by habituating ourselves to receiving information in 3-slide summaries.  The more you make decisions based on incomplete, summarized information, the more your capability to study and deliberate will decline.  Executives might be smarter, more self-disciplined and harder-working than the rest of us, but they are still mortal.  Faculties that they don’t use will deteriorate. 

What Amazon Does

Jeff Bezos has famously banned PowerPoint from Amazon’s meetings.  As Bezos put it in a 2012 interview, when you have to write your ideas in complete sentences and paragraphs, it forces you to think.  Yet, a 2011 study found that half of college students surveyed have never had to write more than 20 pages in a typical semester.  If you can’t write clearly, you probably can’t think clearly.  I would add that, if you can’t read anything more complicated that 3 pages of bullet points and graphics, you probably can’t think clearly. 

Alternatives to “Death by PowerPoint”

What is the solution then?  How can we provide business decisions makers with the deep background information that they need to make important decisions, without overwhelming them? 

One idea comes from the process that Amazon uses in place of PowerPoint.  Amazon workers with ideas to discuss must write a 4-6-page memo describing their idea in narrative form, and then defend it in follow-up discussions.  What if lower-level managers had to develop such a narrative and defend their ideas in front of a murder board of peers from related disciplines, before it ever got to an executive?  The members of the murder board would be required to read the narrative and have questions and objections prepared.  This allows managers at lower levels to practice the evaluation skills they will need if they move up the management ladder, and allows bad ideas to be trashed or improved before they reach busy executives. 

Do you have other ideas?  Great!  Just don’t try taking them to upper management with 3 PowerPoint slides.  PowerPoint needs to be fired – or at least demoted to a supporting role. 

Coming up next: This will be my last post on business topics. Next week, I will start posting about my novel in progress.

Avoid These Management Mistakes

Posted by on Mar 8th, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

In these first weeks of retirement, I’m surprised at how little I think about the job that I left behind.  But, in quiet moments, I am definitely still mentally processing my management career, and I thought of a few more lessons that I want to share.

Don’t Neglect Cross Training!

One of the most common management mistakes I’ve seen is when managers become too dependent on one person on their team.  There are two versions of this.  One is simply neglecting to cross-train. I made that mistake early on.  We had a lot of invoices to process every month, and only one person on my team knew how to do it. 

Did I know that I should get someone else trained on that?  Of course I did.  Did I do it?  Nope. Did I even make sure that I got a good understanding of exactly what she did?  Nope again.  We were constantly buying other banks in those days, we were buried in the work associated with that, and I kept telling myself we’d get some cross-training whenever things slowed down.  Which, of course, they never did.  And then my invoice person took another job in the bank.  We muddled through, with the help of some friends in Accounts Payable.  But you can bet that I got TWO people trained on how to enter those invoices once the crisis was past.

Don’t let a psycho employee steal your power

The other way that management gets too dependent on one person is when they have a power-crazy employee who thinks her job depends on being the only one who knows how to do things right.  I had a co-worker like that many years ago, when I was still a software developer.  She did more work than anyone else on the team – and complained about it.  Often, She would even go to the extent of digging into other people’s code and “fixing” it, whether it was broken or not – and then she complained about that.  She constantly criticized her co-workers and blamed other people for her own mistakes.  Worst, she would keep important information to herself, so that nobody except her knew how to do certain key tasks. 

Then she used her power to bully our boss.  When she didn’t get her way about something, she would threaten to quit, and he would placate her because we would have had trouble functioning without her.  She made life miserable for our boss and everyone else on the team, and I learned a lesson from that.  Here’s what our boss needed to say the very first time she threatened to quit: “Gee, we’ll miss you.”  Take the pain up front, rather than putting yourself in a situation where you are not in control.

Do the up-front work to simplify processes

Another example of taking the pain up front is simplifying processes.  The ultimate solution to my invoice problem was to have fewer invoices.  But that wasn’t easy to accomplish.  We were doing business with 18 different suppliers for the same service, and had about 20 separate accounts with the main supplier.  That’s 37 invoices to keep track of, validate and tediously process every month.  No wonder my invoice person quit!  Once the frenzy of bank acquisitions was behind us, we embarked on a project to consolidate suppliers and accounts.  It took 4-1/2 years of tedious work, to close contracts and migrate boxes of records.  But, when we were done, we were down to 2 invoices per month.  The position that used to be nearly full-time invoice processing is now a growth position, where the incumbent gets an opportunity to learn our business and develop new skills by taking on stretch projects.  Oh, and we ended up saving $6 million.   

But are you really simplifying?

But make sure you’re really simplifying.  When my function reported to Supply Chain, I had a new peer manager who was determined to redesign the Purchasing and Accounts Payable functions.  His proposed new process was so complicated that the flow chart covered two walls of his office.  He somehow convinced our boss to spend several thousand dollars on a plotter-printer just to print all the flow charts.  If you have any experience at all with process improvement, you’ve probably already guessed that this master plan went exactly nowhere.  That manager was ultimately fired, and the plotter-printer lurked in a corner for many years, gathering dust.  I’m not a big fan of explaining everything in a few PowerPoint bullets (see my next post), but if you need a flow chart the size of a Lincoln Navigator to explain your plan, you need a better plan. 

Next week: Why the business world needs to fire PowerPoint

Handling Conflict at Work

Posted by on Mar 1st, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

conflict at work

One of the hardest aspects of work for me was handling conflict.  I’m the daughter of an alcoholic father, so my childhood taught me that disagreements would tend not to end well for me.  And women of my generation were socialized to be agreeable and to keep the peace.

It’s hard to avoid conflict in almost any job, but it becomes impossible to avoid when you are managing people.   So, when I became a manager, I had quite a hill to climb.  Although I shrank from conflict emotionally, I understood intellectually that I could not avoid it and had to get tougher.

Using my strengths

It’s an HR and self-help shibboleth to focus on your strengths instead of on your weaknesses, and in my case that shibboleth proved true.  It was absolutely key for me that I used my existing strengths to build myself up in this weak area.

Strength 1: Self-control

The top strength that I used:  sheer determination and self-control.  I knew that I had to get better at conflict, and so I just made myself speak up. 

My early attempts were only partially successful.  It wasn’t hard for me to listen to views that opposed mine. And I knew that I had to respond.  What was hard was responding appropriately.  I made the rookie mistakes of trying to placate everyone I listened to, and talking too much.  I used my voice, but I used it too much and in the wrong way, and I spent too much time defending my decisions, which opened me up for more arguments.  And then I allowed those arguments to go absolutely anywhere.

I had one employee in particular who, once he started complaining, could go on for an hour, changing subjects every 5-10 minutes.  That was the first lesson I learned:  stick to the subject.  I was the boss in that situation, and  I had the power to control the conversation and keep it on topic.  Over time, I learned to do that.

Strength 2: Collaboration

I learned to hear people out, make a decision, and then announce in in few words, with no defensiveness.  Using my existing strengths – careful listening, a desire to be collaborative, and an ability to synthesize opposing points of view – gave me the confidence to be firm and decisive.  At first, I was pretending.  I didn’t feel decisive at all.  After a while, my confidence in my decisions grew and I didn’t have to pretend any more. 

Strength 3: Analysis

At first, I had some failures that I had to learn from.  Here, I used my analytical strength. 

In one conversation with a vendor where I had to deliver a demand that was unwelcome, I was met by sneering rudeness by the vendor rep.  This was the very sort of reaction I most feared, and I was caught off guard and speechless. 

I drank a lot of wine that evening, and cried a little, but I also analyzed the conversation and I was ready for him when we met again the next day.  When he again started to belittle our request, I said, “Mark, you don’t have to agree with me, but this is what we are required by our regulators to do, and therefore you have to support it if you want to keep doing business with us.”  We got what we needed, and he was never rude to me again.  Someone else would have said that to him the first time.  I had to think through conversations like that before it became second nature to me to respond firmly. 

Strength 4: Tact

It was hard at first, too, for me to speak up and disagree with my management and my peers.  What helped me here was my strong sense of responsibility.  I knew that it was my job to participate in decisions and advocate for the program that I was managing. I had to force myself to say things that I knew would be unpopular, but that I also knew were right.  Once again, I used strengths that I already possessed – tact and diplomacy – to backstop the difficult necessity of delivering bad news, demands, or contrary opinions.  And I learned that I could deliver those kinds of messages, and usually didn’t get the negative reactions that I feared.

The value of conflict

I always assumed that I was right to avoid conflict as much as I could.  But, learning to handle conflict appropriately taught me that it can be a positive thing.

Conflict is a form of communication, and it often helps us to learn more about ourselves and each other.  As I got better at confronting conflict at work, I also got better at it at home.  I’d always had that passive-aggressive tendency to hold things in until they came out in the form of screaming, tears, or both.  I learned instead to calmly state what was bothering me and what I wanted, and my husband and I got better at negotiating with each other. 

And that employee who did the hour-long rants?  He was still the person I had the most conflict with.  We disagreed about many things.  But, once I learned to set some boundaries with him, our conflict became very productive.  He often had good ideas, and frequently pointed out to me things that I hadn’t noticed on my own.  Our conflicts also helped us to get to know each other personally, and our relationship became quite warm. 

I still like getting along with people much better than I like disagreeing with them.  But constructive conflict is now a tool in my kit, and it not only made me a better manager, it also made me a better human being and enriched my relationships. 

Being a Good Manager

Posted by on Feb 23rd, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

My last day of work was February 1.  After 24 years as a software developer, project manager and records manager, all I’m managing now is my own time and effort.  I’ve started my next book, and you will hear much more about that in future blog posts.  But, for the next few weeks, I’d like to share some of the wisdom that I earned over the course of my career. 

I enjoyed my work.  It was intellectually challenging and I loved leading a team.  But being a manager in a top-10 bank is also very stressful.  The pace is fast, regulatory pressure is intense, change is constant, and both employees and customers have high expectations.  And the bureaucratic red tape gets redder, longer and snarlier with every year that passes. 

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges for a manager in a large, bureaucratic organization is retaining good employees and keeping them motivated.  Employee retention is a particular problem when the job market is as good as it has been for the past few years.  The best people, the people you don’t want to lose, can go somewhere else and probably get a raise.  Large employers like the one I worked for even encourage employees to move internally and get experience in new areas.  That’s great for the employee, but not so great for the manager who wants to hang on to good, experienced workers. 

You can’t count on being able to give people big raises and bonuses.  Most big corporations are pretty stingy at compensation-review time. 

You can’t count on loyalty to the company.  The work force today is made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, who grew up watching their Boomer parents dedicate years of late nights to big corporations, which then shed them like old coats in the next economic downturn.  Our children learned a lesson from that. 

It took me a while to figure out how to counter those headwinds, but I finally came up with two principles:

Keep them busy

Keep them busy enough.  For a while, my team was overstaffed and I had trouble keeping some of them busy.  Then two people left and I was only allowed to replace one of them – and it took a while to find the right person.  The rest of my team pulled together and got the work done.  One fairly junior person, in particular, stepped up and took on work that I thought was beyond his capabilities.  Lesson learned.  People like to be challenged; they like to be busy.  Don’t be afraid to give people a little more than you think they can handle. 

And, don’t just keep them busy; keep them busy with the right things. Work hard to put people in their sweet spot, doing work that they enjoy, are good at, and which challenges them a bit.  Ignore official job descriptions if you have to, and put people where they can shine.  Are most people working for the paycheck?  Sure.  But, day to day, what the best employees want is the opportunity to do good work.

Build loyalty at the team level

Talk to any war veteran and they will tell you that, in the heat of battle, they aren’t fighting for something abstract like “Freedom.”  They are fighting for the guys on the firebase with them.  To build loyalty to yourself as a leader, you must first demonstrate loyalty.  Be quick to give credit to your team when things go right, and to take accountability yourself when things go wrong.  Advocate for them as best you can at compensation-review time.  Talk to them several times a year about their professional development and encourage them to take training opportunities.  Ask for their feedback and take it seriously.  Remember their spouses’ and children’s names and ask about them. 

And give them opportunities to develop loyalty to each other.  Celebrate birthdays and accomplishments.  Pair an experienced worker with a newer worker on a project.  Conduct regular team meetings and do occasional team-building activities (yes, they feel hokey, but they do work).  Go out and do something fun together as a team occasionally.  And, by the way, you can’t fake this stuff.  If you aren’t the kind of person who really cares about the people you are leading, you shouldn’t be a leader.

When I walked out the door for the last time on Friday, February 1, I was leaving behind a cohesive team who were all doing the work they liked and were good at, and I hadn’t had to replace anyone in over a year (believe me, that is a long time by behemoth-corporation standards).  I had a lump in my throat on the elevator down, a little sorry to leave my fine team behind. But I was confident that they would function superbly without me. 

Coming next time:  How to get comfortable with conflict at work. 

Genetic Testing

Posted by on Jan 21st, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

My husband is adopted and has never had an interest in finding any member of his birth family.  But, when genetic testing became widely available, he did develop an interest in knowing his genetic heritage.  So, we recently completed one of those mail-in DNA kits.

I wasn’t surprised by what I was: mostly German & French.  I was definitely surprised by what I wasn’t.  My maternal grandmother always said her family was Irish.  Nope.  I have not a single strand of Irish DNA.  We are ENGLISH, interlopers who probably spent a couple of generations in Ireland – and obviously became so culturally assimilated that they thought they were Irish – before moving on to the U.S. 

I also assumed that we must be part Jewish somewhere way back. We have an unusual genetic mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews, and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Marx.  Also nope.  No trace of Middle Eastern DNA. 

With my DNA results in front of me in black-and-white, I feel a bond with my ancestors from the German forests, French farmsteads and English villages.  One thing every living person knows:  we are the descendants of people who knew how to survive.  People who worked and fought, and hugged their children or slapped them. Women along the French and English coasts who survived rape by Vikings.   Who knew how to use every single atom of a wooly mammoth carcass, make tools from iron, coax barley and peas and apple trees from the soil.  People with the self-discipline to keep a fire going on the windiest winter night and set aside some of their food for damp, starving February.   They protected their communities from armies, floods, wolves.  They killed other humans when they had to, and eventually had the courage to set forth for an unknown continent.  From them, I got my sturdy thighs, my delicate ankles, my large nose, my Cupid’s-bow upper lip. 

The mother struggling to keep her baby warm in a hut in a German forest some long-ago January had no idea that she was making my life, too, a life where I sleep on a pillow-top mattress in a house warmed by a forced-air furance.  She couldn’t imagine me, and couldn’t have fathomed central heating.  She was just keeping her baby alive.  But I’m alive today because of her.  We are all alive because of someone like her.

This business is being human is less brutal than it used to be, but it is still hard, and nobody gets out of it alive.  And yet we survive.  And sometimes we thrive.  I think of my ancestors drinking their beer and singing hymns in their Lutheran churches, failing in love, cuddling their babies, dancing in the May sun when new leaves unfurled in the Rhineland.  Their lives were hard, but they were surely good, too.  I think of a quote from Marilynn Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila.  She was describing a group of migrants that Lila lived among as a young woman, but it could apply to humanity as a whole. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself within us.”

Enough

Posted by on Jan 12th, 2019 in Blog | 1 comment

We keep hearing that middle class people are struggling.  Statistics show that wages have risen almost not at all for middle-income people in the past 40 years.  Our children may be the first generation to have a standard of living lower than their parents’.

But, I look around and see what looks to me like over-abundance.  Some of my friends 3000-square-foot houses with granite countertops and built-in swimming pools.  Half the people you see walking down the street are clutching $7 coffee drinks and $1000 phones. 

I hear about co-workers’ vacations to Punta Cana and Cancun. My husband and I take for granted that we will travel to Europe at least every other year.  SUVs clog the roads, $15-a-pound cheese clogs our arteries, and advertisements for jewelry and other luxury goods clog our virtual and physical mailboxes. 

A work friend complained to me how hard it was to save money for her children’s college educations – a month after she had traded up from a $300,000 house to a $450,000 house. 

When will we have enough?  Will we ever have enough?    

Could we maybe reconsider what it means to have a rising standard of living?

What do you really want for your children?  Is it just for them to have a bigger house and bigger cars than you have?  If you grew up in a little 5-room ranch and now have a 9-room McMansion, is it even necessary for your children to have 12 rooms?

I think most of us want other things for our children, even more than we want them to have nice material things.  We want them to have happy marriages and to be good parents.  We want them to have work that they enjoy.  We want them to have some financial security.  We want them to have time to spend with loved ones, or to grow a garden, or to just sit in the yard and read a book.  We want them to be healthy, to have good friends and to live in thriving communities.  We want them to contribute to those communities.  We want them to have lives of quality, not just quantity.

The desire for more stuff drives people to work long hours, compromise their ethics and be in constant, frantic motion. 

The energy that it takes to create and transport our luxury goods is making the planet uninhabitable for our grandchildren.  Some of us don’t believe that because it is inconvenient to believe it.  To believe it would require a choice:  between our luxuries today and our grandchildren’s lives 75 years from now.  I think some of us are afraid that we aren’t strong enough to make the right choice.

Could it be possible to measure our well-being by something other than whether we have more and bigger material things than our parents had? 

I know it’s possible to be perfectly content with a modest lifestyle, because my husband and I have always lived beneath our means.  We’ve stayed in the little 3-bedroom house we bought when we were first married.  For the most part, we still have the same furniture we bought in the 1980s, too.   Other than about 10 years with a minivan when our kids were in school, we have always bought small sedans and driven them until they had to be towed away.  Not only are we pretty happy with our lifestyle, we have always had a savings account and are now in a position to retire very comfortably. 

Think about changing your definition of “standard of living.”  You might find yourself happier.  And you will be doing your part to protect the planet for your grandchildren.

I leave you with this description of the good life from William Henry Channing:  ” To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable; and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly…to listen to stars and buds, to babes and sages, with open heart; await occasions, hurry never…this is my symphony.”

 

Radical Love in the Hague

Posted by on Dec 22nd, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

After our trip to Amsterdam in September, I’m a great admirer of the Dutch.  I love how neat and pretty they keep their country.  I like that they deeply respect work. The stained glass windows in their Rijksmuseum don’t just honor saints and kings; they honor professions:  everything from philosopher to bricklayer.  They have been literally building up their country for centuries by draining marshlands into tidy canals.  And they are determined to survive climate change.  They have intensified their efforts to keep the sea at bay. Electric cars and charging stations line the streets of their cities, and our train ride into Germany took us past miles and miles of windmills and solar farms.  But they are fun-loving, too; all you have to do is walk down the street and take a whiff!  And they are kind and polite:  Holland and Germany are the only non-US countries we’ve travelled in where people offered us seats on public transportation because of our age. 

I recently read of another reason to admire the Dutch:  Pastors from all over the country are taking turns conducting services in a Protestant church in the Hague as a way of protecting a refugee family who have taken shelter there.  The Tamrazyan family – parents and three children –  fled Armenia for political reasons in 2010.  After a 6-year legal process, the family was denied refugee status by the Dutch government.  They sought refuge first in another church and more recently at Bethel Church in the Hague. 

Under an obscure Dutch law, an arrest cannot be made in a church as long as a service is being conducted.  So 550 pastors from 20 denominations have been conducting services in a relay for the past 7 weeks. 

I don’t know the particulars of the Tamrazyans’ case.  And I understand that Holland, like the U.S., is a country that lives by rule of law.  I also understand that no country can open their doors wide and expect to survive.  There have to be limits and there have to be rules.  And the rules have to be enforced.  Intellectually, I understand and agree with all of that.

But, here’s what my heart says.  My heart is deeply touched by a group of Christian pastors who are undergoing considerable inconvenience to protect a family whose lives may be in danger if they are forced to return to their home land.  I am moved to tears by this brave attempt to live out Christ’s injunction to welcome the stranger and the oppressed.  I remember that this season is about celebrating a time when Our Lord was a baby and his parents homeless refugees. 

My fellow Christians, this is how we win.  This is how we bring the world closer to heaven.  Not by preaching and judging and gathering in our holy huddles.  Not by waiting inertly for the Second Coming.  We win by being Christ and by seeing His face in our fellow men and women.  May we be filled with all the blessings of this Christmas season and may 2019 be a year when we live in radical, Christ-like love. 

Read more about the pastors’ actions HERE.  Photo credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times.

Sheep and Goats

Posted by on Nov 18th, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

Jesus said that at the end of the world “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (Matthew 25, verse 32, NRSV)

But in Luke 3:6, John the Baptist says “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And Saint Augustine said, “The line between good and evil is drawn straight through the human heart.”  We all intuitively know that this is so.  Even the most self-righteous among us know deep in our hearts that we fall far short of sinlessness.  And science provides support for this.  Richard Dawkins famously wrote about the “the selfish gene,” the drive to survive at all costs that is inherent in human beings.  But, as far back as Darwin, evolutionary scientists theorized that humans could not have survived without cooperation, and therefore evolution also selects for compassion and altruism.  And some recent evolutionary science supports the theory of inherent altruism (see this excellent article from Psychology Today). God built goodness into our very genetic code. 

I’m a good Lutheran and completely understand that I will never win salvation via good works.  We Lutherans are all about justification by faith.  But…if none of my good works could ever earn me a place in heaven, how could any level of faith get me to heaven?  Relying on your own faith feels to me every bit as mistakenly pious as relying on your own good works. 

What can save us then?  Grace alone.  

If none of us is good enough or faithful enough to be saved or our own merit, the logical conclusion is that we will all ultimately be saved. Or damned, take your pick, but I’m counting on saved. Otherwise what was Christ’s sacrifice for?  Augustine would definitely disagree with me. And the universalist position does raise very serious questions about justice.   I’m not a theologian, just a layperson who likes thinking about these things. I admit that I have no idea how universal salvation would work.

But, in this lovely defense of universalism from the journal First Things, Russell Saltzman puts it beautifully.  “If it was God’s purpose to reconcile the world through Christ, I’ve never felt comfortable saying God can’t have what he wants.”

None of us knows the “day or the hour.” But I hope that what happens at the end of the world is that Christ erases that line through our hearts by separating each and every one of us from our sins.  That feels like a Christ-like thing to do.  Separating people into categories?  Suspiciously human.  

Be the Change #51: Patriotism part two

Posted by on Jul 4th, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Be the Change #51: Patriotism part two

I ended my last blog post with the two questions:

Why do I still love my country?

And

What IS a country anyway?

A country is a set of laws that apply within a geographical boundary.  It is a culture, usually containing many sub-cultures.  It is a group of people who accept that by law, culture and geography, they are a nation. 

So, when we love America, we love those things. We love the land within our nation’s boundaries, from the Alaskan wilderness, to the frantic energy of the big cities, to the ocean of grain ripening under the midwestern sun.  We might not love every single law, but we love the Constitution and our heritage of democracy and freedom.  We love the bold, independent can-do spirit that is at the heart of our nation’s culture, and we love the sub-cultures that immigrants from all over the world have brought with them, from tacos to Christmas trees to square dancing.

But, above all, we love each other.  Above all, a nation is its people. 

Think of the young men and women who selflessly serve in our military, and our police forces and fire departments.  They are defending us, all the 250 million Americans in our swell hilltop mansions, our little brick cottages in trolley suburbs, our farmhouses and, yes, even our tents under bridges. 

Think of your community:  your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, the members of your church.  You care of them, feel concerned for their welfare, want them to be treated fairly.  You would defend them if they needed defending. 

Your country is your larger community.  A community defends itself.  People in a community treat each other with respect and kindness.  They take care of each other. 

When you love America, it’s because you love the people who live here with you.  People in a community can disagree, but they don’t give up on each other

If you can’t love your fellow Americans just because they disagree with you politically, that’s not patriotic.  When you throw around terms like “racist” or “libtard” because someone voted for a candidate you don’t like, or their views are different from yours, that’s not patriotic. 

Why DO I still love my country?  I have been disheartened by many things that have happened in recent years. Endless wars all over the world.  Mass incarceration. Children separated from their parents at our border.  Most of all, I am saddened by the atmosphere of partisanship and acrimony.   Honestly, right now, I still love America as an act of will and as an act of loyalty to the ideals that I was taught as a child.  I won’t give up on my country any more than I would give up on one of my children or one of my friends who was in trouble.  I love my country as an act of hope that we will find our way again, as we have in the past.  But, first, I think we need to find our way back to each other.

Here’s a challenge for you:  If you really consider yourself to be patriotic, refrain from political insults for the whole month of July.  Criticize our government all you want; that’s so patriotic that your right to do it is enshrined in the very first amendment to our Constitution.  But, don’t throw blame and insults at your fellow Americans on the other side of the political divide.  Just for the month of July, as a birthday present to our nation, love your fellow citizens. Shut off whatever voice in your head (or from TV or the internet) is telling you that everyone who disagrees with you is evil, stupid and your enemy. 

 

Be the Change #50: Patriotism part one

Posted by on Jun 2nd, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Most children are afraid of ghosts, or big dogs, or the monster under the bed.  Not I.  When I was a little girl, I was afraid of Communists. 

Growing up in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, I don’t think I knew about nuclear weapons.  I wasn’t exactly sure what Communists were, and I wasn’t clear on what they might do to me.  But, I must have known something about the Holocaust, because I vaguely remember thinking they would take me out of my home, take my clothes and make me march to a horrible camp where I would be beaten, starved and killed.

Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night with these fears.  My dad would be sitting on his scratchy red chair drinking a last beer before bed, just home from a church softball game or an Elks meeting.  He took me onto his bony lap, listened to my fears, and reassured me that he and my mother would always take care of me.  And reminded me that my country would protect me.  America was the richest, strongest country in the world, always on the side of what was right.

School reinforced that message. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance daily, hands over hearts.  In Social Studies class, we learned about our wise Founding Fathers and the Constitution they wrote.  We were taught that America was the land of opportunity, where people from other places could come to find freedom and better lives.  In Music Class, we sang “God Bless America” and “This is My Country” and “America the Beautiful” in our piping voices, accompanied by grim-faced Mrs. Riffle banging on the piano. 

But a woman in late middle-age knows things that a little girl is rightly protected from. I now know that we stole this land from the natives who were living here before Columbus “discovered” the New World.  I know that our brawny economy was built partly on the whip-driven backs of slave laborers, and that the descendants of those slaves still can’t get a fair shake in our justice system.  I know that we have meddled in other countries’ elections to install leaders who were sympathetic to us and often brutal to their own people.  I know that our foreign policy has sometimes been driven less by idealism than by avarice. 

And yet I still love America.  We’ve been hanging our flag less lately, but we used to hang it every sunny day from April through November.  I vote in every election.  I tear up at the words to “America the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  I’m proud of the innovation and prosperity that the U.S. brought to the world, of the sacrifices that my parents’ generation made to rid the world of Nazis and hold out against Communism in the Cold War.  I’m proud that our Constitution is a model for the world, and that people want to come here from every corner of the globe – even now, when the Trump presidency has me pondering what it even means to be patriotic.

And so I ask myself: Why, with all that I know now, do I still love my country?

I’ve been struggling with that since November 8, 2016, and the answer starts with another question:  What IS a country anyway?

To be continued in my next post…

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