Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hey Hey, Kuni Keksit!

My husband Whitney and I spent twelve days this August in Finland and Sweden, with a short day trip to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, across the Baltic Sea.

It was a trip that fell into place with only weeks of planning. He was given a three month sabbatical that started in early June, and sometime in July agreed we’d take a “roots quest” to see the places where his family and family name began. Just days before our trip, we emailed several Finnish relatives, and were honored to find cousins rearranging schedules to meet us for dinner, show us family graves, and take us to places important to his extended family.

As always, being in another country set me thinking about words, about how unfortunate it is that as Americans we rarely find ourselves in that enlightening space where language and meaning step apart and invite us to rethink our understanding.

Those moments are frequent in places where translation is necessary daily. Finland is a country of two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. By law, in bilingual municipalities (where 8% of the population or at least 3,000 people speak the minority language) legal documents are translated and authorities need to be fluent in both languages. In places with both Finnish and Swedish names, both appear on signs (or are announced on trains, subways, ferries). The Sami people, (in English called Laplanders), are also entitled to services in their own language. And all children are taught English, beginning in grade 3, to ensure entry into global commerce and culture.

Nuances of speech, difficulties of interpretation, awareness of the limitations of  language are part of the air the Nordic nations breath.

In Finnish and Swedish, the word for  “hello” is “hey!”  As an English-speaker, it feels a little rude to say “hey” to someone I’ve never met, but  “hey “ is the one Finnish word I can now say with real confidence. That and  “hey hey,” which means good-bye. I’m not much more fluent in anything else, although I studied French for years, took years of Latin, a semester of German.

One of the goals for our journey was to better understand the last name “Kuniholm,” a name created by Whitney’s great-great grandfather sometime in the 1840s.  Our time in Finland offered new context. Apparently in Finland it was common, until legislation in 1921, for surnames to change with each generation, depending on location, parentage, or personal whim. Johan’s son became “Johannson.” Johan Johannson, Whitney’s great-great grandfather, added a last name from a farm he bought: the Holm farm, then moved to a tplace named Kuni and became Johan Johanson Kuniholm.

We had been told somewhere along the way that “Kuni” meant King, and “Holm” meant hearth. Spend a day or two around the Swedish language and it quickly becomes clear that “Holm” is a variant of “Holmen,” which means island. Except when it doesn’t: it more likely means “very small island,” but can also mean the low flat land along a river, lake, or sea. The Holm farm of the family name was nowhere near an island, but might have been a low, flat farmstead along the Malsor Channel.

Kuni is equally tricky. A sign on Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg, the sea fortress guarding Helsinki's harbor that once rivaled Gibraltar, points toward “Kuninkaaportti" or "Kungsporten," "King’s Gate.” The Swedish word for king is “kung”, but there’s no translation for kuni in Finnish. King is "kuningas". An Old Norse word study suggests kuni means “royalty.” Maybe.

A sign for cookies in a Helsinki market suggested a different direction. "Kuni Keksit." I asked the young woman behind the counter what Kuni Keksit were. “Queen Cookies” was the confident response. Why Queen? She struggled for an answer: “It’s the berries. The kuni berries.”  A particular kind of berry? No – a group of berries. Queen berries. Blueberry, cloudberry, and some others that wouldn’t translate into English. She tried, then gave up. Finland has 37 edible species of berry. We have names for just a fraction.

We had reserved a car for the trip north to the village of Kuni. We found it in Ostrobothnia, a Swedish-speaking region of Finland, just 50 miles from Sweden across the Gulf of Bothnia. It’s in a region that never had a king, except the rule of Swedish, then Russian royalty. Kuni itself is hardly a  place, just a tiny hamlet, with a pretty little school, a car repair lot, a trailhead for a beautiful woodland trail, a few small farms, some houses.

Was the town named after royalty, or to highlight the berries that grew in the woods  and the brambles along the river? We have no way of knowing – so far at least. Maybe some Finnish cousins will enlighten us. Until then, we have only theories.

There are many words that can’t translate from Finnish to English. A short sampling (with apologies for the very rough approximations):
  • "myötähäpeä," which means vicarious embarrassment, feeling embarrassed on behalf of someone else 
  • "jokamiehenoikeus": freedom to roam, travel through and enjoy wild harvests in the countryside, including private landholdings 
  • "tokka": a large herd of reindeer 
  • "lieko": the trunk of a tree submerged on the bottom of a lake
  • "sisu": stoic courage and determination
Every language has words that are immediately understood in that language, yet hard to explain in another. On a lovely ferry ride to Birka, once center of Viking enterprise in Sweden’s Lake Mälaren, I found myself talking with two Swedes about birds, history, language, politics. We found ourselves stalled on a word that would adequately capture the ongoing discussions one of the group described having with his young adult granddaughter: not arguments. Not disagreements. No – discussion didn’t work. What is the word in English for impassioned, spirited, carefully thought-through conversation about things that matter deeply? The Finns around us scratched their heads and shrugged. They knew exactly what the man was saying. They had no idea how to put it into English.

In the days since our return, I’ve been thinking about translation: what’s lost in conversations between nations, what we lose when we approach words as if every word in one language can be replaced, one for one, with an equal word in another.

And I’ve been thinking about the challenge of reaching back in time to understand what words meant when used by those before us. If the word “Kuni” is a distant whisper of meaning, what about those ancient Hebrew words from the early books of Genesis? We know what some of them meant, and have broad theories about others. Yet some Christians read those texts as if the exact meaning is captured precisely – forever! – in the structure and idiom of their own preferred English version.  

I’ve been thinking of the dangers of a simplistic understanding of language and translation, and the more immediate danger of using words in the public arena with little care or understanding about actual meaning or historical resonance. Socialism, communism, Nazi: those words take different shape in small countries just miles from the Russian border, just across the Baltic Sea from Germany.

And from that vantage point, language about rounding people up, sending them back, “Making American Great” by building walls and eliminating outsiders sounds dangerously familiar, raising discussion about difficult words like fascism, totalitarianism, nativisim.

I’ll be exploring some of these words, and others, in the months ahead. I’m more convinced than ever that we are accountable for the words we use or misuse, the words we hear, the words we pretend we don’t hear.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Story's Still Not Over

I love stories, and the stories behind stories. For the past few weeks I’ve been traveling and listening to lots of stories: about people who lived long ago, recording their tales with stones and paint. and about people alive today, remembering events from before I was born, or sharing their stories in photos and Facebook posts.  Lots of stories - of conflict, change, endurance, enterprise.

Swedish Rune Stone, Swedish History Museam
In recent conversations with relatives near and far, I've been reminded that some stories stir delight, while others are less eagerly told. What do we do when our own stories seem to shatter into pieces, or stall to unsalvageable conclusions?

I sometimes think of Emily Dickinson’s poem:
My life closed twice before its close;
  It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
  A third event to me. . .
I’ve been struck, traveling this month in Finland, Estonia, and Sweden, at how lives sometimes seem to close, at how chapters end abruptly. War separates families, redirects careers, disrupts and rearranges. Peace does the same. As does poverty. Traveling through European cities, we see evidence of lives uprooted, stories pulled from one place to another.

My own life has closed more than twice, with abrupt changes far beyond my control: relocations without goodbyes, plans suspended without explanation. With each twist of plot, the adventures grow deeper, the challenges richer, the rewards sweeter, than I could have foreseen, yet I still struggle when the story takes an unexpected turn.

As part of my Sabbath season several years ago, I found myself working through To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future,  Dan Allender’s book and small group process.

Allender challenges his readers to look closely at the chapters that have gone before, to examine the places of pain, defeat and struggle, and to see where God may be leading, to celebrate the ways He’s been at work.

A friend who wanted to do this asked if I would help launch a small To Be Told story group. At the time I was busy, but when my schedule became clearer, I came back to the idea. How hard could it be to write chapters from our lives, share them with others, and see where God is leading?

Turns out it’s far harder than I thought. I’m great at compartments, and at stashing those dark, unfinished parts of the story in cupboards where I don’t need to see them. 

But the story isn’t over, and as I've rummaged through experiences I thought I'd left behind, I see patterns repeating, places where fear and unresolved pain have sometimes kept me from moving as freely as I’d like

Here’s one of the assignments from the To Be Told workbook: 
To your well of stories [a list of personal scenes to explore], add scenes where you saw redemption and where it was absent; where great suffering occurred and where nondramatic, routine suffering occurred; where there was peace and where there was resolution. In other words, add stories of shalom, shalom shattered, shalom sought, and denouement (58).
It's easy to point back to points where shalom shatters, not too hard to find places of joy, but "redemption"? Does redemption play out in the ongoing chapters of our lives?

Here’s a follow-up question: “”Which stories are you avoiding?” (59)

As nations, families, communities, churches, there are some stories we tell, some we avoid. Some stories expand in engaging ways. Others cause worried looks, clearing of throat, sudden change of subject.   

According to Allender, 
Stories are meant to be told. . . . Telling them is a gift you give others, By telling your stories, you offer a bit of yourself in a world of small talk, pager messages, and email. You offer others a glimpse of what it means to be human and of the struggles that are common to us all, and you invite others into community (122).
Stories may be gifts, but it's also true that processing the past is hard, painful work. Staying open to the future depends on facing that work, chapter by difficult chapter.

And redemption becomes visible when we take time to trace shalom both shattered and restored. 

Just months ago I had no idea that my story would take me to the Finnish countryside, or on a watery excursion in a land of lakes and islands, or to the streets of Tallinn, Estonia, where not so long ago the story of freedom seemed gone forever. 

I trace my own story with amazement, wondering where the latest twists and turns will lead. And listen with thanksgiving to other, larger stories I hope to share in future posts. 

I don’t know the end of my story, or of anyone else’s. I do know the story isn’t over, and that in ways that go beyond understanding, painful chapters can be redeemed and broken pasts can lead to unimagined futures. 

Photos from the ongoing chapters of Tallinn Church, Estonia, a church
that has been part of the story of Tallinn since before 1219.
[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging. This blog appeared, in slightly different form, on July 17, 2011] 

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sabbath Menuha

When I left my position as youth director at the Church of the Good Samaritan, almost five years ago, I planned to take three months of “Sabbath” while discerning what might come next.

It’s interesting how much discussion that simple word, “Sabbath,” sparked.

What is it? How do you do it?

I was trained to stay busy. I can sleep late- but rarely. I can hang in the hammock – if I’m reading something useful, planning something in my head, or taking a short break from the gardening at hand.

Three months of Sabbath?

The time went quickly, helped along by Dan B. Allender’s book named, simply. Sabbath. What I enjoyed about Allender’s approach was his idea that Sabbath is a way to reset the defaults inside us, reorient our vision, and find our place again in the larger plan.

I had always thought of Sabbath as partly about rules, and partly about rest.  Both, I confess, bore me. And who would want three months of either?

Allender suggests that the key to Sabbath is joy. Puzzling over God’s “rest” on the seventh day described in Genesis 2, Allender suggests “it should be obvious that God rests not because he was weary from his labor.” As Isaiah reminds us, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary.”

Seems kind of obvious. But that suggests we’ve misunderstood some key point in the rationale for Sabbath. According to Allender:
Menuha is the Hebrew word for rest, but it is better translated as joyous repose, tranquility, or delight.  God didn’t rest in the sense of taking a nap or chilling out; instead, God celebrated and delighted in his creation.
Allender explores this theme of celebration and delight, our uneasiness with the idea that God desires our joy, and our preference for forging ahead on our own rather than pause long enough to see what wonders God has in mind.

The central section of Allender’s book considers “Sabbath purpose” as seen through the avenue of
play. I honestly don’t remember, ever, hearing play discussed in the context of the Christian faith.

Five years ago I was grieving the loss of play as I stepped out of active youth ministry. I have never lost my love of play – Capture the Flag in the woods, Boggle around a ski lodge table, impromptu games imvented up by teens in pajamas at a Girls’ Night lock-in.

One of the tragedies of American adulthood – even childhood! - is that play is so narrowly permitted. In fact, think about it: for American women past a certain age, what kind of play, if any, is allowed? Youth ministry gave me space to stand on my head, reenact “Three Chartreuse Buzzards,” practice my offense in foosball, trash talk the opposition during our legendary games of Golden Fleece.

Allender reminds his readers of the incredible value play offers as a way to step outside of what is and see what might be, just as a small child might try on a Superman cape to explore a very different persona. He quotes Jürgen Moltmann, a theologian who explores “the interplay of creation, liberation, future, and play”:
We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo . . . the significance of games is identical with that of the arts, namely to construct ‘anti-environments’ and ‘counter-environments’ to ordinary and everyday human environments and through the conscious confrontation of these to open up creative freedom and future alternatives. We are no longer playing merely with the past in order to escape it for a while, but we are increasingly playing with the future in order to get to know it. (Theology of Play)
I remember playing paintball several years ago with a middle school boy who was used to being discounted. Both he and I, I’m sad to say, had been considered extraneous by our highly-competitive team. Our captain had a strategy that didn’t include either of us, and feeling a little left out, we planned our own simple maneuver. To the surprise of both teams, my normally timid accomplice captured the flag and delivered it to the other team’s pole while I provided strategy and cover and shouted wild encouragement. It was just a game, yet the alternative environment, our freedom to act, our escape of our predetermined roles, shifted things in every direction.

Allender says, “Play redistributes power and gives the opportunity for convention to be reconfigured by the unexpected and the inconceivable.” This is true in games of every kind, but Allender is on to something bigger: What would it mean to play with God? It sounds faintly heretical. Does God play?

In a spiritual direction session a number of years ago, I mentioned some difficulties and challenges I was facing. I was invited to spend some time in silence, picturing those challenges and inviting God to show me his presence in the midst of them. I imagined a long, mountainous path, strewn with heavy boulders. The terrain ahead seemed so daunting I couldn’t imagine moving forward. Then, as I invited God to show me his presence, I had a clear sense of Jesus himself, running lightly over the tops of the boulders. He motioned to me to follow and I stood, unable to move, conscious of my own poor balance, my serious fear of heights.

“What would you like to do?” he called. “Shall we dance across? Should I carry you over? Or . . . ” I remember the unexpected sense of glee I heard – and felt - in his voice, “shall we heave them all out of the way? Like this?” In my imagination I saw him tossing the boulders that troubled me, flinging them like Frisbees, bouncing them like weightless balloons.

I caught a glimpse of delight and play in that moment of meditation. My own approach to problems had always been much heavier. Yet, as I've seen so often since, to God every challenge is an occasion for him to show his grace, his strength, his goodness, an “opportunity for convention to be reconfigured by the unexpected and the inconceivable.” A chance to break through my narrow view with his greater, more joyful reality.

The path leading up to that time of Sabbath felt a bit like the imagined path littered by boulders. In every direction lay uncertainty, challenge, difficulty, even dread. In the years since, I’ve experienced a sense of being lighter on my feet, less fearful of the heights around me, in many ways, more playful.

I’ve been drawn more deeply into new possibilities, unimagined opportunities, reconfiguring of the status quo in my own life and in structures far larger. I take time each day to listen, to enjoy “menuha”: respose, tranquility, delight. And I work hard in ways I can only describe as all-out, unexpected fun.  

This summer my husband, Whitney, has found himself in his own three month sabbatical. Unlike mine, his will end with a reinvestment in the ministry he’s been part of for the past eighteen years. But for both of us it’s been a time of learning to hold even more lightly, to trust more deeply, to explore more fully Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11: 29:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Menuha!


[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging. This blog appeared, in slightly different form, on July 31, 2011]


Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Right?

Spending time with family members this summer, I’ve been struck at how often our conversation turns to questions about what’s “right.” Is it “right” to have insurance, or should we trust God to provide in times of need? Is it “right” to put our family’s safety/comfort/happiness first, or should that be held in balance with calling, mission, ministry? Is it “right” to attend a church where we don’t agree on key theological points? Which points? Who is "right"? 

God gave me a strange gift when I was seventeen. At the time, I didn’t realize its value, and sometimes since then I’ve forgotten what I saw, but I’m brought back, sometimes painfully, sometimes with great amusement, to see again what I saw so clearly as a skinny high school senior.

I had planned, for years, where I was going to go to college. My grandmother didn’t like my plan, but from every other direction the endorsement was strong. Then, through what seemed like a clear word from God and some compelling circumstances, I found myself considering something very different.

The problem was, my first choice seemed like the "right" one. And when I started making lists of reason, weighing out the pros and cons, I found I could make the thing stack up either way. In fact, in talking to people around me, I found I could present either case so compellingly my listener would have to agree. You’re right!

But then, from the other side, You’re right!

Which is when God stepped in and gave me an interesting glimpse of my own tenacious mind, my own need to be right, and a simple, stunning truth: I could have all the reasons on my side, have it all lined up, be right on paper, right in logic, right in every way, and still be completely wrong.

One of my favorite poems at that point was Invictus, the well-known poem by little-known poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). I was aware of its questionable theology ("I thank whatever gods there be"), but I liked the idea of standing up to the “bludgeonings of chance,” and I looked forward to somehow becoming “captain of my fate,” and “master of my soul.”

Choosing a college was my first chance to begin navigating my own course, but I remember sitting quietly and considering what I knew of people who had marched forward as captains of their fate. My family was full of smart people, smart in all the measurable ways, logical, persuasive, able to explain the rightness of their choices. But many of their choices, while logically right, had been painfully wrong, for them and those around them. In fact, as I sat looking down the path of the future, it occurred to me that “being right” could be a destructive thing, a license to ignore other people and their needs, a justification for doing great harm, a path into great danger.

College applications on the table before me, I made a decision, a decision that has stayed steady for over four decades now, despite occasional wavering and brief moments of amnesia. I decided I wanted to do what God called me to do, what He invited me to do, and to trust my decisions to Him, even if my own plans, ideas, opinions seemed better, more logical, more “right.”

I applied to just one college, the one I believe God called me to. And continue to thank God for the way He used that time in my life.

Does that mean God always tells us what choice to make? Not at all.

Should we wait until He does? Not necesssarily.

Are we wrong for having our own ideas, our own plans, our own agendas? No. 

It’s how we hold our plans – lightly, or tenaciously. With stubborn, prideful confidence our plans are right, or with a sense of humble, listening prayer: this is the way I’m going, Lord, unless you show me a better way.

Praying this week with family members considering some important decisions, I was reminded of our family’s move to Virginia, more than thirty years ago. We had been living in West Philly, in a neighborhood I’d grown to love. We had a two year old and a baby on the way. I wasn’t thrilled to be moving further south (I'm a native New Yorker), but I’d decided that it would be okay on one condition: we needed to buy a single family house, with a decent yard, preferably fenced, and room for a vegetable garden.

My plan made sense. Except we were losing money on our hundred-year-old twin in West Philly, couldn’t afford a single-family house anywhere near my husband’s new job, and he thought a townhouse in Reston, the planned community where he’d be working, would be a better choice.

I was sure I was right. So sure, I couldn’t even begin to see his point of view. Reston, on our first visit, was a hot, burned-over, weird, new place. The one townhouse I agreed to look at had tiny bedrooms, avocado and harvest gold bathroom fixtures, and bright orange, pink and green wallpaper throughout most of the first floor. No way.

He thought it was a great buy. I assembled compelling arguments against it. And then, in Truro Church the next day, John Howe, Truro’s rector at the time, preached a sermon about sin. 

I remember very clearly what he said: “Sin is wanting your own way more than God’s.”

Of course. I knew that. 

I’d seen it.

And I’d decided, years before: I wanted God’s way, not mine. 

Once I stopped arguing, it was totally clear: that small brick townhouse was God’s answer to our prayer.

I can’t think of a better place for a family of young children than that townhouse community where we spent fifteen years. In fact, when we outgrew our first townhouse, we scoured northern Virginia for something better and finally bought a larger townhouse just down the street. After that move, our kids were sure they lived in the best house in the best neighborhood in the best town in the best state in the best country in the world. God used those two homes for great good in our lives, and in the lives of others we came to know.

When I was a camp counselor one summer, years before that, a friend made me a small gift, a rock with Proverbs 16:9 painted on it: "The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." 

I’ve saved that rock as a reminder that God's not counting on my wisdom. Instead, if I listen, He'll give me his own. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to plan, to make lists of pros and cons, to envision the future, to think about which way is best.

But to hold that lightly. 

Because God is the one who knows the future, knows me, knows the people I love, knows what’s best for us all. I want Him to be the one to direct my steps, and theirs, through the unseen dangers, the unexpected tests along the way.

The news, as usual, is full of people arguing about debt, taxes, guns, treaties. There are lots of reasons, lots of people sure they’re right. I confess I’ve done some arguing myself, and there are days when I’m not quite sure who’s right, but very sure about who’s wrong.

But being right isn’t the answer. Not in politics, not in personal decisions. Our only hope is in listening, carefully, to the One who is beyond our reasons, our logic, our pride in our own wisdom. If He directs our steps, we can't go wrong.

       The shepherds are senseless
           and do not inquire of the Lord;
       so they do not prosper
           and all their flock is scattered. 
       Listen! The report is coming—
           a great commotion from the land of the north!
       It will make the towns of Judah desolate,
           a haunt of jackals.
        Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own;
           it is not for them to direct their steps. (Jeremiah 10)



[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging. This blog appeared, in slightly different form, on July 31, 2011]

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Big Government / Small People?

This summer I’ve been reviewing and reusing some of my earliest blog posts. It’s interesting to see how discussions from the not-too-distant past replay, sometimes with slight variations.

Kayaking on Marsh Creek Lake the evening of August 2, 2011, just hours after a debt ceiling agreement was signed into law, I found myself thinking about government. Good thing? Bad thing?

House Speaker John Boehner, in his televised remarks the evening before, had made a remark that was already been recirculated with great glee: “the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” Apparently he was paraphrasing a Dennis Prager column from a few weeks earlier that was already accepted as common knowledge: “Big Government Means Small People.” 

Watching the families picnicking along the side of the lake, the inevitable dads and kids fishing from the bank, sailboats tacking across the water, I found myself giving thanks for government. 

Marsh Creek State Park is owned, operated, maintained by government, as are most of the places important to me: Central Park, the vast reserves of the Adirondacks, the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point, the sandy beaches of Bombay Hook.

But government has given me more than parks.

Government gave me thirteen years of really great schools, committed teachers, formative programs. I learned to play the cello thanks to a government-funded music teacher. I learned to love art using thick, government-funded tempera paints. Our town helped pay for my summers at camp through a program for low-income families, and when I wasn’t at camp, kept me safe all summer at a government-funded rec program, where I perfected my knock hockey skills with other children of working parents. 

I think it’s safe to say I would not have survived childhood without government. When my grandmother, sole guardian of four needy kids, didn’t have money to take us to the doctor, government stepped in and paid our doctor bills. And when she found she couldn’t earn enough to pay rent, buy us clothes, and also put food on the table, government stepped in with Food Stamps.

College? Without government, I wouldn’t have gone. I was fortunate to live in New York State during a period when the state put a high priority on developing its human capital. State grants and scholarships paid all of my tuition, and most of my living expenses. Thank you, government.

Thank you, too, for Title Nine, passed as I was entering college. It encouraged my school to add some women’s sports, which made it possible for me to play field hockey, and eased my entrance into graduate school and access to grad school funding.

When I was first married, living in Philadelphia, we found we couldn’t afford a car, so were grateful for Septa and Amtrack, both subsidized by government. Of course, we still enjoy government-subsidized transportation: safe bridges, good roads, modern airports. As I write this, a crew is repaving the road in front of my house. Thank you, government.

We lived for years near the United States Geological Survey offices in RestonVirginia, so when I check the weather, or hear about hurricane warnings, or read the latest about forest fire control, I think of my USGS friends, government workers I’m thankful for.

I have friends involved in water missions to parts of the world where government is small and human needs are great. In a world where more than 880 million people have inadequate access to clean water, I am deeply grateful that every time I turn on my faucet – every time! – clean, clear water flows out. Our government works hard to make that happen. There are some who think they should work less hard, but I believe they’re wrong.

Do I agree with all government spending? Of course not. Misguided farm subsidies have done real damage. Too much US aid is channeled through corporations like Monsanto in ways that harm, rather than help, food production in developing countries. And I’m still trying to understand why multinational banks like Bank of America were given billions of dollars in federal bailout money when they did little to help people in foreclosure, have paid no US taxes in years, and managed to give their executives millions during the worst recession in decades.

But that’s not a problem of big government. It’s a problem of big business exercising undue influence in the legislative process.

I wrote last week about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which held its annual convention last week in San Diego

For decades, ALEC fought “big government’ regulation of tobacco sales and use, promoting legislation that blocks producers and sellers from liability, limiting local government’s ability to regulate second-hand smoke, providing “talking points” about the contribution of tobacco to local economies. The cry of “big government” was an effective smoke screen for the real issue at stake: protecting profits of key industry donors, including JRR Reynolds and Philip Morris, and the  Cigar Association of America.  

Studying agriculture issues several years ago, I was intrigued to see ALEC model legislation blocking local and state level attempts to protect organic farmers from contamination by neighboring farms spraying pesticides or seeding with genetically modified crops, legislation benefitting large farms at the expense of small, “ag gag” bills that make it a crime for concerned citizens to photograph or videotape unsavory activities at factory farms. ALEC agriculture legislation did little to limit the size of government, but much to ensure the continued profitability of the “Big Six” seed and agrichemical companies (Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Bayer, BASF and Syngenta) 

One of ALEC’s perennial goals is to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, or to pass laws that restrict and deter every attempt at appropriate regulation. ALEC publications accuse the EPA of “ waging war on the American standard of living.”  A novel idea introduced at the San Diego conference was  the "Environmental Impact LitigationAct," which would allow corporate interests to fund state lawsuits against federal environmental laws. Again, while the argument is that  “Big Government” is destroying local economies, the reality is that fossil fuel corporations will reward legislators who help place profit above protection of air, water, or public health.  

Do I want less government? I’m sure there are some places where less government would be a good thing. But in the places I care about, for the people I know best, less government has been a disaster: crowded classrooms, crumbling bridges, desperate single moms trying to find affordable childcare so they can keep their minimum wage jobs and their substandard housing.

I don’t believe big government makes us smaller. I believe wise government enhances our lives, opens doors of opportunity, protects us and our environment, provides a safety net for the poor, the frail, those squeezed out by the systems of the day.

And ensures a needed corrective to the goals and ambitions of large companies eager to externalize costs and maximize profits at public expense. 

How big should government be? 

Big enough to accomplish those tasks well, and big enough to fund the search for that elusive fraud and waste Big Government opponents like to talk about.

[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging. Parts of this appeared August 2, 2011 post, Big Government, Small People?]

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