George stood at the bus stop and muttered a prayer under his smoking breath that the bus would arrive before his feet froze solid. Even his wool socks were claiming they’d met their match.

“Lovely weather,” said a tall woman trying to warm her hands on a steaming coffee. “Counting the degrees on one hand makes it easy for everyone.”

A couple folks laughed, but not George. He hadn’t laughed much in the last three years.

“Where’s that damned bus?” an elderly man whispered to no one.

George figured the man for about 77. He thought that would be him in 17 years. He wondered if he would still be taking the bus to the clinic every day. He wondered how everything could go so wrong so fast, and in that moment, 17 more years felt a little more like jail.

Living in a city that was home to several Fortune 500 consumer packaged goods companies was a boon to a packaging engineer such as himself, but life is odd, and when his firm offered him early retirement due to increased competition from overseas, he and Jeannie thought their nest egg sufficient for a longer-than-expected retirement. They had some money, a pension, could even handle their daughter Lynn’s college payments, and the company hinted they might throw some consulting work George’s way now and then. Retirement at 57 seemed perfect.

Five months later, while he and Jeannie walked through the bright gold and red of their neighborhood’s autumn leaf fall, a blood vessel burst in her brain.

That was 2½ years, $2.7 million dollars in medical bills, and their retirement home ago. All gone. To keep his daughter on track for graduation, George sold his car and Jeannie’s. Then he got a bill from the college announcing a 15% tuition hike.

George called in some markers at his old workplace and they gave him a basement office and paid him for two days a week. Competition hadn’t eased, but George had been someone once, and the old guard did what they could, shaking their heads at the injustice of it all.

So George caught the 7:55 bus each day. On his two work days, he walked from his 8’x8′ office to the extended care clinic and held Jeannie’s hand. On good days, she’d fix her eyes on his and he could see the light still in them. No one could make out what she said, but George told everyone they were words of love. God help them both if they were something else.

George didn’t talk about the bad days. He’d read to his bride even when her eyes were cloudy glass and no Jeannie seemed present. He didn’t know what else to do. Read, hold a hand, and watch the bank account dwindle to nothing. Sometimes George hated himself for what he thought on the worst days.

Where’s that damned bus? he thought now. A glance at his wrist: 8:08.

Some anxious young turk in clothes three sizes too big spat one of those words that always grated on George’s ears. People didn’t talk like that when George was younger, and whenever he heard someone curse, something inside him died a little m0re. What is wrong with people today? What happened to propriety? George heard someone else spout the same ugly word: the tall woman, her coffee gone.

The sound of a diesel engine. Every head turned to peer down the street. Suddenly, life entered the small collection of people. The bus. Finally. Even from a tenth of a mile away, George could see the “sorry, folks” look on the driver’s face.

When the bus pulled up to the curb, George let others board first, though he and the elderly man exchanged proferred hands, each insisting the other go ahead. Wisdom prevailed, as the senior gave up the battle of politeness, boarded, and George walked into the anticipated warmth of the coach.

Except none greeted him.

He looked at the driver, perplexed.

“It’s why I’m late,” the driver said. “The cold took down two other buses completely. At least this one runs.”

George looked that the mass of people on board and wondered where all the body heat was. The bus stop felt warmer.

“No heater? I’ve got a half hour ride,” he said to the driver.

“You and most everyone else” was the reply.

A half hour of frozen misery.

George sat down next to the largest person he could find and hoped for the best. By the time his stop came, all theories about hoping and the warmth of people of immense size had been chucked out the moisture-frosted window.

Goodbye, frigid conveyance. Hello, old semi-workplace.

The lobby stairway proved a difficult walk when one cannot feel at least one of one’s feet. George wondered if this was what being a pirate with a wooden leg felt like. Arrr.

His office didn’t have a door, so on arriving in the basement, he immediately noted the envelope on his beaten, 1950’s-era desk. A lone envelope. An omen. He opened it, hands trembling.

Numbers flooded the page, and George inhaled sharply at  the sight of them. What they said: Health care costs would now be subtracted from pension payouts. George looked at the number at the bottom of the side column. He flopped into the desk chair, which groaned along with him, and with his back to the doorway, cried.

“You okay, George?” came a voice from behind him.

“Jeannie had a bad night is all,” he said to the wall before him. His reliable, catch-all answer. Anyone would understand it.

“Sorry to hear that,” said the voice. “Hope things get better.” A reliable, catch-all answer. Everyone knew the dance steps. Everyone.

When no further words came and George felt his eyes grow dry, he walked out the door and wandered to a stack of recycling. Toward the bottom of the pile he saw a phone book and grabbed it. Back in his office, he dialed a number.

“Metro. How can I direct your call?” said a voice on the other end of the line.

“My bus didn’t have any heat this morning,” George said. “It’s five degrees outside. I’m 60 years old.”

The woman had a pleasant voice, and she said something pleasant and reassuring.

At the end of the day, George walked to the extended care clinic and found a dull, wrinkled face staring at nothing. He held the hand that belonged to the inert woman in the bed, read from The Psalms and something from a Max Lucado book. Jeannie had liked that author once. At 6:45, George called it a day and caught the—thankfully heated—7:05 back to the two bedroom apartment that was all that remained of once big dreams of retirement.

The 7:55 arrived on time the next morning—without a working heater.

George gritted his teeth.

At the office, he hit redial on his phone.

“Metro. How can I help you?”

“The 7:55 on Erie still doesn’t have any heat,” George said.

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

“Can I speak to a supervisor?”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

Hang up.

Work. Extended care clinic. Home.

The cold morning ride racked up more days. George spent those days, in full, at the clinic.  One day of light in the eyes, but nothing the rest.

The next week, the 7:55 still had no heat.

“What’s with you people?” George yelled into the phone at the woman with the pleasant voice. “I want to talk to a supervisor. Can’t you fix the damn heater? This is the 21st century. It’s a damn heater. Fix the damn thing, damn it!”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

Work. Extended care clinic. Home. A letter was in the mailbox. The next pension check—so much smaller. Again, the tears.

And the next morning, the 7:55 felt like a Siberian mausoleum on wheels.

“Look,” George said into the phone. “My heart doesn’t pump like it once did. I know the economy isn’t great, but c’mon. The heater. We’re all freezing on that bus.”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

More days of cold.

When the 7:55 was a couple minutes late the following week, George ran all the scenarios. He kept coming back to a fixed heater. Please, God. Please.

What he got that morning was a bigger surprise. Something was different about the 7:55. Sure enough, on the side it read: Bio-diesel-powered. And George’s heart leapt.

A smile on his face, he waved the elderly man on board and stepped inside.

To an all-too-familiar cold.

“Heater doesn’t work,” said the bus driver.

“What the hell?” George yelled. “Can’t anyone please fix the damned heater? Anyone?”

The Church, Tech, Ethics, Jaron Lanier, and the Destruction of the Middle Class


Jaron Lanier - www.jaronlanier.comAfter reading my recent post “‘Free’ and the Destruction of Worth,” reader Brian Auten sent notice of a compelling Salon interview with tech futurist Jaron Lanier—“The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class”—in which the polymath suggests he and other prognosticators underestimated the negative impact the Internet would have on our lives.

As a musician, Lanier thought the personal freedom offered by the Internet would enable music makers to take greater control of their careers and enhance their freedom to create the kind of music they wanted to make, free from corporate interference. Sadly, the Internet has instead reduced the net worth of musicians and created a career wasteland for many of them.

In a bold confession, Lanier admits he was shortsighted concerning the negative impact, saying his naiveté helped fuel the downturn.

Lanier goes on to note that rather than freeing people to do what they want, the Internet has destroyed aspirations—especially those related to jobs. The promise that the Internet will let us pursue the job we want to create for ourself has instead been replaced with the reality that it and other tech tools are allowing fewer and fewer people to do the work that once employed thousands, leaving no options for the displaced.

While many will just nod their heads and say We told you so, Lanier brings up an ethical issue raised by the destruction of middle class jobs that few are discussing:

Do corporations have an ethical responsibility to society to create jobs simply to employ people, even if technology has rendered those jobs less essential?

This is a question that has bothered me since the economic meltdown of 2008. Because it seemed that at one time companies DID stay loyal to employees whose jobs were less essential. There was a long view that a working middle class was universally better than a nonworking middle class that would slide gradually into poverty. And it may very well be that attitude of support for the less essential employee made America great.

Globalization and the race to the cost bottom may have put pressure on companies to abandon this ethic, but the 2008 meltdown pretty much sealed the deal in their collective minds.

Which brings me, as it always does, to the Church.

In the fin de siècle period (around 1900), the American Church was actively addressing many changes in American business. As more women entered the workplace, the Church was concerned for their welfare, especially in what could have become a predatory environment for young, inexperienced women moving from farms to the burgeoning big cities. And this was only one area of concern and active involvement. Speaking to the business world was a huge concern for the Church.

Today, the Church seems more concerned with how to start a workplace Bible study than any greater vision related to social change and the general welfare of employees.

This paradigm shift has worked against the Church in the long run. American Christians no longer prioritize general human welfare. In the case of the typical workplace, the Church’s concerns are not the ethics and operation of that workplace and how Christ can impact it, but the Church thinks solely of how to preserve some aspect of institutional church operation within that sphere.

I contend this is a wrong, selfish mentality. We Christians should be less concerned with preserving traditional church functions and more with the general welfare of people. It’s as if we have no more confidence that the Church can survive because we are afraid of the world’s successes against traditional Christian bastions. So we operate from a position of desperation instead of from our position of strength in which all the riches of heaven are on our side.

What is today’s Church saying about the ethics of hiring people simply so those people can have a job? And how can this NOT have an impact on the Church itself? The starving man is more concerned with food than with the Gospel, but give him that food in the name of Jesus and his ears will suddenly open to the message of Christ. We see this demonstrated again and again in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

What is the need? Meet the need. Then speak about Jesus. It could not be more simple.

In addition, the Church has decided in the last century that it has nothing to say to corporate leaders about other aspects of employee welfare. And where is the boldness, in the midst of the ongoing ethical meltdown in big business, from a Church that should be able to promise those businesses that if they give them their people, the Church can return a more ethical employee?

Instead, the primary Church goal is relegated to fighting the corporation to ensure that a handful of employees can enjoy a lunch break Bible study in a back room someplace. Yes, that may be needful, but God help us, the vision is so vanishingly small!

What tech has done to the workplace and general employment MUST be something the Church, like it once did 100 years ago, speaks to.

Tech is increasingly outpacing the ethical answers the Church once provided to society. In other news, it is now possible to print guns with 3D printers, those printers available to the average consumer. What does this or any other tech-driven issue mean for the Church?

Are we Christians asking these questions? If so, where are the answers?

Is the Church simply in survival mode—or are we Christians actively working toward addressing the most intractable issues of our day, issues that, in the end, affect every person on the planet?

If the Church can’t answer these questions, who will?

That Dreadful Silence


Beyond the recent lack of posts here at Cerulean Sanctum, another series of silences continues to blanket the American Church. I’ve written about them before, but I want to address them again, if only to keep the topics fresh in people’s minds. These issues matter. Our lack of conversation in the Church about them on any sort of national level bothers me to the extreme. What we don’t talk about says as much, or more , as what we do.

It would be fine if I could ignore these problems, but I can’t. The main reason is that they  confront me personally every day.

I live in what is called penturbia by demographics experts. My neighborhood straddles that fine line between rural and suburban, with a leaning toward the former. My neighbor across the road harvested his corn last week. That tells you a lot of what you need to know, though most of us on my road are not reliant on farm income for a living.

Greater Cincinnati has maxed out growth in its northern suburbs (which used to be farmland 20 years ago), and the big push was supposed to be toward the east, where I live. That push was starting before the economic downturn. The big news was the announcement of a WalMart coming to my little town. That WalMart hasn’t come is now the new talk.

Today, I drive along a road with an increasing number of homes for sale. Worse is the rise in homes left to the elements, abandoned.

Few things disquiet me more than an abandoned home. Once, a family lived there and filled that house with life. Now it sits like the dessicated remains of a bug sucked dry by a spider. Abandoned houseGrass grows wild. A window blind hangs half open like the eyelid of a corpse. And inside, nothing but cobwebs and emptiness.

The dead shells of homes litter my road, and I wonder where the life that filled them vanished to.

What bothers me more is that no one seems to wonder with me. I’ve heard no sermons on this, read no blogs on this topic. No one in the Christian community has brought up the subject of families that are here one day and gone the next. No one asks how awful it must have been that someone up and left a house behind to decay. No one asks whether anything could have been done to keep that house filled with life.

Concerning the homes on the market, I wonder how many For Sale signs were stuck in the ground reluctantly. I wonder if there’s a family out there that had to chase jobs to a more economically stable state. I wonder if they are being bled dry by owing on two mortgages as their home here sits unsold month after month. I wonder if the breadwinner chased a job, even though it pays less, and now that unsold home is an albatross that more than undoes the gain of a move. I wonder how many families would have been better off staying put, but the panic of unemployment forced them into a decision that ended up working against them in the long run. I wonder how many marriages will end because of that “rock, meet hard place” decision.

I overheard a conversation on a cell phone two days ago. A middle-aged woman was talking to someone about a young man who lost his job, chased a job to another state, lost his job there, was paying two mortgages, lost his wife, lost custody of his kids, got buried in child support payments, then killed himself. I wonder if that conversation is becoming more common.

And I wonder why no one seems to care that it might be.

Our county fair was last week. It’s a big deal around here. Kids get the whole week off from school because so many have animals and 4H projects they show. Again, this is still a place where people make a living off the land and its bounty.

I ran into several people I know there who were part of a group my son and I belonged to. I use the past tense because none of us seemed to know what happened to that group. It just petered out, another institution whose well went dry.

When I look at the social fabric of this country, I can’t help but notice it’s threadbare and full of more and more holes.

My family has not had a good track record of late in maintaining ties in small groups. And that loss is not by our choice, either. Groups just seemed to wither and die. Where we used to be highly connected, we now are a part of only one small group, which meets erratically.

While that is a Christian group, I’m beginning to wonder if finding some connection in a group that has no pretenses toward anything religious is the answer. At the same time, even entertaining that thought bothers me. Many of those groups are dying just as quickly, if not quicker.

I believe we Christians are too isolated within our ghettos, yet at the same time I wonder about the viability of the ghettos we’re in. And while the other guys’ ghetto may look good, perhaps it’s more sick than ours.

So, I wonder if we Americans have reached a place of no return. I wonder if it’s indeed possible to recover what we have lost—and we have surely lost our vitality, if not our hope. Yet.

And more than anything else, I wonder why we don’t talk about these issues in our churches. I wonder why those Christians with a national stage say nothing. I wonder if we devote so much time to fighting the culture wars because they are easier to fight than to answer the questions I’ve raised here in this post .

Perhaps we are all just a little more afraid than we care to let on. Only this can explain the dreadful silence.