Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You Paid Good Money For THAT?

Yesterday was the start of what I've been calling "The Great Fuller Chair Trade." Fuller purchased a number of new ergonomic chairs to replace office chairs that have been in our offices for many, many years now. Since the chair I've been using is not only very old, but has a few parts loose and some screws missing, I'm rather glad to have a new, substantially more solid chair to sit on. Many of the old chairs will still be used, finding homes in other departments and in other ways, while some of the worst (probably including my old chair) will be thrown out.

While walking around Fuller distributing mail yesterday, I ran into one of my professors, and asked about the new chairs. The reply was somewhat less than enthusiastic: "I wish they'd spent the money on student scholarships instead."

Having not only been a student at Fuller myself, but also being married to a person who has already gotten one degree from Fuller and is currently pursuing another, and having gotten financial assistance for all three of these degrees, I can certainly see the professor's point. More scholarship money would be nice. And I suppose that it's pretty easy to see spending money on chairs as "wasteful" if so many of the chairs being replaced are still usable (and I've no doubt that many are).

It's also hard to hear comments like that without thinking beyond just the specific issue of money for chairs vs. scholarships at our particular institution. For example, I just recently got back from a holiday visiting family members in the mountains of Northern California. The issue of how people spend their money there was the subject a fair bit of discussion. Most of my family members keep their financial heads above water, but it's certainly not without some difficulty. On the other hand, most of them do own their homes, rather than rent, and most of them (including some of the renters) have homes of fairly decent size with absolutely amazing views of the mountains. To say that such people are struggling may seem unfair if they're compared with people who can't even pay their rent and live in homes too small for their families. But things aren't that simple. For example, they may own their home (which may have been in the family for decades now), but they may not be able to find work sufficient to pay bills and put food on the table. Or they may have unexpected medical costs that threaten to drain all the resources they've saved up over the years. Different people have different struggles, and how we prioritize our spending is, in many ways, our own business and nobody else's. So when the discussion turned (as it occasionally did) to disapproval of how a particular family member has spent his/her money, I didn't think it was at all fair. That's not to say that we shouldn't be accountable as Christians to be good stewards of what we have. But there's something about these comments that seems to cross a line, and I think that we may jump to conclusions and judgment far too quickly.

But back to the subject of chairs and scholarships. I don't pretend to know what Fuller should have done, but I just can't bring myself to agree that chairs is automatically the wrong choice. For one thing, Fuller gets its chairs from a company that used to be run by one of our trustees, and so we get really good prices on them. It's a one-time expense that, while probably not cheap, certainly wouldn't amount to enough to endow any kind of perpetual scholarship (You'd need an amount approaching a million dollars to yield enough interest to pay for one student's yearly tuition costs). So, we're talking about chairs that will serve many staff members for several years (at least!) vs. a scholarship that helps only one (or a few) student(s) for only a single year.

I could also argue that it's fairly easy to imagine that Fuller may well save money on worker's compensation payments made if someone has an accident by using a chair that should have been replaced earlier. Or perhaps an employee doesn't have to pay so many medical expenses for back problems because they're using chairs that do less damage to one's posture (that could also be a worker's compensation issue, but need not be so easily). Or maybe that trustee (assuming he makes money off the deal) is more likely to GIVE a scholarship as a result (I kind of hope that's not the case, given the potential quid pro quo that would be implied).

In any event, Fuller has done something good for its workers here. It may even be that staff members here, being happy that Fuller has done something nice for them, work harder or more effectively at their jobs. Morale is often ignored when it comes to the "real" issues of checks and balances, but can have concrete benefits for everyone involved, including students.

But most of this is just speculation, and I suppose that I could be accused of arguing in my own self-interest. Still, there was something about the comment that Fuller should have used the money on scholarships that just felt wrong. I just can't bring myself to agree that Fuller should not have spent its money on such items of obviously legitimate office use. I can't see this as a case of Fuller being irresponsible with the money that it has, but rather a case of Fuller making a decision to do a particular good thing. Perhaps there's room for debate about which good thing should have been done, but it's a fait accompli now. I, for one, am glad for my new chair, and hope that Fuller can still find a way to give more scholarships to its students. After all, it's not like this expense used up all the resources Fuller has had at its disposal for the whole year!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Back from Placerville

On occasion, I've encouraged folks who read my blogs via Facebook to come to the original Blogger site so that they can see my posts with all editing and formatting intact. This time, I'm going to encourage folks who come to Blogger directly to go to Facebook to see my Thanksgiving pictures, where I've already put up captions for everything, and that way I don't have to go through the whole process all over again for the one or two people who didn't see them the first time.

Here's the link. Enjoy! As it stands, you do have to be a Facebook member to see the pictures, but you don't have to be connected to any of my networks. I'm working on setting it up so everybody can see the pictures without having to be members of Facebook, but that doesn't seem to work yet.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Holiday Hiatus

As I mentioned last week, I'll be out of town for Thanksgiving. I'd hoped to have some profound statement discussing the various things that we should be thankful for, but I have to confess that I'm really not feeling it right now.

Of course, perhaps that's what this holiday's actually about. If we only gave thanks when we felt like it already, we'd hardly need to have a special day for it, would we?

In any event, I'll be back next week.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Trustworthy

Last week, Slacktivist commented on how some of the discussions connected to the "Intelligent Design" debate bring up the idea of who one "trusts" for information. Although Slacktivist moves rather quickly from religious issues to how this notion of "trust" has changed the way that journalists do their reporting (given Slacktivist's occupation working for a newspaper, this makes sense), I'd prefer to stick with the religious issues category.

The original post Slacktivist cites goes into some considerable detail as the issue of "trust" relates to the "Intelligent Design" debate. More than I care to read through with any attention to detail — just skimming through it all makes my eyes gloss over — but that's really the point. Most of us can't take the time to learn all the details necessary to truly understand many of these disciplines, and so we are forced to choose which sources to trust as reliable at some point or another.

But what really surprises me about all this is that both Slacktivist and tristero seem to think that bringing up the issue of trust is some new tactic that religious believers are using to bolster weak arguments. No doubt some religious believers do use this tactic as a diversionary tactic, but even there, it's hardly new. I've heard this kind of thing for many years now. For example, the old chestnut about how Jesus is referenced in more ancient documents than say, Socrates or Julius Caesar (in fact, I feel that I've mentioned this one before, but can't find the reference at present). This is an attempt, whatever else it's doing, to suggest that if we trust our history professors (or whoever) enough to believe that Socrates and Caesar existed (and why shouldn't we?), we should believe that Jesus existed, as well. And that's all well and good. The fact that most (not quite all, but pretty darn close) of those documents are themselves religious documents may or may not be meaningful to that discussion, but either way, it brings up the trust issue, and it's been used for years.

But the fact that the issue of trust has been misused for diversionary purposes does not negate the truth of the claim behind it: our knowledge is dependent upon which sources we choose to believe are reliable. This is inescapable. One certainly hopes that people are being trained in critical thinking enough to be able to evaluate potential sources for their reliability, but at some point or another, one still has to make a choice: do I trust this source or don't I? This has implications for every part of our lives: religious, journalistic, political, whatever.

I find it ironic that the self-proclaimedly liberal Slacktivist is the one who decries the current trend:
...promoters of junk science deliberately seek to push the dispute away from questions of fact to questions of trust. Tristero thinks that tactic has to be confronted explicitly — that this is a game we should refuse to play. I think he's right about that.... That way lies madness — treating the world like a game of "Family Feud" in which there are no true or false answers, no actual facts, only the arbitrary opinions of "100 people surveyed, top five answers on the board."
I find this ironic, because I'm so used to hearing the conservatives argue that it's the "liberals" who seek to deny the objectivity of truth. Not so, here. The "liberal" is (rightly) accusing the proponents of a conservative religious line of thinking of promoting the idea that one cannot or should not worry about the facts.

I think that both are right, and both are wrong, here. There is such a thing as objective truth, but I'm not at all convinced that facts and figures can be interpreted wholly objectively. Just look at how candidates for political office spin facts and figures to suit their own ends. We do well to treat these statements, however many facts and figures are tossed our way, with a critical eye.

In any event, I agree insofar as we should be encouraging people to weigh arguments on the basis of their inherent strengths, and that there are indeed "facts" to consider when doing this. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that if we have all the facts, that we'll all finally agree on their interpretation. Human nature simply doesn't work that way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

To Pay or Not to Pay. That is the Question

Through fellow Fuller alum Erika Carney Haub (whose husband Douglas is a fellow current Fuller worker), I learned of a conversation online regarding the question of whether or not ministers should be paid. Like Erika, I'm not unbiased on this matter. I can say for myself much the same as she says for herself and for her husband:
I know I am not coming at this totally objectively. I would not have done what I did in pursuing seminary studies if I did not think service to the church as a paid minister was a valid calling. That said, neither Doug nor I have received paychecks for our ministerial work for years now....
In my own case, having gotten an MDiv several years ago that has still yet to actually contribute in any meaningful way to my income, the idea that the church may be moving toward a non-paying model of church leadership is threatening. I can't help but wonder if I've devoted several years of my life and several thousand dollars of tuition fees to a foolhardy and worthless enterprise. I knew going into seminary that I was looking to enter a career that would never be especially profitable. But I still expected to be able to earn a living following God's call on my life, and so far, that hasn't really happened. Indeed, I wonder if the type of position I trained for no longer exists in form it did when I got started.*

But, having laid all that on the table, the discussion of whether or not churches should pay their leaders really has been an interesting one. Like Erika and Ms. Clawson (since I don't know her, calling her "Julie" just seems off, although I equally suspect she'd resist the formal "Ms." label. What's a blogger to do?), I want more people to recognize that they are the church, and to be invested in its work. The idea that the pastor is the "professional Christian" has been a blight on the American Christian lifestyle for far too long. It seems that many congregations abdicate the responsibility of doing Christian work to only the paid church workers.

It's not even like the idea of not having paid church staff is anything new. This blog discusses the fact that Quakers historically didn't have paid church leaders (this changed in more recent times). And I think most would agree that the original church leaders of the New Testament were not "paid" in the conventional sense. In fact, even today we speak of "tent making" (a term that references the "paying" job held by the Apostle Paul, which I've written about in the past) to describe an actual paying job done in order to fund one's ability to survive while doing the "real"** work of ministry. The first comment to Erika's post reminds me that there are cultural dynamics to this issue, too. Many minority churches in America currently have mostly unpaid or "bivocational" church leaders.

But like pretty much everybody in the blogs linked so far (and I hope that this isn't just my bias talking), I don't know if I believe that the idea of a church with no paid leaders is sustainable. Like any job, including secular ones, being paid for work implies a commitment that doesn't exist (at least not in the same way) with volunteer work. If you're just volunteering for something that becomes unsuitable, there's really not much keeping you there doing that job except your own values. If you're paid for it, you lose that income if you leave (and potentially damage your ability to get another job depending on how you leave, something that's less the case with volunteer work). And, let's be realistic, people have to be able to earn a living. Either a person has to work a "paying" job and give "extra" time to the church, or you can pay that person to work at the church, and they can then devote their fullest energies to the church job. Surely no one thinks that the church should get only the "leftovers" of a person's energy and time! But the other bloggers address this issue more fully and more eloquently than I can here.

My gut feeling on this matter is that more and more churches will find some kind of a middle ground. More of the church's work will be spread around to be done by more people. That's a good thing. But since the church's resources will likely stay at about the same level, this will be accomplished by a combination of volunteer work and having more of the paying positions handled via part-time work. Of course, not all churches will do this. I'm sure that many churches will stick to the full-time paid pastor model. I just hope that fewer and fewer that do so will see that person as the "professional Christian" who enables the rest of the congregation to fail to do the work of the church themselves.

*Actually, that kind of position clearly does exist in places, but increasingly it seems to exist only in places that the rest of the world left behind a couple of decades ago, which is hardly the type of church I'd be looking to serve!

**There's an odd contradiction in how the word "real" is often used in this discussion. "Real job" is often used by laypeople to refer to the secluar, but paying, job held by church leaders in many churches that don't pay them for their church leadership, as Ms. Clawson herself acknowledges in the above-linked entry. Yet many of the non-paid church leaders themselves describe their ministry as the "real job" as if the paying one were somehow artificial. I'll avoid using the word "real" hereafter.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The New "Brigadier"

While perusing the Doctor Who news, I came upon this article that tells us that the character of Captain Jack Harkness, introduced in Season One and returning for the last few episodes of Season Three (not to mention the spin-off series Torchwood, which I've never seen, and don't especially expect to) will be back for some episodes of Season Four next year.

That got me thinking about Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who had the distinction of showing up in Doctor Who as a supporting character (pretty much never the main "companion") off-and-on throughout the span of the original series, beginning in the era of the Second Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) and continuing all the way through to an appearance in the very last season of the original series (Season Twenty-Six) alongside the Seventh Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy). In fact, if you add in non-televised and other-character appearances, actor Nicholas Courtney (who played the Brigadier) has appeared alongside every Doctor from the First through the Eighth, the only actor with this distinction!

While it would be tons of fun to see the Brigadier to show up alongside David Tennant (the current Doctor: the Tenth) in the new series (and Nicholas Courtney's still around, making such theoretically possible), it's clear that the actor can't keep going on forever, and so it makes sense for the producers behind the new show to introduce their own elements. It seems to me that Captain Jack is being set-up to fill the Brigadier's role: a military-trained friend of the Doctor's able to deal with alien threats on Earth when the Doctor may not himself be available. Where the Brigadier had UNIT (short for United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, which itself has shown up a couple of times on the new series), Captain Jack has Torchwood (and indeed, Torchwood appears destined to fill in the "UNIT" role in the new series, since apparently the real United Nations isn't too keen on it's nominal involvement. At least, that's the rumor I heard some time back). Where the Brigadier's character took a back seat to more explicit "companions" such as Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith, Captain Jack has played second-fiddle to Rose Tyler and Martha Jones.

But like the Brigadier, who kept showing up again and again for years after the departure of other companions (and other Doctors!), Captain Jack (who himself has already outlived one Doctor, and is getting to know his second) seems poised to outlast the companions he was introduced alongside. Will fans of Doctor Who ten years from now be talking about Captain Jack the same way as current long-time fans talk about the Brigadier? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Traveling Mercies

Like many people, my wife and I will visiting with family this Thanksgiving. And like many people, this means travel. Since we only get two days off of work (Thursday and Friday), we have to fit all of our traveling into a fairly short window, but my parents have generously contributed to our travel abilities by buying our plane tickets, facilitating more time spent actually being with family as opposed to being on the road driving. This is a good thing.

And that should really be the end of it, but for my sense of economic efficiency. After accounting for time spent getting to the airport and getting through security, I figure we probably save about 4 hours each way by flying instead of driving. As to time spent with my parents, the four hours saved on the trip up is the only time saved that matters, since they have to leave before we do, anyway. Even though I don't have to pay the money (and, indeed, no longer have to pay the costs of driving myself up either), I can't help but think that the extra four hours isn't worth the extra expense.

This naturally makes me appear a bit ungrateful. After all, they want to spend the money. It obviously is worth it to them to be able to get that extra time. And I'm certainly happy to have the extra time, however small it is. Why should it matter that it somehow seems like an economic imbalance? And, of course, even if my parents have to leave a bit earlier than we would, we still get to spend that much more time with other relatives thanks to my parents generosity. Clearly, they have done a good thing.

I often spend time listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio. Garrison Keillor often pokes fun at the sometimes-ridiculous extremes people go to avoid accepting kindnesses. It's okay to give to others without expecting anything in return, but it's somehow not okay to accept someone giving to you. Indeed, in this set-up, one wonders how anyone ever does do anything nice for anyone else! You have to be able to take once in a while!

Although Keillor's humor is deeply-rooted in Midwestern culture, which doesn't really apply to me all that well, I have to believe that a similar factor is at work in myself. I have trouble accepting such a kind offer. This is certainly true with my in-laws as well, who have allowed my wife and I the privilege of joining them on an Alaskan cruise last year, and also on recent weekend trips to the coast (such as this one). I am indeed grateful for these gifts, and can certainly say that I've needed the breaks from my usual routine.

So why is it so hard to just accept these gifts and say "thanks"? I'm not entirely sure, but need to be aware of this within myself.

So, "thanks" Mom and Dad. I look forward to seeing you next week.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The First Thing We Do, Let's Save All The Lawyers

Since the (relatively few) people who read my blog tend to be a fairly well-educated bunch, I really don't need to point out that I'm misquoting Shakespeare with my title. But the fact that most readers will get the joke is rather the point.

It's fashionable to make fun of lawyers. We have a whole category of "lawyer jokes," and even friends who are themselves lawyers (or who used to be) seem to enjoy them. We enjoy thinking of lawyers as people that it's "okay" to despise.

And then something like the recent events in Pakistan comes along. The President of Pakistan has suspended his country's constitution and fired the Chief Justice of his country's Supreme Court. This short-circuiting of the democratic process by one of the United States' closest allies in the "war against terrorism" has been a deep embarrassment, frustrating Democrats and Republicans alike. Indeed, it's uncommon in these increasingly-divided days to find a political event so capable of bringing both sides together.

And who is it that everyone, conservative and liberal, is rooting for? Who is it that everyone wants to make sure is saved, so that justice may ultimately prevail? The lawyers! The irony is wonderful! For once, I think I can speak for most of us in hoping that the lawyers win.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Secret to Masterpiece Megatron's Scale Revealed!

A lot of fans were really excited about the prospect of a "Masterpiece" Megatron toy to correspond to the "Masterpiece Optimus Prime" of a few years ago. More specifically, they were thrilled that there would be a Megatron "in scale" to Prime (at least in terms of robot mode). Now, I've already commented on the ultimate futility of "scale" arguments, but the reality is that this makes a big difference to a lot of fans.

But let's face it, how many adult fans (those most likely to be able to afford these particular toys) are actually likely to physically engage their robots in battle? After paying all that money to import the toy from Japan (which will never be made available domestically, because of the realistic, if admittedly oversized, gun mode. This gun mode is a reason I will never have this toy in my home, either. I'm not a fan of realistic guns.), owners of Masterpiece Megatron would never risk chipping the paint or denting the plastic (even assuming they don't have the childish impulses they once almost certainly had when the Transformers started out in the '80s)!

But, fear not, Transformers fan! For I have discovered the real scale to which Masterpiece Megatron was constructed, thanks to a picture from my brother (who doesn't have the hang-ups I do about this toy). This picture clearly shows that Megatron was intended not for battles with the demonstrably heftier Masterpiece Prime, but for display with the original G1 Laserbeak toy, which was often traditionally shown in precisely this position atop Megatron's arm. Here they are, together again as they were always meant to be!

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