Supply and demand

Yesterday, while looking at home improvement items in a big box store, I overhead a conversation between a store employee and a customer. The customer was reacting to the high price of flooring. The employee said, “Yes, ever since the Covid craziness prices have gone through the roof.” The statement, a way of engaging the customer and perhaps encouraging a sale, was a simplification of a complex problem. There certainly have been and continue to be supply chain issues during the pandemic. Shifts in consumer demand have created shortages, at least in retail sales outlets. Some of the shortages have been relatively short-term. I haven’t noticed any shortages of toilet tissue for many months, although I have noticed that the stores where we shop seem to stock fewer of the large packages and have filled the shelves with more small packages. We never experienced the shortage as a problem. We purchased tissue when we needed it and never felt a desire to stock up and fill our cupboards.

Purchasing building supplies, however, is conundrum. The price of lumber is high and doesn’t seem to be giving any signs of heading down anytime soon. It isn’t quite the issue of supply and demand that was affecting toilet tissue, or at least it is a bit more complex. It is true that more people staying home triggered an increase in home improvement projects, creating an increase in demand for lumber. Prices started to go up. But the high prices started a slow down in new construction and the actual demand for lumber wasn’t excessive because builders adopted a “wait and see” attitude, delaying projects in hope that prices would decline. Thus at the current moment, prices are high, but there are few real shortages. Earlier this week, I purchased a single 2 x 10 x 10’ pressure treated board for a front step project at our son’s home. I paid nearly $60 - about 3 times the price I paid for pressure treated lumber a year ago when making repairs to our deck in Rapid City. Then I went out into the lumber yard to get my board and watched as the yard attendant moved stacks of unsold boards to get at the board I needed. There was no shortage of supply. The lumber yard was over stocked with lumber. High prices have definitely affected demand and there are plenty of discretionary projects that can wait in hopes of decreasing prices.

I don’t understand all of the dynamics of the pandemic economy, but I do know that it is more complex than simple supply and demand.

In the store where we purchase groceries, there is plenty of chicken available for sale, but the price is going up dramatically - much faster than other meat. They say there is a shortage, and some of us are decreasing the amount we purchase, but I can find chicken for sale if I am willing to pay a higher price.

At the same time, there is a widespread shortage of workers. Businesses have “now hiring” signs out all around time. However the shortage has not affected the price at all. The United States continues to experience dramatic wage stagnation. If there is a shortage of supply and an increased demand, you would expect the price to go up, but it appears that the majority of employers are unwilling to pay increased wages and benefits despite the shortages.

I read somewhere that there is a shortage of ketchup packets and that some restaurants are limiting the amount of ketchup a customer can take. We don’t buy much fast food at our house and we don’t have much need for ketchup in packets, so I haven’t noticed, but I guess that the increase in carry out food sales during the pandemic has led to a shortage of supply.

The price of chlorine is high because of shortages. I’m not sure what created the shortages, but I suspect that it has something to do with more intense cleaning and disinfecting in order to combat the spread of disease. At least I haven’t noticed a dramatic increase in the number of swimming pools, so I doubt that the cause is something like that.

Shortages and increases in price are related to supply and demand, but there are many factors that can affect demand. In the case of toilet paper, the threat of shortages really spiked demand. People were definitely hoarding the product. The recent cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline caused a decrease in supply of gasoline across the southeastern United States, but people also dramatically increased demand during the shortage. They were making sure that their vehicles were topped off at all times, thus effectively increasing the amount of fuel in storage. It was just that the fuel was being stored in vehicles rather than dealers’ tanks. It is unclear whether or not the increased prices currently being charged will go back down now that fuel has begun to flow in the pipeline.

There are always those who attempt to profit from market fluctuations, but in general it is a challenging way to earn a living. There is plenty to be lost when the market is misinterpreted. I have no plans to invest my retirement savings in lumber speculation and I have no hoard of ketchup packets. My mother-in-law was always careful to save all of the extra ketchup packets from a visit to a restaurant. Perhaps if we had saved all of those packets we could be selling them on E-Bay for supplemental income. I have a couple of packages of chicken thighs in the freezer, but I think we’ll probably just cook them on the barbecue some evening rather than offer them for sale at a profit.

And, for the record, I haven’t been quick to dive back into the labor market. Maybe I’m waiting for the price of labor to go up, though my career field is not one noted for high wages. More likely, I’m just learning to enjoy having a bit more time for projects. On the other hand, I can’t afford to build many more steps out of pressure treated lumber. Some of that will have to remain at the lumber yard.

A bit of sacramental theology

To some it may seem like an obscure theological argument, but it is an item that came up a few times in my career. Each time I was exploring a call with a congregation, I sought to make it clear to the congregation that was considering calling me that I would not be making judgment calls about who could or could not be baptized or who could or could not receive communion. In the United Church of Christ ordination confers the authority to preach and teach the Gospel and to administer the sacraments. The United Church of Christ recognizes two sacraments: baptism and holy communion. I administered those sacraments in a congregation for a year under authority of a license before I was ordained and then for 42 years as an ordained minister. To my knowledge, I never refused anyone who asked to receive either sacrament.

It might seem like a small thing to some, but it is very important to me and it goes to the core of sacramental theology. I believe that God, through the Holy Spirit, acts directly in the sacraments. That means that God is not dependent upon human officiants in order to be present. Denying the sacrament to anyone for any reason is assuming that the human officiant is the one in charge of the sacrament. It is, in my opinion, a sign that the officiant does not trust God. We humans are quick to judge as if we don’t think that God’s judgment is sufficient.

It is an argument that has been going on for centuries in the church. Before the great schism, as early as the 3rd century, Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. They never represented the majority of the church and eventually official actions of the church created policies that understood that human clergy and not imperfect. They make mistakes. They are not God. And God has the power to work through imperfect humans in the life of the church. If a believer receives the sacrament in good faith, they receive the benefit of the sacrament whether or not the clergy person is worthy.

The argument is likely even more ancient than the 3rd century. In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the earliest sources of the stories of the Christian Church, there is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. After what appears to be a chance meeting and a time of discussing the scriptures, the eunuch ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The assumption is that some early church leaders might have seen the fact that the eunuch was a gentile, from a foreign country, as a barrier to his baptism. Others might have seen the fact that he was the member of a sexual minority as preventing the baptism. The Bible, however, reports that “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” Philip did not refuse the sacrament.

The history of the church, however, does not stop Christians from arguing about who can and who cannot receive sacraments. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has scheduled a meeting for June 16. They plan to vote on a document about whether or not Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are able to receive communion. The reason for the meeting in just over a month is that President Biden is a member of the Roman Catholic Church and, in contrast to some others who have occupied the office, he is very visible in his faith. He goes to church regularly. When he is in Washington, D.C., he usually attends church at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. And when he does, he participates in the Eucharist - Holy Communion.

The meeting of the Bishops has gotten the attention of the Vatican, which as already weighed in with a warning top the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Vatican is saying that they should not rush into making sanctions, but rather they should seek dialogue. In keeping with previous statements by Pope Francis, they are being reminded that Holy Communion is not some prize that is awarded to only a few. It is not the role of the bishop to make draconian laws, but rather to inform the conscience, to teach people, and to allow their teaching to inform the hearts and minds of the people they serve.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not taken up the question of whether politicians who support the death penalty, in contrast to the official teachings of the church, should be allowed to receive communion.

Observers expect the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to heed the advice of the Vatican. In doing so, they would also be paying attention to the issues that are more important to the members of their congregations. Like other Christians, Roman Catholics are concerned with the loss of community caused by pandemic restrictions. They are worried about people who are suffering and dying from Covid-19. While it is likely that most Roman Catholics have strong opinions about abortion, it isn’t the only issue for them. It shouldn’t be the only issue for the Bishops when they gather.

Furthermore, according to Roman Catholic law, the decision of the Bishops will not affect whether or not President Biden receives communion. It is the local bishop who regulates the administration of the sacraments in the churches of his area. The cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has already made it clear that President Biden is welcome to receive communion at church in the diocese. His decision will remain in place despite the vote of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not my place to offer advice to the Bishops when they gather. But I do pray with and for all Christians. I do care about what occurs in other congregations than the one in which I participate. I do care about the voices of those who are often unheard, and that includes women in the Roman Catholic Church whose leadership and wisdom are denied because of their gender.

The eunuch’s question remains, “What is to prevent?” I choose not to be one to prevent people of faith from receiving the sacraments.

Columbine

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When we bought our home in South Dakota, we planed columbine in a bed in front of our house. We were happy to be in the hills after decades of living in prairies and cities. We figured the altitude of our house and its setting in a pine forest would support the delicate mountain flowers and we were right.

Then, in the spring of 1999, the Columbine High School massacre occurred. It struck especially close to home for us. We two high school students in our home, one a senior. And the year previously, we had a third student in our home, an exchange student from Japan. The physical layout of our children’s school was similar to Columbine High School, which we got to know fairly well through hours of news footage covering the tragic events of that day. For the rest of that school year, our children experienced repeated school evacuations caused by phoned in threats and tips warning of a copycat event. Although no such event occurred, students, teachers and parents were on edge. Our daughter found the evacuations to be especially frightening and confusing.

Somewhere along the line, we simply stopped growing the columbine in our beds. Columbine is a perennial, so I guess the delicate flowers got crowded out by the ever expanding iris bulbs in the ground or perhaps were pulled out along with weeds at some point. Whatever was the case, we kind of forgot about the columbine. The association of the flower with the shooting at the high school dampened our enthusiasm for the delicate blossoms.

With so many mass shootings, including fairly frequent school shootings over the years since Columbine, we have become a bit numb to the death and pain and grief and loss. There is just a tiny bit less shock when such an even occurs. There is a decrease in the attention we pay to the news reports. We still share the sadness and grief, but in smaller ways. Our children have grown up and somehow we feel just a little bit less vulnerable. We aren’t ignoring the violence of our communities, but it doesn’t occupy the same place in our consciousness as once was the case and our emotional reaction to shootings, even school shootings is a but less intense.

This spring marked the 22nd anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. The victims would be entering their forties this year as are the survivors.

We’ve moved on. Our home in Rapid City has a new owner who, I’m sure, is planning new plants for the beds and garden. We find ourselves in a rental house in Mount Vernon, Washington, a place with entirely different weather and a whole new set of plants. Because the landscaping and flower beds were planted by others, this spring has been a time of discovery. We were told that the tradition around here is to prune rose bushes on President’s Day. February seemed a bit early, but we had some fine weather and out came the pruning shears. I’ve never had so many rose bushes and the process took a couple of different attempts. Not long afterward, blossoms began to appear. The Skagit Valley is famous for daffodils and tulips and there were a few of those in the beds around our house. There are a lot more grape hyacinths that add color. Yellow and white blossoms appeared on plants whose names we don’t know. The apple and cherry trees put forth both fragrance and beautiful blossoms.

We have plants in our yard that are new to us: Japanese maple and rhododendron. Some of the rhododendrons have bloomed, but we can tell that there are a lot more blossoms yet to come. One rhododendron is just starting to open red flowers and we can tell it will turn into a riot of color in coming days. We have canna lilies growing by our front door. We’ve never lived in a place where lilies thrive.

In the midst of all of this we noticed, in a small bed at the corner of the sidewalk and the driveway, the gentle tiny flowers of purple. There is a columbine plant in our front yard. It is not what we expected. Columbine is a mountain flower. Although we have a dramatic view of Mount Baker and delight in the beauty of the Cascade Mountains rising to the east of our home, Mount Vernon is only 180 feet above sea level. With the exception of Chicago, where we attended graduate school and lived for four years, Mount Vernon is the lowest elevation we’ve ever lived. We didn’t expect to see an alpine flower in the beds of our house here.

In the scheme of things, the little plant is a tiny piece of the landscaping here. The beds are fairly lightly planted, the product of the house being a rental with residents who come and go and have varying skills and interests in caring for the outdoor plants. Perennials are the things that do best in this environment.

When we become more settled in this place, after we have found a home to purchase and have gotten ourselves moved yet another time, we’ll get serious about what kind of plants we want to have around our home. We’ve already discovered that being retired gives us more time and energy for caring for our yard. Having a smaller yard with less to mow also gives more time and energy for the care of outside plants. We don’t have a vegetable garden this year, so we’ll be dependent on the stores and the abundant gardens at our son’s farm, but we’ll want to grow some of our own vegetables plus herbs and a bit of peppermint for tea once we get settled.

Perhaps as part of the landscape plan when we get our new place, I’ll find a spot for columbine. We wouldn’t need many plants, just a few to show up in April each year as a memorial to the lives lost and a reminder of the grief of families and the trauma experienced by classmates and students of that generation. We don’t want to forget.

Ancient stories

Among the many instructions, commandments and laws that are presented in the first five books of the bible, is the commandment that was quoted to Jesus as the most important: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The text goes on to instruct believers to “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on you hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7-8). The next paragraphs of the text are reminders that these commandments are to be observed without disobedience because they have come as a result of the grace of God who brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

The story of the slavery of our people and of their miraculous escape from slavery is one of the key stories of Hebrew theology. The telling of that story is ritualized in the observance of the Seder, the sacred meal of Passover. The commandments to tell that story are deeply imbedded in the teachings of our people. The Gospels report that Jesus shared the passover with his disciples with all of its rituals and stories. The Christian sacrament of Holy Communion contains the story of Jesus celebrating the passover with his followers.

In the story of the Passover, as reported in Exodus, part of the process of the people obtaining their liberation is a series of ten plagues that are visited upon the Egyptians: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of firstborn children.

The ancient stories of the plagues is one of many Biblical stories that have stirred the imaginations of researchers and scholars who are examining the oldest traditions and stories of humanity in search of what actually happened. David Montgomery, professor at the University of Washington and author of “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood,” has tried to bring the tools of modern science to the examination of the stories that ancient people told.

Several contemporary scientists are beginning to look once again at something that religious people have long held - the stories of our ancestors tell the truth. Our most ancient forebears were keen observers who brought their best skills as rational thinkers to their time and place as they tried to explain what they had witnessed. Over the centuries, their stories were repeated with remarkable accuracy and careful study of those stories can reveal deep truths about the world in which we live.

Scientists who examine ancient stories in search of explanations of phenomena they observe in geology, archeology and other sciences have been dubbed geomythologists by their colleagues. The study has inspired several books and theses in recent times. Scholars are fascinated with the question of whether or not and how Bible stories connect with archeological and geological discoveries. Many Biblical stories, including the report of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, show up in other ancient texts, including some ancient Egyptian medical texts.

One theory of modern scientists is that an ancient volcanic eruption is reported the ancient stories, but that the people did not fully understand what was happening. Volcanic ash, carried by the winds to Egypt contained toxic acids including the mineral cinnabar, which turned the river into a blood-like red color. The ash also raised the acidity of the water causing frogs to abandon the river and seek clean water. The ash also caused the death of animals and humans. Insects swarmed to the decaying bodies, leaving behind larvae and then adult insect. Acid rain fell on the people and caused burns and boils. Plants were contaminated and poisoned the animals that ate them. Increased humidity caused dramatic storms, including hail, leaving behind optimal conditions for locusts to thrive. The volcanic eruptions caused days of darkness as ash clouded the skies.

That doesn’t explain the death of the firstborn - the tenth plague. Some scientists believe that in the midst of all of the destruction of the other plagues, firstborn children were sacrificed out of desperation. Ancient people often sacrificed that which they loved hoping that sacrifice would please the gods and their punishment would be ended.

I’ve also read a theory that blames a red algae bloom for the color of the water, killing fish and forcing the frogs out of the water. Without frogs to eat the insects, the insects proliferated out of control. Like the theory of the volcano, each of the plagues is explained with a connection to a possible event.

I’m no expert in ancient Egyptian medical texts. I’m not a geologist or an archeologist. I only know that there was a reason that our people told the stories and taught each successive generation the importance of teaching it to the next. I don’t think I need a complete scientific explanation of the events. Without meaning to demean the genuine work of scientists, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not scientists find a historical basis for the scriptures. The truth in the text is not dependent upon geological or archeological evidence of the events of 3,500 years ago. The truth is that our people discovered the presence and deeds of God in the events of their lives. We have inherited the faith and confidence of people who are convinced that God is on the side of human freedom and that we are called to continue that legacy of freedom for all people in all generations. Our stories teach us that God is a liberator of humans.

From time to time, I pay attention when people approach our stories from another perspective. I am genuinely interested in learning more about the reasons our people have been so careful to preserve those stories, but my faith is not dependent upon some scientific discovery or another theory that might explain those stories. My respect for the ancients who told those stories and preserved them for our time is not dependent upon scientific corroboration.

I intend to take seriously the commandment to teach these stories to our children and grandchildren and to examine them for the truth they carry.

Mother's Day 2021

Mother’s Day is a holiday I understand, or at least I think I do. I grew up with an amazing mother. She raised seven children, four adopted and three born to her. She showed each of us her love, support and devotion. She made each of us feel special. Along with her work as a homemaker, she was a full partner in our family’s business, rising early in the morning to do bookwork for the business, sharing in important decisions, working to make the company grow. She not only married a pilot, she became one herself in a time when there weren’t many women who were licensed pilots. I had the special good fortune of having our mother live in our home at the end of her life. I watched her face serious illness and disability with humor and grace. Mother’s Day for me is filled with wonderful memories of an amazing woman.

She isn’t the only amazing mother in my life. I know men who joke about their mother-in-law, but I married into a family who accepted me fully as a son. My mother-in-law was always wonderful to me. I joke with my wife and her sisters that I think I was their mother’s favorite child. That isn’t true, because she was very careful not to choose favorites and to be fair to all of her children. What is true is that she treated me as one of her children and for that I’m grateful. She could pick out a shirt that I loved to wear. She cared for me with deep love and devotion when I was injured on summer. Mother’s Day makes me feel deep gratitude for her presence in my life.

I am married to an amazing mother. Like my mother, she is mother to a child who came to our family by birth and a child who came to our family by adoption. She has shown deep love and care for both children. She has been an amazing partner in parenting at every stage of our children’s lives. I love to listen in when she speaks with our daughter or our son. She is an amazing listener and an inspiring partner in life. She balanced home life with a successful professional career and was always there to support my adventures and endeavors. Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate the good fortune of sharing life with her.

I have a daughter-in-law who is a wonderful mother to three of our grandchildren. She juggles a professional career with her love of the farm’s plants and animals and her dedication to her children. When the pandemic closed the schools, she opened up a home school and dove in with an extra layer of hard work. She is continually seeking and researching new ways to help her children grow and learn and develop. She shares home and farm with our son and supports his career as well. Mother’s Day is a time for our family to focus our attention on her children’s gifts and greetings, but I share their enthusiasm and love for her.

I knew long before she became a mother that our daughter would be a wonderful mother and I was right. Her absolute and complete delight in raising her son is so contagious that I look forward to every conversation and every picture that she sends in text and email messages. She achieves a delightful balance of love and support with clear and consistent limits and boundaries for our grandson. If they had lined up all of the children seeking adoption in the world and allowed us to choose, we couldn’t have made a better choice for a daughter. And in the mix we got an amazing mother who fills Mother’s Day with joy for me.

I know, however, that not everyone has had the experiences I have known. There are mothers who have strained and broken relationships with their children. There are children who have experienced abuse at the hands of mothers. There are people for whom this day is a day of deep pain.

On Mother’s Day, I can’t avoid thinking of a young woman I know whose young son died suddenly of an undetected heart malfunction. Every day is a day of grief for her, even a couple of years after her loss. She will never again be the same. Mother’s Day is a day of deep grief for her. She is not alone. Many mothers have gone through the deep gut-wrenching loss of a child.

And I think of women who want to become mothers but are unable. They live with a sense of loss of their vision of what their lives might have been.

There are mothers who became mothers at a time when they weren’t ready and those who became pregnant through relationships that were forced or painful or broken.

There are single mothers who feel alone in the world struggling to survive in a world where the odds seem to be stacked against them.

There are many people for whom Mother’s Day is not a day of celebration, but a reminder of pain and sorrow and sadness. Just as our mothers received our every emotion, this day brings every emotion imaginable to people. And in just month it will be Father’s Day - a day filled with emotions as complex as today.

So when I wish you a happy Mother’s Day, I embrace the many different emotions that you might bring to this day. I know that tears of joy and tears of sadness often mingle on the same cheek. I know that grief and joy often inhabit the same moment in the same person. I know that we are far more complex than one might imagine from reading a display of Mother’s Day cards in the store. May this day be a time of recognizing the power of the relationships we have with mothers and of celebrating the mothers of our lives in ways that nurture and sustain our spirits.

Happy Mother’s Day!