November 30, 2008

The media is full of stories about spending on “Black Friday” and consumer confidence or lack thereof. What happened to giving thanks for everything that we have, why does our culture focus on wanting more? Where are our priorities?

For today’s Children’s Sermon, the object lesson was the Thanksgiving Day newspaper. The headline for Thursday’s local daily (under “Happy Thanksgiving”) was “Enticements to Buy,” with a highlighted quote from a department store spokeswoman: “There’s no question. This is one of the most challenging times we’ve seen in our history.” Really? She couldn’t think of a few more challenging times? We’re talking about shopping, for heaven’s sake. Ah, but there’s the problem. Heaven is a foreign priority in a consumer culture, as demonstrated in today’s worship service.

The kids came forward as usual and assembled on the dais steps for the Children’s Sermon. First I pulled the four news sections out of my special blue and white bag. After pointing out the front page headline to the kids, I turned the bag upside down and dumped out the Thanksgiving advertising inserts, along with a pocket Bible. The outline for my talk said that at this point I was going to point out the difference in volume between the mass quantity of advertising and the actual news (about a 3:1 ratio), and ask them to look for the real (truly heavenly!) good news.

As usual, the children didn’t follow the “script” and gave an even better demonstration of our nearsighted cultural focus. The younger kids pounced on the advertising, scrambling to find the toy and electronics sections. It looked like a door buster opening at the mall! One boy found the Bible and handed it to me as if I must have accidentally left it in the bag. A girl took an ad back to show her parents what she wanted. It took awhile to regain their attention! I’m not sure the littlest kids got the message as I read Romans 8:5 (paraphrased – if you focus on the things of this world, you get the fruits of this world - stuff. If you focus on the Holy Spirit, you get the fruits of the Holy Spirit.), but the older kids and adults sure did. Our focus and our priorities do matter! We have to choose wisely.

Our country, our state and every level of government face serious budget challenges in the coming year, and our leaders have started discussing the priorities of government. We have to trim expenses, yet we have special interest groups of all kinds pressing for more, or at least making the case for why they shouldn’t be cut. To be honest, all of us belong to at least one group that has some special interest in this debate, whether it is 4H, Farm Bureau, your local school district or your business. We have met the special interests, and they are us.

The dilemma facing the legislature is that there are good (from at least somebody’s point of view) arguments in favor of everything the state is doing or we wouldn't be doing them. Therefore, before focusing on specifics, we need agreement on how to judge which cuts we make, recognizing there are likely good reasons not to make any one specific cut. We need to establish the yardstick objectively before we start measuring, and acknowledge that the results are likely to be unpopular. The most basic of yardsticks is to go back to the state constitution and work from there. Once we have fulfilled our basic obligations, then we can look at opportunities to spend on lower priorities of government. And it may be hard to accept for some citizens, but there are good things the state is spending money on that government just has no business doing and should be cut altogether.

Tax revenues this next biennium will be higher than last biennium, but spending obligations have risen faster. Like the kids pouncing on the ads, the Democratic majority succumbed to pleas for more and jumped on board. The Republican minority has vainly sounded the warning - we have to pay for it. Hopefully both parties understand new taxes are not an option in this fragile economy. Both have to work together to set priorities and stick with them in the face of unpopular reaction. Priorities matter, for individuals and governments, and we can’t afford to have partisan grandstanding interfere with good government.