Sunday, December 23, 2018

Run your business like a symphony orchestra concert, except...

In a symphony orchestra concert, the players have individually prepared for the collective experience of accomplishing the musical goal of excellence. They desire to perform the required music to the best of their ability and to interpret the music to please the conductor who works to adhere to the composer's music. The performers are unswervingly committed to exceptional performance and come together for the purpose of accomplishing a musical goal. They are willing to follow the conductor's leadership and accept instruction and correction from the conductor. Although the conductor is governed, to an extent, by a board, he or she has absolute power over the players and the music. If the individual musicians produce high quality individually, then the music comes together collectively under the guidance of the conductor, resulting in a high quality performance. Economics aside, many people with specialized skills work collectively under the guidance of one person to produce a quality product that was initially designed by someone else. This is an excellent business model, except...it is not efficient.

Unlike a business whose goals are profitability, the symphony orchestra is concerned with emotional expression and artistic excellence. Are these goals incompatible with profitability? Yes, due to the personnel expense problem. Symphony orchestras are financially inefficient and cannot function on ticket sales without donors, grants, and sponsorships. Customers enjoy the product and are willing to pay for the experience, but the revenue from the ticket paying customers does not support the expenses to produce the event. No business can operate in this way. Revenue must outpace expenses and dependence on donations is not a workable solution, although in the non-profit sector it is a reality. Advertising revenue, however, is a strong business model but difficult in certain kinds of limited markets with narrow demographic customers.

Given that symphony orchestras serve a public good, they are generally non-profit enterprises relying on goodwill for their sustenance. But for-profit businesses can benefit from the principles that make symphony orchestras special and unique...the never-ending quest for artistic perfection combined with the power of emotional expression. Another way to look at this is to have a relentless goal of making the music appealing to the listeners, for those in attendance who are customers of the orchestra.

Regardless of whether the business makes hamburgers, tacos, computers, clothes, cars, toys, perfume, or virtually any item or service such as mowing the lawn, building a skyscraper, cleaning houses, pet grooming, or preparing taxes, it must have customers and those customers must be pleased with what they receive for their money. Returning customers and new customers encourage sponsorships and advertising. This makes excellence and quality the primary goal of a symphony orchestra and one that it hopes brings in the customers.

Aside from the problem of personnel expenses, a symphony orchestra embodies the ideal business goals by striving for an experience that is greater than the cost. If the orchestra can figure out how to provide the product without the personnel costs, it will have the solved the business goals for profitability as a result of excellence. What would happen if the players were paid a percentage of the ticket sales? Would they desire a voice in programming, in collective preparation, in management, advertising? Likely, yes. Would such an approach be healthy for the organization or would it augur against all that it represents?

Friday, December 21, 2018

Meals on Wheels and Dogfood

Once again helping my wife deliver meals on wheels, we arrived at the main location to pick up the meals for the clients. Quite a system organized by type of food, dietary restrictions and preferences, all designed to serve people unable to provide for themselves. There are different reasons for the need including but not limited to poverty, health problems, old age, general weaknesses, and, for some, most likely poor decisions. The meals are not free but they are substantially reduced. Most of the funding comes from state support through grants, gifts, donations, and local sponsorships. The program is remarkably successful, serious, and serves a public good by providing meals for those who are unable to provide for themselves. It is totally dependent on volunteers, people who give of their time and energy to deliver meals to the indigent.

Delivering meals provides a welcome relief from the stresses of work and, yes, life. It is an opportunity to do the right thing, to serve those less fortunate, to put aside one's disappointments and make sacrifices for others. Just when your self-reflection reaches the limits of emotional stability, then you reach out to others, put aside your selfishness and become benevolent, charitable, giving. We drive around the neighborhood of small houses most of which are slightly more than shacks, knocking on doors and handing people their lunch. Most are very appreciative and most seem eager for the balanced meal.

But today we had a different experience. We delivered dog food to one house. Not sure how to react to this. Tax dollars, donations, charitable contributions and volunteers came together to deliver dog food to a house. Not a lot, just one fairly large bag. A large plaque stands in the main hall where we pick up the food to deliver. And on this plaque are the names of the founders of Meals on Wheels and the many initial contributors. Someone or several people had a dream of providing meals for those in need in the community and that dream was fulfilled in a glorious charitable organization making a positive difference in the lives of those who cannot take care of themselves. Did the founders envision providing meals for dogs?

Dogs were domesticated over 30,000 years ago and continue to be ideal pets for millions of households. No one can resist a puppy and dogs are trained to help with emotional support, comfort, protection, prevention of crime, care for the elderly, security, and many other highly beneficial activities. For someone alone, a dog provides companionship and even purpose while giving someone needed emotional support. Of course dogs can eat people food and anyone is welcome to share food with a dog, but the preferred food is designed for a dog and helps with keeping teeth clean and a good digestion system.

Yet even as I write these words, I question our tax dollars supporting dogs who support the indigent. When we deliver meals, inevitably the door opens to loud barking and someone fighting to keep the dog inside. Many times the home has a terrible odor and a quick glance shows poor hygiene, clutter, and general messiness. This is not always true, of course, and sometimes the dog is mannerly, calm, and seems to be a part of the home. But it is not unusual to find two or three large dogs inside a small home wreaking havoc on the household. Owners frequently correct the behaviors with a "stop it Bucky" or "settle down, Ranger" or even something more conversational such as, "Ginger, it's okay, they are just delivering our food."

Risking great criticism from pet owners, I have to question the practice of providing food through a charitable organization for dogs, and I further question the practice of keeping pets in a household that cannot afford even the basic necessities. Does the pet inadvertently contribute to the perpetuation of poverty? Maybe. Yes, it is their choice and for many it is a good choice. For others, however, it is not a good decision to keep a pet and our providing dog food seems to be enabling what may not ultimately be beneficial.

Monday, November 26, 2018

A Great Thanksgiving

Deciding to have a mini-vacation in Ruidoso, we got up early on Thanksgiving day and drove the 6 hours plus to Ruidoso, New Mexico. A beautiful region with pine trees, deer, mountain air, and plenty of hiking and activities, we always enjoy our time in Ruidoso. Arriving in the afternoon, we settled into the cabin owned and operated by Hardin-Simmons University. Although we brought snacks for supper, we also planned to run to a grocery store for something quick, knowing most restaurants would be closed for Thanksgiving. After buying a couple of frozen dinners to heat up in the microwave, we drove around the small town as the sun gave way to the darkness of the evening. Seeing my favorite coffee shop/restaurant called Sacred Grounds with cars in the parking lot, I mentioned that we might pick up something sweet to eat after our frozen dinners.

Heading up to the front door, someone outside said the open door was around the side. Slightly confused but still wanting a dessert of some kind, we walked into the back room to find a small group of people watching a football game on a large screen against the wall. Neither welcoming nor hostile, the people were focused on the game and paid little heed to us, almost as though our presence were normal and expected. Warm and comfortable, we settled down and watched the game with the people whom we did not know. After a few minutes, however, and feeling awkward since nobody was eating and no waiter came to take our order, I decided we should quietly leave during the next commercial. But as we got up to leave, a man came out and got everyone's attention. He said the food would be ready at the end of the game and the buffet would be in one room with the desserts in another. He then announced before we eat, he would play a recording of a poem to serve as our blessing.

The feeling of awkwardness increased, and I decided to go visit with the man as he made his way back to the kitchen. He said they were not officially open but had invited patrons to bring food for a Thanksgiving dinner. The owners had made a ham, turkey, and several casseroles in addition to what others brought. I thanked him but told him we were not residents and had unintentionally walked into the private gathering. He looked at me with direct but friendly eyes and said, "We want you to join us for this meal." I gave several reasons why it would not be right for us to stay, but he countered by insisting we be a part of the group. The game soon ended, we listened to a beautiful poem, and people stood up to get the food and enjoy the feast! Turkey, Ham, green bean casseroles, salads, cranberries, Yams, dressing, and rolls adorned the banquet hall (actually a small room with a large table!).

We ate with great enjoyment and began conversing with the people. Soon we felt a part of the group, and I realized the joy of Thanksgiving was not the food but the fellowship. The evening was special and filled with unusual love that can only be found among people who cast no judgment but, instead, offer their time and food to strangers. We walked in as strangers, soon became guests, and, by the end, we were part of their family. Leaving to return to our cabin, our bodies were full of great food and our souls were full of the joy that comes from the gift of openness and benevolence.

What a treat and what a great place. Ruidoso may have gained a new future resident! Sacred Grounds is sacred because of its love of strangers, of which we are no longer.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Increasing customers in higher education

Every business needs customers and higher education is no exception. Over the years I have seen a few businesses that did not appear to have consistent customers and had no interest in the few customers present. These businesses, however, were not selling anything and had not real need for additional customers to improve their business. I can think of 4 of these and all were museums that operated from an endowment. The earnings on the endowment paid for the utility costs, staffing, facilities, taxes, and any development. While it was a pleasure to experience these museums and exhibits, I also wondered if the lack of a drive for profits might contribute to complacency and indifference in the product from both the managers and the customers. Maybe not, but the concern is real.

The need for customers can drive a business or an institution forward and provide impetus for development and improvement of the product. Endowments, although sought after and necessary for non-profit organizations, can impede creativity by disincentivizing development and progress. Ironically, the same is true of restricted donations that insist on funds being used in specific ways. True, when money is working, it can free human capital to work on other aspects of the business. But a reliance on funds supporting funds without progress are at risk of losing customers and product development.

The answer for more customers is not improved marketing methods, not that such endeavors are without merit. Higher education, as an excessively complex institution, markets its quality of education, of student life, of degree programs, athletics, facilities, employment statistics, faculty to student ratios, completion rates, student experiences, and institutional reputation. Schools use recruiters, websites, brochures, digital resources, media, posters, calls, visits, and personal contacts to market its product. All these and more are beneficial and contribute to continued and new customers for the institution.

But in the end, marketing efforts aside, customer (students) growth must occur for the business (university) to thrive. Regardless of the marketing efforts, a business needs paying customers to remain in the business and such is true of higher education. Students, unless they have an income producing trust fund or have inherited significant wealth, have a driving need for a life filled with meaning and enough income to meet their needs and fulfill their intended professional goals.

The concern for universities is to provide a learning environment that meets the immediate needs of an education that includes experiences, entertainment, learning, excitement, safety, connections, life skills, and certification of the process. Students (parents) are willing to pay for this product in the hopes of a return on their investment. While having a college degree does help income level over a lifetime of earnings, there are many choices for how and where to pursue that degree. Students and parents have to wrestle various concepts while considering what is best for the student. Keeping in mind that a degree is a big investment of time and money, the customer of the institution must examine all facets of the institution while thinking long-term for the return on the investment.

Managers of small and large businesses or educational institutions constantly analyze expenditures to determine which are necessary for operational improvement, marketing needs, or quality improvement. Decisions to keep customers happy and returning are the essence of financial and operational management. The need for customers makes higher education no different from a business. Where the difference occurs is in the delivery of the product.






Friday, December 29, 2017

University as a Business

Long debated and rarely resolved, university officials continue to wrestle with the concept of administrating a university by using the principles of running a business. As with any business, a university needs to have more revenue than expenses to keep running and revenue needs to come from the sale of a product to its customers. This is true for all businesses, institutions of all types, regardless of size, scope, or mission. A non-profit institution, for example, should be fulfilling a public good as required but it cannot fulfill its mission without enough revenue to cover its expenses.

For a university, reducing liabilities is always good and acquiring assets can help the balance sheet. Having an endowment adds to revenue as do grants, donations, sales of various types, and increased customers. But who are the customers? Who pays for the service or product? Obviously, the service being provided is education and the product being sold is the knowledge leading to the certified completion of that knowledge. Argument could be made that students are the customers regardless of who pays for the expense of receiving an education. Some might say that parents or guardians are the customers or others might quibble about various governmental entities supporting the education through loans and grants.

A radical but perhaps more profound argument could be made that employers are the customers in that they employ certified completed graduates with particular skill sets for their business. While there is some truth in this statement, it cannot be substantiated due to employers not paying for the service. But it should be kept in the forefront of discussions in that employers represent the market trends for education. More on market trends later.

Because a business is dependent on customers, universities must design degrees and programs that meet customer needs. But there are principles, traditions, and philosophies that push against the market trend idea. This brings us to why a university cannot be treated as a business, at least not in the normal business sense. The purpose of a for profit business is to make a profit whereas the purpose of a non-profit business is to fulfill a public good. Both must have greater or equal revenue to expenses in order to remain in business. A university, however, in its mission to fulfill a public good, embraces the educational ideal known as the liberal arts and the personnel protection called tenure. These two practices are antithetical to normal business operations in the for profit world.

Take the local pizza place serving pizza to customers who pay for the food. The chef and the management hope to make something that is tasty and desirable in order to attract customers and encourage them to return. If the pizza were healthy and tasty, then all is well. If the pizza were tasty but unhealthy, then we might not get customers concerned with good health. If the pizza were healthy but tasted terrible, then we would have no customers.

If we rethought our purpose of the pizza and encouraged the chef to design the ingredients that are to the best interest of the customers and then told the chef that he or she would have a job forever, regardless of the quality of the pizza or the number of customers or the profit or lack thereof, then we would have a product that may or may not serve the public good but the chef might feel good about himself or herself. Therein lies the problem of running a university exactly like a business. The "chefs" at the university are highly skilled, well-educated, and generally dedicated to improving humanity by imparting education to students.

Running a university like a business and viewing students as customers relegates higher education to a commodity dependent on market trends and market forces to keep it afloat. For those recognizing a changing world and live in a pragmatic utilitarian environment, the market is that which changes regardless of any efforts to prevent or manipulate it. For others who subscribe to philosophical forces that dominate and shift thinking and practice, the university is the place to set a philosophical foundation for future employees to make a difference in the world.

Should a university be a technical training institution dedicated to giving students hands-on skills they can use professionally and technically in the workforce? Or should a higher education give students a solid foundation upon which they can draw, develop, and forge their own future, a future wrought full of challenges and opportunities?

Professional and technical models of education risk creating young automatons able to complete tasks but not able to lift society to new heights of cultural refinement. Yet liberal arts models devoid of professional training risk creating young thinkers wishing to change the world but lacking in skills applicable to the workforce. Obviously a balance is needed and, although greatly flawed, the university as a conceptual institution for higher education has continued to provide the skills and knowledge needed for most professions.

Unfortunately, this makes running a university like a business almost impossible and the tensions that exist within the institution for revenues to exceed expenses are palpable and difficult to navigate. One could argue, however, that the tensions themselves lie at the core of what a university means and how it will progress in the future.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Worship Wars, Is this a Race Problem?

A study of slave narratives and first hand accounts of worship practices by African-Americans dating back to the early 19th century reveal events that convinced the minds of white leadership the primitivism of the black race at the time. Totally misunderstanding what they saw and completely rejecting the style of worship, white land owners denounced virtually any worship practices that seemed out of character from the perceived proper way to worship God. There is evidence of prevention of blacks gathering together for this purpose and whites attributed their actions to some kind of strange voodoo or even possession of evil forces.

Fast forward to now and we still have a form of the same kind of disagreement happening in our churches. The contention is no longer voiced as criticism based on race, and we no longer hear disparaging stereotypes against a group of people, but we do hear criticism based on style and musical content. That argument, however, has its roots in past practices, attitudes, and arrogant refusal to respect another way to worship. Prophetically, there will be a day that the worship wars will go the way of all wars...to the history books. Meanwhile, churches continue to be polarized on the issue and we still hear the same uninformed disparagement toward differences expressed in our churches. I would posture that the style differences in our churches date back to the 19th century and the injustices suffered by the blacks.

Although a bit simplistic, and it is always dangerous to assign monolithic behavior to any one group, there is something to the pain of slavery requiring emotional release after working hours. But it goes  beyond this to the heart of what worship means and the expression of beliefs, needs, sorrows, and joys through music. Regardless of the treatment of slaves, whether it be harsh and punitive, or loving and forgiving, slavery is still slavery and is in direct opposition of Christ's teachings and the requirement for human liberty. Having heard many arguments that the Civil War was more an issue of labor, of taxation, of states' rights than of slavery, I hold that all arguments aside, slavery, a despicable practice in all forms, had to end.

As we trace the history and development of worship, of hymnody, of cathedrals and sanctuaries, singing, funerals, weddings, musical instruments, preference, style, and all the myriad variables that accompany the complex world of sacred music, we find a strange distinction that is difficult to acknowledge. That is the clear pathway of "white" style of worship versus "black" style of worship. Given the uncomfortable truth of this statement, and I firmly believe it to be true, then worship wars in our churches are an outgrowth and expression of historical and rarely communicated racism.

Resisting the tendency to express my own preference for church music or even music at all, I simply wish to draw dotted line connections to the past while paving the way for the future. Ultimately, I subscribe to the societal refinement theory that we are culturally improving as people and as a society, becoming respectful of all people, races, types, and giving egalitarian regard for the human experience, knowing we are complex creatures, rarely all bad, and certainly not all good. Our own preferences for a certain type of world do not really matter all that much. Market forces determine our products and our economy, and the invisible hand of culture will determine our musical art both in the secular world and the sacred world. Fighting for one type of music over another is noble and warring against those who seem uninformed about the "right" kind of music is certainly a right in and of itself, but, at the risk of sounding fatalistic, our worship wars do not really matter. The world will continue and the refinement will not be stopped.

Meanwhile, it is worth exploring and understanding how the past shapes the present and will form the future. Why should we understand this at all? People should have a right to like the music they want to like and to worship the way the wish to worship. If that is primarily with an organ, choir, and hymns regardless of its heritage as "white" music, then that certainly is fine. In fact, one could argue that if white people have an ethnicity, which they do, then their culture of doing hymns in a certain way, in a certain location, is certainly to be respected. If we are to respect all of humanity, then that should be inclusive of all cultures.

Yet awareness of where we have been and where we are headed could contribute to healing and to unity and, mostly, to a reduction of criticism of others. All the theological study that is available and all the degrees attached to a person's name cannot prescribe how someone must worship nor the kind of music one must prefer in a spiritual setting. Not unlike an admission of guilt, where acknowledging the truth is the first step toward healing, the church's acceptance that it is a segregated institution serving the needs of particularly ethnic groups and is that way today because it has always been that way, may indeed be the first step toward what could be one of the great changes in society one day--the integration of our churches.

How are social groups formed and is church a reflection of social preferences? If that is true, then it stands to reason that music is a direct reflection of social congregating. Groups form, large or small, to experience each other and to share in a common experience. For a church, that common experience is worshiping God, studying scripture, spending time together, singing, laughing, praying, and giving honor to the Lord and Savior. While this sounds simple, and conceptually it is, when we add individual personalities, values, preferences, and perceptions into the mix, it suddenly becomes wildly and joyfully complex. Corporate worship has long been a part of small and large groups dating back to pagan worship practices and continuing into denominational associations and the fractured religious world in which we reside. Groups form, break up, form again, reinvent themselves, redefine their purposes and priorities, and work together to meet those objectives. Membership changes, grows, declines, disappears, develops, and transforms into something new and special, only to dissipate once again and reform somewhere else. Such is the cycle of groups which, sadly or maybe happily, is the story of the church.

Considering the nature of groups and group dynamics, it is not surprising that ethnicities have formed into different types of churches with different practices and goals. What is unfortunate is that the veiled or not so veiled arrogance of groups who see their belief system and their system of worship as being superior to all else are contributing to the division and the demise of the organized church. To be fair, this is the expectation of a group, whether it be articulated or not, that what the group is doing is the right and best way. Without that confidence, the group may fall into insecurity, fear, and no longer value its very core and purpose. Groups, congregations, and churches should maintain a degree of arrogance that what it is doing is the right and best way, otherwise why form at all other than the benefits of sharing social joy with other people.

Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, it makes sense that ethnic groups have formed historically and developed to the present time with comfort in their group social norms and comfort with their commonality, that is to worship God with people similar to each other. Not that this is racism. After all, people should have a right to worship whatever way they so choose and with whomever they wish. This is freedom and we do not have the right to restrict it. But it may be the criticism of the "other way" that is a form of racism. Let us look at this more specifically.

Many whites have been inadvertently and unconsciously criticizing black worship practices for a long time and the criticism, although less obvious and covert, continues. This probably goes back to a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, the converse is likely true as well. Thus we have a silent form of racism born of ignorance in our churches. The stereotypes against one way of worship are palpable, patently unfair, and decidedly although not intentionally racist. If I say my way is right and your way is wrong, and I base that statement on cultural practices by a specific ethnic group, then I am at risk of insulting a group for its practices based on differences between the groups. Such is the nature of racist remarks and prejudice without foundation.

A brief look at music and its history. Since Western music (referencing the non-Eastern world) became codified into the current system of notes, rhythms, and expression on a staff that represents a certain number of vibrations per second, we have had musical art both academically and commercially. It has been said, with a degree of truth, that art music is an acquired taste and not always well-suited for the masses. Commercial music, however, is for everyone and much of it is for mass appeal. Popular music, for example, has a folk-like appeal in its simple expression of human pain and joy. Spirituals have a soulful quality that reaches deep expressing both the longing for a better life and an acknowledgment of the restricted environment in which the people reside. Many of these are sacred in nature and we find the people looking to God for answers to their situation and expressing their pain through music. These spirituals are as historically significant as any art music or hymnody of the 19th century.

Art music, however, also plays an important role in musical expression of the 19th century but, unfortunately, despite a few anomalous African-American stars, was reserved for white people with money. This dichotomy--spirituals from blacks in the fields, and art music from whites in the concert halls--spilled into the 20th century in a number of different ways. The 20th century saw the rise of the Symphony Orchestra in our country, significant improvement in music education, and development of commercial music for entertainment. Throw in the growth of jazz, blues, and traveling bands and we see musical segregation as prominently as social and educational segregation. White music in church focused on hymns with a use of piano and organ as accompaniment. This ideal continues and we find this system preferred in churches using liturgy and formalism in the service.

When Leonard Bernstein started his series in the late 1950s called Young People's Concerts he used the New York Philharmonic to teach theory and history to students from all over New York. This marvelous series is available on video and remains remarkable in its content, artistry, and educational contributions. Yet, a closer look at the videos shows that most of the students were white and all the players were white. As an aside, the early videos show that the players are also male, but that is another topic for another day! This is another example of exclusive education of a predominantly white genre and medium of music.

It is not much of a stretch to examine style of music as being indigenous to certain races or at least value systems associated with education. Looking at it through the educational lens, as whites in the 20th century continued to be educated through governmental resources, ie. taxation and compulsory education, we see further development of art music. Sadly revealing, black schools did not have the same type of music education for students, resulting in less awareness of music other than that with which they knew, that from their past. This means that whites continued the path toward art music as being considered quality while blacks found their own musical language through development of popular music, jazz, and blues. Some would argue this approach is actually preferred. To be fair, whites did not only embrace art music, finding satisfaction in commercial music as well and many blacks composed and participated in art music. But the popular music of the first half of the 20th century was limited in expression and arguably less profound in purpose, reserved for big bands and musicals on film and stage. Art music, however, was considered elite and academic for those with resources to enjoy it. The disparate practices of music of the past now play a role in music of today, particularly in our churches.

Either due to a lack of awareness of art music or, more likely, a strong preference for what became a popular style, blacks in the 20th century forged their own musical future. Their music could be found in clubs, homes, and churches where they were free to explore the sounds they enjoyed. Using instruments such as the piano, guitar, and drums, they expressed the joy of music and invented their own cathartic style in the form of the blues. With church and worship remaining an integral part of their world, they did not necessarily seek a different type of expression in the church but, instead, extended the spiritual idea into the blues, forming their own gospel style. The gospel style is now wonderfully free in structure, joyful in dynamic expression, rhythmically complex, and harmonically interesting. Sometimes repetitive, the music allows for bodily motion including feet movement, swaying, arm motions, and dancing. Early rock stars such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard combined the freedom of expression of the blues and included their own brand of entertainment, launching a style known as rock music. It is not without merit that whites thought rock music grew out of the black style of movement. Sadly, early critics of rock music associated it as primitive music from African-Americans.

Add drums and guitars to the gospel style of singing, and we experience modern worship known as contemporary style. But parallel to this phenomenon, we still have art music previously relegated to whites. Church music, therefore, developed in two contrasting ways...one from a white tradition and one from a black tradition. Although no one way is superior, unfortunately people often replace their own preference with a statement of right or wrong.

These proposed historical categories, however, begin to fall apart when we study individual churches, worship practices, and musical content. Many black churches continue to sing hymns and the number of large growing churches that are predominantly white utilize what might have in the past have been considered black influenced music. These trends could be a sign of societal and religious refinement, incorporating past ethnic practices into current culture as a way to reach all people. Exclusivity, even in music, is no longer a sustainable practice in our society and churches are no exception. Unfortunately, our churches still have those who embrace exclusivity and battle for their own preference. Connected to the exclusive preference for style is the rejection of drums and guitars in a worship service. To be fair, many of these people warring against these popular instruments in church grew out of a time when rock music was seen as sinful and inappropriate.

And although not within the purview of this particular essay, the architectural changes employed in our churches dictate how music is to be heard and experienced. Large, acoustically resonating cathedrals are not aurally suitable for all kinds of music; whereas, venues with little resonating reverberation do need sound management technicians to provide a positive listening experience. These variables of architecture, sound management, hymns, instruments, and historical tradition all play a role in our current worship discrepancies.

To this end, we have worship wars where one faction disagrees with another, one group claiming that the right way to worship is through formal hymnody. Conversely, the other group finds the formal approach to be stiff and lacking in authenticity, preferring, instead, to emphasize drums, guitars, and repetition. We now hear these odd conversations between church people of whether hymns or choruses are the best form of music. The conversation inevitably becomes critical of one form over another and usually digresses into a meaningless drivel of opinions. I suppose in a way these types of opinions are the right of the people but the deliverer of the criticism is usually not appreciated by the recipients. I contend that if church members were aware of the race issue related to church music, we might actually find a greater acceptance of differences and, maybe, just maybe, a desire for unification of ideals.

Much of the above needs research validation but, in totality and with generalizations, the truth emerges. If our churches are polarized by music and the wars continue to destroy the institution of the church, then nobody wins. Only with integration of style will we one day put aside our differences and embrace the purpose of church, to worship God. The issue may no longer be one of race but, rather, one of education, theological teaching, and acceptance of differences while working for harmonious congruence.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas Lights

Driving through the city, I see Christmas lights of every type adorning houses, businesses, parks, and signs. The number of different colors, shapes, styles, and sizes is astounding, giving the viewers an infinite variety of visual experiences. Many of the lights are mobile, flashing back and forth, moving around buildings, shrubs, trees, and windows. Many other lights are stationary, remaining steadfast in their position. Some lights were obviously put up hastily and have no system of presentation, often resulting in a random type of appearance. Others, however, were put up carefully with great attention and fastidious perfection of presentation. I see blinking, glittering, jumping, bright, dull, wild, tame, low, high, shapes, small quantities, large quantities, and every type of light decoration imaginable.

But, if the truth be told, I do not understand the light craze. I suppose historically it relates to the star in the sky showing the way to the Christ child. The star helped the Wise Men as they headed out to give gifts. Now, today, the lights are a symbol of the shine and glow of Jesus' birth and the reminder to give honor and respect to God's son, the Savior of the world. All that makes sense in a symbolic and beautiful way. But practically, I still do not understand. Maybe the lights are to help people remember or to serve as some kind of acknowledgement of the birth. Or maybe lights have become passe', without meaning, predictable objects that drain electricity, drain cash, take time,

Perhaps it is a human desire to seek out the good. The lights represent goodness triumphing over evil. Much has been written about the contrast between light and dark, good and evil. The obsession of lights at Christmas seems to demonstrate the human desire for beauty, morality, optimism, and compassion to reign victorious over the evil that often pervades our society. We are willing to make sacrifices of time and money to show others that we live in a world that needs God and the lights are a manifestation of God's son Jesus.

I believe, however, that while all that may be true, there may, indeed, be another intangible reason for the lights. I believe we, as humans, have an innate desire to create artistic moments, artistic events, and artistic opportunities. I believe that art, music, and theatre play a significant role in our culture and that artistic expression is a human need. Unfortunately, not everyone has the ability to be a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, or a Beethoven, but in spite of our lesser talents, we still desire to create and experience the beauty and the joy of art in its totality. Our imaginations may not be incredible nor life changing, but they still have a place in our culture.

Hanging lights at this time of year may symbolize Christ's birth or may simply represent the joy of Christmas but I posture that Christmas is also an opportunity to reach inside ourselves and express the role of art in our world. Whether that is true or not, because I live in an arts world, a world full of theatre, music, and visual art, I have no additional need for lights. Yet, I must grudgingly admit, that I enjoy them, at least to an extent, and, mostly, I am glad the lights have meaning for so many.