Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Lectern

In 1989 I was on the board of my church. Somebody suggested that we needed a powered lectern for one of the classrooms. The room was fairly large and the teachers were having trouble being heard. We agreed that that a lectern or podium with a built in sound system would solve the problem.

I volunteered to investigate the purchase. I decided that none of the commercially available units were just right. They were either too small or too expensive. I decided that I could build one myself that would be better than anything on the market. I had been involved designing and building sound systems before and also enjoyed wood-working. My shop was available and I wasn’t particularly busy. It was the perfect project.

I spent a few weeks studying speaker configurations, amplifiers, and microphone placement and came up with a great design. I built the cabinet out of solid oak and put on ten coats of hand-rubbed lacquer. I carefully selected a Shure microphone that had good isolation properties so that sound would not transfer when people tapped on the lectern or moved the microphone. The microphone was attached by a gooseneck with concealed wiring. The speakers were a stacked array of four eight-inch speakers.

It looked and sounded great. My wife was so impressed that she thought we should go into business making them. I wasn’t as excited because I knew that we would have to get the cost down to make it profitable. There was just too much hand work involved for the price we would be able to sell them for.

I proudly delivered the powered lectern to the church in March of 1989. It worked in the room as planned and I assumed that it was going to work out wonderfully. When I checked in on it a few months later, I found that one of the teachers and repeatedly bent the gooseneck over causing the wires to break inside. This was fine. It told me that I needed to reinforce the wiring through the gooseneck. I still considered this a prototype and learning the weaknesses was part of the process.

I made the changes, but when I checked on the lectern later I found that the high quality Shure microphone had been replaced by a cheap mike from a chain electronics store. The new microphone was noisy and susceptible to feedback reducing the overall quality considerably. I presumed that the original microphone was stolen, but I really don’t know what happened to it. By this time I was off the board and buying another Shure mike was not in my budget. I had donated all of my time and materials up to this point.

After awhile I went on to other projects and quit checking on the lectern and for several years didn’t know or think about its use or whereabouts.

About fifteen years later I noticed the lectern in a classroom. The gooseneck microphone was gone and the electronics had been stripped, but it still looked pretty good.

That lectern is still used every Sunday and several times during the week, but without the sound system. I am sure that the hundreds of people who see it each week never give it a second thought. Most would admit that it looks fine and serves it purpose. Almost nobody knows that it is not anywhere near living up to the purpose that its creator intended. I intended for the polished oak cabinet to contain a sound system allowing any speaker to be heard throughout a large room. Instead it is used only to hold notes and to give the teacher something to lean on. Not what I intended at all.

I believe that this lectern is a good metaphor for most of our lives. We are serving a useful purpose, we still look pretty good after all of these years, but our greater purpose, the reason God designed and created us in the first place, has been lost.

It could be that like the lectern, we were abused at a time when we were weak. Or it could be that somebody stole something critical like our education or a dream. Maybe somebody discouraged us from following our passion because of some misguided idea. Whatever the reason, we lost our purpose but continued to be available in some way, just not at the level God intended.

It also occured to me that if any time in the past twenty-three years, right up to now, if somebody would have come to me and asked me to restore the lectern to its original form and intent, I would have it done in a very short time, but nobody has asked.

I believe that God is the same way. If we would only turn to Him and ask Him to restore us to fulfill the mission He intended, I know He would get started right away. It may not be immediate. There may be something that needs to be done or undone. Like that lectern, it might involve some disassembly and seeing what is inside that can be used and what needs to be replaced. But God can certainly do it. After all, He created us in the first place and He doesn’t make mistakes.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Have a Wonderful Christmas

As a follower of Jesus, I celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25 just like most of the other billions of Christians. Of course we don't really know the date Jesus was born, but December 25 is as good a day as any.

The Bible tells us that wise men travelled from a long distance to bring gifts to the new born baby who would become the Savior of the World. Because of that, it has become a tradition to give gifts to each other as part of the celebration.

Giving and receiving gifts is one of the languages of love and is a nice way to show people that we care about them and want to make an emotional connection with them. Thinking about a person and taking the time to select something that we think they would enjoy is a very real part of any relationship.

It does seem that we have taken this custom to the extreme as more and more people seem to forget about honoring Jesus and put their energy into spending money they don't have for reasons that are less than obvious.

I like to go to white elephant gift parties. The original idea of the white elephant was to give your enemies a gift that they had to spend money to house and maintain without any real benefit. A white elephant is a useless gift that puts a hardship on the receiver. The modern version is usually taken as a joke, and is a lot of fun.

Several years ago my wife and got rid of 75% of our possessions, moved from a four bedroom house to a two bedroom apartment and pledged to live more simply and tread lighter on the earth. From that point of view, most gifts are white elephants, because it turns out that it is a lot harder to sell something or give it away than it is to buy it in the first place.

Maybe it is time we changed our Christmas emphasis from buying stuff to remembering some of the things Jesus taught us. He taught a lot of things, but his central message was love and forgiveness. He said that anybody can love their friends; the real test is loving your enemies and forgiving those that hate you.

I like the idea that Christmas is close to the new year. What better way to start the year fresh than to follow Jesus' teaching and forgive those who have wronged us and make reconciliation with anybody we have had tense relationships with?

This year let us: Spend Less, Love More, Forgive Everyone, Serve Others.

Let me know how it works out.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Beryl Harrell

How many of you have heard of Beryl Harrell?

There is a great story about her in the fall issue of The Fretboard Journal.

She was born in 1918 in Washington but grew up in Los Angeles. She took steel guitar lessons from steel guitar legend and pioneer Sol Ho’opi'i. By all accounts she was gorgeous and a phenomenal steel guitar player. She played in several all-girl Hawaiian bands in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.

After the war, country music, and particularly western swing, became huge in Southern California and she became a sensation playing in all the famous LA clubs such as The Palomino Club. She hung out with Merle Travis, Les Paul, Leo Fender, and Paul Bigsby around the Los Angeles music scene in the early 1950’s. When Las Vegas took off she started playing there as well.

In 1963 at the age of 45 she decided that she was too old for playing all the clubs and late hours, so she quit music and sold her steel guitar. She went to work as a telephone operator at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, but she missed playing music so much that she became very depressed.

In 1977, not yet 60 years old, she decided that life without music wasn’t worth living, and she took her own life.

To those of us past 60 and playing as good as ever, and nowhere near gorgeous, this is an amazing story.

Monday, October 03, 2011


One of the great theological questions throughout the ages has been “Does God have a sense of humor?” Personally I think He does, but it may not be the same as ours. A lot of Jesus’ teachings use humor, though through language and culture changes, much of it is lost on us.

Proverb 25:2 in The Message version says, “God delights in concealing things; scientists delight in discovering things.” This is a remarkable insight into what we call “science.” It would seem that there is something like a big game of hide and seek, with God slowly disclosing nature’s secrets to us, to both His and our delight.

Of course we often get it wrong. Many of the things that were considered true just a few decades ago have been proven incorrect. In fact the joy of research is finding new things, disproving old theories, and forming new theories based on new discoveries. It is a moving target, which is the whole idea. That is why it is so amazing that we take everything that is thought to be scientific as fact.

When I was in school, science was defined as anything that is observable and repeatable. Since then that definition has expanded greatly and now includes many theories and ideas that have not been observed and aren’t repeatable.

God delights in us finding out how things work, but I doubt if He would find any delight in the current situation where science has been elevated to a god. Faithful people now find themselves defending God against science instead of the other way around.

One of the most obvious characteristics of current society is the high place given to science. If someone says something is scientific, it becomes hard to argue with it. Science has indeed become god to the majority of people.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Tool Time

When I was sixteen years old and working on my first car, I needed a Phillips screwdriver. The cheap ones my Dad had in his tool box were worn out and not too useful. So I took my freshly minted driver’s license, got in my Pontiac and drove to the hardware store.

The hardware guy directed me to some cheap screwdrivers not unlike the one’s my dad had. After I insisted that I wanted a good screwdriver, he showed me one that was equal to about 4 or 5 hours of minimum wage labor. I happily parted with my hard-earned money and finished the job.

I have used that same Phillips screwdriver almost every week of my life since – 47 years. My mantra since then has been “you have to have good tools.” That applies to musical instruments, cameras, as well as hammers and screwdrivers.

Most of the tools I have, I have owned for decades. I tend to buy the best stuff and keep it forever. That doesn’t work with digital things, but for about everything else, that has worked for me.

Today I decided to empty the contents of my six tool boxes onto my work table and have a big Tool Sort.

It turned out to be a trip down memory lane as I saw tools related to various projects and phases in my life. Specialty bicycle tools reminded me of my heavy cycling phase and some left over woodworking tools reminded me that it was ten years when I sold my woodworking shop and invested the money in musical instruments – a decision I have never regretted.

Somebody once said that the difference between people in poverty and the middle class is the people in the middle classes have tools and know how to use them. Upper class people know people who know how to use tools. I am glad I am solidly middle class.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

5,000 to 5 and back to 5,000 in 100 years.

In 1900 there were about 5,000 coffee roasters in the US. By 1960 that number had shrunk to five. Now there are about 5,000 again.

Interestingly, this phenomenon has occurred in a number of industries with a number of products. In a relatively new industry there are a large number of players producing a wide variety of products. Eventually the weak die off and the strongest survive and buy up others and consolidate.

This monopoly or oligopoly can go on for years or decades as quality declines, before the quality and lack of choice becomes so bad that independents begin to spring up.

The public then recognizes that they no longer have to settle for the low quality of the mass producers as more and more small high quality producers spring up.

Everybody wins except the old oversized oligopoly who now must try to learn from the new smaller competitors. In many cases they never learn and die themselves.

In the past one hundred years this has happened not only to coffee, but beer, recorded music, the movie industry, television programming, musical instruments, to some degree automobiles, and I am sure many other products.

The bottom line: if you want to encourage quality products, buy from the independent companies; buy your music direct from the musicians; and drink locally roasted coffee and locally brewed beer.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An Argument for Higher Taxes

Every so often somebody will take a survey of the various nations to see who are the happiest people. They will then publish a list, ranking the world’s nations by how happy they are. I was looking at one of these list a few weeks ago and noticed that the USA was way down the list, perhaps close to the middle of the range along with many impoverished and third world countries.

A few days later, in another publication, I saw a list of countries, listing their rates of taxation. I was startled to see that it was almost exactly the same list. The higher the taxes, the happier the people. How could this be? I went on to discover that the happiest people, with the highest taxes, also had some of the highest rates of entrepreneurship and successful businesses. So much for the idea that high taxes hurt business.

Norway for example, has free education and free health care for everybody, meaning they have a very healthy, highly educated population, which leads to successful businesses, a healthy economy, and happy people. People are not hampered by student loans and businesses don’t have to pay out huge sums to provide health care for their employees. Sure, they have high taxes, but you get what you pay for.

In turns out that in countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc. the people see taxes in much the same way as they see any other expenditure. The emphasis is not so much on how much it costs, but what do they get for their money. Instead of seeing taxes as something the government forces on us and that we should we resist as much as possible. The happiest countries see taxes as a way to buy the things they want. For example good education, health care, good highways, and public art are all things that are considered to be good value for public money. Politicians are held accountable for giving good value for the money spent, not just on keeping the taxes low.

The Governor of Kansas just dissolved the Kansas Arts Commission to save money. I never considered the Kansas Arts Commission a particular extravagant organization and certainly not a waste of money.

It is interesting that a report just came out in the US indicating that Federal taxes are at a 60 year low as a factor of the overall economy. In other words, taxes have not been lower since the Truman Administration, yet we seem unhappy about just about everything.

Could it have something to do with the fact that our schools are suffering, college costs, and medical care are outrageous, and arts organizations are begging for handouts, while the governments are in debt, refusing to tackle a tax code that taxes us at rates that are among the lowest and most inconsistent in the world.

Something to think about.