Parable of the Half Moon

Light from a half-moon casts a shadow.

I stood in the driveway on a cool mid-September evening.  The sky was bright but the moon appeared only half full.  Despite its size, the half-moon’s reflection of the sun’s light was enough to cast shadows across my backyard.  I’ve seen night skies lit brightly with a quarter-moon.

A full moon would have been a welcome sight this evening.  I love full moons, grand in size and glamour.  Full moons are the best and the brightest.  In a few days I hope to see a harvest moon, the best of the best, brightest of the brightest, largest of the large moons in the night sky.  Why tolerate anything less than the best full moon?

Why should I tolerate a half-moon?  I recall the words of French philosopher Voltaire who suggested that the best is the enemy of the good.  The half-moon over my driveway tonight was good.  It was bright enough to cast shadows in my yard and brighten the spirit in my heart.

Many evenings I am merely a half-moon or nearly so.  Often I am a quarter-moon or less.  But every evening I brighten the night sky because my light is the sun’s light, and the sun is always full regardless of my limitations.

Some day perhaps I will become the glorious harvest moon.  But if I fail to attain such glory I hope you will tolerate less of me, because my light is the sun’s reflection even when I am small.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)


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A New Parable from the Pew

A new parable from the pew.  Let anyone with ears to hear listen.

I had just relaxed into my regular seat in the pew when she lumbered in through the back door.  We were minutes from starting the service as she shuffled down the aisle.  Several people had spoken to me when I arrived, but it appeared no one had spoken to her.  It would have been difficult I suppose.  She was unsightly, bent-over, and she seemed to have a large mass on the back of her neck, settled there heavily, as if to press her downward.  I could not see her face, or her eyes.  She approached my pew, hunched over, not noticing that no one had spoken to her.  Not noticing the stares.  Not noticing so many who had turned away before her eyes might meet theirs.   

I had already slinked closer to the center of the pew as is my habit every week, to avoid being tapped by the ushers when they ask for help with the offering, which left the seat beside me near the aisle vacant.  The bent-over woman sat there.  It was rather more of a slump.  She slumped into the seat beside me, bent-over to enjoy only the floor, and her feet.  

I saw the lump on the back of her neck.  And if I was not a rational man I would say it moved, a wiggle perhaps as if shifting shape or rearranging its weight in order to settle in more comfortably on her, longer.  And it seemed larger than before.  But I am not sure.  Perhaps it seemed larger because it now rested heavily on her near me. 

Hoping she would not speak to me, I stood to sing the first hymn, There Is a Balm in Gilead.  I was comforted by the familiar, old song we had sung many times before – it speaks of healing and forgiveness.  I remember feeling thankful God had spared me the misery and burden this woman suffered. 

After the hymn as I sat down I also thanked God this woman had not spoken to me, which is when she did.  She whispered toward my feet words I did not hear clearly.  I turned to her, seeing only the back of her neck and the ugly lump, which most surely had grown even larger, and it moved again – this I am sure.  Not wanting to be totally callous toward her disfigurement, I leaned over slightly – in case she chose again to whisper toward me, which she did. 

Sir, I need your help with my burden.  Please, sir, remove it from my back. 

I’m sorry?  Could you repeat that?  I whispered as well trying not to disturb the young family in front of me during the sharing of prayer requests.  A little girl – the young couple’s daughter I assumed – turned in the pew to face us.  I saw her innocent eyes widen as she stared at the woman bent-over beside me.  

I asked the woman again.  What did you say?  

Would you please, if you do not mind, kind sir, help me with my burden.  Take it off my back. 

I didn’t know what to say.  Surely this woman is not lucid, and I pitied her.  Of course, who would not pity this woman with her … burden, her delusions?  She leaned toward me, and to my feet again whispered in a louder, raspy tone. 

It will not hurt you.  Grasp it with your hand, toss it aside.  Please, sir, take this burden from me.        

I was relieved to discover the bead of sweat forming on my forehead because it provided an excuse to do something with my hand.  Nervously, I ignored the pitiful woman, and her burden. 

Please, sir, she repeated more loudly. 

The minister was about to begin his sermon, and not wanting to be disturbed by the woman I screwed up the courage to ask her to be quiet.  This is when I noticed that little girl.  She stood up from her seat and walked around to the bent-over woman.  She placed her tiny hand on the woman’s arm, and with her other hand grabbed the fleshy lump on the woman’s neck, pulled it away, and tossed it to the floor in the center of the aisle.  The ugly mass did not move, at first, but I do not remember clearly.  This felt like a foggy dream to me.   Dimly, as if from a distance — in my mind at least — I heard only the minister’s voice sharing words spoken hundreds of times before. 

In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.  

In this moment the mass on the floor quivered and disappeared into what seemed like an oily vapor.  This was too incredible and I turned to question the elderly man seated behind me but I only heard him recite in unison with the congregation words I have recited many times. 

In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. He seemed not to notice the little girl, or the woman or her ugly burden on the aisle floor disappearing.      

I turned back in time to see the little girl gently kiss the woman on her cheek, smile, and return to her seat.  Her cheek.  I had not even noticed the woman’s cheek.  

The woman slowly lifted her head and looked at me.  I saw her eyes and her smile.  She was, of all things, smiling at me, cutting through my embarrassment.  As she raised her head and straightened her back, she turned and whispered more clearly.  

I am only the first of many.  You will see.  You will learn to love them all, even me. 

After the service I do not remember seeing the woman or the little girl and her family, or the elderly man who recited the familiar words.  Frankly, I was unable to notice much of anything for the rest of the morning.  I cannot explain to you what happened that day.  But this I know.  I am forever changed — by the woman bent over who dared to ask me for help with her burden, and by the little girl who dared to love the woman enough.  I am forever changed by my shame, now exposed to me.  I am forever changed by the woman’s smile and her hopeful eyes – which I did not notice until she had been freed to stand up – to look at me, to love me, even though I could not bear to first love her. 

I left the sanctuary that morning wondering many things.  Mostly I wondered who that day was truly freed of burden, the woman or me?  And today, when I enter this sanctuary eager to be forgiven as I want every week, the woman’s words haunt me – is this dread or anticipation?    

I am only the first of many, she said.  You will see.  You will learn to love them all, even me.


[Presented to the congregation at Enon United Methodist Church, on Sunday, August 25, 2013, after singing There is a Balm in Gilead.]


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)

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Dog Spit

I am trapped in the kitchen.  We are puppy-sitting Bailey and have placed barricades to limit her roaming.   My office is upstairs which would separate me dangerously from the puppy so I have moved my essential work tools to the kitchen counter.  My back hurts and my laptop is a bit furry, but the house is safe.

For the moment she is in her crate while two of our own dogs are recovering on the floor and a third is hiding in the garage hoping to be ignored.  Bailey is an eight-month old hound-dog lab mutt who enjoys chewing and peeing in various combinations without warning.  She also barks, often.

I have a helper.  A few months ago we gained our third dog, Zoe, who is a doll of a white lab with a big butt and a bigger heart.  Zoe loves me and tolerates beyond reason Bailey’s sharp teeth.  I’ve tried to explain to Zoe that she is under no obligation to let Bailey chew on her leg.  The other two dogs are more assertive which Bailey has acknowledged by not chewing on their legs.

Lately their favorite outdoor game is the traditional throw and retrieve which Zoe enjoys and Bailey uses as an excuse to chew on Zoe.  When I throw two balls, they both have a chance to retrieve.  Sort of.  It’s not an exact science.

I hear myself saying “good girl” thirty-five times a minute.  “Bailey, good girl for peeing outside this time.  Bailey, good girl for not chasing the young family with the toddler in the stroller.  Bailey, good girl for dropping the spit-soaked ball so I can throw it again.”

I’ve begun to notice the accumulation of dog spit on my hands.  Dog spit usually poses no particular problem because my old blue jeans are already dirty.  But sometimes I forget and rub my nose or do not notice the wet smear on the okra I plan to roast for lunch.  I’m counting on the hot oven to kill the dog spit germs.

Not that I feel the need to explain, but I love dogs, and the spit comes with the dog.  I reached this messy conclusion while chasing bats out of my attic.  It’s the guano – not the bat – that troubles me.  By the way, the bats returned.  All of them.  And despite my second-chance opportunity to show grace upon grace, I sprayed their roost with vinegar-water again.  They left again.  Does this make me a bad person?

Spit comes with the dog and I don’t mind.  Besides, dog spit smells better than bat guano, and I think this is my chance to experience what it might have been like to care for an infant.  When Linda and I married, her boys were eleven and eight and then we adopted our girls after the spit and guano stage.  I missed the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful slobber and other fluids that confirm a parent’s love.

Bailey is annoying.  She pees, chews, and slobbers, but it’s OK, I still love her.  Sure, she’s a dog and she’s only visiting, but I’m learning something about myself.  With every drop of spit or misplaced peeing or errant chew, my love is confirmed (or tested).  God bless the dog.  I agree with Nobel Laureate Anatole France, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains un-awakened.”  My soul is awake.  Good girl.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)






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Immigration: Its About Families

[This article was written by Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the United Methodist Church and first published on July 23, 2013 in The Huffington Post.  See for the original article.  Bishop Carcaño was elected to the episcopacy in 2004 by the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church, the first Hispanic female ever elected bishop.  She was assigned to the Phoenix Area on September 1, 2004.  After 8 years, she was assigned to the Los Angeles Area in 2012.  For other articles on immigration at Unpacking Ideas click here: Immigration Reform.]

The security of the U.S.-Mexico border has become the focus of comprehensive immigration reform, comprehensive has come to mean piecemeal, and reform has been lost in political rhetoric. Somewhere in the political process immigrants have been forgotten.

I have lived and served on the U.S.-Mexico border for the majority of my life. I know these immigrants. The great majority of them are hard-working people with a deep spirituality who value family and the common good. They are not terrorists, drug dealers, or public welfare dependents. They are families whose lives have been undermined by poverty. Their poverty is often a reflection of the state of the economy of their countries, but many of them have also been affected by regional and global U.S. economic agreements.

Consider the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on corn farmers in Mexico. NAFTA left over 2 million Mexican corn farmers and their families destitute. This past spring I had a conversation about immigration reform with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. When I mentioned that Mexican immigrants were in the U.S. because they could not feed their families he patronizingly told me that the U.S. was not responsible for taking care of Mexico’s economic woes. When I reminded him that Iowa corn subsidies included in NAFTA have contributed to the undermining of the livelihood of Mexican farmers and their families he quickly ended our meeting.

Some of our Congressional leaders argue that securing the border is necessary so that we never again find ourselves with 11 million undocumented immigrants to deal with. I have been at table with Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, when she has stated that our southern border is more secure today than it has ever been, but our Congressional leaders aren’t listening because it isn’t what they want to hear. Acknowledging the fact that the border is secure would force our Congressional leaders to address the real reasons for our broken immigration policies beginning with the fact that unjust immigration policies built upon unjust economic agreements will never produce anything other than injustice, human suffering and a lack of security.

Where is leadership for comprehensive and humane immigration reform to come from in this country? Congress is failing us. And the rumor across the country is that President Obama can’t be more aggressive in his efforts on comprehensive immigration reform because if Congress were to believe that the President is leading on the matter it would reject whatever would come to the table. What a sorry state of political leadership.

Today in the U.S. there are immigrant children living in fear that their parents will be carried away by ICE. Young people with their whole life ahead of them are in despair because the only country they know, a country they love and have placed their hope in, daily tells them that they do not count. Immigrant men and women are increasingly burdened by long hours of under paid work, the lack of adequate housing, food, medical care, and the stress of living in the shadows of society, always having to look over their shoulder because any small misstep could bring them to the attention of public authorities from the police officers who are supposed to keep them safe in their neighborhoods to the Border Patrol and cause their separation from their family.

These are the same people who work hard to put food on our tables at prices we are willing to pay, clean our homes, care for our aging and sick parents not to mention our children, and serve us in an abundance of other ways so that we can enjoy life. They pay taxes and social security without seeing much if any benefit from it. These are immigrant men and women, children and young people who not only deserve better, but whose struggle will bring judgment upon this country for decades to come if we don’t begin to treat them justly.

I recently participated in an immigration forum in Hawaii. Being there reminded me of the great work of Senator Mazi Hirono in support of immigrant families. She gets it. The heart of true and just comprehensive immigration reform is about families. Comprehensive immigration reform must include the reunification of immigrant families, including LGBT families. It must include a pathway to citizenship or families will continue to be undermined for generations to come. And it must include the just treatment of immigrant workers. As a country birthed, built and nurtured by immigrants, we should expect no less of our Congressional leaders.


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Not Even Close to Forgiveness (or Amnesty): S. 744 and the Pathway to Citizenship

I owe you an apology.  In  a previous article I suggested that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants amounts to amnesty which, in my view, amounts to forgiveness.  Which, in my view, is a good thing. [1]  As a hack theologian on a good day I should have known better.

Forgiveness means having the guilt of sin removed simply because a gracious God grants the gift.  Forgiveness is a grace-gift, which by definition is something I cannot earn.  Amnesty is similar.  Amnesty is a legal gift of having the guilt of a crime removed simply because a gracious benefactor with authority grants the gift.

My mistake was in equating the pathway to citizenship outlined in Senate Bill 744 (S. 744) to amnesty or forgiveness. [2]  This is a huge mistake.  As S. 744 is written, the “gift” of citizenship will cost an undocumented immigrant dearly.  At the risk of becoming too wonky, here are the basic requirements in S. 744 that must be met before an undocumented immigrant can apply for the 13 year process toward U.S. citizenship:

First Phase: Apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant Program

In order to apply for the Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) Program, an undocumented immigrant must:

  • have been in the U.S. since December 31, 2011,
  • have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors,
  • pay their assessed taxes,
  • pass background checks,
  • pay penalty fees

…among other requirements.

RPIs will not be eligible for federal means-tested public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and benefits under the Affordable Care Act.  The initial grant of RPI status is good for six years.  RPI status may be renewed for another six years if the immigrant has remained continuously employed, or demonstrates income or resources not less than 100 percent of the poverty level, or qualifies for certain exceptions.  Plus, for renewal, the person must pass another background check, pay taxes, and pay an additional penalty.

The Second Phase — Apply for Lawful Permanent Residence, Wait Three Years, Then Apply for Citizenship 

After successfully completing a minimum of ten years in RPI status without violations, the individual may apply for Lawful Permanent Residence (LPR), or a “green” card.  RPIs who have been lawfully present for 10 years before becoming permanent residents can apply for U.S. citizenship after maintaining permanent resident status for three years. 

In total, if an undocumented immigrant is accepted into the RPI track he or she will have to wait at least 13 years to become a citizen.

Two Timeline Exceptions: DREAMers and Farm Workers  

A DREAMer who entered the U.S. before he or she turned 16, has been in RPI status for at least five years, has earned a high-school diploma or GED, has completed at least two years of college or four years of military service, and has passed an English test and background checks may apply for citizenship as soon as he or she receives a green card.

Undocumented farm workers will be eligible for an immigrant status, which includes a “blue card.”  To qualify they must have performed at least 575 hours or 100 work days of agricultural employment during a two-year period ending December 31, 2012, and must pay a penalty and pass background checks.  They must meet the same criminal and admissibility requirements as applicants for RPI status.  They can be in blue-card status for up to eight years, and will not be eligible for federal means-tested public benefits.  Blue-card holders may apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status five years after enactment of the bill if they have continued to work in agriculture, paid their taxes, and pay a fine. They may apply for citizenship after being permanent residents (LPR) for five years.

Not a Gift

So, if I misled you, I am sorry.  This is not amnesty.  This is not forgiveness.  This is not a gift.  The S. 744 pathway to citizenship requires an arduous, lengthy, and expensive set of tasks before one can even apply for citizenship.  While the end result for one who eventually becomes a citizen might feel like forgiveness, this S. 744 pathway to citizenship is no gift.  The one who eventually becomes a U.S. citizen will have been diligent and determined.  Such a person will surely have demonstrated an intense desire to live here, and will surely love this country enough to qualify.  Such a person will appreciate the awesome privilege and responsibility of citizenship.

Which is more than I have done.  Maybe if I had to work so hard to become a citizen I would appreciate it more.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)

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  1. See Amnesty is Forgiveness.  Forgiveness is Good at
  2. There is ample source material about Senate Bill 744.  I have referred mostly to the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council at 

With Bats I Get Guano

I first noticed them when I turned on the attic light.  I heard a chirp, if that’s what bats do.  Do bats chirp?  Maybe a squeak.  They chirped with attitude when I sprayed the vinegar-water mixture on their gable vent roost.  I used vinegar-water because I hoped it would break down the protein in their droppings, sometimes called guano. [1]  I was confident about this because we have three dogs and three cats who share their own guano now and then.

Bat guano smells.  I only wanted to eliminate the smell.  Honest.  I did not want them to leave, but the vinegar spray must have been unpleasant.  Within minutes they dropped out of their secure daytime hanging site into the harsh sunlight.  I felt guilty.  It’s been over a week and they have not returned.  Except one.  Today, one bat is hanging in the gable vent. [2]

Because of their size, color, and our location in central Virginia, my friends are likely big brown bats or Eptesicus fuscus.  Big brown bats are usually harmless and even helpful because of their appetite for bugs.  And they are cute.  I admit I had grown fond of them.  Now I miss them.

Despite my new attachment I was pleased that my bats had not gained access to the attic.  The previous owner of the house must have reinforced the vent mesh designed to prevent outside creatures from entering the attic.  I have since added a second layer of protection – a galvanized 1/4-inch screen — in case the bats decide to become overly aggressive.  So the bats and their lovely guano have remained outside the attic but inside the gable vent.  All good, until our attic fan switches on in the afternoon pulling guano aroma into the attic where we store our winter clothes and Christmas decorations.

And so I sprayed the vinegar-water.  But I did not want them to leave.  I wanted their guano to leave.  Their furry little bodies seemed so comfy and safe in their roost.  Did you know each bat can devour up to 3,000 insects every night?!  And they were quiet housemates, unless I was spraying them with vinegar.  They are cute, they eat bugs, and they are quiet.  But their guano smells.

Alas, I could not have the bats without their crap, which sounds a bit like our struggle as humans.  If you want me, you gotta’ tolerate my crap, too.

So, what about the solo bat?  Why did he return alone?  Maybe he had been visiting his aunt in North Carolina and my friends, who were rudely displaced while he was gone, did not leave a forwarding address.  After all, they left in a hurry to avoid the acid wash.  He returned to find his family gone!  My solitary friend is a sad bat and maybe a little pissed off.

Or, maybe he is a cast-out from another bat tribe.  He’s the guy who suggested the compromise “maybe we should drop our guano outside instead of inside,” which would have been an outrage or nonsense to the traditionalists so he was shunned.  Maybe he is an old bat and in their culture old bats are placed in separate gable vents to die alone.

I’ll guess I can be his friend, even if his guano smells.  If I want to be with the bat, I need to tolerate his crap.  It’s the least any of us should expect from a friend.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)



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  1. The word “guano” originates from the Quichua language of South America (Ecuador and Peru) where it means “droppings of sea birds.”  Apparently, guano was once collected from the islands off the coast of Peru for use as soil fertilizer.
  2. Is it weird that this bat is alone?  Where are his friends?  Is he lost?  Is he a she?

Will You Still Love My Songs Tomorrow?

I’d like to know that your love is love I can be sure of.  So tell me now, and I won’t ask again.  Will you still love me tomorrow?     ~ Gerry Goffin & Carole King (From Will You Love Me Tomorrow, 1960)

Carole King is the 2013 recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize.  Late one night a week or so ago I stumbled upon the award ceremony and concert on PBS [1] .  A handful of performers were on hand to honor Ms. King.  They sang a few of her popular hits including her first Will You Love Me Tomorrow? sung by the trio Gloria Estefan, Trisha Yearwood, and Emile Sande’. [2]  Billy Joel was there, too — a bit more girth than I remember when he performed at Penn State in 1976 on the Piano Man tour.  The evening ended nostalgically with Carole and good friend James Taylor singing You’ve Got a Friend.  Very nice.

I cried.  Well, I got tearful and I would have made sure no one saw it except everyone else had gone to bed.  This duet was a treat to watch and hear — two old friends singing the song about friends that I’ve enjoyed for years.

Good music takes me back to those days — this is the nature of nostalgia.  One of my sisters had King’s extraordinary album Tapestry when I was in high school, which I often borrowed without asking, so I loved those songs then.  I’ve since purchased my own copy and keep it in the truck next to my other 70s CDs.  You know the list – Jim Croce, America, Eric Clapton, Melissa Manchester, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu, Springsteen’s Born to Run, Simon & Garfunkle, and more.

I mentioned my nostalgic PBS moment (not the tears) to a few younger friends at church but they rolled their eyes.  They thought I was kidding.  Carole King?  Who?

I have hope for the future anyway.  My daughter may carry my nostalgia forward.  Tapestry is her favorite truck CD, especially Smackwater Jack and Natural Woman.  She’ll often reach for Eric Clapton’s I Shot the Sheriff, but she appropriately avoids Cocaine on the same album – at least when I’m in the truck with her.  I’m tempted to show her the PBS concert but I’m afraid she’ll become disillusioned by Ms. King’s gray hair, or Mr. Taylor’s lack of hair.  (I have gray hair too … but I have hair.)

Sigh.  The songs I love are from old people, for old people.  But old is a relative notion.  The songs my parents love are from older people, for older people … Crosby, Sinatra, Goodman, and Miller…who?  But my attraction to the vocal harmonies of the Kingston Trio or Mamas & Papas are surely handed down from my parents through their beloved Mills Brothers’ songs or that 1963 album of barbershop quartet champions.

I wonder.  Will you love me tomorrow, when I am larger, slower, and grayer?  I’ll have to ask my wife.  I hope she says yes.  What if I ask, “Will you love my songs tomorrow?”  To this she would surely say no.  She prefers country music, which is not really music in my view but that’s a discussion we’ll save for later.  Maybe my wife won’t love my songs tomorrow, but there’s a chance my daughter will.  Did I mention she loves Peter, Paul & Mary too?


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)




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  1. Watch the entire ceremony and concert:
  2. King co-wrote it with then-husband Gerry Goffin when she was still a teenager.  Did you know Neil Sedaka and Carole King dated in high school, and Paul Simon and King recorded songs together while in high school?

A Parable of the Seedlings

There was a certain village with many gardens.  The people of the village planted seeds in their gardens every spring.  The villagers loved their seeds and protected them.

In the spring, at just the right time, the villagers prepared their garden soil and planted their seeds.  In time, the seeds germinated, pushing tender sprouts out of the dark soil into the light of day.  The villagers rejoiced at the sight of the tender new seedlings.  All the people were happy and they celebrated.

Soon, the days grew longer and warmer as summer approached.  Unfortunately, because many days had passed without rain, the young seedlings wilted.  The villagers tried to protect their seedlings but there was not enough water in the village for every garden.  In some gardens where water was scarce or too costly the seedlings became weak and diseased.

One especially dry day, an old woman entered the village with a donkey pulling a small wooden cart.  She noticed that many seedlings were wilted, diseased, and dying. She spoke with a man who was pouring water from a small cup onto a seedling in his garden.  The old woman asked, “Why are many seedlings in this village wilted, diseased, and dying?”

The man answered, “There is not enough water for every seedling. Water is rare and costly.  Do not worry, for we have protected and nurtured extra seeds to plant next year.”

The old woman asked, “Might I gather your wilted seedlings and take them to the next village where there is water?”

The man said, “If you choose, but we cannot pay you.”

The old woman filled her cart with wilted seedlings and left the village.  Along the way, she saw the village leaders  preparing to chop down several old oak trees.  She marveled at the graceful beauty of the old trees and wondered if they planned to sell the wood to buy water for their wilted seedlings.  She asked, “Tell me, sirs, why do you chop down the old oak trees?  Will you sell the wood for money to buy water for your wilted seedlings?”

The men responded, “We will not sell this wood for money to buy water.  Water is rare and too costly.  Instead, we will use the wood to build a new warehouse for our seeds.  Do not worry about these old oak trees.  We have gathered every acorn for safe storage in our new warehouse.”

The old woman and her cart filled with the seedlings left that place never to return.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)

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Mr. Moore Was Right: Butterfly Wings, Incrementalism, and Respect For Small Changes


Mr. Moore taught Trigonometry and Calculus at my high school.   He often shouted my name with a particularly high-pitched tone when I calculated the square root of 7 incorrectly or forgot the equation of an inverted parabola.  I think he was annoyed because I was not the same caliber of student as my older siblings.  Surely they must have calculated the square root of seven in their heads. [1]

An electronic calculator would have been helpful for calculating the square root of seven, but in 1977 we did not have calculators, although the TI30 had become available, so I heard.  My friend Chris, an original nerd, snagged one of the earliest TI30s later that year.  The rest of us were jealous. [2]

My Circular Slide Rule Ruled!

Without a TI30, I depended on a slide rule, straight or circular.  I was versatile, though I preferred the circular version because it more conveniently fit into my shirt pocket without being noticed by the girls in the cafeteria, and I was told once that it was more accurate than its straight counterpart.  I found it in a kitchen drawer at home and began perfecting my calculations.  I was fast and accurate, I thought.

Which means I was devastated the day Mr. Moore mocked me in class for a three one-thousandths calculation error.  That’s .003 folks.  Not a big deal.  Close enough, I’d say.  Mr. Moore deducted points from my homework score for that .003 error.   “Harlow, it’s wrong!”  Really?  Three one-thousandths wrong.

Rounding May Not Be A Good Idea

I think that was the very day I rebelliously adopted a more relaxed rounding rule for my life.  I use the rounding rule when I enter values in my checkbook ledger which is why my accountant wife hides the checkbook from me.  OK, so rounding is not a good idea for a checkbook ledger.

The three one-thousandths calculation error has haunted me for years.  Seriously.  What was the big deal?

Ask A Chaos Theorist

Ask a chaos theorist, or a bounded rationalist, or a policy maker who muddles through, or an  incrementalist budget planner, or a decision maker influenced by a plurality of stakeholders.

There are more than a few meteorologists who believe that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Somalia contributes (eventually) to the emergence of a tornado in Oklahoma.  So it stands to reason that if the butterfly flaps its wings three one-thousandths faster or slower, the tornado will occur in Missouri instead of Kansas, or not at all.  Mr. Moore was right, and I should have become a meteorologist.

Three one-thousandths makes a difference.  I am ashamed that I questioned him.

Budgeting, Political Compromise, and Incomplete Information 

Forget tornadoes.  Consider tiny changes in federal budgets today that might incrementally affect families over five years.  Or subtle shifts in policy on medicaid or immigration that might incrementally affect low-wage workers a decade from now. Or a slight nuance in political choices limited by incomplete or inaccurate information today that might incrementally strengthen or weaken key political choices later.  Or unnoticed compromises required today to negotiate with diverse stakeholder groups in a pluralist society leading incrementally over time to far better — or worse — than expected conditions years later.

Three one-thousandths might make a difference.

The scenarios listed above represent a set of theories proposed by three like-minded political scientists and a psychologist in the middle part of the last century.  They have been described as incrementalists.  Charles Lindblom (1959) was a political scientist who wrote about the “science” of muddling through with incrementalist policy development.  Aaron Wildavsky (1964 and 1988) was a political scientist who wrote about the incrementalist process of federal budget-making.  Robert Dahl (1982) was a political scientist who wrote about the dilemmas of making effective policy decisions in a pluralist political environment requiring incremental choices through compromises.  Herbert Simon (1976) was a psychologist who wrote about the incremental nature of decisions made by leaders of organizations when their ability to make purely rational decisions is hampered by incomplete information. [3]  For these scholars, three one-thousandths in policy making terms might have made a difference.  Mr. Moore was right.

.000127 Is Significant

Actually a smaller error makes a difference.  The famous butterfly effect of chaos theory was first noticed in 1961 by meteorologist Dr. Edward Lorenz at M.I.T.  He was running a series of computer calculations for a weather simulation.  To save time one afternoon he entered the rounded value .506 instead of the value .506127 he had used in the same calculation previously. [4]  This tiny .000127 difference in data input produced an exponentially different simulated weather pattern.

Until this point, scientists had generally accepted the axiom that a small error causes only a small change in results.  As James Gleick explains, this Newtonian approach suggests that “[g]iven an approximate knowledge of a system’s initial conditions and an understanding of natural law, one can calculate the approximate behavior of the system.” [5]   However, for Lorenz’s system of equations the small error proved catastrophic.  The science of weather forecasting has not been the same since.

So, if the puff of a tiny butterfly’s wings today potentially makes such a huge difference in our weather tomorrow, what about a tiny puff of change in a policy or budget today?  What about a small political decision implemented today without complete or proper information?

Small Things Matter

Mr. Moore was right.  Small things matter.  A small decision that creates significant change for a low-wage family, for example, really matters for that family … or for hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of families.  Worse, small decisions made today with incomplete or poor information might create catastrophic changes for all of us over the next ten years.

I wonder if my .003 error in high school created enough change in my life then to affect me today?  I think I’ll re-submit that homework assignment.  I have a calculator now.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)




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  1. Some day I will proudly reveal to my sibs my GRE math score.  Hm.  So there.
  2. I received my first TI30 as a high school graduation gift.  What a gem!
  3. Lindblom, Charles (1959).  The science of “muddling through.  In Democracy and market system.  Oslo, Norway: Norwegian University Press.  Wildavsky, Aaron (1988).  The new politics of the budgetary process.  Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company.  Dahl, Robert (1982).  Dilemmas of pluralist democracy: Autonomy vs. control.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Simon, Herbert (1976).  Administrative behavior: A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization.  New York: The Free Press.
  4. For a delightful narrative of the emergence of chaos theory through Lorenz’s mathematical discoveries see Gleick, James (1987).  Chaos: Making a new science.  New York: Penguin Books.
  5. Gleick (1987). p15.

Amnesty Is Forgiveness. Forgiveness Is Good

God is kind; you be kind.  Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment.  Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier.  Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing.  Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.   — Jesus, in Luke 6:36-38, in the Christian New Testament (The Message, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson)

According to most reliable and consistent sources there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.  There is a vibrant debate in secular and religious circles about whether or not our undocumented immigrants should be granted amnesty.  Amnesty for undocumented immigrants means they would receive forgiveness for the laws they have broken.

I expect that church folk understand forgiveness.  Will the Church in the U.S. forgive undocumented immigrants?  Of course there is no single voice of the Church.  So who’s to decide?  We are a diverse bunch.

What’s Wrong With Forgiveness?

Call me simplistic, but I wonder:  What’s wrong with forgiveness?  After all, this could be easy forgiveness.  Undocumented immigrants have been our neighbors for a long time.  Nearly two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have lived in the U.S. for at least ten years.  Their children attend our schools.  They work in our communities and shop in our stores.  They attend our places of worship.  They are generally good, hard-working people.  Compared to those of us who are native born, undocumented immigrants are more likely to have jobs, more likely to be business entrepreneurs, and more likely to avoid serious crime.

Are They Criminals?

About half of the undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. are here on lapsed visas that were originally authorized legally.  This is called a visa overstay.  Remaining in the U.S on a lapsed visa is considered a civil violation of federal law (not a crime).  Estimates suggest that the other half of our undocumented immigrants are here because they entered the country by means of an illegal border crossing or entry.  Entering the country without proper documentation is considered a federal misdemeanor crime.  However, unless a person is caught in the act of entering illegally, that person’s presence in the U.S. without documentation is considered only a civil violation (until he or she is shown to be guilty of having entered illegally).  So, the entire set of 11 million undocumented immigrants, unless they commit a crime while living here, or are proven to have entered the country illegally, are currently guilty of violating only U.S. civil law.

What about the good news?  On the bright side there is evidence that undocumented immigrants added to our workforce actually boost the economy, and do not threaten employment opportunities for the rest of us.[1]

Forgiveness Is Good

So, amnesty for our undocumented immigrants would be an easy forgiveness.  Easy or hard, though, for the Church forgiveness is good.  And required.

Let’s be honest.  Most of us like forgiveness.  It makes us feel good.  In a previous article [2] I suggest that Americans seem fond of forgiveness (or amnesty) as a tool for reconciliation and healing after a difficult situation or conflict.  The granting of amnesty is part of our American and religious traditions.

I think granting amnesty is good for the soul.  President Andrew Johnson granted amnesty to lower-ranked former Confederate soldiers in 1865 and to all participants of the rebellion in 1868.  Even though it took a few years, amnesty must have felt good to most Americans – to the receivers and the givers.  Many presidents and governors when nearing the end of their terms of office grant amnesties and pardons to various lawbreakers.  Early in his term of office Gerald Ford granted a pardon to his disgraced predecessor Richard Nixon.

I was amazed to hear the story of the powerful act of forgiveness offered by the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006 after a gunman murdered five of their children and then shot himself.  Leaders of that Amish community including parents of the dead children visited the gunman’s wife to offer forgiveness and compassion.  That courageous conversation must have transformed all of them.

Our Congress is entering a serious debate about how best to craft policy for comprehensive immigration reform.  There is growing optimism that an effective compromise might take place.  There is optimism at least until someone mentions amnesty for existing undocumented immigrants.  Keep in my mind, the notion of amnesty does not mean the immigrant would sail through to citizenship unfettered.  A waiting period, payment of fines, and other hurdles are likely to be included in the long process toward citizenship.  Amnesty would only eliminate the status offense for a lapsed visa, or for some, the illegal entry offense.  And amnesty would be offered only to those who are currently in the U.S.

Amnesty would help all of us get a fresh start.

Amnesty Is Not A Dirty Word 

Like forgiveness, amnesty is a gift — not earned, and perhaps not deserved, but an act of kindness for the recipient.  Amnesty would help the nation move forward into reconciliation.

Somehow, though, the word amnesty triggers feelings of resentment or anger, as if it is a dirty word.  The mention of amnesty evokes the battle-cry “our nation is based on the rule of law.”  Sure.  Laws are necessary.  But our Church is based also (first?) on the rule of love.  God is kind.  Be kind.  Let us forgive and enjoy a fresh start.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)










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  1. See a link to the American Enterprise Institute study at
  2. See the article at: