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A Little Sand In The Gears

"Remember, Son, dying organizations love rules. Groups that are living and vital and growing donít have time to make rules -- theyíre too busy doing things. Thatís my greatest fear for Masonry."

My father, Jack N. Tresner, Sr., 33°, loved Masonry with a passion and was especially active in the Scottish Rite. He was, among other things, Chairman of the Advisory Conference, Wise Master of Rose Croix, Director of the 33° Conferral Team where he took the role of Grand Commander. The welfare of Masonry was much on his mind in his final days. He had been very active in business as the president of an insurance company and in the church where he served on the International Board of Church Extension of the Christian Church, but his family and Masonry were his two great loves.

Not long before his death, we had the last of many conversations about Masonry. He was deeply worried about the future of the fraternity. He had watched it decline from the most active, energetic, positive organization in the community, attracting so many good men each year that it was difficult to find time to perform the Degrees, to an organization which, each year, lost so many men that it had only half its former membership. I had learned long ago that he was a man of extraordinary insight and wisdom, and I listened carefully to what he had to say.

"Why does that happen?"I asked.

"Dying organizations turn inward,"he said. "When I joined Masonry, our rules, our Constitution and Code, filled a little booklet, about 3" X 5", and about 20 pages long. Now the pages are 8½" X 11", and they fill a three-ring binder. And there are so many new rules each year that it takes a three-ring binder to keep current. Other states are the same way.

"When I joined Masonry in 1941, I was really impressed by how the leadership kept finding new things for Masons to do. I watched that change.Ē

"Why,"I asked, "what happened?Ē

"Old men,"he answered. "I donít mean age. Some men are old and crotchety at 20, some are young and vital at 80. You want to watch that, by the way. You can tend a little to the crotchety side yourself if youíre not careful. But the fraternity fell into the hands of these old men, of whatever age. All they wanted to do was control others -- tell others what they had to do and what they could not do. Thereís something they didnít like, so they made another rule. Theyíre the moss-backs, like the old turtles that hide under the logs in the stream and snap at everything that goes by. Iíve spent the last 20 years trying to scrape a little moss and carry a little sand."

That last allusion escaped me.

"That was one of your grand-fatherís expressions. When an organization, any organization, is alive and vital, its leaders judge their success by how much gets done. When an organization is dying, they judge their success by how smoothly things go. I actually heard the Worshipful Master of our Lodge say that he had a good year -- nothing happened.Ē

"Jim, the only smooth ride in the world is the ride down when you fall off a cliff. Itís as smooth and easy as anyone could want, until you get to the bottom. Then itís fatal. Itís natural for leaders to want a smooth ride -- and the cruelest thing you can do is to give it to them. Every now and then, you need to sprinkle a little sand in the gears. I know you always wondered why I appointedĒ -- he named an individual -- Ēto the company Board of Directors.Ē

"I certainly have wondered!"I said. "He does nothing but challenge you.Ē

"Thatís why! I donít dare let the ride get too smooth, even for me. He is my sandman. Iíve tried to do the same thing for Masonry. But I canít do it any longer. If you love Masonry as much as I think you do, youíve got to sprinkle the sand, now.

"You donít have to cause problems, I donít mean that. Sometimes the most effective sand you can use is just to ask Why? Why do we have that rule? Why do we do something? Why does it have to be that way? We promise to whisper good counsel in the ear of an erring Brother -- why do we try to find a way to throw him out of the fraternity? We say that Masonry has some of the greatest lessons the world has ever known -- why donít our people even take the trouble to learn the meanings of the words of the ritual so they know what those lessons really are? We say that Masonry is important -- why wonít we set the dues high enough to really support the Lodge and its activities?

"Iím not asking for a promise, because thereís a price. The moss-backs wonít love you. You wonít win any popularity contests. But maybe Masonry will wake up and decide to live again.Ē

And, even though he did not ask for a promise, I promised.

All this went through my mind again during the recent Scottish Rite Leadership Conferences. I listened to many younger Scottish Rite Masons, especially the Scottish Rite Fellows, talk about changes -- some fair amount of sand was tossed around. Some of the ideas bothered me a little. (Dad was right, I do tend toward the crotchety.) But thatís all right. They were thinking; they raised questions and addressed issues; they challenged us. God bless them all!

One of the suggestions was that the Scottish Rite Journal publish some controversial articles -- articles which raise issues and eyebrows. And the leadership agreed! Not only is this article being published, but you will find the first essay in a series titled "Essays from the Edge." It is almost certain that there will be articles in this series which will annoy me, and possibly you. But (not indulging in the temptation to point out it is only the irritated oyster which produces a pearl) that annoyance is good for us. Brethren whose articles appear in the series "Essays from the Edge"do a service by making us think, by sprinkling a little sand in our mental gears.

The fall off the cliff, while smooth, really isnít comfortable. And a few bumps on the way are a lot better than that sudden stop.