Monthly Archives: September 2014

My Mom’s Dresser and Book Writing

The phone rang interrupting the morning quiet in our family’s suburban Chicago home; it was my mom on the line. Would my brother and I drive over the van to retrieve an old dresser that she had seen at a garage sale? Sure, I said. She was at work; my brother Mark and I were hanging out at the house not due at our own jobs for another few hours. We got in the ’76 Chevy Beauville – its life extended by many summers hours sanding the rust off the lower sides before coating them with Rustoleum – and made the ten minute jaunt to the part of town where some old gem piece of furniture had caught my mom’s eye. When Mark and I saw the dresser, we busted out laughing. We didn’t see any beauty – the dresser was old, darkened, ugly, shoddy, and neglected. The top of the dresser was a pock-marked and gouged mess. My mom had paid all of $5 for it. Ha! We didn’t know what was funnier: the dilapidated dresser itself or that she had paid only $5. We laughed the whole way home as the Beauville trudged back through town with its disputed treasure.

Mark and I were on summer break from college when we heeded our mom’s request. Soon enough, however, we were back at school and away from home. Unbeknownst to us, our mom was slowly and patiently working on that dresser. The fall becoming winter is a great time in the Upper Midwest to work away on a time-consuming project in the garage or basement. Mom painstakingly stripped off the old varnish (the dresser boasted ample intricate wood cuttings and carvings which I had not noticed), sanded and stripped some more, had our dad cover the top with durable edge-routered formica, and applied multiple coats of polyurethane to all of the outer wood.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, I happened upon a new dresser in the basement. It was beautiful. A mariner theme with wood carvings of rope, rudders, and a sailboat stood out from this carefully constructed piece of furniture. When I saw my mom a bit later, I asked her where she got the new dresser. Now it was her turn to laugh at me. It was the old $5 gem, newly reconstructed by my mom. I was stunned.

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Mom’s dresser – impervious to the machinations of Spider Man . . .

Years later when my wife and I moved to Houston, my mom was kind enough to let us borrow the mariner dresser for our daughter Alex. We had the dresser for six years or so while we were in Houston. The dresser is now back in the Chicago area at my sister’s house and in the room of my nephew Miles.

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My mom – Mary Ann Anderson – with the two beneficiaries of her handiwork, her grandkids Miles and Alex

There’s something about how my mom worked on that dresser that relates to the process of writing a book. It took me the better part of three years to write Just a Little Bit More. Six months intensive reading and research, twelve months of writing with continued research, an additional twelve months of rewriting and reviewing edits, and six months of design detail and preparation for selling. I worked on the book while pursuing my regular full-time job which, logically, elongated the process. I never cherished the dream of “one day to write a book.” I’ve always read a lot, but ask my family members or friends: not one of them foresaw me writing a book. While writing a book is more involved than rehabbing a piece of furniture, the same principles apply.

Occasionally I look back with a touch of astonishment on the work and effort required of me to write Just a Little Bit More. Braggadocio aside – the combination of perseverance and passion can produce improbable results. As I remember my mom’s dresser, I can see where I got some of that perseverance . . . from her. In addition to rehabbing furniture, my mom specializes in two other creative tasks requiring patience and steadfastness: sewing and quilting. She has made numerous blankets, bedcovers, quilts, and clothing items that have blessed the lives of her six adult children and their spouses, her sixteen grandchildren, and many others (yes) throughout the world.

It’s cliché to exalt the philosophy of one step at a time and one day at a time. Another way to express the wisdom inherent to those clichés: sometimes slow is fast. In an instant gratification society, putting work into a long term project (like a refinished dresser or a book) seems anachronistic. Isn’t there a shortcut or an easier way? Not always – sometimes slow is fast, and the resultant quality reveals, for those who look carefully, an enduring legacy of commitment and passion.

 

 

 Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

 

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Civil Religion in an Era of Inequality

I’m a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I was ordained in 1991; my generation of pastoral leaders presides over a precipitous decline in church membership and participation. This is true for all the mainline churches (Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.). Evangelical and non-denominational churches are no longer growing; the Roman Catholic Church in the United States maintains no loss in membership gracias a los Latinos. Times have changed and the institutional church has lost quite a bit of its mojo . . .

Churches in America, yes, once upon a recent time, did have some mojo (status and momentum). The period of the 1950s and early ’60s was the recent heyday of American churches; the civil religion of that day required good citizens to belong to houses of worship. My generation of pastors (mainliners, at least) was educated and trained by seminary professors, most of whose formative years harkened back to the heyday period. Expectations were rightfully lofty; we were to support the church’s dominion even as signs of decline unmistakably surfaced. My generation can be accused of harboring some entitlement mentality; we were expectant of a decent salary, health insurance, and a pension from these established churches. Today, fewer and fewer churches are able to satisfactorily meet all three of these expectations.

It’s a pretty good idea in this current era of diminishment that a minister have a second gig. I know pastoral colleagues who are engaged in the following tasks for pay: music lessons, carpentry, teaching, coaching, writing, managing a call center. Tent-making, descriptive of the Apostle Paul’s second gig and of a pastor working a secular job, has been the norm much more so than not during the Church’s two-thousand year history. All is not lost in this era of precipitous decline. The church has done some of its best work from and within minority status.

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Civil religion has deep roots in modern society. Political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (18th century) wrote of the “sentiments of sociality,” the social glue holding a nation or state together. Sociologist Robert Bellah, in our day, wrote of civil religion as the common values that unify Americans. He called the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement the defining chapters of the national narrative. Other items deserving mention include the playing of the national anthem at public events, the president closing out national addresses with “God Bless America,” and belief in the concept of American exceptionalism. Civil religion is a two-sided coin, both helping and hindering societal common good.

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The ELCA publishes its own monthly magazine for its faithful. No surprises with the name of the magazine – it is called The Lutheran. In the July issue, the cover theme was “Economic Inequality.” Four articles by different authors highlighted this timely topic; The new inequality by Jon Pahl, a teaching theologian working in Philadelphia, was especially well done. Pahl argues that two important responses to this “new inequality” (not entirely new, but a repeat of the inequality of the Gilded Age and the 1920s, and newly present since the late 1970s) is the advocacy of community (political) organizing and the implementation and empowerment of social ministries. Whereas Lutheran Christians have in the past and today strongly advocate social ministries, community organizing seems an entirely different issue. Many of us are comfortable with advocating a food pantry ministry to serve the hungry in our community, but how many of us are willing to dig deeper and ask the question – with the goal of answering it – why there are so many people, including children, who are hungry?

We almost got rid of hunger in the United States in the late 1960s, because of a continued emphasis on social policy coming out of the New
Deal era. In the late 1970s, there were only 200 or so food pantries serving the hungry in the United States. The pendulum swung, however, and something changed as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s. Governmental and societal will embraced the emphasis of fiscal policy over social policy and financialization has been dominant ever since. The size of the US financial sector (measured by percent of GDP) doubled from the late 1970s to 2008. Something else has also increased – exponentially so from the 1970s. Today there are more than 40,000 food pantries and soup kitchens that serve the hungry in the United States. Close to 50 million Americans are food insecure, the majority of these women and children. The emphasis on financialization – the process whereby financial markets, financial institutions, and financial elites are given top priority in governmental policy – is a major factor in the creation of the current economic inequality and its fallout.

When the September issue of The Lutheran came out, the letters to the editor section printed four responses to the articles on economic inequality. Two were highly critical of the magazine for running the articles:

“I do not share your cheerleading enthusiasm that paints economic inequality as demonic injustice.”

“I refuse to be used by people who feel entitled to half of everything others have while they do nothing.”

A part of American civil religion – the social glue that holds this society together – in this era of inequality has devolved into a simplistic “maker/taker” tenet that casually accepts the current rampant inequality as normal. Entitlement, taking on second jobs, poverty (inclusive of an abysmal childhood poverty rate of 23% in the United States), and other social consequences of inequality are crucial issues that cannot be dismissed as trivial.  More harmful, even, is the demonizing of others as entirely culpable and the categorization of American citizens into two groups – us and them.

We pay a high price for the ignorance concerning the causes of inequality and their consequences for the whole of society; the common good suffers as a result. Economist Thomas Piketty forecasts historic levels of inequality for the United States by 2030 if we continue on current trajectories. In the meantime, the soon-to-be minority-status church has a job to do: remind the society in which it resides that the justice of heaven is to touch everyday life here on earth. A majority-status church (as in the 1950s) runs the risk of not being able to differentiate itself from the surrounding civil religion (consider the many US flags in sanctuaries across the nation, as an example). The minority-status church is less susceptible to being co-opted by the reigning civil religion. Point in case: the Divine will carried out on earth includes daily bread, not just for some, but for all.

 

These ideas are adapted from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014) available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

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