Monthly Archives: February 2016

What Phil Gramm and Mr. Krabs Have in Common

PhilGrammKRABS_EA_copy

The following post is adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

 

Congressional Republicans and Democrats differ in a number of ways, but they are essentially united when it comes to uncritical acceptance of the ways of Wall Street. Whereas roughly 1 percent of Americans are millionaires (as of 2010), 50 percent of US representatives and senators are categorized as such. Phil Gramm, who retired from the Senate in 2002, was a card-carrying member of the millionaires’ club while serving on Capitol Hill. He most memorably was on record naming Wall Street “a holy place.” To be wealthy is not an indictment; but to imagine one’s wealth does not affect the way one votes, especially concerning issues involving personal financial interests, is naïve. As an old Russian proverb states, “When money talks, the truth is silent.”

My son and I went to see the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie when it came out in 2004. He was twelve years old; the movie had something for both generations, as the theater was evenly populated by kids and their parents. SpongeBob is the main character in one of the most popular animated cartoons of the first decade of the 2000s. The series features a number of lead characters (all sea creatures); a handful of Internet bloggers revel in the alleged representation of the seven deadly sins in seven recurring characters of the show. Restaurant owner Mr. Krabs (who is, yes, a crab) is especially fond of money, both its procurement and its retention. In the movie, Mr. Krabs decides to open a second restaurant adjacent to his original one. At its grand opening, he confesses his love for money with an interviewer, as he is asked what inspired him to duplicate his efforts. He answers the question instinctively with one word: “Money.”

Sometimes it’s a jolt that comes from a change of scenery – in this case a cartoon – that helps one to hear the truth loud and clear. The implied mocking of Mr. Krabs’s greed drew one of the largest laughs in the theater that day; even children are able to recognize that the inordinate love of money skews a person’s – or a crab’s – perspective.

Phil Gramm cosponsored the 1999 repeal (proudly signed into law by President Clinton) of the landmark Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that had separated the activities of commercial banks and security firms. The repeal is now widely considered to be a primary culprit in the 2007-08 economic swoon. Gramm never anticipated the economic demise that he helped create. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with opening a second business or wanting to construct an environment where jobs and capital proliferate. But to be shrewd to the ways of greed is an elusive wisdom.

Gramm was blinded by his love for money – that which he has in common with Mr. Krabs.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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Borderlands

Thanks to Nathan Wicks for the guest blog post poem below. He participated in a 2016 January-term class, “Borderlands”, co-sponsored by the Lutheran Seminary of the Southwest and the Seminary of the Southwest. A group of twenty students – hailing from Texas, Alabama, Iowa, and various points in-between – interacted with Latino folks and the various flavors of Latino culture flourishing from Central Texas down to the Rio Grande Valley. The two seminaries share resources, space, and student experiences in Austin, Texas.

 

“At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.” – From: Borderlands/La Frontera: La Nueva Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa (Aunt Lute, 1987).

 

BORDERLANDS

The “American Dream” is a history of lines
And who has the power to draw them.
The earth is just the earth, the lines are ours,
And the reason, be it theft or money or slavery or death,
Can be justified and erased in the history books in one generation.
“Our Land” is the history of facilitating
The travel of money from place to place.
“Our Land” is not defined by these lines, or this land,
But sold for cheap in the definition of “us”.
The “American Dream” is a dream of us, the U.S.,
And it looks like the detritus of plastic wrappers and shopping bags
Blowing across the landscape, washed into rivers,
A dream stuffed into our souls to muffle the terror growing in our hearts.
The land cries out, and the rivers swell, enraged at the injustice.
They are calling for judgement,
But it is for those upstream who never feel the punishment,
The ones already bearing the heaviest of burdens,
The real hope and disappointment
Of the “American Dream,” feel the pain.
They suffer for us, yet we walk in a fever dream,
Sleepless, unable to awaken and see ourselves downstream, face to face.

And of course America is something else entirely,
A land stays put wherever lines may be drawn,
An U.S. dream of identity doesn’t change the face of the land,
And we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.
A dream is not a denial or escape from reality,
It is the place communicating to its people,
It is the Spirit speaking plainly about the Kingdom.
And those who are seeking first the Kingdom,
What will be given to them?

We came here to look at a river.
We, narcissistic, delusionally dreaming,
Came to see ourselves in this river,
And all we see are shadows.
But why am I struck blind at the sight?
When the invisible is seen there is a glaring darkness,
A shaded shape glimpsed in outline in front of a bright light.
What does your reflection look like, Narcissus?
Is it what you expected?
As your eyes adjust you will look up and see,
It is far more beautiful and full of life than
You ever thought you could be again.

Yes, this American Dream is still a shallow grave,
This is still no Promised Land.
It is an escape from violence through violence into violence.
But in which dream is the Spirit growing?
Thorny, gnarled unfurling, vibrant color in the desert places,
The richest Earth in the “American Dream,”
A threshold of epiphanies, a thin place in between places.
And what are they dreaming about here, in the Borderlands?
Is someone standing here
Broadcasting the corn far across the land,
The seeds of another Kingdom?

And here we are, gathered at the river,
Seeing this place where everyday life goes on
While something is seeking a mending of the breach,
This open wound borne in the bodies of many who have crossed it,
Baptized into something else entirely.
There are people who come together here
And cast a very different line
Across, towards each other.
It is not as grandiose as that other line,
But it is more real; nearly invisible,
Tiny, but tangible and full of hope,
And they are hungry and trying to catch some fish.
I see them reaching towards each other,
Throwing out little lines of longing,
Yearnings for wholeness, prayers of a normal life,
Seeking nourishment for their human need,
Sustenance from the life of this river
As people have done for centuries,
A life to which this river has drawn people
As a point of communion.
They are fed.
Their bodies bear this mark of knowing,
The dream of a New Creation.
The body of Christ is alive and well here,
The Spirit is flourishing on the food of this Tierra.

 

 

nathan wicks

Nathan Wicks (pictured) is a student at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Nathan, a former farmer deeply concerned about ecological issues, wrote this poem after making the 1,400 mile trek from Dubuque, Iowa to the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

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In Lieu of Flowers . . .

inlieuofflowersI recently received a text message from my mom informing me that the mother of one of my high school classmates had passed away. My mom still lives in the locale where I went to high school back in the last quarter of the former century; I most recently lived there twenty-five years ago. As we texted back and forth, my mom further informed me that the deceased woman’s obituary had an interesting closing request: In lieu of flowers, please don’t vote for Hillary Clinton.

How’s that for a new twist on the obit pages? A quick search on the world-wide wonder reveals that, in obits across the country during this political cycle, numerous similar requests reach out to voters from the great beyond, or, at least, from the grave. And in an accurate reflection of unfavorable rating polls, Donald Trump and Ms. Clinton lead the way with negative mentions on the bereavement pages.

hilldonald

Negative requests are a sign of the times, skewed hyper-partisan. Before this era of hyper-partisanship, a rare obit might have kindly solicited a request for a positive vote for a particular candidate. In lieu of flowers, be so kind to consider a vote for candidate X in memory of the deceased. Even so, previous to this current era, such a request would have betrayed a slight breach of etiquette.

Newt Gingrich can be praised or blamed – depending on your point of view – for the current wave of hyper-partisanship. Elected Minority Whip of the House of Representatives in 1989, Gingrich became Speaker of the House as Republicans swept into power in 1994. Named Time‘s Man of the Year in 1995, Gingrich was lionized for his strategy to take the House after forty years of Democratic rule. Gingrich’s strategy wasn’t new, but it was effective: destroy the institution to save it – throw the majority bums out. Under his leadership, House Republicans refused to cooperate with Democrats and publicly portrayed them as the party most benefitting from entrenched corruption. The strategy worked so well, in fact, that the Democrats adopted it and succeeded in bringing ethics violations against Speaker Gingrich in 1998, eventually forcing his resignation from office the following year.

Hyper-partisanship is yet the political modus operandi of the day, and it has spilled over into American society as acceptable behavior. Economic segregation in America has increased; and, in some quarters, the demonization of others who are “different” is on the rise. It makes me wonder: Could the spirit of American hyper-partisanship be strong enough to survive into the great beyond, colonizing a few cloistered places for hyper-partisans? God only knows if there will be gated communities in the afterlife . . .

vernonjohns

Pastor Vernon Johns (1892-1965)

Vernon Johns was Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama – the church that proudly stands one block away from the Alabama State Capitol. Johns, provocative and creative, was a firebrand for equality.

One weekday morning in 1949, Brother Johns, as was his custom, arranged the letters on the front sidewalk sign announcing his coming Sunday sermon topic for passersby. What a shock to the good people of Montgomery, abiding by the laws of racial separation, to see the preacher’s sermon title spelled out: Segregation after Death. The Montgomery police chief noticed the sign and demanded that Johns come to the police station to explain himself. Luke 16:19-31 – Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives – provided Johns with his textual basis. Johns explained to the chief and his lieutenants that Dives, a staunch practitioner of segregation (economic and otherwise) during his earthly life, was cursed by it in the afterlife. The reversal of fortune – Dives suffering in Hades, and Lazarus being comforted by Father Abraham in Paradise – was not enough for Dives to see that he shared common humanity with Lazarus. The chief and his men, according to Johns’ retelling of the encounter, were moved with empathy. He was not required to alter or take down the sign with his bold sermon title.

Johns’ brilliant interpretation of Jesus’ parable for Montgomery’s specific context focused Luke’s message not on the afterlife, but on how human brothers and sisters, sharing common humanity, treat one another in this life.

That said, brothers and sisters: Vote your conscience, love your neighbor, and begin to shed any negative hyper-partisanship* that unnecessarily discolors your relationships with others in the human family. You can’t take it with you when you go, you know.

 

*I suppose there is an occasional time and place for hyper-partisan strategy. But may it be rare, and not commonplace.

If you’re interested in further reading on the life of Vernon Johns, see Taylor Branch’s incomparable Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963; Simon & Schuster (1989) pages 7-25.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

 

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

 

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The Joy of Reading (Good Stuff)

During a recent radio interview, I heard someone bemoan all the reading of insignificant detritus he’s done on the Internet, while the good books on his To Read list gather dust: “It’s like I’m on the millionth page of the worst book ever – but I can’t stop reading it.” We’ve all wasted precious time; it’s not the worst sin in the world. But when you find yourself surfing the net and reading about what O.J. Simpson had for breakfast in his prison cell, or about a sighting of Kim Kardashian breast-feeding her baby in public – then you know that some better part of the world is passing you by.

When you start to tally up all the time that gets away, the math is instructive. If you took twenty minutes each day to read good stuff (see below), you’d end up with 120 hours per year. Depending on reading speed and book size, that’s between six to twenty-five books a year. That’s time well spent – directly beneficial to you and indirectly beneficial to those whose paths you cross.

Reading a book is akin to having a conversation with another human being: a deep, meaningful, thought-out exchange that as readers we are able to conduct on our own time. Perhaps a bit grandiose to say, but having a varied and wide reading list is akin to having a conversation with the world. This conversation makes us more aware of our place in the world, and (hopefully) better citizens of it.

20160207_052809

The home bookshelves – a blessed mess, yes.

Good Stuff: While I do read fiction, I’m admittedly over-balanced on the non-fiction side. Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and Daniel Yergin’s The Prize are but a few of the captivating books I delved into over the years. There are many other books I would add to my A-list: Edmund Morris’s Dutch, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel are but a few others.

While my three kids were in college, they received from their old man a hand-picked bundle of books from the good stuff list. Lucky them! I realized they weren’t going to read these books while in college – they had other books to read and happenings to attend. Yet, like a seed planted in good soil, I trust that this gesture someday will bear beneficial fruit.

Occasionally, Facebook friends will call out for “Top 10” or “Best Ever” reading lists. As we all know, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. It’s eye-opening to see what others are reading; it enlarges the conversation. It’s a blessing to have time to read.

There’s a great difference between information and knowledge. The Internet provides plenty of the former, whereas good books help engender the latter.

I’ll continue to blog on the net, with the purpose of supporting common good development, pointing out the good books along the way that help us get there.

Read on, my friends.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

 

Let me mention one more great book: Robert Sapolsky’s classic from 1994, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Ahem!

 

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Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador

Thanks to colleague Kathy Haueisen for this guest blog post. Blue Ocotillo will be publishing her novel Asunder this spring. Check out other posts from Kathy at her website, “How Wise Then: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Problems.”    
        

            Two days before I was scheduled to fly to El Salvador for my third Thrivent Builds-Habitat for Humanity trip I got an e-mail from our State Department warning me of escalating concerns about safety there for U.S.A. travelers. Were this my first trip I might have cancelled my flight.

            Since this was not my first trip, I deleted the e-mail and continued packing. Both Thrivent (a not-for-profit financial services organization for Christians) and Habitat in El Salvador run excellent programs. The work, though physically challenging, is manageable. We get two breaks and a long lunch plus encouragement to rest when we’re feeling tired.

            Our task was to help dig an eight foot-deep hole and deepen a trench around the house for a new septic system at a Habitat home. We spent much of the week moving dirt out of the way and then moving it back in to fill in around newly laid pipes.

            The week wasn’t all work. Habitat encourages getting to know the Salvadorians we met. For that reason each work site includes an interpreter. This is essential as the building project managers are hired for their construction skills and ability to work with international volunteers, not for their English skills. Some volunteers speak Spanish, but few have an adequate vocabulary to negotiate building instructions.

            One of the Habitat workers was a young man, David. At one point David was pitching dirt out of the pit that was now deeper than he was tall. He could pitch dirt out faster than five volunteers could load it into a wheel barrel and haul it to the empty lot next door.

            One young local woman, Glenda, came by every day to help because she wanted to practice her English. I wanted to practice my Spanish so we spoke to one another in both languages frequently during the week. I was immediately drawn to Glenda as she is the same age as two of my granddaughters.

            Luis Viscarra is the Habitat staff person charged with welcoming each international team at the San Salvador airport. He gives each team a brief history of El Salvador along with practical tips for staying healthy and safe while in country. He starts by explaining that when Spain conquered El Salvador several centuries ago the country was divided up among fourteen colony families. By the time of the 1980s’ Civil War, descendants of these original fourteen families literally owned all of El Salvador. These few were wealthy while the majority of people were living in desperate poverty.

            The Civil war broke out in 1979 when the military-led government, representing the interests of the fourteen families, fought against a coalition of guerrilla groups fighting for a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources.

            Many fled during the twelve-year conflict. Both sides recruited child soldiers. There was extreme violence, including deliberately terrorizing and targeting civilians via death squads. Martyr Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest, campaigned on behalf of the poor. For his efforts he was assassinated in March 1980 as he led worship. We saw photos of him everywhere, including on the stole of Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez who presided over worship at Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey (Christ the King Lutheran Church) in Santa Ana, our first Sunday there.

            The years of extreme violence and the disruption of families as many fled the twelve years of extreme violence have resulted in a generation of young men who have grown up inadequately educated but with much experience of violence. That combined with extreme poverty, has led to the formation of gangs.

            So yes, gangs are a serious problem in some parts of El Salvador. However, Habitat leaders know where they are active and keep the international volunteers far away from those areas.

            Because we were team number 250 through the Thrivent-Habitat of El Salvador partnership, we were given extra special attention. The week started with a worship service at Cristo Rey in Santa Ana. An earthquake destroyed their church building in 2000. For many years the small congregation gathered in an old cinder-bloc building that survived the earthquake. It had originally been a chicken coop.

Cristo Rey.Santa Ana (1)

            When Joe and Bonnie Reilly started taking volunteers to El Salvador as part of Joe’s work with Thrivent, they took teams to worship at Cristo Rey since many of the homes they worked on belonged to members of that congregation.

            A few years ago they sat with their team in folding chairs in the cinder-block building and asked Pastor Carlos what he needed most. His obvious answer was, “A new church.” There were only two problems: the congregation had no funds and little hope of raising them to build a new church; and, Habitat for Humanity builds homes, not churches.

            The best way to handle a problem is to get rid of it. With a lot of prayer and enthusiasm Partners in Faith was formed. Funds were raised. Habitat for Humanity gave permission for teams to slow down on building homes and pick up speed on construction of the much-needed new building. International volunteers and Cristo Rey members worked side by side for several years to build what Bishop Gomez claims is the best Lutheran church in all of El Salvador.

            As we worshipped on the one-year anniversary of the completion and dedication of the church I held back tears, as did many of my fellow team members. Most of us had played some small part in the construction of the new building. In addition to Bishop Gomez, several other honored guests participated, including the president of a Baptist seminary, an Episcopal priest, two USA Lutheran pastors, and a pastor from Guatemala. Sitting next to me in the pews was the German Lutheran church’s ambassador for Central America.

New Cristo Rey.Santa Ana

            Our team of twenty-seven worked on three housing projects in the planned community of Getsemaní near the town of Ahachapan, in western El Salvador, near Guatemala. We stayed at a lovely lodge resort in the mountains that featured a large dining room complete with dance floor, a miniature zoo, horse-back riding, a spa and swimming pool, a playground and a couple of game rooms.         

            Luis told us that approximately two-thirds of Salvadorians live in sub-standard housing. Thanks to the twenty-five years of effort on the part of Habitat in El Salvador and the volunteer work of a thousand volunteer teams, that situation is slowly, but surely improving.

            Our media loves to cover violence and corruption. They miss some of the many truly beautiful places we saw on our trip. The people, the food, the hospitality, and the community of volunteers all working on a common mission make traveling to El Salvador well worth the effort it takes to go.

——————————————————————————————-

Kathy Haueisen is an ELCA pastor who lives in Houston, Texas. She has authored two books and served as editor of two others. Asunder is her first novel. Taking an intimate look at the emotions involved in divorce, it will be released April 2016.

            

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