Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When Is a Dollar Not a Dollar? Taxes, Poverty, Economics & Justice

A dollar costs some more than others.  Economics isn’t all arithmetic.  Thus all dollars are not created equal.  A dollar costs me some spare change in my purse.  But a dollar costs some people a week of labor.  If you’re poor, a dollar is a bag of rice, which can feed your family for a day.  If you’re the widow Jesus watched at the temple, even less than a dollar can be all that’s left between you and starvation.

It is at best a fundamental failure to understand that all dollars are not created equal that is leading to the call by many governors to eliminate or substantially reduce income taxation in their states under the guise of economic stimulation.*  They are, perhaps, merely mirroring the national election debates, all of which, from all political spectra, emphasized the middle class.  The poor were seldom, if ever, even mentioned.  It’s past time they were.  I say ‘they’ for one simple reason: I am not poor.

Economics that is theoretical is a waste of time.  Economics that does not take realities into account is worse than a waste of time; it is an attempt to alter our understanding of reality, to distance ourselves from it, that we, the wealthier, might be insulated from the sting of the poverty of another.

Social justice that ignores economic injustice is no justice at all.

Charity is what I am free to do or not do out of the goodness of my own heart.

Justice, on the other hand, is what I owe to my fellow human beings.

It is an enormous difference.

I can congratulate myself on my charity.

But justice is like breathing; it is necessary, even essential, to my, to our, continued existence.  Who congratulates themselves for breathing?

*What calls to eliminate state income taxes generally leave unsaid is the simultaneous implementation or increase of sales tax to make up the difference.  Sales taxes affect every consumer exactly the same.  Well, isn’t that fair?  No.  It isn’t ‘fair’ because of the fact that all dollars are not created equal.  Flat taxes that hit rich and poor alike are called ‘regressive’ for a reason.  To regress is to go backwards and in the case of flat taxes, what we do is back away from justice for the poor, those who have less than I do.  They are not a disease.  They are not a ‘problem’.  They are people.  “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, observed Anatole France.  The irony is as obvious as it is cruel: it is illegal for both, but it is only a necessity for one.  Another quote comes to mind: “To whom much is given, much is required.” [Luke 12.48].  Waging economic war on the poor is not merely unseemly (although it is certainly that); it is unjust.  I suspect the origins are not in some overtly evil impulse; rather, it is a case, I think, of governors and others similarly situated, simply having little, if any acquaintance, with the folks their laws impact adversely.  A friend at a cocktail party observes how hard the current taxes hit them and their friend the governor starts thinking about how to help these friends and believes, because friends don’t lie to friends, after all, the lie that helping the friend will help ‘everyone’.  While they smile and tip their glasses, there are no poor people present to protest, to point out that the change will be on their backs.  Maybe governors and presidents and the like should be required to, at the least, join the movement to live on a poverty-level income for a month.  Maybe then some eyes would be opened.


A sampling of governors calling for elimination or substantial reduction in income taxes to be made up with simultaneous increases in sales taxes:

Governor Sam Brownback, of Kansas, per The New York Times:

. . . there is significant concern in Kansas over the cost of the tax cuts, which is expected to total nearly $850 million in the coming fiscal year. In the budget he presented last week, [Governor]  Brownback proposed to help cover the cost of those cuts by keeping in place a sales tax increase that was scheduled to expire this year and by eliminating the mortgage interest deduction. . . Critics say Mr. Brownback’s tax cut was passed on the backs of low-income Kansans. The bill included the repeal of tax credits for food, rental housing and child care that benefited low-income residents. Because of those repeals, the poorest 20 percent of Kansans will spend an additional 1.3 percent of their incomes, an average of $148 per year, on taxes, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The top 1 percent, meanwhile, will see the share of their income that goes toward taxes drop by 2 percent, or $21,087 per year, the report said.

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, from The Advocate:

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday that he wants to eliminate the state’s personal income and corporate taxes. . . [To make up the difference] Alario, R-Westwego, said Jindal administration officials discussed a 1.6 percent increase in state sales tax during a meeting with legislative leaders this week.  

Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska, from The Daily Nebraskan:

Gov. Dave Heineman made a bold proposal during his State of the State address Tuesday — eliminate the state income tax. . . As a means to make up for the lost revenue, Heineman’s proposal would also end $5 billion in sales tax exemptions [although food would continue to be exempt].

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fun with Words

From The Writers' Almanac for Monday, January 27 (shout out to Laurie McKnight for sharing)
It was on this day in 1754 that the word "serendipity" was first coined. It's defined by Merriam-Webster as "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." It was recently listed by a U.K. translation company as one of the English language's 10 most difficult words to translate. Other words to make their list include plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.
Given that these are so hard to translate, I thought I’d offer up some (very silly) examples.  Here goes, with all due apologies to Merriam, Webster, et al.:

1. Serendipity.  A very cool coincidence.  An event whose happening is somewhere between fate and chance.  Something that happens to you that’s good and always happens when you’re looking the other way, like when mothers tell their daughters that they’ll find the man of their dreams when they stop looking for him.  Every romantic movie features the element of serendipity: the pair meets (or meets again) in the strangest of ways, totally unexpected (to them).  Sleepless in Seattle doesn’t count because they were looking for each other.  The number one rule of serendipity is that you can’t look for it.  My nomination for most serendipitous movie of all time: Forrest Gump.  

2. Plenipotentiary.  I can pronounce it (I think), and know it has something to do with governing, but without resort to the web, have nothing much to say.  I googled the word, learned (or relearned) that it means one invested with full power – one who can come to the negotiating table with the power to speak on behalf of the principal.  It took two pages to even find a reference to actual usage and wouldn’t you know – it’s from the United Nations, whose ITU (International Telecommunication Union) has a Plenipotentiary every so often.  Presumably this is a meeting of representatives who have the authority to make decisions on their nations’ collective behalf.  Of course, I’m only guessing, never having been.  The next one, should you wish to join in, will be in 2014 in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city.

3.   Gobbledegook (which I always thought was spelled gobblygook - shows how much I know).  A hodge-podge.  A mish-mash.  Now you see the problem of trying to define something hard to define: all its synonyms are equally obscure.

4. Poppycock.  A nice way of saying ‘bull shit’.  Synonyms: nonsense; not true; wrong; insupportable; bull shit.

5. Whimsy.  Silliness that’s sort of romantic or cute.  A teenage girl who dresses like she’s 4 is whimsical.  A 60-year-old woman who does is creepy.  One is cute; the other is wrong.  The cute one is an example of whimsy.

6. Spam.  I’m guessing this refers not to the internet phenomena of being hit with a snow-ball of an e-mail or other mass event, but rather to the meat-like product of same name.  No wonder it cannot be explained – who would do that to meat?  So to my friends around the world, the best I can explain spam is this: take every part of a land animal you find most disgusting, throw them together, grind them into mush, squeeze it all together in a small container until it forms a solid and call it ‘spam’.  We don’t understand it either.  And I have yet to meet anyone who admits to eating it, although I have heard rumors of fried Spam and it does continue to appear on grocery shelves, so unless those cans on the shelf are post-WWII relics, some of you are lying to me.

7. Kitsch.  Shout out to law-school friend Anna Norton, who first introduced me to the concept of kitsch and even loaned me a book dedicated to examples.  However you define kitsch (tackiness, appropriating important cultural icons for the basest of pop culture purposes), giving the Mona Lisa a big toothy grin is definitely the best example I know.  And given the season, pretty much anything sold for Valentine’s Day is kitsch.

Monday, January 28, 2013

When It Comes to Banning Guns, What Would Jesus Say?

The truth is I have no idea.  Neither do you.  And the real question is not what Jesus would say or do.  The real question for a Christian is what would Jesus have me do?

It’s always at least a bit cheeky to presume to speak for The One.  That being said, and with (I hope) a big dose of humility, here goes:

1. He would have me listen.  Have you noticed what a great listener Jesus was?  Even with folks who didn’t (seem to) have much to say, Jesus listened.  And he heard.  To hear by listening requires stillness of spirit and mind, the ability to hear with an interior ear that discerns beyond the spoken to the intended.  No one tops Jesus on this, but we are all called, I think, to listen to others – especially, perhaps, to those who care about us least, who understand us least.  Even his words often seem intended not to be The Final Word, but rather to spur the conversation, the engagement, to newer, greater depths of meaning.

2. He would have me take him seriously.  John Calvin held to the notion that a person could even be killed in love.  I think he was wrong.  I think John Calvin, who, at least arguably, took Jesus seriously every waking minute of his life, got it wrong precisely because he failed to take Jesus seriously when it comes to the notion of the parameters of ‘discipline’.  Maybe Calvin chose Paul over Jesus.  But anytime we look at a human being as a disease, we’ve failed fundamentally to believe in the amazing and transformative power of the Risen Christ.   In the spiritual sense of the world, I have no need of protection from you, for you cannot do me lasting harm.  Of course you can hurt me.  But that is not the same as lasting harm.  If I take Jesus at his Word, I am not saved, but safe, from all comers.

3. In whatever context I make a choice, Jesus would have me choose wisely.  That is not always easy.  Nor is it obvious.  Wisdom requires a depth of understanding of all possible attendant consequences.  I seldom, if ever, am in a position to have such powers of observation and discernment.  Yet I am obligated to try.  I am obligated to ask, to seek, to knock at the door of the very heart of God to seek out understanding and become wise, wise in the knowing of God’s providing sufficiency.  Does this mean I am to reenact the posture of the domesticated turkey and simply open my mouth skyward out of a silly belief that God will magically drop food into my waiting mouth?  Of course not.  But I suspect it does mean that I am to take God’s promised providing seriously.  I am to take God’s purpose for my existence seriously.  Was I put on earth to assure that my vision of the nation-state of the US of A prevail?  Or was I put here for something far bigger?

4. I must always examine and reexamine my ‘sacred cows’ to assure that I do not make an idol of my own opinions.  I must perpetually resist the temptation to put my thoughts into God’s mouth, to make myself and my way my God.  I must be humble.  Perhaps that begins with #1 – I must practice being a listener.

5. If I would know what Jesus would do, I might do well to examine what Jesus actually did.  Jesus came wielding not the instrumentalities of death, but the instrumentalities of life.  It was risky, even dangerous.  And the tyranny of the state was the ultimate danger to Jesus.  He did not take Rome lightly.  Rome, I think, was merely beside the point Jesus’ own life and death was making.  Tyrannies know well what to do with force; they simply meet it with a force greater than.  That’s how tyrannies succeed.  Where tyrannies cannot compete is in the arena of ideas whose holders will sacrifice all to live out.

6. The radical proclamation of care for ‘the least of these’ was more than a bumper sticker.  The weak, the vulnerable, the unloveable, were and are Jesus’ table guests, his asylum seekers, his refugees, his beloved.  Thus are they to be mine when I am the strong.

7. Jesus was a Messiah of the now as much as of the not yet.  Repeatedly, Jesus deals with the person before him without regard to any thought to the ‘greater good’.  All I know to take from this is the notion that the greater good is standing right before me.  Perhaps this is as simple as understanding that tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.  Maybe it’s remembering that Jesus himself was killed out of the (misplaced) belief that his death could secure the protection of a nation from its tyrannical ruler.  Maybe it is in understanding that the proverbial terrorist with the nuke (the hypothetical justification for torture) in the right now of life is as important to God as the theoretical (as yet unrealized) harm he would do.

8. A godly life is a life of sacrifice.  At the launch of Sandy Hook Promise, one of the parents posed the question (I paraphrase): what wouldn’t we do for our children?  We inhabit a culture that teaches all around us that force and might are the solutions to our problems.  In this sense, we have become our own greatest enemy when it comes to violence.  One of the few things I hear in the many debates on all sides of the gun violence question is the challenge for us to change, to change fundamentally, as a people.  As hard as it might be to either arm or disarm, it is so much harder to do the work of change.  But do not the claims of so many lives challenge us to become something different – something that does not incubate and nurture violence as a problem-solving technique?

If I become the peace I wish to see in the world; if I do that work, the answers to things like gun control and how to create a safer world, will, I suspect, follow.  The question is whether I am, whether we are, willing to do the work.  I hope so.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mob . . . Mobbing . . . Mobbed

That a thing in its essence is both a noun and a verb, both the actor and the action, simultaneous – that without the verb, without the action, there is no noun, no ‘it’ – what is one to do with that?

Thus do I read in this morning’s paper about recent events in Egypt.  Some people have been ordered executed for their role in a previous soccer riot which resulted in deaths.  In reaction against the execution order, family, friends, soccer supporters or all of the above, rioted and caused the deaths of 27 additional people.  The irony would be laughable were it not so very tragic.

The word ‘mob’ comes from ‘mobile’ and ‘mobility’ – a thing that moves and the movement itself.     Entomology

In Examining the Mob Mentality, an interview with Tamara Avant, Psychology Program Director at South University in Southern Source, Avant says:

Deindividuation obviously does not occur every time people get together in a group, and there are some group characteristics that increase the likelihood of violence, such as group size and physical anonymity. First, many people believe they cannot be held responsible for violent behavior when part of a mob because they perceive the violent action as the group’s (e.g., “everyone was doing it”) rather than their own behavior. When in a large group, people tend to experience a diffusion of responsibility. Typically, the bigger a mob, the more its members lose self-awareness and become willing to engage in dangerous behavior.  Second, physical anonymity also leads to a person experiencing fewer social inhibitions.  When people feel that their behavior cannot be traced back to them, they are more likely to break social norms and engage in violence. 

Avant points to the presence of certain elements in mob violence:

1. Conscious choice – as in “I won’t get caught”, which suggests not that the mob makes the action happen, but that being in the mob allows cover to do that which we have wanted to do all along.  If the ‘doing’ doesn’t occur otherwise, it is only out of fear of consequences.

2. Related to #1, Avant holds that there is a sense of diffuse responsibility in a crowd that turns into a mob – that is, the individual no longer feels responsible for what he or she is doing.  But again, it would seem not that the mob gives birth to desire, but rather gives cover for it.

3. The greater the emotion, the lesser the restraint.

Anger and rage are feeding fires.  Without the oxygen of provocation (real or perceived) they die.  With it, they thrive, destroying all, including the holder of the anger or rage, in their wake.

Violence begets violence.  It’s so axiomatic I wonder that we continue to wonder at it.

A fire has to be starved of what feeds it to die.

I wonder whether any mob in history ever self-checked and simply went home.  If so, I suspect it began with one person: one person saying count me out.  One person bowing out of the fray, leaving in quiet, noticed perchance by a neighboring rioter, who then put down the brick and followed suit.  And then another. . . and another.

It takes lots of people to make a mob.  I’m guessing it only takes a few to unmake it.

Reinhold Neibuhr, as I remember, opined that the evil actions of the group are inherently different, of a differing class, than the evil of the individual.  Simply put, the evil of the group is of such a greater magnitude than the evil of the individual that there is something inherent in the nature of groups themselves that is evil.  I would tend to agree, but I have experienced mass groups differently.  Not all crowds are mobs.  Not all groups are evil.

Some years back, colleagues and I in CPT, along with our translator, monitored elections in north western Iraq, where Kurds are populous.  The Kurds had been denied the right to vote and many gathered outside the election commission to protest.  We went and spoke with many in the crowd.  They were mostly men.  They were all angry.  They were not a mob, but they could have become one.  Our translator was very nervous that we had placed ourselves in their center, and justifiably so.  And yet we stayed and we listened to their stories.  We wrote down their names.  We reported on their disenfranchisement.

There was no riot that day.  There could have been, but there wasn’t.  I don’t know if our presence played any part in that or not.  Perhaps it was as simple as this: the men and women gathered that day not in anger, but in purpose.  They were angry, but their anger was not their purpose: casting their vote was.  Maybe it’s the purposelessness of anger that is so dangerous.

Anger isn’t the opposite of peace; violence is.  And not all anger is violence.

Transforming anger at injustice into justice is hard work – painful and long and just plain hard.  The results are not often instantaneous.  It’s the work of the generations.  It takes patience.  Yet it bears fruit, this hard work.  The men and women I met that day stood taller than their fellow citizens who simply went home without their purple finger.  They took back their own pride and place.  It was a beginning.

How I wish those rioting in Egypt over a soccer match could have stood with their fellow citizens in the liberating squares, standing taller than sentiment, proud to claim responsibility, to say, We did this.

What makes the difference between a rioting mob and a citizenry gathered to change their world?  Maybe it is in the taking rather than the shedding of responsibility, in the insistence on being counted rather than being invisible.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

What’s Hot in Fashion for the Aspiring Pastor These Days?

I admit it – I am a fashion wanna-be.  I’m way too old for it, but I love fashion.  It’s an utter waste of time, but I love it.  The Bible condemns it, but I’m into it.  

Now the disclaimers are out of the way, what’s fashion hot for the up and coming minister?

Fred Rogers (a Presbyterian pastor
as well as children's television host)
in his famous cardigan sweater
Well, it turns out that the cardigan sweater (thank you, Mr. Rogers) is making a grand come back this year.  And  what could be better for the one who comforts for a living than such comfort wear as the cardigan?

Colors are in too, so load up on cardigans for the liturgical seasons: purple, green, white and red, with the optional blue thrown in for good measure.  And of course, you can never go wrong with basic black.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Life as a Twig

I wonder
if the twig
knows of
the branch
out there

or does
the twig
only see
other twigs
of the branch
with them

Thursday, January 24, 2013

God the Master Artist

For some reason last night, giggling over images of me painting by numbers as a child, I began to think about God as artist, which led to thinking about differing artistic expressions, from paint-by-numbers to Impressionism to the line art of Picasso (doodlism?).

Which, I wondered, is God?  Is the Divine the master of the literal genre represented in its most basic form by paint-by-numbers kits?  Does God pre-ordain everything, inviting us only to fill in the lines with a bit of color?

Or is God more an Impressionist, with the brush strokes of light and movement dancing across the page of a life leaving a sense impression far more true to reality than a photograph, for who exists in but a moment in time?

Perhaps God too evolves, departing from the paint-by-numbers exactitude of early art forms and leaving behind the joy of light and movement and the light touch of brush strokes barely perceived back to the line at its most fundamental – a hint, a mere suggestion of form, yet somehow ready to stride off the page of creation into creating, reminiscent of Picasso’s camel, which I expect to bend down for a nibble of grass any second.

I tend to the latter in my own understanding of God in relation to humanity – providing the barest outline, yet in that outline is everything necessary for existence.  In this way does the painting move from still life to life still. . . and yet . . . and again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Painting by the Numbers

I read somewhere – I think it was Annie Dillard – about the earth looking like a paint-by-numbers canvas and thought about the one time I got one of those sets as a child.  Disaster.  I never was much of a colorer – the lines absolutely defeated me and this was back in the day when staying in the lines mattered.  Shoot, I wanted to stay within those lines.  I just couldn’t.  The perfection of hand and eye moving together simply defeated me.  Did then, does now.  So you can imagine the horror of my efforts to add to the color-line mix a sequence of numbers coordinated to color that had to be the same every time – with just one deviation causing utter failure as the lovely landscape or Raggedy Ann turned into a horror-movie version of itself.  There are no do-overs when it comes to painting by the numbers.  No margin for error.  The expectation of that pre-set ‘you-too-can-be-an-artist’ lie weighed heavy on me before I even began.  Who can meet that kind of demand from a piece of paper?  I couldn’t.  I didn’t.  And I can’t.

So while I absolutely adore the writing of Annie Dillard, I have to say she took me to a far different place than I’m sure she intended with that passing reference to farmland laid out so neat and precise that it minded her of painting by the numbers.

Maybe painting outside the lines is something to be celebrated; but I have to tell you that coloring like a five-year-old when you’re 57 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Top Ten Top Ten Lists I Never Want to Know

1. 10 Best Eminem Songs - still think that last year’s Superbowl ad Imported from Detroit was the best ever and loved Eminem in it, but beyond that, I’ve got no brain cells to give to his cause
2. 10 Worst FB conversations - I can only imagine - sigh.
3. 10 Top Paid NFL Coaches of 2012 - I just don’t care to know and I suspect the true top 10 best coaches are largely unknown to the internet, working away with local T-ball, soccer and other small-fry endeavors
4. Top 10 The-World-Will-End-On Lists - they haven’t been right yet, so why should I listen?  Besides, that's the kind of event that (a) I should be ready for all the time, as my world may end at any time, well ahead of your schedule; and (b) I'd just as soon news like that be a surprise
5. Top Ten Golf Players to Watch - I can’t stay awake that long - sorry
6. Top Ten Albums of 2012 - just reminds me how old I am, as I undoubtedly will not have heard of any of them
7. Top Ten Games of 2012 - referring, no doubt, to computer games - in addition to the rationale in #6, just makes me sad to think on how much time we waste that could be dedicated to so much more important work and I'm still reeling from my grandson teaching me to play 'Shark', where the object is to have the shark eat as many swimmers, a la Jaws, as possible, with the attendant blood and gore graphics.  He is 5.
8. Top Ten American Idols - I’m just not into any idols, American or otherwise
9. Top Ten News Stories of 2012 - they will undoubtedly be bad news stories - I lived through them at the time and have no need to revisit all the world’s bad news.  Not a Pollyanna, but really, isn’t it a bit like slowing down to look at a car wreck?  I can be glad I’m alive for many more reasons than that you’re not.
10. Top Ten Rich Celebrities of the World - not begrudging, but really, is that an aspirational goal of which to be proud?  And why would I care?  It’s not likely I’m going to marry one of them.

NOTE:  All of the above with the exception (to my knowledge) of #4, may be found handily on line should you care to know them.

Monday, January 21, 2013

It's an Inauguration, Alice

Some facts:

The definition of inaugurate (a transitive verb):   to induct into an office with suitable ceremonies; to dedicate ceremoniously : observe formally the beginning of <inaugurate a new school>; to bring about the beginning of.  Interestingly the source of the word is from the Latin inaugu ratus, past participle of inaugurare, which literally means to practice augury Merriam-Webster– which means to engage in divination (discerning the future) from auspices or omens. Merriam-Webster  Thus might we say that an inauguration is a ceremonial act of wish fulfillment: by giving a president a big kick-off to his term in office, there is an expression of hope or even belief that all will be well and good  both with the president and the nation he governs.  Maybe.  Or maybe we’ve just forgotten that we’re practicing a ritual that would pretend to know the future.*

The word inaugurate does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, nor in any of its amendments. Wikipedia  Indeed, searching the internet, I could find nothing on who decided to call the swearing in ceremony an inauguration in the first place.  If used in its most common sense, ‘inauguration’ can be used interchangeably with ‘swearing in’, as it is the actual swearing in which does the deed.  But inauguration means and has long meant here in these United States, all the festivities and speeches surrounding the actual swearing in.  So it is that yesterday Mr. Obama became president for the second time but it is today that the event of yesterday (the swearing in) will be re-enacted with all due pomp and ceremony, speeches and dancing.  Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message.

Distinguishing the swearing in from the inauguration (as the events surrounding the swearing in), Gerald Ford did not have an inauguration.  Wikipedia  Although it is referred to as an ‘inauguration’, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was simply administered the oath of office on Air Force One. Wikipedia   Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, also had a swearing in without any inaugural ceremonies. Wikiepedia

The phrase God bless America, used and overused in politics, as in the socially obligatory ending of speeches by presidents and would-be presidents with the phrase, is perhaps nowhere more common than on inauguration day, when even news casters get in on it, using the phrase as a form of greeting.  (Witness this morning’s Morning Joe when Joe Scarborough and Michael Steel, former RNC chair, greeted each other with an exchange of God bless Americas.

Like any ceremony, the inauguration is probably fraught with talismans whose meanings have been lost or worse, represent something the current swearer-in would have no interest in.  My own favorite has to be Ronald Reagan’s change of the orientation of the location of the swearing in.  He moved it from the east to the west side of the capitol building so that he could be facing his home state of California. Wikipedia  Presumably no president since had any interest in facing California; yet all have kept Reagan’s decision, making it a tradition.  Maybe each of them has preferred the venue for their own reasons.  Or maybe they’ve simply forgotten what the original point was.

“. . . so help me God” is not part of the oath prescribed in the Constitution.  Washington is said to have added the phrase himself, with every president since following suit, with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt. Inaugural Fun Facts So says one source.  Yet another reports that many of the early presidents simply answered the oath, put to them in the form of a question (as in, “Do you solemnly swear to . . .”) with the answer, “I do.”  This source reports that TR did not use a Bible to swear upon (also not required by the Constitution), apparently without any outcry and that is it uncertain which Presidents used the phrase and which did not, including Washington himself.  Wikipedia


What is to be learned, gained, gleaned, from these ceremonial events?  Do they make us more unified as a nation?  I doubt it.  Do they make us feel good, like a great national party celebrating us?  Perhaps.

George H. W. Bush is said to have remarked on his inauguration that we were all standing on the “front porch of democracy”.  And maybe it’s as simple as that: inaugurations serve as a public and highly visible transfer of power.  Sure the pomp and ceremony give the moment its cachet, but the simple leaving of one leader and ascendency of the next – all without the benefit of guns and henchmen, is the real ‘point’ of it all.  In this, it’s parallel in monarchies is the declamation, The king is dead, long live the king – the reassurance that orderliness prevails.

A new president is installed.  The Republic is safe and all is well.

Except in this case, it is not a new president, but one serving his second term, which at least suggests that today is superfluous.  What need even of an oath already taken four years ago?

So yes, I fear, it’s all about the politics, the moment to celebrate and do the end-zone victory dance and slam the ball into the ground.

Whatever the purpose, whatever is to be gained, it’s another day on planet earth and as days on the planet go, it’s not so bad.

*Actually, the augury reference is to the doing of the installation into office and the choice of day, it being believed in days of old that some days are better or more auspicious for the beginning of big things. Dictionary   This, in our time, however, must be seen as another of those things whose reason or purpose has been forgotten in the fog of history: for who in their right mind seeking an auspicious day would select any day in January in the eastern United States?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Poetry by Heart

Let’s do it!  Let’s boldly copy the UK and Canada and Ireland before them, and have a Poetry by Heart event in our schools.  Admit it – most of our television is copied directly from BBC*.  So why shouldn’t we steal this really great idea and reintroduce our children to poetry?

When I was a minister student intern in Scotland, one of the things I remember fondly is Halloween.  The kids dress up as here, but the ‘trick or treat’ phase is a bit different: kids have to recite a poem or tell a joke or story to get their candy.  It was great fun to hear what they came up with (with a little help from mom and dad, of course).

I still remember (well at least part of) the poem I had to memorize in 6th grade, Joyce Kilmer’s Trees:  I think that I shall never see . . . a poem lovely as a tree . . . a tree whose hungry mouth is pressed . . . against the earth’s sweet-flowing breast . . . Poems are made by fools like me . . . but only God can make a tree.  I always like the last couplet best – maybe preacher-lady was my destiny all along.

But I digress: kids are already memorizing poetry (they call it music); so let’s give them some good stuff to latch onto.

*Really, England, the best you could give us was Wife Swap?  Really?  And when you chose the reverse (to copy us instead), your first choice was The Apprentice?  Does your shame know no bounds?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mule & Plow: Being Church

You’ll be the mule; I’ll be the plow.
Come harvest time, we’ll work it out.
There’s still a lot of love
here in these troubled fields.

Singing the pain, sorrow and hope of hard times in the farm lands, Nanci Griffith speaks into the soul of despair and in their singing, somehow reshape the darkness into light.

Reshaping the darkness into light: that, I think, is the principal ‘job’ of the Christian.

It’s not Pollyanna.  There’s no call for Hallmark here.

What there is is the belief, surely based on past experience, that together is the tipping point, if not the answer.

Fundamentally, that’s what church is: a together enterprise.

Far from perfect, shoot, we’re often not even friends.

But what we are is not alone.

What we are is together, mule and plow – plow and mule.

What we are is stepping out of darkness into the hope of love – there, where the light lives.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In the Meantime

Guns, gun violence, gun laws, guns, guns, guns – it’s all the conversation, and rightfully so, given recent events.

Behind that stands the concept of predator and prey.

What makes children prey?  The fact that they are so small, so unaware of the dangers, so, so very vulnerable.

What makes a predator?  I wish I knew.  The potential list seems endless: societal factors (such as growing up in a war zone or culture of violence), nurture issues (such as growing up in a dangerous home), body chemistry, DNA (is it ancestral?), hormones, television and movie violence (what we see/experience affects us), some of the above, all of the above or none of the above.

The fact is that I really do not know.

I know that when it comes to physical violence, because I am a woman, statistically I fall into the prey rather than predator category.  But that does not make me immune from all the influences of and temptations towards violence.  It just makes it less likely that I’ll be a perpetrator of it than the average male in my culture.

Perhaps one fundamental (and unvoiced) difference between advocates and opponents of gun control laws is worldview: advocates believe violence can be controlled, reduced, eliminated; while opponents believe violence is simply part and parcel of who we (or at least some of us) are.

Can it be that both sides are right?  Or at least that both sides hold some of the truth in their hands?  Can it be that we are both a species bound in its violence and (at least potentially) able to be freed from it?  I think so.

Perhaps the cruelest irony of all, if my thesis is correct, is that those (this is a generalization – please remember that) advocating gun control also believe in evolution, yet by their stance on gun control, argue (at least inferentially) against humanity being held captive to our evolutionary place in time, while those who oppose gun control and largely reject evolution, embrace evolution’s strongest argument: that a species is captive to its ‘destiny’ - that is, that the species’ behavior is dictated by evolutionary necessity, which always contains unintended fall out.

So it is that advocates believe we can escape the dictates of evolution while opponents believe we cannot.

Here’s the thing: if we can’t do better; if we really are captive to a reality in which explosive violence, species upon species, is inevitable, then aren’t the gun advocates right and wouldn’t we all be well-advised to arm ourselves to the teeth, for danger is surely at our doorstep every minute of every day – right?

For myself on this issue, the facts on the inevitability of violence are largely irrelevant, for this simple reason: even if gun advocates are right, I choose to live my life as if they are not.  I perhaps am indulging a luxury: after all, I do not live in a war-torn country (although it could be argued, given the prevalence of violence in our society, that I do).  Regardless, I choose to live my life as I do, gun-free, because it’s more about who I am than who the other person is.

And who I am (or who I wish to be, in any event) is someone who holds life sacred . . . all life . . .even the life that would not hold my life equally sacred.

I don’t know how to prescribe a solution for an entire society.

What I do know is that I get to choose the kind of woman that I will be.

And who I choose to be is someone who is not afraid that she will die by gunfire – not that I won’t, but I merely choose not to have that as one of my fears (now spiders are another thing entirely).

I paraphrase freely, but Thomas Merton wrote that it is the duty of each Christian to embrace their own mortality, the recognition that some day, we will cease to be.  In that embracing, Merton believed, lies the true source of our freedom, for then we are freed to exist totally, only and utterly, in the time that we do have, for God.

There will be a day when I am no more.

My job is to worry about who I am, what I do, in the meantime.

In the meantime, I choose to live gun-free, not because it will make me safer, but because it will make you safer.

I don’t love either one of us that much.

But I want to.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Birds Are Singing Peace Today

There they are again – the winter birds perched so assuredly in my forsythia, singing loud, sharing the news of their day – at the top of their tiny lungs.

What I hear is the song of peace.  And it is not a quiet thing.  Quite the contrary: peace is a loud, cacophonous song, with lots of disharmonies.  It’s the sound of safety and joy and that word we Americans love to bandy about: freedom.

Maya Angelou may know why the caged bird sings, but I do not.  For sure I know that the cage changes the song and dampens it – sometimes to the point of invisible silence.

Freedom, I think, is only possible with peace.  We’ve gotten it so often backwards though, espousing this notion that war is the means of peace and that war is the gateway, at a bare minimum, to freedom.

But here’s the thing: in the US, as a mere example of history, we could have fought a revolution and still ended up with tyranny; many before and after have.  That we did not was not the product of war; it was the product of peace: rowdy, boisterous, competitive, shouting-for-attention, compromising, cajoling, negotiating, ultimately agreeing, peace – a peace that granted the space and the freedom to come to such agreement (at least for some – the rest of us would have to wait on the sidelines quite a while for our freedoms to come).

In the Civil Rights movement, all was not joy and light; but the wagers of that effort who were successful waged their efforts in peace.  They were loud; they insisted on being heard.  They sang their song to any and all who would listen and to many who would not.  They did the work – the painstaking, life-risking, long and arduous work – of bringing change to the many who saw no need for it.

And with each footstep, each effort, they got louder and louder and louder.

Peace is a loud thing.

War and tyranny are actually quiet things, coming as they do like the proverbial thief in the night to take away all sacred things, being planned as they are in the back rooms where the light of day seldom shines.  War and tyranny frighten us into silence – that place where we dare not speak lest we say the wrong thing and perish for it.

War is a quiet thing, loud only its exclamation point ending of things.

Peace is a loud thing, shouting the sheer pleasure of its own existence.

The birds are singing peace today.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The In-Between Silence

I love the in between silence
in the mornings when the birds
and the passing cars compete
to bring wakefulness into the
recesses of the time and space
I occupy – of course I like the
birds the best – nature’s alarm
clock is hard to beat . . .

but best of all I like the two-count
of the in-between – the silent
moment that stands alone
beckoning me into a new day
until another bird, another car
decides it’s been long enough
this silence of the in-betweenness
of things and the chorus begins

Monday, January 14, 2013

Broken Packages

Jeanne Lou gave me what she and the girls could retrieve from my mom’s crushed car a few days back, but it wasn’t until last night that I actually inventoried what was left of Mom’s abortive over-the-river-and-through-the-woods journey to my house that ended in her wreck coming down the Virginia-facing side of Cheat Mountain.

The Christmas presents, so carefully wrapped, presented with torn paper, crushed boxes, and those blasted containers I can never open without serious self-injury now not so smug.  It all looks like the after-Christmas-morning melee – how did I never see our Christmas morning flotsam for the wreckage it is?

As I survey it all, various me’s emerge:

Clinically-detached me wonders at the science of impact on a cold winter’s day, where so much survived intact, but the plastic bits are all shattered.  What is it about the properties of plastic that metal and rubber and even glass could remain unbroken, but not the plastic?  This is what I think as I survey a small yellow funnel Mom had for adding oil, now in bits – and other plastic things as well.

Theologian me surveys it all and wants to draw some meaningful metaphor out of the things that survived and those that did not – surely some important insight about our own brokenness is called for, what with the tattered paper and cracks so visible.

But it is daughter me who prevails as I solemnly open each gift bearing my own name, as always bemused by some gifts and touched by others – observing how Mom’s skin is now as delicate as wrapping paper – and just as torn by the indignities of being hurled about a moving missile of a car on the skids in the snow mountains of West Virginia. . . how her broken bones must look like the shattered bits of the new steam iron she was bringing me, still in its box. . . and as I sit alone in Mom’s house in the darkness of the night, with only the sound of her ticking kitchen clock, within the vagaries of my own soul, I weep.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Love and hate . . . sinner and sinned against . . . we've been having a FB conversation about the tension (if any there be -- I land on the yes side of that equation) between love and admonition.  What follows is my ruminating on love and sin.  It is a would-be peacemaker's perspective.  What do you think, I wonder?  Is love more present in our challenges, admonitions, judgments, and condemnations?  Or in our understanding and compassion?  Must there be a choice?  Which are we better at?  I'm guessing we're really not very good at either most days and I wonder why that is.


Love – how disarming a thing
to behold in actual practice –
the sinner, the sinned against,
even the sin itself –  so ready for
the other thing – the admonition,
the condemnation, the judgment –
oh, sin is ever ready for those –
fully armed, protective vest donned –
no chink in the armor to be found –
but when love is lobbed instead,
it finds its target, for the sin
always somehow forgets to protect
the heart against the onslaught
of love

Taking my anger, my self-righteousness
taking all the slings and arrows in my quiver
disarms me completely and I am left not
bereft, not shamed, but filled – filled with
a new thing – there, in the hard place that
was my heart, something warm and
butter-melting finds its way in and
I  –  am  – changed –

love me, love me not
change me, change me not

*Interestingly, in entering labels, I discovered that this is the first time I've used the label 'sin'.  Hmmm.

Friday, January 11, 2013

To the Caregivers

In the course of any given week, I encounter many caregivers – those who make life easier, even possible, for others.  Some, like my Aunt Bonnie and friend Kay, are, I believe, called by God to serve others in such a way.  Their care is a grace-filled thing to behold.

Others, myself included, not so much.  Sometimes we rise to the occasion; sometimes we’re filled with resentment.  Our care is a necessary but sometimes painful thing to watch as desire clashes with necessity.

Whichever category (and sometimes one looks much like the other), the giving of care by one to another is fraught and full, often both at once.

So to the caregivers among us, I say thank you.  Thank you for the love and the practical service you offer up, whether for pay or from the goodness of your heart, both or neither.  Thank you for taking on the burden.  Thank you for caring.  Thank you for being there.  Thank you for keeping those we love safe and provided for.  Thank you.

To the caring and the cared for, I offer a reminder: self care is not bad or betraying.  Self care is an absolute necessity.

Take time away.


Don’t take the challenging words personally.

Keep a sense of humor.

Accept help yourself.

Remember to eat.

Remember to pray.

Remember to play.

Remember to look for grace.

And be blessed.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

O Christmas Ham, O Christmas Ham

One of the casualties of my mom’s car accident on her way to visit me over the Christmas holidays was the Christmas ham she was to prepare while in Virginia to take back to West Virginia on Christmas Day for our family gathering there (don’t ask me to explain the travels of a Christmas ham – I can’t).

My mother’s ham is legend in our family: no one else’s even comes close.  So it was no surprise that when I first saw my mom in the hospital, one of the first things she said to me was to ask about the ham.

Knowing her as I do, I had already asked Jeanne Lou if she could go to where the car was towed and recover whatever she could from the car, but particularly the Christmas ham.  Thus when mom asked, I was able to reassure her that the ham was rescued.  I should have known what would come next (Jeanne Lou did, because she’d already given me the answer): but what about the shrimp?  

Jeanne Lou and her daughters ventured over the snow-laced mountain roads into West Virginia, where they found the car, took pictures, and retrieved what they could from the car, including the ham.

I had told them to be sure to have the ham for their own Christmas so it wouldn’t go to waste, so was glad to learn yesterday when I finally got to see Jeanne Lou that they had the ham for their Christmas dinner.

In addition to the ham rescue, they took pictures of the car, retrieved what presents they could, and tried (unsuccessfully) to get the shrimp too.

Alas, the shrimp had to be left: they could see it, but couldn’t get to it.  So some by-now well-frozen shrimp rest just out of reach in what remains of my mother’s car.

But the ham, oh, that ham.


Harriett’s Christmas (or any other occasion) ham

1 whole ham
whole cloves
1 large can pineapple rings
Marichino cherries
1 can 7-Up (of late, Mom has taken to using cherry 7-Up instead – you decide)
brown sugar

Place the ham fat side up in a pan.  Score the entire exposed ham in criss-cross fashion.  Spread  brown sugar lightly over the ham.  Push points of whole clove into each x from your criss-crossing.  Secure pineapple rings (save the juice in the can) all over the ham with toothpicks.  Put a cherry in the middle of each ring.  Mix pineapple juice and 7-Up and pour over the ham.  Cover with foil and bake according to instructions (I forget how many minutes to allow per pound).  About ½ hour before the ham is done, remove the foil and return for final baking and browning.  Remove ham from oven and allow it to set for 15 minutes or so.  Slice, serve and enjoy.  And yes, you can use the drippings for ham gravy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Where I Live - Redux

My mom was recently in a pretty serious car accident.  She’s doing better, but still has a long way to go, so your prayers for her continued recovery have been and are most definitely welcome.

Coming back home to Virginia on Monday after having been at her bedside virtually uninterrupted since December 22, I drove past where the accident happened and contemplated the vagaries of time and place.

In this time and this place, words of care are expressed in ways direct and indirect.

I learned of my mother’s accident as I was preparing to walk out the door to officiate an evening worship service.  The voice on the other end of the phone was the wife of another pastor.  It turns out that a lay pastor over in West Virginia, where the accident happened, had heard a paramedic say the woman in the accident’s daughter was a minister in McDowell.  David called Darlene to ask if she thought that was me.  Sure it was, Darlene called me to give me the bad news.

The next day, desperate to get to the hospital, I plotted a course the long way round the snow-covered roads made largely impassable and contemplated what to do about upcoming services – particularly Christmas Eve.  Someone suggested we cancel as there are a number of services on Christmas Eve in the area and our folks could attend another service easily.  That’s what we did.  Turned out virtually no one had services as the snow continued unabated the next days, leaving the community together in their apart-ness.

Calling the radio station to ask them to announce our cancellation, the congregant calling was asked if it was okay to say the reason why and to ask for prayers for my mom.  And so it was that the whole county has been praying for my mom.

There have been many other acts of kindness in these days, but for now, I am grateful that I live in a time when and a place where the radio station issues prayer concerns for a fallen one and folks go out of their way to get you the news you need to know, where the degrees of separation are small and largely irrelevant when it comes to crisis.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany Me

Today is the day of celebration of God’s revealing in Jesus the Christ, as made manifest to the magi, the wise men from the east, who came bearing gifts fit for Christ’s true identity as Lord of All.

Epiphany:  a bursting forth suddenness of revealing.  The groundwork having been laid, it is the magician’s ta-da pull-back-the-curtain moment.  Greatly anticipated, now we see what before was only imagined.

Epiphany: the God-reveal revealing us to ourselves – the who-we-were-made-to-be of things.  Child of God . . . that is who we are called to be . . . that is who we are.

From Flickr
Epiphany: the prodigal son at the moment of the father-running embrace.  Son tried to run away from who he was, to turn his back on the father who loved him.  Ultimately he came back, but even when he was the farthest away from home, he was always the beloved son.  So was I right that his epiphany moment was at the hug, the fatherly embrace?  Or was his epiphany sooner, felt only in his feet, finding themselves willing to turn homeward?

I think the feet knew best.  After all, the son’s identity did not change because he rejected it.  And that, that is grace abounding.  Claiming to be someone, something, else, God still and yet loves.

Does it matter that we know?  That we’re aware that the curtain’s been pulled back?  No and yes.  No – we are who we are, whether we know it or not.  Yes – for to know the identity not of self, but of God, is to be forever changed . . . to know the identity of God is to come into the presence of God . . . in ways quiet and ways fantastical . . . in ways earth-shattering and in ways barely earth-registering, we all are invited into the presence of God . . . to sit a spell . . . and just be . . . be the ones we were made to be . . .

In such a space everything else falls away . . . And we know who we are . . . for the first time . . . Who am I?  Is another way of asking Why am I?  And in the asking as much as in the answering . . . is . . . God . . .

In meeting God, we come to the end of ourselves as we see and the beginning of ourselves as God sees . . .

So today, perhaps our prayer might be . . .

Lord God, epiphany me.

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012: A Very Bad Year

Hurricane Sandy . . . Newtown . . . Aurora . . . Israel bombs Gaza . . . car bombs kill and kill and kill in Iraq . . . Syria . . . Gaza bombs Israel . . . no Pullitzer awarded for fiction . . . Mexican drug wars result in horrific killings . . . Benghazi . . . Israel bombs Gaza . . . bus and train crashes, floods and earthquakes, kill thousands . . . cholera and yellow fever and ebola strike the poor . . . drought spreads . . . one gang rape in India and one Pakistani girl shot stand as exemplars for the horror of our violence . . . History Orb

Turning the page on a calendar will not change anything . . . will not lead to a new chapter of existence . . .

But it does give pause . . . a time, a space, for reflection.

Is this who we are?

In the microcosm, how easily I can name the violence done me; 2012 is no exception.  But can I chronicle nearly so well the violence I do others?  Or does that violence disappear into the fog of self-justification?

We search for reasons as if that changes the thing.  But perspective is just another name for forgetting.  If we can ‘understand’, then we can differentiate – that could not happen to me, to mine.

But it could.  It does.

So to 2012, I bid good-bye.  To all the reasons proffered, I say never mind.  To all the justifications, I say no go.

You did it.  I did it.  We did it.  Now we live with it.

For you see, when it comes to the whys, well, that’s easy: because we could.

The real question is how to avoid the doing. . . the hurting . . . the wounding . . . the tearing of the fabric of all that is good and holy and just and right and true and worthy . . .

We didn’t call names because we were wounded; we called names because we could.

We didn’t kill because it was necessary; we killed because we could.

We didn’t fail to protect because of anything other than because we didn’t want to.

What good is a will if it is only bent to the self?

What good is a will that leans only towards destruction?

So here goes for my own personal 2013 resolution:

This year, I resolve to do no harm.  Period.

Likely I will fail.  But in the resolving there is good to be found, progress to be made.  And fewer bloody carcasses left behind.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


tor·por noun:  a state of lowered physiological activity typically characterized by reduced metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature that occurs in varying degrees especially in hibernating and estivating animals Merriam-Webster

Humans are not considered hibernating animals.  I wonder why.

I get the science part, but when it comes to winter time, at least where I’m from, people tend to hunker down in place, doing only that which is essential and leaving the rest for the warm time.

So yes, farmers work hard in the winter.  But they too hustle to be done and get back into the warmth, plunking down by the fire to just sit and stare and wait – for warmth to return.

Spending the last 11 days largely at my mother’s hospital bedside, I have fallen in to my own torpor, evidenced by lowered activity.  Most of the day, I simply sit.  It’s kind of like being a fireman, this bedside duty – rushing to help when needed and otherwise simply sitting and waiting for the next call.

Mom is now transitioning to a place where she will require less of my presence and attention and I will (presumably) return to my previous state of activity – that thing I call my life.

But this, too, is my life, this serving by waiting.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


threshold n.  1: the plank, stone, or piece of timber that lies under a door : sill.  2a : gate, door.  b (1) : end, boundary; specifically : the end of a runway (2) : the place or point of entering or beginning : outset Merriam Webster

The beginning of a new year, any new year, is really quite arbitrary as measures go: this is a new year simply because we’ve agreed it is.

That said, there is, nevertheless, a sense of pondering, of considering, of weighing, that happens as one year ends and a new year begins.  Maybe it’s a simple by-product of sentience, this taking stock process.

Whenever I consider thresholds, my mind travels back to when I learned that a grandchild can be a kindred spirit.  It was a discovery moment.

Just old enough to walk on his own confidence, so maybe 18-20 months or so, I had grandson Rowen in tow one day ducking into the church for some work-related thing or another.

Entering from a back hallway into the sanctuary, Rowen experienced one of the joys of this particular worship space: perfect acoustics.

Babbling along in those softly indistinguishable sounds babies make before going verbal on us, he walked behind me, carrying his sing-song along with him.

Two steps into the sanctuary, he came to a sudden stop.

He raised his voice, babbled and listened intently.

He did that baby side-canter wobble/walk back out into the hallway, babbled a bit; came back in – babbled a bit; and repeated the process a few times, with utter delight on his face.

Baptistry in Pisa, Italy, where the acoustics
make a tenor sound like a cherubic choir
Rowen had crossed the threshold from the ordinary to the extraordinary in a few baby steps, and because of the gifts of sound and hearing and recognition, was able to know it in an instant.

Watching his discovery that day was a joy-filled thrill for me as well, as child and gran jumped back and forth over the threshold, hearing the noise of our happiness magnified by the near-perfect engineering surrounding us.

Thresholds can be drug places, as one figuratively or literally drags or is drug across.  They can be the place where pain begins.  They can be the boundary place.  And they can be the place where song unfurls, first as discovered sound, moving into its own symphony of filled space.

May this moment be a threshold to your song unfurled, 
echoing into perfect harmony in the ears of all you love.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Blessed Are . . .

Blessed are those who sing our blessings
          that we might know something of Divine’s joy

Blessed are those who midwife their own birth
          that they might know the power of existence

Blessed are those who survive
          receiving not virtue but strength

Blessed are those who write the stories
          that we might know who we are

Blessed are the angry
          for they shall keep us honest

Blessed are the kind
          for we in much need of kindness

Blessed is the laughter
          for the laughter will see us through much

Blessed are those who stand at the margins
          slapping the torpor out of the rest – how I hate to own it – of us

Blessed are those who dance
          oh, so, so blessed are those who dance