Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday Night Mass

Yesterday evening I took my mother-in-law Mary, mother of my wife Mary Ann, to Mary Mother Catholic Church in Burnsville. There is something about Mary in Catholicism.

This was my second visit there with my mother-in-law this summer. She has been out for both weddings and has been a great help so I am happy to take her to mass. Mary Mother Catholic Church is the more theologically progressive of the two Catholic parishes in Burnsville. It is reflected in their active social justice ministry and their (carefully worded) prayers of inclusion. The music is very good. Yesterday the worship leadership - altar girl, worship leader, scripture reader - were all female. The priest, of course, was not. In the two times I have heard him deliver a homily it is obvious that he puts a lot of time into the message, which is not always the case in Catholic, or Protestant, services.

The gospel reading yesterday was from Matthew 15:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
This is one of those "hard" sayings of Jesus. He appears to callously dismiss the gentile women's plea for help. It is only her persistence and smart comeback that gains her a genuine hearing. This is not a very welcoming Jesus.

I thought it was interesting how the priest handled this passage. It was a very Catholic message on the rewards of persistence in faith. Jesus' initial brush-off was just a test, giving the Canaanite woman an opportunity to work for her reward. He likened it to his 91 year old mother doing a jigsaw puzzle. He said she loves to work on big, difficult puzzles, plugging away at it for days and even weeks, looking for the satisfaction of the completed puzzle at the end. So it is with faith. If we keep plugging away at good works we can be sure we will get our reward at the end.

He talked about prayer in the same way. We need to keep praying with the confidence that God will reward our efforts with an answer. Although, he said two different times, we should not expect miracles but healing. Healing, he said, is what we should pray for. He didn't define those terms but I thought it was interesting that he made the distinction and assume that at other times he has spelled out what would be a fairly progressive theological distinction.

Still, it was a very Catholic message on faith and works. Traditional Protestantism would trumpet God's grace over works, but then remind us that although God's grace is sure we can never be sure that we have it. But our works are a visible sign that we probably do. In the hands of an unscrupulous Protestant minister it is a back-handed way to keep the flock coming back for more.

There is something to be said for a more straight-forward and fair earn your way into heaven plan of action. If you can get past the creed, the all-male priesthood, the theology of the mass itself, etc. I can't, but the couple hundred who were present for both services I attended obviously can. I am happy for them and for my mother-in-law that they find it meaningful.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bob Herbert Signs Off Saying We Have Lost Our Way

Bob Herbert writes his last column for the NYTimes today and gives voice to my thoughts about our plunge into another war while millions in the US are unemployed:
So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.
There is no political will - even from Democrats - to spend money at home to bring down the unemployment rate and tackle the countless number of problems we have here. "We are broke" is the constant refrain. And yet there is barely a murmur of dissent as we commit ourselves to spending billions on another war of choice. It is hard not to agree with Bob Herbert: we have lost our way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's Time to Stop Playing the Killing Game

Donald McCartin is a retired Superior Court Judge in California. He was named to bench by Governor Jerry Brown in 1978. During his tenure on the bench he became, by his own admission, known as a "hanging judge" for the number of people he sentenced to death row. As he watches another go-around with Jerry Brown as governor, he thinks the time has come, for moral and economic reasons, for the Governor to end the death penalty in California:
I watch today as Gov. Brown wrestles with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear him say he doesn't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs — and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been falsely promised with death sentences that will never be carried out.

There is actually, I've come to realize, no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts in pursuit of the ultimate punishment is a cruel lie.

It's time to stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

The Followers of Gandhi and Jesus

Geoffrey Ward begins his review of a new book on Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India By Joseph Lelyveld, with this telling observation:

Some years ago, the British writer Patrick French visited the Sabarmati ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat, the site from which Mahatma Gandhi led his salt march to the sea in 1930. French was so appalled by the noisome state of the latrines that he asked the ashram secretary whose job it was to clean them.

A sweeper woman stopped by for an hour a day, the functionary explained, but afterward things inevitably became filthy again.

But wasn’t it a central tenet of the Mahatma’s teachings that his followers clean up after themselves?

“We all clean the toilets together, on Gandhiji’s birthday,” the secretary answered, “as a symbol to show that we understand his message.”

Reminds me a lot of the followers of Jesus.

The Anabaptist Catholic Witness

Over the National Catholic Reporter Michael Sean Winters was musing about recent polling data that shows Catholics - even those who attend Mass at least weekly and who tend to be more conservative on social issues - warming to the idea of recognition for civil marriage for gays. What should be the response of the Church:
The Catholic Church should not bury its head in the sand as Donohue (Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Civil Rights) seems to want it to do. Our approach to this issue, like our approach to many issues in this increasingly secular culture, must be to foster what Pope Benedict has called “creative minorities” in which we live what we believe and hope the beauty our lives evidence will attract others. Allowing ourselves to be lumped with anti-gay bigots is not the answer. We must ask ourselves: Why do others not see the beauty of a lifelong marital commitment? Why do others not see Christ as a part of their marriage? And, why should we be in the business of trying to prevent gays and lesbians from achieving some level of legal stability and protection for their unions? These are not easy questions, even though the loudest voices on both sides of the issue treat them, if they treat them at all, as easily answered.
Benedict's "creative minorities" sounds very anabaptist. It is a recognition that our most telling witness is the witness of our lives. If our lives radiate the beauty of love, sacrifice and commitment then we may find that we will have something that is attractive to offer to the world. The power we have in this way of living is not the power of being able to legislate our way but the power of authenticity which is the only power that ultimately changes hearts and minds. This is, in my opinion, the very best of the anabaptist witness. So it is interesting to hear it being espoused by the Pope.

Change We Can't Believe In

Unfortunately I find myself pretty much in agreement with this comparison by Stephen Walt -- now of Harvard and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- of the difference between the liberal interventionists leading us into war with Libya and the neocons who led us into war in Iraq:
The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power -- and especially its military power -- can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America's right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.

So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I'm not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn't really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.

So where does this leave us? For starters, Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing. Instead of being George Bush's mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became "Obama's War." And now he's taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Should I Buy a New Car or Go on an Expensive Vacation

Well, the answer for me is neither. Both my kids are getting married this summer. But if you have a choice and want to know which will ultimately make you happier, Professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling On Happiness answers the question in an Atlantic article and says you should pick the vacation:
We favor objects because we think that experiences can be fun but leave us with nothing to show for them. But that turns out to be a good thing. Experiences have the nice property of going away. Cars need repairs, they rust in our driveway, and they ultimately disappoint us enough that we sell them and get new ones. Experiences are like good relatives that stay for a while and then leave. Objects are like relatives who move in and stay past their welcome.

Another reason why experiences beat objects is that experiences are usually social. If you go to Europe you will almost surely go with someone, whereas if you buy the car, you will probably drive it by yourself. We are social animals, and the best predictor of happiness is the goodness and extent of our social relationships. Experiences are more likely to be shared than objects are.
A couple other Q&A's from the article:
You write, "unfettered access to peak experiences may actually be counterproductive." Explain that.

Imagine making love to the person of your dreams. That will be a good day. But the day after will not. The good thing about peak experiences is that they make us happy while we are having them, but the bad thing is that they then serve as a standard of comparison for all the experiences that follow. When researchers looked at lottery winners, they weren't happier than a control group, but they did take less pleasure in everyday events. The big happiness rush you get when you receive the big check is gone pretty soon, and then when good things happen you find yourself saying, "That was nice but it wasn't like the day I won the lottery."

That doesn't mean you should refuse peak experiences. It just means you should ask yourself, "If I have this peak experience, will it make the rest of my life dull and unsatisfying?"

What's the most controversial suggestion in the paper?

If one thing surprises most folks, it might be the suggestion to buy many small things rather than fewer big things. If you asked people if they'd prefer an ice cream cone every Monday for the next few weeks or a great meal at a French restaurant, most would probably take the great meal gift certificate. But it turns out that the frequency of positive events is a better predictor of happiness than intensity of those positive events.
I prefer beer to ice cream but it makes sense to me. And I rarely come away from an expensive restaurant satisfied that the meal or experience was worth the price.

How Great Entrepreneurs Think

Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, has been studying entrepreneurs and how they think. Her conclusion:
Sarasvathy concluded that master entrepreneurs rely on what she calls effectual reasoning. Brilliant improvisers, the entrepreneurs don't start out with concrete goals. Instead, they constantly assess how to use their personal strengths and whatever resources they have at hand to develop goals on the fly, while creatively reacting to contingencies. By contrast, corporate executives—those in the study group were also enormously successful in their chosen field—use causal reasoning. They set a goal and diligently seek the best ways to achieve it...
Would you describe Jesus as a master entrepreneur or a corporate executive? Was he developing goals on the fly or did he have it all planned out from the beginning? At what point did he see a cross in his future? Was this always the short-term goal on the way to resurrection and a church? Or did he start out with other goals - say forming a renewal movement - and eventually come to see his own martyrdom as necessary in order to jump-start something bigger? Was the cross a calculated risk or a painful but necessary step on the way to a global organization?

I'd say he was closer to entrepreneur.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's Snowing Again

These goldfinches are as happy about it as I am.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Saving the Jefferson Bible

In my message yesterday I was talking about how I have come to understand the stories of Jesus the healer and exorcist. I mentioned that there was a time when I practiced the Thomas Jefferson method of reading the Bible. I cut out - figuratively - all the stories I didn't like. I just ignored them.

Jefferson, of course, literally cut them out. Or more precisely he cut out the passages of the Bible he did like and created his own private Bible. This morning I saw a Washington Post article reprinted in the Star Tribune about Smithsonian Institution attempts to save the Bible, which is apparently falling apart:

For more than 116 years, the Jefferson Bible, as it is known, has been one of the iconic possessions of the Smithsonian Institution. Now a group of conservators and curators has removed the 86 pages from the original binding and is examining every inch to stabilize its condition, study its words and craftsmanship, and guarantee that future generations can learn more about the artifact and the man.

The pages, with verses glued on each side, are brittle and stiff -- 90 percent show some damage. Jefferson used a mix of animal glue and starch as an adhesive. The handsewn binding is tight, making the spine rigid.

On one table in the basement workshop, Jefferson's title page for "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" is elaborately written in his clear hand.

"There are 12 different types of paper and seven different types of ink," said Janice Stagnitto Ellis, the museum's paper conservator. "We took tiny samples of ink from the ruled line. The paper fibers are weak."

Jefferson was meticulous, she said, leaving precise gaps in each book as he removed the verses that supported his religious and moral beliefs. He used two English texts, as well as two French and two Greek and Latin, arranging his selections in chronological order over four columns.

He was also an editor. "Apparently he didn't like the construction here of 'for as in a day,' so he edited out the 'as,'" explained Ellis, pointing with a silver micro-spatula to the little square where he had eliminated the word.

"This is a private document he created for himself," said Harry Rubenstein, the chair of the museum's political history division. "He never sold it because he didn't want it to be public. He wanted to avoid bringing back the arguments that he was anti-Christian."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gay Marriage Support Crosses Threshold

Looking around for good news on this Friday I see these results from a new ABC News/Washington Post poll:
More than half of Americans say it should be legal for gays and lesbians to marry, a first in nearly a decade of polls by ABC News and The Washington Post.

This milestone result caps a dramatic, long-term shift in public attitudes. From a low of 32 percent in a 2004 survey of registered voters, support for gay marriage has grown to 53 percent today. Forty-four percent are opposed, down 18 points from that 2004 survey.
Committed couples and stable families make for healthier children and a stronger society. Whether those couples are gay or straight makes no difference. You would think that every pro-family/children Christian would support gay marriage, wouldn't you?

It's Off to War We Go

Again. Hi Ho. Hi Ho. No Congressional debate needed. No clear definition of what the end game is, how success will be defined. (At least I didn't hear it from the President's remarks.) Just a promise from the President that there will be no troops on the ground in Libya. But we have lots of high-tech technologies and weapons to use and that military-industrial complex to feed. So it's off to the shores of Tripoli we go, again.