Sunday, August 31, 2008

God is Still Speaking

From CNN:
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will not attend the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, because of Hurricane Gustav, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Sunday. The Republican National Convention was set to kick off Monday in Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minnesota. In addition, "substantial" changes to the Republican National Convention program will be announced Sunday because of the storm, two Republican officials said.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Clinton Takes Obama Over the Top

I do not normally wear my emotions on my sleeve but I was moved to tears tonight to see the first serious female presidential candidate make the motion that first serious black presidential candidate in our country be nominated by acclamation. She acted with great class, and it is a proud moment for our country.

Another Rousing Speech at the DNC Yesterday

Here's another good one...

Best Political Speech so Far

I haven't watched all of the Democratic convention, but by all accounts I have read the speech given by Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is the best so far. He is very good.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hammond Fires Back at IRS

ProgressiveChurchlady has already mentioned the IRS investigation of Mac Hammond, prosperity gospel pastor of Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park. This morning's Star Tribune reports that Hammond has sent a letter to his congregation charging that the investigation is "politically motivated" and of "a very clear effort, on a national scale, to discredit, defame and intimidate ministries and preachers of what has been called the 'prosperity gospel.'"

Could it be, though that the IRS took an interest in this statement made in the fall of 2006 by Hammond:
Amen. Now be seated again for a moment please. I have somebody special I want to introduce you to tonight. State Senator Michele Bachmann is with us and I'm going to ask her to come in in just a moment, and of course many of you know Michele, know of her pursuit of the United States Senate seat vacated by Mark Kennedy or Congressional seat vacated by Mark Kennedy's run for a United States Senate seat. Keeping all this straight gets to be challenging. But ya know we can't publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate but I can tell you personally that I'm going to vote for Michele Bachmann, because I've come to know her, what she stands for, and I want her to share her testimony with you tonight. Would you give her a warm welcome as she comes to share? Thank you Michele.
Leaving aside the issue that Hammond does not even live in Bachmann's district and thus couldn't vote for her, this sounds an awful lot to me like an endorsement of a political candidate, made from the pulpit. Unfortunately for Hammond, it was caught on videotape and widely broadcast over YouTube. Might this be the reason the IRS is interested?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nunsense--the Beauty Pagent!

Here is a very interesting new marketing strategy by an Italian Catholic priest near Naples to improve the image of nuns and to attract more to the service of God. A "Priest of the Month" calendar would also seem to follow, don't you think?

Let's all keep watch for Fr. Rungi's new blog which will reportedly be coming online in a few days as reported in this article by the Associated Press.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"It's Not yours, it's God's, and you're not going to get it"

This is what Rev. Kenneth Copeland says about the records of financial dealings between his ministries in Texas and the ministries of Rev. Hammond and his church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

One can only hope that greater transparency in non-profit finances and increased accountability to contributors is what this IRS investigation of Rev. Hammond and his church will ultimately lead to. Like James Baker before them, these "men of God" are in for some major heat. It just amazes me they are able to raise all that money.

...Now, where did I put that leaseback contract I drafted last night for the flat purchase in Florence?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chaos in the Garden

The Steele gardens are in full bloom right now. Roses, Joe Pye, phlox, nepeta, sedum, cone flowers, clethra, butterfly bush, annuals and lots more are flowering. The hummingbirds and songbirds and bees and dragonflies are visiting. You are welcome to stop over and take a look too.

But don't look too close. It has been a challenging year. Another summer has come and nearly gone with too little water. Plants are stressed. Some are diseased. The weeds, of course, are thriving. Everywhere I look there are weeds. Some days I walk through the gardens and spot a 2-foot weed and wonder how I missed it before and how it grew so fast.

Keeping a garden alive and healthy requires requires regular tending and more than a little help from Mother Nature. Left to run its natural course, the untended plants would die out or grow out of proportion to their space, the weeds would take over and the result would be chaos. Chaos is the natural course of things in the garden.

I am reminded of an article I read recently about the ancient Hebrew worldview that gave us the creation myth. While the Christian understanding of this story was heavily influenced by Greek thought and hence, some have this silly notion that the biblical story is about creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, that is not what the story says. It says that in the beginning the earth was a formless waste. There was chaos.

This was very much the experience of peoples in the ancient, pre-scientific world. Chaos was always lurking at the door. With no tractors, chemicals, genetically modified seeds, fencing to keep out intruders, pressurized sources of water, gun powder to smote the wild things, nothing but rudimentary tools and hand labor, it was a constant struggle to keep a small space cleared enough to eke out an existence. The edge of that small space marked a dangerous border where wild things lived and the forces of chaos constantly worked their magic to bring back the jungle.

In order to create a space where humans could live, God brought order out of the chaos. The waters of the deep were contained. Night followed day; the rains came and went; plants and animals found a place to live. But the threat of chaos was ever-present. It was the task of humans to do what God did, to bring some order out of the formless wasteland. To use your imagination and enter that worldview, and then to read later in that story that God gave to humans "dominion" over the earth is to realize that this was their dream, their wildest fantasy, that a day might come when they would be able to tame nature and bring order out of chaos.

We, of course, live in that fantasy. We have tamed the forests and the fields and the wild animals, and our technologically super-charged ability to bring order out of chaos is now putting the planet in peril. In some ways we have come full circle; the threat of biblical-style chaos may be more real than ever today.

Which brings me back to my garden, and yours, to my lawn and yours. We all want our own slice of the Garden of Eden, our well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens, a space where the forces of chaos are kept at bay. There is nothing wrong with this; the biblical story suggests to us that this is the way we were created; it is in our DNA. It's the way we do it that is the problem. We overuse chemicals, we waste water, we plant things that don't belong, we fail to distinguish between chaos and a healthy diversity (does our lawn really need to be free of all weeds?). There are big problems and big decisions looming as we face the reality of global warming. But step out into your lawn or garden and you will see that you and I have some smaller, but important decisions to make too. The forces of chaos are lurking there amidst the ordered beauty. How we work to keep those forces at bay does matter.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Well, this was a timely piece from today for me personally. I found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it. Now pardon me while I go work on my "to do list" with less obsession and more compassion (both for myself and others)!


How to Be Compassionate With Yourself

I slip from workaholic to bum real easy.
-Matthew Broderick

From "Positive Energy," by Judith Orloff, M.D.:

Twenty-first century America presents us with two unique maladies that obscure the Now: workaholism and technodespair, the burnout from being enslaved to e-mails, beepers, faxes, and phones. What's scarily malignant about both energy leeches is that they can readily become habitual. If you're frazzled, these enemies of the Now might be the cause.
Workaholism is the Puritan ethic gone haywire, an addiction to doing more, going nonstop until you drop. If you don't work at least eight hours a day, you're likely to feel ashamed. An American sickness, workaholism perpetuates negativity by exhausting subtle energy; it drowns out the Now in an adrenaline rush. The result: a plague of burnout. We workaholics are everywhere-in demanding jobs, racing between family and career, sacrificing every last ounce of energy to our children. Our "to-do" list, like some mutating life form, just keeps on growing.

Below I've listed some common causes of workaholism. Tune into each one and see if it resonates. As you did before, see if you get an intuitive "yes" or "no." The causes are:

+ A need to control
+ Loneliness
+ Self-worth tied to your accomplishments
+ Ambition
+ Masochism
+ Financial pressures
+ Greed
+ An "inner slavedriver"
+ Family conditioning
+ An escape from emotions: loneliness, anxiety, depression
+ An unsatisfying marriage
+ No role models for showing self-compassion

Compassion, a subtle energy that comes from the heart, will help you stop pushing yourself. As a psychiatrist, I'm well aware that it's much easier to be compassionate with others than with ourselves. This is how to learn:

First: Even if your strenuous schedule doesn't seen to give you a moment to breather, you must carve out quality personal time. Commit to at least one self-compassionate action a week. For example, indulge in a short afternoon nap. Hire a babysitter to free up an evening. Decline listening to a friend's problems and go to the movies. Treat yourself to some mini restorations, five minutes here or there of Mozart, jellybeans, whatever appeals. Planning regular downtime nurtures positive energy.

Second: Self-compassion means realizing not everything has to be done today, prioritizing essentials, then stopping there. From this perspective, much of our to-do list seems more obviously self-inflicted. Understand: If that dreaded list becomes an excuse to beat youreself up and inflict suffering, it's symptomatic of compulsion. Self-compassion can release its grip.

Third: Self-compassion means being able to keep saying "no" to the crazed slavedriver within who'll push all your buttons to hook you. Realizing the certifiable insanity of the slave driver's prodding will make it easier to resist.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The End of American Exceptionalism

Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the title of a new book by Andrew J. Bacevich. Bacevich served 23 years in the Army. Since his retirement the West Point graduate has been teaching international relations and history at Boston University. Bacevich was recently a guest on Bill Moyers Journal. In the interview Bacevich gives a spot-on analysis of what is ailing our country, including a consumer culture, an addiction to foreign oil, growing amounts of personal and national debt, and an imperial presidency. Interestingly, although he identifies as a conservative he praises the infamous "malaise" speech of Jimmy Carter as being one of the brief moments in recent American history when a President told the country the truth it needed to hear, and the country responded by kicking him out of office. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, told the country what it wanted to hear and was anything but a conservative. He says he voted for the Democrats in 2006 because they promised to end the war and then they were completely unwilling to stand up to the President and bring the war to an end. As is usually the case, Moyers teases out an inspiring and challenging conversation. It is well worth the read. Here is how it ends:

BILL MOYERS: You dedicate the book to your son.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah. Well, my son was killed in Iraq. And I don't want to talk about that, because it's very personal. But it has long stuck in my craw, this posturing of supporting the troops. I don't want to insult people.

There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But when it comes, really, down to understanding what does it mean to support the troops? It needs to mean more than putting a sticker on the back of your car.

I don't think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty.

And then we really turn away. We don't want to look when they go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That's not supporting the troops. That's an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think it - there's something fundamentally immoral about that.

Again, as I tried to say, I think the global war on terror, as a framework of thinking about policy, is deeply defective. But if one believes in the global war on terror, then why isn't the country actually supporting it? In a meaningful substantive sense?

Where is the country?

BILL MOYERS: Are you calling for a reinstatement of the draft?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I'm not calling for a reinstatement of the draft because I understand that, politically, that's an impossibility. And, to tell you the truth, we don't need to have an army of six or eight or ten million people. But we do need to have the country engaged in what its soldiers are doing. In some way that has meaning. And that simply doesn't exist today.

BILL MOYERS: Well, despite your loss, your and your wife's loss, you say in this powerful book what, to me, is a paradox. You say that, "Ironically, Iraq may yet prove to be the source of our salvation." And help me to understand that.

ANDREW BACEVICH: We're going to have a long argument about the Iraq War. We, Americans. Not unlike the way we had a very long argument about the Vietnam War. In fact, maybe the argument about the Vietnam War continues to the present day. And that argument is going to be - is going to cause us, I hope, to ask serious questions about where this war came from.

How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army?

What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some projections, two to three trillion dollars. Where is that money coming from? How else could it have been spent? For what? Who bears the burden?

Who died? Who suffered loss? Who's in hospitals? Who's suffering from PTSD? And was it worth it? Now, there will be plenty of people who are going to say, "Absolutely, it was worth it. We overthrew this dictator." But I hope and pray that there will be many others who will make the argument that it wasn't worth it.

It was a fundamental mistake. It never should have been undertaking. And we're never going to do this kind of thing again. And that might be the moment when we look ourselves in the mirror. And we see what we have become. And perhaps undertake an effort to make those changes in the American way of life that will enable us to preserve for future generations that which we value most about the American way of life.

The Rise of the Welfare State and the Death of Religion

One more take from the Pew Forum interview, this time from Ross Douthat's comments. Douthat makes this interesting correlation between the rise of the welfare state in Europe and the death of religion there:

Maybe these things are completely unrelated, but it is true that the European model of society seems to be at once – it seems that Christianity – let’s put it this way – it seems that Christianity has flourished much more intensely in a more freewheeling, free-market, capitalistic society than it has in the welfare states of Europe, which were often designed – I mean the leaders of Europe in the 1940s and ’50s from Clement Atlee to Konrad Adenauer and so on were often intensely Christian politicians who had a Dionne-ish view, shall we say, of the obligations that Christians in the public sphere have.

And I think 50 years on, you can look at their work and say, well, to a certain extent, Europe is a model for Christians in terms of how it treats the poor and how the welfare states work and so on. But at the same time, it seems to have completely drained the life out of religion in Europe. And it’s drained the life, to a certain extent, out of European society I think, the declining birthrates of Europe –. Again, you can overstate this problem, as many conservatives do, but it is a real problem and particularly a problem for Christians who look to Europe in any way as a model.

I think Douthat is completely wrong about this. I think the "death" of religion in Europe came about because Europe was home to hundreds of years of religiously inspired wars followed by religious complicity and/or silence in the face of the hideous crimes of the Nazis. I think the argument can be made that religion needed to die in Europe because it had lost its soul.

Douthat, though, is making the interesting argument that if the welfare state does too good a job taking care of people they won't need religion. In other words religion thrives best in a society more like America where "freewheeling" capitalism creates economic losers and a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty about the future - what happens if I lose my job, will I have healthcare, will I be able to feed my family, etc. In this fearful environment people will turn to religion to make them feel better, and religion will have something to do - feed the poor. This is all good for religion.

What rubbish.

Any religion that is worth its salt cares about the welfare of the people, especially those living on the margins. While charity is an appropriate response to immediate suffering and need, it is clear that the welfare state is much better equipped to improve the economic lot of whole swaths of the population and lessen the angst of living in an uncertain world. Any religion worth its salt ought to support this.

If religion needs suffering to survive, or worse, if it actively supports an economic system that creates poverty and suffering as a natural part of its DNA, then that religion is morally bankrupt and it, too, needs to die.

Can we not move beyond a guilt-ridden, fear-based expression of, and purpose for, religion?

Era of Religious Right is Over

So says E.J. Dionne at a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
Souled Out insists that religious faith does not lead ineluctably to conservative political conclusions. It argues that the era of the religious right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of a certain style of ideological conservatism that reached high points in 1980, 1994, and perhaps 2002, but suffered a series of decisive and, I believe, fatal setbacks during President Bush’s second term.

The end of the religious right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, it is a sign of a new reformation among Christians, if a Catholic may be permitted to use that term, who are disentangling their great movement from a political machine. This historic change will require liberals and conservatives alike to abandon their sometimes narrow views of who religious Americans are and what they believe.

In truth, as we all know, religious people hold a wide array of political views. Religion is not the enemy of reason or science. People of faith are not blind automatons who never question themselves or their deepest belief. At the heart of my argument is the view that religious faith, far from being inevitably on the side of the status quo – maybe it’s the influence of that eschatology and politics course – should on principle hold this world to higher standards. Religious people should always be wary of the ways in which political power is wielded, skeptical of how economic privileges are distributed. They should also be wary of how their own traditions have been used for narrow political purposes, and how religious figures have manipulated faith to aggrandize their own power. The doctrine of original sin, the idea of a fallen side of human nature, applies in principle to people who are religious no less than to those who are not.

Dione makes an interesting point about the narrowing of the public face of religion in America during the era of the religious right:

...I think what is striking is the so-called liberal media has often followed this portrait of religious people as being primarily people of the right. In the past, we paid attention to a broad range of religious figures from Reinhold Niebuhr , who is a real hero in my account, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, John Courtney Murray, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr.

Beginning in the late ’70s, the focus of interests narrowed, to be sure. Pope John Paul II, whom I write about a lot in a later portion of the book, earned his share of coverage. But in the U.S., the attention lavished on Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson suggested that to be religious was to cling to a narrow set of political views. The public face of religion was deeply inflected with the accents of a very particular form of Southern conservative evangelicalism. Just ask yourself, can you imagine a TV talk show booking Reinhold Niebuhr today? And that is one of the problems we face.

My own spiritual pilgrimage was deeply affected in the late 70's by reading Neibuhr, Tillich, Murray and King. They really were intellectual giants with a respected public presence who influenced the landscape of religious and political life in their era. What a decline it was to the likes of Falwell and Robertson. Even Billy Graham, who was never a personal favorite, was a deeper and far more gracious man.

Finally, I appreciated Dionne's take on the Catholic Church and guilt:
I also argue in the book, proving that I am Catholic, that I believe the Catholic Church’s job is to make every Catholic feel guilty about some public issue. I think when the church is doing its job, it actually makes liberal Catholics think twice about abortion, stem cell research, doctor-assisted suicide. And it makes more-conservative Catholics think twice about their stance on the unfettered market, the poor, the death penalty and a belligerent foreign policy. I think the church will continue to play that role.
But... I don't know if it is the church's job to make people feel guilty; I think it is the church's job to keep enough distance from the political powers - be they conservative or liberal - to have integrity and to have a prophetic voice that speaks truth to power.

Guilt may be part of the response to that voice. But the danger in trying to make people feel guilty is the way it easily leads to a never-ending cycle of manipulation and spiritual stagnation. We don't want people to perpetually feel guilty, or at least we shouldn't. We want people to be released from their guilt so they can mature spiritually and make a difference in the world because they want to, not because of guilt or fear.

In any case, the whole forum with Amy Sullivan, Ross Douthat, and Dionne is worth a look.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Obama Not the Anti-Christ

That's according to the authors of the Left Behind series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins:
"I've gotten a lot of questions the last few weeks asking if Obama is the antichrist," says novelist Jenkins. "I tell everyone that I don't think the antichrist will come out of politics, especially American politics."

"I can see by the language he uses why people think he could be the antichrist," adds LaHaye, "but from my reading of scripture, he doesn't meet the criteria. There is no indication in the Bible that the antichrist will be an American."
From my reading of scripture these guys are getting rich selling snake oil, but for some this might put a damper on some wild and crazy ideas.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Murdered American in China is a Bachman

I was reading the story on the New York Times website about the American man who was stabbed to death in China while attending the Olympics. It turns out he was Todd Bachman, own of the owners of Bachmans Garden Centers, the boss of my wife who is a manager at one of the stores. Todd is the father of former Olympian Elisabeth Bachman. His wife, Barbara, was hospitalized. Elisabeth Bachman is married to U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon.

What a loss for his family and the company.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Judith Warner Muses over CDD

Compassion Deficit Disorder.

While Judith Warner's column in the NY Times doesn't cover any new ground, it's good to have someone put it in print and continue public discourse on civility, honor, and compassion.

Compassion is NOT an "end sum game". We must keep that thought forefront in our minds as our world becomes more and more competitive.

Friday, August 01, 2008

On Friendship and Forgiveness

"Our friends are those who know their own faults well enough to forgive us ours." Moulton Farnham

What Churches can learn from Candidates for U.S. President

The latest installment from the blog of the nonprofit group Church Marketing Sucks talks about what churches can learn from looking at the websites of McCain and Obama. It's a short but good critique with some basic important suggestions.