The 6-Pack: Christmas Weekend 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …


Yeah, I missed Saturday … and I still haven’t started on the holiday cards (yet).  But here’s a list of pieces that might make you season just a little merrier … or a little brighter … or maybe just more peaceful.


First up, the Dominican Sisters of Mary… The sisters sing a couple of seasonal favorites.  There’s also a wonderful discussion about a sense of call.


I haven’t had a chance to listen to it  — yet!  But after discovering this gem of an annual program when I was in seminary, I’ve made a point to find it each year.  True, Hannukah has passed, but the stories read each year on Hanukah Lights are about identity and community, what it means to belong.  If you’ve never heard one of these, check it out:


If the commercialization of Christmas is getting overwhelming, you might find ideas of alternatives in Krista Tippet’s essay here:

Why I Don’t Do Christmas


Or if you’re looking for a more humorous angle on the whole mess, there’s always Crumpet the Elf (aka David Sedaris) telling it like it was with The Santaland Diaries:


If holiday gatherings have you dreading conflicts with other members of your circle of family or friends or coworkers or whatever, this TED Radio Hour episode has some insights for a very diverse group of speakers:


And finally, if the new year is more your thing, this piece by Sharon Saltzberg has some insights on things we may need to let go of … practices we might develop for more relief in the new year:

We Can’t Survive In a State of Constant Agitation


SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 9, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

Well, it is all the news this week … “The Silence Breakers” (aka #MeToo) were revealed as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year with a cover featuring several women from different walks of life who have confronted various forms of bad treatment they received from men.  Leading men in the high profile worlds of entertainment and politics have suffered consequences for a range of sexual behaviors toward female victims (and in some cases, male victims).  Representative John Conyers, who was accused by former staffers of directly propositioning them, went into the hospital for stress and came out to resignation.  Then six women senators started a movement for Al Franken’s resignation because of a series of accusations about inappropriate behavior; they were swiftly joined by other colleagues; this stampede culminated in Franken’s resignation a little more than 24 hours later.  Rep. Trent Franks resigned a day after accusations surfaced from former staffers about being propositioned as possible surrogate mothers.  More accusations are coming in the entertainment world as well as the political one.
The conversations are necessary and will ultimately be helpful.  However, will the high profile examples (such as those featured on the Time Magazine cover) change things for the less famous, the less well-paid … cleaning crews and maid services, wait staff and clerks, others we rarely (if ever) attend to … the women at various levels on the corporate food chain who know that retaliation will follow if they report things that HR policies say should not be happening?
And of no less importance, if we do not follow any sort of process … if we set any and all forms of misconduct (from minor to criminal) as completely equivalent with one-size fits all consequences or punishments … once this rage-wave passes, what will be left in its wake?  Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post offers some keen insights through some very important questions:
Speaking of women who stood up – or sat down, in this case — daring to assert their rights simply to be and in so doing set into a motion waves of action that made a difference … Aiming to mark an important anniversary in the civil rights struggle on December 1st, Trump tweeted about Rosa Parks.  This is wrong on so many levels — and Leonard Pitts nails them all:
 If the connection with Colin Kaepernick strikes you as misguided or misplaced, please check out the article of Kap as Sports Illustrated‘s Muhammed Ali Legacy Award recipient in the current Sportsperson of the Year issue.
Following up on the themes of race, gender, and class, here’s a long-form heartbreaker: Black women _in the United States!_ are over 250 more times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy (during pregnancy, childbirth, or soon after birth) than white women.  One amazing  woman who was trying to find out why ended up being one of those statistics herself.  Here’s her story:
Also on the subject of gender, class and expectation, the movie I, Tonya came out this weekend to largely favorable reviews.  I remember my own reactions at the time of the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and the obvious involvement of people close to her rival Tonya Harding.  Apparently, unlike a lot of people, I actually liked Tonya as her backstory came to light (growing up poor, driving a pickup truck to the rink, sewing her own costumes … a real young woman, not a fantasy princess).  One of the commentaries written at the time questioned how much blame could really be applied to Tonya who worked as hard as anyone (and harder than some) to follow the rules that would take her to the top … only to find the rules did not apply in her case.  This commentary on the movie makes a similar point and calls into question our enjoyment of knocking people from their pedestals (and how much of that is behind the current bruhaha over the various perpetrators of various forms of sexual impropriety?)
One thing that is NOT in the forefront of the news as it ought to be – given that the House and Senate are working to find some mutually agreeable version of the tax proposals.  The claim keeps being pressed that the corporate tax cuts (along with tax cuts for high incomes)  will do wonders for the economy to the benefit of all – even though no study supports this theory and experiences indicate otherwise.  Here’s a very clear example of what the proposed tax cuts (especially for businesses) are quite likely to do (and no, this will not benefit workers):
NPR’s StoryCorps project consistently airs stirring and memorable stories.  But the one from this Friday was truly exceptional.  As the 5th anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, this deserves a listen:


SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 2, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

First, the news we all should be watching: The Tax Bill.  Now that the Senate has also passed a version, the  next step will be to reconcile the version from the Senate and the version from the Hosue.  There are significant differences and the final form remains to be seen.  But here is a non-technical, understandable, not-too-wonky analysis of the economics around the proposed changes (especially with corporate taxes), the current economic growth rate, GDP and stuff like that.  It’s worth the read to understand why these proposals are a very bad idea:


Second, a three-fer: Three different interviewers … three different political leaders.  At different points, each interviewer asks a very direct, difficult question and each politico dodges, spins, or dissembles in one way or another.  Yes, it’s a dance and tracing out the steps furthers understanding:

Kai Ryssdal and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee on Marketplace …

Robert Siegel and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) of the Seante Finance Committee on All Things Considered …

Steve Inskeep and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Morning Edition …


Third, although the parallels are not perfect (as noted in this piece from Marketplace), events in Kasnas under the leadership of Gov. Sam Brownback are instructive for the current national-level tax proposals.  Although the Kansas commentator is somewhat suspect (being from Wichita, which is home base of the Koch Brothers, who are the primary architects of this nonsense), even he has to concede things have not gone as planned in the Sunflower State, now known to some as Brownbackistan.  (Check it out on Facebook; it’s also a hashtag on Twitter.)


Fourth, another financially-related development that isn’t getting enough attnetion: the turn of events at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  First, let’s recall why this was created: abuses by various financial entities that misled consumers and set into motion the chain of events that culminated in the Great Recession of 2008.  Second, note yet another example of a politico attempting execute the artful dodge, tunring the focus from consumers who need protection from predatory actions by big businesses to consumers needing protection from their government.  Who (or what) is really being protected here?

David Grenne and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) on Morning Edition ….


Fifth – Sense and Sensibility (Part I) regarding what has been the lead news story most times this week (when other far more important stories should have been front and center).  This concerns the allegations regarding Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), but the points about varying degrees and keeping a sense of perspective can apply to many similar — and dissimilar — stories:


Sixth – Sense and Sensibiolity (Part II) on the same themse, but with the lens turned back at all of us and our current cultural setting with a view towards more mature (and quite likely healthier) sexual ethics:


SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 18, 2017


A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

First, this is a holdover from last week that I finally had a chance to listen to.  Kerri Miller had one of her usual insightful conversations with a couple of experts about the role of prescribers (doctors and pharmacists) in the current opioid epidemic.  Not only is this a call for more responsible prescribing and better counseling when the medications are dispensed, there is also genuine push-back against the use of opioid painkillers for chronic pain.  (Actual studies indicate that these medications are not effective for long-term use.)


Second, for on-going issues from past weeks and months, Luke O’Brien’s long-form piece from the new issue of The Atlantic on “The Making of an American Nazi.”  Warning: this piece does include foul/offensive language.  It also does not shy away from clear indications of serious mental illness in the subject.  Reading it, I was strongly reminded of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.  Yes, this is crazy-business … and yet, many people seem to be drawn to it.


The House passed a tax alteration plan … the Senate Finance Committee green-lighted a similar, but distinctly different, version.  Is this a good thing?  Here’s two reports from Marketplace to consider:


And there’s the latest national chapter in the on-going exposure of sexual harassment and worse by men in positions of power.  Kate Harding offers some good consideration of the larger factors to be considered and why resignation/firing/being disappeared from public sight are unworkable as “one size fits all” solutions.  I wish she had pushed a bit further on a couple of lines of thought in her piece.  First, that there are not isolated individuals; the individuals are symptoms of a pervasive systemic problem.  (Perhaps part of the reason men are so quick to call for the expulsion of the fellow who has become a pariah is to make him a scapegoat for their own offenses?)  But second, I wish she would have given more attention to the varying degrees between harassment (from isolated incidents to a clear pattern) to various levels of physical assault to rape.  It’s a continuum and the responses need to vary accordingly.  However, there are word limits to consider when submitting opinion pieces to newspapers:


Apparently the chief tweeter can’t stop himself.  He really should … he definitely should not be commenting on things like the Al Franken revelation , as Steve Sack makes perfectly clear:


But what else is new?  Trump has such a long record of trying to shift blame for others, exaggerate the mistakes of others to seem far worse than his big ones.  You’d think people would be so tired of it by now … at least tired enough to stop falling for it. Leonard Pitts explains why we need to keep the focus where it belongs.


SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 5th


A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

The big news story of the week was supposed to be the Tax Bill from the House.  Clearly, it’s only a starting point and campaigns to preserve the deductions and exemptions that are slated to be removed in the proposal. were underway even before Tuesday.  In the swirl of exaggerated claims, both in support of and in opposition to the bill, it’s important to mind the spinning.  Here’s some fairly straight talk courtesy of Marketplace, including a segment in which Kai Ryssdal puts some very pointed questions to Kevin Hassett, Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.  You can decide if the answers make sense  … or not.
But, of course, the tax plan unveiling was eclipsed by the news of the pending indictments from Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 Election … and by the delay in the tax bill unveiling due to lack of agreement among drafters of the bill. Here’s some clarification amid all the chaos:
The news of the indictments (and the Papadopoulos plea) has been a cause for celebration among some liberal factions.  However, even if their great hopes are ultimately realized, this still doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  Leonard Pitts reflects on a column from March 2016 … and points to the real problem underlying all this.  (And follow from this to his more recent piece responding to White House Chief of Staff’s John Kelly’s comments about the Civil War that almost got lost in the twin dramas of the latest steps in the Mueller investigations and the House tax plan):
This week’s two-fer … Because an immigrant was involved, Donald Trump wouldn’t consider passing up a chance to spout off how terrible immigrants are after the truck attack on the bike path in NYC.  (Notice how it was “too soon to discuss gun laws” right after Las Vegas, but less than a day is soon enough to call for changes to immigration programs)  The attacker came into the US through the “Diversity Visa Lottery.”  First up, how the program actually works … then, how better community supports for immigrants might have prevented this – and can going into the future:
Children are listening and watching … what are the hearing and learning in our tech-saturated culture?  Here’s a timely reminder to watch your tone an language in their presence – even with Alexa (or other voice-activated assistance programs:
Here’s a good example of why saying “All Lives Matter” is not the same as saying “Black Lives Matter.”  This is the first part of a two-part story; the second airs on Sunday.  You can also link to the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America page on the NPR website for other pieces in this series.  There were also a couple regarding Latinos and discrimination around housing and voting.


Is It Just Passing By?

a602b4d26844aaeb999c463a6ac292f5Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me … (Lamentations 1:12)

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

St-Paul-BikeWe were driving to church for Maundy Thursday services, taking the usual route … talking about usual things. The road we were taking runs along the river bluffs and there is a walking/biking trail along the roadway, between the road and the river area. As usual, people were biking or walking in the evening light, appreciating that recent adjustment known as Daylight Savings Time. Things were proceeding along the usual course.

Then we saw something remarkable: a police car parked on the trail area. The two officers were standing in front of their car, observing two people who were interacting with each other. It might have been two women; one seemed to be combing out the hair of the other. We passed the scene quite quickly (the speed limit there is 45 or 50mph) so it was hard to discern what was happening … and even harder to speculate on what might have happened.

Collecting evidence, perhaps? Likely not. It was an odd place to be combing someone’s hair for stray fibers or other clues. Neither of the police officers were doing the combing.

Was one of the women assisting the other? That seems more likely. Perhaps the one having her hair combed out had fallen or had something catch in it and the other was assisting her. The other might be one who had been walking with her … or a friend who had come to her aid … or a stranger walking past who stopped to help. But why the police, then? Had someone seen the woman after whatever happened that apparently fouled her hair and then called for help? Did the woman call the police for help herself and then a stranger arrived before the officers? Had the woman who was doing the combing called the officers for assistance before involving herself in the situation?

There was no way to reach a clear conclusion as to what was transpiring by the side of the road as we passed along … no clear indicators as to what had happened before we passed.

untitled (4)After the service, we were driving home along the same route, going the other way, about two hours later. By that time, it was dark. Around the same point in the road, we saw a multitude of flashing emergency lights. There were maybe three firetrucks plus a paramedic vehicle or two and a couple of ambulances. In addition, there were nearly a dozen police vehicles. In the pulsing light, many figures could be seen standing and moving around. Yellow tape – crime scene tape? – had been put up and it appeared there was a body bag beside the road or on the path.

Now what had happened? Was it in any way connected to the scene we had observed around that same section of road earlier?

I don’t know. It’s now more than three weeks later and I still don’t know. There was nothing on the newspaper or the radio or the local television news websites by 10pm that night. There was nothing in the newspapers the next day. There was nothing in the local news reports of the local public radio station (headquartered just a couple of miles from the scene). Even the local bi-weekly community paper didn’t mention this incident in the regular summary of police reports and fire calls. All those firetrucks and police vehicles and, apparently, a body bag … and nothing?

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

No, this was not “nothing.” Clearly something happened – something significant enough to call forth a large turnout of first responders. And with all those first responders, whatever it was that happened must have been sad and tragic … at least for some people, somewhere. Something did indeed happen. But as to what that something was, no one is saying anything in any sort of a public way.

Driving to and from church that night … and the next, we passed by any number of people doing usual, unremarkable things. While we were inside the sanctuary, participating in the services, any number of people passed by the building … on foot … in their cars … in the buses that rumble by. And there was the occasional emergency vehicle passing by, announcing its passage with the blare of sirens. I suppose for those passing by outside, the same question still applies:

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

LCR North faceWhat do people see as they pass by our church building … any church building? As Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, if people had passed by with a view of the north side of our building at just the right time, they might have seen a line of people moving across the open side of the courtyard. At the beginning of the line, they would have seen people in various robes, a type of clothing rarely seen outside of church doors. But after the choir passed, it would have been normal looking people in normal styles of clothing. Everyone was carrying a long, pale palm frond. Did anyone who chanced to see it wonder, “Now what’s up with that?”

Later in the week, what would those passing by on the streets outside have noticed? That the sanctuary, normally dark on a Thursday or Friday night was lit up? That there were a number of cars in the normally empty parking lot? Might they have wondered why people were there on those weeknights?

If they could have glimpsed inside as they passed, what would they see? Things that surely would seem strange to outsiders passing by looking in: People washing one another’s feet … taking off shoes and socks, walking around barefoot in a semi-public space … kneeling before each other to splash water on the feet and dry them with a towel. People taking bites of bread and sips of wine, urged to do so “in remembrance of me” … and who might that “me” be who is remembered in this way? Votive 1People sitting before a prominent cross in dim light … light that becomes dimmer and dimmer as candles are extinguished … or later lighting small candles near the cross, bowing or perhaps even kneeling in reverence before the piece of wood. What’s up with any of this … with all of it?

And for those few churches that keep the vigil on Holy Saturday evening – what would the people passing by that evening see? A fire burning outside in a fire pit or a grill, but no one sitting around enjoying the display of flame or even cooking anything on the grill, despite the presence of people signaled by the cars in the parking lot. At the right moment, they might see a line of people following a large candle … some perhaps in odd robes again … but most others in regular clothes. The lights in the sanctuary grow brighter as the evening goes on. Activity out of the ordinary in a church on a Saturday night – could it be a wedding? What else would be going on?

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

And honestly, based on general attendance trends, the numbers of people who come to the Holy Week services – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the daunting hours-long event of Saturday’s vigil – are markedly less than the typical church attendance of Palm Sunday … which itself is maybe half of what the numbers at Easter will be … is it as nothing to many of us who claim membership in a church body, many of us who identify as Christian? This is the central story of our faith, yet relatively few of us stop to attend to it.

Easter Display 1Many years ago, singing in the choir in a sanctuary where the choir sat facing the congregation each Sunday, I remember looking at the assembly on an Easter morning, seeing many unfamiliar faces, people whose names I did not know … and I thought, “What’s it like to be you, to live week after week, month by month, for a whole year away from this place, from these rhythms, from this story that we tell here? How does that work for you?” I wondered because I actually have no idea what life would be like that way.

Perhaps it comes to this, as John Irving’s same-named narrator puts it in the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany: I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished – I am terrified that this year it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.

Lilies 2Easter is the main event. That plenty of people turn out and swell the attendance (for whatever their reasons) attests to that. Resurrection is a hope-filled, wondrous, beautiful concept; it points to an open future in which anything might be possible – any manner of fresh starts and new beginnings. But there’s no resurrection unless there’s first been a death. Holy Week is the journey into that death that makes the good news of Easter’s resurrection – and all other resurrections – possible.

Palm 2To pause for Holy Week, to tend especially to the three days that precede Easter – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday – is to enter into, to sit with the story of Jesus in his journey from death to life. This is the story that gives meaning and purpose, identity and direction to those who call themselves Christians, followers of this Jesus called the Christ, the Crucified and Risen One.

But it is so inconvenient to spend hours at church … during a week … when life is so very hectic and busy … and we already know the story anyway … so does it really matter?

Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

Is it?