SATURDAY 6-PACK: January 13, 2018

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

 

Things were a bit busy last week and I didn’t have time to get to this.  There wasn’t much, either.  Some book, oddly enough with the word fire in the title, was consuming almost all the oxygen in the news cycle.  But it’s another week … and another cycles of stories and events.  Here’s my curated collection for the 51st week of the current administration … interregnum? …

 

First, when the nation’s largest employer announces wage increases and bonuses, the sheer number of employees potentially impacted makes it hard to ignore.  The announcement sounded good — $1000 in bonuses for current employees and a bump up to $11/hour in starting wages.  But as the details emerged, maybe not so much.  The top bonuses go to employees (does Wal-Mart still call them “associates”?) who have been there for 20 years.  The average store employee will get a bonus of around $190.  Also keep in mind, the estimated savings to Wal-Mart from the new tax policies amount to $18 BILLION; what’s being shared with the employees is no more than 2% of it.  Plus, there was an attempt to cover over the closing of more than 60 Sam’s Club locations.  Tends to make one wonder where the money in the bonuses  is really coming from.  But at least wages are going up — that’s something, right?  Maybe not.  Consider these insights from The Motley Fool:

https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/what-living-on-an-dollar11-hourly-wage-looks-like/ar-AAuyJLc?li=BBnb7Kz

 

This was on the tentative list for last week.  But perhaps it’s even more timely with the news about Wal-Mart this week.  Here’s a three-fer from Marketplace, a series of stories about the life and times in the retail sector — especially for the workers:

https://www.marketplace.org/2018/01/02/business/coming-retail-apocalypse

https://www.marketplace.org/2018/01/03/business/retail-workers-are-taking-cue-coal-miners

https://www.marketplace.org/2018/01/05/business/are-fulfillment-center-jobs-good-fit-laid-retail-workers

 

This was a small story that caught my ear, in no small part because my daughter is three semesters away from joining the ranks of school teachers.  We’ve known for a long time that teachers are generally underpaid.  We’ve known for quite some time that workers at the lowest end of the wage scale are being priced out of housing — renting as well as ownership.  But what does it mean when educated, highly skilled professionals (such as teachers) are being priced out of housing in the places where they work?  Consider this:

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/11/577279624/subsidized-housing-my-help-school-districts-retain-teachers

 

Now … onto the latest cause for widespread outrage at the current occupant of the Oval Office.  First of all, did he really say that?  Sen. Durbin says “yes, he did.”  But Durbin’s a Democrat, so can his accuracy be trusted?  Sen. Graham was in the room, too, but he’s only willing to say that he said his piece at the moment to the boss of his party.  Others who were in the room claim they didn’t hear such language.  Here’s how the situation developed and who is saying what.  Bottom line: while Graham is too much of a team player to publicly confirm something like this, he has acknowledged Durbin’s account as essentially accurate.  As for the others supporting Trump in his denials, well, they were there only because of his invitation and they openly share his already well-established highly negative attitudes towards immigrants, particularly immigrants who would not be considered “white”.  That’s my take, but you can read it and do your own math:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-it-happened-donald-trumps-shithole-countries-remark/

 

The disgusting word itself is not the problem here.  The real problem is the attitude behind it: the sheer racism and bigotry that underlies, enables it, and makes it acceptable.  The claim that “Trump was only saying out loud what lots of people are thinking” is a genuine one.  Until that line of thinking that justifies racism and bigotry stops, this will happen again and again to the delight and applause of a significant number of our fellow citizens.  I wish I knew how to stop this, but I don’t.  Read or listen, and weep:

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/13/577833629/how-political-media-reacted-to-trumps-vulgarity

 

Finally, about “that book” … Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.  I haven’t read it and don’t plan to.  Wolff’s reputation for slipshod work and the sloppy style of reporting that’s more suited for gossip columns that real journalism or analysis is considerable.  However, even a broken clock has the right time twice a day, and no doubt some of what he describes is accurate.  But that’s been abundantly clear for some time now.  There’s a deeper question that isn’t answered, which Leonard Pitts draws out: “Yours truly had hoped this book would answer a nagging question about Trump’s White House: What should we make of these people? When they turn reality inside out like a sock, when they stand before calamity and assure us there is no calamity, when they insist Trump is a misunderstood genius whose only problem is our failure to see his greatness, are they lying to us — or to themselves?    The former would make them fools. The latter would make them something worse.”  Which is it?  That’s what we really need to know.  Read the whole piece here:

SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 30, 2017

SIX FOR THE YEAR THAT WAS & THE ONE THAT’S COMING

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

 

First up, no one reviews the year with mirthful insight quite like Dave Barry (one of the added perks of subscribing to the Miami Herald just to be able to read Leonard Pitts).  Here’s Barry’s take on 2017:

http://www.miamiherald.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/dave-barry/article192007484.html

 

There are reasons editorial cartoonist Steve Sack has multiple nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and has won at least once.  Here’s the 42 the Star Tribune pulled from his work this year.  Most are related to national events, but a few are local.  Some, like the seemingly endless reworking of Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis or the construction-created traffic mess, translate well enough — just substitute local public works and road construction projects.  Others, like the Minnesota Lynx winning the NBA title (again!) or Minnesota Public Radio severing ties with Garrison Keillor, were national news stories … but might not have been noticed.  The drain plug in the lake is a strictly local story about White Bear Lake, where water levels have dropped precipitously in recent years.

http://www.startribune.com/the-best-of-sack-2017/466875003/#1

 

At the end of the year, NPR offers a montage of music from prominent musicians who died during the year.  Where else will you hear rap and opera, the most essential of rock & roll and some classic county … along with gospel and show tunes … and???  This is less than 10 minutes and anyone is sure to recognize something.

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/29/572828157/in-memoriam-2017-the-musicians-we-lost

 

If movies are more your thing than music, there are all kinds of top movie lists out there this time of year … from best of the year to most likely to contend for Oscars.  There’s more than 10 on this list … and not all the films are going to appeal to anyone.  However, it covers a wide range of genres — from foreign language to indie flciks and documentaries … dramas to special-effects blockbusters.  If you’re looking for what to see when it comes on Netflix or whatever, some titles on this list will appeal to you:

https://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2017/12/19/569983957/nprs-favorite-movies-of-2017

 

This is topping some lists of news stories from the year … but it wasn’t just a 2017 story.  The FBI began investigating Russian activities in the 2016 election during the campaign, including possible links to the Trump campaign.  Here’s how it really started.  We’ll see where it goes in the coming year …

http://www.startribune.com/russia-inquiry-began-with-an-aide-drinks-and-political-dirt/467324523/

 

And finally, because it is New Year’s … which is a time for making resolutions or setting goals.  Here are a handful of helpful tips:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emmahiggs/2017/12/5-brilliant-motivational-tips

 

Here’s to a better 2018!

SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 16, 2017

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

Reports indicate that the compromise tax plan, worked out between Republicans from the House and the Senate along with various business lobbyists, now has enough votes to pass.  Of course, the exact details of the plan aren’t fully known … and might not be until after the vote to pass it. Whatever form the final tax bill takes, it will not fulfill the promises to improve wages for most Americans.  Lots of good quotes and non-technical analysis in this piece – and note the warning at the end:
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The other big news this weeks was the somewhat surprising victory for Doug Jones in the special election to fill the Senate vacancy in Alabama.  With all the post-election analysis, we know that the keep to Jones’ upset was the big turnout and solid support from African-American voters, especially the women.  Make now mistake: this was not about what a flawed human being Roy Moore happens to be; this is about issues that impact real people.  The people who voted expect action on these concerns:
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Here’s the two-fer for the week.  First up, things that were said by professed Christians in Alabama the day before the elction.  The pastor’s comments were particularly provocative.  Second, reactions from Tuesday night when the result came in.  This report features a different reaction by a different pastor.  Who best echoes what Christianity is about?

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/12/570093114/alabamas-special-election-is-now-up-to-the-voters

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/13/570387472/remarkable-win-sends-democratic-candidate-to-u-s-senate

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We also marked five years since the horrifc school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  The radio program  1A devoted the entire hour to this.  The PSA styled as a news report on “tomorrow’s school shooting” is a must-hear:

https://the1a.org/shows/2017-12-14/five-years-after-sandy-hook-are-schools-safer

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Trump and his echo-chamber were at work this week trying to undermine Robert Mueller’s credibility and stop the probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election from being completed.  The reason for seeking a premature stop is intuitively obvious (as my Algebra teacher would say).  That’s why Mueller and his team must be allowed to carry out the assignment they’ve been given.

http://www.startribune.com/let-mueller-do-his-work-or-nation-will-suffer/462898573/

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And finally, a good story … just because it’s really good and moving and timely for the season:

https://themoth.org/stories/love-song-for-malawi

Walking in the Darkness

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …

 

That’s where we’re headed in Advent, these words from Isaiah that we’ll read on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a journey set in the darkest weeks of the year, as the days grow shorter and shorter.  Even after the solstice, a few days before Christmas, we don’t yet see enough lengthening in daylight to hope for the end of the winter and the light to be restored.

 

The path in daylight … I won’t be seeing this in the mornings anytime soon

This time of year, when the temperature allows for being outdoors (by being within a few degrees of freezing), my morning walks take place in the dark.  There’s just a bit of a reprieve around the time change, but week or two after the switch back to Daylight Wasting Time, I’m back in the dark on my morning walks.

 

This walking in the dark has prompted me to consider what is useful in terms of light … and what is not.

 

Most useful is a full (or nearly full) moon in a cloudless sky.  It isn’t as bright as day, but the soft light is enough to see the path, to see familiar landmarks, and (likely) to be seen by others.  Unfortunately, this phase of the moon lasts for just a few days and the sky must be cloudless, which is a rare thing in Minnesota.  A cloudless sky in winter typically means the temperature is so far below freezing that every drop of moisture has frozen out of the atmosphere … which also means I am NOT walking outside.

 

The streetlights generally help.  For aesthetic considerations and a quieter neighborhood, the overall light level is low.  But the lights are directed down to the streets and walkways and the lights are close enough to see where you’re going (in most places).  However, it isn’t enough light that a pedestrian can be sure that drivers have a good chance of seeing her.  In some places, the walkway curves away from the road and drops below grade.  For that part of the path, the streetlights up by the road don’t provide enough light to see where the path goes.  Along the one major road through the neighborhood, the streetlights are on one side of the street and the sidewalk is on the other.  The lights along that area help the drivers – not the pedestrians.

 

What does not help at all is the glare from headlights of approaching cars.  Much like the streetlights, the headlights are designed and positioned in such a way as to best assist the driver behind the wheel – not those outside of the car.  Rather than illuminate the area in front of me, the glare of on-coming headlights floods the area with so much light, it washes out nearly everything between the light source and me.  It’s kind of like the inverse of “all dark” blind, but it’s a form of blindness just the same.

 

For times like these, when the on-coming glare of headlights is too much or when the streetlights are insufficient for my needs, I’m really glad to have my flashlight.  In many ways, my flashlight is the most useful light of all.  I can turn it on when I need the light and point it where I need the light to be.  I can have a focused, bright light if I need that, or a softer, more widespread light.  The flashlight also has a strobe feature, which is helpful when I need to cross streets as it is much more able to catch the attention of drivers than I am. Drivers who don’t normally yield to pedestrians do when the strobe light is flashing.

 

It’s hard to walk in the dark … where does my next step land? … what might be in the way to trip my feet? … is the path ahead level or is there a dip I cannot see? … what else is along the path that might be a hazard?  I know the path I walk very well from all the months I’ve walked it in the bright, morning light.  Even in dim light, I’m fairly sure of the way.  But if I didn’t know the path or if there were crossings or points of divergence, having light with which to see would be essential to avoid losing my way.

 

Moving through the weeks of Advent is kind of like these morning walks in the dark.  In some ways, it is a familiar path … a cycle of weeks that comes around each year … the familiar countdown rhythm that leads to the Christmas celebrations … a wheel that turns like clockwork.

 

We know the stories … the Annunciation … the mysterious, miraculous pregnancies (mostly for Mary, but also for Elizabeth) … the visions of angels who announce what God is doing … the waiting and the watching … the cry of John the Baptizer: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Even if these aren’t necessarily the passages read in churches and homes each week through Advent, these are the subjects of our Advent hymns.  The hymns of Advent aren’t heard much outside of churches – not like the Christmas hymns and carols that have become standards alongside more secular Christmas music that plays almost non-stop from November until year’s end in the stores and on radio stations.

 

But we don’t necessarily need these external guides to show us the way and tell us when we are in time.  We know the path we travel.  We have our routines of preparations, how to get things done, signs that the expected event of Christmas is at hand … the tree, the lights, maybe candles on a wreath … the smells of fresh pine and spices and sugar … the rustle of paper and the slicing of scissors and the whispers of tape dispensers.  Like a well-trodden path or the hands of the clock, these things tell us where we are and when we are.

 

But like walking in the dark, sometimes it is good to have a light, something to help us see.  And like my morning walks in the dark, some lights are very helpful while certain others are no help at all.

 

Least helpful to the Advent journey is the swirl and clamor and glare of the cultural Christmas celebration.  It’s all glitter and sparkle and overly bright and shiny.  There’s the whirl and swirl of activities and festivities.  There’s the endless to-do list that gets longer, not shorter, with each item accomplished … oh, don’t forget this other thing … oh, now there’s this to take care of … oh, sure, I can squeeze this in, too … on and on and on it goes.  There’s the blare of the holiday music that’s been playing for a month now … the same tunes on the radio as in the stores … the same singers with their once-new takes on old classics … maybe made worse for “fresh arrangements” or up-to-date instrumentation or auto tune.  Then there are the crowds of people everywhere, the long lines, the overtired and whining children along with their frustrated adults (who sometimes aren’t any better).  Like the glaring headlights of the approaching cars as I walk, these things wash out all the peace, the quiet, the space for contemplation and reflection … the whole point of the Advent season.

 

And just what is the point of this season we call “Advent”?  Isn’t it about getting ready for Christmas?  Doesn’t that mean all the things we’re doing to get ready for the main event are, in fact, part of the Advent season of preparation?

 

Ah … but this is where the cultural approach to Christmas is like the streetlights along the path I walk in the dark.  Yes, sometimes these things are helpful an aid support in our Advent observance as we indeed do look toward Christmas and the coming of Jesus as the baby born that holy night in a stable somewhere in the little town of Bethlehem where he was laid to sleep in a manger because there was no crib for his bed.  Like the streetlights along the walk path, the guiding lights of culture can assist our preparations.  However, like the streetlights along my walking path, sometimes the path we’re on diverges from where the lights are … and sometimes the lights are lighting another way.

 

The cultural calls to prepare for Christmas don’t help when they pressure us towards consumption of things we don’t need (gifts or food), to buy more than our means honestly can accommodate, to have unrealistic expectations of what our holiday celebrations “should” look like (the perfect tree, the perfect décor, the perfect gifts, the perfect table, the perfect everything).  Following these would-be guiding lights can only lead to disappointment because they lead us to expect more than can possibly be done or arranged or provided.

 

And even at best, when the focus is on the right thing – the birth of Jesus, the lights around us might still take us off our intended path.  If the focus is only on the baby in the manger, caroled by candlelight on Christmas Eve, celebrated in the exchange of gifts (birthday presents in Jesus’ name we give to each other), then we’re still a bit off the path.  Christmas isn’t just about a poor couple’s baby born in a barn.  It’s about God breaking into the world – how God broke into the world then … which gives us some clues as to how God might be breaking in now.

 

In the midst of all this, the practices of Advent are a lot like my trusty flashlight on those morning walks in the dark.  The practices of Advent put the light where we need it to be, to show us the path we intend to be on, to help us avoid what might trip us or cause us to stumble as we find our way through this dark and confusing time.

 

There’s no way of telling what bumps or stumps or rocks or unexpected breaks in the surface might be lurking as we make our way in through the darkness of Advent this year.  We’ve seen plenty of disasters already.  The people in Puerto Rico and Florida and Houston are still struggling to rebuild their lives that were ripped apart by hurricanes this summer.  We remember how children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary were brutally murdered in Advent five years ago, shattering the season for so many.  There’s no way to know what form of chaos will spin its way out of the nation’s capitol next.  Here in my area, a decision about charges in the latest high-profile shooting by a police officer could be coming any day now.

 

We can’t turn off – or even fully unplug – from the Christmas dazzle all around us (even if we want to).  We can’t prevent things in the world around us from disrupting our peace and disturbing our path.  The world keeps moving.  Life keeps happening, the good and the bad.

 

But we can steward are time, watch how we use our minutes and days and hours … choose carefully where we invest our energy.  Such discipline is like that flashlight, guiding our attention to where we need to be looking, what we need to watch for … showing us the way we intend to travel so we can take our steps accordingly.

 

I don’t have to walk in the dark on these mornings.  I have other options … places to walk inside where it’s not just warm, there’s also light.  But I choose to walk in the dark … to be outside … to connect with the physical world around me … the rhythm of the seasons … the cycles of life.

 

Observing the season of Advent is that same sort of intentional engagement.  It is choosing to walk the dark, yet familiar way.  It requires both intention and attention.  It takes effort to stay on the way … to take the time out of the rush for quiet contemplation … to sit with the small light of candles in hope and expectation that a greater light will come … to look at the coming of God in the Jesus story so we can better see the coming of God in our stories.  We won’t see these things unless we’re looking … unless we know where to look … take the time to look … and have some light by which to see.

 

Author of time, Creator of Earth and its seasons, Keeper of Eternity …

 

As our seasons cycle again into winter’s darkness

As the year of your Church moves from the end of one cycle into the advent of a new

As the calendar that has marked this year enters the final weeks and we wait for a new one to begin

 

We light this small flame

 

Turning again to your promise to come once more

Remembering how you came to us a baby in Bethlehem’s manger

Trusting your presence that has sustained us to this time

 

May the hope of your coming and the light of your presence sustain us through the darkness of winter.  As we wait for the day of your promise, may your birth in our darkness renew our hope and life as we watch and wait for your return and the coming of the Day.

Amen

SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 11, 2017

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

It’s been quite the week, opening with the shocking events in Sutherland Springs, Texas … moving into the off-year elections … the unveiling of the Senate Tax Plan … oh yeah, and the on-going cascade of reports of sexual harassment and assault involving famous, powerful men … all taking place against the backdrop of Trump’s trip to Asia.  Where to begin?

 

This does not involve the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.  But it does speak to the beauty of family ties and the way such acts of violence leave permanent scars, from the StoryCorps Project … and a mass shooting you may have forgotten

Lost in all the major news and drama of the week, one of Chicago’s most famous legal residents answered his summons for jury duty.  Barack Obama was only the most recent former president to receive such a summons.  Scott Simon muses on the power and privilege of the highest office in the land … which might not be the one you think it is…

Continuing in the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America, this report makes it clear that words, actions, mistreatment DO take a real toll on a person.  This piece focuses on a doctor with Hispanic heritage and things he experiences repeatedly that will make you cringe … and maybe gasp … and it might make you mad…

And some of the same truths also apply to the women finally coming forward to tell the truth about their experiences of harassment and worse.  Here’s a good reason to burn one of your monthly free articles from the New York Times Lindy West, telling it straight-up, as always …

 

And here’s another good reason : Gail Collins’ run-down of the many clouds and shadows looming over Trump’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary of his election, the week that was …

 

And finally, do these apparent missteps, mistakes and out-right failures really matter?  It may depend on whom you ask.  Michael Kruse’s visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania is revealing — and stunning.  Warning: this piece does contain some very frank language that some may find offensive.  However, it is an accurate and exacting portrayal of what is happening in this slice of “Trump Country”.

 

A POEM FOR THE INAUGURATION … Of Sorts

The inauguration of our 45th President last month did not include a poem, which has become something of a custom at these events in recent years … at least for Democrats. Poems have only been read at five of the inaugurations, starting with JFK’s.  That innovation lay dormant for decades until Bill Clinton opted to have a poet read a poem at both of his events.  George W. Bush did not follow suit, but Barack Obama did.  Since Trump’s expressed desire was to exceed anything done before, doing everything that had been done before — including a poem — and then some would have been a decent plan toward that goal.  (And, given that several poet/ storyteller/ bard-types had left us in the days after the election, including a poet with a poem to share might have been a way to blunt such an ill-omen.)  Many poems have been written; surely one would be appropriate to the occasion.

One that strikes me as appropriate for the time is very old; indeed, it is ancient … composed long before anyone had ever conceived of the word president … long before anyone spoke in the English language. It was written in Hebrew, the language of a people govenerned by kings, either their own or oppressive kings of other nations. Psalm 12, a lament, seems suited to the time.

 

Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s 1st Inaugural

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

The faithful have disappeared from humankind ….

Throughout the past twelve months, a number of public religious leaders have voiced support for Donald Trump and continue to do so even as his positions, pronouncements tactics, behaviors contradict the teachings and examples of Jesus. These are ministers, preachers, teachers, who presume to speak and preach and teach in the name of Jesus … who are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God … whose work is to guide others in following Jesus. Whether through the expressed support of the likes of Franklin Graham (who has taken up the mantle of his revered father Billy), Jerry Falwell, Jr. (now president of Liberty University, the Christian college his father established) … public Christian figures such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) and Tim Wildmon (American Family Association). Perhaps the most galling example of a public failure by a Christian leader to keep faith with God was the invocation at the Republican Convention by Mark Burns of South Carolina, who identifies himself as an evangelist, a herald of the good news of Jesus. But there was nothing of that gospel in his words.

Whether these led their followers or their followers pushed them towards it, exit surveys show over 80% of people who identify as evangelical Christians (and are considered white in our raced society) cast their ballots for Donald Trump. His constant dishonesty was no barrier for their support. The self-identified public champions of family values raised no concerns about his multiple marriages, his well-publicized affairs, and the sketchy comments regarding his daughters’ appearance. None of this mattered. It was all shrugged off with a “well, who can know what’s in his heart?”

In their public support of Donald Trump (who himself has demonstrated no faithfulness to and little interest in the ways of God), so many, who want to be considered godly, faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the words of scripture, have shown themselves to be faithless.

 

Miller Williams at Clinton’s 2nd Inaugural

They utter lies to each other;

With flattering lips and a double heart they speak…

Oh where to begin on this one? The lies … the deceits … the innuendo … the spurious accusations. During the campaign, Trump branded Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” when she was far more honest, direct, and up-front than ever he was. After bullying and belittling her and many, many other women, he claimed that no one respects women more than he does. (Saturday Night Live made good use of that nonsensical remark) He insists he’s a highly successful business man, but where’s the proof? He still refuses to release his tax returns, so how can we know? He points to the opulence with which he surrounds himself as evidence of his great wealth. He claims he has little debt. But how do we know? Where is the proof?

As has been observed, he says many things that are not accurate – and keeps insisting that they’re true. When the inaccuracies are called to his attention, he doubles down, continuing to repeat them and insisting they are true and that any evidence or reports to the contrary are fake news.

 

Elizabeth Alexander at Obama’s 1st Inaugural

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

 The tongue that makes great boasts.

Those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;

Our lips are our own – who is our master?”…

It’s not just the tongue that makes great boasts; the fingers on Twitter do as well. Nothing is acceptable to Donald Trump unless he is the best ever, lauded in the most superlative of terms. It was inevitable that the crowd for Trump’s inauguration would be smaller than the gathering in 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term. After all, the crowd for Obama’s second inaugural was smaller than the first. That first one in 2009 was truly historical; it will be a long time before anything like it happens again.

But Mr. Trump always has to have the best for himself, the highest praise, the biggest turnout or ratings or whatever. He used a photo of the crowd from President Obama’s first inaugural and tried to pass it off as the crowd at his own. The switch was obvious, especially to those who had been at the inaugurals. But when challenged about it, Mr. Trump doubled down and kept insisting that his was the biggest crowd ever.

But that was just the beginning. He bragged about himself in his address at the CIA the day after his inauguration. A few days later, in an interview for ABC, he boasted of his reception when he was giving that address. He insists everything is going incredibly well, better than has ever been done before … that his proposed cabinet is being met with nothing but astonishment at its uniform awesomeness (even though a number of nominees have faced appropriately harsh criticism because their qualifications and knowledge base are minimal at best) … the travel ban he ordered a week into his presidency was going very well (despite the obvious problems that were happening – in no small part because those who were charged with enacting it weren’t sure what procedure to follow because none of the impacted agencies had been involved in the drafting and there had been no preparations for its implementation). Mr. Trump refuses to hear anything that contradicts his grandiose assessments of himself and his actions.

 

Richard Blanco at Obama’s 2nd Inaugural

“Because the poor are despoiled because the needy groan,

  “I will now rise up,” says the Lord;

  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The needy are already groaning – the refugees seeking a place of safety, a new home in which to rebuild their lives … those struggling to support themselves and their families with minimum wage jobs, a wage that doesn’t even cover the cost of living for a single adult … the people struggling with mental illness or addictions and need help from programs like Medicaid, help that is now being threatened with cutbacks … the list can go on.

The promise is there that God will rise up and act. This isn’t an insistence that churches ought to take over poverty relief operations.  In 2014, Bread for the World calculated that if religious organizations were to take over the food stamps program, every congregation (of any religious affiliation) would have to increase its annual budget by $40,000 for ten years. In other words, it cannot be done.

No, it’s not the churches nor the civic government. It is the Lord God who is to rise up. That’s good news for those in need but not so much for the rest of us. The more dependent we are on the established order of things, the more upheaval we are likely to face. Chaos and collapse are necessary parts of the drastic change that it is required to bring forth something new. If nothing else, chaos is a guarantee with the current president and his administration.

 

The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,

 Silver refined in a furnace on the ground,

                                 Purified seven times.

This we are promised – and it is a promise that depends upon God, not us … not our leaders … not our president, whoever he (or she) may be. God keeps promises with or without our help. Our part is simply to live and act as best we are made able in the direction of God’s promises.

 

You, O Lord, will protect us,

You will guard us from this generation forever.

On every side the wicked prowl,

 As vileness is exalted among humankind.

Wicked? Maybe not. Weakness and ignorance are more evident than overt ill-will for the most part. However, this is not to exclude the potential for wickedness on the part of some in positions of influence time will tell on that account.

In some translations of this psalm, vileness is rendered that which is worthless and that we do value on a social and cultural level. Why are enough people paying attention to anything the members of the Kardashian family do that they are featured on covers of magazines every week, mentioned in every news feed? We binge watch all manner of entertainment, invest energy and attention in such meaningless contexts as The Voice or Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. I don’t even want to start on HGTV.

2017 Inaguration

But wickedness and vileness is in the eye of the beholder. What seems wrong and even evil to one may seem good and right in the mind of another. Who is to say which is true and which is not when each claims his own perspective as the correct one?

2009 Inauguration

We can no longer even agree on what the facts of a situation are. Studies in the weeks since the inauguration people who voted for Trump are choosing to disregard established facts of the inauguration crowd photos from 2009 and 2016 to support Trump’s claim that his is the photo with the largest crowd. When wanting something to be true is enough to make it so, what is left for a standard to determine what is real and factual? Garry Trudeau’s “My Facts” call center in Doonesbury seems almost prescient.

And what is worthless if someone values it, whether rightly or even wrongly? Who is any one among us to tell another what she values is, in reality, trash? If the Kardashian tribe or HGTV provides something of value to someone, then maybe it has value after all. If rooting for or voting for one competitor over another in any competition provides some meaning or purpose or focus for someone, then there is some value. Just like with facts, who can say what is truly worthy and what is worthless for anyone else? Do we value even a common center, point of reference enough to seek one?

There are people of faith proclaiming that Donald J. Trump is God’s man for our times, that his election as president was God’s doing, God’s will. As the Persian emperor Cyrus was a pagan leader used for God’s purposes, they explain, so God will use Trump whether he is truly a believer or not. There are people of faith who see his behaviors and actions, his words and policy proposals as contrary to the ways of God. For them, Trump’s will and ways are often in direct opposition to what they discern of God’s will. Christians of sincere faith disagree – and who is to say which side speaks God’s truth, truly understands God’s ways?

The psalmist doesn’t stand apart from the community in this lament. There is no one left … The faithful have disappeared … humankind … everyone … the language exempts no one. Yet there is some us/them language. Us are those trying to seek God’s ways; them are those seeking their own ways apart from God. But even those who are seeking may not have it right.

Perhaps that is the way out of the right or wrong, true or false conundrum: an honest, humble recognition that seeking is all we can do; certainty may ever elude us. We cannot be certain where God is in this or what God is doing. We can only trust that God is present in this somehow and search as best we can for signs of God’s movement. But we do so with the knowledge that we are not God and it is not our place to dictate to God, to demand God do our will. Instead, we are to let go of anything that is not God – including our established ways, our institutions, and even the world as we have known it, built it, wanted it to be.  Rather than twist Jesus and his teachings to match our desired ends, the call to follow Jesus means fitting our lives, our words, our wills to the example that he has set for us as best we are able.  Lent is upon us.  It’s time to walk the hard wilderness road, following where Jesus leads.

Turn us again, O God… May your justice shine like the sun and the poor be lifted up.

(from the Lenten dialog for Evening Prayer)

 

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Cycles … Advent … Elections …”The Second Coming”

lav-pillar-2Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, during the aftermath of World War I. American history books don’t attend to this, but “the war to end all wars” was not only a profound social-political crisis for Europe; it was a spiritual and theological one as well. Throughout the whole conflict, the front line only moved a mile or so in either direction. The techniques of trench warfare unleashed a number of horrors that prompted many to ask how good, Christian men of enlightened, modern nations could do such hellacious things to one another. Yeats ponders this sense that world has been so profoundly shaken that what has been can no longer be and what may yet be cannot be imagined …

images-5Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer…

 

The gyre refers to the ancient concept of the wheel of time. Life cycles through the wheel of time. The task of life is to stay on the wheel and move with the cycles. But what if the wheel spins off center? In such times of profound dislocation, it feels as though the wheel has lost its center, spinning and whirling off course and out of control. A falcon that cannot hear the call of the falconer has lost the point of reference for directions, the guide to the way home. Likewise, in a time of such profound dislocation, any sense of rootedness or grounding seems lost.

images-6Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …

While a number of lines from the poem have been quoted in some form or used as titles, this may be the best known line from the poem. When people have been asking “Can the center hold?”, this is what the question refers to … because if the center of a spinning wheel does not hold, everything flies apart. Think about swinging and object tied to a string around and around; what happens if you suddenly let go or the object becomes free of the string? It flies off in some direction – and may do a fair amount of damage if it hits something.

Can the center hold? That has been a question in our national, and even local, political life for some time now. Once upon a time, I’ve heard (as I was too young to observe such things at the time), the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader would travel by taxicab together to speaking events, discussing along the way the points each would raise at the event. Then afterwards, they would get into the same taxicab and go out for a drink together. Could you imagine such a thing happening today?

When President George H. W. Bush failed to win a second term in 1992, even if Senator Bob Dole had dared to think it, he would never have stated publicly to anyone that the top priority for Republicans would be to make Bill Clinton a one-term president, as Senator Mitch McConnell said in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.

Maybe some of it had to do with the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in the Reagan Era, which allowed the rise of voices like Rush Limbaugh and others of what came to be conservative talk radio and eventually gave rise to Fox News. Maybe some of it has to do with fighting between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party with neither willing to become separate in the way that the Green Party led to the separation of the ultra-liberals from the less extreme elements of the Democratic Party. Maybe some of it has to do with Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America” during the mid-term election in 1994, raising up new Republican members of congress to oppose Clinton’s agenda. Maybe some of it has to do with the rising profile of the Green Party, which drew voters from the Democrats in 2000 and caused the party to appeal more to the far left in efforts to garner more votes.

488px-2000prescountymap2Whatever the reason, studies show that where there was once a fair amount of overlap between the Republicans and Democrats in terms of policies in the 1960s and 70s (when Republican Senator Bob Dole helped author the Food Stamps program), there now is little – if any – overlap between the two. Each seems more interested in opposing the other rather than seeking common ground where policies can be built to the benefit of people in this country. The center is gone. Each side views everything – and everyone – in black-or-white terms. Either you’re a liberal or a conservative. If you don’t agree with my position, then you must be on the opposite side. If you’re not conservative or liberal enough, then you’re an apostate. There’s no place in either sphere for moderates or the less-than pure.

Neither Bob Dole nor Tom Daschle would have dared delay a vote on a Supreme Court nomination by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush by citing a need to defer to the next president (or the next election) as Mitch McConnell did this year in defiance of clear constitutional directives and all precedent. But McConnell’s purely partisan maneuver met with nothing but approval from conservatives (despite their avowed devotion to the Constitution).

Is there any center left to hold? It seems not. Everything is put in terms of “us versus them” in a zero-sum, winner-take-all battle. When George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won just enough of the Electoral College vote in 2000, he recognized he did not have a majority or any sort of mandate. He understood the frustrations with the election outcome and recognized the need for deliberate outreach to build connections and find some common ground.   Despite the similar outcome in this year’s election, the President-elect and his party speak of a mandate that they clearly (by any objective measure) do not have. They won and so all those who wanted someone else in office must now come to agree with the winners.

The divides were so distinct in the recent election … rural is “red”, urban is “blue” … the oldest generation skews strongly one way, the youngest one is as strongly the opposite … college–educated voters head in one direction, the non-college-educated in the other … it’s “elites” verses the “real people” and never the twain shaIl meet because neither (we are told) can possibly understand the other. The respective worlds are too far apart. Where is a middle way? Where is some center point where common ground can be found? It appears there is none to be had. And if the center is lost, then things, of necessity, fall apart.

imagestw71gql6Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This is a reflection of what we have just been through … “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

untitled-5Many critiques have been made of Hillary Clinton over the years. Most were over-exaggerated at best and dishonest at the worst. However, one that is true is that she seemed to lack core convictions. Every policy was carefully thought out in advance … and just as carefully vetted and nuanced to appeal to as many while offending as few as possible. Her slowness to respond until she’s tested the wind and the waters gives the perception that she lacks any solid convictions. Although she is most authentic when she talks about her faith and the impact it’s had on her life, she’s always been reluctant to speak of it. That’s unfortunate because it is the source of the actual convictions she has.

Passionate intensity fueled both the rise in prominence of Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump and the other major contenders in the Republican contest this year (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio). For Bernie, at least, that intensity is consistent with who he has always been, the causes he has always pressed for.   The passionate intensity is an expression of who he is and what he does. For President-elect Trump, that passionate intensity was useful in winning the election. Now that he has accomplished his goal, he has little interest in things that aroused such passionate intensity in his supporters: building a wall tens of feet high all along the southern border … pursuing a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton (despite the fact that numerous investigations over the years have found nothing with which to charge her) … bringing back waterboarding “and worse” for captured terror suspects… completely repealing the Affordable Care Act. All of these have fallen to the backburner or have been significantly modified for the incoming Trump administration, no doubt to the disappointment of all those who voted for him because they shared the passionate intensity he voiced on these issues.

160118134132-donald-trump-nigel-parry-large-169Donald Trump is yet to be sworn in as the next president and his proposed cabinet is only beginning to take shape. However, despite the promises of bringing in top-tier, high caliber, “the best” people for positions, his selections so far are well below those promises. Jeff Sessions, who was unable to garner enough votes from a Republican majority for a federal judiciary appointment, as Attorney General … Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has done no development of housing stock or businesses, is being considered for Housing and Urban Development … Nicky Haley, governor from a small state with little international connection or experience (other than being the daughter of immigrants), for UN Ambassador … Betsy DeVos, an opponent of public education with a demonstrated determination to advance an agenda rather than cultivate public policies (the most recent evidence of which is her sudden reversal of her prior support for the Common Core), for Secretary of Education … these are not the brightest and the best that Trump was promising.

All indications, so far, are that Jeb Bush was correct in his assessment of Trump as a “chaos candidate” who will “be a chaos president.” But when things are falling apart, chaos is a given. Anarchy, too, is a form of chaos. Our nation is now 240 years old; the US Constitution a little more than a decade less at 227 years. Nothing lasts forever. All things eventually come to an end. Chaos and even some anarchy may be a necessary part of the undoing and remaking part. But remaking into what?

imagesqj79u5wySurely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Longing for the Second Coming, for Jesus to return and finally make everything right, the poet describes the Sphinx of the Egyptian desert, animated by the spirit of the world. This is no answer from God, but rather an expression of the earth itself. It is animated just like the Sphinx of myth, which never gave answers, only questions posed in riddles. However, this one does not even pose a question. Is the world itself indifferent to the chaos of the present? The reeling shadows of the desert birds echo the lost falcon of the first line and drive home the point that there is no clear answer, no stable center to return to, no way back to what once was. But if this is the present, then what of the future? The poet reaches back beyond the present to the far past …

imagesv0ra2oreThe darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is the only revelation to be had: twenty centuries (or two thousand years) … a rocking cradle … and a beast slouching to Bethlehem, waiting for a birth. A birth … Bethlehem … the time of the early 20th Century – all these indicate the poet is pointing toward Jesus. Rough beast might call to mind the donkey that carried Mary on her journey to Bethlehem where her promised son, the Savior, would be born. But if it’s the rough beast itself waiting to be born … then where does that point?

Advent 1We journey into Advent in each new liturgical year by passing through Christ the King Sunday that ends the previous year. During 2017, those that follow the liturgical patterns from antiquity, closed out the third of the three annual cycles, the one that centers on the Gospel of Luke. For Christ the King Sunday this year, we read a passage from Luke’s account of the crucifixion in which Jesus is very roughed up – beaten, bleeding, starving, exhausted. Nailed to the cross, he could be described as beastly-looking.

In the revelatory language of the Bible, the term beast often refers to a nation or a ruler or a power of some kind. But words such as rough or slouching aren’t used to describe their appearance or movement. While the poet is suggesting some kind of emerging power, he doesn’t seem to mean the traditional kind. Perhaps he has in mind the “scapegoat,” the other animal used in the annual atonement ritual of the ancient Israelites. Two goats were chosen. One was slaughtered as a sacrificial offering. The other, however, had the sins of the people placed upon it by the hands of the priest. Then it was driven out into the wilderness, to Azazel, to carry away the sins of the people. The exact mechanism was never clear, nor was it clear what happened to the goat after the duty was fulfilled. Perhaps Yeats’ rough beast is the scapegoat, having fulfilled its mission, slouching back to the people who sent it out.

Were we to ask the poet which of these it is, though, he would likely say, “Yes.” Poets and their poems can be that way, I’ve heard. But Yeats was an Irish Protestant and the last part of the poem is rich with layered Biblical imagery … as is the turn towards seeking a revelation that comes before this. It feels like the end of the world, but is it? Could the long-anticipated second coming finally be at hand? Maybe … but rather than point forward, the poem reaches back toward Bethlehem, where Christ the Savior was born. If you’re looking for some sort of revelation, the poem seems to suggests, Jesus is all you’re getting.

This is the advent movement – looking backward and forward at the same time. It’s a preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ and at the same time a reminder to prepare for Christ to come again. It’s a reminder that the promised deliverer came in obscurity to a poor family in a backwater village rather than among the powerful in their castles. It is a reminder that way Jesus lived and taught is the way things are to be when the world returns to God’s intentions. It is a reminder that Jesus died and rose to bring the world as God dreams it into the world that is today. We who would be followers of this Jesus are called to do the same, to work for the same dream.

IMG_0081So where does that leave us as 2016 winds down and 2017 approaches with a mixed bag of hope and fear, promises and risks … when for some it already seems the like the end of the world is possible (much like Yeats in his poem) and for others it may seem things are finally turning the right direction (illusory though that sense may be)?

Nothing in the world (or even the world itself) can last forever. Things change … sometimes slowly, other times rapidly, but always moving and shifting. Any person, any structure, any system we might want to use as a focus of stability will, sooner or later, shift or change or disappoint or fail. If it is time for things to come apart, we’d be foolish to fight against that. Falling apart, chaos, upheaval and destruction are necessary parts of re-making. It is that re-making that is a better focus for our energies and efforts.

But what shall we use as a guide? Perhaps, as the poet suggests, we might slouch … stumble … stagger back to Bethlehem, see what is born there, and try once more to learn.

AMERICAN CRIME WILL BE BACK!

images-4 There isn’t much TV that I watch consistently. In fact, I haven’t checked out any of the new shows that have debuted as this new season starts. But I am looking forward to the January-February mid-season interim when American Crime will be back for a third season. The decision to go ahead with a third season was made back in May, but I only learned of it a few weeks ago … and recently heard the third season will be based on an actual crime that has a Minnesota link.

American Crime has been a favorite among critics in both of its seasons (so far) and has garnered multiple nominations for Emmys in each of them. It was expected, but still disappointing, that at the 2016 Emmy Awards back in September HBO’s similarly named series based on the OJ Simpson trial of 1994 walked away with all the awards for limited series – except for Best Supporting Actress, which went to American Crime’s Regina King for a second year in a row. In all fairness, the OJ story was a riveting spectacle that played out in real time on TV as the actual events unfolded. Undoubtedly, the dramatized retrospective was even better, having been tailored specifically for a TV audience. The slew of awards for HBO’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story certainly added some much needed diversity to the parade of winners. But for an exploration of crime, the impacts on all involved, and the question of what is justice, nothing tops American Crime. This is TV that will make you feel and make you think.

This is not yet-another police procedural, neither a whodunit nor a how-catch-em, focused on the work of clever detectives. It’s not a courtroom drama where persuasive attorneys force the truth to come out through gripping testimony or well-written arguments. The police, detectives, lawyers (whether prosecutors or defenders) are bit parts in this series. Instead, what has unfolded in each of the two seasons is a deep dive into the impacts of a crime on the victims, on the accused, on their families and the community. The stories press the question “What is justice in this situation?” but never offer any easy answers.

untitled-2The first season revolved around the murder of a husband and the violent assault on his wife. She had been left in critical condition, but although she did ultimately survive, she was unable to provide any information about the attack that killed her husband and nearly killed her. The groups of suspects connected to the crime included two Hispanic males (one only a teen), a black male, and a white female. Suspicion quickly focused on the sole black male (Carter, played by Elvis Nolasco). Rather than consider the role that her son’s drug dealing might have played in his death, the victim’s mother, Barb (played by Felicity Huffman), kept pressing to have the event considered a hate crime, arguing that her son was killed and her daughter-in-law was attacked because they were white. We never did learn for certain who did the killing, although we certainly saw Aubry (played by Caitlin Gerard), the white girlfriend of prime suspect Carter, become violent when her boyfriend was threatened. Near the end of the story, she confessed to the killing in order to spare her beloved Carter. That may have been the truth, but there was never any definitive statement within the storytelling that the truth was out at last. In the very end, Aubry killed herself in the state mental health facility where she’d been sentenced in her plea deal … after learning that her beloved Carter was dead … having been shot by the distraught father of the victim (Timothy Hutton) … who then killed himself, having reached the limits of his own abilities to cope with what had happened and having no support for rebuilding his life. The other characters were left with somewhat lesser levels of upheaval and devastation … and only a few had some small hope for a better future.

This past season, the crime story was even more complicated and the questions about what would be justice for those involved were even harder to answer ….

untitled-3From the opening sequence in the gym of Leland High School, a fictional tony private school in Indianapolis (capitol city of the basketball-crazed state of Indiana), it’s clear there’s something about Eric (played by Joey Pollari) as we watch him very hesitantly place his hand on the back of teammate and co-captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) as they work on Eric’s defense under the watchful eye of Coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton). The basketball team is practicing … and so are the cheerleaders. A few students are sitting in the bleachers watching the goings-on. Among them is a student named Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), who is scrolling through his Facebook feed on his phone. We are given glimpses of the pictures and comments but not enough to be certain what exactly has been posted. A flashback reveals Taylor is a charity case at the school, a capable student who could go onto college (meaning great things) if he’d apply himself a bit more in his classes. But then we discover Taylor is being expelled. He only tells his mom, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor), that he wants to go back to his previous public school – but not why. She finds out he’s been expelled for behaviors that violate the school conduct policy – but not what the behaviors were. In desperation, Anne meets with Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy (Angelique Rivers), who reluctantly shows her the pictures on social media of an obviously intoxicated Taylor at a party … pictures that show evidence of vomiting, complete loss of self-control, possibly taken while Taylor was barely conscious or even unconscious. Evy was at the party with Taylor, but she and Taylor were soon separated for some time. Although she isn’t sure exactly what happened to Taylor, she is certain “somebody messed with him” … a certainty Taylor also expresses when his mom confronts him about what she’s seen. Armed with this knowledge, Anne returns to the school to meet again with the director, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman). At this meeting, Anne states that her son was raped at the basketball team’s Captains’ Party. Leslie takes notes as Anne talks and then asks her to sign the last page under a hand-written statement that Anne is agreeing to abide by the school’s disciplinary policy and will seek no further action. Leslie then talks to Dan, urging him “to have a talk” with his team. images-3The coach is reluctant, but he mentions what he’s been told at the end of the team meeting and invites anyone who knows what happened to come tell him. No one does (of course). When Anne checks back with Leslie and learns that it’s been handled as far as the school is concerned, she calls 911 to report the rape of her son Taylor.

The first season started with the immediate aftermath of the crime. So does the second, but it takes the whole first episode for the crime to be revealed. What follows is the usual intricacies of investigating and trying to prove sexual assault (something we’ve seen played out in real life and dramas many times over) with the added complications that significant time has passed since the assault and that the situation involves two males … and how deep does anyone really want to dig when money, power, and the popularity of championship sports team are involved? A number of people try to do the right things, like Anne, Evy, the investigators, Taylor’s counselor. Others are mostly trying to look out for themselves … Kevin’s parents (a wealthy Black couple played by Regina King and Andre L. Benjamin), Leslie, Dan, the rest of the team and others connected with the school.

What comes to light is messy. The assault happened at the Captains’ Party, an annual tradition for the basketball team that involves alcohol, drugs, and team members “making the team” by having sex at the party. Co-captain Eric invited Taylor to the party for the purpose of having sex. Prior to the party, he and Taylor exchanged text messages discussing sexual activity. But does flirtatious texting beforehand constitute consent in the actual moment? Although Taylor willingly accepted a beer at the party, it’s clear the beer he was given contained some kind of drug. Does the fact he was drugged negate any consent he might have given previously (if the use of alcohol alone weren’t enough to remove the possibility of consent)?

images-2As for Eric, Taylor’s accused rapist, his situation is just as complicated. No one on the team knew Eric was gay until it became clear he was the one Taylor was accusing. As everything becomes public, Eric attempts suicide. The revelation of Eric’s homosexuality leads to increased turmoil in Eric’s already fragile family and increased tensions within the larger community as Leslie attempts to use Eric to demonstrate the school’s commitment to inclusivity. Ultimately the disclosure leads to direct insults at the next basketball game from the opposing team and its fans, a game that ends in a loss for the Leland Knights, the regular state champs.

While Eric and Taylor struggle in their separate ways to cope with what happened, the incident sets off ripples throughout the community. Kevin is the only team member of legal age, so he’s the only one who can be named in reports. His parents, Terri (a high-powered management level professional) and Michael (an architect), have the money to hire a good attorney who’s able to offer competent advice. imagesThey also have a friend in the police department who is able to provide them with advanced warnings as the investigation proceeds. Eric’s dad asks them to help for his son as well, but they refuse. Leslie frets about the potential impacts of the crime on the school’s upcoming fundraising gala. Dan tries to hold the team together at the school while balancing tensions in his own home between his worrisome teenage daughter (one of the cheerleaders) and his pot-addled wife who punts all the heavy-lifting of parenting onto him. Eric’s brother attends the same public school that Taylor returns to where the embattled principal, Chris (Elvis Nolasco), is trying to navigate tensions that pit one ethnic group’s interest against another for the limited resources available to the school. These conflicts are brought to a boiling point around a situation that involves Evy. Only late in the story do we learn that Evy was touched in a sexual way by a student at the school – igniting tensions between her circle of friends and the guy who touched her. It’s a secret she keeps for most of the story … adding insight to Taylor’s reluctance to disclose what happened to him.

After having been rejected by Evy when his sexual orientation is exposed, Taylor reunites with his first boyfriend once he’s back at the public school. He’s seeing a counselor, but he isn’t cooperating with his counselor or working towards healing. Mostly, he just wants to clear the air with Eric and move on with his own life. After the basketball game at which insults directed at Eric are hurled at the whole team, Kevin shoots off his mouth with some of his teammates, characterizing Taylor as a bitch who needs to be taught a lesson. The other teammates convince Eric to text Taylor, asking to meet him at a playground. Eager to finally be able to talk to Eric, Taylor goes to the playground and is badly beaten by several members of the basketball team.

untitledWe wish Taylor would go to the police with what happened … or at least tell his mom … or confide in his counselor … or even just try to follow his counselor’s guidance. But instead he hides out with his boyfriend, not wanting to be seen until his bruises are gone.

Throughout the story, Eric engages in hook-ups with guys who drive hot cars, exchanging sexual favors for some time in a car he’d like to have. As happens in real life, people misrepresent themselves on hook-up apps and one such hook-up turns out to be a dad with a minivan. Their encounter quickly turns violent and Eric has to fight his way out of the minivan. He’s badly shaken and we never learn what condition he left the other man in.

Things turn even worse for everyone when Taylor, partially recovered from his beating, steals a gun from the family friends who have been like foster parents to him … buys some drugs from the coach’s daughter (marijuana and pain killers she’s stolen from her mother’s stash) … and concludes that the solution to his situation is to kill Leslie. He goes to the school, but she’s out of the office, giving a speech at a conference. Finally, after some consoling words from the secretary, Taylor decides to leave.  As he makes his way across campus, he encounters one of the basketball players who assaulted him at the playground. The player gets in Taylor’s face and yells “Didn’t I tell you if you ever showed your face around here again, I’d kill you?” To everyone’s surprise, Taylor pulls the gun from his jacket pocket and shoots the other student. He dies … and now Taylor is facing murder charges.

As the series winds to a close, Taylor is preparing to accept a plea deal instead of pursuing a defense strategy that would emphasize his trauma in a plea of self-defense. Eric, after having been confronted by his dad about the “dates” he goes on, is preparing to hook up with yet another guy in a hot car. Does Taylor take the plea deal? Does Eric get in the car? We’re left with those questions … along with the question of what would truly be justice in this situation

What would truly help Taylor find healing and peace after what has been done to him: the assaults (physical and sexual), the betrayals by people he was supposed to trust, the unjust expulsion? He is a good kid to whom a number of terrible things have happened. What will help him back on the path he was brutally knocked off of? What will give him hope and open the door to a good future?

And what is justice for Eric? Luring Taylor to the party and ensuring his compliance with drugged beer was cruel … so was rejecting Taylor afterwards, claiming embarrassment by how Taylor was acting under the influence, embarrassment from the photos of that episode posted on social media. But Eric has his own torments and problems, starting with rejection and condemnation from his parents … and then the public shaming from others in the community. Where can Eric find love and acceptance and help navigating the transition to manhood as a gay man?

And what are the roles of the adults in this? The Captains’ Party is an established tradition for the basketball team. Surely the coach must know something about the event and the goings-on. The school director is also turning a blind eye because a winning coach who brings home championship banners also helps bring in the donations her school needs. Money protects Kevin and his parents to some degree … but in the end Terri’s bosses at the firm find the lengths she went to in order to protect her son embarrassing and she’s offered a lateral move to a different city or an exit package … suggesting that race ultimately trumps money nearly every time.

Money, race, class, privilege … who is valued for what and who is overlooked … who matters and who doesn’t … all these currents swirl though the stories of American Crime and add complexity to the question of just what is justice in these situations for all involved. The open-ended conclusions of the stories with no hint of closure drive the question home. Producer and writer John Ridley (with help from a pool of talent) demonstrates that his Oscar for writing Twelve Years a Slave was no fluke.

untitled-4This season, Emmy nods went to Lili Taylor as Anne, Felicity Huffman as Leslie, and Regina King as Terri (the second time in a row for the latter two … and Ms. King has won the Emmy both years). Timothy Hutton is as excellent as he has been since his Oscar-winning debut decades ago in Ordinary People. But overlooked in the nominations were the outstanding performances by Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari as the characters at the heart of this drama. Both delivered powerful, gusty, unflinching performances in very difficult roles neither of which were truly hero or villain.

Completely overlooked in reviews and awards for this second season were the choreographer and dancers. Several scenes in early episodes were set around the high school’s dance company rehearsing for a performance at the fundraiser gala where the piece was performed in its entirety. The dance number was an exploration of humanity, sexuality, power, and consent that offered wordless commentary on the story in a highly effective way.

If you missed the first seasons of American Crime, spend some time catching up — and be watching come January!

Good Tidings, Dear People — One More Time

I’m indebted to pastor & author Walter Wangerin, Jr.  for the title line (which also appears in the text) as well as for the indentifier “the fear-not angel.”  I also want to acknowledge my mom for the theological insight she gave me twenty-some years ago…

Nativity - GR 1We’re here tonight because it’s Christmas Eve … because this is just what we do. It’s tradition, after all. And like all traditions, it’s not about any one thing; it’s the whole constellation of things. It’s the memories that are wrapped around the specifics like Silent Night will soon be wrapped around our little candles. It’s the togetherness of family – the memories of being children … then adults … then parents with our little ones. It’s a touchpoint as the year winds down – a night to watch and ponder. It’s a moment of stillness and peace amid the frenzy that is our cultural holiday celebration, a time to relax between all the preparations and tomorrow’s gifting and feasting. And it’s a story.

143897fbdf2d8499b1953c50e78e9628We are here tonight for the story … so often-told we know it by heart … perhaps best told by the child’s voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, reciting a part of that story straight out of the good ol’ King James Version. It’s the story we sing in our beloved hymns tonight – the reason why those hymns are beloved. It’s a story of a wondrous baby, stars and angels with a few other characters tossed in like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out in their fields. So long as Jesus is lovingly tucked into that manger-bed and the angels sing their glorias, then, at least for this night, all is truly right and beautiful in the world.

untitled (2)We need that tonight as much as ever we did – and maybe even more – because so much is not right in this world. Where to start? We’ve seen pictures this year of other little babies washed up on shorelines half a world away. We’ve heard the stories from their devastated parents of the terrible risks they’d taken to find a place of safety after being driven from their homes by war and mayhem.

09-04-2015Refugees_FYROMWe know the violence that drives such desperate choices. We’ve experienced the terror such violence produces as it spilled into Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. We ponder the toll this violence takes on families here in our country as our service men and women continue to serve in these war-torn lands, as we add up the loss of lives and the battle damage that never fully heals. We wonder if our military efforts are helping or hurting. Would more troops help or should we just get out?

Military action elsewhere isn’t the only source of violence that haunts us. We’ve seen a number of mass shootings here in our land this year. images (3)One of the most shocking was the slaying of nine people in the sanctuary of “Mother” Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young man did it to act out his racist perspectives, citing the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as his wake-up call.

Touching on that subject, we are becoming more aware of the number of people of color, mostly young males, almost always unarmed, who have been killed by police or died while in police custody. We’ve seen it happen recently here in the untitled (3)Twin Cities and yesterday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sought to raise awareness of the struggles people of color face when it comes to matters of justice and equality. A seemingly endless litany of demographic statistics around income, education, housing, you-name-it shows these inequalities are not simply a matter of perception.

Tonight, in our city of Saint Paul, families are doubled up with others or sleeping in cars or huddled anywhere they can be out of the elements for the night. The shelters are full and there is no room to be had. ChristmasTreeRents keep rising and housing that’s affordable to low-wage earners is harder and harder to come by. Supposedly our economy has recovered from the recession, but most of us aren’t feeling it.

I know … this is supposed to be a happy, joyous time and I’m really not trying to deprive you of that happiness and joy or to depress you. But this is the situation that surrounds us as we gather tonight to tell that story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And if that story doesn’t speak into these times in which we live, to the world we know, then it won’t mean much of anything.

So let me tell you another story – a true story. As stories go, it’s neither unique nor unusual. It could have happened five years ago or fifty years ago; it could have happened almost anywhere.

WIN_20151227_181315A new grandmother was watching as her own daughter cradled the new little baby boy who had made the daughter into a mother and the mother into a grandmother. “You know,” the grandmother remarked to her daughter, “watching you with him I wonder if this was what it was like to see Mary with Jesus.” “Mom!” the daughter protested, “I’m sure Baby Jesus never pulled his mother’s hair or kicked her when she was trying to feed him.” But the grandmother smiled back with a wry, knowing smile that seems to come with being a grandmother. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said; “I think he just might have.”

Yes, Jesus just might have done those things. Sure, he was quiet that first night – worn out from the process of being born as any other newborn is … for a while. But he probably wasn’t quiet the next night or for many more after that. As he grew, he was probably as rambunctious as any other toddler … and got into as much trouble as your average growing boy. We know there was some consternation on Mary and Joseph’s part when Jesus up and decided all on his own to stay back in Jerusalem after Passover and not tell anyone his plans.

No, Jesus wasn’t a perfect angel baby. Jesus was a human baby who was born as all of us are, who grew as all of us do, who experienced human life in all of its complexity and messiness. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God was rolling up the holy sleeves and plunging wholeheartedly into human existence and all that life in this world involves. Jesus didn’t come because we finally got it all together or fixed ourselves up enough that all we needed was a slightly better model of perfection. God broke into the world in Jesus because it’s a mess, because our lives in this world are a mess.

Tea Lt 3So let me tell you another story … one that might be a bit different in the telling, but familiar nonetheless. It did happen a long time ago, but within a span of years we can reckon. It did not take place in some galaxy far, far away but in an area we still map today. In the days of the Roman Empire, when Augustus ruled as emperor and decreed a census, and so the whims and the demands of the empire set people moving about.

That’s why Joseph had to travel south, from his home in Nazareth to a city called Bethlehem, because his ancestral roots ran there. But over the many years between the time of David the Shepherd Boy who became king and the time of Joseph and Mary and Augustus and Quirinius in neighboring Syria, Joseph’s people had been moved about by exile and return and other needs. Hence, it wasn’t just Joseph; a lot of people were having to move about to satisfy the demands of the empire.

Joseph had to leave his home and he took his very pregnant wife with him. Why? Who knows! Maybe he didn’t want to miss the baby’s birth. Maybe he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to return from Bethlehem (especially if he spent all the little money he had for that initial trip). Maybe Mary having her baby away from their hometown would blunt the counting of the months between their hurried-up wedding and the birth of her child and allow the local gossip chain to settle down.

imagesA3F5A19LIn any case, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and there she gave birth to her baby. Like any mother, she wrapped him tight in what cloth she had to keep him snug and warm. Then she laid him in an animal’s feed box for a bassinet because there was no shelter for them, except with the animals. No one took any notice. People such as these don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.

imagesA07EVF73Now somewhere outside of town, there were some working stiffs up on the night shift. It was to them that the angel of God appeared as the stars overhead seemed to explode into a myriad of heavenly beings. This messenger of God said to them: Don’t be afraid; I have good news that brings great joy – first to you and then to everyone else. To you a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. This is the messiah, the one sent by God to put the world to rights. You’ll find the baby wrapped up like any other, but this one is lying in a feed box. Then the angels sang their glorias and the working stiffs went to see. And when they had seen, they told everyone they met about what they’d seen, what they’d heard. Maybe a few listened … maybe.

What God did some two thousand years ago, God could do again. God broke into this world then and God can break into it now. After all, you really didn’t think God went through all that coming in Jesus just to leave us all on our again, did you? Of course not! In the incarnation, by coming to us in Jesus, God has demonstrated a dedication to this world that God made and continues to love. Trio 10In Jesus’ living and teaching, in his dying and his rising, God acted to put the world back on a course toward the dream God has had for this world and life in it from the moment of creation.  God is still at work in this world to bring that dream to life in the here and now. You just need to know where to look.

What does the story tell you? It wasn’t to the big names like Augustus or Quirinius and their wives that Jesus was born. Instead, the holy child was born to a peasant couple whose names would otherwise have been completely lost to history if not for this story. It wasn’t in the halls of power in the palace or the temple where the messengers of God sang the glorious good news. It was to no-name laborers out in the fields, outside of town and society. If you want to see what God is doing, look there … among the forgotten, neglected, and rejected, those at the margins and on the outside. There you will find Emmanuel, God with us – for God has come to us.

So sing your glad songs. Gather around the table; eat the bread and drink the wine. Take the real presence of Christ into your own flesh and bones. Light your candles and sing the sweet song. Then blow that small flame in – not out, in – into you, God’s love now made flesh in you. untitled (2)Then go out like the shepherds and tell all you meet what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. Go out as fear-not angels, singing out the good news of great joy which is for all the people, for you and everyone else. Christ is born. God is with us.

Good tidings, dear people, one more time. Amen.

A Prayer for Peace

Trio 7A Prayer for Peace…

… On the occasion of the 2015 National Vigil to #EndGunViolence

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Saint Paul, Minnesota

December 9, 2015

 

O Lord our God, maker of all things… Hear your children as we pray by the many names with which we cry out to you. Though we and this world in which we live may be broken, frightened, despairing, you do not abandon us to the threatening darkness. Down through the ages, time and time again, with the varied voices, your prophets have insisted that your ways are marked by compassion and love, mercy and peace. Stir us up in this time and place, O God, that we may declare your message in this time and place, your holy calling to turn from the ways of violence and fear, to choose the way live and do those things that make for peace … for salaam … for shalom … for your vision of live. The peace you call us to – to live for and to work for – is more than an absence of violent actions. It is life for all – IMG_0098life in which all would dwell in safety and security, life where there is enough for all and no one is left neglected or in need, life without fear. Give us your power to live in that shalom, that salaam, that peace. Grant us to the courage to say boldly in these troubled times that there is a better way. Fill us with hope and courage to walk from this place in this way of peace. Hear us as we pray and grant us your life and your peace. Amen.