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!

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.

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/16/570555334/the-dominican-sisters-of-mary-highlights-the-true-beauty-of-christmas-with-new-a

 

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:

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/06/566900064/hanukkah-lights-2017

 

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:

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/22/572791717/the-25th-anniversary-of-david-sedaris-reading-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:

https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/558307433?showDate=2017-10-27

 

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 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: 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.
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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?
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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:
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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.
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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:
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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?)
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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):
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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:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/29/tax-cut-proponents-promise-3-4-percent-growth-this-economic-milestone-shows-thats-nearly-impossible/?utm_term=.788cfe28b344

 

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.)

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/30/economy/what-congress-could-learn-kansas

 

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:

http://ww.startribune.com/let-s-bring-some-rationality-to-discussion-around-al-franken/460871993/

 

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:

http://www.startribune.com/it-may-well-be-time-for-us-to-rethink-how-we-think-about-sex/461132813/