It’s been a few weeks … and so much has happened. Yet, maybe not so surprisingly, a number of items that have been pending for my unwritten recaps these past few weeks are still relevant.
First was the sudden (but not the least bit unexpected) firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Current Occupant of the Oval Office or no, Tillerson has been inept in his role. But the firing was done in the brutal, ham-handed way that is the trademark of the Current Occupant. His departure plus other recent ones plus rumors of more to come have once more made it clear that chaos is “business as usual” for the Current Occupant. However, despite the traction the chaos narrative finds, the chaos itself is not the the problem; it is that underlying issue that is the root problem in the White House these days. Read on to find out what that is:
But that’s just how he does things, right? One person’s chaos is another’s creative, stimulating environment. Is it just a matter of perception and personal style? While chaos can be creative and encouraging conflict can be a way of surfacing the best ideas, it takes real leadership skills to do this effectively. Is that really what’s happening in the White House? Here’s a two-fer that offers some insights:
Speaking of chaos, one of the big developments in the last few weeks — that’s quickly disappearing under the firings and rumors and the Stephanie Clifford lawsuits (and sordid details) — is the Current Occupant’s decision to impose tariffs on imported steel … and then Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn resigned. These are not encouraging signs and these two pieces explain why:
In a more recent economic development this week, iconic megastore chain Toys ‘R’ Us is going our of business. Most of the coverage regards this as just the latest example of traditional bricks-and-mortar retail failing to adapt to the modern era of Amazon. But there’s more to this story that just that … and more to it than the declining interest in actual toys as touchscreens become ubiquitous — even for tots. “We are all Toys ‘R’ Us and the vultures are hungry…” Read on to find out why:
This week also marked one month since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. State legislatures are in full swish across the land … and changes in gun regulations are being introduced, debated … maybe even given a vote. On the national level, Congress, with full cooperation from the Current Occupant and the White House, is doing the usual slow-walk in hopes the furor will subside in the near future. Why can’t we change the policies in ways the vast majority of Americans want? The NRA justly gets much of the blame and this two-fer explores why and how. The Radio Lab is well worth a listen, but it is over an hour. However, the history detailed in the podcast is referenced in the Vox piece.
Students walked out of schools across the country this past Wednesday as a call to action. Some countered by telling them to walk in and reach out to the marginalized and bullied in their midst to better prevent future shootings. Others called this victim blaming. Why does it have to be either-or? The real solutions that can prevent future school shootings require both-and. The author of this piece takes us into his real life experience as a teenager who might have become another Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or Nikolas Cruz. It’s a powerful reminder that Nikolas Cruz is not a monster; he really is a teenager with a very difficult life — and a very real, very human being.
Well … it’s been a week and then some. Hard to remember that a mere seven days ago we were wondering about the drops in the stock market and what that might mean … and the current administration was preparing to focus on infrastructure … while the Senate was having open discussion/debate on immigration proposals (first to reach 60 votes, wins … assuming, of course, something could).
But as the week progressed so did the most recent iteration from the scandal factory (also known as the White House) pushed the planned agenda to the side … and then another unthinkable school shooting happened (something that also occurs with appalling regularity) … and the routine bluster from the current occupant of the Oval Office blew off any chance of a deal on immigration.
So here’s my six (or so) from the week that was — if for nothing more than to call to mind some things we might lose sight of:
1. About that economy … what goes up must come down and, with that being the case, it was inevitable that the stock markets would have to come dons at some point. Things seem to have mostly recovered this week. But given the cyclic nature of economic things, sooner more likely than later, there will be another recession. The damage done to employment in many sectors by the Great Recession is going to compound the troubles of the next. Read this and be forewarned:
2. About that infrastructure … it’s been widely reported that the amount for infrastructure in the proposed budget from the current administrative collective in the White House is far too small to meet the needs. Here’s a good summary of the recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers of the current state of US infrastructure — and how much it will cost to address those needs:
3. For all kinds of reasons, we do need to talk about the latest mass shooting, this time at a high school in Florida. Yes, it really is about the guns — and this was published three months ago (just click on the Times‘ logo; it will take you there):
5. Not to be overlooked in all of the drama of this week, it’s opening weekend for the latest Marvel superhero movie — The Black Panther. Reviewers are agreeing it’s deserving the hype. However, it’s also more than “just a movie.” Here’s the two-fer for the week: two different perspectives on the cultural impact of this movie in this time:
6. And somewhere in all the mess that was last week, there was Valentine’s Day … yes, it is a largely bogus non-holiday made up for marketing purposes between Christmas and Easter. However, is a day to think about and celebrate love in all it’s forms such a bad thing? Here’s a love story to warm even a skeptic’s heart:
Two op-ed pieces appeared on the same day in the Star Tribune that addressed the topic of immigration with candor, experience, and fact. Since they appeared together, here they are as two-fer:
A couple of sticking points around immigration involve families: family reunification policies (now being called “chain-migration”) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Family reunification builds immigration policies that place a high value of the nature of families to want to be together in the same place. The DACA program was developed to allow immigrants, who were brought into the US as children, who grew up as Americans, who may have siblings who are US citizens, who have built lives and families for themselves here, to stay here. This, too, places a high value on keeping families together. This is why it is so troubling that many who publicly identify as Christians and cite “family values” as an essential aspect of their religious faith are quickly and vociferously calling for immigrant families to be shredded to pieces. Consider this perspective from Benjamin Corey:
This week also saw the annual commemoration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The title of this piece cites King, but the content speaks to driving forces the bring refugees and immigrants to our shores — and why we need people such as these:
And finally, in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Erin Wathen works the themes of King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to speak right to the discomfort of many of us who are privileged to be white and American, calling us to lean into our discomfort and face some hard truths:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
SIX FOR THE YEAR THAT WAS & THE ONE THAT’S COMING
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 …
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:
Here’s to a better 2018!
Yeah, I missed Saturday … and I still haven’t started on the holiday cards (yet). But here’s a list of pieces that might make you season just a little merrier … or a little brighter … or maybe just more peaceful.
First up, the Dominican Sisters of Mary… The sisters sing a couple of seasonal favorites. There’s also a wonderful discussion about a sense of call.
I haven’t had a chance to listen to it — yet! But after discovering this gem of an annual program when I was in seminary, I’ve made a point to find it each year. True, Hannukah has passed, but the stories read each year on Hanukah Lights are about identity and community, what it means to belong. If you’ve never heard one of these, check it out:
If the commercialization of Christmas is getting overwhelming, you might find ideas of alternatives in Krista Tippet’s essay here:
If holiday gatherings have you dreading conflicts with other members of your circle of family or friends or coworkers or whatever, this TED Radio Hour episode has some insights for a very diverse group of speakers:
And finally, if the new year is more your thing, this piece by Sharon Saltzberg has some insights on things we may need to let go of … practices we might develop for more relief in the new year:
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?
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:
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.
And finally, a good story … just because it’s really good and moving and timely for the season:
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.
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.
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
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.