Archive for October, 2008

posted by Amy on Oct 31

Describing how extreme laissez-faire capitalist ideology, special-interest pressure, pseudo-populist politics, military misadventures and sheer incompetence have left the U.S. economy on life support, Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz puts forth a clear, commonsense plan to regain America’s economic sanity.

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posted by Amy on Oct 30

In no other country could Barack Obama have risen so far and so fast. Such boundless possibility is what America once stood for and can stand for again. As Sen. Obama said in Feb. 2007: “For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

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posted by Amy on Oct 28

A friend of mine sent me a link to a Sean Hannity series, available on YouTube here, questioning who the “Real Barack Obama” is. I watched the first 8 minute segment. The main thrust of that one is that Saul Alinsky, and community organizing, are to be feared and loathed.

It was at a Christian social justice conference last year that I first learned about Saul Alinsky. Community organizing is, simply, empowering the disempowered, giving a voice to the voiceless, or, in biblical terms, proclaiming release to the captive and the year of the Lord’s favor. To call Saul Alinsky a radical (as if it’s a bad thing) is to proclaim oneself an oppressor of the poor.

I was recently forwarded a Wall Street Journal editorial that intoned ominously about the threat of “liberation theology,” among other things. I guess in this country we only want liberty for the Empire–for the moneyed interests. The editorial is here.

The only two places in the Bible where Jesus talks about the afterlife, he says that people will be judged by how they treat the poor, and nothing else–not whether they went to church or tithed or didn’t cheat on their wives (which is not to say that none of those things matter) but he said, “as you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did to me.” Jesus is on the side of the poor (and so are all the Hebrew prophets.) Mess with them, and you’re messing with God; not a very good strategy for supposedly righteous people.

I don’t understand why people, especially Christians, are so blind. How can they sleep at night knowing that, every day, 30,000 people on this planet die from preventable causes? How can they be so cold and inhuman? How can they self-righteously blame the poor for being poor?

I’m not saying we create a bunch of government programs to hand out money. I’m talking about humanizing, empowering, redeeming, and reclaiming people who currently subsist in hopeless circumstances. I’m saying we need a fundamental shift in moral values. Every human being on the planet has a right to life–and not just bare existence, but a decent, meaningful, peaceful, healthy life. Our country supposedly believes that. We signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. You can read it here. It’s time we started aligning our national policies and our budgets with what we claim to be our moral values. Face it, friends. We don’t even achieve that within our own borders, never mind in the rest of the world.

Just as in biblical times, we ASSUME that the rich are better than the poor. The poor even buy into that. You hear neo-cons complaining about taxes as “punishing the good people.” The “structural violence” that traps people is insidious and pervasive. This agreed superiority of the rich is one aspect of that structure.

I’m not discounting the necessity for personal responsibility. But experiments in learned helplessness (by Seligman, I think, with dogs, involving electric shock) show how cruel and unrealistic it is to expect oppressed people to have the ability to take personal responsibility all by themselves, when everything about the environment in which they attempt to function demonstrates conclusively to them that they have no power. The things they do to survive are the very things that keep them trapped in poverty and helplessness. There must be a way to resolve that. (A friend of mine says the adults are hopeless–you just have to work with the kids. He and his wife have adopted 3 Chinese orphans and, most recently, a brother and sister from a Hispanic family in Adams County, Colorado). I’m not so sure I agree with him, but I don’t know the answer. However, I suspect it has to do with building community, i.e., “community organizing.” I have no doubt it has something to do with “good news to the poor.”

Nevertheless, to be an effective “prophet to the prosperous,” somebody will have to figure out how to bring the prosperous along at a pace that won’t alienate and enrage them. They need to be shown, in ways they can understand, why it truly is more blessed to give than to receive and why and how liberation (“release to the captives”) is fundamental to Christianity.

Look for more about sabbath economics in later posts. We’re studying it in my Sunday school class.

posted by Amy on Oct 20

“Be careful what you ask for; you might get it.” We’ve all heard that, and it’s such a hackneyed cliche, the usual reaction is a wan smile (or a grimace of annoyance.) Most of the time, we do know what we want, and we can predict what might happen if we had it. Sometimes, though, we stumble into unknown territory. In those cases, getting what we want turns out to be life changing. For example, I wanted children, and I was blessed with five of them, but that made my life radically different than it would have been otherwise.

One of the most common heresies of our day is the “Prosperity Gospel,” as preached in some churches, along with the secular version of it, embodied in the book and DVD called “The Secret.” As Richard Rohr points out (here), like all heresies, there is some truth in it. The problem is that it becomes the sum total of what someone believes, which distorts it and gives it too much weight. I do believe that the things that we think and dream and imagine have a significant effect on what happens. People who envision, write about, and plan for the futures that they prefer are much more likely to hit those targets than people who never do that. You have to know where you want to go, otherwise you won’t get anywhere.

Countless witnesses have attested that when they write down goals, and visualize themselves achieving them, especially when they do that in concert with other people (often called master mind groups) they reach those goals. I saw that happen in connection with a charitable foundation for my church. In 1999, we had about $600,000 in the endowment, and we set a goal of getting it to $1 million by 2003. It was written in the minutes.  Although we also devised some written strategies for reaching the goal, and started working on them, I actually forgot about “the number.” In 2003 the value of the fund reached $1 million. It wasn’t magic. We did things to make it happen, including asking the trustees to include the foundation in a capital campaign, but it started with having the vision, and writing it down.

While “The Secret” is secular and does not say people should pray to God for that “$100,000 idea” or new Mercedes or whatever, it is my understanding that the “Prosperity Gospel” does say that. A few years ago there was a little book (which I did not read) called The Prayer of Jabez that taught people a prayer that they claim a minor biblical figure named Jabez used to get God to give him what he wanted.

Well, doesn’t Jesus say that too? “Ask and it shall be given to you.”? Yes, he does. But pay close attention to the Luke version of it. While Matthew says the Father will give “good things” to those who ask (Mt 7:11), Luke says God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Lk 11:13). Also, if you read all the discourse surrounding that verse, it’s pretty clear he’s not talking about material desires. Plus there’s all that other stuff in the Gospel about how you can’t serve God and Mammon, easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom, etc., etc. And, don’t forget, his “flock” were mostly destitute. To them, “good things” included such lofty goals as not going to bed hungry. Don’t go thinking it’s a Christian teaching, because it isn’t.

Last November I attended a Methodist social justice conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Adam Hamilton was one of the speakers. (There’s a tape of an interview with him posted on this blog.) He said something along the lines of, “Forget the Prayer of Jabez. Read this prayer every day for 45 days, and see what happens.” Then he led us in the John Wesley Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

I didn’t say it every day, but I said it pretty often. I printed off a copy of it and put it on the wall above my desk. For many years I had been praying to know God’s will, and for the power to carry it out. This prayer, by a man who lived his life in exactly the heedless and selfless way reflected in it, gave scope and depth to the little prayer that I had been saying. It realigned my thinking, as well, from “Let me know your will for me today, and give me the power to carry that out [as long as I can fit it into my busy schedule]” to something more like, “Have your own way, Lord, have your own way. You are the potter, I am the clay.”

Four months after hearing that speech, I decided to go to seminary.

posted by Amy on Oct 17

In our anxiety about the economy right now, let’s not lose sight of universal issues of fairness and justice. See how much you know about the U.S. in comparison with the rest of the world.

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posted by Amy on Oct 16

My maternal grandmother, Bertha Redfield Gagos, never graduated from high school. She married Kenneth Gagos when she was 18, and raised four daughters with him in Boulder, Colorado.  Kenneth taught chemistry at the University of Colorado for some 40 years. Although quite a few women of her generation married instead of finishing school, Bertha always felt self conscious about her limited education. Nevertheless, when her children were older she took advantage of the opportunity to audit university classes at no charge. She was intelligent, thoughtful, curious, and open minded.

At least once a month, she’d load a stack of onion skin and carbon paper into her typewriter and produce a family letter that went out in all different directions. This was one of the ways that she kept everyone connected and communicating. She was hospitable, loving and kind, and set an example to all of us of patience, faith, and devotion. She loved children, especially babies and toddlers. She was “the nursery lady” at her church, spending every Sunday for decades volunteering to cuddle and comfort other people’s children.

For her entire adult life she lived in a little house at 16th and Baseline in Boulder. She cooked, baked and canned on a wood burning stove, did laundry in an ancient semi-automatic washer that required her to transfer the wet clothes into a separate extractor compartment to wring them out, and made her own soap.

Kenneth and Bertha had a huge garden. It took up most of the lot on which the little frame house sat, plus a half lot behind it that Grandfather bought when it was auctioned for unpaid taxes. They grew an amazing array of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. They had their own variety of tomato, and they put in 100 plants a year. Kenneth’s favorite apples came from a tree that had grown from seed. They also grew grapes, plums, peaches, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. They grew carrots, green beans, corn, cabbage, bell peppers, onions, parsley, Swiss chard and other vegetables. They used organic methods and replenished the soil with compost. They canned, froze, dried and preserved their bounty. Most of the food that they ate came from that garden.

After my mother died, when I was 22, Bertha guided me through young adulthood. She gave me advice about baby and child care, inquired about my health and my studies, and helped me weather some tough times with an in-law. She never raised her voice, and never spoke ill of anyone, but she had a rock-solid center that was unshakable.

Bertha and Kenneth never had much money while they were raising their kids, but she had her own checking account. Like clockwork, she would send each grandchild $5 for every birthday. She earned her own money for that account, mostly from writing stories for magazines.

Yesterday I sat down and read a collection of four undated Christmas stories that Bertha wrote sometime around 1945. (The fact that I have them here with me in Philadelphia is interesting. I only brought what would fit into my Nissan Sentra.) One of the stories had been accepted for publication; rejection notices for the other three were folded up with them. The one that was published is about a boy who invites a Japanese American boy to come to his Sunday school class, then regrets it when his new friend beats him out for the narrator part in the Christmas program. However, the boy realizes something as he listens to the familiar Bible story: “‘Unto You,’ Gil’s mind echoed the words. ‘Why, the Bible doesn’t say unto white people or Americans, but “Unto you.” That means anyone hearing or reading the words!’”

My Uncle Jack, who retyped the stories and sent them out to the family, said that none of them are literary masterpieces. I don’t disagree with that assessment, but I treasure them because they provide a window into the way she thought, and into how she lived out her faith. They are all charming, and in some spots they show flashes of brilliance.

In a story she wrote about a mother facing her first Christmas after her only son was killed in the war, she wrote this:

Hartly [her husband] stood up deliberately. “The trouble with you, Mary, is that you have let your grief grow like a thick hedge of thorns until it has shut out the world.” He spoke as though it were a speech rehearsed many times. “You water the hedge with your tears. Then you hug the thorns to your heart, keeping the wound open and bleeding. You need to cut down the hedge and make room for Christmas.”

Writing runs in the family. Bertha’s daughter Harriet, and Harriet’s brother-law Jack, have each been writing regular family letters for years. Harriet also regularly emails lots of jokes and cartoons. Her screen name is “compulsivewriter.”  And James Redfield, the author of The Celestine Prophecy, is the grandson of Bertha’s brother James.

posted by Amy on Oct 15

One thing I noticed when I re-read the first entry is how many times I said “happy.” It’s true for me, and it is, as far as I know, true for the other people I described. But a nagging little thought crept into my mind after I posted. I’m afraid readers will think, “Uh-oh, Amy’s been drinking the Kool-Aid. Opiate of the masses and all that.” I think I should clarify what I mean by “happy.”

It doesn’t mean freedom from cares or worries or doubts. It doesn’t mean a state of constant euphoria. It doesn’t mean I have any illusions about bumps in the road ahead. I fully expect to have cares, worries, doubts, conflicts, hardship, sadness, loss, disappointment and grief enter my life, with roughly the same frequency as before. In fact, if this education doesn’t involve a fair amount of lost sleep, disappointment, disillusionment, and even occasional anger, I will think I didn’t get my money’s worth.

So what does it mean? To me it means that the things I really care about are aligned with what I’m doing every day. In my life I’ve put a lot of time and effort into community service, most of it with secular organizations. I was moved by compassion, a hunger for justice, and an inner drive to make the world a better place. When I started doing that I was an agnostic, so if it also came from a desire to live out biblical teachings about love and justice, that aspect was subconscious.  Part of what brought me to seminary, though, was a dawning realization that I was actually doing it for God.

The concept of human dignity is inextricably linked to the notion that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.  Without that understanding, I’m not sure community service really makes sense. Why should we care about the poor, the exploited, or the oppressed, and why should we love our neighbor? To the Christian, we love one another because God first loved us. We love because Jesus says that as we do to the least of humanity, we do to him. In loving others, we are serving and worshiping God. For me, the desire to understand what that means, and to live it out, has become my primary motive. Given that, it is a pure pleasure to spend my time with like-minded people. It makes me very happy.

Every class session starts with a prayer. Before a quiz, the professor prays aloud for us to do well on the test. Discussions with classmates are not confined to working out the details about what the authors said or what we think will be on the test.  We also talk about ourselves and how we are responding, emotionally and spiritually, to what we are learning. When people ask questions in class, they are usually about the theological implications of the material. Every day, all the time, I get a chance to keep before me the questions that I’ve spent my whole life trying to answer. I am doing what I was born to do.

So, don’t worry. When I say I’m happy, and that the people around me are too, don’t think we’re all blissing out on religion, or have become oblivious to reality. What’s different about us is we have a sense of purpose, and a belief that we are here to fulfill something bigger than we are. That makes it much easier to put daily cares and concerns into perspective.  That’s what I mean by happy.

posted by Amy on Oct 14

Most of the time, when I tell someone who knows me at all well about my call to ministry, the first words out of the hearer’s mouth are “I’m not surprised.” What’s interesting about that is I was very surprised. “Stunned” would be a better word for it.

Here at seminary, all the classes start with some sort of text upon which to reflect, and a prayer. Dr. Itapson, my Old Testament Pentateuch teacher, has made a point of reminding us why we’re all here, and that it’s not just to go to school and study and get good grades. Before one class session he had us read about Jeremiah’s call. (Jeremiah 1:4-10). As always seems to happen, the called one argued with God. Jeremiah said, “I am only a boy.” They always raise some objection.

Of course they do. Nobody wants this job, as far as I can tell. Nobody, when called, says, “You know, God, that’s just what I was thinking I should do. I’m glad you asked. Sure, I’ll turn my life upside down and do as you say. Where do I sign?” I have formed this opinion both from biblical accounts and from asking classmates.

There are two things about it that I want to point out. One is that God never makes anybody do anything. We always have a choice. The trouble is, until we do it God’s way, we’ll never be happy. The other point is the reciprocal of that one. When we finally do say yes, then we see what was missing before, what we longed for and sought so earnestly, and could not find. Then we can be happy. This is the happiest bunch of people I’ve ever seen. The professors are happy, the students are happy, the administrators are happy. It’s contagious. On our first day of orientation, the leader said “God has called each one of you to be here, with all the others, for a purpose.” I can hardly wait to find out what that purpose is.

Some of my classmates are in their twenties. They went to Bible college and always planned to go into ministry. Most of them are more like me. They have day jobs, or kids, or they left another career to pursue this one, or all of the above.

God has been calling me for quite some time, but I thought I was imagining it. I thought it was some kind of grandiosity on my part. I often felt touched, moved, stirred, but I always mistook it for something else. So I tried everything else first–personal relationships, career, church, secular public service, goal setting, trying to find the right balance between earning and spending money, trying to fill the emptiness that no one but I (and God) could see. There were nudges, inklings, before the day that I finally heard the call so clearly that it could no longer be discounted or ignored, but until that moment, I had no idea. Then it hit me. Four months after a friend said to me, “Amy, have you considered the possibility that you’re being called to ministry?” I woke up one morning with the seemingly sudden realization that I had to do it.

The second most common reaction to my news is more or less evenly split between, “I admire your courage” and “I envy you.” I can understand people thinking this takes guts. It looks like a really gutsy thing to do but, for me, it was a lot harder to keep doing what I was doing before.

That requires some explanation. I am a good lawyer. I had some measure of success and acclaim. I was well respected. I liked my work, especially in the 6 years that I had a solo practice. It was different every day. I was rarely bored, and I felt competent and appreciated, most of the time. But even with all that, something wasn’t right. My heart wasn’t in it. After 28 years — all that money and all that time invested in that career — it didn’t seem right to walk away, but it was getting harder and harder to find satisfaction in it.

Once I decided that God wanted me to do this, and I agreed to it, everything changed. I was happy. I was relieved. I just knew that it was what I had been seeking all along. That is not to discount the importance of anything else I have done up until now. To my way of thinking, it is all a seamless process, a coherent story. The thing that would have taken courage would have been to ignore the very clear message about what God wants me to do. I think we can only get away with turning our backs on God until the message finally gets too loud to ignore. Then, although God always gives us a choice, we realize there’s only one viable choice.

As for those who feel envy, I think that’s good. That means you’re on the right track. I remember hearing about other people who made a dramatic “course correction” in their lives, and thinking, “Boy, I wish I could do that. That sounds really great.” That eventually led me to the realization that I could do it too. We’re not all being called to ministry, but we are all being called to some kind of greatness. What do you think of that? Think you’re not great? Who are you to make that kind of judgment? Every single person on this planet is God’s child, a unique, never-to-be-repeated expression of God. Of course you’re great. How are you going to express that? This isn’t a dress rehearsal, you know. It’s time to get busy.

Now isn’t that better than confining your energies to deciding what to have for dinner tonight? That is not to say that menu choices aren’t important, but don’t you have some longing for meaning, some desire to make a difference, some vocation? And if you followed it, what do you think would happen?

What have you got to lose by finding out? Your old familiar life? Sure, but do you actually like your old familiar life? Think about it. Chances are, your objections are nothing more than excuses. What would you do if there were no barriers, if you had all the money in the world and no other challenges? What would make your heart sing? That thing, whatever it is for you, is what you should be doing now. You have a destiny to fulfill. If you’re already doing that, then you aren’t one of the ones who said to me, “I envy you.”

A third, and more rare, response is, “I couldn’t possibly work that hard.” In my case, I never really wanted to quit working. I often thought about a second career, running a nonprofit or doing some kind of community service, but I didn’t envision myself retiring in the sense of playing golf every day, or watching TV. For people who really like that sort of thing, that’s just fine. I am not judging. But to me it sounds like a prison sentence. I love to read, to think, to write, to discuss. I love God, and I can’t wait to find out how God plans to use me next. If I were not working, I would feel empty. If I were not praying and praising God, I would feel empty. Right now, even with the challenges and frustrations that I face, I feel whole. It’s an amazing feeling.

It hasn’t been easy. Moving out of my house and leaving Denver were extremely difficult for me. I still get lonely and homesick. And I haven’t figured out how to pay for it. With two houses to sell, in this economy, I’m sometimes on edge about the practical details of this venture. But I’m not going to worry about it. Frankly, since I was making my living as a real estate lawyer before, I might be facing a huge slowdown in work right now anyway, and without the wonderful diversion of school, and without the safety net of student loans. I’ll figure it out.

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