Archive for November, 2008

posted by Amy on Nov 30

The issue of ordaining women as Roman Catholic priests is once again in the news, at the behest of a pacifist Father.

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posted by Amy on Nov 30

If the measure of a society’s worth is in how it treats its children, then the United States today is in serious trouble. We have the largest number of billionaires in the world, but rank 25th in infant mortality. The author blames “neoliberal” social and economic policies.

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posted by Amy on Nov 18

This email that I wrote to a friend today could possibly be of interest:

Dear T___:

How was your job interview? I am keeping my fingers crossed (and praying) that you get the job of your dreams soon.

Except for the pay scale, being a seminary student is my dream job.

I handed in a big paper this morning. I think I put about 50 hours into researching and writing it. I have two more, of comparable magnitude, due Tuesday, Dec. 2, after my week in Denver. I’m going to take the laptop, needless to say. I also have most of the day tomorrow, and Thursday morning, to hit the library here, grab some sources, and photocopy. Oh, I also have a quiz that day, but I can study for that when I get back to Philly. On 12/4 I have to report to the history teacher how much of the 600 or so pages of required reading I’ve completed. At this point, it’s about a third. It doesn’t count for a very big percentage of the grade, but those books are going into the bag too. I can read on planes and between flights (I have a nonstop to Denver Thursday, but a connection on the way back 11/28).

I love it, I really do. I think I’m getting smarter. My tendency to have ADD is diminishing. Pure fear has me glued to my chair, concentrating hard, much more than I was doing the last few years for my work. For the quiz I took tonight, I had only this afternoon to prepare. That gave a sense of urgency, I’ll tell you. I think I did OK—no way to be sure until I see. It was an essay question—one sheet of paper, fifteen minutes to write. I had something to say and filled up the page, so I hope that means it’s OK.

I have to confess, I really want straight A’s. I left everything else behind to do this; I want to do it as well as possible.

I’m getting a reputation as “brilliant,” as one woman put it. I don’t know about that (she apparently based it on a PowerPoint presentation that I did about St. Augustine.)

All false modesty aside, I am aware that I do have certain gifts. I have a great memory, and a very absorbent mind. I love to learn. I don’t mind speaking in front of groups (in a school full of preachers and future preachers, you might think that’s commonplace here, but not necessarily.) And I latch onto big ideas and appropriate them. My brain sifts and sorts and reassembles. R__ tells me, “You were born for this.”

I don’t know what God will ultimately do with these things, but I am convinced that what I am doing now is what I am supposed to be doing. So, even though I get very tired, even though I push myself, even though I’m not sleeping much, I am so very happy to be here. I needed a sense of purpose. I needed to be challenged. I needed to push myself. I needed to stretch and grow and think. All of those needs are being met.

I thank God every day.

posted by Amy on Nov 17

Recently the idea that “spreading the wealth around” is “socialist” and “un-American” has become a rallying cry for economic conservatives. They say that people should not have to pay taxes, but are better qualified to spend their money than government is. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that we eliminate government entirely, so I’m a bit puzzled by this. How are we supposed to pay for the policy decisions that our elected officials make on our behalf? Who is going to pay the huge “credit card bill” represented by the decisions to cut taxes while massively increasing spending (on warfare, mostly) that have been made?

There are those who think that the concentration of wealth under capitalism is akin to natural law, and that it’s wrong to interrupt or modify the process. Capitalism is a religion with us. Suggesting that some of the wealth that has been created by the sweat of the brows of the poor should be returned to them is the ultimate blasphemy in this religion. Furthermore, many people seem to think, usually in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that someday they, too, will be rich enough to pay a lot of taxes, and leave taxable estates when they die. Based on this wildly improbable assumption, they preemptively object to “spreading the wealth around,” even when that means they would benefit from it.

As Jared Diamond shows in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, “redistribution of wealth” has been going on for millennia. When societies went from having simple tribal, egalitarian structures to having a ruling class, the rulers (who did no useful work) began exacting tribute from the workers. They convinced the farmers, herders, artisans and laborers that they were better off supporting chieftains, armies, palaces, temples and the like than they were under the communal, decentralized structure that existed before. This may very well have been true, but once it starts, it doesn’t stop on its own. The tendency, throughout history, is for more and more treasure and power to be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

The value of what “the many” have contributed is discounted or forgotten, as is the value of the infrastructure that everyone worked together to build–the schools, the courts, the roads, the airports, the banking system, police and fire protection, and the communication system, to name a few. It would not be possible for anyone to conduct business or use property productively without this infrastructure. The entire system would break down without it, yet somehow it’s against our “religion” to invest in it for the common good, or to expect those who benefit from it the most to pay in proportion to what they’ve gained.

The proper role of government is both to legitimize and formalize the wealth transfer from the poor to the rich, and to impose limits and rules on this transfer, which will include reappropriating some of the wealth and using it to pay for the things that the entire society depends upon for its common welfare. That’s my view of “redistribution of wealth.” What was originally transferred from the labor and the taxes of the “many” to the few is, in part, returned to them, mostly indirectly.

One of the subtexts of the objection to redistribution of wealth is covertly racist and classist. People object to taking money from people who “earned” it and giving it to people who don’t deserve it and didn’t work for it. Never mind that most of the poor in this country, in gross numbers, are white, the modern version of the myth of the “welfare Queen” is the myth of the illegal immigrant soaking the system for freebies. I have a few brief comments on this objection. (I actually have a great deal to say, but this entry is already longer than it should be.) One is that most of our tax money doesn’t go to social welfare (other than Social Security and Medicare). It goes to military spending, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, debt service on our enormous national debt, military pensions, massive farm subsidies (that mostly benefit huge agribusinesses), and multiple other programs. On the subject of benefits, most people think their aging parents “earned” and deserve their Social Security checks and their Medicaid. I don’t disagree (even though a lot of people end up taking out a lot more than they ever put in.) Also a lot of people engage in “Medicaid Planning” to deliberately impoverish themselves so they can receive long term care at taxpayer expense. I do disagree with that, yet there’s a thriving legal specialty built up around the practice. Another comment is that one of the largest “wealth transfers” in this country is the subsidy for home ownership represented by the tax deduction for interest on home loans–both for first and for second homes. The lost revenue from this subsidy is in the billions of dollars, but no one objects to this wealth transfer. Finally, common decency dictates that people don’t starve or die of exposure or of treatable medical conditions in “the richest country in the world,” whether they are “deserving” or not. Jesus never asked anyone that he healed whether they had earned the right to it.

The Bible has a great deal to say about God’s plan for human society, and it is diametrically opposed to our secular religion of unfettered capitalism and acquisitiveness. Of the numerous Bible passages in support of this, consider Isaiah 3:14-15: “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the LORD GOD of hosts.” (emphasis added).

I am not a communist, or a Utopian. I realize that entrepreneurship creates economic opportunity and positive outcomes for many people other than the business owners. I know business creates jobs, and that is how most modern people support themselves. I know that business people cannot be expected to (and won’t) take entrepreneurial risk without the expectation of profit. However, the tendency for wealth to become ever more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, if left unchecked, has negative consequences for everyone. And let’s not forget that one of the purposes of founding this country, as articulated in the Preamble to the Constitution, is to “promote the general welfare.”

Above all, it should be noted that God sees money and economics differently than we do. If you study it, you soon discover that individualism, consumerism, hoarding, greed, and acquisitiveness do not meet with God’s approval. The early Christians knew this, and lived it (see Acts 4:32-37), but soon things began to change.

Basil the Great, who lived between 329 and 379 said, “When someone steals a person’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to those who need it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes. The money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

He wasn’t just speaking metaphorically. He literally meant that anything you have in excess of your need belongs to the poor. Time and again, starting with the Israelites being fed “enough” manna in the wilderness during the Exodus, God tells us that the earth is the Lord’s, and that there is enough for everyone if it is fairly allocated. For Christians, that should be the starting point for any discussion of wealth and poverty.

posted by Amy on Nov 14

An essay about imagination, and about how the world can change as a result.

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posted by Amy on Nov 12

So far I haven’t given a lot of personal information about my journey to seminary, or about my time since I arrived in Philadelphia. It’s time for me to be a little more self-revealing.

I answered the call to ministry in March, 2008. At that time, I had a solo real estate and business law practice that was almost 6 years old. I was bringing in business, collecting accounts receivable, and making a good living. The previous summer I had planted a big garden, and it should have been about time to get out seed catalogs and plan for the next growing season. Instead, I began thinking about how to leave that all behind.

I applied to Palmer Theological Seminary and, somewhat to my surprise, was admitted in early May and awarded a Presidential Scholarship shortly thereafter. I applied to the Tony Campolo School of Graduate and Professional Studies, because I intend to earn a joint MBA/M.Div. from Eastern University. Although I tried to talk them out of it, they said I had to take the GMAT, the entrance exam for business school. I got some books, studied for it, and sat for the exam in early June. I got a good score.

The day after I took the GMAT I flew out east, partly to visit my friends Janell and David, and partly to visit the schools. Janell drove me from her place in Loudoun County, Virginia to Philadelphia so I could meet with the business school folks one day, and the seminary people the next. I learned that I won’t officially be admitted to the MBA program until I take and pass a few undergraduate business courses, but I’m on the right track. To my relief (and surprise) the economics classes I took in the 70′s meet two of the requirements, so all I have to take is accounting, finance, and statistics.

My law practice got very busy in April, May and June. I was happy about that–all the better to pay for this venture, but at times I felt like I was juggling burning torches.

I put my investment property on the market in May. It eventually sold–on November 1, 2008–at a loss, but it was a great relief to get that off my books, especially in this market.

I threw my own goodbye party. For several years I had been having a holiday party around January 6, for Epiphany. It was great fun to cram 50 or 60 people into my 1400 square feet of ground floor space. It was always “comfortably full;” crowded enough to force people to interact with each other on their way to the bathroom or to get more food or beverages. I catered it myself. People like my cooking, and I love feeding people. I have a lot of friends, from a lot of different areas of my life, and I loved putting them together and helping them connect around common concerns or mutual interests.  I decided to have one last Epiphany Party before I left, the first weekend in August.

At the party my friend Julia, whom I’ve known forever, another real estate lawyer in Denver, and someone who has walked a similar path, with kids and marriage issues and all the challenges of being a mom and a lawyer and a citizen, gave a speech in my kitchen–a combination toast and testimonial. That made me cry. Professional friendships being what they are, I didn’t really know how much I loved her until I was on the verge of leaving. I didn’t know how she felt about me until she announced it to the people gathered there.

It was a huge job to organize the move. It was really three moves. I had to get client files boxed up and cataloged, and put someplace they could be reached later if necessary. I had to declutter and dejunk. There was a surprising amount of stuff. When it’s stashed in closets, or in a garage, you can lose track of the sheer volume of it. I began making trips to Goodwill in May, and my daughter Efe continued doing that after I left for Pennsylvania.

The weekend after the party, I had a garage sale. It rained heavily the whole weekend. Still, I sold a lot of furniture and other stuff. One of my best customers was a young woman who had been a high school classmate of my daughter Lily. Somehow it comforts me to know she will be using my dresser, and my tea set that looks like it’s made of wicker, and some other useful things that I no longer want or need. The other two moves consisted of the things I was taking to Pennsylvania, and the things I was storing in Denver until I have a real home again.

It was such a huge undertaking, and I was so exhausted all the time, that I almost froze completely. There were so many decisions to make that I became unable to decide anything. My daughter Lily and my friend Jennifer volunteered to come help me. We went through books and clothes, and sorted them into “give away,” “store,” and “take to Philly” piles. Lily and I did that with kitchen stuff as well. You’d have to know me to realize what a huge job that was. It got to the point where making the right decision was subordinate to simply deciding. I had to keep things moving. The kids got first dibs on furniture and books and household equipment. I gave away, or abandoned, many things that I ended up replacing when I got to Philadelphia.

The day I had planned to leave came, and I was nowhere near ready. My friend Ken, who had volunteered to store my client files, some personal papers, and my family photos, showed up, and stuck around for much of the day to help me finish sorting. He, Lily, and her boyfriend Colin helped me pack the car. I decided to sleep in Denver one more night, and leave the next morning, a Sunday.

I finally set out at about 10:00. It’s a three day drive from Denver to Philadelphia–1800 miles, or 600 miles a day. At about the halfway mark, just outside of Chicago, I pulled over at a rest stop and checked voice mail. I was sick of driving. The trip was actually going fine. My ancient Nissan Sentra was running well, and getting great gas mileage, even though it was fully loaded. I had messages from my two kids who were still living in the house.  I had left a much bigger mess for them to handle than I had planned to leave. I had told them to consider almost everything I left behind to be abandonded, and I had asked them to get the house in shape to show to prospective purchasers as soon as possible. They didn’t see eye to eye on what that meant, and there was a problem with internet access. I felt bad. I felt as if I had abandoned them, not just the stuff. I started crying and couldn’t stop.

I called my brother Lloyd to enlist his aid with the internet issue. He was reassuring, and agreed to step in and resolve it. I called the phone company and figured out what needed to be done about the internet connection. (I had unplugged and carted off the computer that was hooked up to the modem. There had to be a conversation with Qwest about getting another computer connected.) I called Ken, and he helped talk me off the ledge on which I was figuratively standing. And I called my best friend, the one who had first suggested to me that I was being called to ministry, and he completed the process of talking me down. “Your kids are adults,” he said. “They can manage. You didn’t abandon them. You’re giving them a place to stay rent free. You’re not asking too much. They can deal with this. If not, it’s not your fault, or your responsibility.” He also said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” I was so tired, and lonely, and disoriented. He told me I could still turn back. I realized that I didn’t want to do that.

I got to the seminary, which is also where I live, at about 7:30 on a Tuesday night. Byron, the director of Axillary Services, gave me a key to my apartment, and rounded up some people to help unload my car. He told me how to get to Target. I went there to buy an air mattress and some bedding, so I’d have a place to sleep. Orientation was the next day. I wrote in my journal about how very disorienting the whole thing had been up to that point.

In the service for the orientation, we sang “Here I Am, Lord,” which was one of the songs that had “spoken” to me many times about my call. I cried. Although I felt extremely disoriented, I also felt strongly that I had done the right thing, and was in the right place. The tears were tears of joy, and relief that I had made it that far. At that point, I had no idea what the Business Office was going to do about my financial aid, or where I was going to get the money to pay the bills that still needed to be paid. I put it all in God’s hands. God wanted me to be here, so I was sure God would help me figure out how to make it work.

One of my most treasured possessions was my piano. I bought it about 10 years ago, intending to learn to play. It’s over 100 years old, with ivory keys, built in the U.S. I never did learn to play it, though I did plunk away on it a few times, the way I used to do at Grandma’s house when I was little. I advertised it for sale on Craigslist. A nice couple from Brush, Colorado bought it after I got to Philly, sending me a check in early September, but not picking it up until late October.  I got an email from them confirming that it had been safely removed from my house, and installed in theirs. I realized that it was the last movable artifact of my life in that house. It made me very sad, and I cried again.

This is all about letting go of what doesn’t matter, and devoting my time and energy, my thoughts and prayers, to what does. Sometimes I’m lonely and homesick. Sometimes I’m tired and discouraged. Sometimes I miss my family, and my friends, desperately. But I also love being here. I am captivated by my classes, and my classmates and professors. I had forgotten what it’s like to be in an academic environment–about equal parts exhilaration and frustration. I belong here.

But I’m sure there will be plenty more things that will move me to tears.

posted by Amy on Nov 12

Thoughtful analysis of political realities, Obama’s style as a leader and thinker, and the potential for a transformational presidency.

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posted by Amy on Nov 10

2008/11/10 – The change from a print-based to an image-based society has transformed our nation. All the traditional tools of democracies, including dispassionate scientific and historical truth, facts, news and rational debate, are useless instruments in a world that lacks the capacity to use them. – America the Illiterate.

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posted by Amy on Nov 6

Rebecca Solnit reflects on significant historic events of the last nine years, from the WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, to the 2008 U.S. election, with a historian’s eye and a hopeful heart.

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