Bob Massie

Archive for 2009|Yearly archive page

It’s Time to Stop Playing Games and Avoid the Looming Icebergs

In Business and Sustainability on March 20, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Given the general meltdown in the economy, some people archly are suggesting that the time has come to forget about “secondary” issues like sustainability. Since some of these same critics didn’t want to pay attention when markets were riding high, we shouldn’t be surprised.

So this might time for a quick review of Sustainability 101.

First, let’s sort out the mishmash of terms that entangle the field – strategy, responsibility, citizenship, and sustainability, and the newest and most popular contendor, “ESG” factors (for “environment, social, and governance”)

In one sense, these approaches share a fundamental concern: they all ask: what are the ingredients or pathways for lasting value for a firm?

“Corporate strategy” is about picking goals and then reverse-engineering the steps to get there. It has traditionally encompassed all the traditional areas of business – marketing, production, finance, innovation, human resources, and so on. Most firms – driven by stale accounting rules, quarterly earnings expectations, and compensation structures – focus their strategies on the short to medium term.

“Sustainability” is about understanding the long term structural evolution in the interactions of markets, societies, and the physical world.

This raises a few questions.

1) Is it primarily a question of short-term vs. long-term?

No. Time is an important element. But it also a question of where leaders are focusing their attention.

Let me use an analogy. Traditional business strategy is like a group of people playing certain kinds of competitions — musical chairs, shuffleboard, ping pong – on the deck of an ocean liner. As long as the ocean liner plows steadily forward in a calm sea, people can afford to concentrate on the immediate challenge of winning the game and advancing in the tournament.

But let’s say the ocean liner runs out of fuel, enters a storm, strikes an iceberg, or come under attack by pirates. At that point, the conditions of play on the deck change, either slowly or abruptly. Some of the skills that could lead one to succeed at winning tournaments may be less helpful in coping with these more systemic assaults.

Indeed, one could argue that the more one concentrates on the short term goals of winning a particular game, the less one is inclined to look up and notice where the ship as a whole is headed.

So, one way to look at the difference in terms is that traditional business strategy is about mastering the skills to win games on deck. Sustainability is about reacting to the conditions that surround the ship. Both are important.

Following this analogy, in the short-term people can do quite well and win a string of victories on deck without paying attention to where the ship is headed.

But lasting success – and in some cases, survival — for the firm, the economy, or the planet means also cultivating an awareness of what is happening in the greater surroundings.

2) So then what is “corporate responsibility” or “corporate citizenship”?

People employ these terms loosely to suit their own purposes, and this often creates confusion. Sometimes the terms are used superficially, sometimes more profoundly.

To go back to the ocean liner image, CSR or citizenship can mean everything from insisting that people obey the rules of shuffleboard or wear dress whites to more comprehensive ideas such as making sure that everyone has the chance to play. It can mean obeying the law or rethinking every aspect of business practice.

“Sustainability” is a far more comprehensive idea than citizenship or responsibility, because it focuses on interdependence and on the future. Sustainability analyzes the underlying structural conditions that advance or hinder the creation of lasting value in ways that won’t ultimately sink the ship.

3) What are some recent examples?

Let me offer three that are on people’s minds right now: the subprime mortgage collapse, the US auto industry’s strategic failures, and the transition to clean technology investment because of climate change.

Take the subprime mortgage crisis. As we know, too many people focused on technical financial innovations such securitization, leveraging, and hedging. It was very exciting and for some people very profitable in the short term. But as people became more excited about the games on Wall Street, forgot to ask very basic questions about the long-term health and sustainability – in both senses of the world – of their assumptions. Was the ship leaking? Where was it headed? This is the classic problem with any bubble; one forgets the fundamentals. Thinking about sustainability rigorously is another way of looking more deeply at the fundamentals of wealth creation and distribution in a society.

Or take the American auto companies. The auto companies, despite their global operations, lived in an insular and self-reinforcing mental world.

• They chose to build their profit structure off of high margin SUVs that appealed to the US market and they ignored the clear global signals about energy and product development.

• They tried to bend the American and global consumer back towards what had worked in the mid-20th century rather than accepting what was coming in the 21st.

• They also ignored a major social dimension to their cost structure, which is our exclusionary system of employer based health care. Every other country that makes cars relies on a more equitable distribution of health care risks and costs through national health insurance. The irony is that because of their narrow world view of the auto leaders, they could not even perceive their own corporate interest, so their cost structures required them to build in employer based health insurance costs into every car. If they had cooperated with the labor movement as a whole, which had been asking for national health insurance for 50 years, their cost structure would have been more competitive.

Finally, let’s look at climate change. The evidence has been growing for more than twenty years that this was a serious, potentially devastating structural problem that would affect virtually every industry, region, and investment portfolio in some way.

Yet up until very recently for years leaders on Wall Street took the position that said, in effect, “if this were an important question we would already have thought of it.” That’s the self-defeating aspects of the proponents of efficient market theory; because they assume that all relevant information is already known, they can actually be reluctant to accept new ideas and new realities.

It took outside groups like Ceres and the Investor Network on Climate Risk — huge institutional investors, activist and environmental groups — to point out that the both the physical and financial assumptions had changed.

Now we are seeing the realities of carbon pricing and clean technology are reshaping the technological and financial world. By looking at the emerging structural conditions revealed by sustainability, some companies – many of them European and Japanese companies – were able to get the jump on innovation.

Many Americans still haven’t absorbed the message. Scientists have agreed that we have to return to the level of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. To do trillions of dollars are going to flow from old to new practices. Many venture capitalists feel that such a transition is going to be more significant in terms of the realignment of wealth and productivity than the computer or the Internet.

So what lies ahead?

Of course right now everyone’s focus – in government, in business, in investment, and in communities in the US and around the world – is on the urgent task of trying to stop the damage cause by the false assumptions of the past. That will take awhile. The real question is whether, as we come out of this, we will be able to draw any lasting lessons.

The normal human tendency will be to think “now that we come through that awful period, we finally have everything right.” But that’s not going to be the case. The underlying structural conditions will continue to evolve, in some instances even more rapidly, which means that paying attention to sustainability will be even more important.

For business leaders, managers, directors, and fiduciaries, this means, to go back to the analogy of the ship, that board members will need to stop paying so much attention to the games on deck and start watching for icebergs. They will need to spend more time looking out at the horizon and offering what may be disturbing advice, rather than falling into groupthink. More and more directors realize that this is fundamental duty that they owe to shareholders, beneficiaries, employees, and other stakeholders. A recent study showed that more than 70% of corporate board members agree that they need to be paying attention to these long-term questions. But they don’t yet have all the tools for doing so.

One tool, of course, is long-term scenario planning. Another that is being widely adopted is that of trying to set goals and measure sustainability performance through generally accepted indicators like the Global Reporting Initiative. This helps everyone — directors, managers, investors, customers, and public officials. Such reporting is now becoming widespread; a recent study by KPMG said that three quarters of the world’s 250 largest corporations have not introduced this practice. I think eventually it will be integrated into traditional financial reporting and required of all publicly traded firms. That would be very helpful for everyone, though I am sure some people will complain that they don’t see any reason to do this because they never had to do it before.

At the same time, we are still in the early stages of understanding the connections between the interdependent evolution of structural conditions on the planet — which includes topics as diverse as population growth, biodiversity, water use, income disparity, and energy – to the prosperity of firms, industries, nations and humanity as a whole.

But we need to do so, and quickly. If we are only paying attention to the games on the deck, our global ship is likely to hit a rock or an iceberg at some point. And then we will be battling to get into the lifeboats and trying to figure out how, with all our skills and technology, we could have been so blind.


Overturning the Tables

In Business and Sustainability, Education, Politics, Theology and Spirituality on March 17, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Some of you have perhaps been wondering what happened to me over the last few weeks – did he simply stop writing? The answer is no – I transferred my writing to a few other listservs and also to the Massachusetts blog known as “Blue Mass Group” where I have been making the case against some very foolish policies in the state under the name of “bmass”. You can look those up if you like – and comment on them. Some of this debate came to a head when I had the opportunity to preach at St. James in Cambridge, my wonderful home parish, and I discovered the readings were from Exodus and John. I haven’t preached in nearly two years, so it was a challenge and a joy. This is what I said.

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Robert Kinloch Massie at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 15, 2009

I. Introduction: The Daily Struggle To Remember

Every week or so at my house Anne and I endure an abrupt ritual of panic. We are about to go out the door and suddenly …. I can’t find my wallet! I know I had it somewhere, in a pair of pants, but those pants seem to have jumped up and run off to a dark corner. So for a few minutes Anne and I have to rush around, playing hide and seek with a pair of trousers.

Other times it is the car keys. I have noticed that car keys seem to anticipate when I am about to leave? Just before I need them, they quickly slide under a pile of old magazines and again, Anne and I get to play hide and seek.

Has that ever happened to you? I am always pleased to read when such very human problems pop up in the Bible. One sheep wanders off, and the shepherd has to leave the ninety-nine and go running after it. [Matthew 18:12] A woman loses a coin in her house, and she has to turn everything upside down and sweep the whole place out until she finds it. [Luke 15:8]

We lose important things all the time. Why do you suppose that is?

Three reasons. We get distracted, we forget, and we lose what is important under a pile of junk.

Today, I want to propose that just as we often lose physically important things we can also lose spiritually important things. We do this all the time… and for the same reasons. We get distracted, we forget, and lose what is important under piles of junk.

Jesus knew this and spent a lot of time trying to point it out to people. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he suggested that people spend too much time worrying about the details of daily life – and by the way, in a community far less affluent than ours. “Do not be anxious about what you shall eat or what you shall drink … [or] what you shall put on.” [Matthew 6:25] “Seek first the realm of God and the righteousness of God, and the other things will be yours as well.” [Matthew 6:33]

To the spiritual pundits he said: you are worrying so much about appearing more holy than other people that you have forgotten what holiness is really about. Forget the long prayers, he said, use few simple words and even better, do it in secret. [Matthew 6: 5-14]

In Jesus’ day people worried a lot about what they had done wrong, so they spent a lot of time and money calculating how to please God with exactly the right behavior. And out of those anxieties arose a whole God-pleasing-calculation industry, much of it built on animal sacrifice. Those things don’t matter, Jesus said; what God wants is mercy, and not sacrifice.” [Matthew 12: 1-7]

II. The Demons of Mess

In pointing this out, Jesus was not inventing something new – he was drawing attention to the gems that existed in Hebrew scripture. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” is a quote from the prophet Hosea [6:6]. His message was: don’t get distracted, don’t forget, don’t lose what is important under a pile of junk.

And today, in this season of Lent 2009, we need to hear that lesson again, more than ever, in both our personal and our public lives.

Anne and I don’t watch a lot of TV but some months ago we came across an remarkable program called “Clean House.” How many of you have seen that?

For those of you who don’t know this show, this is how it works. A crew of specialists shows up to rescue a family whose lives are being wrecked by the demons of consumption and disorder. Their houses and their lives are a mess.

And when I say “mess,” you have to multiply whatever is in your head by fifty. One small house had boxes to the ceiling in every room. The parents were losing tempers, their minds, and their marriages. One sad eight year old son was reduced to trying to do his homework on the only remaining tiny patch of clear real estate on the dining room table that was not covered with junk.

In another show, a woman who had gained a lot of weight after having children had filled not just her closet but most of her bedroom with hundreds of shoes. And not just any shoes. She had hundreds of pairs of expensive designer shoes, that her husband bought on his slim salary to express his love and she was hoarding them in the hope that one day they would fit.

Some of the men in these families filled up rooms and garages with golf clubs, ancient magazines, weight equipment, sports memorabilia, and old appliances that reminded them of their dads.

And by the way I just want you to know that when you all come over to our house, none of you is allowed to go into the basement.

What makes these shows so fascinating?

1) They tempt us to judge, so that we can feel superior just like the Pharisee in the Temple, “Lord I thank thee that my house isn’t as cluttered as that family of messy tax collectors.” [Luke 18: 9-14]

2) They attract our sympathy, because the physical and emotional transformations that take place as the TV team persuades the owners to give up their stuff, sell it at a yard sale, and then use the money to remake the home – are often fascinating and deeply moving.

3) And finally they signal something we know but can’t express: the physical mess in these people’s lives is an outward and visible warning about inward and spiritual chaos.

Like many of us, the people are in a kind of bondage both to their memories and their dreams, they are anchored to illusions about the past and the future. They have been captured by the absurd mixture of insecurity and greed create by a consumption economy run amok. Watching one of these shows, Anne turned to me and said, “we turn to stuff to fill the empty places in our hearts.”

In others words, we get distracted, we forget, we lose what is important gets buried beneath a pile of junk.

So how do we fix this? Our readings today give us an idea.

One way to stop losing the wallet and the car keys is to keep putting them, day after day, in the same place.

And one way not to lose ourselves spiritually is keep ourselves and each other of what is important, every morning, every Sunday, in the same place.

This isn’t easy. Today’s first reading gives us an example. You would think that the people who had followed Moses into the desert would be able to keep track of what was important. After all, God had helped them escape from soul-stifling, bone-crushing slavery in Egypt – and they were on their way, if they could stay focused, to the Promised Land.

But what happens? Moses goes up the mountain for a little facetime with God — and the next thing you know, when he had been gone a short time, his followers get distracted. They forget about Egypt, they forget about Moses, they forget pretty much about everything. They tell Moses’ brother, “Get up, and make us some new gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” [Exodus 32: 1] They gave all their jewelry to Aaron who melts it into the shape of a golden calf, which, when you think about it, is kind of the ultimate symbol of meaningless junk.

This is one of the earliest management problems on record. And so God tries to simplify things by sending Moses back with a two page memo, although the memo wasn’t on paper, it was stone. He says, okay, I understand that living together can get complicated, so I am going to distill what is important into a few basic rules. Four of them are about our relationship with God. Six of them are about our relationship with other. Ten in all. One for each finger.

And, as we know from human history, that pretty much solved the problem, we know those Ten Commandments by heart. Right?

Well, the truth is – they are not that easy to remember. I mean, ten things is a lot , especially when some are long and others are short, especially when some say you should do this and should do that. But years ago, when I was a chaplain at Grace Church School, a wonderful teacher taught me the easy version in verse. So this is the congregational participation part. Repeat after me:

Above all else, love God alone
Bow down to neither wood nor stone
God’ name refuse to take in vain
The Sabbath rest with care maintain
Respect your parents all your days
Hold sacred human life always
Be loyal to your chosen mate
Steal nothing neither small nor great
Report with truth your neighbor’s deed
And rid your mind of selfish greed.

The kids in my fourth grade loved this. We used to do speed trials. I think the record was 12 seconds for 10 commandments. I will post it on the webpage, and we will see if anyone can beat that.

III. Frustration, Repentance, and “Godly Grief”

But you know, despite the simplicity of these Ten Commandments, in Jesus’s day people still got distracted and forgot. In fact, they asked Jesus if he could give them an edited version. Ten’s too much, give us two.

So Jesus did: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself,” [Luke 10:27]

Maybe we begin to see why Jesus occasionally got frustrated. We sometimes gloss over this aspect of Jesus’s ministry – because his core message was one of endurance and patience and love — but to me those flashes of annoyance make him seem fully human.

He explains things, repeatedly, in the most vivid way, with the most memorable stories and parables, and people still look at him blankly and say, in essence, what do you mean by that?

And so he tries again, with a new story, or a new angle. But sometimes he says, “you have eyes, but you do not see, ears but you do not hear.” [Mark 8:18]

On another occasion he shakes his head and says:

“To what shall I compare this generation? You are like children, sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other, “We piped to you and you would not dance, we wailed for you and you would not mourn.”[Matthew 11:16-18]

No matter what approach we try, no matter how we try to draw your attention to what is important underneath the pile of junk, you get distracted. What will you listen to?

And every now and then Jesus’ frustration boils over into anger, an anger designed to produce what St. Paul called “godly grief.” [2 Corinthians 7: 9-10] That’s a great phrase for Lent. Godly grief is when we are reminded of something a bit painful in a way that produces repentance.

The gospel passage from today is an example of Jesus acting in a way that was designed to induce godly grief. We know that these actions were centrally important to his followers because it appears in all four gospels.

It is hard for us to appreciate the power of the Temple today or the shocking nature of Jesus’ behavior. The Temple of Solomon was not just a place of national reverence. It was a place of immense spiritual power. For at the center of the Temple was a hidden room, called the Holy of Holies, which only one person could enter only once a year. In this room, in total darkness, sat the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant, as you know from your Bible and from Raider’s of the Lost Ark, was said to contain the original tables described in Exodus. According to Jewish tradition, in and around this object and this room, hovered the actual power of God.

It was sort of like the core of a nuclear reactor combined – times a million. Think about it. The creative force of God, who brought forth not only humanity, not only this world, but God “who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place and flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space” could be encountered there.

But what did Jesus see when he arrived there in the courtyard surrounding this place?

It has become the Temple Livestock Exchange. When Jesus approached this immensely powerful place, what he saw was disturbing. Inside the courtyard was a market where people bought and sold animals in order to slit their throats, drain their blood, and burn their bodies in the hope this would earn them spiritual points. A place where some leaders paraded around to show off who was more important, more holy, more special, more deserving than whom. A place where you had to change regular money into Temple money, at high rates, at the table of a money-changer. In the version in Matthew he quotes both Isaiah and Jeremiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” [Matthew 21:21, Isaiah 56:7, Jeremiah 7:11] So he drew together some cords into a whip, scattered the coins, turned the tables over, and drove the changers out.

We don’t use animal sacrifice any more — in fact we despise it — so it seems as though what Jesus doing makes sense. But this act was probably the single most direct political and economic act of disruption in his ministry. Some scholars feel it was the principal reason that the religious authorities began to plot his death. It is as though Jesus had been offered a public tour of the White House, and then taken the opportunity to run into the Oval Office and shove the President’s desk through the smashed windows and right out into the Rose Garden.

Jesus did this to make a point. In his view, in his zeal of the moment, the people of faith had followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts, and in his view the whole spiritual enterprise had become buried under a huge, horrific pile of junk. It was time to clean house. So he did.

But the question for us in this Lenten season is not whether the people in the Temple courtyard had gone off track. The question is in what manner we – not only individually but collectively – are going off track.

IV. The Modern Moneychangers

I could suggest a number of ways, but I am going to close by zeroing in on one. In this state we have reached a level of despair, dishonesty, and denial so severe that our elected officials are about to approve a proposal that says, in essence, in order to save some of us, others of us must be destroyed. Holly’s email signature line quotes the wonderful phrase from Paul Farmer, “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” I agree with that. I fear that many leaders are about to act as though they do not.

What do I mean? Our frightened, confused, and avaricious officials have are about to expand predatory gambling in order to cover a budget short fall. There is no sugar coating this. They believe that because we are experiencing temporary financial difficulties we should permanently crush tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people.

Many of you may not have not given this a second’s thought, but if not, I would like you both to trust me and to find out for yourself. I have been down this path of raising concerns before they were not commonly recognized many times before. I began fighting the outrage of South African apartheid more than 35 years ago, before many Americans had ever heard of that country. I spoke out on climate change more than 20 years ago, before many Americans knew anything about the dangers of greenhouse gases.

And now, in 2009, I want to tell you that we are facing one of the worst decisions that will be made in this generation, that makes a mockery of the very word Commonwealth. This decision is being supported uncritically by many members of the Senate, the House, by cabinet secretaries, by the unions – most disgracefully by the teacher’s union — by the Globe, by the Herald, by Treasurer Tim Cahill . It is even being supported by my friend, Deval Patrick, the governor for whom we pray, as we should, each week.

What would we have thought of Franklin Roosevelt if he had proposed that the solution to the Great Depression was to set up a million one-armed bandits all across the United States to “raise public revenues” at the very moment that people were plunging into financial despair? Yet nearly a million for more sophisticated and dangerous machines have already been scattered around our nation today.

What should we think that after a decade of casino capitalism in which our savings were destroyed by the equivalent of high tech slots on Wall Street our leaders are proposing to hurl many of our brothers and sisters into even deeper financial ruin?

What are we thinking when, after telling our teens to work hard and to save, we encourage them to slide effortlessly from the video games of their youth to the tens of thousands of video slot machines and video lottery terminals that they are planning right now to drop all across this state?

Do not be deceived. This is not about fun or free choice.

This is not about social gambling, or playing poker with your friends, or having an office pool over basketball.

This is the deliberate exploitation of poor and middle-income people dressed up as fiscal salvation.

Gambling is our modern golden calf. Our dance around it is the idolatry of “something for nothing.” Slot machine manufacturers are like 1950s cigarette companies. They are lying about the addictive nature of their product, even as they exploit the research showing how the lights and sounds and near-misses of slots cause our brains to emit the euphoria inducing neuro-transmitter of dopamine. This is why a national commission called these devices the “crack cocaine” of gambling.

The actual phrase that the slot industry uses for what they hope will happen is that a person will “play to extinction,” that is, will drain their financial assets. These machines are reverse ATMs, designed to remove money from your account as fast as you can push a button. Many addicts – including young people – now rely on adult diapers so that they don’t have to get up from a “hot” machine.

This is a sleeper social justice issue, and today I am asking you to wake up. I know that at St. James we are busy with many challenges – real challenges, worthy challenges — to serve the hungry and to help prisoners, to rebuild our space and to save our planet and to remember, and always to remember to love our neighbors as ourselves. But if we do not awaken to this danger in time, isn’t it also true that our food lines will grow longer, our prisons fuller, and our democracy more vulnerable to its addiction to the golden calf?

I started this sermon on a light note, about wallets and car keys and cleaning the junk out of our houses. What Jesus told us is that sometimes the junk in our collective life gets piled so high that the divine light by which we are intended to see each our begins to falter, and we are at risk of losing what we most value about our communities.

In Lent we are called to examine our lives, in peace if possible, in godly grief if necessary, and then to follow Jesus. We are to follow even unto to the contemporary courtyards of power, right up to the tables of flashing lights and spinning dials of the mechanical moneychangers.

They are deceptive and cruel.

They are immoral and unjust.

And it is our responsibility – acting with the humility and the strength that only the Spirit can provide – to insure that they are swiftly overturned.


Jonah and the “Wail”: The Prophet as Coward, Doomsayer, or Fool

In Theology and Spirituality on February 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm

As someone who has spent a good part of my life trying to rouse others to tackle unwelcome new challenges, I have a special love for the Book of Jonah. It is one of the shortest in Scripture – only four chapters long. It is simple enough to be told as a bedtime story, sly enough to be recounted as humor.

It also has a profound spiritual side, not only for people wounded by the divine compulsion to speak out about the destructive consequences of human behavior – the deepest meaning of the word “prophet” – but also for anyone who needs greater instruction (as we all do) in the meaning and practice of humility. What we do know about the story of Jonah? Generally not too much. We might remember that early in his travels he was swallowed by a “big fish”, or, as it is usually translated, a whale.

Once released into human culture this story, as they would say in Hollywood, had legs. Jesus made passing reference to it in the gospel of Matthew. The concept made into the story of Pinnochio. The Maine children’s author Robert McCloskey, who wrote Make Way for Ducklings, penned a book about the early 20th century Maine sea-faring man Burt Dow (someone I actually knew as a very little boy). The real Dow told the story of being out in his fishing dory and hooking a whale who towed him all the way out to sea. McCloskey expanded on the story and threw him down the whale’s throat for dramatic effect. Then, for good measure, the good people at Pixar poured Marlin, the fish-father in Finding Nemo, down yet another whale gullet. There’s some deep and memorable archetype at work here.

But few stop to ask: why was Jonah swallowed by the whale?

Because, the story suggests, he was being disobedient – or cowardly. He was running away from what he was supposed to be doing.

So let me review the story in brief: God notices that the people of the great city of Nineveh (modern day Mosul in Iraq) are behaving badly. He summons Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to go there and preach that unless they change their ways, bad things will happen to them. Jonah listens to this request, ponders the idea of heading eastward toward Nineveh, and then chooses instead to do exactly the opposite – to head west on a ship towards Spain. Enter the prophet as coward.

During the voyage a storm arises and the sailors suspect that the tempest might be evidence of God’s displeasure with their passenger, so they throw him overboard. The whale swallows Jonah both to save him from drowning and to give him some time to reconsider his destination. After Jonah has spent three uncomfortable days in the dark, grumbling and praying, the whale vomits him up on to dry land.

At this point, the soaked, wrinkled, and grumpy prophet having apparently having learned his lesson heads back in the direction he was supposed to go, that is to the city of Nineveh. As soon as he arrives he marches up and down the streets of the city, predicting that unless the king and everyone else stops cold in their tracks, expresses regret for their behavior, and mends their ways, they are going to be wiped out. Nineveh was large for its time – the Bible makes clear that it took “three days” to walk from one side to other. One can imagine the popularity of this angry foreigner, who smelled like old fish, as he stomped up and down, denouncing everyone and everything, and predicting that soon the whole town was going to be obliterated. As he did so, he fulfilled the second unattractive choice open to the prophet: the doomsayer.

Whether in Biblical times or today, people don’t usually embrace prophets. Most people are busy, tired, and defensive, and they don’t like to be told that they are doing anything wrong. As a result, prophets are usually ignored, laughed at, run out of town, or stoned to death. This accounts for that initial impulse towards cowardice.

In the book of Jonah, however, there is an unexpected plot twist: the people of the city actually listen to him. They come to believe that they are in immediate danger of destruction, and they take instant corrective action. The king himself announces that he will immediately begin a fast and changes into scratchy and unfashionable sackcloth. He insists that all his nobles and people do the same. They all promise to discontinue their thoughtless ways and they humbly ask God not to obliterate the city from the face of the earth. Watching this display of contrition, God is impressed and informs Jonah that this display of repentance is sufficient. Nineveh will be spared. Everyone is happy — God, the king, and all the residents. Everyone, that is, except Jonah.

The next twist in the story reveals the deeply human insight of some parts of the Bible. In a Disney film the townspeople would have carried Jonah off on their shoulders. There would have been a feast and fireworks and praise. Jonah would have smiled and said modestly that he had really done nothing – the appreciation should go to the people for their wise and mature actions and to God for God’s divine mercy. And after all the back-slapping and expressions of relief, everyone would have gone home and lived happily ever after.

But the Bible has a much more realistic view of human behavior. Jonah is not pleased that God has changed course, because, from Jonah’s standpoint, God has made Jonah look like an idiot. Day after day, the prophet had loudly foretold the downfall of Nineveh. He had endured – we can imagine — dismay, defiance, derision, and outright danger. Nonetheless, he had persisted. After all that hard work, his predictions turned out to be flat wrong. First, Jonah had fled as a coward. Then he reluctantly became a doomsayer. Now he had been proven a fool.

Jonah’s reaction to God’s mercy is both sharply comical and psychologically revealing. He stomps up to the top of an overlooking mountain, hoping against hope that God will go ahead with the original plan and reduce the city to rubble. To us – and apparently to God – Jonah’s massively self-centered ego is ridiculous, even offensive. But to Jonah this is no laughing matter: I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to do this, and now, at the very least, I should be proven right.

Instead of arguing with Jonah, God discovers a means of revealing the absurdity of his fury. As Jonah waits beneath the throbbing Iraqi sun, sweating and swearing as he awaits the fulfillment of his prediction, a tall plant grows up to give Jonah a little shade. Jonah is delighted with the plant – finally, something is going right! Then, equally quickly, the plant dies, and Jonah again vents his anger at God. Why did you kill of this plant, which was helping me? God’s ironic answer comes shooting straight back. Let me get this straight: you pity a plant that has been in existence for less than twenty-four hours, and you think it is wrong for me to have destroyed it, yet you have no sympathy for a huge city of more than 120,000 confused and ignorant human beings, some of whom, as the Hebrew scripture memorably puts it, don’t even “know their right hand from their left?”

The story stops right there, with the question hanging in the air, a brilliant punchline. Every listener had a lesson to take away and ponder.

But there is an implied, though unspoken additional question, one which in our day and age we made need to make explicit. The question to Jonah – and to us – might be expressed in this manner: is your self-importance, is your self-identity, is your lack of compassion so great that you would rather be right than that others would be forgiven?

Buried in the children’s story, in the ancient and slightly mocking tale lies one of the most important moral and political questions for any individual and for any society in any age. It strikes in every direction, at every form of hard-heartedness.

We can see how the story points most particularly at the problem of prophet: are you willing to risk being seen as a coward (if you choose to do nothing); or being shunned (for speaking out against something unpopular); or being proven wrong? This is a real risk for anyone foolish or pig-headed enough – as I have sometimes been – to point out distressing facts about the world. Human moral somnolence and inertia are powerful forces. It is for this reason that Jesus, in his prophetic role, spoke in frustration and wonderment at people who have “eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear.”

Over the last three or four decades I have seen people resist the prophetic word. I have done so myself.

I observed the blind eye which conservatives turned toward human rights violations in Central America because such authoritarian regimes suited America’s need for allies against Communism. I have also witnessed the left’s refusal to listen to or speak of the brutalities of Castro’s Cuba or Soviet tyranny.

I remember how hard it was to get anyone to care about a distant country in which whites who made up only 10% of the population exercised absolute political and economic control over the 90% black majority.

I recall how bored and impatient or angry people became when early advocates raised the possibility of planetary damage because carbon dioxide emissions might lead to something called “climate change.” And how resistant Wall Street was to thinking about sustainability, because they were certain that if something were truly important they would already have taken it into account.

Today I am battling the skepticism and fatigue – all understandable — of people who are so busy with the problems of today that they have little room for concern about tomorrow. So I am constantly pondering my own sometimes unattractive prophetic choices: should I become a coward, doomsayer, or fool? Often I plunge ahead anyway, hoping that if I am headed in the wrong direction, a whale will redirect me.

Right this minute I am sounding the alarm about how intensive neurological research is being used to entrap and fleece the poor through gambling addiction. Companies that design and build slot machines are like 21st century cigarette companies, exploring the profit potential of technological heroin and selling it to state legislatures – and poor people — as a solution to their financial problems. But the awareness of such abuses – and the necessary public outrage to stop them – is not yet common.

Even as I pursue something like this, I know that there are many topics – too many – that I shamefully ignore, unconsciously mimicking the priest on the road to Jericho who is too busy and self-important to notice all those who are lying beaten by the side of road.

I can tell sometimes, as I launch into another litany of concerns – blurting out a statistic in the middle of a dinner party or depositing some stark fact among the chirpy exclamations on Facebook – that I am at risk of running down my own Jonah-like pathway of coward, doomsayer, or fool. I would just as soon not bring this up. And I would, on balance, prefer people to like me. And I have no desire to be shown as having sounded a false alarm. The intensity of the prophetic life is such that I recognize – even as I describe it here that — I might also be tempted to want to be proven right rather than be laughed at as a person who worries and cares just a bit too much.

The story of Jonah, as powerful as it is for the person tempted to the arduous path of prophecy, also contains a caution for others who, in stating their views with self-confidence, might be looking for recognition of their superiority.

It asks of the harsh fundamentalist: are you so sure that you understand the inner nature of God that you can state with complete certainty that two people of the same gender cannot be married?

It asks of the smug economist: are you so convinced of the universality of self-interest that you feel it necessary to make light of the transformative power of self-sacrificial love and forgiveness?

It asks of the confident rationalist: are you so well informed about the nature of a universe stocked with billions upon billions of yet-to-be revealed secrets that you can affirm with absolute conviction that we are the highest form of consciousness ever to have existed or currently existing in the entire cosmos?

It asks of the romantic idealist: are you so persuaded that the studious avoidance of unhappy thoughts, the awkward denial of discomfort, the breezy superficiality of modern culture are a credible match for the ancient and ever-present realities of grief, evil, and death?

The story of Jonah is one of the great literary accomplishments of the human race, for in four short chapters in teaches us both the necessity and the dangers of prophetic courage, it laughs at our foibles, even as it unlocks our hearts.

In short, it gives us more than enough to ponder if we ever find ourselves with a little extra time in the belly of a dark whale.

The Untimely Death of An Ancient “Monster:” How Deregulation Led To Crisis More Than 170 Years Ago

In Business and Sustainability, Politics on February 11, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I found a fascinating lesson from the past about the present in an article written 53 years ago about a massive struggle that most of us have completely forgotten: the battle between Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States. Pulitzer Prize winning author Bray Hammond, in a piece published in American Heritage, argued that early nineteenth century Americans, thrilled with the power of “steam and credit” had a huge, relentless tendency to speculate. Hammond wrote that the young country needed a central bank to help curb the mounting swells of leverage that were fueling irrational investments. Andrew Jackson, however, felt a central bank was an attack on democracy, and he fought – successfully – to destroy it. His action unleashed even more speculation, which no force could deter, that eventually led to the Panic of 1837, a terrible recession that threw hundreds of thousands of American out of work.  Hammond does not blame Jackson directly – he says that Old Hickory was misled by his advisors, who deliberately duped the president.

In other words, a bubble might have been avoided through modest restraint – but a government ideologically committed to market fundamentalism stepped in to deregulate at exactly the wrong time. Sound familiar?

When I read this piece, I realized that the United States, like most countries, rotates around the same economic track over and over again.. Many historians have pointed this out – but somehow we have trouble learning it as a society. The older generation that remembers fades away and a new generation, full of optimism and exhilaration, unwilling to look backwards for any inspiration or guidance, rushes off the precipice again. So read this quotation and imagine what our world would have been like if we had read this article four or five years ago, and realized that we were speeding towards a similar conflict between the relentless drive of wild economic enthusiasm and the sobering restrictions necessary to stable growth and balanced prosperity.

Hammond’s piece had this initial summary: “Andrew Jackson battled the Bank of the United States with all his furious confidence. Was his victory the nation’s loss?”

“Andrew Jackson smote the bank fatally at the moment of its best performance and in the course of trends against which it was needed most. Thereby he gave unhindered play to the speculation and inflation that he was always denouncing. To a susceptible people the prospect was intoxicating. A continent abounding in varied resources and favorable to the maintenance of an immense population in the utmost comfort spread before the gaze of an energetic, ambitious, and clever race of men, who to exploit its wealth had two new instruments of miraculous potency: steam and credit. They forward into the bright prospect, trampling, suffering, succeeding, failing. There was nothing to restrain them. For about a century the big rush lasted. Now it is over.

And in a more critical mood we note that a number of things are missing or gone wrong. To be sure, we are on top of the world still, but it is not very good bookkeeping to omit one’s losses and count only one’s gains. That critical move was known to others than Jackson. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau felt it. So did an older and more experienced contemporary, Albert Gallatin, friend and aide in the past to Thomas Jefferson, and now p-resident of a New York bank but loyal to Jeffersonian ideals, “the energy of this nation,” he wrote to an old friend toward the end of Andrew Jackson’s administration, “is not be controlled; it is at present exclusively applied to the acquisition of wealth and to improvements of stupendous magnitude. Whatever has that tendency, and of course an immoderate expansion of credit, receives favor. The apparent prosperity and the progress of cultivation, population, commerce, and improvement are beyond expectation. But it seems to me as if general demoralization was the consequence; I doubt whether general happiness is increased; and I would have preferred a gradual, slower, and more secure progress. I am, however, an old man, and a young generation has a right to govern itself…” In these words, Mr. Gallatin was echoing the remark of Thomas Jefferson that “the world belongs to the living.” Neither Gallatin nor Jefferson, however thought it should be stripped by the living. Yet nothing but the inadequacy of their powers seems to have kept those nineteenth century generations from stripping it. And perhaps nothing else could.

But to the extent that credit multiplies man’s economic powers, curbs upon credit extension are a means of conservation, and an important means. The Bank of the United States was such a means. Its career was short and it had imperfections. Nevertheless, it worked. The evidence is in the protest of the bankers and entrepreneurs, the lenders and the borrowers, against its restraints. Their outcry against the oppressor was heard and Andrew Jackson hurried to their rescue. Had he not, some other way of stopping its conservative and steadying influence could doubtless have been found. The appetite for credit is avid, and Andrew Jackson knew in his day, and might have foretold for ours. But because he never meant to serve it, the credit for what happened goes rather to the clever advisors who led the old hero to the monster’s lair and dutifully held his hat while he stamped on its hea d and crushed it in the dust.

Meanwhile, the new money power had curled up securely in Wall Street, where it has been at home ever since.”

From “Jackson’s Fight With the “Monster””by Bray Hammond, A Sense of History: The Best Writing From the Pages of American Heritage, [New York: American Heritage Press, 1985] page 184-185

“BREAKING NEWS”: Why the New York Times and Harvard Should Merge

In Business and Sustainability, Education, Politics on February 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm

The business model – which is another way of saying the underlying purpose – of just about everything is changing right now, and that includes the university and the newspaper.

Consider these parallels:

What is the purpose of a newspaper?

To establish a network of fact-seekers (correspondents) who pass information to a group of quality control processors (editors) who repackage the information for consumption as articles (and books) for a group of people (readers and other learners) eager to find out what is going on in the world.

What is the purpose of a university?

To establish a network of fact-seekers (researchers and students) who pass on information to a group of quality control processors (faculty members) who repackage the information as articles (and books) for a group of people (students and other learners) eager to find out what is going on in the world.

So what is the difference between these two institutions?

Most of them are rooted in history and the physical (and thus economic) limits to the collection and transfer of information.

Universities were invented in the ancient world and again in the Middle Ages.  They were designed to collect elite learners around a library, which is a big building full of information packaged into scrolls or books — the earliest form of a server. As libraries got bigger, information became harder to locate, which launched the new profession of librarians. And because the increasing quantities of information became difficult to navigate on one’s own, universities created separate, epistemologically bounded “disciplines” with professional guides and explorers, known as “professors.”

Newspapers were invented in the age of greater literacy and decentralized printing to communicate information rapidly. But to gather that information they needed to disperse correspondents, send information back to a centralized group of editors, who sorted it into “news” articles that were redistributed back to a dispersed group of learners. Getting the newspaper delivered to your front door is perhaps the earliest form of the Internet.

Of course, there were and are some important differences.

Journalism, in its rush for the new, is often seen as the “first draft of history.” Academic research, through its slower, more deliberative pace, weighs information comparatively, over a longer arc of time, disconnected from some of the passions of the moment.

But both of these are really points on a continuum. Journalists have found that in addition to breaking stories, they need to do analysis. Academicians have discovered that in addition to reviewing the past, they need to pay attention to the the future.

And everybody writes articles, whether for academic journals or magazines or blogs.

What are some of the other similarities that might move the notion of such a merger from a bizarre idea to a practical possibility and then to a necessity?

• Students in universities are eager to keep to track of what is happening so that they can find their way in the world outside their institutions.

• Adults outside instiutions often want to share discoveries and wisdom and continue learning in greater depth throughout their lives.

• Currently both universities and newspapers rely on the same old-fashioned and restrictive business model: they try to channel the flow of information into a bottleneck which they control, and then they charge people for access to the information. We know that some forms of learning can only take place among actual human beings learning from each other in “meatspace” (though I prefer the term “meetspace.”) But as both the news and the human intellectual genome bottled up in colleges are increasingly released on to the Internet for free, the justification for these forms of restriction will begin to fall. And more and more are recognizing that global free education is a right, not a privilege. Equally important, it is possible.

• Newspapers are trying to shore themselves up by competing with universities for endowments. Universities are trying to earn more money by competing for readers with newspapers. Newspapers take money for corporations for advertising. Universities take money from corporations for research. Why not set good, strong, ethical guidelines — bring the two together, so that both are enabled to become less reliant on commercial interest?

Here’s the thought experiment: if Harvard University formally merged with the New York Times, then every Harvard student could potentially become a reporter for the paper as they roamed the world.

And every reporter could take time off and be refreshed as a teacher, a learner, a researcher not driven by deadline. And every professor could become a potential Paul Krugman (though admittedly, Krugman is formally at Princeton).

Both institutions are committed, in theory, to objectivity and fairness, in other words, to veritas. And now “all the news that is fit to print” can no longer be contained on a few sheets of reprocessed dead tree.

Yes, yes, I know that there will be debates about quality and access, about the role of advertising, about competition (what about other newspapers and other universities?), and especially about the other purposes of education – such as passing on the values of moderation and citizenship. Those debates should happen.

But there are 6.5 billion people on the planet – including more than 420 million people in India under the age of 18. 96% of the world’s human eyeballs are not American. The current model is only slightly better at passing on information to the majority of humans as the European monastery was for teaching the great masses of serfs and peasants.

If everything were working fine, the idea of merging information-gathering and information-processing entities might be absurd.

Instead, as universities struggle and newspapers collapse, it may end up being our future.

In an era when it would be cheaper for the New York Times to buy a Kindle reader for every subscriber rather than to keep cutting down trees, when more and more people get their news on Google than through a subscription to any one paper, and when universities are trying to blow up the walls and silos that keep their brilliant employees from solving multidisciplinary problems and to share the courses openly on the Internet, we need to rethink how information and education are linked — from scratch.

If Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust doesn’t call publisher New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. soon, he should call her. And then some very, very interesting things will happen.

And remember – you read it here first!

Figuring This Thing Out – Plus A Great Video — and Some Action Steps

In Politics on February 4, 2009 at 4:21 pm

One of the pieces of advice I have read about writing a blog is that one should keep it fresh – write something regularly, everyone says, or people will give up on you.

“No problem,” I thought, “I have tons to say.” And that is true. Except that over the last two weeks I have written some really great blogs in my head, and none that have made it on to the cyberpage. I am still prone to “writing-the-perfect-piece-for-a-finicky-magazine-editor” syndrome rather than “blurt-it-out-the-way-you-do-emails-and-at-dinner-parties.”

(Not that I am invited to that many dinner parties. Hummh…..)

The other piece of advice that people seem to give is 1) have a clear focus for your blog and 2) keep your postings short. I must admit that I am pretty far away from the first one because I am interested in a lot of things. I think it is going to take another 50 or 60 posts before I find my clearest voice.

I am also fighting a lot of battles, and I am not quite sure which ones would be of interest to a wider group. I guess the answer is – we’ll find out. And I am struggling with the inevitable ups and downs of disease, which means that the ideas I have in the morning tend to disappear when I get groggy in the afternoon.

But here’s my current promise: I am going to write at least once a week, and hopefully twice. I think I might be able to pull off a posting on Monday and again on Thursday. I haven’t been able to figure out how to attach a Feedburner box to this site to that people can sign up to be notified about new things. I think you can do an RSS feed on your browser (you can check on me) but until I figure out this Feedburner thing, I can’t notify you. I will get it eventually…

Finally, I think I need to stop thinking about the “carefully reasoned 1,000 word essay” as the right model. Instead I am going to shoot for: an interesting alert of things that are part of my “View of the World from Sycamore Street” And maybe make it 300-500 words long.

plus “super brief commentary on public events”

plus “great quotes from books I am reading that seem relevant to today”

plus “requests for action or advice”

plus the aforementioned essays, thoughtfully reasoned or not.

I will get the hang of this! My mother, quoting someone whose name is lost to me, has often said that “success in writing is directly proportional to the amount of time the bottom is applied to the chair.” And since I am mostly writing from bed, I should have some eventual success (whatever “success” might be). In the meantime, we are in the midst of an increasingly painful battle in Massachusetts as our otherwise excellent governor, Deval Patrick, goes down the awful and irrevocable road of bringing slot machines into this state as a quick fix for the state’s stark financial problems. Of course, he could raise the gas tax a few cents, because gasoline is down more than $2.00 from last summer.

Unfortunately his important aspirations in other areas (education, health care) have blinded him to the human problems of addiction. So we are taking some steps to help him and the others in the legislature see. I know that most people haven’t been thinking about this – that’s okay. This is one of those problems that creeps up on you. Or, to be blunt, is snuck by you as huge, secretive money interests knock off one state after another. It is the sleeper social justice issue of the next few years. I strongly recommend that you watch this amazing video.

There are also some wonderful things on Facebook, such as “Stop the Swindle” – check that out and sign up. Also, check out – parts of the site are somewhat dated from the battle last March, but now that Speaker of Massachusetts Sal DiMasi has been pushed out of office and has been replaced by a pro-slots state rep, the battle is much tougher.

If you want to call Governor Deval Patrick’s office, please do 617-725-4005. It takes literally one minute. But in politics every phone call is assumed to equal 100 people. Please don’t put this off. They may try to ram this through quickly. In Pennsylvania, the vote was taken at midnight on the 4th of July on a voice vote — under a Democratic governor and legislature.

If you live in Massachusetts, please also call your state rep and state senator. Remember Alice’s restaurant – if they hear from three people, it’s a movement!

Here’s a list of State Reps and Senators.

And here’s how to find out who your rep is, if you don’t know.

I will be writing a more thoughtful and reasoned essay on this in a while (surprise) – indeed I will probably writing more than one — but right now, I wanted you to know: I am still out here, I would love to hear from you.

I thank you for everything you are already doing in your busy life!

A Eulogy for Catherine Elizabeth Osgood Chanock

In Theology and Spirituality on January 24, 2009 at 11:42 pm

On Thursday, January 15, Beth Chanock, the mother of my closest friend, Stephen, died abruptly and unexpectedly of heart failure at the age of 80 in Maryland.  Anne, Kate, and I flew down the next day.   When we arrived Stephen picked us up at the airport and asked me to deliver the eulogy at the memorial service the next day. I wrote this late that night and early the next morning, and I am posting it here in Beth’s honor and in gratitude for everything that the Chanock family has meant to me — and to hundreds of others. 

If we know one thing about love, it is that in this world love takes many forms.

And if we know one thing about love in a single person’s life, it is that love is made manifest in many ways.

We are all here because we loved Beth Chanock.  And we are all here because we were loved by Beth Chanock.

I would like each of you to pick an image of her in your mind, and to hold that image for a few minutes while I speak about her.  

I would be willing to bet that most of you have chosen an image that includes her beautiful smile.  I see her whole face glowing with delight, with the remarkable widow’s peak that crowned her dark and then grey hair and her sparkling eyes crinkled with amusement – a face animated by the generous laughter that bubbled out of her when she thought something was funny. 

And she thought a lot of things were funny.  

Over the last two days, as people have learned of her death and have reached out to her family, Stephen and Lizette have noticed how many people use the metaphor of family to describe their bond to Beth. 

She “made me feel like a member of her family,” so many people have said.

“She was another sister to me.”

“She was a second mother to me.”

“She was a grandmother to me and to my circle of friends.” 

And we were all family to her.

Each of us has our own particular memories, our own stories about how she changed us.  Each of us can point to a moment when she entered our lives and how our lives were never again the same.

For some, like Bob or Stephen or Lizette, or Nicholas or Christopher or Alexander or Sabrina, Beth’s presence and Beth’s gifts quite literally give birth to a whole new universe of life and joy.

For others, like me, like so many of you, Beth swirled into view with the brilliant energy of the dancer that she always was.   It was almost like being seated on the edge of a party, and having this fantastic woman sweep out of nowhere and grab your hand, and tug you with laughter on to the dance floor.

From the moment I met Beth Chanock she embraced me unconditionally.  Then she drew me – as did all of us — round and round, through her humor, and her delight, and her absolutely inexhaustible generosity, pulling us, no matter how clumsy or resistant we might at first be, through new steps and new places on the dance floor of own lives.

Each of us has our own memories.  Mine include those first moments when I met the astonishing Stephen Chanock and – was it possible? – his equally astonishing brother and mother and father.   They all welcomed me with magnetic warmth.  Bob gave me a nickname and told me funny stories and opened new doors to palaces of the mind and of culture.  Foster teased me with some wry comment and challenged me always to be better than I thought I could be.    Beth met me at the door with food, and books, and towels to protect my lap from the drool of their four St. Bernards.

And what a patient family they were.   More than thirty years ago, when Stephen and Foster were going to be away for a summer, and Beth found I needed a place to stay, she placed me into their rooms – for three months.  

I never found out whether they had been informed of this in advance.  

Around this time I was taking Chinese and Vietnamese cooking lessons and knowing of Bob and Beth’s love for these cuisines, I decided to express my appreciation through an eight course meal.   I think it is fair to say that in launching on this project, in almost every sense including the literal one, I had “bitten off more than I could chew.” 

In the course of my preparations I used every single bowl and pot and plate and platter in the house.  I wore out the blade of every knife and fired up the oven and every burner on the stove and the grill on the porch.  I emptied and filled and re-emptied and re-filled the refrigerator with concoctions.   I covered every inch of Chanock kitchen with evidence of my culinary genius. 

I think I splattered enough sesame oil and minced ginger and chopped vegetables and marinated meats and exotic spices on myself and on the counters, floors, and some even say the ceiling of Beth’s kitchen to have served at least twice the number of people who came that night.   But even as her amusement – and horror – mounted as she witnessed the well-intentioned devastation being visited on her own home, she offered me nothing but encouragement.

When at about 11 PM – four hours late — I finally presented them with my hot and sour soup, my shrimp toasts and spring rolls, my salted black bean spiced chicken, my five spiced marinated drumsticks with apricot sauce, and my beef with oyster sauce all accompanied by mountains of singed rice and some colossally inedible failure of a dessert she complimented me on this stupendously foolhardy project.  I beamed with pride as Bob and Beth ate.  

I did not learn until much later that it took Beth and a small army of cleaners about a week to put that kitchen back into shape.  She knew that my errors flowed from my impossible aspiration to offer a proportional response to their unending generosity.

We all have our memories.  At some later moment, when the transmission of my crumbling 1971 Buick Skylark finally fell abruptly out on to the ground not far from her house, she drove over to meet me, parked her car a block away, and then phoned AAA, a service to which I could not afford to subscribe.  She calmly told them that she had been driving her friend’s car and something seemed to be wrong with it, and would they mind towing it to a service station?   They agreed,  thus saving me the $150 that would have represented  a week of my salary if I had had it in the bank.  

And that same summer, Beth sat by my bedside for most of two nights and three days as I battled a fever that shot up to 103 degrees.  She calmed my hallucinations, reassuring me in her gentle, deep, soft voice, all the while stroking my head with a cold cloth and offering me timely medication and fluids.

And so it went, in large ways and small, through the thirty-five years I knew her.   Through such experiences – and hundreds of others – that Beth manifested her love to me, a love disconnected from my own worthiness to receive it and my impoverished capacity to return in kind.

As Stephen reminded me last night, when I graduated from college, she gave me the key to her house so that I would know that the welcome that had been mine in the past would remain forever mine in the future.  She did the same thing literally and figuratively to many of us here.

There is a secret here.   Somewhere in her life Beth discovered how to drill right down through the bedrock that seems to limit many of our individual capacities to love.   Unlike many of us she drew from some unlimited aquifer of compassion, and that enabled her to water and tend and feed such a huge botanical garden of human specimens that she discovered and collected throughout her life.   

What a magnificent parade of people came through her house, many of them drooping and parched when they arrived but blooming with new strength and vitality when they left her presence and her care.  

At the center of her garden was her husband Bob, into whose arms she threw herself with characteristic abandon as a young woman, and to whom she devoted a full lifetime of passion and attention.  

And also at the center were her sons, first Foster and then Stephen.  And then the daughters that her sons brought home, Dorie and Lizette, and then her grandchildren, for whom she felt the most expansive and thrilling joy and pride, and in whose honor I believe the verb “to dote” was invented.

Our lives seem to be bounded and organized by chronological time.  We enter the flow of each other’s lives at particular moments, and we float together as the unstoppable currents of time carry us downstream, a great tubing party through the canyons of decades. 

But in a rare moment like this, we are permitted to step off on to the bank, and to climb to some higher point, and from there we can suddenly see the canyons, rivers and tributaries from a distance – where they came from, how they intertwine.  Time falls away and we can experience the unity of a person’s life. 

We can think about Beth’s life from beginning to end, from her days in Massachusetts, to her time in California and Ohio and Japan and Maryland, all in one piece.   We can feel, simultaneously, the joy of having known her and the sorrow of having lost her.  

And if we climb a little higher, we can see how her the light from her life illuminates our own, not only in the past, but in the future, as we carry forward the gifts she gave to us and as we commit ourselves, in her name, to passing similar gifts on to others. 

And if we rise higher still, we can see what a truly stupendous world we live in, all these lives bound together, through interconnections in time and space, held in unfathomable unity — from the most infinitely small pieces of life all the way out past our own world to the riotous galaxies in whose midst we are all swirling, at this very moment, and in this very place.

We navigate our lives in comfortable vessels of familiarity that are themselves floating across an ocean of mystery.  

We don’t know the boundaries or limits of love, or whether such boundaries or limits even exist.  We receive glimpses of the infinite from the intricacies that lie within and around us, from the songs of interwoven happiness and the light-filled rhythm of human lives, but at some point these eventually draw us out to the vast and silent expanses — beyond our experience and even our existence. 

All seems bound together by a power and continuity that we do not comprehend and cannot master, and about which we can only speak through the limits of our language and the depths of our faith.

But if there is one thing we know about love, it is that in this world it takes many forms.   And it has many names. 

And one of those names was Beth. 

/\/\ END /\/\


Memory and Amnesia

In Politics on January 22, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Some reflections two days after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

America lives eternally pitched forward, and never was the angle more acute than on Tuesday at the Mall when Barack Obama became the President of the United States. 

In our headlong rush into our own future, we often are quite content to leave huge chunks of our memory – and our history – behind.  And over the past few days I have pondered how this is both good and bad.

Every one of the 1.8 million who are estimated to have crammed on to the Mall – a number that would have been equal to nearly 50% of the country’s entire population at the time of the Revolution. – had his or her own memories, and these memories accounted for the tears and cheers captured in so many of the photographs of the moment.

As I rolled (for I was in a wheelchair) with Anne and Kate on to the Mall, I found myself thinking about a different inauguration, one that that took place twenty years ago. 

On January 20, 1989, George H. W. Bush took the oath of office.   I was not in Washington on that day, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the day had dawned rainy and grey.   I was graduate student at Harvard University, just finishing my dissertation.  

A decade before I had been deeply moved by the first inauguration to which I really paid close attention, which was that of Jimmy Carter in 1977.   It was not the pageantry that touched me, but the simple sight of the peaceful transfer of power from Gerald Ford to the new president.   The campaign had been hard fought, Carter had defeated an appointed (though incumbent) president, and now the country was moving forward into new territory.  I found myself choked up by the majestic ease of this moment.

In 1989 though I had not supported George H. W. Bush, I was hopeful that I would again experience this cleansing effect.   Yet as I started watching the television coverage and I found myself drenched in anger and misery. 

It took me a few minutes of self-diagnosis to locate the origin of these disturbing thoughts.    What infuriated me was the fawning tone of the news commentators, men and women so caught in the moment of saying hopeful and praiseworthy things about the new president that they seemed to have forgotten the shameful price that Bush had been willing to pay to win office.

I am referring specifically to the horrific piece of race-baiting that the Republican campaign pursued in the Willy Horton attacks.   For those who may not remember it, these were filthy tactics in which the frightening mug-shot of a bearded black man – “every suburban housewife’s nightmare,” as the ad’s creator put it — was broadcast around the country to destroy Michael Dukakis’ candidacy.   Horton had been released for a weekend on a furlough program while Dukakis was governor, and during one of his absences from prison he brutally raped and stabbed two people.

The superficial point of the ad was Dukakis was soft on crime and thus somehow responsible for these acts.  The deeper – and racist — subtext was that Dukakis would not protect whites from the violently criminal impulses of black Americans.

It was slander, chosen specifically for its explosive content.   The most offensive television ad about Horton was made by Larry McCarthy, a former assistant to Roger Ailes, now the head of Fox News.  Information about the furlough program came from Andrew Card, a Massachusetts State Senator who later became George W. Bush’s chief of staff.   The Horton ad was powerful because when shown to focus groups it caused voters to shift from Dukakis to Bush almost instantaneously.  

Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manage said at the time that he intended to make Horton a household name, better known than his running mate.   In 1991, when Atwater was dying of cancer, he apologized to Dukakis for the whole tawdry event.   The apology was appropriate, but the damage had been done, because it, more than anything else, won the presidency for the first president Bush.

In 1989 the outrage of the Horton ad still burned in me, though on the day of the inauguration I felt like I was the only person who remembered it.   The sight of so many happy faces talking about the virtues of the new president seemed to confirm an elementary truth about American politics: shamelessness wins.  The pomp of the day seemed to proclaim that no matter how terrible one’s words or dishonorable one’s deeds, the amnesia that is one of America’s best – and worst – characteristics, would always reward those willing to wallow in slime.

On that rainy day this unhappy view pulled me away from the television set.   Instead, I walked over to the chapel of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.  This is a small Episcopal community of monks who live and worship in a monastery on the banks of the Charles River, tucked right in among the buildings of Harvard University.

I spent several hours in prayer, trying to rinse away my bitterness at the collective loss of memory, hoping that the day would come when our national capacity for amnesia could be put to better use and that America would find a new way to practice politics.

And then, two days ago, on Inauguration Day 2009, that day arrived.  Exactly twenty years later, I found myself not on my knees in a monastery but standing between the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol, watching, again, the miracle of renewal that is America at its best.  This time American amnesia was being put to it correct use. 

Though Obama himself was careful to honor the struggles of those who had gone before, the tens of millions who watched him take the oath were willing to cast aside the varied forms of personal and public anguish of the past.   Either they did not know what happened or they no longer cared.  Time had perhaps not healed all wounds, but it had healed enough.

And though we will certainly keep talking about race in American politics, everyone on the Mall, and in the country, and perhaps on the whole planet, understood that one question has forever been laid to rest.   

 For most of my life, the question was so powerful that it was almost never directly asked: when would America ever be ready to elect an African-American president?   And until two days ago, the answer could only be: a long, long time in the future.  So long that it was too painful to think about. 

 Now, abruptly, that moment is in the past.

 What is remarkable is that soon this reality will no longer be remarkable.  

My sons, who both voted this fall, are too young to remember Willy Horton.   Professors of modern American history teach about the massive wound of race that has festered for nearly four centuries, but the story of Horton and the campaign of 1988 has already been superseded by George H. W. Bush’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton, W’s abuse of patriotism as a weapon of electoral division, and finally, of course, the superlative transformation wrought by the election of 2008.

So standing on the mall, shoulder to shoulder with so many Americans, black and white, from all over the country, and of every age, many of whom had walked a long weary road over many years to stand next to each other in the frigid wind, I thought of another great historical transformation which I had witnessed, as an international observer at the South African elections in 1994 in South Africa. 

 I thought specifically of the marvelous passage from the memoir The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs, a long-time member of the African National Congress.  Though Sachs lost an eye and an arm to a car-bombing by the South African secret police, he returned to post-apartheid South Africa and became a justice of the new Constitutional Court (equivalent to our Supreme Court).  Standing in line at those same elections that I had witnessed, Sachs wondered:

Did things just happen, or did we make things come about?  I knew that nothing we were living through had just come to pass.  We had willed it all, worked for it, never given up, never let go of the basic ideas.  Yes, we had believed – belief had been fundamental – but we had backed it up with endless hard work, and learned how to do things together, and to accommodate the fears and interests of others, and to survive the sarcasm and disbelief of those who regarded themselves as more knowledgeable than ourselves about what they called the real world, and we just kept on going on and on until at last the impossible became first feasible, then real, and finally inevitable.

The presidency of Barack Obama is an idea that has made a similar transition – from impossible to feasible and now to real. 

We may not quite prepared to call it inevitable.  But we have crossed the boundary into the utterly astounding.  

More than once our nation – born in devotion to freedom — has lost complete track of its ideals, but now they have again been found.  And the future — for which we had longed, and to which many had been blind – is something that we have now seen.  

It has moved from unreasonable aspiration to unforgettable memory, from that which we could only perceive dimly to what we now have seen face to face.

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A New Birth of Freedom – An Advance Text of Obama’s First Inaugural (sort of)

In Politics on January 19, 2009 at 10:17 pm

 I know this is pretentious, but after writing my previous piece on presidential speaking, I thought I would try my hand at drafting my own guess of what Obama’s First Inaugural Address might include. I wrote this over the last 48 hours and I am posting it fourteen hours before we know what Obama’s speech actually contains. (Keep in mind that Obama has been on his speech with Jon Favreau for two months). I kept in mind that Barack Obama has been extremely disciplined about framing and retaining certain key themes, and these appear below. For the record: I have not read any of the articles that are predicting his themes. This is simply my own personal guess – one of many that one could – about the kinds of language we might hear. I look forward to hearing from you – and to seeing myself – how close I make it to the real mark.

My fellow Americans, I stand before you with both pride and humility as we prepare to take another step together on our great national journey.

When we began this improbable trip more than two years ago, I said that this was not about me. It was about you.

Two years I thought I knew this nation.  But, now, after traveling so many ribbons of highway and endless skyways, from some of our smallest towns to our greatest cities, from the majestic purple mountains and from sea to shining sea, I learned to love this country even more deeply than I knew was possible.

And I saw your faces. I heard your voices. I understand in new ways what we can do together.

We said that we would bring change to America. And we did.

We did so not by tearing down what was wrong, but by building up what is right. We have done so not but pulling us apart, but by bringing us together. We should pause for a moment to acknowledge the many who came before us who gave everything they had so that we could be here today, the heirs to their timeless commitment to freedom and to equality.

We remember those who conceived this nation in liberty and dedicated it to the proposition that we all are created equal. We remember those who devoted every waking hour and when necessary laid down their lives as a measure of their full devotion to this .

We remember those who walked the stony road, who carried the heavy burden, who spoke the truthful word, and who paid the fearful price. We honor them not through our power but through our promise to rededicate ourselves to the hope and the dream. They trusted in things they could not see, yet they kept on going. They faced terrible odds, but they kept on going. They held to the faith that this nation could, no matter what the obstacles, find the unity and the strength and the courage to pre We honor them all.

And now we must demonstrate that we are their rightful heirs to our ancestors by showing that now, in our time, in this place, in this nation, and at this time we too came together as one people and to take the next step down the road of liberty.

Now again, we face a time of great challenge and great change. The dark clouds of discontent and disruption have rolled across our skies.

We are a nation at war. We must find a path to peace. 

We are nation confounded by loss. We must return to the path of prosperity. We are a nation with a proud heritage, to whom others have looked for moral leadership, and we must strengthen that tradition.

In every thing we do we must carry before us the knowledge that despite our difficulties, we are not alone. We are not alone in this world in our struggles, nor are we alone in our commitment to resolve them. We know that despite the differences within this country and across this planet, every human being deserves and desires to be free from hunger, injustice, and oppression.

This is a long task that will not be completed by one person or within any one presidency. It is the never-ending task of the entire American people. We are standing at a crossroads, with many choices before us. We still have much to do and far to go. We are not afraid because we are full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
we are filled with the hope that the present has brought us.

We may grow weary, but we will not stop.

We may need to hold each other up, but we will never hold each other back.

We may falter, but we will never fail.

We can only make this improbable and demanding voyage if we do so as one people, bound by our common purpose, guided by our beloved constitution, proud of our shared identity as a united people in these United States.

We cannot do this alone. We must come together, dream together, strive  together again.

Our unity must flow not from our constant agreement, but from our mutual respect. It comes not from any one party or person, but from the process of democracy itself. It bubbles up from the ground and flows down from the mountaintop, rolling down like waters, bringing forth justice like an ever-flowing stream.

I commit myself in our urgent here and now to do all in my power, imperfect though I am, to lead us toward new birth of freedom. And today I call on you as well: will you join me in the next steps on our endless road to renewal?

Will you play the part that is uniquely yours in the unfolding story of America?

Will you accept the responsibility and the privilege and the courage and the joy that come from knowing that our beloved country is poised and ready to do what has never been done?

If you do, then I know that no matter what stands in our way, we will persist and we will prevail. The clouds will roll back, the dawn will shine forth, and we will stride together towards the light of our brighter future.

Thank you and God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Borrowing Words: Some Thoughts on Oral Tradition in Advance of Obama’s Speech

In Politics on January 15, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I have not read Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, which still lies a few days in the future, but I am confident that it will enter the pantheon of top ten inaugural addresses.   

And it will do this not only because he – and his team – will find wonderful and evocative new phrases, but because his speech will also resonate with old rhythms and references.  We will find ourselves moved not only because he will point us forward, but because he will also reach back in order to strike the mystic chords of memory deep in the American mind.

Sound at all familiar?

Most of those who love U.S. history will know already I borrowed the words of one President to compliment another.   Whose?  Lincoln’s – from the final sentence of his first inaugural address. 

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory …will yet swell the chorus of the Union….

So – today’s question – was I plagiarizing Lincoln or was I relying on our common knowledge of the mighty code that shapes our national values and political culture?

The press always seems horrified when one person – particular a politician, who is assumed to be a hypocrite — is found to be using someone’s else words.   I understand the elementary moral logic of this – don’t steal someone else’s property.   But sometimes we all seem to lose control of the concept.   

Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been through the mill of criticism on the use of other’s words.

When Barack Obama was criticized for his elevated rhetoric during his campaign, he turned around and rebutted the attacks with quotations from various major pieces of American literature, lightly mocking the idea that words were not important in and of themselves.

We hold these truths to be self-evident… just words.”  Ask not what your country can do for you, but you can do for your country … just words.” 

The problem for Obama was that this particularly brilliant formulation had originated not with him, but with Deval Patrick, our governor here in Massachusetts, a warm and wonderful speaker in his own right.   Patrick had invented and used the exact same phrasing several times towards the end of his campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 2006.   I heard Patrick myself roll out the phrases in a speech at Powderhouse Park in Somerville during the summer of that campaign.  

People attacked Obama for using Patrick’s words, even though Obama and Patrick are close friends, Patrick wanted him to use them, and Obama had inadvertently slipped – through the tedium of repetition — from carefully attributing the phrases to Patrick to simply using them.

Some will remember that when Joe Biden ran for President in 1988 he was forced to withdraw from the race after plagiarizing Neil Kinnock.   David Greenberg, writing in Salon at the end of August in 2008, put it this way

Biden’s downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock’s material fit with the story he was trying to sell.

Greenberg goes on to attack Biden for other instances of plagiarism and uses these examples to question whether he had adequately been vetted.

I have been a university professor and I know that the unattributed use of others’ work is a serious problem, especially in the age of the Internet.  I am also the son of two authors who have made their livings carving sentences out of thin air – and who have both been plagiarized at different times.  So I don’t view it lightly.

At the same time, I am a preacher.  A good many of the words I have delivered in public have been expositions of other people’s words – most notably those of Jesus.  And I am mindful that in Jesus’ day and age, most people could not read and so the primary medium for communication was the spoken word.  And the more memorable that spoken word was, the better. 

Indeed, the gospels record the words and actions of Jesus preserved in the memories, compiled in different ways and different times, by people who had heard what Jesus had said.   Thus we have Jesus in Luke saying “Blessed are the poor” and in Matthew saying “Blessed are in poor in spirit.”

One major cultural transition that we have undergone is that many people no longer understand references to Biblical stories and language.  This gap allowed Mark Gerson to write skillful references into George Bush’s speeches that could be heard by religious conservatives as references to Christian hymns and scripture, while those same comments swept past other Americans unnoticed.

But this gap also makes for real confusion.

Quick – who said: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”?   Most people would say Lincoln.   And it’s true.  But he was quoting Jesus.

And who said: “Let justice roll down waters”?   Martin Luther King.  Yes, but he was quoting the prophet Amos.

And (for extra credit) who said “some people see things that are and ask ‘“why?”  I see things that never were and ask: “why not?’”  Bobby Kennedy?   Correct – but he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.

The media confusion that can build up about this is quite amusing.   The most loopy example of hysteria came this past summer from right-wing-absurdist-artist-cum-anchorman Steve Doocy, who accused Barack Obama of quoting Mario Cuomo “practically verbatim.”    On June 17, Jon Stewart brilliantly satirized Doocy’s looniness by putting up the two supposedly matching quotes and identifying that they shared exactly three words: “of”, “to”, and “we.”

But let’s take a look at a real string of verbal tradition.   Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention address is considered one of the greatest American speeches of the late 20th century.  This is an excerpt:

Ten days ago,  President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill….

Mr. President … the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

Cuomo was attacking Reagan’s use of the “city on the hill” imagery.  Reagan, in turn,  was quoting John Winthrop’s speech on board the Arabella before he landed in Massachusetts in 1630.   And Winthrop was in turn quoting the Sermon on the Mount – thus, again, Jesus.

This is not plagiarism.  This is a cultural conversation over several centuries.   In holding a conversation within such a community, we rely on shared knowledge that is rooted in phrases and stories.   That’s one reason comedy is so hard to translate – to appreciate a joke, we often have to understand the rich context in which it sits.

The problem of drawing the line between plagiarism and oral tradition is particularly acute when it comes to telling stories.  When I heard that Donald Neale Walsh had been criticized for using someone else’s touching story about a Christmas pageant, I thought, “uh oh, that sounds bad.” 

But then I realized that I tell dozens of stories of unknown origin.  I don’t say that they happened to me.   But I can no longer remember exactly where I heard them.

Indeed, when I first started preaching more than two decades ago I realized that I desperately needed good stories to spice up my thin theological perspectives.  So I began to collect anecdotes.  When I heard a good tale, I wrote it down.  And being an earnest scholar, I often tried to record the source.  Often that was unsatisfying.   I had heard the story on the radio.  I had heard someone tell it at a dinner party.  I had read it in a waiting room in a doctor’s office.

As I told the stories over the years, I gradually reshaped them.  I figured out what moved people, where the emphasis should lie, how the punch-line should be framed.  And, in doing so, many of these stories became like old friends who I can bring forward and introduce to new people.   Yet through years of doing this, I know no longer remember how to attribute them. 

And the truth is that no one, sitting at a dinner table, would want me to take the time  to share the detailed provenance of every anecdote or illustration.   It would look like – and be – pure pedantry.

Telling good stories is a waning art.  Abraham Lincoln was superb at it.   It would be a shame if people killed off this lovely form because they were anxious about being blamed for having told something that began somewhere else.  Almost everything begins somewhere else.  

Of course, I still follow a few rules.  I don’t say that things happened to me that did not take place.   I don’t quote people directly without attribution.   But I do make references – clumsy or clever, silly or sly – to things that other people have said, including people in the Bible or people in politics or even people in my own family.  This is how culture is created and passed on.  We share our words and our stories and pass them on to each other, across the oceans and down through the ages. 

There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, with that.


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