Friday, December 25, 2009

On Retreat, Holy Cross Abbey, 09OCT06, Tuesday AM

It's been awhile since I posted any retreat notes. I meant to post them right away. Don't know if it's even a good thing to do to post them at this late date.

09OCT06 (AM Tuesday): At Mass this AM the Gospel reading was Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was upset because Mary wouldn’t help.
Jesus said “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things”
Me too. All of them come to me being here – being away from work, family, etc. and felling a little guilty about getting to be here. Thinking about all who cannot.
Then Jesus says “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her”
My prayer for today is that I focus on the ONE thing I came here to do. No thoughts of what my future may hold.
Just today.
“Do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matthew 6:34)
These are words that have meant a lot to me. They are hard – I have a tendency to worry. They are hard but comforting.
It is also interesting that prefacing this is the verse that says “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides (Matthew 6:35). More hard words.
I can confidently say that I never do this (seek first his kingdom). Instead I just worry, worry, worry, where it’s all going to come from.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Retreat, Holy Cross Abbey, 09OCT05 (PM Monday)

09OCT05 (PM Monday): Most of the day spent getting here. Very pretty site. Retreat House beautiful, chapel beautiful, grounds beautiful. VERY quiet (except for mooing cows).

Hit the library first – not a lot of books – I found one – Engaging the world with Merton, On Retreat in Tom’s Hermitage by M. Basil Pennington. I’ve seen this book before but never bought it.

His goal for the retreat is:

“Some renewing experience of God and Contemplative Time. Some clarity on my vocational question”

Sounds a LOT like the first things I thought about when I came here, or first decided to do this.

Went to Vespers at 5:30, Compline at 7:30. Very interesting. Don’t know if I’ll make Vigils at 3:30AM. Certainly 7AM. I think as Pennington did in his retreat, I’ll build mine around the service times as well.

Was reading Matthew 5 before Compline. How good of a job do we as 21st Century Christians do with any of that? Anger? Adultery? Retaliation? Love of Enemies? Wow. Not too good. It’s all “in your face”.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”

I want to hunger and thirst for righteousness this week.

God protect my family this night.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Economies and James

For the last month or so, the weekly Mass readings have focused on the book of James.

For me, this has been an especially gut wrenching time in the word - extremely humbling.

From the week of 6 September 2009 (James 2:1-5):

"My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please, ”while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?"

From the week of 13 September 2009 (James 2:14-18)

"If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,and one of you says to them,“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”but you do not give them the necessities of the body,what good is it? So also faith of itself,if it does not have works, is dead."

And, finally tonight, one of the most hard hitting pieces of scripture I think I've ever heard proclaimed (James 5:1-6):

"Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,your gold and silver have corroded,and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud;and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance."

To me, this last passage sounds a LOT like a description of a lot of people who worked on Wall Street and other places and made a lot of money (and then lost it all) off of innocent investors with risky behavior.

What's interesting to me is that people who are in the habit of interpreting scripture literally and cherry picking verses never seem to talk much about these types of passages. That is because it seems to me to be a scathing indictment of how churches treat people, how individual Christians treat people, and the last passage seems to be a scathing indictment of the type of "Capitalism" that we saw from Wall Street.

A lot of Christians have bought wholly into big ruthless Capitalism and rapacious consumer consumption. They can see no other way to do business, and if you talk badly about it you are known as being "anti-Capitalism".

They seem to believe that it is somehow an entitlement of living in this country. A lot of them even believe that it is a "Blessing of God" for our exceptionalism.

As I've been seeing this (and other passages of scripture that just seem to jump out at me) over the past month, I wonder if we're doing this right, or if we have the right attitude?

Are we, as the body of Christ doing enough? I know that there are a lot of churches and individual Christians who do a lot of good work on behalf of the poor. That should always be celebrated.

But, this seems to be talking more about an attitudinal thing, at least to me it does. It seems to be talking about integrating this attitude into your WHOLE LIFE.

I've talked before about how there is not different "boxes" for the economy - it's all one economy that ties together. I think the same can be said for our life in our faith - it's all one life. There is no "church box" or "work box" or "home box" or "politics box" - it should all be in the same box.

I know that I really don't have any place to talk about this, and the fact of the matter is that I'm no better at this than any of my fellow Christians, so I'm not smugly talking about it - but it has been hitting me very hard as we've been somewhat coldly talking about who is going to get health care, and who is not. I know Church going Christians who say, "well, I pay for my health care, why should I have to worry about anyone else's health care"?

It might just be my imagination, but James seems to have something to say about making distinctions like that.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Just a thought about the Town Halls

Went to mass tonight.

This was included in one of the readings (Ephesians 4:30 - 5:2):

All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

I immediately thought of the Town Hall meetings, and the yelling and the screaming. The intimidation. Even the veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) threats of violence.

Of course they will tell you that they are just "exercising their constitutional rights." They certainly don't have any consideration for the constitutional rights of those who don't hold their positions, and their only reason for being there is to disrupt the meeting. That upsets me quite a bit, but I understand, and have for some time that civil political discourse in this country has become a pathetic joke.

Hearing Saint Paul's words in Ephesians, I'm thinking of something not on a political level.

Now, if you polled most of those people doing the yelling and screaming - are you a Christian?, or do you attend a Christian church? what do you think the answer would be?

My guess is that most of the attendees are "professing" Christians. After all, isn't the mantra "We are a Christian Nation"?

So how can they reconcile their ugly, screeching behavior at a Town Hall Meeting with Saint Paul's writing here? It says ALL bitterness, ALL fury, ALL anger, ALL shouting, etc.

I'm one of those who has the crazy notion that, to the best of your ability and with God's help, this should be part of how you live your life and deal with others 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

It seems to me that if you go there with the INTENTION of doing this, that makes it all the worse.

It doesn't say to remove those things only when you feel like it, or when you are doing something like this that has to do with "non-church" stuff. It says to remove ALL.

If you are one who professes themselves to be a Christian, your WHOLE life should indicate it.

Shouldn't it?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Peace in the Post Christian Era

A few years ago, I bought this book (Peace in the Post Christian Era by Thomas Merton) at a used book sale. I think I got it for a buck. I have only recently gotten around to reading it.

The first several pages of the book explain how the book came to be. It was censored by his order (the Trappists), but, in lieu of "publishing" it, he sent mimeographed copies to a lot of his friends, and other influential people.

The book is about the Christian response to Nuclear War. Written in 1962, there would have been a real, palpable fear of nuclear war, and the real possibility that nuclear war might actually happen, and happen soon (Merton alludes several times in the book to the war happening possibly within 5 years)

We can look back on it now as more of an academic, historical exercise, and not have to worry as much about the stark terror of a nuclear war that could literally wipe out every man, woman and child on earth.

That is not to say that there are still not nuclear dangers, and dangers of other kinds in our world.

One interesting comment on the back of the book comes from Father John Dear:

"Substitute war on terrorism: for "war on communism," and his insights continue to challenge our culture of war and ourselves"

What I wanted to do was put some of the comments from the book, without comment from me (I invite those who read this to take these quotes and possibly apply them to recent events - what if anything do they say to YOU? What if anything do they mean to YOU?). Every Christian has to decide for themselves whether these actually still apply to the United States of America and her condition in 2009:

"Christians therefore have the obligation to treat every other man as Christ himself, respecting his neighbor's life as if it were the life of Christ, his rights as if they were the rights of Christ. Even if the other shows himself to be unjust, wicked and odious to us, we cannot take upon ourselves a final and definitive judgment in his case. We still have an obligation to be patient, and tho seek his higher spiritual interests"
The Christian as Peacemaker (Chapter 4)

"The exceptional violence is now the norm of our thinking, while charity has become exotic"
The Legacy of Machiavelli (Chapter 6)

"Christianity, in a word, is everywhere yielding to the hegemony of naked power"
Religious Problems of the Cold War (Chapter 8)

"If we adopt a policy of hatred, of liquidation of those who oppose us, of unrestrained use of total war, of a spirit of fear and panic, of exaggerated propaganda, of unconditional surrender, of pure nationalism, we have already been overcome by the evil"
Working for Peace (Chapter 10)

"Not only non-Christians but even Christians themselves tend to dismiss the Gospel ethic on non-violence and love as "sentimental". As a matter of fact, the mere suggestion that Christ counseled nonviolent resistance to evil is enough to invite scathing ridicule."
Beyond East and West (Chapter 11)

"It must be admitted therefore that if the gospel of peace is no longer convincing on the lips of Christians, it may well be because they have ceased to give a living example of peace, unity and love."
Christian Perspectives in World Crisis (Chapter 15)

"But the fact remains that a warring and warlike Christendom has never been able to preach the Gospel of charity and peace with full conviction, or full success."
Christian Perspectives in World Crisis (Chapter 15)

"We have to become aware of the poisonous effect of the mass media that keep violence, cruelty and sadism constantly present to the minds of unformed and irresponsible people"
The Christian Choice (Chapter 17)

That's probably enough for one night. There are more great quotes in the book I want to share, some of them quite lengthy. You can either get the book, or check back in a few days. I might put some more quotes on here, but I'm tired of typing now.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A LOT of killing

Over 50 people, are now dead in a matter of a few days, in some spectacularly gruesome mass killings at the hands of several different gunmen.

This does not count the murders that happen in every city, on every day of the week, nor does it count those who are deciding to take their own lives on a daily basis.

This article from the Washington Post is titled Some Link Economy with Spate of Killings:

From the article:

"The factor underlying the violence, some experts think, is the dismal state of the nation's economy. Criminologists theorize that the epidemic of layoffs, the meltdown of storied American corporations and the uncertainty of recovery have stoked fear, anxiety and desperation across society and unnerved its most vulnerable and dangerous."

I absolutely do believe that economic conditions could be one causative factor of the recent mass killings, but I just can't bring myself to believe that they are THE causative factor.

When trying to correlate the killing to the economic situation, you have to wonder, did the same kind of thing happen in the Great Depression when 25% of the population was unemployed (as compared to 8.5 or 9% now), and many other dismal statistics towered over the current statistics?

I did not do any in depth digging, but a general check of Depression crime statistics reveals that the crime rate was relatively low in the depression, among all socioeconomic levels, and among all ethnic groups.

It should be said up front that in analyzing these violent acts and their possible causes that I do not ever want to forget the victims, and the pain and suffering that has been visited randomly on their families.

So, what does it all mean?

It means that for whatever reason, in this day and age, people are deciding to kill, and sometimes kill spectacularly. Buy WHY? What is the difference now, as compared to then?

In what I'm about to say, I am not idealizing that time, or "the olden days". I am not one to pine for the good old days, but I do believe there are some fundamental differences now as opposed to then, and some of the changes haven't generally been for the better.

For instance, I believe that generally, families are not as tightly knit as they once were. Then, you would not want to shame your family, or give your family a bad name. Your family also, for the most part would take care of you.

I also believe that for a lot of people, they do not have a sense of place, or a sense of community. Often the themes in these types of shootings are those of a loner, or someone who was "picked on" or made an outcast by the people he lived around. Even those who don't intend to ever go on a rampage may feel isolated, or lonely. As a society, we have isolated ourselves. A lot of people don't "do" church anymore, and a lot of people aren't involved with their communities, nor do they know their neighbors.

I think Mother Teresa had it right when she said "The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved."

I certainly think the 24/7 news media, with some of it being very specific opinion related content contributes to a climate of fear, anxiety and agitation. Adding to this, is a general glorification of violence, and saturation of violence which desensitizes us from violence towards other people.

Lastly, the guns aren't responsible for the killing, but they certainly enable a quicker piling up of the bodies. Easy, unlimited access to powerful guns and lethal ammunition certainly does not help the situation.

It was reported that the Binghamton New York shooter fired 98 shots in a minute. That is an incredible amount of firepower for an ordinary citizen to have.

So, what is the answer? I must confess that I really don't know. Certainly, there will be knee jerk reactions - stiffer gun laws will be debated, etc.

I do not think it will change or get any better though, even as the economy improves. I seem to recall that fairly regular mass killings happen in good economic times and bad.

I think it's us. If it didn't happen in any great frequency before, that should tell us something shouldn't it? Or, at least give us something to think about?

In the final analysis, you can't make people go to church, or get involved in community. You can't make family members who are cold and unloving to one another love one another. You can certainly encourage, but you can't make people turn off the 24/7 media that divides and polarizes us as a people.

I think that is the most frustrating part. We are accustomed to thinking that we can snap our fingers and make the problem go away (or throw money at it). But, I don't think this problem will be solved in that way.

And, then, a week from now, or two weeks from now, or tomorrow another one of these killings happen, and we are left to try to again figure it out with fresh feelings of pain and sorrow.

I wish I had some pithy words to close it out. Or some kind of deep, meaningful thing to say that could make it all better.

I don't have that. Every time I think of it all, I just get weary. I even think, what is the point of even writing this right now?

Again, I defer to Mother Teresa.

This is the mantra we should think about when thinking about our neighbors and how we can help each other out. Or helping or identifying that kid who might be in trouble and headed down this road. Or trying to instill a feeling of hope among our friends and neighbors:

"In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Information. Or lack thereof....

I came across this piece by Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post yesterday called Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In. Interestingly enough, the piece echoes a lot of the themes I wrote about in my last blog (TV).

In the piece she says:

"The unknowableness of current circumstances, combined with a lack of trust in our institutions, may partly be to blame for our apparent info-insatiability. People sense that they need to know more in order to understand an increasingly complex world."

I think William Greider, in his book the Soul of Capitalism puts it just as well, when he says:

"One recognizes a deepening dependence on the mysterious new machines and on the complicated organizations of modern economic life, which are operated by distant systems of decision making, themselves opaque and mechanical."

He goes on to say that:

"One paradox of the information age is that, while we are able to find out instantly so many more things than the ancestors could ever know, the anchor of self-knowledge-who we are and where we fit in, what we count for in this new scheme-seems to be weaker."

I have said for awhile that we live in a "Just in Time" world. When all the systems are operating well and in the background, we never think of them. When they start to falter, we suddenly want to know why, and what we can do about it.

I think that people sense that they need to know more as Ms. Parker says. I think it is similar to our ancestors wanting to know more about farming. Or fishing. Or whatever craft they had chosen.

The difference is, they, for the most part found the information. The ones who did not, did not survive. It was really that simple.

We search for the answers, but, I don't think we're going to find them any time soon. ESPECIALLY in the circus that counts for the media. Unfortunately, I think the big organizations who run the JIT system don't WANT you to have too much information on them. In a lot of cases, I have come to believe that the systems have become so complex, that even the "experts" don't fully understand them.

On one side of the political spectrum, we are told that the future of the earth is a dry, waterless, foodless, husk, teeming with too many people and not enough of anything else. On the other side of the spectrum we are told that the future is that of Orwell, Big Brother, Socialism, perhaps even Communism. Terrorists and bad guys behind every tree and mail box waiting to snuff out your life.

The truth MUST be somewhere in the middle. Contrary to a lot of conservative pundits, that is where most of America resides. Some slightly to the left of the middle, some slightly to the right. We must shepherd our resources, and make our industrial systems more environmentally friendly. We also must remain diligent about our security. We didn't in the years leading up to 9/11 and paid the price. But to live in fear all the time of both specters is not at all healthy.

In the very middle of those media poles, we have what is known as the Mainstream Media (although those on the right would debate this and say the MSM are decidedly pushing leftist agendas). For the most part, the Mainstream Media is looked down upon and in some cases vilified by those on the extreme information poles.

For me, they seem to be more worried about filling 24/7 worth of coverage. Most of this coverage vacillates between sappy, human interest stories, and dire coverage of dire situations. For instance, today, the big story was the First Lady touching the Queen of England - was that appropriate? Was that out of protocol? Who cares? A little bit of it is good. 24/7, not so much.

Nothing about their coverage stimulates me into any kind of deeper thought. I simply go there to find out, for the most part, basic information about world events.

As I've said before, one needs to have a balance. Too much information, and you go crazy - it is literally all you think about. Not enough, and you are ignorant, in a world that needs no more ignorance.

So how do we find the answers?

I think that is different for everyone. For some it will be a reading of the classic literature. Others it will be found in discussion and dialogue. Others will be found in a philosophical mood. For others it may be a combination of the three (and in a previous blog, I wrote about Robert Greenleaf's tasks of a competent leader - to be a historian, a contemporary analyst and a prophet all at the same time).

The answers are NOT going to be found on the churn that is 24/7 news cycles though. THAT much I'm sure of.

Monday, March 30, 2009


"We shall stand or fall by television-of that I am quite sure" - E. B. White, 1939, One Man's Meat, essay Removal

I was discussing Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 with a friend today. I've read the book a few times, and always thought it was a meaningful, entertaining book. I learned something new today though (always a good feeling of a day well lived). I had always been taught that the book was about the evils of censorship.

But, the friend I was discussing it with, sent me this small Wikipedia bit

"Bradbury has stated that the novel is not about censorship; he states that Fahrenheit 451 is a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of "factoids", partial information devoid of context, e.g., Napoleon's birth date alone, without an indication of who he was."

I'm not writing this blog right now about the evils of television. I like television as much as the next guy, and watch probably too much for my own good.

I'm writing because that little bit of information gave me a chill, given the proliferation of a new kind of shrill television entertainment.

Back on August 1, 2008, I wrote my own piece about this type of new "media" (

"I believe that the proliferation of shows like Limbaugh, etc prove just how shallow we've become as a people, and despite how much we say we want to debate and understand the issues, we really just want to make all the issues a simple x = y event.

If "x" happens it is because of "y". And so much the better "y" is black, Latino, an immigrant, on welfare, or whatever.

We are in deep trouble as a country. Watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh will not help us solve our problems which are extremely deep and widely systemic."

That is just as true today as it was back in August 2008. Maybe more so, given the continued deterioration of the economic situation.

I believed then, and believe now, that this is the main purpose of the Hannity's, the Limbaugh's, the Glenn Beck's and the Lou Dobbs (and, to be fair, some on the left as well - to sow fear about their fellow Americans on the right side of the spectrum):

"Fear is their stock and trade, and fear is what they want to sow. Oh, they wrap it up quite righteously saying they only want to "spread the truth". But at the bottom, it's fear they want to spread.

For there is power in making people afraid."

There is amazing power in fear. There are also great ratings, and a LOT of money to be made.

What constantly amazes me is that people will sit at home and watch these shows (mostly middle, working class people), or listen to them on the radio, and actually believe these "talking androids" have something in common with them, or that they think like them, or that they somehow have their interests at heart.

If you make $10 to $20 million dollars a year and wear $1000 dollar suits to work, then, yes, they probably do have your interests at heart.

They seem to always "magically" know what their viewers or listeners are thinking. That is not because they necessarily believe in these issues deeply (or understand them at all).

It is because they have great demographics people, and great production people. It is because they pander like the slickest politician to their audience for, you guessed it, RATINGS.

I still believe what I wrote back in August, with regard to the solution:

"The final solution is to turn them off and ignore them. Read a book. Talk to your wife and kids. Go to the library. Love your neighbor as yourself as Jesus taught us.

Anything but feeding off of those parasites."

How about actually talking to your neighbor, even though he may be diametrically opposed to what you believe in? How about reading a book about ideas that are diametrically opposed to those you believe in.

A few years ago, I read Senator Paul Wellstone's Conscience of a Liberal. At the time I read it, I agreed with almost nothing in the book and several times I wanted to quit reading it, or set it on fire. But over the next few years, the ideas worked on me, and I thought about them a lot. I'm nowhere near as Liberal as Senator Wellstone was, nor do I think I ever will be. But, I got an understanding of some things I didn't have an understanding of before.

To turn the TV off and work on something that is not passive was sound advice then, it is sound advice now, and it will be sound advice tomorrow.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I just finished The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan

I have always been a fan of Walden and Thoreau's other writings. I first read Walden in high school, and have read it once or twice as an adult. I have also read a few biographies of Thoreau over the years.

In 1991, I visited Walden - it was a pretty neat experience. Nothing spiritual, or life changing, but, it did mean a lot to me. Sullivan writes about his visit to Walden towards the end of the book (basically the last section, after he is done recounting Thoreau's life and work). To me, this part of the book seems contrived - it was not my favorite part, and I think he could have worked snippets of his visit in the book - but, that's just me.

Lately, as I have mentioned I have been reading a lot of Emerson. This Thoreau book was interesting in that it had a lot of information on Thoreau's and Emerson's relationship, as well as information about Emerson. At times Thoreau worked for Emerson. At times, Thoreau's writing style exasperated Emerson. As Thoreau got older and more established, their relationship became strained.

One thing that was EXTREMELY interesting, was the cultural, political, and financial situation during the time Thoreau came to prominence. Sullivan discusses the panic of 1837 (which becomes a full blown depression), then recounts another economic downturn in 1857. The descriptions of these downturns sound eerily like our current day downturns. Emerson and Thoreau both wrote during those times, and the conditions had to color their writing and thinking.

I was also interested in the discussion about HDT being, what amounted to the CEO of his family's pencil business. He was an innovator at the time with regard to pencils - now, they'd be featuring him in Wired or Fast Times magazine. I was also interested in his well respected work as a surveyor. And of course, I was interested in the discussion of his development as a writer.

In reading the Amazon customer reviews of this book, you get your typical Thoreau "experts" who downgrade this book (I think maybe they are mad that Sullivan is trying to make Thoreau more palatable to popular consumption, and taking him out of the realm of the experts who are constantly dissecting his life and writing. I also suspect they don't like it because it's not a "scholarly" biography - which, the author makes quite clear that it is not to be) - they recommend in some reviews reading a "real" biography, Robert Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. It is a good book, but it is NOT a quick read (dry, academic), overly interesting read like this one.

Overall, it didn't really change any of my opinions about Thoreau. I had learned when I was younger that Thoreau was not a recluse at Walden, nor did he live a monastic cloistered life at Walden. He spent time in town. People liked him, and I think for the most part, he liked people.

Thoreau has always seemed to me to be an eccentric, or someone, to paraphrase his classic line, who marched to the beat of his own drummer.

I think these days we need more eccentrics who know how to think in patterns and can see relationships. We need people who are keen observers and reporters, which, Thoreau was. We need men (and women) who can think differently about the world, and articulate their feelings about it in an inspiring way as Thoreau did.

Maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we are in.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


There has been a lot of positive economic news lately. A lot of people have been thinking and feeling that the recession will end sooner than later.

But, as I have been writing about in this blog, what happens if the recession ends tomorrow? Or a month from now? Or Summer? Or late 2009 or early 2010? Did we learn anything? Are we going to be any different, or live any differently than we did before?

When crisis passes, instead of doing a "lessons learned", and being humbled, we tend to go back to the bad habits. We tend to take on an air of hubris and invincibility. We tend to perennially believe that we are above the cycles of history and that these kinds of things can never happen again.

I happen to love the writing and thinking of Robert K. Greenleaf. Greenleaf was the coiner of the term Servant Leadership (and a GREAT introduction to Greenleaf's life and thinking is contained in Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership, written by Don Frick, as well as Greenleaf's book of essays Servant Leadership, A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness)

In his seminal essay The Servant as Leader, written in the 1970's, Greenleaf has a section called "Foresight-The Central Ethic of Leadership".

There is absolutely NO question, that the situation we are in is due to a direct lack of Foresight (and Leadership), by several, including those in Washington, in the companies that melted down, those in regulatory agencies, and others (i.e. The Fed, World Bank, etc).

Listen to what Greenleaf says about Foresight:

"The failure (or refusal) of a leader to foresee may be viewed as an ethical failure, because a serious ethical compromise today (when the usual judgment on ethical inadequacy is made) is sometimes the result of a failure to make the effort at an earlier date to foresee today's events and take the right actions when there was freedom for initiative to act."

Those who did have the foresight to predict the consequences of the risky behavior of the banks and other institutions (and they WERE out there), were often called negative, or pessimistic, or the implication was that they didn't know what they were talking about. The good times, in essence, were going to roll on forever.

As we move forward, we need to start thinking about the next trap doors and pits that we could fall into. What is the next "bubble"? What will crash next? Where are the holes and weaknesses in the economy, and in capitalism in general that need to be looked at and fixed?

Certainly what happened at AIG, Bear, Lehman, Freddie and Fannie, etc, can NOT be allowed to happen again. But there again, we need to strike a real balance between absolute iron fisted control, and the fostering of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Greenleaf, gives us a prescription as to how we are to look at these things:

"One is at once, in every moment of time, historian, contemporary analyst, and prophet-not three separate roles. This is what the practicing leader is, every day of his or her life".

Perfect. How many of us know how to do that? How many of us are taught to do that? How many of us even think about that?

In the final analysis, we know that there are a LOT of problems in America that will need to be tackled. Problems with infrastructure. Problems with health care. Problems with education. Problems with the growing gap between the richest and the poorest. These are huge problems that are going to take innovative solutions, and dynamic leadership from the type of leader with Foresight that Greenleaf imagines.

Perhaps the best "mission statement" moving forward comes from Greenleaf's very definition of those that Servant Leaders are leading (a lot might think these things are "Utopian" and would never work in the "real world" or in the "rough and tumble world of business". For those, I suggest you check out, and, and, and while you are at it take a look at this seriously impressive list of projects:

"The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

Moving forward, I'm optimistic. I'm filled with hope for America. I think we can do this.

I'm excited to start. Tomorrow. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:34 (a passage which has virtually carried me forward over the past several months), "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wow. This is something

I read this piece in Newsweek today:

It was titled "The Biggest Thing to Fear Is Fear, American consumers are in better shape than you think.

I have been thinking along these lines for quite some time. It is OUR turn to decide what the economy does. Not Wall Street. Not the big banks. Not the Government. Those are the facts.

The only reason we don't believe that is that we've been beaten down and convinced for so long that someone else is in charge. Someone else HAS to be in charge, or else it just won't be right.

No one is in charge. YOU are in charge of your own life. Isn't that what living in a FREE country is all about? It should be. Are you really free?

I posted in December 20, 2008:

"When the economy does recover (and it WILL recover eventually in some form - but maybe not with huge annual growth from here on out), what will we have learned? Anything? At the end of it all, will the banker still have the power, or will ordinary Americans have taken back the power?

Let's hope it's ordinary Americans."

I posted on January 10, 2009:

"I said in my last blog, when talking about Peter Maurin, that it was time for us to take back the economy. WE decide whether we get to have hope. WE decide whether we get to spend money again. WE get to decide whether people are hired or not. Not exclusively the government, not the media."

Now, today, look at the quote from this piece:

"Looking to Wall Street to lead the recovery is ludicrous; its confidence is shattered and its balance sheets are in turmoil. Even looking to Wall Street to identify the recovery is asking too much; its analysts are hysterical and they are legitimately fearful for their future employment. That means this time markets may lag behind the recovery. Instead, real economic activity, and the steady, gradual spending recovery of Main Street will lead the way."

Wall Street is not going to go quietly of course. For a long time, they've been able to dictate the specifics of the economy. They have been in charge. They believe they still are. I do not believe this. A lot of the time now, to me, they are acting like a spoiled, whiny child, not getting his way in the toy aisle of the Target Store. Look at MEEEEEEE!!!!! Pay attention to MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

I have this delicious fantasy. My fantasy is that some brave Americans are taking counsel of their fears and are out there deciding to buy things. Hire people, etc. Taking the attitude that a few of my friends have taken, that they are "not going to participate in the recession". Taking the attitude that some other people I've met have taken that they are going to live their lives with hope and not fear and anxiety.

Then, when the economic indicators hit, and they show improvement ( is a great place to see some of these measurements in a somewhat systematic fashion), Economists are "puzzled" and wonder if the improvements will be sustained.

Some of that is happening now.

I'm starting to realize that one of the great blessings of my life is having two parents that were older than all of my friends parents. Both my parents lived through the depression (my Dad was born in 1919, and my Mom was born in 1925), and my Dad served in World War II.

I saw that they and their parents and siblings lived through so much. They had nothing to start with. Then, the depression and the war came and they had less than nothing. And, compared to them, we've been through really, not much of anything.

Yes, the pain is real. Yes, the loss is real. I don't mean to dismiss that or demean that. But to look at the "Greatest Generation" is to see that you CAN come out on the other side.

How will the history books judge THIS generation, when our time of testing came?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Freedom from Fear - Aversion to Recession

On June 28, 2008 I posted Freedom from Fear - Aversion to war, and 6 points I was going to try to live by.

On the whole, I don't think I've done too bad in following these 6 points. My last point was:

"6. I will try not to lose hope. This is the hardest thing of all. The economy is tanking here at home."

I wasn't writing that time specifically about the economy, but understood then, as now, that everything ties together. There is not a "war box" or an "economy box". It is all one box.

I wanted to write Freedom from Fear, Part 2, and in this particular installment of Freedom from Fear, I wanted to commit myself to not be fearful about the economy.

That is a whole lot easier said than done. The media is striving to fill 24/7 on several outlets with depressing economic news. I believe they should report the news faithfully, but in other economic downturns there was not as much news - back in the 70's and 80's you read your local newspaper and watched the evening news, and that was pretty much it. Now you can literally be exposed to bad economic news everywhere you look.

On the other side of the equation, there are a lot of people who seem to be trying to do the same thing that I've done. For instance, I have been reading this guys blog for awhile now (The Good News Economist). I don't always agree with him, and the guy is not a "real" economist - although, "real" economists have not particularly distinguished themselves in making accurate predictions regarding our economic troubles:

There are several other people I know who are saying that they are "not choosing to participate in the recession" (if only it was that easy - but the point is well taken that we need to believe we have more deciding power than we think we do).

I do not really find any particular reason to start giving any more trust to a Harvard, or MIT trained economist, as well as any economist from the Fed. I would be as inclined to trust a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board to make predictions as accurate as they have.

For the past few months, I have read a lot of Emerson. Some might even say an unhealthy amount of Emerson - but then I think that reading a lot of Emerson has to be better for my psyche than watching a lot of CNN or reading a lot of MSNBC.COM.

I like what Emerson says in Self Reliance - I think this has a lot to say about deciding for ourselves how we feel about the economy. WE decide whether we have confidence about the economy. Not the government. Not the Fed. Not some Harvard, Yale or MIT educated economist. We decide when it's time for us to take the economy back. We even get to decide whether we scrap the economic systems we have now and design new ones.

If we believe that we don't get to make the decisions, that some office in Washington or on Wall Street gets to do it, then we are in deeper trouble than I thought.

Emerson says:

"At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friends, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, - "Come out unto us". But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act"

I'm not saying to be a Pollyanna or to deny there is bad news - certainly people facing economic disaster are not "trifles".

But, there are times when it is appropriate just to shut off the TV and do something else.

Reading the scriptures might be a good place to start. We claim to be a "Christian nation". I have, of late, found great comfort in the 6th chapter of Matthew's gospel (verses 25-34), quoted here in full from the New King James Version of the bible (it's a long passage):

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? 28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring for me - it might even be financial ruin. But, my desire is to own my fear, and create my own hope. No one can make me be afraid. No one can make me lose hope. The only person who can do either of those things to me is ME.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Where are we going, Economy-wise?

"Begin with the end in mind" - Steven Covey

I have never been a big fan of Steven Covey, or his Seven Habits, but I think when we're talking about the economic situation, all of the different bailouts, and where we are going to ultimately end up, I think Dr. Covey's habit of beginning with the end in mind (one of the Seven Habits) is applicable.

There is a wide divergence of opinion on the courses of action to take with regard to the economy.

There are some who don't think the stimulus plan on the table is bold enough (Paul Krugman)

There are others who believe that we should do nothing about the economy and let the market correct itself (Those from the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell/Ludwig von Mises school of thought). Sure, there will be quite a bit of pain for a few years, but we'll be $1 trillion dollars less in debt, and the thinking is that the problem will correct itself cyclically like it always does.

Others (especially those on the far right like Rush Limbaugh, who has gone as far as saying that he hopes President Obama fails) feel like any massive government intervention smacks of Socialism and Liberal Social Engineering.

I'm not sure what the best course of action is. It seems like our only recourse now is to trust that the President and Congress are prepared to do the right things. This is something that does not inspire a lot of confidence. I feel some confidence in President Obama and the advisers he has surrounded himself with, but when was the last time Congress attacked anything this complex and did a decent job?

My biggest questions with regard to the stimulus is (whether it is $800 billion, or $1 trillion), what is the end goal of the stimulus? What are the measurements of whether the stimulus is "successful" (similar to questions I asked for a long time about Iraq/Afghanistan - how/when do we know if we've "won")?

Is the goal to get to a certain percentage of unemployment that is lower than the current level of unemployment? Is it a certain amount of growth of the economy?

What is the end game? Is the money going to be used in the most effective way? Or is it just going to be given out scatter shot?

Are we just throwing money at a problem and hoping that we just pull the right lever, or do the right combination of actions that will make the economy correct? How do you protect against unintended consequences - you take one action to correct one problem, which exacerbates a seemingly unrelated problem?

I know we don't remember much after a few months as a collective group, but I think it is so important to rewind and see where we've come from, and just how little our leaders understand what is really going on (read Tuesday Ramblings 9/24/08). The economic crisis is vast, complex and multi-pronged. Banks are failing. People are being laid off. People are losing their homes and businesses.

And if they don't really understand all of the prongs and how they inter-relate, how can we be expected to make informed choices?

Not that long ago (late September), we were told that if we didn't get $700 billion that week, the world economy was going to be in Depression within a short time (a matter of weeks they told us). The money was given. Basically a blank check from Congress, with little oversight, and little direction on what was to be done with the money by the participating institutions (and predictably with little oversight, instead of loaning the money and unfreezing credit, the banks used the money to acquire other banks, pay their shareholders and year end bonuses).

The economy has gotten worse since then, but nowhere near the levels of the Great Depression.

A little time went by, and they said that what we originally had planned to do with the $700 billion was no longer applicable - they didn't think the initial course of action was now the best use of the money. They have just recently again been wrangling on what to do with the second half of the $700 billion ($350 billion).

Now, they are getting ready to put through an additional large economic stimulus package with infrastructure projects (maybe up to $1 trillion by some accounts). The goal it is said, is to get people back to work and get the economy moving again.

But, what if it doesn't "work" and the US economy and the world economy continues to careen downhill? What then?

I've heard very few people seriously ask those questions - it almost seems like a lot of people feel like if we ask the questions, that might jinx the plan.

What about at the end (and the economy will recover at some point with or without a stimulus plan)? Will we just go back to the things that brought us here? Or will there finally be real change in how we view the economy and Capitalism?

Capitalism in the mode of Bear Stearns, Freddie and Fannie, Citi, Countrywide, etc, is NOT sound Capitalism.

It also seems like, and has seemed like for a long time, at least to me, that we are still operating in a panic mode, both at the macro level and the micro level.

Maybe the President and his economic advisers drawing up these plans are not operating in crisis and panic mode - if that is the case, they need to do a better job of telling us that and showing us that.

When you operate in the panic mode, very few true and lasting things can be accomplished. Imagine if US Air Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger would have panicked in the face of the events of US Air flight 1549?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Does Emerson have anything to say....

....about our current economic condition?

After Christmas, I took my Barnes and Noble fun bucks and picked up a great little gem of a book called The Spiritual Emerson, Essential Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I had been reading Emerson in a desultory fashion for years, and this is the first time that I really READ some of the essays.

A lot of people are putting a lot of faith and stock in the upcoming stimulus program. Some of the more interesting opinions have come from people like Paul Krugman (too little for the problem). Others want to know, what is the criteria to see if the stimulus "worked"?

This is from Emerson's Self Reliance:

"A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it, Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."

I think what he's saying is to not put too much faith in anyone else for your success in life. That would include this government intervention into the economy ("A political victory" "some other favorable event" (passage of the stimulus?)).

I said in my last blog, when talking about Peter Maurin, that it was time for us to take back the economy. WE decide whether we get to have hope. WE decide whether we get to spend money again. WE get to decide whether people are hired or not. Not exclusively the government, not the media.

As Emerson says again in Self Reliance:

"It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views."

"When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.

I don't mean to downplay all the pain that is going on. It is very real and will probably be for some time to come.

I want to be thinking of some alternative ways to view the economy.

I realize that it is not that simple just to snap the fingers and make it happen, and a lot of people will call me naive, but I believe Americans have been beaten down so long and convinced that someone else has to make all the decisions - big, nameless, faceless powerful institutions, that they've largely forgotten that the economy is not about Wall Street, or the big banks, the economy is (or should be) about one person making a good or service and another person purchasing that good or service.

I also do believe that the government has a place to HELP us get out of the economic trouble. I am very skeptical however that Congress is up to the complex task at hand.

It will be tough to change those views that most Americans have been fed their whole lives that someone on Wall Street has all the power, or someone in the government dictates how we feel about the economy.

As Emerson says in Compensation:

"Our strength grows out of weakness."

"A great man is always willing to be little. Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep. When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits; on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill".

I think the most important questions are:

Will we learn anything from this? On the other side of the crisis will anything be different?

One more thought from Emerson on what our attitude should be. This is from Success:

"One more trait of true success. The good mind chooses what is positive, what is advancing, embraces the affirmative."