31 January 2008

Political potpourri

Having a few varied comments on the current state of political events, I thought I’d use this entry to share those random thoughts.

Issue #1: Politicus interruptus

The past two weeks have seen a bevy of withdrawals from the Presidential race. Fred Thompson’s was not particularly surprising, after his dismal showing in South Carolina. Rudy Giuliani’s was a little more surprising, if only for the heights from which he had fallen earlier in the campaign - remember when he was the inevitable front-runner, and prognosticators (including yours truly) expected him to roll to the GOP nomination? His endorsement of John McCain could be somewhat helpful, but I don’t think that brings a huge block of voters to McCain who would have otherwise supported one of his remaining opponents. And I would be remiss if I didn’t note Dennis Kucinich’s withdrawal. So there, it’s noted.

Perhaps the most surprising was the sudden announcement yesterday by John Edwards that he would be suspending his Presidential campaign. Now that word “suspending” is a bit of legal jargon, and I believe he used it rather than “withdrawing” or “abandoning” so that he can continue to receive federal matching funds for the quarter and pay any outstanding debts. I think he does plan to release his delegates, however.

Edwards’ withdrawal surprised me because I expected him to continue on to the convention, collecting delegates here and there in an effort to become a powerbroker at a split convention. Now that he’s out, that leaves only two candidates, but surprisingly that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have a clear winner by the time of the convention. Why? Because on the Democratic side, there are a whole bunch of “superdelegates” chosen not by the electorate but by virtue of their standing in the Party. These superdelegates can vote for whomever they choose, even if they’ve “pledged” themselves to one candidate ahead of time.

I can now invite my friends and readers who have been ardent Edwards supporters to come over and join me in backing Barack Obama. Edwards did not endorse either of the remaining candidates in his withdrawal speech. Would his endorsement make a big difference? Perhaps, but perhaps not. It might help Obama more than it would Clinton, because of Edwards’ strength with labor unions. In this regard, Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama earlier this week might have as much influence as Edwards’ would. Which brings me to…

Issue #2: Whither the Gore-acle?

If there is one political luminary out there whose endorsement would actually make a measurable impact on the race, I think it’s Al Gore. He has stayed out of the fray so far, and despite the pipe dreams of many Dems, I don’t think he’s waiting around to be chosen by acclamation at a brokered convention. What if Gore threw his support behind one of the two remaining candidates before next Tuesday? Given his demiurge status in the Party after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, I have to think he could wield some influence. Much has been made of the acrimony between Gore and the Clintons, and it seems unlikely that he would endorse Hillary. That leaves Obama as Gore’s potential endorsee. How would Obama benefit from a Gore endorsement? I think Gore’s endorsement could sway some undecided voters, but more importantly I think it could firm up support about those who are leaning toward Obama but have lingering doubts. If Gore is going to make an endorsement, however, he needs to do so very quickly – announcing over the weekend wouldn’t have the same impact on the news cycle as would a weekday announcement.

Issue #3: Fantasy debate lines

The two remaining Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, have a head-to-head (I’m resisting using the phrase mano-a-mano) debate in California tonight, to be broadcast on CNN. Chances are that some of the exchanges will get a little testy, as it’s the last chance for either one to score rhetorical points in this setting before Super-Duper-Tsunami Tuesday.

If I were scripting a fantasy debate, I’d have the following tongue in cheek paragraph ready to go for Obama in response to any question that even remotely brings up the issue of Bill Clinton’s involvement in Hillary’s campaign or in a future Clinton Administration:

This is a question that many Americans want the answer to: What role will Bill Clinton play in a Hillary Clinton Administration? With all that time on his hands, what will he have his hands in? Will he be involved in foreign affairs? Will he be involved in domestic affairs? Will he be involved in internal affairs? The voters deserve to know – what affairs will Bill get himself involved in if Hillary is President?

Alas, Obama will probably not go down that road, but it sure would be fun to see if Hillary could control herself if he did.

29 January 2008

Is it vacation time yet?

I have tried to craft my work schedule in the model of Travis McGee, the star of 21 wise and entertaining novels by the late John D. MacDonald. McGee was a self-styled “salvage consultant” who lived in Fort Lauderdale (mostly) on a 52-foot barge-style houseboat won in a poker game (thus the vessel’s name, The Busted Flush). He was part old-school private detective, part knight errant, part philosopher, and part gin connoisseur.

McGee’s central work philosophy was to not save retirement for the end of his life, but rather to enjoy it in six-month (or thereabout) chunks throughout his life. On the flip side of the famous quote, “Youth is wasted on the young” (one of those quotes attributed to George Bernard Shaw but one for which I cannot find a solid reference), McGee apparently believed that retirement was wasted on those too old to fully enjoy themselves in it.

My work schedule can be like that at times, although I have yet to accumulate enough revenues or freedom from worrying about revenues to take a six-month break. I do, however, seek to minimize the duration of any given period of “real work”, preferring to take it in short bursts rather than in an extended, measured, balanced period. And yes, in college and grad school I was one of those students who would write papers the day (or night) before they were due, procrastinating throughout the semester and cramming for tests at the end. So far this approach hasn’t caused too much trouble for me, so I continue it out of inertia or habit.

Also, I really do like the idea of taking retirement now, rather than having to wait until I’m 65 or 70. Perhaps you might ascribe that to my reluctance to embrace delayed gratification; so be it. I prefer to think of it in Travis McGee’s terms, realizing that now is a better time for me to enjoy the pleasures of retirement rather than waiting until the end of my lifetime.

At the moment and for the next few weeks, I will be in one of those intense work times. My “day job” - what I “do for a living” – my “professional career” – is acceptable as such things go, but it is clearly not my passion-filled raison d’etre. That’s not as much of a problem when I’m only doing it on a half-time basis, but it does become a little more troublesome when I wake up early in the morning with several work-related thoughts and ideas bouncing around in my head and feel compelled to get up and work on spreadsheets detailing alternative scenarios for an upcoming trial in which I’m to be an expert witness rather than stay in a comfortably warm bed with my spouse and my cats. (OK, so the cats would wake me up to be fed pretty soon anyway; at least I could get back into bed after filling their food dishes.)

It’s at times like these that I reassure myself with Travis McGee’s philosophy of retirement as lifelong pursuit. And I suppose when I think about it with perspective, I am pretty fortunate to have been able to create that kind of work environment for myself.

I wouldn’t have arrived here without having taken some serious risks, though. I walked out the door of my previous job in April 2001, and I along with a colleague from there formed our own business. Had we known what the economy would be like in a few months, after September 11, we probably would have considered our new venture to be particularly ill timed. But we trudged onward, and in my household we got by on a blend of inexpensive food and cheap wine and credit card debt. Now that I can afford somewhat better wine and am paying down credit card debts, I can look back on those risks I took and realize that they really were worth it.

What about you? Are you stuck in a 9 to 5 (or worse) job that you feel is draining your soul? Do you define yourself by what you do, even when what you do isn’t who you want to be? Or have you found your life’s calling and are ardently fulfilling your vocation in your career? Or, alternatively, are you like me, realizing that your job is but a means to an end, working when absolutely necessary and structuring the rest of your life to live out your truer vocation? Wherever you are, I would encourage you to consider that now is the time to make the move you’ve been delaying. Follow your bliss, carpe diem, fortes fortuna adiuvat, and some other Latin phrases I can’t recall right now. Or, if you’d prefer a lyricist more contemporary than Virgil, try out this familiar U2 refrain:

You've got to get yourself together
You've got stuck in a moment and you can't get out of
Don't say that later will be better
Now you're stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it

Comments solicited – how have you managed to craft your life along these lines, or how are you frustrated in your inability to do so just yet?

27 January 2008

More election stuff

For a great endorsement article bridging the generations, look at this:


And if you want an inspiring speech, here's Obama's victory speech in South Carolina:



22 January 2008

Clinton & Clinton’s stratagem

Identity politics has once again reared its ugly head in the Democratic Party. Wikipedia defines this concept as follows:

Identity politics is political action to advance the interests of members of a group supposed to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity (such as race, gender, or orientation). The term has been used principally in United States politics since the 1970s.

Normally, one particular identity group (women, African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBT) rallies support to its cause by appealing to others of similar perceived identity. I say “perceived” advisedly, because this really is all about perceptions. There’s rarely one single issue, stance, or position that is universally shared by all blacks, women, gays, etc. However, this can be a very useful paradigm if you want to rally people to your side by persuading them that you’re on their side. [I’m reminded of the politicking scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, when the competing politicians both campaigned as being on the side of the “little man” by having midgets on the campaign stage with them. But I digress.]

In the current Democratic Presidential race, however, the team of Clinton and Clinton has begun to inject identity politics with a nasty little twist. Here’s my analysis of what’s been going on the past couple of weeks, as race has become an issue in the campaign, and the leading candidates have been sniping back and forth about the legacy of MLK and other pseudo-issues.

Somewhere along the way, Hillary’s strategists realized that she could still outpoll Obama among women. I’m guessing this happened soon after she teared up in New Hampshire and subsequently surprised observers with a win in that primary thanks to an outpouring of support from women voters. At that point the Clinton campaign figured out that there are more women voters than black voters (even in the Democratic primaries), and if they could cast the election in terms of the “woman candidate” versus the “black candidate”, they’d have a larger natural base than Obama. So they sent out their surrogates (including the Surrogate-in-Chief, Bubba himself) to stir the race pot a bit, letting little innuendos and whispers slip here and there.

Here’s the key part of their stratagem: They didn’t care if Hillary got some negative backlash over the race issue, because in the end their bet was still that they could win the “women v. blacks” fight, especially if they could achieve some separation between the perceived African-American “identity group” and the perceived “Hispanic” identity group (which is how Nevada went down, essentially). They are more than willing to lose South Carolina, which has a huge black electorate in the Democratic primary, because their real target is the set of primaries on Super/Tsunami Tuesday.

And here’s the pitfall for the Obama campaign: If he engages Clinton on these issues of race, he loses the war even if he wins the battle. As long as Clinton can frame the debate in terms of herself as the “woman candidate” and Obama as the “black candidate”, she wins. The only way for Obama to defeat this strategy is to return to his original message, as he’s spoken about so often – only in this case, it’s his political opponents rather than the pundits who are trying to “slice and dice” the electorate into red states and blue states, women voters and black voters and Hispanic voters. Obama needs to transcend the entire issue and remind the Democratic voters that there isn’t a female Democratic Party and a male Democratic Party, a black Democratic Party and a white Democratic Party and a Hispanic Democratic Party, but that there is a united Democratic Party. As long as he allows Clinton & Clinton to play the cards of identity politics, he’s going to get a losing hand.

20 January 2008

Sermon from today

Here's the sermon I delivered today, with more people in attendance than I expected given the weather. And this is a link to the lectionary scriptures of the day. Enjoy - feedback welcomed.

There’s one thing today’s scripture passages have in common – there’s a lot of name calling in them. I know, you didn’t hear that in them. That’s because I’m not talking about the kind of name-calling you hear on the playground, or in political campaign commercials. No, that’s the kind of name-calling that tears down. What I’m referring to is the kind of name-calling that builds one another up. Because this kind of name-calling isn’t derogatory or derisive, it’s affirming.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. In the passage from Isaiah, the author says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” And later, the Lord speaks and says, “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” There’s the first instance of name-calling I was talking about – God calls this prophet “Israel”, and “my servant”. And God doesn’t stop there – in fact, God says that it is “too light a thing” for this person being called to be only a light to Israel, but rather he should be “a light to the nations”. These are some powerful names – “servant of God”, and “light to the nations”. I think any of us would be proud to have those names ascribed to us by the Almighty!

Then we move on to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul starts out by claiming his own calling – he says that he is “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”. That sounds like a man who’s pretty sure of his calling, doesn’t it? But he’s not just sure of his own calling, because in the next verse, Paul refers to “the church of God that is in Corinth,” those who are “called to be saints”. So Paul is acknowledging both his own calling and that of the church to whom he is writing.

And then there’s the Gospel text. The first instance of name-calling there is by John the Baptist, when he proclaims in his inimitably dramatic fashion, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Of course, he’s speaking of Jesus, whom John recognizes as the Lamb of God, the Son of God. John goes on to recall the scene we read in the Gospel lesson last week, the baptism of Jesus when the Spirit descends on him like a dove. John says, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him,” and John acknowledges that it was this affirming sign, this message from the Spirit as it were, that helped John recognize who Jesus really was. John is then confident enough to state, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

Then the next day the disciples get in on the act. Now, usually we can count on Jesus’ disciples for a good dose of comic relief, with their frequently mistaken ideas and generally blundering plans. But I guess they hadn’t had enough time together to practice all that just yet, because here in this passage they seem to get things pretty much spot on. They hear John call Jesus the “Lamb of God” again, and they get interested and decide, “Hmmm, this might be a guy worth getting to know, if John’s so all-fired-up about him”. So they leave John and follow Jesus, and when Jesus sees them tagging along and asks what they’re looking for, they respond by calling him “Rabbi”, which the gospel writer helpfully translates for us as “Teacher”. Later, Andrew has another notion about who this Jesus is, so he heads off to find his brother Simon and, excitedly, tells him, “We’ve found the Messiah!” Simon thinks this is worth checking out for himself, so he goes along to see this supposed Messiah. He meets Jesus, and immediately Jesus calls him by his name, Simon, and then tells him that he’s giving him a new name, Cephas, which translated to the form we’re familiar with, is Peter. Both of these translate to something like “Rock”, so if this were happening today Jesus might call Peter “Rocky” or “the Rock”. Kind of gives one pause to think of Sylvester Stallone or Dwayne Johnson playing Peter in the film version…
Anyway, that’s the kind of name-calling I was talking about, the kind where people are named and called not based on some kind of denigration, but a calling to their true selves or to their highest potential. You’ll notice another common thread in these name-callings – most if not all of the calling was done by God, or by the Spirit, or by those (such as prophets) who were speaking on behalf of God.

What does that mean for us? How can we interpret that and apply it to our own day-to-day lives? I mean, most of us don’t have doves descending on our heads every day. And if we did, we’d probably shoo them away. Seriously, do you ever wonder what your calling is? What or who you’re called to be? I know I do. I’ve spent much of my life searching for some kind of clear, definitive calling, some way of knowing for sure what it is I’m supposed to be doing. Doesn’t this begin to sound like Isaiah, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”?

Oh, but wait a second. Did you fall into that trap with me? The one I’ve been falling in for so much of my own life? In case you missed it, let me go back a step. I’ve been talking about name-calling, about who someone is called and thus who they are – a “servant of God”, an “apostle of Christ”, a “Rock”, or even a “Teacher” or “Anointed One” or “Lamb of God”. But then when I started talking about myself, I made a subtle switch. I started talking about what I’m called to be, which then became what I’m called to do. This happens very easily, especially in our American Protestant Christian society. We identify ourselves and others by what we do, especially if we’re employed in a professional, technical, or managerial capacity. When we ask young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, what we’re typically asking is “What kind of job do you want to have?” Kids know this, because their typical responses are things like “I want to be a police officer, or a firefighter, or a doctor, or an astronaut, or President of the United States.” They’re responding to our expectations, because they’ve learned what we mean when we ask, “What do you want to be?”

But being is more than just doing. Being is something more at our very core. In our society, when “Be all that you can be” has been reduced to a military recruiting slogan, it’s sometimes hard to talk about this in ways that make sense. I think Rex did a great job of this last week – remember what he said, recalling the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism that proclaimed, “You are my beloved child”, and he talked about how that voice of God, that speaking of the Spirit, names us all as beloved children of God, and calls us all into being those beloved children that we are.

Go back with me for a minute to the first passage, from Isaiah. The prophet wrote, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.” There’s this notion that even before we came into the world, we were known and called by name. The psychologist and author James Hillman talks about this a lot; he’s considered the founder of archetypal psychology, which is in the Jungian tradition and makes use of mythology and classical philosophy to understand the soul. One of Hillman’s basic theories, in brief, is what he called the “acorn theory” of the soul, by which he means that we all enter life with a basic calling at our core being. This is connected to what the ancient Greeks called your “daimon”. As Hillman once described it, this word:

…became Christianized as demon because Christian theology doesn’t approve of those figures who speak to us as inner voices and so forth. The Greek word was daimon, the Roman word was genius, and the Christian word is guardian angel. They are all a little bit different, yet each expresses something that you are, that you have, that is not the same as the personality you think you are.

As Christians, we believe that one aspect of this inherent calling, or being, or name-calling, is to call one another “beloved child of God”. That’s a name we receive at our baptism, and it’s a name we spend the rest of our lives learning to live into.

What about us? I mean, not us individually, but us collectively, us as a congregation? If we were to engage in some name-calling of ourselves, what would come of that? Many of you have heard me speak in the past about this, about how our church community is, or should be, a radically prophetic community, and a community that embraces and lives out radical love in the world. I think this is still true, and there is no better time to consider what it means to be a radical, loving, prophetic congregation than today, on the eve of the day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. I’ve heard now and then that maybe we shouldn’t talk about ourselves as being radical, or extreme; that we shouldn’t do anything that might offend someone or drive them away if they disagreed with a principled stand we might take. We don’t want to turn anyone off by being too out there; we want everyone to be comfortable here. Well, we certainly want everyone to feel welcomed, and loved, and accepted here, but I don’t think that means we need to not be who we are called to be, and I still believe we are called to be a radically loving, radically prophetic community. And, at the risk of taking liberties with the historical record, I think that Dr. King would agree with me. Hear these words from his own apostolic letter, written from his own time in jail, in Birmingham in 1963:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus"…So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment.

May we also be big in commitment, extremists for the good news of Jesus, extremists for love and justice and peace. Let us live into that calling and be the congregation that embodies those ideals, so that we may bring about the reign of God, the beloved community, right here, right now.

19 January 2008

Checking in and priming the pump

I know, I’ve been away from this blog far too long, and now I’m returning merely for instrumental purposes. That’s right, dear readers, I’m going to use you. Here’s the story: I need to write a sermon today (it’s OK, I’ve been working on it in my head for some time), and one bit of writing advice I’ve often heard is that one should do a little bit of “warm-up” writing before embarking on a serious writing project. So, this is my warm-up work. Somewhat appropriate that, as I sit in my house looking out at the beginning of what could be a real snowfall (“real snowfall” being defined in Atlanta as more than an inch of accumulation that sticks around for 24 hours).

This entry will also be a bit of self-indulgence, reflecting on what was a really top-notch dining experience last month. My business partner and I (with our spouses) always go out for a “company holiday dinner” at some nice place around town (I won’t publicly disclose how we treat said expenditure for tax purposes). This year’s venue was Joel Restaurant, self-described as a “chic French bistro” run by Joel Antunes, the recipient of the 2005 James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Southeast (a very prestigious award).

[Note to self: You’re using too many parenthetical asides. Write more directly.]

We went for the chef’s tasting/prix fixe menu, which is something I always like to do at good restaurants. That way, the chef gets to show off his or her talents and freshest ingredients, plus it has the additional advantage of relieving me from thinking about what to order, what wines to pair with what food (if wines are offered as part of the pairings), etc. [Note #2: There was both a parenthetical aside and an “etc.” instead of simply closing out the sentence with something firm and direct. Must do better.]

On to the menu. The first course featured Goldpoint oysters (although my Google search for these turned up empty – perhaps it’s just another marketing name for some other variety) with a cauliflower tapenade and cucumber sorbet. This was an outstanding opener; the oysters were plump and juicy, the tapenade was surprisingly tasty, and the sorbet was perfectly refreshing. The paired wine was Iron Horse Brut, a solid sparkling wine from California.

The second course was Hawaiian shrimp with shitake ravioli in a ginger sauce. Upon hearing this described, I was a bit skeptical – I mean, what’s so special about shrimp from Hawaii? After tasting them, I was persuaded; they were very sweet and meaty, and perfectly cooked. It’s very easy to overcook or, even worse, undercook shrimp, and I appreciated the chef’s execution here. The shitake ravioli was yummy, and the ginger sauce was a fine way to tie the two together. This course’s wine was a Torrontes from Crios, the principal dry white varietal from Argentina. It’s floral and a little spicy, and went very well with the Asian-influenced dish.

Now we get to the real treats for my readers, as the next three courses have pictures to go along with my languid descriptions (we didn’t think to take a picture of the first dish, and the picture of the second one didn’t turn out very well so I’m not bothering to post it). This course was a Jerusalem artichoke “lasagna”, a free-form style with some slices of pasta filled with the artichoke puree. It was served with a chicken jus and an obscene amount of black truffle slices. The aroma from the truffle slices in the warm jus was insanely good, and the Jerusalem artichoke was as much as anything a great backdrop for the other flavors. By the way, the Jerusalem artichoke, also known as the “sunchoke”, is neither an artichoke nor related to Jerusalem. Just thought you’d want to know. The wine was a chardonnay by Rombauer, an excellent chardonnay from Carneros, and although it was a California chard with 100% barrel fermentation, was not too buttery or oaky, qualities I tend to abhor in many over-oaked California chards.

The fourth and pretty much “main” course is complicated to describe. It’s essentially pheasant two ways; one was a roast pheasant breast, and the other was a pheasant leg confit. The breast came with a black olive tapenade, and the dish also included polenta and quince. There was a pheasant cider jus, and more shaved black truffles. It sounds like an overly complicated dish, but in practice it was well balanced, and since the portions were modest nothing was too overwhelming. I couldn’t recall having pheasant before, but it was outstanding and I hope to do so again. Most of us preferred the leg confit because of its savory richness. The wine for this course was a reserve merlot from Navarro Correars, another Argentine offering. This, unfortunately, was probably the weakest of the wine selections, although it still wasn’t bad, and its richness did pair well with the dish.

And now the final, dessert course, a hazelnut biscuit, topped by layers of chocolate wafers and chocolate mousse, and a scoop of caramel ice cream. This was an excellent closer, and was paired with a fine Australian Muscat from Yalumba. You’ll note my PDA in my hands in the background of this picture, as I realized that taking notes was the only was I would possibly remember all of the details about this meal.

All in all this was an excellent meal, approaching some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying at a restaurant. That statement leads me to reflect on what I might consider the “best” meals I’ve ever enjoyed, and surprisingly enough, many of those were enjoyed not at restaurants but around a table in my own or someone else’s home. Which is to say, I suppose, that there is more to a fabulous dinner than sublime cuisine.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little self-indulgence. If I ever finish this sermon, I’ll post it next and you can read something more spiritually inclined.