Saturday, March 31, 2012

Humility, Regret and Rick Pitino

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.Deuteronomy 8:2-3

Kentucky is the only surviving team among my picks for the Final Four, and I picked them to win it all. But tonight I will be rooting for Louisville.

Partly that’s because of my loyalty to the Big East, which goes back to Dave Gavitt, and the years that the Big East was primarily a basketball conference competing (and beating) bigger conferences and bigger schools. And partly it’s because of what Rick Pitino did with Providence College twenty-five years ago.

It doesn’t really make much sense. The Big East of today bears little resemblance of the conference Dave Gavitt put together. And soon they will add Boise State, just to stamp out any lingering thought that it’s a regional conference based in the Northeast.

The other reason I will be rooting for Louisville is Rick Pitino. And that goes back to 1987, that special season when he took Providence College to the final four and it seemed like, at least in college basketball, anything was possible. Billy Donavan became a star and Providence was, if only for a moment, a national power.

A lot has happened since then. He won two titles at Kentucky and failed twice in the NBA. His 6 month old son died of heart failure, and his best friend and brother-in-law died in the Twin Towers. And then there was the extra-marital scandal.

In an ESPN article, Rick Reilly talks about his new perspective. He is “not the bug-eyed screamer, the arrogant New York know-it-all. He has swallowed too much heartache to be that man anymore.”

Looking back, Pitino reflects, "My biggest disappointment isn't that I didn't put somebody on the passer in that [1992 Duke] game. It's that I didn't live humbly all those years. I try to now."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Coffee and Conscience

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice
of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of the scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Psalm 1:1-3
Just a few years ago Starbucks was closing stores and laying off employees in a desperate attempt to restore profitability. Today they are expanding, and the Starbucks stock price is at an all time high. At the shareholders meeting this week, the man responsible for the turnaround, CEO Howard Schultz, announced record profits of more than 1 billion dollars, and said that conscience was a key component of the company’s success.

Companies, he said, need to give back to their communities. He argued that it is good for business and essential to restoring the American Dream. “We’re heading into a crucible,” he told the shareholders, “something that’s really going to test the conscience of the country. It’s a test we cannot pass by being bystanders.” He talked about the growing gap between rich and poor and potential “cuts in social services we haven’t seen since the great depression.”

He criticized the government for not doing enough to resolve the debt crisis, or help create jobs and restore the middle class, and he criticized banks for not loaning more money to small businesses. He also insisted that business leaders can no longer wait for Washington to act.
Starbucks has created a jobs program that makes loans to small businesses and non-profits. And he announced the company’s commitment to the goal of job creation by investing $180 million in a new plant in Augusta, Georgia, as well as the expansion of existing facilities in South Carolina.

During the meeting, two shareholders stood up to question the company’s decision to support same sex marriage in Washington State. Each time, he answered calmly and respectfully, noting that not everyone agrees with their stand. “But,” he said, “I want to say candidly, this was not a hard decision.” We looked at the issue, he said, “through the lens of humanity.”

He went on to say that he wanted the company to stand for something more than a product and he wanted the company employees to feel like they were part of something larger than themselves that would make a difference in the world. Last year Starbucks employees contributed nearly half a million hours to volunteer projects in their communities, and the company is working hard to recycle more and be more environmentally friendly.

Looking at a business “through the lens of humanity” does not guarantee financial success, and “doing good” does not automatically translate into “doing well.” But without a concern for the common welfare, real success is impossible.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jimmy Carter and Biblical Christianity

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”Matthew 5:11-12
Jimmy Carter has probably endured more ridicule than any other living President of the United States. He is the punch line of a thousand jokes.

One of the things I admire about him is that he doesn’t seem to care. Not caring what people think about you is not a helpful character trait in a politician. And the truth is that he never was a very good politician. But he is a remarkably faithful Christian. His statements and actions seem odd to many political commentators because Christianity is at odds with popular politics and culture.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post, and great grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the greatest leaders of the Social Gospel, recently interviews President Carter about his new book, “NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter.” I want to share two of those exchanges.

When asked about whether gays and lesbians should be accepted in the church, he gave a direct, yet measured response:

“Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things -– he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies.

“I draw the line, maybe arbitrarily, in requiring by law that churches must marry people. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each congregation is autonomous and can govern its own affairs. So if a local Baptist church wants to accept gay members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to.”
In another exchange, Raushenbush noted President Carter’s commitment to peacemaking, and then asked how he interpreted Jesus’ declaration that he came, “not to bring peace, but a sword.” Carter responded:

“For the last 35 or more years, my wife and I have read the Bible last thing every night and just last week we read that passage and discussed it a little bit. . . . He was predicting what would happen, that his teachings might cause divisions among people as they decided to follow God’s ordained duties such as peace, humility, service to others, alleviation of suffering, forgiveness -- when we face those conflicts, we should adhere to the principles that never change, to the moral values that are taught through religion.”
Peace, humility, service to others, alleviation of suffering, forgiveness—those are not qualities that we often find in our leaders. And when we find them, we do not value them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Education and the Reproduction of Privilege

Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
They will abide in prosperity,
and their children shall possess the land.
Psalm 25:8-10, 13
Rick Santorum made headlines by calling President Obama a “snob” for insisting that every American should go to college. What the President actually said was that every American should commit to a year of training beyond high school. He talked about four year colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships. And as it turns out, the former Senator endorses that same goal.

Higher education is an important factor in economic success. And its importance is increasing. Thirty years ago, college graduates earned an average of 50% more money than those with only a high school diploma. Today that difference has increased to 80%.

Americans have believed in education as the great economic ladder by which even the poorest citizens could climb into the middle class. But recent data indicate that may no longer be true. Education, in fact, may solidify and increase class barriers.

In an essay in Monday’s New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall talks about college as an institution that reinforces class stratification. Citing a report by Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and co-author of a report on how college access increases inequality, Edsall observes that at the most competitive colleges almost three quarters of all students come from families in the top quartile of income and that only three percent come from the bottom quartile. As Carnevale puts it, “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.”

In the United States there are a little more than one thousand colleges classified as “competitive,” and almost exactly the same number of community colleges. But the student bodies of those two groups are from the opposite ends of the income scare. At the competitive colleges, nearly eighty percent come from families in the upper half of the income distribution. At the community colleges the same percentage comes from low-income families.

We like to think of the education system as a class-blind meritocracy. Standardized tests, like the SAT, don’t know and don’t care what a student’s family income is, or where her parents went to college. But in practice, SAT scores correlate closely to income. The higher the income, the higher the score. Those scoring at the upper end are on average, from wealthier families.

The problem is exacerbated by shrinking scholarships.

In the late 1960’s, when I was applying to college, my dad was the pastor of three small churches on Cape Cod. Our income was barely above the poverty line, but I received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University (tuition, room and board, and money for books). Need based scholarships at that level do not exist today. If I were applying to college today, I would get a “package” of grants and loans, with an anticipated college debt that would take decades to pay off.

This means that those rare students from the lower income levels who do have excellent grades and score well on standardized tests are far less likely than their more affluent classmates to enroll in college, and more likely to leave before graduation. Thirty years ago a Pell Grant (the federal scholarship program) covered 99 percent of the cost of community college, 77 percent of the cost at a public four year college, and 36 percent of the cost at a private four-year college. According to Education Week, today those percentages had dropped to 62, 36 and 15 percent. Grants are shrinking as costs are rising.

Since the founding of our nation, we have believed in the ideal of a “class-less” nation. We knew that there were gaps in income. But we believed in universal education as the best way to shrink those gaps and provide opportunity for every citizen. And the huge middle class gains after the Second World War, seemed to offer proof that the ideal could become reality. Today we face a series of economic factors which have made upward mobility much more difficult.

The system we have trusted to break through the barriers of class, now does just the opposite. As Anthony Carnevale stated, “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.” We need some serious reform if we are to reclaim our dream.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Peg Laurence, Ellen DeGeneres and the New Reality

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18-19a

On the front page of The North East Independent, a local weekly newspaper, there is a story about Peg Laurence, a local lawyer who died last Friday at the age of 63. She was remembered and celebrated as a community activist and a renaissance woman who loved golf, sailing and football.

As I read of her many causes and commitments, I was impressed by the scope of her life. She must have been a wonderful person. But what most caught my attention was the picture that went with the story. The caption said, “Peg Laurence (left), shown with partner Lise Iwon . . .” It was not a story about a gay woman. It was just a story about a woman who happened to be gay.

This is, in the words of Isaiah, “a new thing.”

The judge who married them in Massachusetts told about how they met in Law School 32 years ago and it was “love at first sight.” Nieces and nephews recalled the importance of “Auntie Peg’s influence” on their lives and the lives of their children.

While the political debates go on about gay marriage, the day to day reality is changing. As Isaiah proclaims God’s message, “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported that the organizers of what was supposed to be a national boycott of J.C. Penney to protest the company’s hiring of Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson, have given up. The Times wrote that, “The Christian family group called announced Thursday that it's backing off a nationwide boycott of J.C. Penney.”

In that context, shouldn’t the word “Christian” be in quotation marks? Admittedly, they call themselves a “Christian Family Group,” but apart from that self-definition, what would indicate that they are in any way reflecting authentic Christian values?

We should be very careful about deciding who is or is not a “real” Christian. And even though it turns out that “” actually only has about 40,000 members (as Ellen DeGeneres said, “I guess they rounded up to the nearest million), I don’t really want to throw them out of church. But it does trouble me that the name is unthinkingly ascribed to the most narrow minded of those who claim to be Jesus’ followers.

And how is it that Christianity is so often identified with preserving the status quo? We wrote the book on “New.” Literally.

As the passage from Isaiah illustrates, the idea of God’s ever-creating newness is a biblical theme that predates Christianity. But it is hard to think of many themes that are more central to Christian faith. As Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Corinth, “When anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Football and Violence

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
Psalm 73:2-10
If you Google “Saints” today, your search results will first show stories about the New Orleans Saints football team and the “bounty scandal.”

An investigation by the National Football League found that former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams ran a bounty pool, which paid out cash awards for injuring specific players on the opposing team. The investigation revealed that in addition to Williams, Head Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis also knew about the bounty system and did nothing to stop it.

According to the report, the bounty pool was used to make payoffs to players who inflicted game ending injuries on opponents. If the opposing player was knocked out of the game, a Saints player received $1,500 for the “Knockout.” If an opposing player had to be helped off of the field, the payoff was $1,000 for a “Cart-Off.” These payments were doubled or tripled in playoff games.

Football has always been a violent game. It would be naïve to think that the Saints were the first or only team to have a bounty system on opposing players.

The iconic picture of an exultant Chuck Bednarik celebrating over the motionless form of Frank Gifford in 1960 reminds us that game ending injuries are not new.

But today the injuries are mounting up at an alarming rate. Former players are suffering the long term effects of repeated concussions. The players are bigger and faster. And the helmets and pads which were designed for protection are also used as weapons.

No one tackles anymore. Defensive players “hit” receivers and running backs. Players are praised for delivering a blow to opponents. The rare traditional tackle, where the defensive player wraps up the ball carrier with both arms and brings him to the ground, never makes the highlight reel. Compared to the “hit” that sends a player somersaulting, a tackle is boring.

As a football fan, this worries me, but the problem is bigger than the game.

The league will crack down on the Saints. No matter how much they may think that the “hits” and the violence are good for ratings, the prospect of costly lawsuits from injured players will force them to make clear that intentional injuries cannot be tolerated. And there is also the possibility that there could be criminal indictments. It is, after all, against the law to pay one person to injure another.

But the problem is bigger than the game.

Yesterday on a sports talk show they were comparing the Saints’ scandal with the Patriots’ “spygate” scandal of a few years ago. They were talking about which one was worse. As a fan, asked the host rhetorically, which would you rather have your team involved in, a bounty system on opposing players or taking illegal videos of the other team? “It’s not even close;” he answered himself, “what the Patriots did was much worse.”

Paying a player for injuring someone is not as bad as taking illegal pictures. Seriously. The intentional injuries, in his mind, did not compromise “the integrity of the game.”

What a strange moral calculus. It sounds like something that the “fans” at the ancient Roman Coliseum might have said about the gladiators.

It leads me to ponder the nature of men (not women, just men). Here we are in the twenty-first century living far more sheltered lives than our prehistoric ancestors did, and we choose to define ourselves by making believe that football is real life. We don’t just live vicariously. We live vicariously through a make believe world.

I love football. But the players are not warriors. And it’s a game.

To risk life and limb to protect a loved one, or to save someone, is a noble thing. To intentionally injure someone to win a game is wrong and crazy at the same time.

If this is who we are; if this is how supposedly sane and well educated men think, it is no wonder that younger and less mature men so often turn to violence to settle their differences.