Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When the Season Ends

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.”

Those words were written by A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1977, before he was President of Yale, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan and he died before seeing a season that ended in anything but heartbreak. Long time Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione traditionally reads those words at the close of every season.

There will be no October baseball in Boston this year. The amazing team that went from last place in 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013 has sunk back to last place. And so I find myself looking back to years past. The 1946 World Series produced one of my favorite Red Sox stories.

In the bottom of the eighth inning of seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the Red Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3. The game was played in St. Louis, and the Cardinals were at bat. Enos Slaughter was on first base and Harry Walker was at the plate. Walker hit one into the gap in left centerfield. Slaughter, who was known for his speed, was already running. When Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky took the throw from the outfield, Slaughter had already rounded third. Pesky turned toward the infield and threw to the plate, but it was too late. Slaughter had scored, the Cardinals had the lead, and the radio announcer screamed, “Pesky held the ball! He held the ball. Johnny Pesky held the ball!”

That one play sent Enos Slaughter to the Hall of Fame and kept Johnny Pesky out. The story was that Slaughter had scored from first base on a single, because Pesky held the ball. It was a career defining moment for both men. And that one play has followed John Pesky for the nearly sixty years since then. Years later, at a football game, after a running back had committed his second fumble, someone in the stands yelled, “Give the ball to Pesky, he’ll hold onto it!” It is part of the legacy of Red Sox Nation, like Bucky Dent’s home run and Bill Buckner’s error (another guy who, except for that one play, would probably be in the Hall of Fame).

The real story, however, is more complicated than the legend and it tells us more about the character of Johnny Pesky than it does about his baseball skills.

The Red Sox had been trailing 3-1 in the top of the inning, when Dom DiMaggio doubled to drive in two runs and tie the score. Unfortunately, Dom pulled a hamstring running to second and had to leave the game. He was replaced by a journeyman outfielder named Leon Culberson. The change was critical, because Dom DiMaggio was the best defensive centerfielder in the American League (yes, Yankee fans, he was better than his more famous brother, Joe). Culberson was a competent player, but not at the same level as DiMaggio, and he could not match Dom’s throwing arm, which was probably the strongest in the league.

When Walker came to bat, with Slaughter on first, DiMaggio motioned frantically to Culberson from the dugout, trying to move him toward left field. Eventually, he took a step or two, but not enough. When the ball was hit, Culberson was slow to react, and threw weakly to Pesky, who had come out into the outfield to take the throw. If you watch films of the game, you’ll see Pesky turn and throw without any hesitation. But since the dominant record of the game etched in the memory of fans came from the radio announcer, that was the image that stuck. And though most people think Slaughter scored from first on a single, Walker’s hit was actually a double.

Slaughter himself said that he never would have tried to score if DiMaggio had been playing center. And when Dom was asked whether he thought he could have thrown Slaughter out, he answered with certainty, “I would have thrown him out—at third!”

Over the years, when Pesky was asked about the play, he would smile and say, “Well, I guess I must have hesitated when I looked in to the infield.” He stuck with that explanation because the alternative would have violated one of Pesky’s core principles: you never blame your teammates. He would rather take the fault himself than blame Culberson for a bad throw.

People who knew him say that Johnny Pesky was a simple guy. He didn’t spend time wondering what should have been or could have been, or why he had to be the one to carry the blame for the loss. He considered himself lucky to have been paid to play a game. And lucky to have been a part of some great teams.

In sports, coaches and commentators will often speak of character when their teams come from behind to win the game in the last minute or the last inning, as if athletic success had an intrinsic moral quality. But when I think of character, I’ll remember Johnny Pesky, smiling at his critics.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Alternative Community

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

This coming Sunday, September 28, will be the Fifth Sunday in Kingdomtide; at least that’s what it would have been when I was growing up. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, peace, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation. The world did not belong to the emperor, it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

Although Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has been largely ignored by modern Christians. The popular misinterpretation is that when he talked about Gods’ Kingdom, he was talking about heaven. But he wasn’t. He was talking about happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.

Like the Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God, the liturgical season of Kingdomtide just never caught on. Initially, it seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is that stretching out Pentecost, and counting the Sundays after Pentecost, is pretty boring. It also made sense because the fall lectionary texts emphasize building up the Kingdom of God. But it was doomed by the combined weight of liturgical purity and the concern (which I share) for looking beyond exclusively masculine terms for God. God is not a King.

But whatever we call it, we need to do it.

Kingdomtide reminds us who we are supposed to be as the church. We are supposed to be transforming lives and making disciples. But the goal is not just to make disciples; the goal is to make disciples who will transform the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spanking and Christian Parenting

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:7-11

My fifth grade teacher was new to our school. And we thought he was pretty cool. This may have been partly because he was a guy, but more because he was young. He seemed to be much more “with it.” One day, in the course of a discussion of something I can’t remember, he asked us if our parents spanked us. He asked for a show of hands. The class was small. I think there were twelve of us. And of the twelve, only two of us were not routinely spanked for our various misdeeds. I was one and Faith Small was the other. My parents did not believe in spanking. I’m not sure about Faith’s parents because as far as I know she never did anything wrong.

The point of the teacher’s inquiry was to tell us he thought that spanking was good for us and that Faith and I would someday suffer from this woeful lack of punishment. I think it was the only time I was ever publicly chastised for my parents’ failings. It was embarrassing.

In an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, Matthew Paul Turner makes an important connection, obvious to many of us, but not much discussed in the cable and network commentary. Adrian Peterson’s child abuse grew out of his understanding of the duty of Christian parents to physically discipline their children. (For the record, it’s worth pointing out that my parents’ objection to spanking was also directly connected to their faith.)

“Today,” writes Turner, “the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.”

He argues that, “For decades, American evangelicals have fiercely fought any legal or cultural limits on parents’ ‘rights’ to discipline their children. We hear the echoes of this line of thought in the argument that what Adrian Peterson did to his son is a private matter. His lawyer spoke of it as the act of a “loving father.”

Chip Ingram offers a guide to biblical spanking on the Focus on the Family web site. To be fair, Ingram makes clear that the point of spanking is “to sting, to provide a painful deterrent to misbe­havior, not to injure.” Then he gives specific instructions:

“When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That's all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept — and it's okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn't hurt, it isn't really discipline, and ultimately it isn't very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child's behavior.

“Have the child lean over his bed and make sure you apply the discipline with a quick flick of the wrist to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage to the body. You want to be calm, in control, and focused as you firmly spank your child, being very careful to respect his body.”

Ingram is not advocating the sort of beating that Peterson allegedly inflicted on his four year-old son. He cautions that, “A parent who reaches back and swings hard is acting out of anger and frustration, not out of love and desire for the child's welfare. That's unbiblical by anyone's definition.”

Even with Ingram’s cautionary language, I find his description chilling. “Have the child lean over his bed.” (Of course, it’s “his” bed because Focus on the Family makes no attempt to use inclusive language—not because they think little girls shouldn’t be spanked.) And direct the blow “to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage.”

So the intention is to inflict pain without leaving any marks or “doing any damage.” That doesn’t sound like a loving way to parent a child.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sam Harris and the Sacred Journey

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

In a recent column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni comments on Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” which will be published this month by Simon and Schuster.

He focuses on a passage in the middle of the book, where Harris describes an experience that might surprise those who know him as “the country’s most prominent and articulate atheist.”

Harris was in Israel, by the Sea of Galilee, walking where Jesus had walked, and he had what many Christians would describe as a religious experience. Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”

It was “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Bruni asks, “Had Harris at last found God? And is ‘Waking Up’ a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?”

No, Bruni explains, Harris is asking a profound question which is seldom considered, “The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?”

My question for Bruni and Harris is, “Is this a trick question?”

Of course, the experience precedes the description of the experience. How could it be otherwise? And yes, religion is precisely the language we use to describe our experiences of transcendence and wonder. To speak in Christian terms, when we read the Bible, we are reading about how our spiritual ancestors experienced transcendence.

Explaining his position in a phone call with Bruni, Harris said, “You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma.” Commenting on the conversation, Bruni writes, “It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.”

Harris is right; you can have those conversations outside of a religious frame of reference. But it is also true that the church is a place where those conversations are encouraged and nurtured. We don’t think of our context as secular, of course, but we do reflect on spiritual experience and “the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s universal . . . and not freighted with dogma.” At least that’s what we try to do.

The subtitle for Harris’s book is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Many Americans, Bruni observes, “are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety . . . .”

Isn’t that the task of the church, to guide people across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety? Our goal is not to move people from a place called “faithlessness” to a place called “piety,” but to help each other recognize that the journey itself is sacred. This is true, not only in those high moments, beside the Sea of Galilee, when we walk where Jesus walked, but in everyday life when, as the Psalmist observed, The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day and the Parable of Market Basket

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
I Corinthians 15:58

Paul it taking the long view. In the end, everything matters. Nothing is lost. What we do makes a difference, and it makes a difference forever.

But in the short run, for many workers, their labor does seem to be in vain.

Things have improved. It is not as bad this Labor Day as it was a year ago, but that’s not saying much. A New York Times editorial points out that a year ago economists were estimating that it would take until 2021 to replace the jobs lost or never created since the recession of 2008. At the current rate of job growth the new date would be 2018.

The economy as a whole is growing. But labor is not sharing in that growth. In 2013 the after-tax profits of American corporations, measured as share of the total economy, equaled the record year of 1965. Wages, on the other hand, were at their lowest level since 1948. Productivity has increased dramatically, but wages have remained stagnant, resulting in large gains for corporations, and the wealthiest among us, while low and middle income workers have not benefitted, and have actually seen their wages decline over the past year, when we adjust for inflation.

At the very bottom of the workforce, there is an exception to the overall trend. The lowest 10 percent of workers made a small gain as a result of increases in the minimum wage enacted in thirteen states this year. That modest gain gives us hope that lifting the federal minimum wage might result in broader benefits.

There is no mystery in this. As Elise Gould points out in a research paper written for the Economic Policy Institute, the issue is our economic policy. And we can change it.

We can build our policy around labor, rather than around corporations. And we can change the tone of the national conversation.

Modern corporations do not treat workers as an asset. They are treated as a liability.

This is not only a problem for low wage workers. As an example, consider the widespread strategy of classifying employees as independent contractors, and workers as supervisors, in order to avoid in order to avoid paying the wages and benefits that would otherwise be required. The Times editorial observes that in California and appellate court recently ruled that Fed-Ex drivers are employees, not independent contractors, and therefore eligible for employee benefits. And the Times points out that “Decades of outsourcing government jobs to the private sector has undercut public employment, once a mainstay of middle-class life, even as evidence has mounted that outsourcing often does not save money or improve services.”

It is not a good story, but there is a counter-narrative.

The story of Market Basket might be a modern parable. The family owned chain has been immensely successful over the decades, expanding from a single store to their present total of 71 located in northern Massachusetts, southern Maine and south eastern New Hampshire. Earlier this summer, Arthur S. Demoulas engineered the ouster of his cousin, Arthur T. Demoulas, the long time CEO because he and other family members believed that Arthur T’s pro-worker, pro-consumer approach was limiting their dividends.

Arthur T, as he is known, built the business with his sharp business acumen and an intentional long term investment in his employees. They have generous wages and benefits, including profit sharing even at the lower end of the work ladder. They are also committed to promoting from within. The result is that they have many employees who have been with the company for decades, are very skilled at what they do and very committed to Market Basket and to Arthur T.

After the firing of Arthur T, there was an uprising. The non-union workforce basically went on strike in support of the man they believed had always supported them. As worker after worker repeated, “Arthur T. has always been there for us.” E. J. Dionne described the story in the Washington Post: “. . . eight senior managers organized an employee protest. They were quickly fired. Then all hell broke loose. The lion’s share of the employees at the chain’s 71 stores joined the protest, fully aware that they had no job protection. Market Basket’s customers (there is great affection for the chain) were drawn to the workers’ side.”

Dionne continues, “This worker-consumer alliance bore fruit last week when a $1.5 billion deal was arranged under which Arthur T. assumed control of the company, which has annual revenue of $4.6 billion. That is not the end of the story, of course. The new deal requires a ton of capital and that will affect the chain’s bottom line. It will be a challenge, but Arthur T. and his loyal employees believe they are up to it.

In his address to employees and supporters at a victory rally, Arthur T. told the group, “In this organization, here at Market Basket, everyone is special.” He went on to explain, “You have demonstrated that everyone here has a purpose. You have demonstrated that everyone has meaning. And no one person is better or more important than another. And no one person holds a position of privilege. Whether it’s a full-timer or a part-timer, whether it’s a sacker or a cashier, or a grocery clerk, or a truck driver, or a warehouse selector, a store manager, a supervisor, a customer, a vendor or a CEO, we are all equal. We are all equal and by working together, and only together, do we succeed.”

It is a victory for workers, for consumers, for fair working conditions, for community values, and for a compassionate capitalism that is committed to doing good while doing well. But it is not a universal solution to the problems of laborers and corporations in America. The Market Basket victory was possible only because Arthur T. was able to raise what the Boston Globe called “a boatload of cash” to buy out Arthur S. But even with all the caveats, it is still a ray of hope.