Needing to Knead

My last post already confessed to my compulsion for needing the last word. Yes, that’s a well-ingrained fault that warrants my continuous attention (not always successfully). But there are other reasons I don’t want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest.

There’s a reason this blog is named, Kneading Bread! Watching my mother knead countless batches of flour, yeast and water I learned that her labor was not just about the bread. As growth enabled me to deduce patterns I discovered something quite interesting. On those days my mother chose to bake bread — often indulging a little extra energy really getting-into the kneading, I began to recognize it wasn’t primarily about the bread or our family’s love of her good food!

Yes, this blog enables me to wrestle with ideas and issues of importance to me and topics I believe to be of spiritual and social importance. If it’s not obvious, I “need to knead” this batch of ingredients the world regularly plops in front of us to see what comes of it, to discover what value it holds for our health and well-being.

But Kneading Bread is intended to be something more, more than my personal playground for having the last word or indulging my fiercely defended opinions! No, my purpose would fall short if posts failed to stimulate reflection or provoke the reader to wrestle with your own values, beliefs, convictions, commitments and ways of acting in community. As my mother demonstrated, it’s as much about the laborious act of kneading as it is about savoring the finished product!

She also demonstrated in countless ways that there are always exceptions to any rule. That’s true today. Sometimes you come across a quote that is so incisive, so well-crafted, so true it would be wrong to do a thing to it. Today is such a day!  I can do no better. On my best days, I wish I could say it so well:

We have become a society of machines and business degrees, of stocks and bonds, of world power and world devastation, of what works and what makes money. We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume, and our elderly to be silent. We are sophisticated now. We talk about our ideas for getting ahead rather than about our ideas for touching God, We are miles from our roots and light-years away from our upbringings. We have abandoned the concerns of the civilizations before us. We have forsaken the good, the true, and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful, and the opulent. We have abandoned enoughness for the sake of consumption. We are modern. We are progressive. And we are lost.

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These prophetic words were written by Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. I came to them via my friend Sheila Wilson’s Facebook posting. The only citation I can give is what Sheila gave. It is from Chittister’s book, What Does It Mean to Be Human? In a way, a specific page reference is unnecessary — anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading!

Whose Side Are We On?

Disclaimer:  You will not want to finish reading this post.

Did you feel it? Probably not! The earth beneath our feet shifted a bit from its old axis yesterday.

There are moments that are truly transformative — yesterday was one. America changed forever on September 11, 2001. When the history of the 21st century is written, I believe 9/11 will pale in comparison with all that July 9, 2011 symbolizes.

There were no catastrophic deaths; visible edifices did not crumble in flames. Like a poor girl from an obscure town on the fringe of an imposing empire giving birth in Bethlehem of Judea, what happened yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will likely go unnoticed by world leaders consumed with their presumption of power.

Like the irrepressible pressure that builds over eons causing the earth to quake — or the indomitable life-force within a tulip bulb that splits darkness, dirt and cold to blossom in Spring — forces building over centuries converged yesterday and found insistent and incisive expression.

It is as if the Book of Revelation found apocalyptic voice once again: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Here is a sampling. Beware, its tough reading — you will want to “zone-out”, stop once you get the gist, keep it at arm’s length if you succeed in making it all the way.

  • There is an unjust global system that results in exclusion. Individualism is at the heart of this injustice. The rule of money is fueling this injustice.
  • Keep fighting for justice — Focus on people and interpersonal encounter not abstract ideologies; be moved by their suffering.
  • A just economy is one that serves people —where the quest for profits dominates, the earth is destroyed, and there is an unjust distribution of goods.
  • The economy must foster conditions that are compatible with human dignity and that unlock the potential of each person by respecting all of their rights as a person and allowing each one to flourish.
  • A just distribution of goods is not a task for philanthropy or charity alone; there is a moral obligation to ensure this just distribution.
  • An inclusive economy enables all people to fully participate; solidarity and subsidiarity are only fully present when participation is real.
  • All people and states are interdependent; we need global and international action to achieve justice.
  • The Church is not innocent when it comes to the sins of colonialism.
  • Our faith is radical and countercultural.

Pope Francis chose remote Santa Cruz, Bolivia — hardly an epicenter of economic prowess or political prestige — for his prophetic exhortation.

Like a “voice crying in the wilderness”, Francis proclaims “the way of the Lord.” And let us not miss the poignancy of the location, Santa Cruz — are we not being invited to look upon the holy cross on which the Body of Christ hangs today?

I confess my tremendous resistance to paying more than pious lip service to Francis’ moral vision. Social and economic structures in which I am enmeshed serve my interests. I prefer not to see those who are excluded or on whose backs my security is built.

My hunch is most of us are in the same boat, heavily invested in the status quo. The more structures serve our personal interest, especially as we age, the more we resist change.  This seems to be the bane of the powerful, the truth of the ages!

But change we must. Change we will, willingly or not. Like the indomitable life force of a tulip or the irrepressible pressure of tectonic plates, the earth is shifting under out feet — and in this an always compassionate but insistent God is alive and active.

When the history of the 21st century is written, with whom and on whose side will we wish we had stood?
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I am indebted to Robert Christian at millennialjournal.com for his marvelous synopsis of Francis’ speech. The above sampling of themes are lifted from his post.  I heartily recommend his entire summary to you [link].

You Decide… You Really Do!

YOU be the judge. I could too easily come across as cynical. Who wants to put up with my cynicism?

Here are two news stories that greeted me this morning. They came totally independent of one another. Yet, they collided big time in my morning waking to consciousness.  I’d be curious to know if you see any connection and whether you see any reason for concern.

The first story came from my hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Hearld. Though I moved from Omaha in 1978, it will always be home and I enjoy staying connected with what’s going on there. Today the paper reports that the buy-out for fired University of Nebraska football coach, Bo Pelini will be $128,009 for the next 46 months.

I guess the sum seems smaller if reported in monthly increments rather than a lump sum ($5,888,414.00). The positive spin on the story is that this is less than it might have been — I guess that’s good news!

Because Pelini got a job coaching at Youngstown State in Ohio, Nebraska will “save” $21,991 each month on what the Huskers would have had to pay if he’d not landed another coaching job. Whew! Saving nearly $22,000 each month is a really good thing, right?

Yes, Coach Bo got fired last year even though he again led the Cornhuskers to a 9 and 3 season! If my memory is correct, the team won at least nine games in each of the seven seasons that Pelini coached the team.

Nebraskans take their college football serious! Nine wins for a team in the Big Ten Conference which can boast of the #1 national championship team just wasn’t good enough! Sadly, Nebraska fans are neither unique nor exceptional!

Then comes a seemingly unrelated story, not from the World-Herald but from completely different source. New statistics from the Pew Research Center show that between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped by nearly eight percentage points, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Yes, an 8% drop in seven years!

At the same time, Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study [link] found the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated — either atheist, agnostic or simply “nothing in particular” — has grown by more than six percentage points, from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. Yes, fast approaching one-fourth of the population.

You be the judge! Do you see any connection between these two stories? I don’t mean to suggest that football causes one to loose one’s faith — though on football Saturdays in Lincoln you might very well get that idea! I remain curious, however, whether these two seemingly unrelated reports might be pointing at the same social phenomenon! Are they two sides of the same coin?

Again, no one wants to read a cynical rant! So, I leave the ball in your court (mixing my metaphors!) with a final observation. We are currently building a new football stadium in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Vikings at a cost of more than $1,000,000,000.00 — yes, more than a billion dollars!

It’s hyped as a catalyst for economic development. In fact, a new urban park in the heart of the city — dubbed The Yard — will provide a grand approach and view of the imposing architectural monument. The park is being praised for providing a terrific venue for the many pre- and post-game rituals associated with NFL football.

Time was when Cathedrals were built on the town square! Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral — my family’s church and where I went to grade school — sits atop the highest geographical ridge in the city and is visible from as far as thirty miles away. The Cathedral of St. Paul is similarly perched above the Minnesota State capitol.

You judge! What are our core values? What’s important to Americans? Honestly speaking, where do we choose to worship on weekends? Who is our god?

 

A “Who”, Not Just a “What”

Sometimes we remain oblivious to things that are obvious. Why is it so difficult to do what would seem to be second nature? Last evening was a proverbial conk on the head! My response? A little squirming in my seat and an honest, “Duh?!?”

I participated in a dinner conference at the University of St. Thomas (I’m coming to really love that school!) My “awakening” was in the form of a challenge to remember what I too easily forget — the “who” I am encountering is not simply the “what” of impersonal exchange!

How simple can it get? Yet, in so many social, professional and economic exchanges I consider the other more as a role or title than a person — more as boss, client, customer, clerk than someone with a name and a life, someone who deserves from me the same human decency and treatment I expect from them.

The dinner was co-sponsored by three UST institutes in some way fostering Catholic social thought and ethical leadership. It aspired to offer an entrepreneurial vision in which business can truly flourish. It really was an abundance of insight and challenge. So the evening might have some lasting impact, I’ve decided to focus one concrete idea for application in my life.

As might be expected given the value commitment of the university, we were reminded of the “social mortgage” on personal and corporate profit. Yes, business should — indeed, must — generate earnings for reinvestment in the enterprise. Yet, profit must also serve the common good if it is to be truly sustainable over time.  In addition, the product or service must remain tethered to some human or social need.

In other words, good business practice is not simply a matter of amassing private wealth. Obvious, right? Then, why do we remain so easily oblivious? Why is it so easy to see a “what” rather than a “who” at work? Why are so many business encounters no more than brusk economic exchanges?

We can do better! We must do better! Don’t we all seek something more personal in all our public lives? Aren’t we all eager for a richer sense of community, even a more robust experience of citizenship?

My simple plan is to begin seeing the “who”, not merely a “what”, standing right in front of me!

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Last evening’s dinner was part of the University of St. Thomas’s Higher Calling Series, co-sponsored by the university’s Veritas Institute in the Opus College of Business; John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought; and the Joseph & Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership.  It was free!  Thank you, UST.

Enough With Polite Pleasantries!

Most of us squirm when politics or religion come up in conversation. We are taught from a young age to be “polite”. We learn to stay with amicable and amenable pleasantries lest we be deemed rude or, worse, even crude. Any hint of conflicting opinion or suggestion of contentious topics is a sure way to get your name nixed from future invitation lists.

Such etiquette is all the more intensified by the average American’s simplistic interpretation of “Separation of Church and State.” Live and let live! Isn’t every thought or perspective equally valid? Who am I to judge?  Leave religion out of it!

“My, what lovely weather we’ve been having… Oh, what a cute outfit you are wearing… You look great, you must have gotten away this winter… You know what my silly dog Jeb did yesterday… Yes, I’d love to see photos of your grandkids!…  How ’bout them Cubs!…  Did you have a nice Fourth?”

We all know the schtick! And, yes, there are settings like wedding receptions and picnics in the park when keeping the tenor festive is the order of the day. There are also volatile situations, as when a lot of alcohol is being consumed, when it is prudent to steer clear of matters that could create an ugly scene.

But politics and religion touch on the stuff that really matters. My experience confirms that not talking about them over time leads to a pretty boring conversation.  It’s hard to sustain much of a relationship on trifles and trivialities.  Too much avoidance of hot-button topics and I don’t mind at all being scratched from that invitation list. Life’s just too short and too valuable to fritter it away!

So here is something to chomp on… Unemployment is at a remarkably low 4% in Minnesota. The Dow broke 17,000 this week and continues to set record highs. Wouldn’t you think politicians running for reelection would be touting the economic recovery? But they are not!

Though no longer under-water, home values remain flat for most of us. More people have found jobs, but most workers have not seen their wages rise or “real income” make much inroad into the cost of living. Candidates aren’t talking much about our robust economy because the average American hasn’t felt that much robustness.

“Polite” conversation and a cultural preoccupation with “self-reliance” precludes much honest self-disclosure. But more and more people are beginning to see the facts and speak the truth — fully 95 percent of the nation’s income growth since the recovery began in 2009 has gone to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. Corporate profit trumps the interests of workers who make these gains possible.

The promise of  the American dream plays out as a recurring nightmare for far too many Americans! The soaring Dow has yet to be reflected in the average American’s paycheck. “Recovery” only trickles down to most of us in our dreams.  As the Gipper said so well, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

If you have read this far you are probably in a different sort of 1%! By now, 95% have probably hit the “close” icon, such is our preoccupation with polite pleasantries and propensity to ignore the facts.  But we Americans evade contentious topics and have learned — to our peril — to steer clear of politics. And never, never bring religion into the conversation!

Sorry, but Kneading Bread is about spirituality, a spirituality grounded in the incarnation of a God in time, flesh and community!

Faced with the harsh realities too many face in our increasingly global economy, what is a Christian to do?

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Source for data showing 95% of income growth going to the top 1% of Americans is from a September 2013 report by University of California economist Emmanuel Saez.  The ten page report is available [here].

For the Class of 2056

How can it possibly be 42 years? But it is! Forty-two years ago today I graduated from Creighton University with a B.A. in Political Science.

I was able to earn enough during the summer to pay my private school tuition. I spent a few nights a week at a mortuary and worked a few funerals for spending money through the school year. Living at home with my parents saved room and board expenses.

How things have changed! I graduated from Creighton with $800 in student loans, all incurred during my freshman year. A little over 70% of this year’s bachelors degree recipients – from public as well as private schools – are leaving with loans totaling $33,000 on average!

That really concerns me! It should concern all of us. Imagine what it’s like to be saddled with that sort of debt right out of the starting gate. Seems to me this is evidence of some pretty serious fraying of the social contract we have with one another in this country.

If I were invited to give a commencement address this year I would, of course, touch on that topic. I would also be strongly influenced by the fact that I would be speaking to my grandchildren’s generation. Forty-two years! I would certainly attempt the impossible in my address – to convince the young graduates just how fast life happens.

If I were speaking to the Creighton Class of 2014 I would undoubtedly reinforce the Ignatian character of their education, especially how they are meant to use their talent and education to serve others and promote justice.

I would find some way to explain – despite how hard we think we each have worked for our degrees – how any one of us who had the opportunity to graduate from Creighton was born on third base and should never think we hit a triple.

From the perspective of 42 years and how fast it all happens, I would remind them of something from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. There Ignatius encourages us to consider our actions or choices from the perspective of our deathbed – then and there, when it’s all over, what will I wish I would have done? I have found this to be an almost infallible guideline for making good choices.

There appears from my vantage point a fraying in the “social contract” we have with fellow Americans. Saddling young people with tens of thousands of dollars of debt is simply unsustainable, if not immoral. Our obstinate denial of the consequences of our consumption of natural resources is unconscionable.

What will the Creighton Class of 2056 hear from their commencement speaker? That day will be here before we know it. Today, 2014, what will we wish we would have done for these future graduates?

Musings of An Old Fogie

Too many elders become cynical and fearful as they observe inevitable change occurring within a dynamic culture. I never want to be like that or be dismissed as an “old fogie”. However, I must confess deep concern, worry and skepticism about where our country is headed.

This past weekend we had a terrific weekend at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI centered on the Junior Recital of an extraordinarily gifted young woman. Meeting Elena’s friends was delightful and reason for great hope.

This same weekend a grand-niece was graduating from San Diego State. Yes, amid all the wild fires – only most recent evidence of the climate change which is dramatically transforming what had been considered one of the earth’s most ideal climates. My nephew reported that temps were near 100 in a region where most homes haven’t bothered with air conditioning.

I desperately do not want to be an “old fogie” trapped in fear and cynicism. I am determined to remain hopeful, happy and optimistic. How are we to live with the tension, the very concrete evidence that gives reason for serious concern for our children’s future?

If ever there was a time, we are in need of dusting off what have classically been called the Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude! Only these seem an adequate antidote to the worry and skepticism even a casual look at “reality” would generate.

A case in point comes from a bastion of conservative American culture, The Wall Street Journal: The class of 2014 is holds a very dubious and discouraging distinction. They’re the most indebted class ever. [link]

The average graduate with student-loan debt leaves with an obligation of $33,000 they need to pay back. Even after adjusting for inflation that’s nearly double the amount borrowers had to pay back 20 years ago. A little over 70% of this year’s bachelor’s degree recipients are leaving school with student loans, up from less than half of graduates in the Class of 1994.

Apparently wanting to avoid the old fogie moniker as well, The Wall Street Journal reports: “The good news for the Class of 2014 is that they likely won’t hold the title of Most Indebted Ever very long. Just as they took it over from the Class of 2013, the Class of 2015 will probably take it from them.”

The Cardinal Virtues were initially articulated by Plato in The Republic and expanded by Cicero. Christianity picked up on them through Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo or hinge; these virtues are considered cardinal because they are the basic virtues required for a virtuous civic life.

This old fogie cannot help but look around and be concerned about some pretty significant fraying in America’s “social contract” around civic virtues such as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Perhaps this is what The Wall Street Journal sees as well.

Never having been accused of being “conservative”, I cannot help but think of the Preamble to our Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I worry – in fairness – whether we are passing on what we old fogies received.