The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Variation on a Theme: Hash Browns

For those of you who like fresh hash browns, here's a twist:

Cut up some cabbage to go along with the potatoes and onion! Shred it, slice it, whatever. I tried it twice last weekend, with positive results. I used almost equal amounts of potato and cabbage, but you could adjust that ratio either way. The neat thing is you don't need to squeeze the water out of the mixture, because the cabbage will require the juices to cook (thereby saving some nutritional content). I squeezed it, but found myself having to add additional oil while cooking.

Cook it a long time on low heat, until the cabbage is soft. Maybe 20 mins. Turn and mix frequently.

The only problem is the paprika. While it absolutely belongs on potatoes, it doesn't mesh well with the cabbage. I know I said it should be generously applied to every recipe, but not this one. I've been experimenting with other spices. Rosemary seems okay, but if its not well cooked its like eating pine needles in your food. Salt and pepper may be enough, as well as some fresh garlic.

Melt in some white cheddar cheese during the last couple minutes, and you have yourself a meal!

Advanced Exercise: Put in a dash of cayenne pepper. I mean it--just a dash! Don't make it spicy. If you do it just right you'll end up with a warm feeling going down your throat. Nice!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reptiles for Reagan

Republican presidential candidates are required to demonstrate the following (as evidenced by last night's debate):

  • Show they are the true heir to Ronald Reagan
  • Not step on the toes of the current president
  • Advocate for policies vastly at odds with the both of them.

The irony doesn't escape me that this is a very "liberal" interpretation of Reagan/Bush

Its all about maintaining the image of Reagan. In the end, image was his primary appeal. Reagan is the political equivalent of an SUV: Expensive, unnecessary, but he makes you feel powerful all at the same time.

Advertisers say that people make most of their purchases low on the brain stem--the "reptile", they call it. Few make purchases out of a reasoned, rational approach. The sex and drama of the Marlboro Man is a perfect example. Tens of millions of suburban Americans buying off-road vehicles is another. A mini-van serves their purposes better, but they like the feel of driving in a big car. Are they any safer or more powerful? Doubt it. Their big cars certainly make the roads less safe for me. Despite such an unreasonable, ultra-expensive purchase, Americans spend on romance and not on reason.

Reagan is essentially the same. His environmental policies were catastrophic. His Imperialist/CIA wars were devastating. Our extravagant debt started with him (there was debt before, but nowhere close to his levels). He probably had Alzheimer's while he was in office, falling asleep in meetings with foreign leaders. His economic policy involved feeding the military with borrowed money. The current gap between the rich and poor really finds its roots in Reagan. Yet, he had a slick character, gave a solid salute to marines, told good one-liners, and that's all it took to win the hearts of America.

Fiscal conservatives have been voting for the Reagan-Bush regime in 6 presidential elections since 1980 even though they are the farthest from promoting small government and fiscal restraint. Some bought into their anti-abortion rhetoric. Since 1980, 19 of the last 27 years had Reagan-Bush in the White House, with much of that time also with a Republican controlled congress. Can you tell me what has changed in the climate of abortion in America in almost 30 years of so-called pro-life administrations? Reagan's image did not match his actions in several very key areas, but it didn't seem to matter to voters. The rhetoric spoke and the reptile won.

The idea that military spending is the best economic stimulus is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of America. Many firmly believe that World War II was the only thing that got us out of the Great Depression. We've been maintaining wartime military spending levels since. We have fabricated and exaggerated the "Cold War" and "War With Islamic Terrorism" as a means of justifying this out-of-control spending. Mega-corporations run away with profits.

The problem is that when you increase military spending, you end up with a scenario like this: You spend money to make more bombs. As a result, people go to work making bombs, and there is a stimulus to the economy. More people working. The product--the bomb--is something you hope never to use, and in the best-case-scenario it just sits in a warehouse somewhere. You pay a guy to guard the warehouse. Another job.

Instead of spending money on the military, let's say you spend it on education. You pay the same amount of money, but instead of buying materials and paying for salaries of workers to make those bombs, you instead pay teachers, coaches and after-school personnel. You would most likely be able to employ more people, because you don't have to spend so much on the raw materials. Spending is on salaries and infrastructure, not disposable materials. You still have the same economic stimulus of employing more people as they circulate their money in the economy. But the product--a more educated population--pays dividends for generations. It is a well-understood economic principle that an increase in technology (i.e. education) has a positive effect on an economy. Instead of creating a bomb that sits in a warehouse, you have helped to improve the skills and knowledge of a population. That skills and knowledge in turns keeps feeding the economy with innovation and increased productivity.

More attentive teachers, after-school personnel and coaches would be able to mentor more children, reducing crime. Instead of a person in jail taking resources to feed and house, that person can be out in the workforce being productive. For every person kept out of prison, there is a net impact of 2--Instead of paying $X to house them in a prison, that person it out making $X, which is really a savings of $2X to the taxpayer. Crime costs. Fear restricts economies. Crime can bring a temporary influx of police and prison personnel to stimulate the economy, but they don't offset the overall impact of crime in loss of property, higher insurance premiums, medical care, non-productive citizens, you name it.

Education and an approach to fighting crime that is transformative is the best way to stimulate the economy. By "transformative" I am not talking about policing our streets as much as I'm talking about removing the causes for crime in the first place: Poor mentorship, lack of economic and educational opportunity, etc. The fact that its also the humanitarian approach is not just cursory, either. I'd probably advocate for this even if it weren't economically the best thing to do, because what are we doing here on earth if we aren't being good to each other? The fact that it is a very excellent economic strategy is only icing on the cake. The problem is that there would be fewer profits for industrial mega-corporations (at least in the short run), so you won't see these kinds of policies promoted as loudly. The ironic thing is that those corporations would probably benefit in the long run, but are too afraid to try it.

They say Ron Paul and Dennis Kuchinich represent the views of most conservatives and liberals, respectively. Neither of them were viable candidates. They didn't win the war with the voters at the low end of the brain stem. Their approach was too focused on the top. Their policies made sense to people, but no one was going to vote for them. Such is politics in America.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

How To Find A Church

If you are anything like me, you've been stumbling through much of your adult years trying to find the right church . . . something you can belong to and feel good about. You've tried different places, denominations and non-denominations, fringe groups, road trips, bars, books, late night debates, gatherings of homeless people, and, in the words of Bono, you still haven't found what you're looking for (except for occasional moments of connection).

Here's where I've come to: If you haven't found a church by now, you're not going to find it. At least, not in that way.

The days of strict denominational allegiance are over. There are no street corner fistfights based on whether you think Jesus is fully human, fully divine, or something in between (there once were). Sure, you can still get into a scrap with a fundamentalist, but the days are long past when Anglicans would shun the Congregationalists who shunned the Presbyterians who all thought that Catholics were one rung short of a stepladder. Its an ever-increasingly ecumenical world we live in. In particular, religious outreach work and the halls of academia are very much ecumenical, and perhaps even post-denominational.

People like me go around trying to find the right church. We do this on a couple of levels. The first is trying to find the right denomination, something we can "agree with." However, each of us probably has a unique worldview. Our perspective is a very individual blend of all that we've been exposed to--media, community, schools, family, etc.--so there is probably no other single person who can really relate entirely. This was probably always true, but perhaps more now than ever. Face it: You're not going to agree completely with anybody.

We also try to find the right community. We want a community we can "get along with". We want to grow spiritually, but also to be in a community of like-minded people with minimal infractions.

In short, we don't want to grow.

As my former spiritual advisor Fr. Ron Atwood says, "The only thing for certain when people gather in community is that there's going to be conflict." The issue is not whether there is conflict or not, but whether a community can grow through it or not. Conflict is a tremendous--and absolutely necessary--ingredient for growth. The conflict doesn't have to be violent, it can simply be the tension when people with divergent views try to hash out a relationship--even when they don't agree on even the very approach to that relationship.

In our western world, we get caught up in whether something is "true" or not. We ask if a certain religion is "right" or not. Is that really the question we should be asking? I value the tradition of Christianity (and especially Catholicism) first and foremost. Along with that, I value the community. I value the faith. Only lastly do I value the conclusions it has reached. I have always seen the conclusions as evolving, anyway, and in that sense that are part of the tradition itself.

You could just make community with whomever crosses your path, however difficult it may be. That may seem extreme, but if you don't do that you need to affirm that there are times when people can't or shouldn't be in community. You have to draw a line.

Huddling with like-minded folks isn't going to get you anywhere, but isn't there a group of people with whom you just can't make community with? It would be an exercise in futility for me to congregate on a regular basis with fundamentalists. I have tried on a number of occasions, figuring that we could be in dialogue and enrich each others' lives, despite our different views. It has enriched our lives. But it has always come crashing down.

I do think it was simpler and perhaps better a couple of generations ago in the Catholic Church in this regard: You were simply assigned to a parish! It was based on geography, so you were with your neighbors. You had to make it work where you were at. If you were the only person there proclaiming social justice, then God bless you! I don't see a problem with this, just as long as there is some kind of flexibility to accommodate times when people just can't make it work and need a fresh start. So if someone had a question about which church to belong to, I would normally just tell them to stay where they were at. Problem is that many today don't have a home parish in the first place, and I'm not sure how you pick one.

So I don't really know how to find a church. Sorry, I lied in the title of this post. But I do know that finding one you can "agree with " is unlikely, and one you can "get along with" possibly unhealthy, as well. Those are probably not the best criteria to use.

Making some kind of lateral conversion from one denomination to another doesn't make sense in this day and age. I would guess that most who convert probably do so more because they appreciate the community more than due to a change of belief. At most, I find myself rooted in the denomination of Catholicism but also very much ecumenical. I think its important to be both, even though they are contradictory concepts. I'm very much inspired when I see that my favorite religious leaders have been rooted deeply within a tradition, even though their beliefs and vision range far beyond anything trite or dogmatic. I think of Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day--these folks have probably entertained more "new age" beliefs than Oprah Winfrey. Merton practiced meditation with Buddhists, as a quick example. By being rooted so deeply, they seemed to be able to blossom so much more than if they belonged to a church that professes no dogmas. I think they are on to something.

They got there through hard work, and a lifetime of humility, study, outreach, and stumbling through life with an open heart. Like Bonhoeffer's term "cheap grace", I call what is going on today "cheap new age." You can't go around proclaiming the divinity of every human person unless you've been in the deepest, nastiest, most horrendous trenches. Its not something you seize, its something you get and an understanding you come to by emptying yourself (which relates to a discussion about Philippians in MysticalSeeker's blog). Traditional Christianity seems to understand this. This is probably what has bothered me most about new age religions. Its not necessarily the beliefs they come to. Some are disturbing, some are not. Its the fact that they got there without the work. Its like cheating on your final exam and getting all the answers right, but not going through the studying and the reading to get there.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My Pet Peeve With Protestants

In this still-emerging age of ecumenism, perhaps its not in good "faith" to frame arguments on denominational lines. However, the points in this post have been bugging me for a while, and I'd like to take this opportunity challenge my Protestant brethren on them. I hope you hear my frustration and take what I say in good humor, where applicable! Even in this ecumenical world today, we can still get under each others’ skin. Here’s what gets me going:

Public Service Announcement to All Protestants (and Other Descendants of Reform Churches):

Christianity was not invented in 1517.

Many Protestants give the following as their impression of God’s Spirit working through Judeo-Christian history:
  • B.C.E -- Beginning with Creation itself, God guided and revealed himself to the Israelites and was a constant, guiding presence in their history

  • 3 B.C.E – 30 C.E. – Jesus came onto the scene
  • Circa 30-100s-ish -- Apostles moved about the Hellenistic world and beyond in an explosion of Christianity

  • 100-1516 -- Nothing happened of note, other than few assorted fringe groups

  • 1517 -- Martin Luther awakened the world to Christianity; a rich and broad movement ensued to this day.

Did you notice anything unusual in this depiction of history? It could be that 1,400 year gap—just as Christianity started to take off, God sort-of retreated from human history in every way but a faint trickle.

Just to deny the work of the Holy Spirit during those 1,400 years is bad enough—don’t you think God was up to anything during those years? Didn’t anybody respond in genuine faith during that time?

I can certainly sympathize with those frustrated with the direction of institutional religion, but I'm not sure why anybody would target those 1,400 years over and above any other time period. Besides, there are some inherent contradictions in this line of thinking. Protestants are doing themselves a disservice (and the whole of Christianity) by not acknowledging their influence by and participation in this larger church history.

Sola Scriptura

While few educated descendants of reform churches would argue a strict doctrine of scripture-and-only-scripture, I think the mentality is still alive informally speaking (and most certainly with fundamentalists). There is a strong emphasis among reformers on scripture as the primary means of God’s revelation and certainly the primary source or authority. However, what good is the authority of scripture if any hack out there is interpreting it? It seems to me that the true revelation of God happens in the intermingling and “discussion” between the divine and human. A revelation only happens if something is revealed. A sight is only a sight if it is seen

Without the interpretation of a living and breathing person, community, church or tradition responding in faith (i.e. Dermot Lane)—the Bible is just a collection of books. If the Word of God falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, is it really the Word of God?

But let’s look at what happened during those 1,400-odd years that just didn’t seem to matter much:

That very canon of scripture that Protestants hold so dear was assembled. Over the course of a few hundred years, writings were passed down from generation to generation and eventually what we now know of today as the New Testament was agreed upon. Most Protestants today seem to confirm that the books chosen were the finest available. This didn't happen overnight or with any thunderclouds and lightening, though. Much argumentation happened over those years as people debated the canonicity of certain books, and the record of that debate is preserved in the writings of early Christians. However, the cream of the crop really did rise to the top through this process—most likely some writings became canonical through a groundswell of public opinion, some through institutional authority. Not bad for an era where nothing of note happened, huh? For being such an “invalid church”, the Holy Spirit sure did a nice job of working with early Christians to put this cannon of scripture together.

It is irony at its finest when people look at scripture as the ultimate authority as a way of denying the living church tradition that worked in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to form it in the first place!

Christian worship and liturgy were formed during these missing years. No matter how non-liturgical Protestants claim to be, I’ve attended some services that sure looked a whole lot like a Catholic mass to me. Entrance hymn, cleric in a robe, reading from the Old Testament, maybe a sung psalm, New Testament reading, gospel, sermon, petitions, sometimes communion, sometimes more music . . . yadda yadda. You may be freer than us liturgical churches to deviate from a structure, but how often do you end up with a structure anyway? It seems like you either came to the same conclusions as Catholics about the natural flow of things, or else you inherited that tradition.

The very concept of “church” as we know it today is a very western development. Okay, so you have ministers and we have priests, and we have paintings and you don’t, but you have pews, you have pulpits, you have robed clergy. To an outsider, Catholics and Protestants look very much alike. And there’s a reason for that: We all come from the same tradition, a tradition with roots and reasons for being that you would benefit from by knowing.

A few kinda important ideas like Trinity, the Nicene Creed, and other pillars of faith were established during these “missing years”. Brilliant and inspired doctrines that are held to this day and which form the more fundamental common ground among orthodox Christianity.

The Church Fathers gave some of the first witnesses to the new church, insight that is critical today for scholarship and inspiration. Protestants are theologically speaking children of Augustine, but how many Protestants know much of anything about Augustine directly? You guys are more Augustinian than we Catholics, but you don’t know it.

Protestants: I love ya’ll. Just consider the notion that there really is only one living Christian tradition. It doesn’t make any sense for a branch to cut itself off from the trunk. Trying to cut yourself off from your own source isn’t very healthy. Like it or not, much of your theology and culture is inherited from those years in the Catholic Church and in years prior, and its not just a few little things, its some big, major stuff. It’s your church, too, and those 1,400 years are part of your tradition, too.

Luther and others were reformers, not spontaneous generators. They took a living tradition that they were a part of and reformed it. They did not suddenly create new nor did they oppose everything that was fundamental about the faith they came out of.

This a tradition we all share in. Acknowledge it. Embrace it. You don’t have to agree with all of it—I sure don’t. But you may see a lot of yourself in it. By understanding it, you may understand yourselves more, too. In the end, good or bad, it’s where we all come from.

Pre-1517 wasn’t all papal indulgences, Inquisitions, Crusades and whatever other horrors you may have heard about. Yes, those are all there. But so is the formation of the scripture cannon. So is the development of the concept of Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The modern from of church and what a worship service generally looks like and what it encompasses took form during those years. Major theological concepts came from Augustine and Aquinas and others. Just like it’s hard to really study the New Testament without understanding the Old, its hard understanding modern Christianity without understanding early and middle Christianity. And there are a few more immense traditions that came out of those years, like the monastic movement and mysticism. Modern mission approaches and what Christian service to the poor is like has been largely influenced by the Franciscans and Dominicans.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

(How To) Eat Yer Veggies and Fruits

While I am not one to jump at every latest nutrition & health study, I found this one to be intriguing. Its simple and seems well done. The gist of it is those who follow the following 4 health habits live an average of 14 years longer than those who fail on all 4 points:
  • Don't smoke
  • Drink alcohol only moderately
  • Eat 4-5 servings of fruits & vegetables daily
  • Get regular exercise
For the purposes of this post, I'd like to talk about how to craft a diet so that you can regularly eat 4-5 servings of fruits & vegetables daily. If you are the kind of person who is reluctant to eat a lot of fruits & veggies, listen up! At first, 4-5 servings can seem like a difficult goal to reach, especially if you are living a 'pizza and wings' lifestyle. However, I made a transition to eating at least this much daily, and it has not been that difficult, once I go into the swing of things.

The following foods are often under-appreciated as being good representatives from these groups, but can (and should) be a regular part of an overall good diet:

Juice. I would confidently classify a glass of 100% juice as a legitimate fruit or vegetable serving. Even monkeys sometimes squeeze out the juice of fruits, leaving the pulp and fiber behind. Juice from any fruit or vegetable counts here. You can even use a mechanical "juicer" which can take something like a whole apple and reduces it into a pulpy drink. That way, you get the juice experience but are really consuming the whole fruit. Most juices bought at the store do not have this much pulp and fiber, which is why I would only allow juice to count for 1 serving a day, even if I drink several glasses.

Potatoes. Good news for all you red-blooded Americans! These tasty tubers are truly a vegetable as well as a starch. That is, if you prepare them properly. In my kitchen, if you leave the skins on and cook them through low-temperature baking or steaming, you can safely call your potato a vegetable. Deep frying or french frying destroys much of the nutrition, leaving only a serving of starch and removing all vegetable-ness. Boiling is okay, but you do lose some nutrition that way. Again, I wouldn't lean on potatoes as being your only representative vegetable, but they can get you a serving.

Beans. Not talking green beans, here. We're talking black beans, kidney beans, re-fried beans, lentils and garbanzos (chic peas). Even split peas. Hailed in recent years for their high protein content, they are often seen as a (partial) substitute for meat. In a 2-to-1 combination of whole grains and legumes (beans), they do provide very good complete protein (vegetarians still need to find their B-12 somehow, but they can get their protein through this formula). Let's not forget, though, that beans are also a vegetable. Like potatoes, they double-count among two "groups"--in this case, proteins and veggies. They are high in fiber and antioxidants, and should be a part of everyone's diet, vegetarian or not.

Tomato Sauce. Thick tomato-based sauces are very good for you. In fact, the long cooking process of traditional pasta sauces actually makes more of the antioxidants in tomatoes available for your body that by eating raw tomatoes. Bring on the chili, pasta sauces and tomato-based soups! Its a serving of vegetables (er . . . or maybe fruit, or whatever a tomato is).

Salsa. Who doesn't love salsa? It is one of the many blessings of Mexican cuisine, and its gifts do not stop giving. At its most basic, it's chopped up tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onion, garlic, etc. A tomato salad! Its a magnificent food and one of the healthiest things going. Eat lots of it!

So you see here, even the most meat-addicted person you know can probably eek out several servings a day by making moderate adjustments--a glass of juice in the morning, a bowl of chili for lunch (which would be 2 servings--beans and tomatoes) and some steamed potatoes as part of a dinner. I count 4 servings there!

A big problem is that many people in our culture don't know how to incorporate fruits & veggies into their diet. Too often, people think that "eating veggies" means getting a salad or opening up a can of corn and dumping it on your plate. With those strategies, it's no wonder people are unenthusiastic about them. Some people look at the goal of "4-5 servings daily" and write it off as being too difficult. They just flat-out aren't going to sit down with a stalk of raw broccoli and start munching, and to do that 4-5 times daily is outrageous. As we have seen from the above examples, though, eating fruits and veggies is well within the range of the average American, perhaps with a few targeted adjustments.

You can cut up onions, carrots, peppers or tomatoes and put them into almost any meat dish. Try incorporating them into hamburger patties or meatloaf. I put carrots in pasta sauce. You can throw some corn or peas into Ramen Noodles (not my first choice for a meal due to the MSG content, but "augmenting" Ramen Noodle dishes is how I started cooking). One of my favorite things is to cook lima beans in the same pan as turkey burgers. The juice from the turkey burgers really flavor the lima beans nicely. As far as I'm concerned, if there's meat cooking in a pan, there should also be a veggie in there, too, mixing in the juices. I like to keep a number of frozen veggies on hand, so I can throw a handful into something when I'm ready for it. Being frozen, I don't have to worry about spoilage if I don't use them right away.

You can dump a can of diced tomatoes into just about anything: Rice, roasts, soups, casseroles. Tomato sauce can be put into anything, as well. You can sneak veggies in all over the place. You can puree veggies and throw them into soups or in sauces. Your kids will never know what they're eating.

No one should grill out without skewers stuffed with mushrooms, onions, and peppers. Asparagus lays nicely across a grill, as well.

I'm not a big fruit fan, so I try to get it out of the way early in the morning. I eat a banana, apple or plum on the way to work, or throw a handful of berries into oatmeal at the office. I always chase my coffee with a tall glass of orange juice (and have rarely gotten a caffeine headache since doing this, by the way). I have found this is pretty easy to do, and I end up with 2 servings under my belt early in the day.

Salads are certainly wonderful. Green leafy vegetables are an essential kind of vegetable. But with the high cost of iceberg lettuce and their virtually non-existent nutritional value, there are better options. I do love a crisp slab of iceberg lettuce on a sandwich every now and then, but you're not getting much bang for your buck. (Considering the way scientists have reconsidered the nutritional value of many foods, I would not be surprised if one day we hear about some hidden benefits of iceberg lettuce. It wasn't long ago that tomatoes, sweet corn and onions were considered tasty but useless. Tomatoes are now the golden child of the nutritional spectrum with the discovery of lycopene. Maybe the cucumber will be resurrected someday, as well. Right now, it is considered not much more than a glorified form of water). The best green leafies will be spinach or just about any other salad green, especially dandelion greens, clover, etc.

The important thing about fruits & veggies is that you get as much variety as you can. "Fruit" is an umbrella term that incorporates sub-groups such as berries, citrus, melons as well as your apples and bananas. You'll want representation from all of these groups.

Vegetables are similar: Mixing up different colors of veggies is a good way know that you are rounding out your nutrition. Root veggies, green leafies, etc.

Try to balance raw and cooked items, and fresh whenever possible.

To really get a broad, diverse diet of fruits and vegetables, you are going to have to eat some raw, green vegetables at some point. I'm sorry, but there's no getting around that. The good news of this post is that you can get most of your fruits & veggies through foods that are friendly even to the most red-blooded American's diet, as long as you look at how you are preparing them and watching ingredients. That way, you may only have to hunker down and force yourself to eat a salad or side dish of broccoli once a day, knowing you are getting your other 3-4 servings through foods you like to eat. Or you may start liking veggies & fruits once you learn how to prepare them properly.

Friday, January 11, 2008

This Summer & A New Vision for Community Gardening

2007 was a year for gardens. It was the first season since I was very young that I was actively involved in gardening. I did not start modestly. In the spring, I bought a variety pack of seeds from an heirloom seed company. It included dozens and dozens of different vegetables and varieties. I also ordered some tomato and pepper plants. Erin and I had literally hundreds of plants started in the spring, crammed into every available window space in her apartment. Much of it was experiment--we didn't know then that beans and watermelons don't transplant well when grown in pots, but we figured that out over time.

The garden at my parents was a phenomenon. My mom had commented on the high price of onions, so my dad was gearing up to plant some as well as tomatoes and such. He got ready for a modest garden. I told him I have a plethora of plants to put in as well as numerous seeds just ready for some soil and sun. He took the tractor around the garden again and expanded it. We got together and planted about 30 tomato plants, numerous peppers, green and purple bush beans, some pole beans, onions, sweet corn, 2 kinds of squash, carrots, beets, parsley, Brussels sprouts, watermelons, cucumbers, all sorts of hot and mild peppers and an assortment of marigolds, sunflowers and nasturtiums (flowers that are good for pest management).

Nearly everything grew profusely. Great garden location, great weather, and mostly heirloom plants. (Heirlooms are traditional varieties which have been passed down from generation to generation; they are free from artificial genetic tampering and tend to produce the tastiest garden veggies (as opposed to mass-produced tomatoes with thick skin that transport well but taste like shit). You can also get amazing varieties, such as yellow carrots, purple beans, cucumbers that look like lemons, and some of the wildest shapes and colors to some traditional vegetables.) We had a few mishaps. The cabbages just . . . exploded. Cucumbers were bitter and the Brussels sprouts didn't have enough time to mature. We also produced a couple of white watermelons. They had a plain taste, but my family wasn't interested.

I experienced some of my fondest memories with my family, this summer. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my parents, sister and my uncle. We had just been in the garden picking yet another batch of beans. I cooked up some long green beans in olive oil and garlic and set a bowlful on the table. We picked out of it with our fingers and talked until the bowl was empty. My mom always had a batch of beets at the ready. My uncle brought a watermelon, and we talked and shared and relished in fresh vegetables together. It was fun while cooking to realize I needed another ingredient, so I hopped outside, put some sandals on, and came back with arm load of whatever it was. My family is not usually carrot-crazy, but the ones we grew were sweet and fresh--we'd cook them and eat them plain. My mom remarked that "this is the most beautiful parsley we've ever had!" (we love traditional parsley (not the curly kind), we throw the roots and the long stems into soup).

Andy stopped by once and left with bags of tomatoes. My uncle visited several times and took beans, beets and whatever else was ready. A friend-in-need took bags-ful on at least a few occasions. Produce also was shipped in large boxes to Columbus, where I shared with Scott, Erin and her kids, as well as myself.

New recipes were invented. The afrementioned green beans in oil and garlic have been a consistent hit. Erin was at first reserved about beets. However, she decided to mash them like she normally mashes potatoes and they were a screaming hit [you bake the beets for an hour, peel them; then mash them with a potato masher mixing in copious amounts of butter and sour cream until it turns into a creamy mixture. You can't reject beets until you've tried these!]

At any point this summer, you could open my parents' fridge and find about 3-4 varieties of green beans--bean casserole (what we call "bean salad"), stir fried, beans-in-sour-cream soup (showing our East European roots), and just some plain cooked beans just waiting to be thrown into something. We are just crazy over green beans.

There was also a significant gardening experience at Erin's and a few plants at my apartment. We planted zillions of tomatoes, lots of lettuce, carrots, many things that didn't grow so well. It was nevertheless also a successful endeavor, her kids happily picking tomatoes and baskets full of greens in time for dinner.

Through this experience, I have a new vision for community gardening. I do believe in community gardens in the inner cities and elsewhere. However, all too often I see a group of dedicated people--often outsiders from these neighborhoods--trying to drum up support, enthusiasm and ultimately community ownership of these gardens. The ones I have seen have not been robustly successful on these points (even though they have been very good gardens). Basically, the operate in a way similar to my family's garden: A group of people maintain the land and provide the primary resources for the garden. They get occasional help from neighbors and share the produce widely. Having some kind of goal for an empowered neighborhood that totally takes the bull by the horns and manages the garden in an egalitarian way is perhaps an unrealistic expectation.

I think its better to have a garden centered around the ownership and responsibility of a single family. At that point, you can distribute produce and get people to help, but there is no need to create a socialist system out of it. I think this is where community gardens get disappointed, when in reality they probably accomplish a lot as they are.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Inevitability of Empires

Far be it for me to reduce anything to a dualism. In fact, I consider it part of my life's mission to help the world see that there are other ways of approaching a situation than just a black/white, either/or way. However, sometimes dualisms do have their place, especially when coming up with an elementary, first-attempt at a model. So here is one of mine:

There are two assumptions about human nature that seem to drive the political ideology of most people. Perhaps it is as simple as love vs. fear, which is the fundamental struggle of every person. Politically, it manifests itself in this way: Some believe that we must conduct ourselves with a distrust of other people, using power to get our way and operating with a premium on control. Others believe that ultimately people are good (or at least self-interested and lazy) and if we work together, build relationships, learn to depend on one another, and trust, that we can ultimately build a better world.

This isn't just a political issue, really. These two assumptions drive everything from government relationships to marriages and work relationships. All relationships. In terms of personal relationships, there is quite a bit of consensus that cooperation is better than control. We know that true spiritual growth is probably unlikely if you are going through life with a clenched fist and forcefully manipulating everyone in sight. However, I argue that we need to apply these concepts to a larger context--the relationships between nations.

Imperialism is morally empty for a variety of reasons. It is based--by definition--on exploitation. 'We came, we conquered, we depleted your resources for our gain.' The "new colonialism" practiced today by the USA is more subtle than the style of the old European empires, but essentially the same phenomenon happens. Through manipulation and strong-arming poor countries, the larger countries exploit their resources in such a way that under develops those nations and prevents them from gaining the prosperity that we get off of their labor. Wars and preemptive strikes are considered necessary for maintaining a "peaceful" world climate for our nation. Potential disruptions of this world order are put down harshly.

But Imperialism is also wrong because ultimately it is a failure. It does not have long-term viability. Just take a look at history and you can see a very predictable pattern. Many nations rise, many nations have their day, and every one of them falls. And they seem to fall in very predictable ways on a schedule that you can actually plot. In our modern day, empires rise and fall extremely quickly. The Ancient Egyptians had a couple thousand years on top of the heap. The Romans had one thousand. The Arab and Ottoman empires several hundred. The British a couple hundred. The Soviet Union toppled in 70 years and most argue that the USA has already peaked. There is little debate that the future is quickly going to China and India. There is an accelerated rate of change due to the growth of technology and population.

Practicing imperialism--despite being cruel in the first place--just won't set up much of a future for our children. The only thing inevitable for an empire is that it will ultimately fall. At least the Ancient Egyptians could argue that they could enjoy a couple thousand years of prosperity before their fall. We cannot make those claims, today.

I would be willing to risk the political future of this country to experiment with a different method. There is nothing to lose: Imperialism has a very definite and predictable end. The fact that the USA (much like the United Kingdom) sits on a geographical "island" from our "colonies" may allow us to maintain some sovereignty even if the nations we run eventually rise up (which they will--they all will), but I am not sure I would want to depend on that. 9/11 has showed us that we are not as isolated as we think.

Terrorism is one of the primary ways that colonial nations topple their overlords. The barbarians at the gates of Rome were kept at bay for many years, with the huge cost of depleting the Roman treasury and whittling and wearing down the resources and resolve of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the barbarians broke through. Looking back, we wonder if the terrorism of 9/11 bears any resemblance to that, but remember that looking back at history is 20/20 and entire centuries appear like they happened overnight. Its only be a few years since 9/11, and its not hard to imagine a future where the US is crippled by consistent needling of terrorism. Think about the huge crippling impact that 9/11 had on our infrastructure: All air travel was grounded, border checks intensified, etc. A regular dose of 9/11's could really bring us to our knees, spiraling into economic depression.

Trying to win against terrorism by force is like playing that game at the fair where you hammer down the gophers as they pop up. As soon as you hit one (or think you hit one), there are two more popping up elsewhere. This is why the fundamental issue with counter-terrorism has always been why do they hate us? This question has been mocked, but it is blatant common sense: If no one wanted to attack us in the first place, then we probably wouldn't getting attacked.

The "reasons" given for Islamic terrorism skew the point: "They just hate us because we're free; they just hate us because their religion tells them to, so you can't reason with them." All false assumptions. Actually, terrorists express the desire to do their deeds based on a number of political, social and economic reasons. They feel that terrorism is their only weapon to fight what they consider to be injustice. Terrorism is the last ditch weapon available of the oppressed. Wanna know another secret? It works. Terrorism has toppled many empires in the past, and it can topple more and more of them in the future. Trying to seal every crack in our defenses and chasing every shadow will soon deplete our country morally and economically. You can't defend against everything. What you can do is resolve it at its root. People who are living in economic prosperity are not attracted to terrorism. This is a fact. People do not attack someone with whom they have mutually interdependent and beneficial relationships.

Trying to force one's will upon another country and forcefully trying to put down every possible revolt and uprising is a losing battle. However, it may be successful for a while. The big guy is the big guy, after all. But the oppressed will keep trying, and they will exploit vulnerabilities just like the big guy has been exploiting them. There will come a time when the Imperial overlord is weak, its attention divided, its resources stretched thin and its treasury bankrupt. Then you have a situation where a once-powerful nation is vulnerable with many people with a gripe against it and the will to knock it down. The Empire model has within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

The alternatives for US foreign policy are more difficult to nail down into sound bites. People commonly look to Switzerland as an example of what could be: This is a nation that hasn't been attacked in centuries and which does the banking for the world. They have a modest image. The more we know people from other nations, tear down cultural barriers to understanding each other, and the more we have crossovers for students, scientists, businesses and travel, the more people see a vested interest in each other. All sides may have to give a little, but if the end result is truly a win-win, there will not be any more wars and there won't be any terrorism. There won't be any empires, either, but I would imagine they won't be missed.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Face of Old Testament Studies

photo by Erin Sprouse

I Don't Like

  • Bubble Gum
  • Licorice
  • Mint
  • Cinnamon (kinda warming up to it)
  • Caramel
  • (Soda) Pop
  • Anything Sour
  • Watching Movies
  • Cars
  • Hard Candy
  • Fireworks

I'm Lukewarm on:

  • Ice Cream
  • Popcorn
  • Fruit (although its climbing the charts)

I'm definitely softening on some of these items, so I figured I'd better get this list published before it totally melts away!

Living Your Priorities

A common theme in Bruce Springsteen's music is living your dreams. But its not just rainbows and pots of gold and star gazing--He takes a dream and gives it wheels. He talks about the grease and spare parts you're going to need when you really put the rubber to the road. As a guy who grew up in a very anti-musical environment to become a leader in one of the world's most competitive professions of music, he may know something about this.

Having a dream is one thing. Having a plan is totally another.

A good exercise in self-honesty is the following: Make a list of all your priorities in life, including everything from the most mundane to your guiding life's ambition. Put a value to them. Number them 1-10 or rate them somehow.

Next, map out where you spend your time. Take an average week and figure out how many hours you spend doing each task and for what purpose you are ultimately spending the time. Okay, most of us work 40 hrs/week. Next, take the hours you spend working and associate those hours to what you spend your money on. For example, if you bring home $1500/month and your rent is $500, then your rent would account for 33% of your money and approx. 13 hours at work (plus whatever time and money you spend cleaning the place, fixing it up, decorating, etc). Got it?

If it gets confusing, divide this up into two sections: A breakdown of how you spend your time and another of how you spend your money.

Finally, compare your list of priorities to your list of weekly activities and spending habits. Do they match? Are you spending more time and resources on your #1 priority than anything else? If not, why not?

I know a guy whose goal is finding a woman to marry. However, look at his life situation: He works 40 hours at a job with (virtually) no single co-workers. When you consider all the time he spends in the morning getting ready for work, commuting to work, and decompressing after a long day, his job accounts for probably 50% of his waking hours. He lives in a neighborhood of families, so odds are slim he'll bump into a datable neighbor while cutting the grass. In his free time, he is involved with sports activities that also contain (virtually) no single people. Living by himself means cooking, grocery shopping, etc., by himself. When you factor in the time he has available to really meet single people and spend quality time with them, you are looking at maybe a couple of hours each week at best. Estimating that you are awake 112 hours each week, that means he is giving his #1 priority in life only 1-2% of his time!

How many future artists are spending maybe a couple hours on the weekend working on their craft . . . maybe, if they have the time. If not, maybe they'll get around to it next weekend. They just can't imagine driving a beat up car or not wearing some modicum of fashion. I'm all for cleanliness, but when you don't have any time for your life's ambition because you need to wash the car every weekend and you are working to support a fashion habit, well, in the words of Jeff Foxworthy, you may be avoiding your life ambition. Or maybe living a middle-class lifestyle really is your #1 priority.

We all make excuses: "Well, I need insurance, and I need a roof over my head, and I need a "safety net", etc." Bruce Springsteen lived in an abandoned surfboard factory and didn't own an automobile during the years he was working to make it big--and you can imagine how important cars are to him. Only you can know what the circumstances of your life will allow, but most of us have more wiggle room in our schedules then we allow ourselves to believe. I think Oscar Romero said something like, 'we are not afraid that we are powerless; we are afraid that we are powerful beyond measure.' Sometimes we would rather convince ourselves that we just "can't" do it rather that put our heart on the line and give it a try. Fear. Resistance.

Dreams are Divine. The world we live in is human, though. The Incarnation of your dreams is critical. When you begin work toward your dreams, sometimes it may not be as pretty as you imagined it. There may be some real grease and muscle needed. It may feel like compromise, which is the last thing you ever want to do with your dreams. Just don't confuse the grit and gristle of hard work with watering down your dreams--those are two very different things. There is a huge difference between making mature compromises along the way and compromising your dreams by selling out. In any case, giving your dreams a plan is a lot better than the biggest compromise: Not giving your dreams a chance at all.

I'm not suggesting this is a road map for everyone. Some people meander through life and sometimes stumble into greatness (or not) and wouldn't have it any other way. But if you spend more time star-gazing and not much time getting your hands dirty, this post may be for you. A time will come when you have to face the harsh reality that your dreams most likely won't come true without more sweat on your side. Even worse, maybe you are trying but spinning your wheels, and when you look at how you spend your energy you aren't putting anywhere near the time into it that you thought. That can be depressing news, but it can also be empowering.