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.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Soup of Cans

Soup of Cans is much better than a can of soup. It’s an easy and nutritious way to cook, and it takes virtually no time or effort: You just open a bunch of cans, throw the contents into a pot and heat it all up!

I usually start with a can of diced tomatoes, as it makes a good “base” and often has garlic and other spices already included. Today I added a can of black beans, corn, shrimp and some leftover salmon in the fridge and a half-full can of French fried onions that I had been munching on previously. Nice!

This is one of those great late-nite meals. You think the cupboard is bare but there is really a bounty. The good news is that it feels like a meal. A plain can of black beans wouldn't do much for me, nor would any of these other items by themselves.

It is always good to have something to act as a "base" to bring the flavors together. Something with a strong flavor such as soup broth, meat or the aforementioned diced tomatoes work well in this regard.

There are, of course, a zillion and one ways to augment this recipe into something more, but the gist of it is this: Open cans, mix and heat. Stir in leftovers you find in the fridge. There are tremendous ways to be creative and end up with all sorts of new concoctions while spending relatively little time putting it all together.

You also have the option to not make it soupy--totally your call. It can be just a nice non-soupy concoction.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pecking Order

I remember asking my dad if we could have backyard chickens back when I was growing up. I thought it would be fun to have chickens running around. His answer: "They'll shit everywhere!"

That was as far as that went.

Erin has been raising three chickens in her backyard for the past few months or so. Normally, I am not thrilled about having pets at this stage of life, as the workload and every day commitment can be a strain--weekend trips, late nights and coming and going at odd hours can be difficult if an animal is relying on you back home for food and companionship. However, these chickens are pretty easy to maintain.

They stand ready at the gate of their coop to be let out to roam every morning. Her backyard is multi-faceted and full of different terrains--tall weeds, bushes, tilled-up garden, flower beds--anything a chicken would want. They spend all day eating grass, bugs, grubs, compost or bird food, which makes me quite happy as the less they eat of the stock chicken feed the more healthy and nutritious their eggs will be. It also makes us more environmentally responsible as grain feed involves lots of transportation costs and has a carbon footprint.

At first, they didn't seem to be as messy as my dad predicted. However, as the weeks and months go on and the longer the chickens peck around the yard the more prophetic I realize my dad's words were. I have left a pair of shoes there strictly for backyard use, if you get my drift.

It's also going to be a problem during the planting season of the garden. No issue with them walking around already-grown plants, but when the land is bare and we plant seeds, I have a feeling there will be some turf wars between us and them. Methinks they will have to be limited to a certain part of the yard until the garden gets a chance to grow.

I noticed that one of the chickens is treated poorly. When food is delivered, the others try to squeeze her out and keep her away. I intervene and try to establish justice, but there's only so much a guy can do. I talked with Andy about this, and he related some gruesome stories about pecking order. Sometimes chickens will abuse a single chicken so bad that it gets utterly depressed, deprived and even dies from the treatment. Then they move on to the next, most vulnerable chicken. His words have haunted me for weeks.

It makes me have some serious doubts about animal (and human) nature. I tend to believe that our God-given nature is a key to our personal growth. I don't buy into that ugly strain of Christian theology that holds that our natures are utterly depraved and that we must forcibly resist our innate urges in order to be good. I hold a more holistic, modern approach that we can work with our natures in harmony and outgrow petty issues. This isn't to say that we are rosy-cheeked angels at all times, but it does mean that working with our nature is the path to growth, not working against.

I've seen pecking orders in many groups I've been in. I was in a rock band a number of years ago. There was always one member who was "the problem." For a while it was our singer, until he left and then the new singer became the new "problem." When he left, the three remaining members identified someone else from among ourselves, then when he left and there were two of us remaining, I was targeted and I knew it was time for me to be outta there. It wasn't that we were trying to bully, but there was something about focusing our angst on one member to weed out who we perceived as the weakest link. The complaints about that person were always valid, too, but there was something about the way in which it was done that concerns me. It is also amazing that the whole group was able to feel very unified while that "problem" member was present, but when he left the remaining members started being upset with someone who they had previously gotten along with!

Had we reached out and tried to work together, we might have been able to stick together as a band rather that always weeding out people as the way to solve a problem. Had we been more driven in our mission--rather than directing our energy toward picking each other apart--we could have moved forward together.

And maybe that's the key--we do have some issues in human nature that we have to work with. We can pick each other apart, for better and for worse. But if we remember to focus that same problem-solving energy on our mutual mission, maybe we can work through stuff. In this band, we were not even overtly mean to these people, but our level of angst with them probably created an environment that made them feel unwelcome and made it hard for us to work through problems.

Just because we should work with our human natures does not mean everything is perfect in our human natures. It is probably more about redirecting the same impulses for good rather than for not. The person is not the problem-some behaviors are. We should still focus on problem, but with the goal of working through them rather than culling the whole person from the herd.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Freedom of Jail

There's a line in a Civil Rights protest song that goes:

"I ain't scared of your jail, cause I want my freedom."

I heard it on the Pete Seeger album, We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert. Great album, by the way.

It is such a simple line that maybe the deeper meaning can be lost if one doesn't pay attention. Isn't it counter-intuitive to want freedom so bad that you risk jail? Isn't jail, like, all about losing your freedom?

It gives insight to the spiritual depth of the Civil Rights movement. Life can be a ledger sheet--you weigh the pro's and con's and try to come up with the best possible solution considering all variables. You live with what you can and try to eek out for yourself the best possible circumstance given all variables.

Then others end up in some place that doesn't make sense to that account sheet. Folks love life so much they are willing to risk losing it. Folks want freedom so bad they are willing to lose it. Folks want the hungry fed so much they are willing to go on a fast.

If you try to hold that up against some standard of measured productivity objectives, it isn't going to be deemed sensible. Yet, the greatest saints and leaders for social change did these very insensible things.

Christianity often comes up with theologies that are all screwed up and they miss the point. There have been strains of Christianity over the centuries that have deplored the goodness of creation, imagining that the human body or sexuality were a bad thing. Others have wanted to follow Christ's passion and death so much that they were not just willing but actually eager to die. But true martyrs die because they love life, not because they are in a hurry to lose it. Some people misinterpret the suffering that many Christians have historically gone through--martyrdom, or the fasting and deprivation that many monastic communities have supported--to be a sign of hating this life or hating the human body or creation.

Martyrdom is the opposite of suicide. A suicidal person thinks they have nothing left to lose. A martyr probably feels that he has everything to lose and everything to gain. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, Christianity has a bad history when it comes to a lack of compassion on people who commit suicide--yet it loves martyrs. While there should be compassion to suicidal people, particularly now the more we understand about mental illness, Chesterton is at least able to understand why there is such a cold shoulder given: Suicidal people hate life, martyrs love life.

The danger can come in when you follow any strain of theology too far and get too literal with it. It is easy to start off and say that "God is the souce of all goodness" and end up saying that logically speaking, if that is true then all creation must be a totally depraved place with no goodness in it. Well, God said that creation is good, too. Is it good because God flows in and through it, or does it have instrinsic goodness in it? It is hard to say and various theologies take that in different directions. Somehow a love of God is tied to a love of life. Somehow loving God and loving neighbor become the foundation of Christianity, and perhaps they are not two separate guidelines but actually one expression. Somehow charity and good deeds are tied to religion, somehow, deep down, we know this.

ADDED LATER: Another way to look at it is that the person in the song won't let the fear of jail imprison them. Sometimes the very threat of being in jail is enough to paralyze people and cause them to back down out of fear. The person in the song refuses to let their spirit be chained like that--imprison the body if you can, but the spirit will always be free! Hang him on the cross, if you can, but his spirit will rise!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dec 2--Martyrs of El Salvador

We used to laugh at the Soviet Union.

What a tragic waste it was that they had to drain their economic and intellectual reserves just forcing all their citizens to stay in their country and maintain obsessive censorship of speech. Checkpoints, endless scrutiny of the citizenry, what a shame. Not only was it a colossal humanitarian disaster, but it was also unnecessary and, in fact, counter productive of the very goals they were trying to achieve.

The more you let something go, the more you have it.

In America, we knew better. The more freedom you have, the more benefits. Our citizens can pretty much go where they want and say what they want, and we are stronger for it--not weaker. We used to shake our heads at the former USSR. They just didn't get it. No surprise that the system ultimately crumbled

But don't think for one minute that that same knee-jerk reaction out of fear isn't always still present in America. It goes back to that fundamental struggle of love and openness versus fear and control. Many people feel that the only way to arrive at a goal is to forcibly control others--the only way to have national security is to silence all opposition, the only way to be prosperous is to oppress all the competition.

Business needs to be reminded of this every day. Business thought that the whole system would fall apart if we had child labor laws. Turns out business prospered.

Business thought that the world would come to an end if we had labor unions. Turns out now that we all miss the days when daddy went to work at a union factory shop and made enough money for mommy to stay home with the kids.

Business thought that capitalism itself would be ground to its knees if they had to be accountable to safety standards. Turns out they did just fine and we have a lot more healthier people to show for it.

Business thought that the 40-hour workweek would be the end of life itself. Turns out it was a new beginning.

Business always thinks in the short term--don't believe the myth that the free market knows all. The truth is that in the narrowest possible sense, an increase in these rules and regulations can and does spell a decrease in profits for an individual business--but when enacted over the whole system, it actually improves business overall. There are simply lots of healthier, happier, richer people to spend all their money back into the system. We thrive. Forget the humanitarian outcomes for a minute--it just makes good business sense to treat people right.

The problem is that business never really learned that lesson. Citizens demanding a marginal increase in their wages, the right to organize, the right to learn and study and say what they want to say can and does often spell malicious death in Latin America and other parts of the world--at the hands of soldiers trained, supported and supplied by the US government.

This may astonish most Americans, as these run contrary to some of the most fundamental values we have--we're all about spreading democracy, right? Well, all those "anti communist" actions we've been involved in over the past 50 years have often been a ruse for putting down labor organizers and others clamoring for a small raise in wages. Somehow, we still seem to think that our entire standard of life will fall apart if all these countries we exploit somehow got their feet on the ground. But wait--isn't this what we shrugged our heads at the USSR about?

Colonialism meet neo-colonialism. New boss = same as the old boss.

On Dec 2nd, 30 years ago today, we saw it in El Salvador. For some reason, soldiers trained, supplied and supported by the US military found that it was essential for our security that two nuns and their two female co-workers needed to be run off the road, raped and murdered on the spot.

The dirty little secret ain't so little. While we are lulled into thinking that we are the freedom fighters spreading democracy and toppling terrible regimes all around the world, our country in fact supports about 150 militaries, and the track record of the kinds of activities they get involved in would make the jaws of most Americans drop. Can someone explain how a massacre of an entire village of peasants in Guatemala is justified? But as long as Americans aren't coming home in body bags and there's no draft to awaken the Nintendo minds, it all goes on unnoticed. Clothes from sweat shops in southeast Asia are pretty cheap and no one asks any questions.

It is easy to turn a blind eye and say it's all about national security. To that, I refer you back to the top of this post. Don't we know that freedom and prosperity are good for all? A tight grip doesn't work. Isn't that a big part of what we're all about?

The only difference I see between the former USSR and the USA is that the former acted as if their national security depended on keeping their own people down, and the latter behaves as if national security depends on keeping everyone else down.