Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bringing in the New Year

Since I was 17 or 18, I've spent almost every New Year's Eve in church at what we in the African American Church refer to as Watch Night Service. My father, who was also a pastor, introduced me to it (we never had it at my grandfather's church).

I've always found it fascinating and refreshing. It was a tradition that I continued when I became a pastor, eventually holding joint services with him and alternating sites between his church and mine.

While there are varying explanations for the origin of the Watch Nite tradition, the history is pretty interesting.

"The Watch Night Services in the Black communities we celebrate today can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as 'Freedom's Eve.' On that night, Blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God.

Black folks have gathered in churches annually on New Year's Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year."
In our churches Watch Night is a time for church members to gather, usually about 10:00 p.m. and bring in the New Year with songs, testimonies, prayers and preaching. Personally, I looked forward to it, because although it is a pretty informal worship time, it is a wonderful time of reflection and anticipation. It is a reminder that the passage of time is something that really is beyond our control.

We remember the people who were with us the previous Watch Night who have passed on, and we are reminded of the vulnerability of life - its near arbitrariness. But it is also a reminder that in the midst of this apparent arbitrariness life is, paradoxically, controlled by Someone greater than ourselves. Our very presence on that night, gives testimony to the fact that our journey throughout the year wasn't in our hands. The predisposition that some of us have toward that faith perspective may be superstitious to some, but for many of us, it is not enough to ascribe our survival and successes as the luck of the draw. Even our concrete efforts to help make this world a more just place is colored by our trust in the Good Will of God toward each of us and all of us.

Those old slaves who celebrated the first Watch Night, didn't see an act of political courage, or a public policy initiative, in their liberation, they saw the Hand of God ending the long and terrible night of bondage in a land that had been so cruel to them. They saw Lincoln's executive order was an eternal decree on their behalf. In ways far more sincere than we are when we refer to natural disasters as 'acts of God', they saw the New Year's freedom as an act of God! They saw God as providing them a future, instead of another day in which they had to be resigned to their fate.

So this Watch Night I'll be preaching, as I almost always have. I'll be with a group of believers who have much to celebrate, much to grieve, much to be glad to leave behind, much to look forward to and we'll all be grateful to see another year. It won't matter what shape we're in, or how tough 2008 has been, we will see the passing year and the coming year as gifts from a Loving God, Who once more has given us the opportunity to make the passage of time a joyful future, instead of a fate to which we must become reconciled.

However you bring in the New Year, I wish you and yours a wonderful one!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dallas and Texas Must be More Visionary and Proactive

My column in Monday's Dallas Morning News deals with the apparent unwillingness of our city and county governments to put on a full court press to develop the infrastructure around a transportation hub located in southern Dallas County. This is a near perfect fit for the proposed public works stimulus package proposed by President-elect Barack Obama.

The Dallas Logistics Hub is focal point for the transportation of goods from Gulf of Mexico and Pacific areas through the North American trade route through Midwest and southeast United States. That along with the Trinity River Tollway and the Great Trinity River forest hold great promise for the redevelopment of working class and economically distressed areas of our city.

The Allen Group, an inland port developer and the principle investor in the DLH, projects that this hub will produce some 60,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. This as well as the aforementioned projects, hold great promise in the areas of education, entrepreneurship, environmental technology, construction and benefits to southern Dallas proper as well as suburbs to the south. Yet, as far as we know, Dallas' initial lobbying in anticipation of the new administrations stimulus package, efforts hardly mention plans to aid in the growth of this enterprise. This is not a bailout measure, mind you, it is simply the proper role of city and county government to address the infrastructure and environmental issues needed to expand the project. Until recently, the city and county proposals have been for the development of a 'Master Plan' which ultimately serve to delay support of this project for another 18 months.

I'll speak more to all of this later. In the meantime you can read the full column here.

Also, Don Baylor has written a very important op-ed column on Texas' need to reform its unemployment insurance policy. Don is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. It's a great organization led by Scott McCown.

Texas in general, and Dallas in particular have weathered the economic storm that has hit the rest of our country so hard. But our leaders must be more visionary and much more proactive!

Monday, December 29, 2008

If Only We'd Learned this Lesson Before!

I am almost always optimistic when facing a new year. But its no surprise we face tremendous challenges as we look forward to 2009.

Last year more than 36 million people were classified as food insecure. That means that these were 36 million people whose economic condition was such that they had to resort to skipping meals. For our math wizards out there that's more than 10% of the country. That figure includes 690,000 children and 780,000 seniors. If our experience at Central Dallas Ministries is any indication, no one rushes proudly to announce themselves as a part of this demographic. Nor are there statistically a significant number of people who are so iniquitous as to try and fraudulently be included in this number to get food for their families. I think its safe to say that the numbers have some meaning.

That was last year. The New York Times reports that this year, in September, more than 31 million people (a million more than last year) filed for food stamps. The reason for the increase? You guessed it, an economy on the precipice of collapse.

When we talk about bailouts, government assistance, welfare, whatever label you want to put on it, there are new people who are joining the list. The Washington Post found "...2 out of 5 [people seeking government assistance in one Florida county] were newcomers at seeking the government safety net. Many had recently slid from the middle class because of the subprime-mortgage debacle and rising unemployment." You can read the NYT report here.

Some years ago, our country patted itself on the back for ending 'welfare as we know it'. The assumption was that people were taking advantage of 'the system' and the answer was to give limited access to welfare and food stamps. The answer was work. Often low wage dead end jobs to get people off the public dole.

Interestingly enough, one of the proposals for the new administration's stimulus package is to increase access to food stamps. Turns out that each dollar the government spends on food stamps returns $1.84 to the economy. Imagine that. Not letting people go hungry is not only humanitarian, it's sound fiscal policy!

We need to be thinking about this, if estimates are true that unemployment could reach as high as 9% and as many as an additional 10 million people could be classified as poor in our country.

Oddly enough, there are a number of states not thinking this way. Another NYT column says:

"Meanwhile, most states reduced or eliminated cash assistance for single poor adults and limited access to food stamps. Stricter eligibility requirements keep thousands of people from collecting jobless benefits. Facing budget deficits, cash-strapped states will be tempted to cut social programs even more. The experience of being poor in America, never easy, will soon become even more difficult for more people — unless Congress boosts food stamps, modernizes the unemployment compensation system and takes other steps to strengthen the ability of the federal and state governments to help the millions who will need assistance."

Once more it appears that the wisest free market investment that can be made is in people. I wonder where we would have been, if we had discovered this years ago?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Another Man's Journey

Dana Jennings is a New York Times editor and writer who is chronicling his battle with prostate cancer.

It is a honest, challenging account of the fear, doubt and uncertainty that men face when living with this disease and going through treatment.

What Dana says about the fears and discoveries of new strength through the support of family, friends and even medical professionals is both refreshing and sobering.

I went through, and am going through much of what he talks about. Dana and I are not alone.

If you or someone you know either faces or is living with prostate cancer or its aftermath, it might help you to follow his account of his journey.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

District Attorney Craig Watkins: Dallas Morning News' Texan of the Year

Dallas County's first African-American District Attorney Craig Watkins has been selected as the Dallas Morning News' Texan of the Year.

This is significant recognition, not only for D.A. Watkins' attempts to provide the County with a professional and trustworthy prosecutorial office, but his pursuit of justice which has led to the exoneration of 19 men, wrongly convicted and incarcerated.

In November, my monthly column in DMN detailed the reasons I thought he was worthy of the recognition and I'm glad the editorial board of the News agreed!

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Richard Wright
1908 - 1960


"Men can starve from a lack of self realization as much as they can from a lack of bread"

Friday, December 26, 2008

What a Difference a Year Makes!

I just got word that another friend from my youth died. I don't know the cause or when the funeral is, but I have found out as I get older, that news like this comes with increasing regularity.

Eventually, news like this comes not as an announcement, but more like a personal message. It drives home increasingly the vulnerability and brevity of life. We don't all get to be old men and women and we are not all destined for rocking chairs and retirement homes.

Ironically, this yule tide season carries with it its own message.

Last Christmas, the first in our new home, we were able to experience what we had fantasized about since we moved: having the family over for Christmas. All day long family, friends came and went. It alleviated my mother from the burden of having to clean and entertain and it was a joy to watch her sit and enjoy Christmas without having to even think about cleaning up.

I watched a new generation of cousins. These were the grand children of first cousins and second cousins and their children, so I had to keep asking, "OK, now whose baby is this?" It was exciting and sobering at the same time!

Last September I had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A second PSA screening had confirmed it, so it was a question of treatment. I had postponed the research that would lead me to making an informed decision. When you hear that you have cancer, you really don't take in a great deal after that. My wife and I hadn't even told our children yet. With the death of their brother in September, we figured to let them enjoy the holidays. Besides, earlier that morning we got word that another friend of theirs had died earlier that morning (believe it or not!).

I remember about the time we served dinner and everyone was milling about the table deciding what they would pile on their plate, I looked at the everyone trying to take it all in. One thought kept haunting me: "Next year, I might not be here..."

Quite sobering.

Obviously, things went much better than my worst fears. And this year, I think I'm a little more appreciative of just being here to celebrate this season. The year hasn't been easy, but this year is one for which I am truly and seriously more grateful.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas! God's Peace and Good Will

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

"And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'

"And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child." Luke 2:1 - 17 (KJV)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Oh Holy Night!

It doesn't quite feel like Christmas until I hear this song. I hope you are blessed by it as well!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Choosing to Be Tall

When I was a pastor my pet peeve was mistakes in the bulletin. Of course no matter how irritated they made me they always happened and I had to learn to be charitable of our secretary's mistakes as she and the rest of the church was toward mine (sorry to say it took me longer!).

This past Sunday I attended worship at the church of a friend of mine and what did I encounter when the time came for us to read the scripture for the morning. You guessed it! And so did the rest of the church, but it was a typo that really made me think.

The scripture is Luke 2:14, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men." But the scripture in the bulletin read, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to tall men"! Needless to say there were chuckles throughout the congregation.

But isn't it true that in so many ways we figure that there is grace, good will and peace that only goes to a select few.

The recent economic woes, the uncertainty of the future, the incoming administration, indeed any number of things often conspire to divide the world into winners and losers.

The fact is, we are often on different ends of a continuum: we are poor and rich, black and white, Republican, Democrat or Independent. But the future belongs to all of us to create and this season should remind us that we can all share in a good will accessible to us all.

No matter where it is modeled or heralded. Whether Washington D.C. or Heaven itself we can choose a reflect a good will that is intended to characterize humanity and help each of us rise to become our better selves.

We all actually have the chance to choose whether we are 'tall' or not!

Monday, December 22, 2008

We Are Working Hard!

Here at Central Dallas Ministries, we are blessed to have a wonderful CEO and Vice President in Larry James. I consider him a great friend with a tremendously generous heart.

You can imagine that we both get asked one question. A question which generally gets asked around this time of year, but with more frequency than either of us want throughout the year: "I bet you guys are really working hard about now, huh?" Or, "I guess you all are really busy now!"

It's not a question that revolves around our work ethic; it's a question that recognizes that the need in our communities is increasing exponentially.

There's been an almost 30% demand in services across the board at Central Dallas Ministries.

By October 2008, we had already provided groceries for more people than we had in all of 2007.

We are really working hard!

Larry was recently on THINK, a local public television series on KERA TV (PBS) explaining how conditions are changing during these times. He did a really great job, and you should check it out.

Don't miss what he says about, 'the power of the small gift'. It's really, really important!

By the way, Larry lost his mother recently, after a very long illness. She passed 2 years shy of the day his father died last year. Although we all know that Mrs. James is no longer suffering, we also know that grief is never easy on those left behind - especially this time of year. Keep Larry and his wife Brenda in your prayers.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Controversy We Can Do Without

I confess that I'm perplexed (if not vexed) by some the attitude of the some Obama supporters!

We are poised to celebrate one of the most momentous occasions in the history of our country: the ascendancy of a an African-American to the Highest Office in the land. One hundred and forty-six years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, 45 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 44 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we will be holding the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Some 4.5 million people are expected to be in Washington D.C. to witness the event (20 years from now about 10 million people will claim to have been there!). We have no clear estimate of how many people will be watching from home and across the world. And what are we talking about? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, will be delivering the invocation.
What? Really?

Rick Warren is not one of my 'preaching heroes'. The fact is, however, he is one of the most significant religious figures in our country. Millions of people have read his 'Purpose Driven Life' and the other materials derived from it (another confession: I've never read the book. Never wanted to). Those of us who have heard the gospel song, 'It's Not About Us - It's About Jesus', know that it comes from Warren's book. Theologically he really is a moderate conservative, evangelical pastor. It is safe to assume that he did not vote for Barack Obama. And he is giving the invocation at this monumental event.

Those of us who voted for Obama did so because he represented 'change'. And almost since day one after the election and his announcement of cabinet appointments, there has been whining that the 'change' we thought was coming hasn't been seen. His appointees are not young enough, they aren't liberal enough, they aren't 'out-side-the-Beltway' enough, they aren't minority enough, they aren't gay enough.

Please - stop!
What has become obvious, is that some who voted for Obama, didn't pay attention to his track record. When Obama became editor of the Harvard Law Review, for instance, there were those conservative and liberal who thought that his incoming staff would be ideologically and ethnically like him. Obama chose a racially and ideologically mixed staff for his leadership team. In fact there were those who thought that if he showed any kind of preference, he showed it toward those who were least like him.

Haven't many of us who voted for Obama, complained that the current administration talked to no one but the ones who agreed with them?! They fired government those in the administration who would not adjust facts to fit a neo-conservative world view; the President wouldn't even appear at the NAACP convention, because the organization didn't like him; they marginalized Cabinet members who wouldn't toe the party line. And now the incoming president invites someone who is a fellow Christian but who doesn't totally agree with him ideologically or theologically and asks him to give the invocation and now the liberals who are complaining.

Obama is doing what he promised to do - bring down the each against all frame that has defined our politics for far too long. Obama said that we should be willing to engage in dialogue with those who did not agree with us. Did we not expect him to model this? Or did we think this only applied to foreign policy? This is a first step that we should welcome. If we are saying that a man who doesn't march lock step in political and religious views of the newly elected president shouldn't pray and for the country at his inauguration, then Obama's election was more about vindication than it was 'change'.
Lost in all of this is the fact that one of the stalwarts of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, Dr. James Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will give the benediction. Dr. Lowery marched with Dr. King and excellently pursued the fulfillment of the Dream that he spoke of in D.C. 45 years ago. Parts of that speech are always selectively quoted by those who have a political point to make (one of the reasons I agree with Michael Eric Dyson that there out to be a moratorium on reading it publicly until we understand it).
I hope that by the end of the celebration - if not Obama's administration that we will glimpse something of the era to which Martin pointed us at the end of that landmark speech. A speeding up of the day 'when all of God's children: black men, white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual - 'Free at Last, Free at Last, thank God Almighty, we're Free At Last'.
Let's pray that this is the first step towards our liberation.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister and Minister of Defence


Nobel Prize Laureate


"If the human race wishes to have a prolonged and indefinite period of material prosperity, they have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way toward one another."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Overcoming the Obstacles to Neighborhood Redevelopment

The area in South Dallas where I served as pastor for nearly 25 years is undergoing redevelopment that currently totals more than $10 million and will include town homes, infrastructure improvements and increased single family housing plans by non-profits, Dallas Housing Authority and soon for profit builders.

Less than 3 miles from there is an area called the Lamar Street Corridor.

For more than a year, I've represented Central Dallas Ministries working with a group of community leaders, residents, religious leaders, a world class city planner and a group of committed technical advisers to make sure that this neighborhood doesn't get left out of a more than $300 million highway, toll road improvement associated with the Trinity River Project.

People say that South Dallas needs economic development. South Dallas proper is about a 13 square mile area in which there are more than 300 liquor related businesses. On the Lamar Street corridor, in about 215 acres, alongside and down the street from churches and houses, vacant and inhabited, are 5 night clubs, 11 liquor stores, 5 scrap metal yards, 6 truck and warehouse facilities and a dairy factory! Combine that with the addicts selling stolen copper to the scrap metal yards, drugs and prostitution, there's plenty of 'economic development'! Just not the right kind.

Would anyone in his or her right mind think that what is needed to bring economic development and restoration of the health and wholeness of this community is a sports bar that serves alcohol?

Dallas' Plan Commission, obviously believes that the one thing needed to return this neighborhood to viability is the aforementioned sports bar which will add an additional liquor related establishment to the 16 current ones. They approved a Special Use Permit to serve alcohol for the business because they felt sorry for the owner who had invested some $75,000 in getting this venture underway. I have a former member who lives about five blocks away from the 'sports bar'. She's been in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. I wonder what she deserves for her considerable investment.

Of course no one asked the people brave enough to stay there if they want their area continually depressed by blight, crime and businesses that bring down the value of their neighborhood.

But this is a new day. Earlier this week, braving bitter cold, rain and snow, more than 60 church members, residents, neighborhoods leaders met with the city planners to review the plans which they will recommend to city for their neighborhood next month. There will be more meetings and more, many more residents, involved in the effort. They will be at City Hall to oppose the granting of this SUP and to promote the plan that they've helped to develop. It involves healthy retail, it involves new housing, common spaces for gathering and recreation and walking.
It does not include one liquor store, or one night club, or one sports bar. It is designed to be a neighborhood that attracts mixed income families and those who want to be a part of something enhances the life of the community and the city. And despite the economic crisis in this country there is the passion, the move and the growing commitment on the part of this community not to give up on their neighborhood.

These residents, these citizens will create the political will necessary to change their neighborhood. I'm proud to work among them.

I look forward to celebrating victory with them!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Accountability Means Asking Hard Questions

When we talk about public education, what are we talking about?

I believe we're talking about a democratic institution that responds to the needs of our country by inculcating young people with the principles of citizenship, providing them with an education that stimulates their appetite for lifelong learning and prepares them to make a productive contribution to their communities and society at large.

Those in themselves are lofty goals. We appear to become manic about encrusting these objectives with standardized tests which require near rote memorization and political demands on administrators which distract, divert and deny good teachers the opportunity to do their best work.

With the growing demands for accountability and conflicting ideas about what constitutes accountability (test scores, graduation rates, report cards, etc.), we tend to miss accountability on the part of those who are elected to make sure that standards of accountability are adhered to - whatever those standards may be. I'm talking about school board trustees and district administrators.

Dallas' school district fiasco in which 700 teachers were hired without adequate budgetary oversight to make sure there was money to hire them (resulting in a $64 million deficit and the firing of hundreds of teachers), demands accountability.

Correcting the crisis, is fundamental: fix the problem of course, but also find out both how it happened and who was responsible. This may or may not mean that heads will roll, but to keep it from happening again, don't you have to know what caused it? Seems simple to me.

Not only has no one been fired anyone except the district's chief budget officer, trustees have decided that they need to extend their term of office - an indication that they think that they've done a good job. In doing so they've been dismissive of the idea that this might not be legal.

But wait, that's not all! It has declared that there is no interest in finding out how it happened!

"I have very little interest trying to figure out who to blame for this; I'm trying to look out the front windshield, make sure it doesn't happen again and get back to the business of educating kids.

"I don't want to interrogate the people in the budget office and the HR office and see what they did wrong. I don't care", says the districts chairman.

Most of these board members will be returned to office and nearly 200,000 students will get a message, explicitly or implicitly, by the culture that is created by such thinking: accountability really doesn't matter. If you mess up, change the rules of the game and keep on playing.

The only real question is whether or not come election time - whenever it is - will Dallas citizens ask why these trustees should be re-elected and demand an answer worthy of DISD employees, the students, their families and the rest of Dallas.

Failure to ask these tough questions and the refusal to answer them, by those who seek and receive our votes imperil not only the future of our children, but the fundamental purpose of public education, and democratic institutions in general.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

America's MVPs (Most Valuable People)

I'd like to say that I have a hard time understanding Congress' refusal to fund the bridge loan to the Big 3 automakers. I actually think I do understand. What I have yet to be able to put my finger on is the 'scorched earth' rationale when it comes to the auto industry.

In the movie 'It's A Wonderful Life', there's a line in there that I like to remember regarding ordinary people. George Bailey tells Mr. Potter, "...don't forget its this rabble you talk about who do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town..."

It's too easy for us to forget this, when great fortunes seem more important than the empty pockets of ordinary people.

We're not talking about the fast food industry, or even certain sectors of the retail industry. Bankruptcy for automakers is not like bankruptcy for the airline industry. Most of us will never own a commercial airplane. Almost all of us own, or are in some way dependent upon automobile transportation. Failure in that area, makes collateral failure a very frightening proposition.

I heard a commentator say over the weekend, that the Chrysler bailout of near twenty years ago didn't work because it cost the American taxpayer money by paying off the loan early! Excuse me?! Didn't the government get any money from taxes on car sales? People who continued to work in the industry as opposed to the lay-offs that would have ensued? Advertising revenue, didn't help the country? Lee Iaccoca's book sales - I mean come on, that bailout didn't work? Seriously?

Maybe we all can stipulate that auto industry executives haven't helped their cause:

The chairmen of the industries flew in to D.C. to beg for money on corporate jets - got it.

The cars that have been made by the automakers catered to worst excesses of their customer base and ignored or resisted efforts at regulation that would have had them produce more fuel efficient cars - you're right.

Foreign auto makers building cars on American soil make a car, on the whole, about $2000 less than American manufactures primarily due to labor costs - OK.

In a free market economy you have to be able to keep up with the competition, otherwise you just lose out - point well taken...

But w are talking about one of the last major manufacturing industries that we have in this country.

I'm not an economist, but here's a question: exactly what will unemployment benefits cost for the 3.5 million workers who would lose their jobs if the automakers went under? In an economy that threatens the prospect of a 9% jobless rate, how would that be helpful?

Another question: how much would cars produced by foreign automakers cost if there were no competition by American auto manufacturers?

According to the head of the UAW, and members of Congress, the sticking point in the bridge loan negotiations, was the fact that the UAW wouldn't guarantee a date certain that they would bring wage demands in line with those of foreign automakers. So the reason Congress couldn't see themselves allocating $14 billion was because of the employees?! Because their representatives couldn't guarantee a date in 'certain' when the employees would take less pay after previous concessions?

The refusal to refuse the bridge loan, goes to a fundamental philosophy regarding who has value in this society. If this philosophy prevails, its going to be awfully hard to pull out of this mess. More than $700 billion was appropriated to financial institutions who have essentially passed money around among themselves - a philosophy that says the presence of these institutions maintain the financial solvency of this country.

Nearly 2 million people have joined the ranks of the unemployed and essentially the Congress took a pass on the prospects of an additional 3 million Americans out of work.

We can go round and round regarding who works and who provides jobs. Until, that is, there's no money to buy the hamburger, the hammer, the wrench or the car - no matter where its made. Then we'll find who this country's MVPs really are.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What an Interesting Irony

The Dallas Morning News held a summit of top area business leaders to get their take on how the economy will impact the DFW region. The upshot of the high level confab? So far the region has weathered the storm pretty well, but we cannot escape. We'll get hit and hit pretty hard.
"The group, which included the mayor, chief executives and experts from some of the city's most well-known companies, agreed that Dallas was probably the best place in the nation to weather the storm. They're looking to an activist federal government under President-elect Barack Obama to lead a massive national rescue mission.

"In the meantime, a lot of pain lies ahead."

Mayor Tom Leppert, On-Target office supply CEO and founder, Albert Black, Jr., Norm Bagwell, chief executive of Bank of Texas and nine others, see tough times ahead and look to President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus strategy to be important to economic recovery through job creation. It's both interesting and ironic that business leaders are looking to a Democratic administration to rescue the economic fortunes (figuratively and literally) of our country.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

We Don't Have to Choose

I recently bought a book entitled, "Billy Graham and the Beloved Community". The author, Michael G. Long, is Assistant Professor of Religion at Elizabethtown College and I happen to catch him on C-SPAN2 one Saturday, discussing another book he wrote, but the crawl at the bottom of the screen which described this book captured my attention.

"Billy Graham and the Beloved Community", contrasts the evangelical (in the true sense of the word) theological emphasis of Graham vs. the activist social justice theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Churches and pastors wrestle with these to views of scripture and the work of the church today. And it is virtually impossible to be in a local congregation and not, at some point, commit wholly to one side or the other, or clumsily try to walk the tight rope between the two.
Here is a passage from the book, which highlights the difference between these two giants in American (and indeed world) history:

"Graham's restatement of [St. Anselm of Canterbury's] theology of satisfaction sharply diverged from King's liberation theology. Academically trained in a tradition that rejected Anselm wholesale. King would never ground his social thought in a bloodthirsty God or the Lamb that was slain for the sins of the world. Even as a seminary student, King had written a critical reflection on Anselm's satisfaction theories. Such views taken literally," he argued, 'become bizarre. On the one hand, merit and guilt are not transferable from one person to another, and on the other, the practice of human repentance requires a condition in which Jesus Christ has not already "paid the full penalty of sin." But King reserved his greatest displeasure for the type of God reflected in Anselm's theology: "It presents God as a kind of feudal Overlord, or as a stern Judge, or as a Governor to a state. Each of these minimizes the true Christian conception of God as a free personality. Rejecting Anselm, King eventually identified Jesus not a s the Lamb slain for the sins of the world, but as the Liberator who could free blacks from the oppressive reign of racist pharaohs. also contradictory to Graham, the civil rights leader held that the cross of the Liberator was never about cleansing blood for individual hears seeking salvation but about virtues and practices that mark the people of God - forgiveness, love, sacrifice, and nonviolence. The cross was not a nice place to kneel at in quiet prayer; it was rather the way of life to take up and bear. It was the locus of reconciliation and healing for the world, not because it cleansed confessing converts, but because it revealed the way, the truth and the life - the reconciling power of turning the other cheek even while demanding that pharaoh let God's people go."

Early in my ministry, I considered Graham's preaching hopelessly naive and simplistic. I have always been an admirer of Dr. King's vision and work. Yet, as a pastor of a church in an area marred by concentrated poverty I could not ignore the priority of either personal conversion, or the need for a prophetic focus (social justice). In other words fulfilling the demands of of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), as well as Christ's Mission Statement (Luke 4:18, 19). I believe it is the nature and challenge of the Church to figure out how to live and work in the tension that can exist between the two. I used to tell my congregation that we don't have to choose. The same Christ who, 'Ye must be born again', also fed the hungry and healed the sick, and if we are His Body, we can do both. You do what's in front of you.

No matter my orientation, I have seen that it is increasingly unproductive to throw theological firebombs across the aisle at those who believe differently. Although I confess that sometimes I have been guilty of participating in the arguments.

I think the ministry of Billy Graham has profoundly blessed this country and this world. So has the life and ministry of Martin Luther King. They both had their flaws, but America should be thankful, that, we have had both. True change in our nation has come because of what they have both taught us.

And if we want even greater change, we will have to understand that we don't have to choose.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

For Those Who Would Change the Wind


Human Rights Activist, Author, Scholar

"One thing alone I charge you. As you live, believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reinvent Public Education for the Students and for the Country

My complaint regarding public school's torturous standardized testing, is that we are creating excellent test takers, not educating children. I have never had one supporter of the system, as currently constituted, tell me 'That's not true!' Achievement gains on standardized testing among minorities, excellent to 'recognized' status for schools are all touted but no one so far has refuted the claim that our children are not being educated.

After 12 years of education, kids graduate with little curiosity, little capacity for thinking critically and sometimes little in the way of a sense of the world in which they live. Five years ago 48% of 9th graders remained in school to receive their diplomas. In 2007-08, it was just barely 42%. Neither are great numbers, but neither can the significance of such numbers be obscured by the constant administrative drumbeat announcing 'rising test scores'. Children love to learn, but they have to stay in school to learn and they only enjoy learning when they have a sense of achievement and contribution that cannot come from a standardized test.

Admittedly, when it comes to education a lot of factors enter into this. Life in environments characterized by concentrated poverty, for instance. The challenge is for schools to reinvent themselves if they are to be effective. But presently, young people drilled on standardized testing skills to justify a politician's re-election bid, is leading us into a cultural, moral and intellectual ditch, rivaled only by our current economic meltdown.

In Texas someone has forgotten adjust school systems for a post-industrial, technological age (although, it would be nice for all students to have some antiquated learning materials like, oh let me see - textbooks!). Children don't need computers in classrooms to help the pass the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) test. They need to learn how to use computers as tools to help analyze and develop solutions to complex sets of scientific, cultural and social challenges that face our nation and the world. And they shouldn't have to wait until senior year of high school or freshman year of college.

Take a look at what works!

I mentioned that I haven't met an educator yet who refutes the notion that children are becoming trained test takers vs. educated citizens. What I do tend to get from defenders of the status quo is, 'Well, how do you suggest we assess children's mastery of the core subjects?'

I don't know? Creating opportunities for students to exercise their minds, to observe, and demonstrate the relevance between what they have been taught and life, perhaps? Perhaps if, as in Dallas, nearly 80% of high school graduates going to community college, having demonstrated 'subject mastery', yet needing remediation shows that what they have mastered was filling in bubbles with a number 2 pencil. Perhaps the successes, touted as the results of the system, are, results obtained by students bright enough, and teachers good and proficient enough, that we would have seen success if these students had been hidden in a cave from grades K-5!

The Texas legislature is getting it - well sort of - they want to refine the test!

The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this year, "Lawmakers who lead the way on education policy are warming to the idea of major changes to Texas' report card system for public schools, which already gets failing marks from superintendents and teachers.

"A new version, as currently envisioned, would dramatically alter the focus of student testing, which forms the basis for school report cards, and introduce new incentives for schools that make gains."

How about the creativity and courage to reinvent schools so that children who graduate are students who have actually learned?

I do not suggest for one second, that this is easy. But when you consider what's happening in public education currently, can anyone honestly say that the work required is not worth it?

Much of the hard work requires all of us, in every neighborhood, championing the proposed goal of public education: an intellectually well rounded, socialized, physically healthy citizen prepared to begin to make a positive contribution to the world. And this means creating a system designed to provide this benefit for every child.

If what we are doing doesn't work, then we have to create the structure that will. Unless, its in someones interest for it not to work!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Amazing Youth! Chicago Students Work on Public School Finance

Let's just say that the news regarding the Governor Rod Blagojevich is bizarre to say the least. The tale of corruption, that led to his arrest early Tuesday morning, was worthy of Huey Long, the late governor of Louisiana (well, at least Long made it to the U.S. Senate).

But all the news from Illinois politics isn't bad - and I'm not just talking about Barack Obama.
Illinois state senator Rev. James Meeks is a former college classmate of mine. He is the long time pastor of Salem Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago. Recently, Rev. Meeks led an interesting protest in order to get change in Illinois public school funding. Called a CPS (Chicago Public School) Boycott, what Meeks actually did was call for parents of poorly funded schools to take their children to schools in affluent neighborhoods and to enroll them there on the first day of school this year (one can only imagine the stir that cause here in Dallas!). Although he had opposition from school officials, church and community leaders, on the first day of school some 1000 students and their parents participated in the protest.

Blagojevich was to have met with Meeks to discuss the matter of school funding and where the matter currently stands is unclear, but its pretty safe to assume, given the current state of affairs, new legislation in this regard is probably on hold...

But here is an unintended outcome of Meeks' protest efforts.

Several students from the South Side, who tried to enroll at the better funded New Trier High School ($17,000 per student vs. $11, 000 per student) have formed friendships and meet regularly to work on public school issues such as school reform!

The Chicago Tribune says about this new group of student activists, who call themselves the Illinois Council of Students, "They met during the rally that followed the Sept. 2 boycott led by state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago). 'That night, we were on Facebook talking and everything.'

"The students recognize theirs is an improbable friendship, an unexpected outcome of an adult-led political action. They say such an unlikely beginning makes them determined to guard their personal ties and to add their voices to talks of how money is divided among Illinois schools. Students in the Harold Washington Library Center Sunday debated what role to assign adult advisers."

So far the students have drafted a student bill of rights, declaring all kids be afforded "unfettered access to textbooks" or "the right to participate in clubs and sports." They plan to hold a student convention in January and meet with lawmakers in the spring.

Neither Meeks, nor New Trier Superintendent Linda Yonke are involved with the group.

"Students said they know school funding is a complex, long-standing problem," the Tribune reports, "Still, they said students should play a role in the solution. In the meantime, they hope to further the friendships unexpectedly sparked by the school boycott. 'We're still kids. We like to hang out and talk on the phone,' said Brooks College Prep junior Sabrina Walker."

Maybe Chi-Town can give Dallas Independent School District some lessons on a new resources for district reform.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Healthy Investment

Dallas' Baylor Hospital is undertaking an admirable and potentially revolutionary initiative. Executives at Baylor Health Care systems, Inc. have unveiled plans to invest $15 million for a diabetes clinic in South Dallas (colloquially, those of us from that area call it East Dallas, but that's another story).

Baylor should be applauded for making such a significant investment in the health of one of Dallas' poorest communities. In a 2006 study, the J. McDonald Williams Institute found that the demographics in the Frazier area, the area where the Baylor diabetes clinic will be located, are worse than those of the pre-Katrina Nineth Ward in New Orleans.
For Instance:

pre-Katrina, the difference between families living in poverty in the Lower Nineth Ward compared to the rest of New Orleans was more than 8.5%; the difference between families living in poverty in the Frazier area compared to the rest of Dallas is more almost 21%!

the unemployment disparity in the Lower Nineth, compared to the rest of New Orleans was nearly 11%; Frazier unemployment rate in comparison to the rest of Dallas is nearly 25%

the concentration of African-Americans in the Lower Nineth the highest 'at risk' group for Type II Diabetes, was higher than 31.5%; the disparity of the African-American population in Frazier is 44%.

Suffice it to say this population is vulnerable to a crippling disease that can lead to other crippling diseases, heart trouble, blindness, kidney disease and more. Our work at Central Dallas Ministries shows that equal access to disease management improves the chances of poor people to live healthy and productive lives.

I was a part of an initial focus group that Baylor executives pulled together when they conceived of this idea. One word that became a mantra as we began to talk about this facility was 'center of excellence'.

Here's hoping that Baylor's commitment and the City of Dallas' anticipated investment will produce an excellent initiative that creates a new paradigm for neighborhood revitalization, economic redevelopment and holistic health care that will help transform this long neglected area.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Glad the Supreme Court was Thinking!

Let me confess to a little post-presidential election euphoria naivete. In the fresh blush of Barack Obama's November 4 victory, I was under the impression that, with the hard fought campaign behind us along with the customary accusations and acrimony, we would get on with the business of uniting behind the victor, tackle the economic mess and restore America's standing in the world. After all, no matter how much money you make, no matter your ideology or political party, the facts are our country's troubles are going to be with us for a pretty good while. It makes sense that a new president would need the backing of a country which had just proven to itself that we can transcend the vestiges of one of the most pernicious social ills to plague our nation since its founding.


Turns out someone took the vitriol of the campaign much more seriously than I did. Leo Donofrio of New Brunswick, New Jersey, had filed suit earlier alleging that Barack Obama's candidacy for the nation's highest office was invalid because he is not a - well - a citizen. A citizen of the United States that is. According to Donofrio, because Obama's father was from Kenya and in 1961, when Obama was born, Kenya was a province of Great Britain, Obama had dual citizenship thereby disqualifying him for the office of president. To be fair, Mr. Donofrio also included in the suit an allegation that John McCain - yes that John McCain - is also not qualified, by virtue of some questions regarding his citizenship. Of the United States, that is.

The suit made it all the way to the Supreme Court and the Court (fortunately) refused to hear the case. Reports conjecture that one reason is that Donofrio could not prove that he had legal standing. In other words, he didn't prove that he was materially harmed in some way more than the rest of his fellow citizens - the 64 million of whom elected Obama to be the 44th president of the United States - of America, that is.

There are other suits in the offing. As a matter of fact Alan Keyes, the perennial Republican candidate for just about every office you can name and most recently vanquished by Obama for the office of U.S. Senate from Illinois, is one of the plaintiffs in one of those suits. Really...

Seriously, if the economic crisis were a foreign enemy invading our country we'd be at DEFCON 4 about right now. We're not sure that we won't lose the auto industry, one of the last manufacturing industries we have. We've lost more than 2 million jobs in an economy that was supposed to 'trickle down' opportunity for everyone. We lost half a million of those jobs last month and there is no clear end in sight. The rest of the world is feeling the effect of this fiscal contagion and there is a fringe group that wants to add to these and the collateral woes a political and constitutional catastrophe by overturning a presidential election.

The Supreme Court refused to here the case but did so without comment, so again the question of legal standing is conjecture. So since we're conjecturing we could add some other possible reasons:

Perhaps the Court thought that as contentious and as 'pull out all the stops' as the Democratic primary had been they figured that, if true, this might have become an issue.

Maybe they thought that after a 2 year long presidential campaign, someones campaign, one of the one's that really wanted to win (like almost all of them?), would have pointed out that one of the candidates wasn't a legal citizen.

Perhaps the Supreme Court in its wisdom, figured that before Barack Obama went overseas and met with heads of state, as a viable candidate for Commander-in-Chief, they would have checked out whether he was a citizen before okaying the trip.

The Supreme Court, might have thought that the Secret Service might have asked some questions before they assigned agents to a candidate who really wasn't a naturalized citizen.

The justices may also have figured out that the Republican Party and those who REALLY wanted to stay in power, may well have checked into this and used it, even if there were a hint of truth to it. They brought up 'socialism' and missed, legal citizenship status?!

The Court may well have thought that the implications of the suit were just ridiculous. You mean the country was so desperate to have a black president that everyone responsible just forgot to consider whether or not he was constitutionally qualified?!

Our country has real problems. For the current generation of leadership, congressional and otherwise, times worse than the ones we face are a historic memory. We don't have any actual experience in dealing with a crisis that calls for the near reinvention of our economy and by extension, our way of life. Maybe the justices on the Supreme Court thinks that's what we ought to be dealing with. We need to figure out how to bring an end to two wars. Maybe they thought that's what we ought to be concerned about. Public education isn't working, maybe the Highest Court in the land considered that to be a higher priority. If so, I agree with them.

Or am I still being naive?

Monday, December 8, 2008

43 Days to the Obama Inauguration

The U.S. "Officially" in a Recession

Unemployment at 6.7%

More than 500,000 jobs lost in November

Almost 2 million jobs lost in 2008

Auto Manufacturers want $34 billion 'bridge loan'

AT&T Inc., DuPont, JPMorgan Chase & Co., jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, and mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. all announce layoffs.

Consumers battered by the job losses, shrinking nest eggs and tanking home values retrench, throwing the economy into a tailspin.

Days to Obama Inauguration: 43

Saturday, December 6, 2008

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Benjamin Franklin
1706 - 1790
Founding Father, Patriot, Ambassador

"All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Medgar Evers: A Patriotic Resolve

"For two and on half years I endangered my life as many other Negro Americans, on the far-away battlefields, to safeguard America and Democracy, only to return to our native country and state and be denied the basic things for which we fought. Now if that is not forbearance, I do not know what it is. Even while serving Uncle Sam in Europe I would read in the Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Army publications of the horror that my people were experiencing in the Southland while we faced the merciless onslaught of the German Air Force and their eighty-eight field guns. However, I have been told that 'resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,' and for that reason if for no other we shall not cease to press forward, relentlessly, until every vestige of segregation and discrimination in America becomes annihilated."

The Autobiography of Medgar Evers
Address Celebrating the Fourth Anniversary of
Brown vs. Board of Education
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1958

Thursday, December 4, 2008


I didn't know Rev. Kathleen Baskin-Ball. She was the Senior Pastor of the Suncreek United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas, who died of cancer Tuesday morning. I read her story in the paper Sunday and I was taken with her authentic courage and her generosity.

Rev. Baskin-Ball, shared her illness with her congregation. When I was a pastor I experienced at least two major illnesses and that makes me appreciate the courage of this pastor even more. While I let the congregation know of my challenges, it was difficult for me to demonstrate the vulnerability that Pastor Baskin-Ball did. It was difficult for me to refer to the diagnosis of a tumor, the removal of which could have left me either blind, speechless or paralyzed as an illness! I had never heard my role models in ministry express doubt or fear, so I figured that 'faithfulness' had something to do with always appearing 'strong'. Now don't get me wrong, there is a place for that. But I now understand better, that it is the sharing of both faithfulness and human frailty that inspires and encourages those in a congregation who face challenges. This woman of God understood this and was brave enough to spend her last days, saying good-bye to members and friends. An amazing woman. An amazing testimony.

A good friend of mine, Pastor E.K. Bailey, the late founder and Senior Pastor of the Concord Church here in Dallas, showed us all a similar grace and courage as he battled the cancer that eventually took his life, in October 2003. A sermon that he preached, 'Farther in and Deeper Down', explored the challenges that he experienced as he discovered a greater devotion to God through the adversity posed by his illness.

Dan Rather, former anchor of CBS Evening News, would end each evenings news broadcast with the word 'courage'. Pastors, Baskin-Ball and Bailey, both demonstrated this word in their lives and deaths. As a country we face very difficult times, that do indeed expose our vulnerability. The challenge is for us to allow them to expose our courage as well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Black Friday - 'Tis the Season to be Maniacs!

I'm not a fan of standing in line.

There are some places where its totally unavoidable - movies, banks, DMV, check out stands. But on the whole I avoid it whenever possible. That's why I have always had a hard time relating to people who will camp out in long lines, sometime for days, for movie and concert tickets, or department stores...

But the trampling to death of a Wal-Mart employee in New York, puts a whole new spin on the idea of this phenomenon. Thirty-four year old Jdimytai Damour, a temporary maintenance worker at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y. He was trying to help control a mob of 2000 frenzied early shoppers who had gathered before 3:30 am to shop for 'bargains'.

There are questions regarding crowd control, adequate security, etc. All are extremely important issues for which Wal-Mart ought to be held accountable in some way. But here's another thought - how about people acting like sane human beings?!

I thought, we all got it: the recent economic decline, caused by the exploitation of policies designed to help the middle class and working class achieve homeownership; greed on Wall Street, people living beyond their means all were supposed to signal the need to re-evaluate our values. That's why citizens are incensed about bail outs, leveraged government loans, the meltdown of the capitalist system - right?

We were supposed to be reassessing our materialism and the way we equate bigger and newer with 'successful'. This is one time, we don't have a systemic problem. This problem is cultural, spiritual. When it comes to greed and insensitivity you don't have to be eligible for a golden parachute!

Don't get me wrong! Wal-Mart certainly did have a great sale - a Samsung 50-inch Plasma HDTV for $798, a Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum for $28, a Samsung 10.2 megapixel digital camera for $69 and DVDs such as "The Incredible Hulk" for $9. But somehow, I can't believe that anyone who bought anything on last Friday at that Wal-Mart, really believes what they bought was worth it.

But then again, according to Kimberly Cribbs, when people were asked to leave so that police and investigators could assess what had happened, "...people were yelling `I've been on line since yesterday morning,'" she said. "They kept shopping."

While Wal-Mart offered the obligatory public sympathetic statement, no one from the company contacted the grieving family.

The store re-opened at 1:00 pm, that afternoon...

We obviously don't get it. Black Friday indeed!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Local Politics Need the Federal Government's Support

"All politics is local", or so the legendary U.S. Senator Tip O'Neill is to have said. I have to admit that has usually come to mind when national politics aren't turning out the way I think they should. Yep, sometimes even preachers can be guilty of sour grapes!

But there is always hope that large scale history making electoral politics can actually have significant local impact, after all, aside from local sales tax, local and state income taxes, property taxes and fees, all that's left is federal money. So 'local', practically speaking, is relative isn't it?

Jim Reid, is the former Executive Director of the South Dallas Development Corporation and is now president of a statewide non-profit called Momentum Texas.

Jim's insight into the local implication of the incoming administration's policies are, I believe spot on. And his understanding of the need in areas of concentrated poverty in Dallas are inarguable:

"The severity of poverty in this part of town and the absence of "living wages" make initiatives to increase income imperative. Thousands of southern Dallas residents who work full time are unable to pay living expenses. A tax policy initiative that could move hundreds of southern Dallas residents above the poverty level is linked to proposed increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which is designed to promote financial stability and "make work pay."

"Also germane is a proposed increase in the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2011. Subsequent increases would be indexed to inflation. The minimum wage is now $6.55 an hour, or $262 weekly. How can a single parent with two children meet basic needs at this income level?

"In the late 1990s, the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas did a study of southern Dallas indicating that residents' main concern was good-paying jobs. This concern remains totally relevant based on today's rate of unemployment and a fragile economy."

The fact is, the people who are going to be hurt the most if this economy craters are not the people on Wall Street or Main Street. It will be the people on local streets most of which neither the people on Wall Street or Main Street have never heard of.

You can read the rest of Jim's analysis here.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Observing a pre-Presidency

Barack Obama is definitely not President of the United States yet. But, to be sure, how he is operating as president-elect, is gaining more scrutiny than any other newly elected chief executive since FDR. Like Roosevelt, the times are determining the level of intense interest.

An interesting thing has developed on the way to the White House, however. We're hearing words that are being refreshingly associated with the presidency. Words like, smart, intelligent, impressive, articulate, curious. During the primaries and the presidential campaign itself, articulateness and intelligence became dirty words. It was almost as if being thoughtful and reflective was a constitutional disqualifier.

I almost expected Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to be removed from the roster of former presidents!

This interregnum between administrations has actually turned into an Obama 'pre-Presidency', again, a sign of how desperate the times have become, but as such, it is only a hint at the decision making process of the the soon to be POTUS, not necessarily a guarantee of success. However, it apparently is enough to make the country feel, well - hopeful.

The intelligence and thoughtfulness with which Barack Obama is approaching the monumental task of righting this country's economic ship is being met with a great deal of admiration by even conservative columnists. David Brooks, referring to the current announced administrative appointees and personages ar a 'validictocracy' says, " much as I want to resent these overeducated Achievatrons (not to mention the incursion of a French-style government dominated by highly trained Enarchs), I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition.

"The fact that they can already leak one big appointee per day is testimony to an awful lot of expert staff work. Unlike past Democratic administrations, they are not just handing out jobs to the hacks approved by the favored interest groups. They’re thinking holistically — there’s a nice balance of policy wonks, governors and legislators. They’re also thinking strategically."

Washington Post's David Broder said, "...I am struck by how lucky this country is, at the moment, that the president-elect is a super-smart person like Barack Obama."

These are not homages to a brainiac Commander in Chief, but rather, I believe a recognition that maybe we need more than just reflexive certitude in a president. Having the smartest guys in the room surrounding the president doesn't necessarily mean that there is an overlooked magic bullet to fix the economy, health care, end the war, prop up public education and - well I don't need to go on, you get the picture - that only the uber educated can find. But some Americans could learn that its not enough to just have an ideological predisposition toward a solution; that intellectually disciplined women and men, committed to presenting well thought out points of view, with enough depth that those points of view can be probed and adjusted as circumstances dictate, are an asset not a liability. It will be important as we entered the uncharted territory which the new president and his administration will surely face.

I also wonder about the example this might to our young people. All young people. African-American youth and children, Hispanics, high school age, elementary, you name it. It's a good thing to have the President of the U.S., with the ability to communicate clear strategy, inspire hope through his articulation of vision, and the capacity to critically think through problems and issues and develop a process based on the most thoroughly debated range of options?

Consider another one of Broder's observations, "...the quality of his questions -- and his follow-ups -- were a measure of the depth of his knowledge of the situation.

"He has not been tested that rigorously in the news conferences he has held so far, but his ability to respond to the questions he has been asked, to make his points in a coherent, balanced way and to avoid any misstatement has certainly been a treat to watch."

What a great object lesson it is to have a leader (and leaders), in our country who have not allowed ethnicity, age and socioeconomic challenges serve as barriers to achievements, but stepping stones? I think Kathleen Parker, another conservative columnist had it right: "By [Obama's] example, he telegraphs the following messages: Being smart is good; education is good; being a good father is essential. Being an egghead is cool."

Think about it. According to Brooks, on January 20, these are the personalities who will support the new executive branch of government:

"Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.). The domestic policy team will be there, too, including Jason Furman (Harvard, Harvard Ph.D.), Austan Goolsbee (Yale, M.I.T. Ph.D.), Blair Levin (Yale, Yale Law), Peter Orszag (Princeton, London School of Economics Ph.D.) and, of course, the White House Counsel Greg Craig (Harvard, Yale Law)."

Again, I want to stress, Barak Obama's not POTUS yet (although there are some who are arguing that his first 100 days have already started), and it takes more than a degree to make one an effective leader, after all, the smartest guys in the room sunk Enron! But the example Obama currently projects may be good for more than just our fiscal and political future. It just may be good for our image of ourselves.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sorting Through Our Idols

If athletes can have heroes in athletics; if businessmen and women can have heroes in the world of commerce; if educators can admire other academics - I figure its OK for me to have 'preaching heroes'!

Some of mine are no longer with us, men primarily, of whom some may have heard, some you may have never heard of, but their insight and skill in the pulpit inspired and ministered to me as a Christian and as a Gospel preacher.

Still others are with us and I count some of them as friends and colleagues.

One of them is George Mason, of Wilshire Baptist Church here in Dallas. George provides a wisdom and instruction, that is both timely and timeless!

George's sermon after the November 4th election, entitled 'Sorting through Our Gods', is something I think all of us who are believers should heed. Here are some excerpts:

"I heard a fellow Baptist preacher use a blowtorch just this past Sunday. He took the biblical verse Blessed be the nation whose God is the Lord to mean that America is a Christian nation and there is no place among us for leaders who would show respect to other religions. He was clear that we should vote only for a Christian, and only for one whose positions on certain issues are in line with the ones he listed. It’s about the righteous versus the unrighteous. And there was no question whom he was telling them to vote for and whom to vote against. The congregation applauded. I think you would boo me, if not stone me, for doing that. Rightly so.

"The Internet has been inundated with accusations that our president-elect is secretly a Muslim and that voting for him is voting to put away the God of Christianity and replace it with the god of Islam. My friends, this rhetoric is unbecoming of Christians, who should have no fear of our faith failing, since it is founded upon the Rock of Ages, not upon Plymouth Rock. We live in a nation that, while grounded in Judeo-Christian principles, gives place to all religions, along with the freedom to practice without interference from government. We can leave it to God to sort through the religions. That does not mean Christians should be silenced or sidelined, but neither does it mean we should be arrogant and privileged. It means that every individual should “choose you this day whom you will serve” without anyone in Washington or Austin or Rome or Jerusalem or Mecca telling you what god you have to serve or what religion you must follow. When you try to sweep away other religions by intolerance and disrespect, you are using a blowtorch that will backfire and burn you in the process."

And again:

"Ideology and idolatry are close kin. The hope of the world is found in the Lord and in the Lord alone. Left, right and center are not points on a spiritual compass. Politics and politicians come and go—some for better, others for worse. But the God who made you and saved you in Jesus Christ is everlasting.

"You choose the Lord and put away the god of the polls when you order your life according to the biblical principles of hope rather than optimism, and justice rather than self-interest. Now is the time to get back to the basics of faith and faithfulness."

As wonderful as some of us feel the election turned out, its important that we keep it in perspective.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

For Those Who Would Change the Wind

Eleanor Roosevelt

Amabassador, Peace Advocate, Political Advisor

"When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die."

Friday, November 28, 2008

All Children Need Safe Havens

By now we've all probably heard the sad story of parents from across the country who've taken advantage of the state of Nebraska's Safe Haven law.

It is a law designed for birth parents, most often young, single women, unprepared for and unwilling to assume the rigors of caring for their infants or newborns. Its a good strategy. The parent are able to take the child to a Nebraska hospital and with no questions asked, leave the child there with medical staff who would turn the infant over to child protective services. Fewer children run the risk of criminal abandonment, abuse and neglect. The problem is Nebraska specified no age limit in the legislation!

Who knew that people from other states would bring children 10 years and older and leave them at Nebraska's doorstep?!

Two things that are important: While its probably a given that Nebraska's legislature should have checked the wording of similar legislation throughout the country to avoid such a crisis, we certainly must laud their effort and motive.

In 2006, more than 905,000 children were found to be victims of child abuse. Nearly 75% of those were first time victims. Sixty-four per cent of those children were victimized through neglect and the age range of that victimization was 24 per 1000 children in ages birth through 1 year and 14 per 1000 children for ages 1-3. There is obviously a problem and Nebraska sought to address the problem in a proactive manner that is not quite as concerned with the parents unfitness as it is the well being of the child. Again, we should commend Nebraska for the effort.

However, there is a second issue: There is obviously a real problem out there when it comes to parenting that must addressed somehow. The Nebraska episode tells us about the parents willing to take extraordinary measures to 'give up' on their kids. Not newborns and infants, but in the case in Nebraska kids as young as 10 and as old as 16 and 17.

Children can be a chore. I tell friends that my children were kidnapped by body snatchers at the age of 12 and replaced by little monsters. I didn't get my real children back until they were about 25!

It is particularly difficult to resist 'old timers' syndrome and begin the 'back in my day' solution to parenting (along with everything else!).

The reality is that no parents - not even two parent families - were meant to do child rearing by themselves. To raise children in an even marginally effective manner, it really does take a village. I know that there was a period during which that African aphorism was demeaned and misrepresented as some kind of 'communist', 'socialist' rhetoric. But the fact that parents have not employed, or some communities have not provided adequate or easily accessible to the necessary resources and wisdom of the village is one reason Nebraska saw this amazing and sad phenomenon.

Social services, non-profit programs, churches, municipal programs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, enrichment programs in schools, trusted relatives: aunts, uncles, grandparents; trusted neighbors and extended family all contribute to the physical emotional, intellectual and spiritual health of our children. Its called community and it works.

Of course there are no guarantees; there are no perfect parents. Under the best of circumstances children make bad choices, at times with consequences that are irrevocable. But almost no child stands a chance without the intervention of some kind of loving community.

At the church I pastored, we intentionally focused outreach to the children and youth in a public housing development in our area. We brought them to Vacation Bible School. Many kids joined our church through VBS, but just as many if not more, became a part of the life of our church whether they joined or not. They attended Sunday School, sang in the choir, participated in some way in nearly every thing we had to offer. We provided back to school supplies, gave Christmas toys by name. Included them in Easter plays and Christmas plays. One year we moved the Christmas Sunday service to the elementary school near the housing development and even I was amazed to see that the youth workers found a way to include nearly 100 kids in the Christmas play!

Some of these kids had parents who seemed not much older than their children. They had no life experience and some who succumbed to addictions and unhealthy lifestyles. The church had to become 'parents' for these children. We had members who checked on their school progress, got to know their teachers, got to know their parents. At times, a few members took these children home with them. Members, on their own, provided clothes and school supplies.

When VBS morphed into an annual Youth Retreat, there were members would pay for some of the kids to go to the retreat. Members who couldn't afford the full cost, partnered with other members to pay for their registration. Some kids who were old enough, worked the concession stands at SMU football games to earn their registration.

One couple 'adopted' other children in their neighborhood, feeding, clothing and working with them in school. One of the first Christian Rap Groups in our church, was formed almost entirely by a group of boys whose parents were no where close to being members, but they were boys who had been 'adopted' by a family in the church and virtually lived with them.

There were great successes and sad failures. Some kids graduated from high school, went on to college and now live stable lives. Some kids ended up on the street. As a church we made mistakes. Feeding all those kids once a week before or after Bible Study wreaked havoc on the church budget. Not every member was happy! At times I wasn't very happy! I insisted on more accountability, but also insisted that we find ways to do more for these children in substantive ways. There were times I had to defend our church's expenses for ministry to these youth and children. There were members who complained about 'those kids', and 'the little hoodlums'. Not all the kids were grateful. And believe me, that many young people were rough on church facilities! With the day care center we operated it meant that our church operated seven days a week!

But it was a church full of excitement! And while they were with us, they weren't getting into mischief and they were cared for, corrected and comforted when things went wrong. And for many of these children, we were not the only positive influence. Together, with those other influences - we were the village. And the parents (and grandparents), no matter their resources or capacity, were not alone.

We need a more 'safe havens' for all of our children. And we better figure it out soon.

This isn't Nebraska's problem alone. These youth and children belong to all of us.