Monday, August 1, 2016

God's Politics

Today Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith conducted a press conference in solidarity with our sister organizations in Baton Rouge and Dallas. I made the opening statement. Here's what I said:

Luke chapter 4 tells the story of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, where he goes to the synagogue as was his custom. He is given a scroll, and he chooses to read the following:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

After reading these words, Jesus hands back the scroll and says to the people, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Those of you familiar with the Hebrew scripture know that Jesus is quoting Isaiah, one of the great prophets of Israel, who is preaching the Word of God to God’s people.

Those of you familiar with the Christian scripture know that this event, recorded in Luke chapter 4, signals the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry on earth.

As this story illustrates, the call to stand with those who are poor and oppressed links Jewish and Christian traditions.

Today, in this year of election politics, I propose that in this passage, Jesus is laying out God’s platform and claiming it for himself. He is saying, this is God’s  mission, and I am here to fulfill that mission. It is a political mission in any age.

Today our economic system is creating inequality at the fastest rate in recent history. The gap between the wealthiest in our society and those huddled at the bottom… has nearly tripled in the last 30 years. (Wealth Inequality in America by politizane; on YouTube; based on research at Harvard)

Millions of Americans work, and work hard, often at 2 or more jobs, and still barely make ends meet. They are one major car repair, or one major medical bill, away from homelessness or the clutches of the predatory lenders. (ALICE, a study by United Way)

And the income gap is worse in Louisiana than in most of the country. Many are forced into an alternative economy. 

Alton Sterling was trying to feed his family selling CDs in a parking lot.

To stand in solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed, to seek to open the eyes of those who are blind to inequality and injustice is unavoidably political. It requires us to leave the comfort and familiarity of home and neighborhood, and join hands across lines of race, religion, and socio-economic status that traditionally divide.

In the words of a praise song we sing in my religious tradition, it requires us to get out of our stained glass boat and walk on the water... without worrying about getting our feet wet or how, exactly, we’re going to get to the other side.

We, the people of God, are called to do just that. And we are called to do it as peacemakers, without falling captive to the fear and violence that plagues our society. We must not be divided by the polarizing forces in our politics and in our media.

And we must bring forth real solutions. One of those is to move people out of unemployment and under-employment, out of minimum wage jobs, into jobs that will support their families.

Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith was one of the founding forces of a workforce intermediary called NOVA – New Opportunities Vision Achievement. NOVA helps people get the training they need, then matches them with employers who offer living wage jobs with a career path and benefits.

More than 80% of those who enter NOVA’s program, finish it and are placed in such jobs. NOVA graduates contribute approximately $8 million annually to the Ouachita Parish economy.

NOVA has already expanded from Ouachita parish into the Delta. We need comparable programs here in Shreveport, in Baton Rouge and throughout Louisiana. We need to use dollars recovered from Industrial Tax Exemptions by Gov. Edwards’ recent order to expand workforce development.

Today Interfaith, Together Baton Rouge and our sister organization in Dallas stand in solidarity and invite people of good will to work with us to free our State from the oppression of poverty, to free us all from the prison of racial distrust and fear, and to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor.

We refuse to be divided.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Felling Goliaths

I was recently called upon to do the faith-basis talk for an assembly of Together Louisiana to meet with Gov. John Bell Edwards. Here's what I said.

Reading from First Samuel, Chapter 17:

48When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. 50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone.

That’s the punch line of a story we know well. We know that the Philistine in question was a giant of a man named Goliath. Hebrew scripture goes to great lengths to show us what a giant he was, giving not only his height, but also the weight of his armor and the heft of his spear. We know also that the Isrealites were afraid of Goliath, and that a stand-off between the armies had been going on for some days.

Then comes David, a boy on a humble errand, delivering bread and cheese to his brothers in the ranks. But he hears Goliath curse the Israelites and their God, and he presents himself to Saul to go against the giant. He tries on Saul’s armor, but casts it aside, choosing instead his staff and sling and five smooth stones for his weapons. And one of those stones finds its mark in a chink in the armor of the giant.

Brothers and sisters, many Goliaths roam the State of Louisiana today, Goliaths like a regressive tax structure that takes from poor folks and gives to the well off. Like hundreds of thousands of people who have been denied access to health care in the name of politics, and others who are losing access to health care by the starvation and death of the health care facilities they depend on.

Goliaths like a growing class of working poor due to the stagnant, poverty-level wages they are paid for the very necessary and back-breaking work they do.

Against these Goliaths, we sometimes feel like the underdog. We don’t have the millions of, say, a payday lending industry to hire a bunch of lobbyists to fight our battles for us!

But the bias of all of Holy Scripture is with the underdog! To go against the giants, we must choose our stones carefully. We must know where the chinks in the armor of the Goliaths are! We must be quick on our feet, and our timing must be right.

Here’s another image for you. Leonard Cohen is a Jewish Canadian song-writer and singer, and if you have heard his most popular songs, you know that he knows his Hebrew Scripture.

One of those songs is called “Anthem,” and the chorus goes like this:

Ring the bell that still can ring. 
Forget your perfect offering. 
There’s a crack in everything. 
That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen also knew his U.S. American poets well. In fact, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who first said, There’s a crack in everything… that God has made.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the business of finding cracks in the facades of power, and chinks in the armor of the politics and policies that hurt families.

We are in the business of prying open those cracks and shining the light of day on the mechanisms of unilateral power, so the people can see and understand how to affect the process. We cast our smooth stone and bring down the wall that separates people from the decision-making process.

A few years ago, our former governor devised a plan—a tax swap plan. The idea was to eliminate income tax, a tax that asks those who have much to contribute a portion of that to the common good. And the income tax was to be replaced with new sales tax—a tax that asks middle- and low-income people to do more out of the less and little they have.

And the clergy of this state came together across the lines of race and denomination and economic status to confront the plan. It was to us a moral issue, but our moral outrage was not enough!

So we looked for a crack, a chink in the armor of the plan, and we found it in the harm the plan would do—not just to our people—but to small businesses as well. And we used that to enable the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry to stand with us against the plan.

It was the perfect small, smooth stone that felled a Goliath of a plan.

Today is a new day in Louisiana. That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that we have a new Governor who will meet with us! The bad news is we now have precisely what we stopped in its tracks a few years ago: We have a new penny of sales tax.

I will leave explaining the details of how that happened to those who come after me on the program. For the moment, I want to share with you a moment in our first meeting with Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The Governor was explaining his regret over the new sales tax. Indeed, he told us that he, as a devout Roman Catholic, would have to go to confession before he could properly celebrate Easter.

And at that moment, Rev. Wesley, who was chairing the meeting, gently reminded the Gov. that we had remained silent as the new sales tax was passed. The Gov. thanked us for our silence, and I believe that in that moment, a tentative plan for another half penny of new sales tax.. DIED a timely death.

We are here today, brothers and sisters, to develop our strategy to challenge today’s Goliaths. We must find the chink in the armor of our current tax structure, which is at the moment, moving towards being more regressive. We must select our small, smooth stones carefully, consider timing and look for opportunity.

As God is our witness, we will fell the giants that stand between us and justice!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My book!

Two of the sermons in this book reference one of the many "treasures” strewn about my house, specifically a little brown rock about the size of a meatball. It’s kind of lumpy and hard and drab. It’s chipped and cracked. But it has a heart-shaped hole in the side.

I have come to see this little treasure as a symbol of the human-God relationship. We too are small, lumpy, often hard-headed, stiff-necked, and wounded by the inevitable challenges and suffering of human life. In comparison to God, more like a little brown rock.

But we do have a God-shaped hole in the side of our tiny, frightened, wounded and often hard human hearts. Nothing can fill that hole except God. God put it there with great love and tenderness to help us know whose we are. 

And that's Incarnation and that’s what makes it possible for us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, to care for others—even those we don’t like or who frighten us, to reach for God and to find God, right here on earth, in each other and in creation and in the very ordinariness of our lives.

I think you’ll find that theme running in the background of many of these sermons.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Who are you?

Last week I was privileged to be guest speaker at West Monroe High School's National Honor Society induction ceremony. Here's what I said.
Picture this. A young woman gets off a train in a small village along the northwestern coast of Spain.  She adjusts the weight of her over-sized backpack and looks around.

Nearby, several young people are conversing in the rapid-fire, rat-a-tat of native Spanish speakers.

“Donde está la pension (Where is the hostel)?” The woman with the backpack has addressed her question to the young Spaniards.

“Allá (over there),” they answer, gesturing toward main street.

But the backpacker has given herself away. Her Spanish is heavily accented with U.S. American English. And the young Spaniards gather around.

Where in the United States are you from? they ask. How did you get here? Why did you come here? What’s it like where you are from? Does everyone in the United States go to college? Does everyone really own a car? Do you have your own television set at home? And on and on.

In that moment, I realized something very important, something so important that it changed my understanding of who I was in the world, and therefore changed my life. Remembering it, and telling you the story this evening, still has power to move me.

Because what I learned about myself at that moment was that, in comparison to the young Spaniards with whom I was carrying on this conversation in my rather inadequate Spanish… what I understood was that in comparison to them, I was incredibly wealthy and privileged.

Now, in fact, what they could not possibly know is that I had taken out a student loan in order to participate in a study abroad program. I had very little cash in my pocket. And after settling my things in a room in the pensión, I would go to the local market and buy a hunk of bread, a piece of cheese, and a couple of pieces of fruit, and that would be my food ration for the entire day.

Nevertheless, they were right. In comparison to them, I was wealthy and privileged… just because I had managed to do a thing they would never in a million years do, namely…. cross an ocean to spend a summer traveling and learning in a strange land. Such an experience was beyond the realm of the possible for them.

We are all here this evening to celebrate the accomplishments of and induct a hundred young people into a National Honor Society chapter that already has a hundred members. Congratulations!

Each of you who has achieved this honor and all of your friends, parents and grandparents are rightfully proud of this achievement. Again, congratulations!

But my job is bigger than to congratulate you! Laurels are no good if all we do is rest on them. My job is to challenge you. It is to call you and push you and prod you toward the next big thing. My job is to ask questions that will shake you awake, just like the questions of the young Spaniards in my story shook me awake so many years ago.

Who are you in this world? Not in the eyes of mom, dad and grandparents, but… Who are you in the eyes of a world in which only a very small fraction of kids even get to go to high school? And in which an even smaller fraction finish high school? And the percentages continue to decline of those who get to attend college, and the lowest of all, those who complete college!

Here’s a few numbers for comparison:

According to United Nations data, in 2005, less than 25% of girls in Afghanistan and just over 50% of Afghan boys complete primary school. Yes, primary school.

In the African country of Niger in 2011, just 10% of high school-age kids is actually in school. In 25 countries worldwide, less than half of high school-age kids are actually in school.

How about college? Almost 75% of college-age youth worldwide are not in college. That’s as of 2011 according to data collected by The World Bank.

So…. who are you in the eyes of the world? Well, one answer is, you’re a member of a privileged minority that has access to education, indeed, to education that has been largely paid for by tax dollars up to this point.

And when it comes to college, because you are the smart ones, many of you will qualify for TOPS—Louisiana’s excellent and generous college scholarship program.

The more challenging question is, What are you doing with the educational privilege you enjoy? How are you going to use your privilege as an educated person to give back to your community? How are you as an educated person going to seek justice and peace in the world? How will you promote the common good at every level of society?

I’m not just asking how you’re going to pay the bills and accumulate personal wealth, although I hope you are successful at that too! I’m asking, What are you going to do to leave the world a better place than you found it? Because that is the responsibility of each and every one of us who enjoys the privilege of access to education.

Recently I was searching for something online, and I stumbled across a music video produced by an organization called “Playing for Change.” It begins with a street musician in Los Angeles singing and playing the song, “Stand by Me.” Then it shows the Playing for Change team going around the world collecting performances of the same song from Africa, the Netherlands, Russia, South America, Italy—and more. And all of those performances are merged into a wonderful montage of voices from around the world singing one song.

The electronic merging of those voices from around the world stands for the mission of the young men and women who formed and founded Playing for Change. They intend to change the world through music and their skills as communicators and the wonders of digital media.

I think they’re making progress.  You can check them out online at

But what about you? How are you going to change the world? How will you take your candle and go light the world?

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 Year in Review: March

This isn't the best photo I made in March, but it is certainly the most special!

Me and Tom Tran at The Bean

Tom Tran is a photographer I met on Google+, just one of many with whom I have become online friends. But Tom is different in that he is the only one of all the photographers I've met online that I have now also met IRL (in real life)!

For the past couple of years, I have been going to Chicago a couple of times per year to get my "city fix." These trips are schedule around performances by Lyric Opera of Chicago and include at least one meal at a nice restaurant, perhaps a visit to an art museum, and photography.

In March 2012, having been on Google+ a few months and met Tom, he and I planned to meet and "photowalk" The Loop together on a Saturday afternoon. What a great time we had! From the beginning, it was as if we had known each other much longer.

We met at The Bean in Millenium Park, a famous Chicago landmark. You can see a bit of it over Tom's right shoulder. The real name of this highly-polished steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor is "Cloud Gate," but everyone calls it "The Bean" because of its shape.

We walked north to the Chicago River, where I took a photo that won a 3rd Place ribbon at Art With a View in Monroe in November of this year. We wandered around The Loop and photographed some of Chicago's interesting architecture. We stopped and talked over lunch.

Tom's story is amazing. He and his family escaped from Vietnam a few years after the war had ended. They were among the many who left at great personal risk via an over-crowded, too-small boat to head out across the South China Sea! But they made it, spent two years in a refugee camp in the Phillippines, and eventually came to the U.S.

And if Tom looks a bit familiar, it is because he played a prominent role in the movie, Good Morning, Vietnam!

I'm looking forward to photowalking with Tom and other Chicago photographers when I go back in March of this year.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 Year in Review: February

February in Louisiana means tulip trees (Japanese Magnolia) spring into bloom, and what show offs they are with their regal purple trimming!

The photo below swims to the top of my memories of February 2012 for two reasons. First, I took it in Georgetown, having gone there to pay a speeding ticket. Everyone who lives in northeastern Louisiana and goes regularly to Camp Hardtner or Pineville-Alexandria--in other words, most of us Episcopalians--knows the drill. I was on my way to some church function, don't remember what, when I crested the hill approaching Georgetown with my mind on other things. Bam! I was toast.

You Had Me at "Hello"
So I went to Georgetown not in the best mood and not feeling particularly gracious toward the place. But I allowed extra time and after paying the ticket, went exploring with my camera. I encountered a friendly resident who welcomed me to the community. I drove through the town and discovered a lovely recreation area on the east side, where I photographed beautiful grasses, reeds and reflections in the lake. I found a rusting disc abandoned in a yard and added some photos to my #ruralruins project. (I love photographing old people and things. Hmmm. Not sure what that's about!)

And I found a yard with a small tulip tree full of bursting blooms in easy reach of me and my extension tubes. I made a number of images, but the one above became an immediate success on Google+, and that's the second reason it is featured here. It shot quickly to the top of my "Google+ Timeline," a feature that tracks the popularity of your posts, and stayed there for a long time.

When I posted this image again as my February #bestof2012, it again shot up to near the top on my G+ timeline. Indeed, I am considering submitting it as my "best of the year" to a wonderful project on Google+ called PlusOneCollection.

PlusOneCollection is headed by Russian photographer Ivan Makarov. For the second year in a row, he is soliciting "best of the year" photos from the international community of photographers on G+. These photos will be collected into a book published in at least two forms: 1) An eBook that will contain all images submitted, and 2) A hardcover print book that contains the best of the best selected by a jury from among the G+ photographer community.

I had an image in last year's eBook, but I did not make it into the print book, so here's hoping for this year! I would be so proud!

But here's the best part. All of the proceeds from the sale of the book go to a charity. This year's charity is The Giving Lens, a nonprofit funded primarily by photographers. The money will put digital camera in the hands of Masai children and teach them how to use the cameras to tell their own stories. I love it!

So...., I forgave Georgetown for the speeding ticket that took me there, and I am overdue for a return trip to see what else the community has to offer this photographer!

And, BTW, on G+ among the photographer community, all of the petty divisions of race and nationality and so forth do not exist.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 in Review: January

This has been a most challenging and difficult year for me in many ways, and I approached the end of it not feeling particularly on top of my game and more wary than hopeful or excited about a new year. So when photographers on Google+ started posting their "best of 2012" photos and thoughts, my first thought was, "I just can't do that this year. No heart for it."

But, in fact, photography has been the best thing about this year. It has kept me sane and trudging along through some real crap, and indeed has provided not only creative relief but inspiration when my images have been well-received by so many of that same international network of photographer friends.

I encountered photography when I went back to the University of Iowa in my late 20s to get a degree in Journalism. I did lots of photography and achieved some recognition for it, but then went off to graduate school. Years later, after many years of graduate school, struggling to achieve tenure and being an academic department head, I found my way back to photography (long story for another time).

From 2005 through 2011, I shot some but not enough to do a "best of the year" review. In 2012, I shot 4,387 images with my digital 35mm camera!

So I decided to give "best of 2012" a shot after all, one month at a time. I completed that task today on Google+, and decided I'd share the results with a larger audience. And because the words that go with these images are just as important as the images, I'm going to use this blog to do it. The story is, after all, partly about coming to terms.


Here's my favorite from January. As whale shots go, this little tail slap is not that spectacular. But it means the world to me as one who has studied and loved whales form afar for decades but has only twice managed to get close enough to make a decent photograph! It is from my January trip to Hawaii to an academic conference.