Sunday, April 19, 2015


Sunday Reflection: Brooding

Today (at 9:30), I am giving the sermon at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, 810 South 7th Street.    They take preaching pretty seriously there-- Minister Dan Collison is a fantastic preacher, and they give you a full 30 minutes to do the job right.

I give sermons three or four times a year (this is my second of this year), though I am not a minister and was never formally trained in it.  I love doing it, though, and am happy to have the chance to do it now and then.

My secret weapon is this: for nine years, I taught a class called "Oral Advocacy" at Baylor.  My co-teachers were Randall O'Brien and Hulitt Gloer-- two of the best preachers in Texas.  In other words, I got to hear two great preachers show how to give a great sermon year after year.  I will never forget it; there is a wealth of stories from those days.

The single most important thing I learned was this, which Hulitt emphasized:  You have to brood over a sermon.  That is, you can't just bang it out and then tinker with the words.  You have to hold it quietly in your mind soul until it is ready.  He is so right, too.  I find that my better sermons have been the ones where I take his advice: I block it out on Monday or Tuesday, and then think about until Friday. It becomes deeper and better and more real in those days.

There is something else, too… those brooding days themselves are deeper and better and more real. I think, in a way, this brooding is a way of inviting in the Holy Spirit.  If you think you can control the whole thing, own it, you aren't allowing in any space for that.  It's like anything else: it is bettered by allowing for blessed imperfections.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Squirrel vs. Hawk

I saw this video over at the Green Momster, and I can't stop watching it...

Friday, April 17, 2015


Haiku Friday: The contenders!

This week, let's haiku about one or another of the many, many people who might run for President!  As evidenced by yesterday's post, I kind of have that on my brain. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

Joe Biden
Jeb Bush
Ben Carson
Lincoln Chafee
Chris Christie
Hillary Clinton
Ted Cruz
Day Gravis
Carly Fiorina
Mike Huckabee
Bobby Jindal
John Kasich
Jimmy McMillen
Martin O'Malley
Rand Paul
Rick Perry
Marco Rubio
Bernie Sanders
Rick Santorum
Vermin Supreme
Donald Trump
Scott Walker
Jim Webb

Here, I will go first:

Donald Trump, Oh please!
Please exercise your precious
Right to privacy!

Now it is your turn! Just make it 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables, and have some fun!

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Republicans Emerge

[Pictured here: Chris Christie, who's presidential campaign has been described as "wheezing']

As of today, according to the New York Times, here are the presidential candidates who are announced or likely to announce:

Republican Announced: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio
Republicans Likely to Announce: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson

Democrat Announced: Hillary Clinton
Democrats Likely to Announce: Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb

Based on that, here are a few of my thoughts:

Probably best at being President: Webb, Bush, Clinton

Debates I would really like to see: Webb v. Christie, Huckabee v. Clinton

Candidates who would be interesting to hear more from, but we probably won't: Christie, Jindal,  Chafee, Webb

Guys wondering where their popularity went: Christie, Jindal, Perry

Most likely Presidential nominees:  Bush and Clinton

Please discuss! And please… can someone make a good case for the idea that the general election might not be between Bush and Clinton?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Sermon + Dance Extravaganza This Sunday in Minneapolis!

This Sunday, I'll be giving the sermon at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, on the trial of Jesus and modern criminal law.  Abby Rapoport did a great job describing one of my previous sermons there, and I always love going back to that warm, welcoming place. The church is located at 810 South 7th Street in Minneapolis, right across the street from the new Metrodome which is halfway-built.  The service starts at 9:30, and there will be a discussion of race and the law after the service at 11.

I'm thinking that I'll keep things fresh by working in some liturgical dance, borrowing some moves from the Crystal Light Aerobic Champions:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Hillary Clinton is back

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president by releasing this video. It announces not only her candidacy, but what will be the principle theme of her run: prosperity for the middle class. The images and stories chosen for the video aren't accidental; they are the product of thorough study. It's very well done.

I have friends on every side of the Hillary Clinton candidacy, from fervent supporters to stern opponents. Those on the extreme puzzle me a little, since it seems likely that Clinton would be a centrist like her husband was a the end of his term.

No one I know is as familiar with the Clintons as Ron Fournier, who has followed them as a member of the press since they were in Arkansas. I was fascinated by his piece in yesterday's National Journal, titled Of Two Minds on Hillary Clinton. Here is how that dead-on piece begins:

Nearly four of every 10 Americans say they "definitely" won't vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll, roughly the same number (35 percent) who "definitely" or "probably" will support her. That leaves 25 percent who "might or might not voter for her."

Undecided. Up for grabs. On the fence. Whatever cliché you assign to it, I'm part of the one-fourth coalition—millions of Americans who, despite everything we know about Clinton (strike that: because of everything we know about her), are of two minds.

Mind 1: Outside the public eye, she seems funny, warm, smart, vulnerable, and authentic. An Everywoman. When will she show America the real Hillary?

Mind 2: The public eye is the only one we've got. What it sees is forced and guarded, and there's that gnawing sense of entitlement exhibited in her paid speeches, conflicts of interest, and email shenanigans. A pol. What if this is the real Hillary?

Monday, April 13, 2015


On Wisconsin...

Lots of great haiku last week, but this one from my dad really hit me:

A city whose purpose 
is gone.. still can get cheap beer
in Superior.

And then I also loved the Medievalist's very true take:

I'm Minnesotan,
I've nothing to say about
Those easterner types.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Sunday Reflection: Encounter with a curmudgeon

On Friday, I was enmeshed in everything that goes with putting on an academic symposium.  I did the introductions for all the speakers, opened and closed the morning session, and then had a lunchtime debate with Margaret Colgate Love, sponsored by UST's Murphy Institute. It all went pretty well, I think.

There were a lot of great presenters-- Amy Baron-Evans, P.S. Ruckman, Adam Stevenson, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Nekema Levy-Pounds, and Margy Love.  It was the last one that made the biggest impact on me, though.

Steven Chanenson is a professor at Villanova and the chair of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission. Like me, he was mentored by Dan Freed, and Steve's writing has influenced my own thinking for a long time.  His presentation on Friday was titled "The Clemency Curmudgeon."

In the talk, he described a hypothetical discussion on a park bench with the Clemency Curmudgeon, who asked all the right questions about the pardon power as it is being used right now.  This curmudgeon, it seems, isn't buying the euphoria about President Obama's actions-- and isn't sure it would be right to use clemency in the way Obama has hinted he might.  This Curmudgeon even questioned the use of the phrase "Mass Incarceration" to describe the present situation.  After all, what other kind of incarceration is there?

While my own work was part of this Curmudgeon's critique, it was hard to dismiss his points.  I'll be thinking about it for a long time-- especially the parts that were dead-on-- and I can't wait to see the printed version in the Law Journal. Steve's was perhaps the most important talk of all.

That's one of the great things about the academy: We make room for intelligent curmudgeons (even fictional ones). Asking hard questions is a part of the process, and should be.

It occurs to me that perhaps we too rarely make room for Christian Curmudgeons within our own discussions of faith. We would have things to learn from that guy on the bench.

Saturday, April 11, 2015



My plan for the blog today was to feature a video of a cute bunny eating a carrot, but I ran into a problem: Bunnies don't really look that cute when they eat a carrot.  It just doesn't seem to work out that way, for some reason.

So, as a substitute, here is a video of people from the 80's singing "We Are the World." It (oddly) features both Bob Dylan and Cindy Lauper-- two people who sometimes look like a bunny eating a carrot. Ray Charles really steals the show, though.

Actually, it is kind of fun to try and spot all of the following in that video:

Friday, April 10, 2015


Haiku Friday: Wisconsin!

Here in Minnesota, people have mixed opinions about our neighbor to the East, Wisconsin.  Sure, it America's heartland for cheese, political intrigue, and giant fiberglass Northern Pike.  You might love it, you might hate it, but everyone has an opinion about cheese-eating, final-four-losing Wisconsin!

Let's haiku about that today.  I'll go first:

You call it Spooner;
I call it evil Milbog
Closes at seven.

Now it is your turn! Just make it 5 syllables/7 syllable/5 syllables, and have some fun!

Thursday, April 09, 2015


Political Mayhem Thursday: Shooting a running man in the back

Until this shooting, there have people who have pretended that this doesn't happen-- that a white police officer shoots a black man, and then (apparently) tries to cover his tracks by staging a self-defense scenario.

Now, there can be no pretending.  And there should be no pretending, either, that this is the only time.

The officer has been charged with murder, which is appropriate and right. But… how did we get to this point in the first place-- where a police officer thinks, even for a moment, that shooting eight times is the right thing to do?

We know some of the answer to that.  Centuries of racism is part of it.  Police non-accountability is another. But what else?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


A Big Friday in MN!

Boy, am I looking forward to Friday! The UST Law Review is hosting its annual symposium, and the topic is clemency.  Speakers include Pardon Power blogger P.S. Ruckman, picture above, who was the basis for the character of "Good Cop" in the Lego Movie:

We will also be hearing from Congressman Keith Ellison, Prof. Steve Chanenson, Appellate legend Amy Baron-Evans, our own Nekima Levy-Pounds, and Prof. Adam Stevenson from UW-Madison. 

Then, at lunch, I will be debating former US Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love. To borrow from the sponsoring Murphy Institute's description, we will argue the proposition "Should Executive Clemency Play a Regular Operational Role in the Criminal Justice System?" Adopting the arguments of Cesare Beccaria, Ms. Love will argue the negative. Relying on the words of Beccaria's contemporary, Alexander Hamilton, I will be arguing in favor of a broader us of clemency.  

It is still undecided whether or not we will wear wigs.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015


Thank you for your service, Bucky Badger

The final four was pretty epic, and I was glued to the TV for the final last night.  Wisconsin and Duke was a pretty epic matchup, after all, and I loved watching the Badgers beat Kentucky in the semifinals.

Mostly, though, I was looking for Bucky the Badger. How can you not love Bucky? Next to Goldy the Gopher, he is the most fun Big 10 mascot, after all. Sadly, he didn't seem to make it to the floor very often during the game.

Now I have to turn my attention to baseball, which mostly just confuses me. Every time I think I understand it, something new crops up-- i.e., stealing first base. Who knew?

But, in several months, college football will re-appear and make things ok again...

Monday, April 06, 2015


Saving the flowers

I love haiku that tell a story-- which is a challenge in such few words.  Still, Mary Senneka did this beautifully last week:

Houses are torn down.
Plants rescued from friend's gardens.
I plant memories.

And I knew our resident gardener, Christine, would have something good to say:

Dirt beneath my nails
I raise my hands to my nose
Inhale, awaken

The carrots poke green
as orange roots reach deep, deeper
In the sleeping soil

The soil warms, I sow
cosmos, zinnias, pink, blue
seeds pluck my heart strings

Sunday, April 05, 2015


Easter Sunday Reflection: Thankful

Easter is the heart of Christianity: All of the hope and love and joy this faith is capable comes out now, if we are at our best.

It was an amazing week.  President Obama granted 22 commutations. I wrote a piece about it for the Huffington Post, which you can read here.  Here is how it ends:

It befits the morality of our nation that the pardon power be used. The framers of the Constitution intended it, and it is the rare moral system, religious or not, that shuts out any access to mercy. In a Christian-majority nation, it should matter to many that Jesus granted clemency (to the woman about to be stoned) and was wrongfully denied it (by Pilate).

I am not impartial in all of this, of course. Part of my teaching involves running a clinic for clemency-seekers. Each week I see my mailbox fill up with brown envelopes covered with stamps and carefully-crafted letters spelling out my name and address. They write to me because they think I can help them; sometimes, maybe, I can. Often I pause to survey the outside of the envelope, to look at the stamps. Each stamp costs an hour's wages in prison. If I see twelve stamps, which is not unusual, that is a day and a half of work, just for those thumb-sized squares. When I open the envelope, inside is a life story, poured out. It is often heartbreaking. Sometimes I can't bear to slip my finger beneath the fold to unseal it because I have had enough tragedy for that day.

What happens next is important. My students research the case, find family members, and visit a far-off prison to meet the client. They come back changed people, often, having seen something they had never tried to imagine. Then we work on the petition, to tell the story that goes beyond the worst thing that person ever did, the moment that defined them in a court order concisely called a Judgment.
The last part, and the most moving, is this: I type the cover letter. The first words I write, on the address line, is "The President of the United States, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." It is a letter to the most powerful man on Earth. And sometimes, at Lent, he writes back.

Saturday, April 04, 2015


My favorite Olympic sport no one knows about

I have always been kind of fascinated by the Olympic sports that seem to not exist during the intervening years. For example, here we have 2012 Olympic champion Laura Asaduaskaite of Lithuania, who won the gold in Modern Pentathlon, which consists of four events:

-- Fencing
-- Swimming
-- Equestrian (show jumping)
-- Running and shooting at stuff

Yeah, really, running and shooting at stuff.  It's a three kilometer run-- with a gun-- where you stop to shoot at targets every kilometer.  I mean… where do you practice that???  (I know-- everyone is saying "Detroit!" but I don't think that is fair).

From what I can tell, the Modern Pentathlon is based on the skills needed to rob liquor stores in the 1820's.  If they were to modernize somewhat so that it was about robbing liquor stores now, the events would be:

-- running and shooting
-- stock car racing
-- hiding
-- boxing

Wouldn't that be a great sport for TV? (except maybe the Hiding competition).

Friday, April 03, 2015


Haiku Friday: Whatcha planting?

Easter weekend is the heart of Spring-- it embodies renewal and hope and startling, glorious surprises.

It always makes me want to plant things that will then spring forth from the earth, full of color and light and complexity.  I will, too.  I go to the garden center and buy a flat of flowers for my window boxes, then set them in just right with a trowel.  I end up a total mess, of course, but it's not about me, right?

So let's haiku about that this week-- what it is you have planted (if you live in the South) or think you will be planting (if you live in the North).

Here, I will go first:

I like reds and whites
Bunched together in rows
Flag full of beauty.

Now it is your turn!  Just use the 5/7/5 syllable formula and have some fun!

Thursday, April 02, 2015


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Media and Words and Stuff

I've spent a lot of the last few days talking to the press about the recent commutations by President Obama. I got calls from Yahoo News and ProPublica and the NY Times and a bunch of others from as far away as Australia.  I think the quote that worked out the best was this, from the San Francisco Chronicle: "Finally, the administration is demonstrating how pardon power should be used, with, as Osler put it, "the most powerful person in the world freeing the least powerful person in the world."

Dealing with the press can be tricky. In addressing the continuing messiness in Indiana, Governor Pence gave a press conference a few days ago that was sometimes compelling and sometimes just odd. While saying that the religious liberty law there needs to be "clarified," he seemed to very much take offense at the press treatment the law has received.  He referred to "mischaracterizations" and worse by people who reported on the law, saying it allowed discrimination.

Was the press unfair to Indiana and the law?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


Obama grants clemency, a little

Yesterday, President Obama granted commutations to 22 federal prisoners, all of them serving long-term narcotic sentences.  This was good-- at least for a start.

You can read my whole take on it over at MSNBC.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


So... did the Onion get this one right?

Under the Headline "Indiana Governor Insists New Law Has Nothing To Do With Thing It Explicitly Intended To Do," the Onion reports the following:

INDIANAPOLIS—Addressing the controversy surrounding his state’s recently signed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana governor Mike Pence forcefully insisted to reporters Monday that the new law has nothing at all to do with what it was explicitly intended to do. “Let me state directly that in no way is this law designed to allow the kind of anti-gay discrimination that is the law’s single reason for existing,” said Pence, emphasizing that provisions authorizing businesses to refuse service to gay customers were nothing more than the only explanation for the law being drafted in the first place. “Regardless of the widespread misconceptions surrounding it, I want to reassure Hoosiers of all backgrounds that this law will never be interpreted in the way it was unambiguously designed to be from the very beginning.” Pence further clarified that the act’s sole purpose was in fact to safeguard the free exercise of religion it was in no way whatsoever created to protect.

Is that so far off?

With this whole controversy, it seems pretty inescapable that what is most different about the Indiana law (versus similar laws on the books of the federal government and several other states) is the context, which some feel shows that the law was aimed precisely at gay men and lesbians.  Not that it will only affect them-- if it was the intent of the drafters to aim it narrowly at anybody, they did a terrible job, and it looks like the first beneficiaries may really be the Church of Cannabis.

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