Monday, December 31, 2012


Haiku winner!

As usual, Friday's haikus revealed many things, including the unfortunate fact that Renee seems to be suffering from some kind of stomach ailment. Sorry, friend!

Meanwhile, my favorite of last Friday's entries was this breezy poem from Sara Sommervold:

Christmas mess is not
regular mess, so bright with
love. Cleaning? Who cares!

I like it because it's true. Speaking of truths, here is something you might not know about Sara:

As I have explained here before, the governorship of Sara's home state, South Dakota, rotates among the 23 adult residents of that state. In 2002, Ms. Sommervold received a letter at her home informing her that it was her turn to perform this civic duty.

She reported promptly to the state capitol in Pierre. Since Pierre has neither reliable rail or air service or connections to an interstate highway, she had to travel overland by ox-cart from the point at the Hughes County border where highway 83 is no longer paved. Once in Pierre, she received the Chislic garland and commenced her duties. During her 23-month term of office, she successfully led the push to ensure that Yankton was awarded the 2020 Summer Olympics. Another accomplishment was her foiling of a coup attempt by one "Captain 11," who tried to take over the capital using legions of hypnotized schoolchildren and the "Freezeberg" technique, where the residents were ordered to remain perfectly still in comical positions. After his defeat, Captain 11 returned to Sioux Falls, where that kind of thing is relatively normal.

All hail Sara the Sommervold!

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Sunday Reflection: Hidden

I'm blessed with a family full of different talents. My mother, father, sister, and brother are all capable of doing any number of things I cannot do, and seeing them do it fills me with pride and amazement.

This past Friday, I went to the Cadieux Cafe, on the east side of Detroit, to hear my brother play drums. The occasion was a reunion of people who used to play at the "Hootenanny," an event at the Cadieux where pretty much anyone could come up and play with the house band (of which my brother Will was a member). On Friday, he played behind at least a dozen different acts, all with different styles of music. It was fascinating to watch; he had spent the day transcribing the songs so he could play it right, and then had to watch for cues along the way. He did so flawlessly. It was the kind of thing you had to look for to notice, but if you did it was stunning to see.

And then there is this: Through all of this, he was almost totally hidden behind the drums. He was never the one in the front, never the singer or the one whose name was on the band, but he was at the center the whole time, hidden though he was.

I suppose that it is a metaphor I will remember-- that the most important people, the ones who make things work, are also often those who are hidden behind their work. I need to appreciate and value that kind of vocation; it embodies so many things that are good and worthwhile. Even when it is not my brother, I need to take the time to watch closely and discern who is making things work, and recognize what it is that they do. Our world is much better for them.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Travels with my father

When I come home for Christmas, one thing I really look forward to is a driving trip around Detroit with my dad, where we inevitably run into some of his friends and admirers. Words don't do it justice, so instead I will give you some pictures:

Friday, December 28, 2012


Haiku Friday: Whatcha doin?

It's that unusual week between Christmas and New Year's, where life is a little different for everyone. There is no other week like it! So, let's haiku about that right now.

Here is mine:

Heidelburg Project
A guy comes up to my dad:
Says "Hey, I know you!"

Know it is your turn... just make it three lines, with 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables. The winner gets their bio here on Monday!

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Political Mayhem Thursday: Hello? Fiscal Cliff?

I'm really wondering if our government will get its act together to resolve the "fiscal cliff" issue before the new year. If you have been napping (and who hasn't?), Congress and the President left a time bomb for themselves the last time they negotiated an extension of the federal debt limit. While averting a government shutdown, they put in place a provision that if certain budget drafting goals weren't met by January 1, 2013, then several things would occur-- a relatively drastic cut in all spending (including the military) and the expiration of several tax cuts enacted over the past decade or so. In short, unless a deal is cut soon, taxes will go way up for many people, and at the same time government functions will restrict uniformly.

Some people think that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Others, though, worry about one aspect or another-- the effect on defense, for example, or the sudden jolt to middle class incomes, or the return of the "marriage penalty" within the tax code.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


The day after Christmas

What do you do the day after Christmas?
I think that I will go sledding.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Christmas Day

Here in Michigan, it began snowing while I was in church last night. Big flakes at first, a few, and then a cascade. I walked out with a lot of other Oslers into a white world, hushed and quiet.

Every Christmas is different, but at some point every year I have the same thought, and it transforms me like that snow does the landscape-- it hushes me and slows everything down. That thought is this: That this is the day we recognize that moment when God most directly connected with he his people, by putting his own son among us.

Everything about it was unexpected. He wasn't born rich. He wasn't born to the ruling people, the Romans. He wasn't born to a particularly religious family, in the sense of status within the church. His parents, from all that the world could see, weren't even married. He wasn't born in a comfortable place, and his life was immediately imperiled by the edict of Herod. A great thing happened, and there was no parade, no party.

All of it, every bit, teaches humility, like so much of the Christian story. That may be the greatest gift of Christmas, at least for me: The realization that all of this, all of the comforts and privileges, are grace. They aren't earned, aren't deserved, unless somehow I deserve more than God's own son.

There is great peace in that. I am happy to have it fall like the snow today.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Haiku winner: Megan Willome!

What great haiku last Friday! I especially liked the way two of them fit together...

First, this one by Ang:

The kids want to know
if Santa visits Kuwait,
so Dad can have treats.

I said maybe so,
but he doesn't want that much -
just to come back safe.

... and then this one by Campbell:

Glad to be with Steph
This year and not in the 'Stan
That's all I wanted.

For what it describes, I love this one, too, by Megan Willome:

More cold mornings, more
warm afternoons. Lots more tea.
Four friends at Christmas.

Megan, of course, is one of my favorite writers. Most recently, she authored this great bio of Kim Mulkey, the Baylor coach and 2012 Wacoan of the Year.

Part of the untold story of that interview is that Megan got to see Coach Mulkey's fierce competitiveness in action in the course of the interview itself. As many of you know, Megan not only is a world-caliber liturgical dancer (she was on Christian Century's list of '25 dancers who make Martha come to life"), but won the Texas All-Ages Jenga championship in 1993, 1999, 1002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Knowing this, Coach Mulkey insisted that they play Jenga during the interview. It was an epic battle, and the tower of blocks had to be moved out to the Ferrell Center parking lot at one point, having exceeded the height of the indoor arena. When it finally crashed down, seven students were injured but Megan was the victor, yet again.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Sunday Reflection: The 313

I am writing to you from the weathered seat of one of the two leather couches in my parents' living room. They are brown leather, with nailhead seams and a lot of character. My parents brought these back from England when I was about 10, and they have sustained a lot of life since their arrival. My brother and I played a game we created with them, in which we did the Fosberry Flop over the back, landing on the cushions with the flat of our backs. Because the couches rest on small metal casters, if you did it just right they would shoot across the floor once you landed.

It was on this couch that as a boy (and adult) in red pajamas I opened Christmas gifts every year, where I read the paper as a boy after school, and where I sat with some friends on a summer night in high school, trying to be quiet enough to not wake my parents. There was, I think, some kissing on this couch.

One night, too, I remember waking up in the wee hours and going downstairs. There, surprisingly, was my Mom, sitting on this leather couch with the reading light on, before her the dark-red book of Shakespeare's sonnets. I don't know why, exactly, she was doing that in the middle of the night, but I remember with great clarity the sight of it, shocking, inexplicable, and unspeakably elegant.

Tomorrow and for the next week, they will hold five or six tiny people and then two big people, and then a variety of other combinations as people come by to visit. They will be a set, a stage for life lived well.

The thing is this: I would imagine that these couches seemed like an extravagance at the time my parents got them. It was perhaps the only time they ever made a purchase like that, as it is unlike them. My dad still drives a 1994 Accord, after all. Still, was it an extravagance? Might it be, instead, that they knew the life they would have and give us all?

They were a gift, really, and there is something to be said for receiving a gift with gratitude. It is a week for that, too, for gifts of all kinds; for couches and foresight and the love and presence of family-- the bare, wonderful existence of people who love us really and truly and until and even after the leather has worn holes and the casters fall off and the real beauty comes out of all that God touches.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Stuff to Read!

If you feel a little serious, take a look at my piece yesterday over at Sojourners-- suggesting that maybe we Christians should see the failure in Newtown as one of evangelism.

However, if you are feeling a little too serious, check out The Onion's annual Cheap Toy Round-up. It's just... awesome.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Haiku Friday: What you really want for Christmas

It's the Friday before Christmas, and this is the time where we take stock-- have we gotten the presents for others we intended to? And perhaps we wonder what might be in store for ourselves, too.

But that's all secret. Except on the Razor. So let's haiku about what you really want for Christmas this year.

Here is mine:

Here is what I want:
A burst of creativity
In our Capitol.

Now it is your turn! Just make it 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables, and the winner gets a bio here on Monday.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


In tomorrow (Friday's) Star Tribune...

Running tomorrow on the opinion page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is this piece I did on Newtown and revenge. Check it out!

And, while you're at it, take in this great piece from Richard Painter in today's NY Times.


Advent quiet Thursday

This week, I'm going to feature a gentle and insighful comment that my friend and mentor Craig Anderson made a few days ago, in reaction to the story from Ron Fournier about his son:

Mark - what a touching, remarkable story. I admire your friend's candor and hard earned love for his son. A great example of how parent and child relationships are so often informed by a complex weave of differing needs, differing aspirations, and differing personalities. I had a father that loved me dearly and did his very best to love and provide for me as best as he knew how … yet our shared frustration and pains were often informed by the mismatch of what he had to offer and what I needed. As I matured (and that took time!), and as we both became wiser in this regard, we worked it out. We all love as best as we know how; as a son, coming to that understanding, helped greatly to deepen my love and my appreciation for all my father did for me. And I hope it has helped in the dance of parenthood with my own daughters … what they need is not always what I have to offer … and yet I do my best to love them as best I know how. Love your son/daughter!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Interesting news!

As many of you know, I've been working for a while on some political issues, including my plan to use the Ford draft-evader commutations as a model for clemency for crack defendants and a lenient federal prosecution policy on marijuana in states where it has been legalized.

It appears that my work (and that of many others) has begun to bear some fruit!

1) Yesterday, I found a great press release on the web site of Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia-- he and 21 other members of Congress sent a letter to the President explicitly endorsing my idea for a Ford-style clemency process. Academic scholarship at work!

2) On another clemency front, Dafna Linzer reports that there is additional pressure on the pardon attorney.

3) Finally, earlier this week President Obama signaled that, indeed, federal officials were not going to make a priority of the enforcement of marijuana laws in states that have legalized pot.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Newtown, Aspergers, and Truth

There is still so much that we don't know about the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, and some of what we thought we knew (including the identity of the shooter, the number of people killed, and whether or not the shooter's mother worked at the school) turned out to be wrong.

One persistent part of current speculation is that the shooter had Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism where people don't process social cues the same way others do (among other symptoms). As far as I know, this is only speculation, and at any rate there is no link between Asperger's and murder. The danger, of course, is that the simple reaction to such a detail is that people will fear those who have Asperger's.

Simple is rarely right in anything but love.

Only a few weeks ago, my long-time friend Ron Fournier wrote a wonderful, compelling piece about his son with Asperger's. You can, and should, read it here. When I first read the piece, I thought it was remarkable in the way it brought out one of President George W. Bush's greatest strengths: empathy and human connection.

Now though, in the light of the Newtown massacre and the speculations about Asperger's, I think the most important thing about Ron's widely-read piece is its role as a counterweight against the assumptions people are tempted to make.

Ron's son, Tyler, is suddenly important to me as I think about Newtown, about the family from which this tragedy sprang. It is never one thing, never, that leads to a grand victory or the most horrible tragedy, and each of those elements, known and unknown, can be a part of a very different story when mixed in a different brew. It's complex. Love, though, can be simple, and that is the beauty of Ron's story.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Haiku and loss

As many of you have deduced, I try to write things like Haiku Friday posts the night before, so they can pop up right at midnight. Last Friday, I had picked the seemingly lighthearted topic of "People who scare us," but by mid-morning that topic did not seem so lighthearted.

Jessica, very appropriately, wrote this:

After this morning
It's safe to say: I'm starting
To fear this whole world.

The tragedy at Newtown has darkened Adent for many of us; at church yesterday not one of the presenters could get through what they were doing without at least the hint of tears.

So, instead of a lighthearted biography this morning, it is with a heavy heart that I hope you will read this great piece Jeanne Bishop wrote for the Huffington Post, which limns out the harsh reality of the very human losses we see in this kind of tragedy:

It means absorbing the surreal news that your loved one--the one whose warm body you just hugged not too long ago, whose bright eyes you looked into--is no more. Never to hear their voice again, to feel those arms around your neck.

For me, it meant going to the morgue to identify the bodies of ones I adored, motionless, zipped inside body bags.

It meant the heartbreak of packing up baby bottles Nancy had bought, in her excitement to be a mother.

For the parents of the dead of Sandy Hook School, it means an empty bed tonight in a child's room, a barren pillow. A toothbrush dry in its holder; pajamas folded in a drawer, unworn. Instead of laughter, the quiet of a tomb.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Sunday Reflection: On Newtown

Here is part of what I wrote on the Huffington Post this week:

Our society is in thrall to the idea of revenge. It is the central plot device in so much of what we consider to be entertainment. How many movies feature a hero striking back at those who wronged him? Over and over, our children and teenagers sit beside us and thrill to the story of a man with a gun who finds a way to exact retribution. It is Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star, it is James Bond watching his tormentor die, it is the unnamed assailant finally killing Tony Soprano. The obtaining of revenge has value to us, and gives us meaning. The glorification of killing in the service of personal retribution is a deeply held public value.

The reach of this ethic goes far beyond movies and television, though. Our president ran for re-election largely on the grandest revenge fantasy of all: the killing of Osama bin Laden. And, to close the circle, the most-awaited movie of the season is a re-creation of that event.

What is the cost of celebrating this value over and over and over? What might be the effect of declaring that retribution is a high virtue--of teaching exactly that to the weak and the strong, the young and the old, the mentally able and those who are infirm in thought and emotion? What do we think might happen when a mentally ill person is taught that a man's highest and best use can be shooting down those who have wronged us?

We are seeing the fruit of this celebration with each bullet that kills an innocent in a school or in a mall or at an office. Sometimes those bullets are aimed at a specific person from whom revenge is being exacted: a former employer, an ex-lover, or parents who failed to be good enough. Other times, the revenge is on society, on the crowds at a mall or a school.

The ethic of revenge is contrary to the teachings of every major religion, and the fact that it has become a central tenet of our public morality represents a failure of our faith leaders. In our rush to indict the gays or the immigrants or the conservatives or the literalists, we have utterly failed to lead a nation of faith to the values of that faith. By defining ourselves by what we are not, we have abrogated the responsibility to define what we are, and where our principles lead. We have left a vacuum filled by movie-makers, television, and a toxic get-tough political culture.

Our faiths must step up and teach ways to find meaning other than revenge. Such other ways certainly exist; our holy books are full of good examples. The truth in those narratives informed our people for centuries, even to men like Lincoln whose own faith may have been murky. America's faithful majority must turn now to the dissemination of those truths. To not do so is to let a secular society continue to project a shimmering but deceptive hologram in the shape of a principle: that there is value in revenge.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Grief and Words

Sometimes, like yesterday, I write from the gut, because I don't know what else to do. In the wake of the shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I think what so many of us felt was helpless. Not in the sense of physical vulnerability, but rather in the sense of being unable to do anything about gun violence generally.

So, I wrote, and what I pounded out (Newtown: The Indictment of The Ethic of Revenge) ended up on the front page of the Huffington Post and the Time Magazine website. When I wrote it, I thought it sounded angry, but reading it now I think it is more despairing than angry.

My favorite response (I needed a laugh, AND he was right) was this tweet from Randy Roberts Potts: "@Oslerguy I love yr piece, but I have to defend Star Wars. Def not abt revenge in any way shape or form; quite the opposite actually!"

I'm sure he is right-- I am but a padawan in the ways of Star Wars. It kind of reminds me of the time that my readers here took me to task for misspelling the name of the planet Corisant....

Friday, December 14, 2012


Haiku Friday: People we are scared of

Way back on Tuesday, I raised the issue of people we are scared of, and the reaction was awesome. Let's haiku about that today!

Here is mine:

Wal-Mart Greeter... Eek!
Weathered hand lurches at me,
I run away, fast.

Now it is your turn! Make it 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables, and the winner gets their bio right here on Monday.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The Intern gets some advice


Advent Quiet Thursday

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Don't blame me... Craig A. suggested this!

I've been in DC, at a series of pretty darn interesting meetings. Meanwhile, Craig A. thought people might enjoy this:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


People I am irrationally afraid of:

1) Mimes
2) Clowns
3) English league soccer fans
4) All former US vice-presidents
5) Baristas

Who are you scared of?

Monday, December 10, 2012


Haiku winner, and the death of Frosty

Good work on Friday, everyone! My personal favorite, though, was this from Christine:

Frosty takes refuge
puddles found upon the floor
in local greenhouse.

WHAT! Did that really happen in some Frosty special-- he melted and died when tricked into sleeping in a greenhouse? Or is this just some rural fantasy of Christine and her family?

Of course, Christine has some experience with this kind of thing. When we were kids, the big entertainer in town was Oopsy the Clown, who was beloved and feared in equal measure by the children of Southeast Michigan. It is unclear why people thought he was so dangerous, but it was Christine who took action. Her plan was simple: Pay off Oopsy's frequent accomplice, Mr. Houdini, and then push Oopsy into the back of a clown car, drive it back towards Lake St. Clair, and then send it off the end of Provencal Rd. through the ice on the lake with Oopsy trapped inside.

Fortunately, her plan was foiled when the ice proved strong and Oopsy's volkswagen bug surprisingly light. Once, they hit the lake, Christine and Oopsy simply sped over to Canada, where they had lunch with Bozo and Soupy Sales, before the whole thing was quickly forgotten.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Sunday Reflection: faith and politics

On this past Wednesday, I had a piece up on CNN titled The Religious Roots of Our Political Gridlock. There, I argued that "The divide between Democrats and Republicans that has frozen the mechanisms of American politics has many causes, but one of them is tangled up in the faith differences of our legislators. Faith, for many lawmakers on both sides, is the source of their outlook and principles, and faith has in part created the conditions for the current impasse about the fiscal cliff."

Among the many responses I got (both on the CNN site and directly), a large number of people people weren't defending or attacking either Republicans or Democrats-- they were claiming that politicians don't act from their faith. Instead, they supposedly act out of greed or a desire for power or political necessity.

I'm sure that is true for some, but I am not so ready to accept that broad claim. My own experience is that many who have opposed me on various issues are motivated by a very real and true faith, albeit one that is different than mine. In fact, for many of them, their faith has led them to unpopular, not popular, views. I don't believe that they act out of greed or a desire for power or political necessity.

Perhaps one of the greatest Christian acts I have ever seen was performed by a sitting Congressman. As I wrote back in 2006:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, my church (at the initiative of Mary Darden) took in about 50 refugees from the storm. I signed up to work at the shelter one night from midnight to three a.m. As I approached the church, I saw a car driving out of the church lot with "U.S. Congress" license plates. I could see the driver, and I was quite sure it was not Congressman Edwards or his wife. Given the apparent determination of the driver to get out in a hurry, I ran into the church and asked if Congressman Edwards (who is not a member of my church) was there. Another volunteer said no, and then I opined that it seemed that someone just drove off in his car. They just kind of laughed at me. It turns out that Congressman Edwards came to the church and offered not only his car for the use of a refugee, but his own home. So while he was off in DC, a family he had not known was living in his house and driving his car. What trust! What generosity!

The quiet of advent calls on us to reflect hopefully, and there is much hope to be had.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


From yesterday on CNN...

Sadly, they didn't include my favorite line, where I said that the federal statute (21 USC 841) covering narcotics trafficking is the "Death Star" of drug regulation, or the points about federalism I made (but I had already done so on their web site, here). Still, it's a pretty good segment...

Friday, December 07, 2012


Haiku Friday: Christmas Specials, etc.!

So, I spent some time last night with the "Star Wars Holiday Special," and it was just gruesome-good. They weren't kidding about 20 minutes of Wookies yelling at each other!

Let's return to that, then... the good and bad of the Holiday season. Sales, parties, tv, movies, whatever. Just no middle-of-the-road stuff: It has to be great or terrible (or both at once, like the Star Wars Holiday Special).

Here is mine:

Wookies have "Life Day"
A holiday of yelling!
Sound familiar?

Now it is your turn! The winner gets their bio here on Monday, plus maybe a holiday special on Fox. The recipe is 5 syllable for the first line, 7 for the second, and 5 for the third.... now haiku!

Thursday, December 06, 2012


Advent Quiet Thursday

For advent, I'm going to put the political mayhem on hold for a bit and instead just post a poem or some music or a photo for these four Thursdays. We'll start today...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Just up at CNN...

... is my view on the fiscal cliff debate, The Religious Roots of Gridlock. Let me know what you think...


The Stadium/IPLawGuy Nexus

Hmmm... is it just me, or is the generic music used in the video for the new Baylor Stadium a lot like that stuff IPLawGuy likes?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


Movie Recommendation...

This past weekend, I walked up to the lovely old Edina Cinema and saw A Late Quartet. It was a wonderful few hours.

The movie is all based on Beethoven's 14th String Quartet, Opus 131, which is a legendary work in seven movements. As the character played by Christopher Walken explains at the start of the movie (to a class he is teaching), the challenge of 131 is that because Beethoven requires it to be played without break a between the movements, there can be no moment of rest, or opportunity to tune the instruments. So, it demands this amazing act of improvisation towards the end, as at least some of the four instruments get out of tune, and the players have to adjust to that, and then to the out-of-tune adjustments by the other players. In the movie, the quartet (which has been together for 25 years) is going through exactly that-- a falling apart that can lead either to disaster or to grace and beauty, or some of both. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Katherine Keener are in it, but it is Christopher Walken who is most memorable, as the only one who truly sees what is happening.

So, either that or you can wait it out for "Ironman 3."

Monday, December 03, 2012


Haiku winner: Renee! (with an assist from Ang)

This week's winner, Renee, is already in the Razor Hall of Fame, and is only adding to her legend at this point. This week's winners included this poem:

How much will you pay
For true love? Money does not
Work. Love does. Just love.

One reason it was perfect was how closely it followed this deeply loving poem from Ang:

It was our last hug:
Four Christmases ago now -
December is hard.

Wish I'd held on tight!
Could've, should've, would've. Sigh.
Miss you, Brother Bear.

Not since Neil Alan Willard and Megan Willome performed a liturgical dance have two artists (at least on the Razor) combined to such effect.

There are, of course, some things still to reveal about Renee's rich and well-lived life. For example, we have the period in which she left Northwest Airlines to its own devices for a few years, and devoted herself to the art of a good meal. With her partner, Rene De l'Ephain, she opened a series of themed restaurants which changed the face of popular cuisine in the Northwest hubs of Detroit, Memphis, and Minneapolis. In Memphis, they debuted a new concept in dining: A pork-focused fine dining restaurant which featured tiny but perfectly prepared portions. Their undoing, unfortunately, may have been the name they chose, "Piglet's Demise," and a sign that prominently featured a weeping Pooh bear holding a tiny discarded grey sweater.

The same problem attached to their effort in Detroit, "Prof. McGillicuddy's Mustache Emporium," where there was some confusion between the theme (waiters and waitresses with mustaches) and the food on the menu (which was free, generally, of hair).

Finally, they were too far ahead of their audience in Minneapolis when they opened the first make-your-own-frozen-yogurt-combination place, the Evil Yogurt Lab. Later, they sold this to a conglomerate which dropped the "Evil" (and toppings like arsenic and drywall screws) and made a fortune.

Congratulations, winners!

Sunday, December 02, 2012


Sunday Reflection: Feeling the Spirit

This week I gave a talk to the faculty at the University of Tulsa's law school. This is something we profs do-- it is good for everyone, because the speaker gets to bounce ideas off fresh ears, and the faculty get to hear something new and interesting (one hopes). At St. Thomas, Joel Nichols and Ben Carpenter have put together a great program of the same type.

In these situations, I do a lot of preparation. I get my materials together and re-read them, I outline my talk and then refine it, and I put all my materials in just the right order, so that I can refer to each in turn as I proceed through the talk. I print out multiple copies of my outline, and take the precaution of emailing it to myself in case the printed version gets waylaid. Once I am at the venue, I carefully go over it all again, make some margin notes to fill in gaps, and make sure that the papers are all set up on the podium well before I speak.

Then I get up and give my talk and don't look at those materials at all.

It's not that I memorized it-- in fact, I often veer completely away from what I had planned to talk about. I'm not good at memorizing, actually.

Setting out my process, I admit that it sounds silly. Why prepare all those materials if they won't be used?

I suppose the reason I do all that, that I have to do all that, is because it is this routinized process that grounds me in my subject and assures me that I know the up and down of the topic I am covering-- death penalty, sentencing guidelines, commutation, civil discourse, gay marriage, abortion, giving a sermon-- whatever it is, I am centered in that topic once I have set those papers down on the podium.

There are two spiritual components to all this.

First, one reason that I allow myself to be extemporaneous is because my greatest hope is for a "Holy Spirit moment," when something greater than me or the audience arises (and it often is from the audience, not me)... an idea or perspective or silence that is more profound than anything I came in with.

Second, it is humbling. When I speak from notes, I come off too much as the "expert," the one who does the talking and none of the listening. I want my audience to see the very real doubt in me, moments of weakness, a stutter-step building to something else-- I want them to see someone who still can learn, rather than just teach. I am well aware that my own thoughts are unfinished, unripe, unperfected-- and to honestly present them I need it to sound that way.

Sometimes, it works, and we are all the better.

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