tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Inspiration in North Dakota

I would not have expected to find inspiration in the Grand Forks, North Dakota, but I did.

I was there the day after Christmas on business. It was my first trip to the cold, wind-swept outpost on the Red River. Previously, the only thing I knew about this town was what I gleaned from the news 10 years ago when the community was ravaged by floodwaters. Today, Grand Forks doesn’t look anything like those dismal images from the news footage.

It was April of 1997 and the Red River overflowed its banks by ten miles in both directions, swamping Grand Forks and its neighbor in Minnesota, East Grand Forks. Seventy percent of the people in Grand Forks had to be evacuated – 100 percent of the population in East Grand Forks had to leave. Water was standing 7 feet deep in downtown Grand Forks. As the water crested, a fire broke out in downtown, burning 11 buildings.

Pat Owens was the mayor at the time. She had been a secretary to three mayors before she decided to run for the job herself the previous November. She won with 75 percent of the vote. She is a 4-foot-11 dynamo who had to handle a far bigger job than she ever bargained for.

Owens and many other city leaders, including Randy Newman who I was meeting with on Dec. 26, worked for years to restore the community. Newman is president of Alerus Financial, which was called First National Bank back then. Newman kept the bank open, temporarily transferring operations to a Fargo office. He decided to keep the business in Grand Forks, even though the bank lost three buildings in downtown. Leaders from other communities wooed him, but he was not willing to abandon a heritage in the community that reached back more than a century.

Many of the businesses did leave, and so did a lot of the people. I am told there was a 20 percent turnover in the population. Many businesses, however, came to town, like Cabela’s, the big hunting and fishing store. Money from the federal government and insurance companies poured in and the people rebuilt. Today, downtown features many reconstructed and brand new buildings, including a beautiful six-story state office building. Hundreds of homes were repaired. Most of the homes located closest to the river were leveled. Tracts of land far from the river, today feature brand new homes where many of those displaced residents settled.

Within the last year, construction of a new dike has been completed. The huge wall combines a natural earthen barrier with decorative cement wall. In some places, panels can be removed from the wall in order to improve the view of the river when the water is at safe levels.

The other very challenging factor for Grand Forks during the 1990s, was the downsizing of the Air Force Base. The base, which at one time housed 15,000 people, today hosts about 2,000 people. Thirteen thousand people represent nearly a quarter of the town’s population, which today stands at around 50,000. The University of North Dakota, however, brings a lot of stability to the community. Gopher fans at the University of Minnesota are well aware of the school’s effort to elevate its football program to Division I, while the two have long been formidable Division I hockey foes.

To an outsider, Grand Forks looks like a success story. I feel bad for Owens, who lost her bid for re-election in 2000. Newman said she and other city leaders had to make “50 years worth of decisions in less than a year.” I am sure there were two sides or more to ever decision made; I can only imagine the level of emotional debate surrounding most of them. Perhaps it is more than even the best politician could manage.

Nonetheless, I applaud the people of Grand Forks. It is not easy to rebuild. It would be much easier to simply go someplace else. Just ask all those people who left New Orleans after Katrina. Earlier this week, I saw a pretty nice community, and I am inspired by what I know it must have taken to make it so.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas is real, to this day!

Christmas is meaningful to Christians everywhere, but I think the feast is particularly meaningful to Catholics.

Christmas celebrates the Incarnation. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to us. The Incarnation puts flesh on the truth. People knew God before the Nativity but with the Nativity, God gave us tangible truth. God knows how humans work; He knows how much easier it is for us to believe if we can see and touch and hear something. So He gave us His Son, for all the world to see and hear; for some to even touch.

For Catholics, however, the miracle of the Incarnation continues to this day; it does not end with the Ascension. Just like the followers of Jesus could ask Him for answers, we can turn to a living, breathing person for truth. Apostolic succession keeps the Incarnation alive so that believers can always get clear teaching on faith and morals. We do not believe that the Pope is Jesus or His equal, but through the chair of Peter, we believe that God continues to make the unambiguous truth easily accessible.

This is the way God has worked since the time of Exodus. Moses spoke with authority because he was in direct conversation with God. That’s why the Israelites went to him to answer their questions (Exodus 18:15). When Moses subsequently delegated God’s authority to others, the Israelites respected those subsequent spokesmen. This same authority remained valid all the way up to the time of Christ. At Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus reminds His disciples to do what the Pharisees say because they hold the authority of the seat of Moses. When Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom at Matthew 16, He is transferring authority from the seat of Moses to the seat of Peter. We continue to benefit from that authority to this day through the Papacy.

So you can see that for Catholics the “enfleshment” of the truth is something that remains real, even 2000-some years after the birth of Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas lessons

I’ve learned a few things since I heard my first Christmas song this season on November 15th, courtesy of the Twin Cities’ “official Christmas music radio station.”

The first thing I learned is that we have an “official Christmas music radio station.”

The second thing I learned is how to give a woman a Christmas gift. A friend explained it to me: “First, ask her what she wants; then, buy it for her.”

The third thing I learned is there is nothing worth buying at Southdale. I wondered through that soulless mall three times looking for something to buy my loved ones and found nothing. This year, I ended up buying most of my presents at neighborhood stores.

The fourth thing I learned is that it is foolish to wait until December 22 to shop. Every year, I tell myself I am going to complete all my Christmas shopping by Halloween, but inevitably, I find myself shopping for last minute gifts at the Super America station at 5:30 on Christmas Eve. Next year will be different.

In 2008, I am taking a new approach to Christmas shopping. I will not wait until the season to being my shopping. Throughout the year, if I see something that might make a good gift for a friend or family member, I am going to buy it and save it for Christmas. I suspect that throughout the course of the year I will see things that people might really like. If I buy when I see those things -- even if it is May -- I won’t be forced into the defensive buying spree that typically results in me giving people things they don’t want.

The fifth thing I learned is Mindy Smith sings some really nice Christmas music. I bought her “My Holiday” CD purely on spec and it turned out to be one of my best moves. Her music is my music. Go to Amazon, buy the CD and listen for yourself.

The sixth thing I learned is that not everyone in my neighborhood has the Christmas spirit. It snowed a couple weeks ago. I was out there at 5:30 in the morning to get the sidewalk cleared. But later in the day, my kids played in the snow and pushed a lot of it back onto the sidewalk. Two days later I got a notice from the City of Minneapolis telling me that if I didn’t get my sidewalk cleared within 48 hours, I would be fined $102. Someone from the neighborhood had complained. It made me mad that someone would choose to threaten me with a fine instead of just talk to me about my sidewalk; I shoveled again, nonetheless. A few days later, we had another foot of snow.

The seventh thing I learned is that it doesn’t take many sugar cookies, peanut brittle bars and fudge to put on weight. Like other highly-developed mammals, I like to put on an extra layer of fat going into the winter, but this year the Christmas goodies have given me a corpulent look beyond my comfort zone. I’ll be going back to Weight Watchers, but not until after the holidays and at least one more box of Frangos.

The eighth thing I learned is that people like to get their Christmas cards before Christmas. We send out cards every year, but often we don’t get the job done until around New Year’s Day. When a friend got our family card around Dec. 20 this year, she thanked me. “Nice to get it before Christmas,” she said.

There is always something to learn. I try to keep my eyes and ears open to pick up new lessons. The timeless lesson -- that is, the meaning of Christmas -- however, is one you can pick up by keeping your heart open. Or at least, that’s what’s worked best for me.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Support for new blood in Minnesota's Third District

One of the people who traveled to India with me was Minnesota State Representative Erik Paulsen, a Republican representing District 42B, which is in the southwest metro community of Eden Prairie. We visited several times during the week-long trip, but my best conversation with him occurred on the hour-long flight between New Delhi and Bangalore, where we sat next to each other.

Serving in the State Legislature since 1994, Paulsen is focused on efforts designed to improve Minnesota’s business climate and educational environment. Part of his reason for traveling to India was to scout out partnership opportunities for the numerous high-tech companies in Eden Prairie. He sees the potential Asian partnerships offer Minnesotans and Americans. In the legislature, he authored legislation to make Mandarin Chinese language education available in Minnesota high schools; in the last legislative session, he secured funding for the Minnesota India Center at the University of Minnesota.

Paulsen was the House majority leader for four years, and has a penchant for bipartisanship. He even joked that he got more legislation passed in 2007 being in the minority party than he did when he was in the majority. Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life lists Paulsen as one of the state’s 82 (out of 201) legislators who had a 100 percent pro-life voting record in 2007.

When U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) announced he was retiring at the end of the current term, Paulsen announced his candidacy for the 3rd Congressional seat. I live in the 5th District so I won’t get to vote for him, but I am supporting Paulsen. I like politics and I have always wanted to support someone who actually reflects my thinking. There were as many as nine Republicans expressing interest in the seat, but Paulsen quickly got the others to line up behind his campaign.

Open seat elections are special. With members of congress typically holding onto their seats for years, if not decades, open seats don’t come up that often. The Third District is particularly interesting because Ramstad is a pro-choice Republican, and the western suburbs, which make up the Third District, are gradually turning out more Democrat voters. Many of the national pundits are calling the Minnesota Third a toss-up. The Democrats feel an opportunity here and the speculation is several millions of dollars will be spent on a contentious race. That would be a marked contrast from the past several years in which Ramstad ran essentially unopposed and regularly won easily.

Now there is some talk that Ramstad is not going to resign. Reports in various publications and across the blogosphere have Ramstad holding onto his seat. Apparently Republicans figure 2008 is going to be a tough enough year as it is; if they can convince Ramstad to stay put, that is one less seat they will have to worry about losing.

I think this is a disaster. Ramstad announced he is retiring and he should stand by that announcement. Paulson has already put a lot of work into the campaign and it would really be unfair to his supporters for Ramstad to now say: “just kidding, I’m staying.”

What the Republicans really need is new blood, not the same old thing that Ramstad represents. The party is under-estimating Paulsen. He is clearly a candidate who can win. Keep in mind that the money the Democrats pour into running against him is money they won’t have to pour into other races, such as the Minnesota Sixth District where the incumbent is Michele Bachmann. If Ramstad runs in the Third, the Democrats will have more money to aim at that contest, where they believe they might be able to unseat one of the country’s most conservative representatives.

No matter who runs, Republicans are not going to win back control of Congress in 2008. My point is, Republicans need fresh blood and Paulsen is one of the best examples of that. I am going to continue to support him. I cannot get excited about more of the same, which is what Ramstad represents. He announced he is resigning and he should stand by that announcement.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

School play gets the ‘Mystery’ right

The school that my children attend, Holy Family Academy in St. Louis Park, put on a very powerful Christmas program on Thursday night.

The program, which involved all the school’s 200-plus students, was called “Mystery of the Manger; It’s the Gospel Truth!” It was presented in the beautiful auditorium at Hopkins High School.

I am filled with joy about this program because it so convincingly articulated the meaning of Christmas. This was not a light-hearted, feel-good holiday program. This was a compelling story of doubt, evangelization, conversion, repentance and joy – the whole human struggle summarized on a proscenium stage in a lively, 40-minute production.

The story centered around an investigative reporter, Jane Bond, who visits a convent to “get the facts” about Christmas. Skepticism pervades her questions for Sister Mary Catherine and her colleagues Sister Therese and Sister Bernice. Her brief conversation with Father Michael doesn’t seem to sway her disbelief. But something moves her to watch the convent’s depiction of the Nativity, presented on Christmas Eve. The play is so moving, she comes to see the meaning of the Incarnation. She responds by writing a story for her newspaper, the Morning Star, proclaiming the Truth of the Christmas story.

There is a brief scene which gives the “Mystery of the Manger” particular weight. After viewing the Nativity play, Jane experiences conversion and then goes to confession. The light focuses our attention on the Nativity play-within-the-play where Mary and Joseph knelt around the Christ child in the manger. But off to the side of the center-stage action, Father Michael hears Jane Bond’s confession, which she makes on her knees. It was an understated but powerful touch that brought meaning to the rest of the story.

So often we want what’s easy. We want Christ, but really we only want the Nativity, not the crucifixion. Everyone wants the Resurrection without the cross. Everyone wants forgiveness without repentance. Of course, however, they are inseparable, and this Christmas program did not miss that point. It is the first Christmas play I have ever seen in my whole life that has gotten the whole story right.

The sixth, seventh and eighth graders who acted all the different parts were incredible. The talent among this group of kids is astounding. I am very proud of my own kids who were in the show, but really I applaud all the kids who had any part in it. And, I applaud the teachers and parents who found the script, adapted it for this presentation, and worked with the kids over months to produce such a memorable performance.