Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Changing Times for Corporate Worship


Maybe America's churches could do with a change.

After all, we're not so much guiding America any more as we are desperately trying to play catch-up.  We're not leading the crusade for civic morality as much as we are shrugging off our own moral lapses.  We don't really worship God any more; we worship style and preference.  We're not at the vanguard of racial reconciliation, and some congregants don't want us to be.  We tussle over doctrine and theology, but then rely on attendance numbers to gauge the health of churches.  We fret that young people don't seem very interested in religion anymore, so we blame old people who aren't eager for change.

Yet the way America is doing church is changing anyway, along with everything else, apparently.  First worship styles, then church music, then the megachurch movement, then celebrity Christianity, along with parachurch ministries, right-wing politics, and multi-campus congregations.

Now Sunday morning worship times are becoming passe.  Consider the news that churches have begun to cancel the flagship corporate worship service at 11:00am on Sunday mornings.  Of course, the traditional 11:00am start time has been falling by the wayside for years, as churches tinker with ways to make corporate worship seem more populist.  10:50, 11:10, or even more contrived start times like 11:01 for the hipsters has become fairly common. 

Yet increasingly, churches are thinking that 11:00am on a Sunday morning is too late to attract people who are more eager to fill the last day of their weekend with quality pursuits.

As if attending church isn't a good way to spend quality time...

At the church I attend, the 9:30am service is the best-attended of our three Sunday morning offerings.  Other churches have services on Saturdays, and now on Wednesdays.  Hey - a generation ago, churches regularly held a Wednesday - or "midweek" - service, so this is kinda retro, right?  That should be super-appealing to Millennials and hipsters.

And frankly, it doesn't really matter when a congregation meets for corporate worship.  In Bible times, corporate worship was held in private homes or in the temple on the Sabbath, which is our Saturday.  The switch was made to Sundays as a way to honor Christ's resurrection, which happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week.  It used to be symbolic to take time on the first day of the week to focus on the reason for why we'll be working out the next six days - and that reason is the glory of God.

But Sunday corporate worship isn't a commandment or anything.  We're told to "not forsake the assembly of ourselves together," but our assembly doesn't necessarily have to be on a weekly basis.  It could be daily, like some Roman Catholic churches still observe, or bi-weekly, or monthly... God never tells us what His definition of "not forsaking our assembly" should look like.

Over time, in Western Christianity, our assembly has been shaped by our work schedules and preferences, as well as capitalism, politics, and a general desire to model the culture around us.  Not exactly Biblical reasons at all for designing a corporate worship schedule, but it's what we've had as a long as anybody can remember.  Mid-morning on a Sunday was a time that worked for anybody who worked in agriculture - which used to be almost everybody - since many early morning tasks are required of a productive farmer. 

And choosing who preaches to us (or for us)?  We elect church leaders by popular vote because that's how all good leaders are made, apparently.  In the book of Acts, they drew lots for a replacement disciple, but popularity is a lot more democratic, right?  Besides, drawing lots sounds an awful lot like gambling, and gambling is a sin (although with casting lots, it's not that a God-given resource is being frittered away; a choice from a selection of relative equals is being made).

In countries like China, where evangelical Christianity is illegal for the most part, Christ-followers worship together wherever and whenever they can, with whatever leadership is currently not being detained by the police, if their "church" isn't one of the government-sanctioned "three-self" facilities.

How much we take for granted!

Not that congregations in the United States should be faulted for being creative with their corporate worship times.  But it's easy to see that for many churches, making corporate worship more convenient is the motivating factor.  Yet how convenient is the Gospel supposed to be for us?  Don't you think it's probably unBiblical to feel like we have to make corporate worship less like a scheduling conflict?  Is church the conflict, or what we want to do in place of it?  Should the created be trying to find a spare hour in the week to corporately worship their Creator?

How about, instead of trying to find an easier time to schedule corporate worship, churches simply take another step into history, and schedule corporate worship for every day of the week?  How bizarre does that sound to you?  Unless you're Roman Catholic, or familiar with the Anglican tradition of daily "vespers" or "evensong", it probably seems like overkill on the church's part, trying to stage a worship service for every day of the week.

Yet think about it:  How much of the staged worship your church organizes every week is really necessary?  Few churches have the financial and staffing resources to put on a big production every day of the week anyway.  So if you want to think creatively, whatever happened to the simple things, like the plain, public reading of Scripture, the congregational singing of songs (instead of being entertained by miked singers), the undecorated preaching of the Gospel, without special effects, videos, and props?  How much more focused could corporate worship be?  How much more immediate?  How much less cluttered and distorted by culture? 

And what about the senior pastor?  Having so much preaching, wouldn't that be too much for him?  Well, the Bible never says anything about senior pastors, either.  That's a Western invention.  According to the Bible, elders should be able to teach, right?  Why can't a church have several teaching pastors, none of whom is the "big kahuna" or top dog, pulpit-wise?  Is such a concept too foreign to us, since we're used to identifying with one preacher for our church's spiritual cred?

Imagine how suddenly oversized your church facilities would likely be.  Having a corporate worship service every day of the week likely means that most of our sanctuaries are too big.  Maybe instead of "planting" new churches all over the place, existing congregations could consolidate and thereby expand their ministry outreach through their shared resources.  Culture-wise, it would accommodate the growing reality that America's employment picture has spread out from the conventional Monday-to-Friday routine.  Parents with kids in sports would have to come up with another excuse to keep their kids out of church.  If you're having a particularly rough week spiritually, maybe attending several services that week would be a big help.  It would also negate the argument that select worship times need to be more convenient:  If congregants can't find one day of the week to worship corporately, it definitely won't be the church's fault.

The biggest objection most folks might have is that there is such a thing as too much church.  And with that, I would agree.  Whether our churches meet on Sundays or other days for corporate worship, we seem to leave a lot of that church stuff in the sanctuary when we leave.  All the reconfiguring churches make to their schedules isn't going to change that.

If church is just something we do as a religious activity, it won't really matter when we do it.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I Visited America Today


I visited America this afternoon.

Have you ever been there?

It's really a special kind of place.

I was there with about two hundred* other Americans to honor 13 fellow citizens who had served in our military.  Yet those veterans had died either homeless, or alone, or without any family members to claim their body.

This America today was populated by all sorts of people from various walks of life who didn't seem to care how wealthy, or powerful, or conservative, or liberal any of us are.  We were assembled at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, nestled among rolling hills in a far western corner of Big D.  A couple of local media outlets had broadcast the news that today, at 1pm, the National Cemetery was burying its largest group to date of "homeless" veterans.

Officially, the term is "unclaimed," and of the twenty veterans in today's ceremony, 13 died without any known family or next of kin.

They were:

Army Specialist Joseph David Dobson, 84
Army Private Ned Carlston King, 56
Army Specialist Dennis Wayne Moore, 63
Marine Private Edward Charles Gipson, 60
Marine Private Grant Wells, Jr., 63
Navy Veteran Glenn Allen Gatton, 65
Navy Ensign Patrick Michael Kelly, 62
Navy Veteran Daniel Ray McKinley, 46
Navy Veteran Michael Snyder, 58
Navy Veteran Elbert Louis Wilson, 79
Air Force Staff Sergeant William Brugemann Beeson, 86
Air Force Master Sergeant Bobby Ray Gleason, 71
Air Force Veteran Jerry G. Marshall, 81

The seven others honored today had at least one family member who accept the traditional folded flag, "from a grateful nation."

I saw a story about this on the Internet this morning, and told Mom I was going to attend.  Without hesitation, she said she would as well.  So we showed up about 15 minutes early, with me figuring a small yet respectable crowd of other grateful Americans would also be there.  But when we turned the corner, driving past the gates into the cemetery, two snaking lines of backed-up traffic greeted us!

A burly groundskeeper on a golf cart glided by our car, and I rolled down the window.  "We're here for the homeless veterans' service?" I asked, trying to clarify whether the big turn-out was for that service, and not maybe for some other veteran who may have simply had a big family and lots of friends.

"Yup," he confirmed, saying that there indeed was another burial at 1 o'clock, and they were trying to separate the traffic for each event.  "I'm checking now to see what lane y'all need to be in."  And he was off.

Sure enough, there were about ten cars for the other service, but there were dozens - with more arriving every second - for the "homeless" veterans' service.  Another cemetery employee - obviously an office staffer who did not expect to be standing outside patrolling traffic today, at least considering her short skirt and short sleeves - gushed appreciatively at my opened car window that ours was the biggest crowd they'd ever had for a burial, and they were caught off-guard by all the attention their event had received. 

In a normal year, our local National Cemetery buries about 40 unclaimed veterans, but not in as large a group as they did today.

We waited for about 10 minutes - past the ceremony's official start time - before beginning to snake our way around a loop and then down into the cemetery itself.  There were easily fifty, sixty cars or more, and even more as we looked across a valley to where we could see a crowd already gathered with a color guard, flags and ribbons flapping in the stiff breeze.

We'd had rain this morning, and temperatures still hovered in the 60's, with a damp wind and no sunshine.  Appropriately dreary for a funeral, I figured.

I finally found a place to park, and Mom and I walked quite a bit further to an open-air stone gazebo where the ceremony was taking place.  We could hear the 21-gun salute and the playing of "Taps" as we walked, along with dozens of other people.  Perhaps protocol should have made us stop stock still, in observance of these two hallmarks of a military funeral, but we all kept trudging along in the cold breeze.

Even once we reached the stone gazebo, none of us could hear what was going on, the wind was so loud.  Crisp American flags lining the venue flapped, slapped, and crackled loudly in the wind.  But it didn't seem to matter to anybody, except for a couple of children who didn't understand why everybody was just standing around in the blustery air.  Yes, there were children in attendance.  Old people, too.  Whites, blacks, and several other shades of skin color.  Well-dressed people, men and women in business suits, some wealthy-looking folks, and some that looked almost as destitute as those unclaimed veterans must have been.

One lady with a smart hairdo and a sleek black business suit had an infant and a toddler in tow, as if she'd left the office, run by day-care, and gotten her kids to witness this. 

Plenty of people were brandishing smartphones, but nobody was talking or texting - they were taking photos and videos of the crowd, and the line of fully-suited military personnel in the gazebo, stiffly presenting those folded flags to the seven assembled family representatives. 

Perhaps it was no small coincidence that at the end of the flag presentations, the wind died down significantly, enough for all of us to plainly hear a white-suited chaplain read some Scripture and give a brief benediction.  If I was a journalist, I'd have made a note of the Scripture reference, since neither Mom nor I can now remember what it was!  But even if few others in attendance were believers in the God of the Bible, we all heard a passage of the Gospel.  And everybody stood reverently, whether they really appreciated it or not.

Indeed, the crowd's decorum was profound, maybe because decorum seems to be so missing in our modern life.  Then, too, by that point, I think we'd all realized the obvious:  What we were witnessing, and participating in, was a genuine slice of honest-to-goodness America.  Not the political America, or the pop-culture America, or the squabbling America.  Our individual political views didn't matter just then.  Neither did anybody's sexual orientation, or skin color, or background, or criminal history, or occupation, or level of education, or home address, or what we drove... although quite a few very expensive vehicles lined both sides of the winding roadway.

I particularly noticed a tattered Subaru with ecology-themed bumperstickers parked there, alongside humongous pickup trucks and a brand-new white Mercedes sedan.  One businessman in a serious suit, wearing a huge, expensive-looking wristwatch, claimed a silver Prius.  One short, thin young man with dirty hair patiently crept through the crowds in a beat-up old Mitsubishi.  An elderly woman looked on from her Ford minivan, apparently unable to walk the distance up to the gazebo.

Up at the gazebo, however, it was just us grateful citizens, and the moment, and the patriotism.  No Democrats or Republicans, just a lot of people who had recently learned that 13 "homeless" veterans were being buried.  Men who had at some point defended us and our country, and who may have made some bad choices in their lives, or maybe suffered the ill psychological affects of battle fatigue or PTSD.  Maybe these men had intentionally separated themselves from their loved ones.  Who knows?  Yet right now, none of that dissonance really seemed to matter.

We all shared a common goal, those of us out there on this chilly, sunless afternoon.  We were taking an unplanned detour in our day and pausing to commemorate something we could all value:  Sacrifice for a cause.  Maybe none of these guys died in combat, but apparently they were willing to at some point, otherwise they wouldn't have been in the military.  Maybe the wars in which they fought were not originally conceived by the most altruistic of world leaders, or maybe they didn't end in a way many Americans welcomed.  Maybe some of the folks in attendance today were mostly motivated by the "homeless" and "unclaimed" designations of these men, saddened by the apparent breakdown in familial bonds, and disturbed that people can die so alone.

Hey - It's not as if any of us left the cemetery and immediately went to sign-up as volunteers at a local homeless shelter, after all.  But that wasn't the main purpose of attending today's ceremony, was it?

Mom and I attended - as I suspect just about everybody did - to honor not death, but life.  Our lives as Americans; our corporate life as free - or mostly-free - residents of this planet, with all of its evils and ills.  Our life with its freedoms safeguarded by people who volunteer to serve, even if our vast military industrial complex doesn't do as good of a job as it should to help make sure veterans don't end up homeless.  Indeed, maybe even a little shame that the greatest country in the world doesn't do more to make sure our veterans don't die unknown and unrecognized.

This America that we visited this afternoon came into existence with our gathering, from all walks of life, at this one spot, for one purpose.  And it likely dissipated just as we dispersed back into those various walks of life, as we all got in our cars, and drove away.

Funny how it takes thirteen people to die as unknowns for us to realize how much we share in common.

As much in common as those 13 fledgling colonies so long ago.
_____

* A dubiously-written report by the Dallas Morning News estimated the crowd total at 100.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Has Your "Long Good-by" Begun?

FYI:  If you or a loved one is dealing with a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, consider visiting this website, run by a guy who was diagnosed at (yikes!) 55 years old.




Have you or a loved one recently been diagnosed with dementia, or with short-term memory loss?

Or do you suspect that you might have that condition, or that a loved one might have it?  Are you afraid of what such a diagnosis will mean for you and your family?

I've written a lot about dementia and Alzheimer's in their later stages, but I haven't spent a lot of time exploring issues that come about during the earliest of stages, which is the diagnosis.

And by diagnosis, let's be clear right off the bat:  There is no official, sure-fire, absolute diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.  Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, with dementia being the most common result of short-term memory loss.  And short-term memory loss doesn't necessarily develop into Alzheimer's, although it usually is the first rung on the dementia ladder.  Yet dementia can take years to develop into its most tragic expressions.  So if you or your loved one is facing a diagnosis of short-term memory loss, it's not exactly the end of the world as you know it.  At least, not yet.

Yet, at the same time, yeah - it's pretty close to the end of the world as you know it.  Sorry for being so blunt, but frankly, you already knew that, didn't you?  Besides, this is not a time for pussyfooting around the truth.  For one thing, if you are indeed on the road to dementia, you and your loved ones need to arm yourself with facts and a realistic assessment of your options, since things may rapidly change regarding your ability to conduct basic activities such as driving, making changes to your legal documents, and preparing your personal finances for the exceptionally high monetary costs of your future care.

However, just as this is not a time for ambivalence and rose-colored glasses, it's not a time for panic, either.  For one thing, panic rarely accomplishes anything, regardless of the situation.  And with regards to your diagnosis, there's little you can do medically to change what this diagnosis means.  There are no surgeries to consider, no pills to reverse the damage being done to your memory, no chemotherapy options like there might be with cancer, nor new diets to adopt like there might be with diabetes.  No known cures exist for short-term memory loss, dementia, or any of dementia's forms, like Alzheimer's.  So don't waste your time - and your money - dabbling with home remedies, natural supplements, or any of the other gimmicks out there being peddled to people who are desperate.

And don't feel guilty.  As far as we know, there's nothing you could have done medically to prevent dementia, so there's no use blaming yourself for having it.  And there's nothing you can can do medically right now to even minimize your dementia.  Dementia happens for reasons we're not sure of.  But one thing we know is that the length of time you have remaining as a fully-functioning adult will now be growing shorter by the day.  Your memory's functionality has maxed out through no fault of your own.  Your capabilities for reasoning, comprehension, logic, and alertness will be no greater than they are today.  Which means your mental resources need to be deployed smartly right now.  Not because you've suddenly begun your journey down what we call "the long good-by."  But because there's little point being morose about it.  At least, not yet.

Believe me, perhaps the time won't come for you, but the time will come for your family when the journey you have now begun will become a tortuous burden.  But that's still a long way off, and by then, you likely won't be aware of how bad you've become.  I've heard of one dementia patient who had three years between her diagnosis until her death, but most dementia patients I know have a journey of six to ten years - or more.  In your case, it's probably early days yet, and dementia is something for which you and your loved ones are going to have to pace yourselves.

For example, you still have time to travel, and work through a "bucket list," if you have one of those.  However, from now on, regardless of whether you're traveling to Paris, France, or the nearest grocery store, you cannot go alone.

Don't fight me on this one.  We found out my Dad had dementia when what should have been a half-hour trip to the grocery store turned into a several-hour ordeal, trying to track him down, calling the police and fire departments for word of any senior citizen in a car crash, driving around to all the grocery stores we used to frequent, only to have a kind-hearted employee from a store miles from our home call and put Dad on the line.  The employee had noticed Dad looked a bit disoriented in their store, and when she approached him to ask if he was OK, Dad managed to remember his home phone number (but not that he had a cell phone with him that he could have used).  That was a horrible evening for us - well, except for Dad, who didn't remember any of it, and wondered why I showed up at the grocery store to help bring him home.

Dad continued to drive for the next six years or so - but never, ever by himself.  We let him walk his faithful collie dog around the neighborhood for a few more months, but I was always a block behind them, making sure Dad found his way home.  After a while, Dad lost interest in walking the dog (a typical mark of dementia), and then not long after that, the pure-bred collie's advanced age required us to put him to sleep.  We'd show Dad photos of his beloved dog, and he said he remembered him, but we weren't always so sure he really did.

We allowed Dad to drive his minivan to familiar locations within about a one-mile radius of his long-time home.  And, frankly, considering how poorly so many people drive these days, his driving was certainly no worse than anybody else's.  His reaction times seemed spot-on, and for a long while, he needed few reminders about where he was going or how to get there.  He'd often complain that we wouldn't let him drive alone, but we'd simply say we wanted to keep him company.

What kept Dad's driving instincts so sharp, even as his other memory issues were in obvious decline, likely involved the years he spent driving around as a sales manager for a concrete construction supply company.  He drove to visit customers all over Texas and the Northeastern United States by himself and only ever had one accident - when he was driving all of us, when my brother and I were kids, down to Houston - and even then, the damage to our car didn't prevent us from driving out the trip in full and returning home.

However, if you or your loved one hasn't logged the extensive time behind the wheel that my Dad did, your driving days might be coming to an end fairly quickly.  And if that's the case, it's for your own good, as well as for the good of all the rest of us out on the open road.  After all, driving isn't just about you, but everybody else, too.

And about those bucket lists:  How many of those unfinished events and fun times will you remember next year?  In two years?  I understand the whole sense of accomplishment behind the bucket list thing, but frankly, trying to do things and visit places before you'll forget you've done them or been seems more a waste of time and money than a fulfillment of your life's dreams.  Right now, is what's important something you haven't yet prioritized?  How important are those things on your bucket list, if you haven't already done them?  Do you really need that sense of accomplishment before you forget all that you've accomplished?  Is the existential satisfaction really worth it?

After all, time is working against you here.  Remember?  You've only got a limited amount of time remaining for you to build memories - not for yourself, but for your loved ones!  If dementia takes as ugly a course as it does for most of its victims, your loved ones are going to have many awful things about your eventual condition seared into their own short-term memories of you.  Wouldn't you like to spend the quality time you've got left helping them cultivate happier, more positive remembrances of you?  Simple stuff, like the foods you cook well, or of the stories you tell, or the crafts you enjoy?  Not new stuff, but the same stuff that you don't need to still learn, and risk the frustration of not learning or experiencing as fully as you might otherwise desire?

It's the time with your loved ones that they'll likely remember the fondest.  It's who you were in the ordinary, every-day life that they knew you to live.  How you act in the present, in the familiar, in the real; not the artificial of vacations to places that are more exotic than natural.

Yes, there is the argument that the pursuit of a bucket list at this point would be an act of defiance in the face of dementia's impending doom.  And if you're independently wealthy, perhaps it doesn't matter what you spend your money on now.  But frankly, considering the many unknowns about dementia and dementia care, the wiser person would conserve their financial resources now, instead of spending them on trips you won't remember for much longer.

I'm not trying to be cruel here; just honest.

Granted, if your life up until now has been all about the pursuit of bucket-list-type things, then maybe I'm raining on your final parade.  But I have yet to talk with any loved ones of a dementia patient who reminisce about things that have happened recently.  They reminisce about the loved ones as they knew them "back in the day."

It's an ironic twist on the "short-term memory" condition, a state of mind which can seem so confounding.  Indeed, short-term doesn't just mean that you can't remember things for very long.  It's also that you can't remember things that happened only a short while ago.  And as dementia continues to take its toll, that "term" creeps ever longer, with your ability to remember the past extending not by seconds, or hours, or days, or months, but years.  Decades.

In fact, as long as I'm being blunt, let's go ahead and face more reality:  For better or worse, your family will eventually be able to identify the memory period of your life in which your brain is functioning, and it won't be the present-day.  One of the hospice nurses caring for my father told us that actually, at that point, the patient is mostly unaware that they have any sort of dementia, and I like to think that she is correct, for the patient's sake.  You see, dementia patients give many clues about the period of their former life in which they're now living; the job they may have had then, the home or city in which they used to live, the people who were still alive then.  With my Dad, we could track his decline by the homes he longed to be in.  He seemed fairly comfortable in his Texas home, where he'd lived for 30 years, for quite a while into his dementia journey.  Then suddenly, his memory seemed to completely skip the 13 years we'd lived in upstate New York.  It went back to an old address in Brooklyn, then to the address before that, and then even to the address where his family lived before he entered school.

But let's not get that far ahead of ourselves - or that far behind.  After all, if you're still in shock from receiving your recent diagnosis, you're likely struggling with identifying the things you need to get done before, ...well, they can't get done anymore.

Speaking of finances, in case you're now thinking of shifting all of your assets into somebody else's name, your lawyer may sign off on those changes, since you're still relatively "of sound mind."  But don't drag your feet, because nobody knows the point at which your lawyer might actually say you're mentally incapable of things like wills, financial reallocations, and property settlements.  If you're thinking of trying to hide your assets by placing them in other peoples' names, in case you need to go on Medicaid in the future; forget it.  When someone applies for Medicaid, the government goes back about seven years, and even longer, tracking the movement of your assets, and significant changes to your estate or financial portfolio will be nothing but red flags for them.

With the money that you have, instead of splurging on a bucket list, perhaps you should consider remodeling your home to make it handicapped-accessible.  If you've only lived in your current home for a short time - say, five years or less - then it might not make much difference if you decide to move out of it.  But the thing about short-term memory care is that the longest memories will last the longest, and staying put in a familiar home will benefit you and your family in the long run.  Although you might not have any mobility problems right now - and maybe not ever, memory loss can impact physical mobility, and for many dementia patients, keeping one's balance becomes a problem at some point.  So if you can afford it, widen your doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, and retrofit at least one bathroom with fixtures suitable for adults who need somebody to help them with bathing and attending to the toilet.  If your bedroom is upstairs, try to create a sleeping space downstairs now, so maybe you can develop some familiarity with it.  If your backyard isn't fenced in, fence it in, since dementia patients tend to wander.

Hey, even if being placed in a memory-care facility is in your future, that future is still likely several years away at the earliest.  That means you'll still need to enjoy your current environment as much as possible - yet as prudently as possible, too.

If you're a pack-rat, begin to de-clutter now.  Clutter will only confuse you later on, and possibly become dangerous trip hazards.  Save photos and keepsakes you frequently look at and enjoy; chances are they'll be the things your loved ones use to try and entertain you years from now.  Throw away items that hold bad memories for you.  Keep your current technology, and don't worry about buying new televisions or computers from now on, because you'll risk unnecessarily confusing yourself.  The idea is to develop as light, bright, easy, safe, and encouraging a physical environment as possible.

I hope you weren't reading this to find some cheerful nugget of comfort after your otherwise horrific diagnosis.  I'm sorry if I've further discouraged you by laying bare the reality you'll likely be facing.  But I've been there with my Dad, and with his sister.  There is no helpful way to positively spin the specter of dementia.  There's also no legitimate pathway to determining what dementia will have in store for you specifically, since dementia varies by as many degrees as their are individual people.  Some patients end up having a relatively peaceful journey through memory loss, while others... well, let's just say that there's enough heartbreak to go around.

Many end-of-life illnesses have a way of clarifying the aspects of life we most cherish, and these next few months and years of your journey through memory loss will undoubtedly be a clarifying experience - although, unfortunately, probably not for you.  You will likely become less and less aware of what is going on to you and around you, which as the hospice nurse told me, may be the one blessing in all this.  Meanwhile, your loved ones will be forced to assume more and more of your care, and there won't be anything you can do about it.  Stronger families, obviously, fare better during crises like these than dysfunctional or scattered families.  Your close friends, your faith community, and even your neighbors will likely play intimate roles that you will never see.

Yet through it all, our response to human tragedy both affirms our commitment to life, and our resolve to honor those who, for whatever reason, lack the ability to participate in it as fully as we would otherwise desire.  We effortlessly enjoy our human experience when things are fun, or happy, or easy.  But when life turns arduous, melancholy, and painful, we tend to show what we're really made of.

Maybe that's a challenge you and your family would prefer not to pursue!  But it's happened to you, and there's nothing you or anybody else can do to change it.

It's bleak, and confounding, and it seems so unfair.  I know.  It happened to my family and me, too.  And we're here today, on the other side of the dementia journeys we took with my Dad and my aunt.  And we're certainly not weaker for those experiences.  I think we still have questions, and we're still emotionally tired, but we did what we could with the resources we had, and I think we honored our loved ones well.

Hopefully your family will be able to say the same.

Ready or not, your journey through your long good-by has begun.  Let it be as life-changing as it can be.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Driving a Texting Driver Ban Misses Point


Ought there to be a law against it?

Last month, the Texas state House of Representatives passed a bill outlawing texting-while-driving (TWD).  The Lone Star State is one of only four remaining that don't specifically criminalize TWD, although distracted driving, a broader description of the activity in question, is already against the law.  As it currently stands, House Bill 62 makes using a phone while driving a misdemeanor offense, but questions remain regarding how such a measure could be fairly enforced in the real world.  Questions also remain regarding how eager the Texas Senate is to ratify the bill, since the House has already given them a similar opportunity three other times in previous sessions, to no avail.

Will this year be different for Texas?

The idea enjoys bipartisan support among politicians, because it's hard to ignore the dangers of cell phone use by drivers of a moving vehicle - even though many drivers engage in the activity multiple times every day.  Probably every time they get behind the wheel.  Cell phones have practically become an appendage for some users, and serious studies have found that addiction to cell phones is a real problem for many people.  The luxury of instant communication is no longer a luxury for those folks, but a necessity.  Or, so they think.

Usually, politically conservative legislators - especially in a conservative state like Texas - abhor laws designed to control behavior, especially "nanny state" laws that seem to pick on common activities and appear to interfere with an individual's right to self-determination.  Yet when it comes to TWD, a number of key Republican Texans support the notion that a law is necessary to try and curb rampant - and dangerous - cell phone use by drivers.

"Boy howdy - thar aughta be a law, dadgum it!"

Why a law?  Because not enough people voluntarily refrain from the practice.  And since so many people do it, it's hard to convince drivers to use the honor system and not use their phones while driving, as an altruistic gesture acknowledging public safety.  The broader well-being of our society can seem so ambiguous and existential when faced with the opportunity to call a client from your car, or check to see if your kids are home from school, or what your spousal unit wants for dinner.  Perhaps with a law - a law everybody is supposed to respect, of course - drivers will be encouraged to forgo the personal convenience of TWD, since nobody else is doing it either.

Um, yeah... like that will ever be reality, right?  Hey, business is all about exploiting opportunities, right?  If you view your time behind the wheel as lost productivity, then you're going to call that client, or track down that lost shipment, while cruising around town.  It's what good employees do, right?  If you're a responsible parent, you're going to check up on your kids on your way home from work, and if you're responsible for dinner tonight, you're gonna need to know what your loved ones would like to eat (after all, you shouldn't send and receive personal e-mails at work, right?).

The reasons people use their cell phones while they drive aren't bad... usually, at least.  But it seems that many people who decide to TWD forget that their primary purpose as a driver is to actually drive, and drive in as safe a manner as possible.

It's easy to spot the drivers who are texting - and even the ones so engrossed in an old-fashioned telephone conversation.  The several-thousand-ton contraption they're piloting down the roadway begins to weave within its lane, and then a little bit outside of its lane.  Their speed becomes erratic, often slowing down drastically, at least in terms of the pace of other vehicles around it.  In fairly close traffic, a phoner can quickly create a mini traffic jam, as other vehicles get trapped behind it, waiting their chance to dart around the slower vehicle. 

Sit at any traffic light, and watch to see how long it takes between the light turning green and the first car in line to move from its stopped position.  How many times have you been at a stoplight, only to have to wait through most of the green light for the driver in front of you to look up from their phone and realize that they've got the green light?  Some of us honk if we have to wait at a green light while a phoner uses up our patience, and then we get shot their middle finger when they decide to take advantage of the green light, like it's our fault that we might miss it.

Actually, it's amazing that so many important people are out on the roads, isn't it?  So many important people driving (without a chauffeur, like important people used to employ) and having to use their phones, meaning they don't have a personal assistant to follow up on all these important issues. 

Now, for the record, I rarely use my cell phone while I'm driving.  And by rarely, I mean usually only to call 911 if there is debris in the roadway (it's amazing how much junk litters our freeways in Dallas, falling off all the pickup trucks people own here).  I never answer my phone while driving.  And I think I've sent about five total texts when behind the wheel of my car - but those were only when I was parked, usually with the engine off, before I embarked on whatever journey I was about to take.

Yet my point isn't that the texting itself is the problem.  You see, using one's cell phone while driving can be a fairly safe practice, if there's hardly any traffic, or if your conversation consists of a couple of short sentences, or if you're not speeding.   And as far as TWD is concerned, we don't really need a law specifically banning it, because as I said, we already have laws against inattentive driving.

So what is the problem? The problem is our society's propensity for selfishness.  We each tend to view ourselves as being more important than others.  We don't say that out loud (usually) but we demonstrate that mentality through our actions; through what we do, and what we don't do.

Selfishness is a pernicious form of individualism that is exacerbated by our exploitation of the private automobile.  If you think about it, automobiles have become our own autonomous, insular pods, haven't they?  Our cars are cocoons of transportation, but also of entertainment, privacy, and isolation.  We turn our elaborate speaker systems up so loud, we can't hear the emergency vehicle's siren screaming and squawking at us from our rear bumper.  Even if our cell phone is turned off, if we have passengers in our pod, we get so engrossed in conversation that we have no idea what's going on outside of our glass-and-aluminum transportation device.  A device that's hurtling through space at 60mph - or more.

Witness that kid who was caught on camera, his testosterone-fueled dually pickup truck wandering about a wide Texas roadway, even traveling well within the lane of opposing traffic.  If recognizing such a dangerous scenario wasn't enough to convince that young stud that he was completely disconnected from his driving task, it would take the slaughter of 13 innocent senior citizens to prove it.

By then, saying "I'm sorry" fixes nothing.

That tragedy last week in the hills of central Texas may provide the impetus for the state's Senate to pass anti-texting legislation this time around, since public opinion is so aghast at the stunning loss of life.  Politicians hate passing up opportunities to look like they're actually fixing something.  But even if this bill passes, how many Texas drivers actually plan on abiding by it?  After all, stuff like that happens to other people, not to us.  This phone call I need to make is really important, and the risk it poses to somebody else who I've never met is really insignificant - at least to me.

And sure, maybe it is a risk you're willing to live with.

But can the rest of us?


Friday, March 24, 2017

Let These Bowls You Over




What is this?

If I had the hubris of a post-Modern artist, I could claim it as a sculpture that weds two pieces of conventional artisanal functionality from two disparate cultures.

But I'm not an artist, and these are merely two bowls, with one set upside-down atop another.  On the top is an upside-down Paul Revere pewter bowl reproduction by the Stieff Company of Baltimore, Maryland.  And below it is a Hmong ceremonial pedestal bowl.

Both belong to my Mom, and have been about her house for years.  The Revere bowl was a wedding present from a wealthy family in Nyack, New York, who used to employ Mom as a nanny during her college years.  The Hmong bowl was a gift from the leaders of a Hmong refugee congregation, given to each elder at the church my family used to attend here in Arlington, Texas, back around 1980.

It is believed that the Hmong culture can be traced as far back as 2,000 BC in China, although it long ago was forced southward, into Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand.  A number of Hmong people were part of the Laotian resistance who assisted the United States military during the bitter war in Vietnam, and were subject to persecution after Hanoi fell to the Communists, after the United States pulled out of the conflict.  Thousands of Hmong (spelled the same whether singular or plural) and Laotians were granted emergency visas to flee Vietnam for America, and they resettled in Minnesota and Wisconsin (where the winters were a shock in every way), California, and even here in Arlington, which has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese immigrants in the country.

Hmong from Laos who had been converted to Christianity back in their native country wanted a place here in Arlington where they could worship in their language, and our small church was a member of the same denomination that had missionaries who had ministered to them back in Laos.  The elder board at our church welcomed the Hmong with open arms, not just as allies in war, but also brothers and sisters in faith, and to show their appreciation, the Hmong gave each of the elders one of these intricately-detailed ceremonial cups as a gesture of gratitude.

I'm not sure what material these Hmong cups are made of, but it's almost certainly tin, or perhaps aluminum.  They're decorated by hand with etchings and impressions hammered into the soft metal with special tools.  The overall design is of lotus leaves, which while usually a Buddhist symbol of divinity, are also widely understood in Thai and Laotian cultures to represent purity.


When it comes to the Revere bowl, on the other hand, there's a lot less divinity involved, although its purity may rest in the eye of the beholder.  Paul Revere, of course, was that celebrated American patriot who was a silversmith by trade.  Back in 1768, when those British tea taxes were roiling the Colonies, Revere was commissioned by a drinking society in Massachusetts to craft a rum punch bowl in honor of opponents to the British tea tax.  And for his commission, Revere used as inspiration for his design a style of Chinese commemorative bowls that were being made of porcelain for export to Britain and the Colonies at the time.

And we thought the "Made in China" stuff was a recent phenomenon!

At any rate, those Chinese bowls - remember, the Hmong are originally from China - were already apparently popular in the New World, meaning Colonists readily understood the significance of Revere's model.  And since Revere's bowl signified a special resistance to England's draconian taxes, his rum punch bowl quickly assumed a symbolic cultural status.  Indeed, by the time my parents got married, and received this replica as a gift, the Revere bowl had become well-established in traditional Americana, and remains so to this day.  Even if most modern brides probably don't receive them as wedding presents (although the famed Tiffany studio still makes a Revere reproduction in silver).

All this to say that, while I studied these two bowls in my parents' house, I came to realize how identical they were, even though the Revere bowl is relatively unadorned.  The sides of both bowls have the same slope, and the height of their cup shapes are almost the same.  On a whim, I decided to place the Revere bowl on top of the Hmong bowl, because it looked like their circumferences were the same.  And indeed, they are!

Maybe that's not cool to you, but it was to me.  How ironic that two bowls representing significance within two completely different cultures end up having almost the same exact shape, size, and proportions!

For the record, you'll note that the Hmong bowl is actually two bowls bolted together at their pedestals.  The smaller bowl is the same shape, just in a smaller size.  So technically, I could unbolt them and have two bowls.  Which, maybe, some Hmong families do.

And, although maybe it's hard to tell, the square base under the Hmong bowl is actually a square of granite from Deer Isle, Maine, and is intended to keep the bowl's metal from scratching the wood table.

Okay, so none of this is Earth-shattering news.  It's not controversial or kinky.  But doesn't it kinda make our world just a little bit smaller, realizing that no matter how different our various cultures may be, we share more than we may realize?

Not because ceremonial or commemorative bowls are the way to achieve world peace.  But they can be the same shape of things that used to be, from the opposite sides of our planet, and our history.



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Man-Card Must Be Defective


And some people wonder why I'm still not married.

Today is supposed to be "International Women's Day," a time to recognize the significant contributions females make to every aspect of life as we know it on this planet.

Oddly enough, I haven't heard when "International Men's Day" is officially, but I've been told that we domineering chauvinists get to celebrate it every other day of the year.  After all, ostensibly, we control everything - especially women, according to feminists.

So if that was indeed the case, and that women still have to fight tooth and nail for a modicum of the recognition and respect they deserve for all of their innate merits, is dropping a token event into our calendar the best way to encourage us brutes to cut women some slack?  Are men who don't value women going to be swayed by being cajoled into a superficial acknowledgement of the value of women in society?  

To feminists, the lack of civil rights for women in many Muslim-majority countries represents ample justification for a day like today.  Yet we're here in North America.  Meanwhile, how tolerant are most people in Muslim-majority countries regarding the equality of women?  How many Muslim women advocate for their own rights?  Or how many Muslim women participate in the perpetuation of age-old standards of male domination because of their religious upbringing?

Indeed, on this "International Women's Day," consider the plight of foreign nannies in Arab countries who consider not just their male employers, but also the wives of their male employers, as capable of heinous offenses.  On that score, apparently, Muslim women might be considered equal to Muslim men.  When it comes to nannies, employed by many prosperous families across the Persian Gulf, some Muslim women "can be extremely jealous of young, innocent foreign women suddenly appearing in their house," explains a person who runs a safe house in the Arabian Peninsula for nannies fleeing abusive employers.

And speaking of women in the workplace, particularly in the West, the false narrative of unequal pay for equal work continues to find an audience.  Actually, it didn't used to be a false narrative; several decades ago, men were routinely paid higher wages than women for the same exact job.  Yet today, many studies skew their results to include comparable (not exact) jobs between men and women, which distorts what men and women actually earn.  While it remains true that women tend to hold fewer higher-paying jobs than men, it is hard to find a study that actually pinpoints instances when men are paid a higher wage for the same exact job a woman does, with all else (experience, education, etc.) being equal.

This past election cycle, America saw a women get the closest any woman ever has before to the presidency.  And some people considered it a huge blow to feminism when Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the electoral college to Donald Trump, just another WASP male.  Yet in all seriousness, if having a woman in the White House is the ultimate shattering of the proverbial glass ceiling, how many feminists would be happy with somebody the likes of Hillary being the woman to do it?  She's played off of her womanizing husband her entire political career, which is hardly the paradigm of legitimate feminist accomplishment advanced by so many liberals.

Not that Hillary isn't an accomplished woman, or that gender discrimination doesn't exist in the workplace, or that many men no longer hold chauvinistic attitudes towards women.  It's just that men usually don't rise to levels of prominence without the influence of women on their behalf.  And, as Hillary's life proves, many women benefit from the influence of at least one man in their ambitious lives.  So really, isn't it unhelpful to pit the sexes against each other with superficial platitudes?  Besides, it's not like all women are virtuous, just like all men aren't virtuous.  Not all men eagerly seek the suppression of women, and not all women live under patriarchal oppression.

Of course, I'm an evil man writing this, a ruthless demeaner of women and a privileged exerciser of so many powers over women I'm not even aware of them all.

Which, of course, might be somehow plausible if I was married, or an employer, or a father, or even a co-worker...

But as it is, if we men are supposed to be so superior, and considering my own status in life, I must be wielding my man-card all wrong.



Thursday, March 2, 2017

Briarwood Vice: Mall Cops Dorky No More


Forget Miami, or Chicago, or Detroit.

There's a huge crime problem going on in Birmingham, Alabama.  And no, it's not the entire city of Birmingham that's going to hell-in-a-handbasket.  It's one of the city's largest churches.

Briarwood Presbyterian apparently has become so exasperated with their criminal element that they're petitioning the state for the right to create their own police department.

It's vindication time for much-maligned mall cops everywhere.

Briarwood is a large, wealthy, and mostly white congregation affiliated with a conservative Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.  In addition to its church activities, they sponsor a Christian school and a seminary, all of which, according to church officials, combine to host approximately 30,000 events annually on church properties in two counties.

Ostensibly, the church figures that running its own police department would improve safety, although it's unclear how much crime has taken place at the church that has overwhelmed the resources of Birmingham's conventional police department.  It's also unclear how Briarwood would save any money by sponsoring its own police department, since health insurance alone for peace officers likely is far more expensive than it is for pastors, or rent-a-cops. 

Even more unclear is how large their proposed police force is going to be.  One report says they're only talking about employing one full-time cop.

That ought to have the criminal element quaking in their boots.

Meanwhile, questions abound regarding a drug bust on the Briarwood campus back in 2015, and whether parents of kids involved in that incident are pushing for ways to cover up such juvenile indiscretions.  Church officials say they'll play judge and jury regarding the oversight of their proposed police department's activities, and will only need outside help if they ever determine somebody they catch needs to be locked up.

After all, it would look pretty bad for a church to have its own jail.

Of course, it would also look pretty bad if a church and its police department had a convenient arrangement to cover up any allegations of child abuse, or other sexual abuse on campus.  It's not like churches don't already have a problem with pedophilia, and who would report to whom if, say, a youth volunteer was accused of a felony?  And that youth volunteer was a heavy tither to the church?  Yes, in a civil police department, quid-pro-quo exists, but not as readily as it would in a clubby church setting.

The funny thing - or maybe it's not so funny - is that the Bible says nothing about churches running their own police departments.  Actually, the Bible indicates that churches are supposed to be where the criminal element can go to find healing from their brokenness.  And actually, even though all sins aren't crimes, at least according to our penal codes here in the United States, all sins make us criminals in God's eyes.  Which is why we need a Savior, Who is His Son.

So let's suppose a member at Briarwood has committed a sin and broken the penal code - will that member be able to go and repent of that sin to a Briarwood pastor and enjoy professional confidentiality of pastoral privilege?  Or will the pastor have to summon Briarwood's staff cop and bust the congregant then and there?  Technically, according to the Bible, anybody who breaks a law is subject to the ruling authorities regarding any punishment, so maybe having a church police department will help congregants tow the line when it comes to 'fessing up when they park in a handicapped spot at church.

Briarwood tries to argue that they're no different than a college or school district that runs its own police force.  But yeah, there is a difference.  For one thing, many colleges that have a police force also have some sort of criminal justice degree program, graduation from which their student cops are being trained.  And school districts generally try to keep their kids separate from bad influences in the surrounding community, which includes the often altruistic objective of creating some sort of buffer between hardened criminality and adolescent delinquency.

The church should be separate from the world in terms of the actions of its people, yet in terms of its witness, what good is a church if its members spend so much time there that they're not demonstrating their faith while interacting with the world around them?  Perhaps Briarwood's quest for its own police department isn't as much indicative of its importance in the broader Birmingham community as it is its detachment from it.

As far as anybody knows, if Alabama's governor agrees, Briarwood would be the first organized church in modern times to have its own police department.  Yet "the Sheriff of Briarwood" somehow has a strangely familiar ring to it, doesn't it?

Even if nobody is robbin' the hood.